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General Committees

Debated on Thursday 16 July 2020

Delegated Legislation Committee

Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Leicester) Regulations 2020

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: †Sir Christopher Chope

† Benton, Scott (Blackpool South) (Con)

† Brereton, Jack (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Con)

Buck, Ms Karen (Westminster North) (Lab)

† Coutinho, Claire (East Surrey) (Con)

† Dorries, Ms Nadine (Minister for Patient Safety, Mental Health and Suicide Prevention)

† Double, Steve (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)

Harman, Ms Harriet (Camberwell and Peckham) (Lab)

Hillier, Meg (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op)

† Kendall, Liz (Leicester West) (Lab)

† Richardson, Angela (Guildford) (Con)

† Russell, Dean (Watford) (Con)

† Sambrook, Gary (Birmingham, Northfield) (Con)

† Saxby, Selaine (North Devon) (Con)

† Smith, Jeff (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)

Sultana, Zarah (Coventry South) (Lab)

† Throup, Maggie (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

Whittome, Nadia (Nottingham East) (Lab)

Bradley Albrow, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Seventh Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 16 July 2020

[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]

The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Leicester) Regulations 2020

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Leicester) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No.685)

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I have sat in your Chair many times over the past 10 years, but this is the first time I have been here in my role as a Minister, so now I know how it feels.

The regulations were made on 3 July and came into effect the following day. They have not yet been formally cleared by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. This debate has been listed as quickly as possible to address Parliament’s concerns about delays between making regulations and scheduling debates. The regulations were necessary to give effect to the announcement made a few days earlier on 29 June by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that targeted measures needed to be taken to tackle the outbreak of coronavirus in Leicester.

The concern about the outbreak in Leicester was significant and was shared by local leaders, including the local authorities and the local resilience forum; by national organisations, including Public Health England; by the local directors of public health, Ivan Browne at Leicester City Council and Mike Sandys at Leicestershire County Council; and by the Joint Biosecurity Centre, Ministers and the chief medical officer.

Of course, the decision to take action was not driven by one number. It was a judgment about the overall situation, but some of the figures we had in front of us when the targeted lockdown was imposed bear repeating, because they are stark. At that stage, the seven-day infection rate in Leicester was 135 cases per 100,000 people, which was three times higher than the next highest area. Admissions to hospital were between six and 10 per day in Leicester, rather than around the one per day at other trusts.

Action had already been taken to protect people in Leicester by deploying mobile testing units and providing extra capacity at the regional test site. Extra public health capacity had been deployed to boost the local team. Additional financial support was provided to the local authorities to provide business grants, including £70 million to Leicester City Council. We hoped that the interventions and the work of the local public health teams would get the infection rate down without our having to take more drastic action.

By the end of June, however, it was clear that the high rate of infection was continuing. The cross-Government covid-19 operations committee, chaired by the Prime Minister, therefore decided on 29 June to take further measures to tackle the outbreak. The Secretary of State set out the measures in his statement.

Most of the measures taken did not require legislation. We increased testing capacity further: there are now 10 mobile test units deployed across the city, a regional test site and three local test sites. Four of the mobile units operate on a hyper-local basis, enabling teams of NHS and council volunteers to go door to door across the communities with the highest positivity rates.

We also gave additional funding to the two upper-tier local authorities involved. In addition to the £70 million, Leicester City Council was provided with approximately £2.5 million, and Leicestershire County Council approximately £2.3 million—that is £4.8 million between the two upper-tier authorities. That enabled them to enhance communications, including in locally relevant languages. Public messages on the virus in Leicester were translated into 12 different languages, and a wide range of locally relevant formats were used to communicate those messages, including various social media platforms, posters, and videos by GPs who speak different languages and by Ivan Browne, the local director of public health. Messages were also broadcast from local radio stations in different languages as well as through community leaders and volunteers on the ground.

We also concluded, however, in discussion with the local team, that the restrictions in Leicester would need to be tightened, even as the restrictions were being eased elsewhere in the country. People in Leicester were advised to stay at home as much as they could. We recommended against all but essential travel to, from and within Leicester. Shielding measures could not be relaxed, as they were in the rest of the country the following week. Schools in Leicester would close, except for vulnerable children and children of critical workers.

It would not be proportionate or practicable to ban travel altogether, but we concluded that it was necessary and proportionate for people living in Leicester not to be allowed to stay overnight away from home without a reasonable excuse. It was not safe to allow the easing of social contact measures, including those on gatherings, that the rest of the country benefited from on 4 July.

We also concluded that non-essential retail in Leicester would have to close again. We recognise how difficult and disappointing that was for citizens and businesses in Leicester, but it was the only way we could bring the outbreak in the city under control. We must keep people in Leicester, as elsewhere in the country, safe from this terrible virus.

I shall now move on to the regulations themselves. Given the concern about the situation in Leicester, we used the emergency procedure to make the present set of regulations as soon as we could. They give effect to the decisions set out by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. In particular, they require the closure of non-essential retail; limit overnight stays away from the place where individuals live, or a linked household, without reasonable excuse; restrict gatherings to six or fewer outdoors and to no more than two indoors; and enable households containing only one adult, or one adult and one or more people under the age of 18, to link with another household.

The people of Leicester have responded well to these restrictions over the past two weeks, and I would like to thank them for that—as, I am sure, everybody would—and to recognise the impact that they are having on their daily lives. We are required to review the regulations every two weeks, and we will announce the outcomes of the first review shortly.

Coronavirus is the biggest challenge that the UK has faced in decades. The resilience and fortitude of the British people in complying with the national lockdown that we introduced in March has been a true national effort and something of which we can all be proud. It is of course welcome that we have been able to start easing the national restrictions in line with our road map. That reflects the continued decline in the daily death rates and the downgrade in our covid alert level from level 4 to level 3.

We always knew, however, that the path out of lockdown would not be entirely smooth. It was always likely that infections would rise in particular areas or workplaces, and we knew that we would need to be able to respond quickly and flexibly to those outbreaks. We are now working with local authorities, and at national level, to ensure that we have the data and analytical capability to spot potential outbreaks quickly. We have, and will continue to develop, a range of tools and powers that will allow us to respond effectively and proportionately.

We will be saying more in the coming days about our plans for responding to local lockdowns and the powers that will be available. The Leicester lockdown has demonstrated our willingness and ability to take action where we need to. We will of course use the experience of the lockdown in Leicester to inform and help us to develop our responses to any future local outbreaks.

I shall now talk through what the Leicester regulations are designed to achieve. I will not go into detail about the national regulations that sit alongside them, because they are being debated in another Committee Room along the corridor. In general, these regulations return Leicester to where the national lockdown was in the first half of June, before non-essential retail could be opened.

Part 1 of schedule 1 to the regulations lists the postcode districts covered by the regulations. In discussion with the directors of public health at Leicester City Council and Leicestershire County Council, it was agreed that the restricted area for the purpose of a lockdown needed to go beyond the boundaries of Leicester City Council into a number of suburbs of Leicester to the south, west and north of the city that are the responsibility of the county council. The boundary makes sense geographically, as can be seen from the map that was widely circulated, but the simplest and most certain way to describe the areas covered by the restrictions was to list all the affected postcodes. This means that people and businesses could be in no doubt about whether they were covered by the restrictions.

Regulation 2 requires the Secretary of State to review the need for restrictions and requirements by 18 July—this coming Saturday—and thereafter at least once every 14 days, if necessary. In any case, under regulation 12, the regulations will expire six months after they commenced on 4 July, if they are not amended or revoked before then.

Regulations 3 and 4 set out the requirements on non-essential retailers to close. The types of business that need to close are set out in schedule 3. In line with the national regulations on closure of non-essential retail, there are some detailed provisions to clarify how these regulations will operate in particular circumstances, and some necessary exceptions. The requirements will be familiar to businesses from the national lockdown.

Regulation 5 sets out the restrictions on movement. The restrictions prevent people living in the protected area from staying overnight away from their home without a reasonable excuse. They can stay in a linked household. A non-exhaustive list of reasonable excuses is specified. For example, it would be reasonable to stay overnight in order to attend a funeral of a close family member, for work purposes, or to attend a birth.

Regulation 6 restricts gatherings of more than six people outdoors, or of two or more people indoors. There are some necessary exceptions to the restrictions on gatherings—for example, if the person is attending a funeral, or if the gathering is reasonably necessary for work or educational purposes.

Regulation 7 sets out the implications of the lockdown in Leicester for linked households. Households in Leicester may be linked with households outside Leicester.

Regulations 8 to 10 set out how the provisions will be enforced. As with the national regulations, there is the possibility of fixed penalty notices. We have published guidance for people living in Leicester, to help them understand what they can and cannot do under the restrictions.

As I said earlier, we will be saying more in the coming days about the outcome of the initial review of the Leicester regulations, and whether the impact of the lockdown so far allows us to ease them. We will also be saying more about how we plan to deal with future localised outbreaks. I am grateful to all Members for their continued engagement with this challenging process, and their scrutiny of the regulations. We will, of course, reflect on this debate as we consider our response to any future local outbreaks. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher, and I will begin by saying that Members on the Labour Benches support these regulations. As one of the three Members of Parliament for Leicester, I am extremely concerned about the impact of this extended lockdown on children who are missing out on school, on local businesses and jobs, and on our universities and voluntary groups, as well as the mental health and other long-term health consequences for people in our city. However, keeping people safe and getting on top of this virus must be our top priority, so we will not be opposing the regulations.

I do, however, want to put on record my concerns about how these regulations and Leicester’s lockdown as a whole have been handled, and to ask the Minister some serious questions about where we go from here. This is because I want Leicester to get out of this lockdown as quickly as it is safe to do so, and because I hope the Government will learn lessons from what has happened in Leicester so that they do not make the same mistakes in any further local lockdowns.

In summary, I think Ministers were too slow to act; have been too centralised in their approach; and have so far failed to provide the additional support Leicester’s businesses and public services need. That is not only unfair; it makes no economic sense, because if more businesses close and more people lose their jobs and our public services struggle to cope, it will cost not just Leicester but our whole country far more in the longer term.

I want to start with the failure to act quickly enough and share vital information with Leicester at an early stage. I am told that since the launch of the NHS test and trace system at the beginning of May, Leicester’s director of public health repeatedly asked Public Health England for the results data from pillar 2 tests—essentially, all testing outside of hospitals—preferably at postcode or what is called lower-super-output areas of below 2,000 people. That data was not forthcoming to Leicester or any other council, apparently because it,

“wasn't in a fit state”.

That was the data from a test and trace system that, you will recall, Sir Christopher, the Prime Minister launched as “world-beating”. Can the Minister explain why the information was not available from the start? Even if it was not perfect, how could local councils possibly know whether they had a problem without that vital data, especially as the pillar 2 testing was a growing part of the overall test numbers?

The Government finally published the total number of positive tests for pillar 2 data at the beginning of June. I am told that our director of public health immediately raised concerns that Leicester’s rates were higher than in other parts of the country. He asked for more detail, especially at the postcode level—at this stage we got the total numbers for the whole city, not individual wards or smaller areas—and what action should be taken. I understand he received reassurances from Public Health England that there was no cause for concern, and that it was probably a data collection or small numbers issue. He raised the same issues the following week and received a similar response.

On 15 June, Leicester’s director of public health was actually told by Public Health East Midlands,

“We have not identified an obvious geographical hotspot... nor an outbreak to date.”

Yet three days later the Secretary of State said in a press conference that there was an outbreak in Leicester. One would think that in such an urgent situation—I have never denied that it was not an urgent situation—with a dangerous virus that spreads so quickly, we would have immediately been given all the possible data, at the very least broken down by postcode. However, it was not until 25 June, 11 days later, that postcode data for pillar 2 testing were finally sent through to our director of public health.

I am going through all of this in what seems like an awful lot of detail because detailed local data, including on ethnicity and where people live and work, is absolutely essential to identifying the location and cause of any problems and taking action to prevent them from getting any worse. I am afraid we are still not getting all the data that we need in a timely enough fashion. We have only just got the total number of both positive and negative tests. We still need household data, not just postcode data, because not everybody with the same postcode works, eats and worships in the same place. We need data on people’s ethnicity and where they work, which is not mandatory—it says only what is people’s occupation. What we really need to know is where people work so that if there is a problem in a food factory or somewhere else, we can go in and sort it out.

We also need contact tracing data so that we know how many people who have been in contact with someone who has tested positive have been followed up for additional tests and possible isolation. All of that is vital to getting on top of the situation, and we need all of that data daily, not weekly. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) said on Tuesday, the virus does not wait a week, so why should our director of public health? I am afraid the problems do not stop there.

The way in which the lockdown and by extension the regulations have been brought in was, I am afraid, badly organised and ill thought through. Over the weekend of 27 and 28 June, it was briefed that Leicester was to be subjected to a further lockdown—a briefing by the Home Secretary in The Sunday Times. That announcement was made without warning and without the involvement of the city council, the local police or our NHS. A front-page headline might feed the ego of those responsible, but it does nothing for the people it actually affects, other than cause serious anxiety and confusion. That is no way to treat people who have already made huge sacrifices and are being asked to make them all over again.

As if that were not enough, the official announcement on the lockdown was not made until very late on the evening of Monday 29 June; the map of the lockdown area was not published until 12 hours later; and the regulations to implement the lockdown, which we are now finally voting on, were not published for another four days. I cannot tell you the chaos and confusion that that caused. My inbox was absolutely inundated with messages from worried constituents, as were other hon. Members’ inboxes. Given all that, I want to put on record my thanks to our city council and, in particular, Leicestershire police for handling the situation with calm confidence, patience and skill.

I say to hon. Members here that we all know that this pandemic is unprecedented. It is one of the hardest things that any Government have ever had to deal with, and mistakes will inevitably be made, but you do not have to be Einstein to realise that you should not announce a lockdown that will affect hundreds of thousands of people in a national newspaper and until you know exactly where, when and how it will be put in place. That is the very least that our constituents deserve.

People in Leicester also want the Government to acknowledge the additional financial and other consequences of putting us back into this extended lockdown. That is something that Ministers—I should say that this is directed not at this particular Minister but at other Ministers in the Government—have so far failed to do.

After receiving so many emails in the course of Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday as the lockdown was coming into place, I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who is responsible for business and industry, to ask whether additional support for businesses and employees would be available as a result of the lockdown. He replied to me on 7 July, saying:

“The Chancellor has already said that there are no plans to change the scope or extend any of the schemes currently available.”

I am told that that explicitly contradicts commitments made by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to the Labour leader of Leicester City Council and the Conservative leader of Leicestershire County Council. I ask hon. Members in this Committee just to think for a minute about this happening to their own constituency and what their constituents, local businesses and others would be saying to them.

Local businesses are having to stay shut, or close back down, through no fault of their own. They have spent huge amounts of time and money getting ready to reopen, only to see their efforts go to waste. I am thinking of businesses such as North Bar and Kitchen, a brilliant and highly recommended restaurant in my constituency, which says that

“we are now really struggling being forced to close for a second lockdown...Through no fault we feel isolated and we need additional financial support from government for the extra strain this has put on us and our small business.”

I am also thinking of hairdressers such as Malcolm Murphy Hair and Jeana Louisa’s Hair Salon, which worked so hard to get everything in place—they were ordering stock, juggling their staff to comply with social distancing and getting all the appointments up—just to see their hopes dashed again.

These businesses are not arguing against the lockdown. They accept that it is necessary to keep people safe and they know that they have to play their part, but they are asking for the Government to acknowledge that they need extra help just to keep the show on the road and their heads above water, and for doing the right thing.

The Government have also failed to offer any reassurance to people on the furlough scheme. Again, I ask hon. Members to consider this. What happens if Leicester’s businesses are still in full lockdown when the Government stop paying national insurance and pension contributions and start reducing furlough payments, because the rest of the country is opening up and businesses are going back and making money, making a profit? My constituents are understandably worried. They are thinking, “If my employer can't pick up the strain because they’re not allowed to open, I’m going to lose my job.”

The East Midlands chamber of commerce says that the failure to provide Leicester’s economy with extra support is “a massive mistake” that could create “a two-tier recovery” that puts Leicester “at a long-term disadvantage”.

Will the Minister tell me, or ask her colleagues, this: why are Leicester’s businesses being unfairly penalised? I am not denying that the Government have done a huge amount to support businesses during this awful pandemic, but I am asking them to recognise the additional problems that we face. Why will the Government not guarantee that the full furlough scheme will continue for as long as Leicester is in lockdown? Do they recognise that the inevitable increase in unemployment as a result of the pandemic could be even worse in Leicester, a city where 40% of children are already growing up in poverty, with all the awful long-term consequences that that brings? If the Minister recognises that, will she speak to her Treasury colleagues and ask them for a more flexible approach that acknowledges that local lockdowns will have an additional impact on local businesses and jobs that should be recognised and funded?

Our public services and voluntary groups need extra support too. For example, throughout the extended lockdown the city council will have to continue to provide an uplift in fees to care homes to cover their additional costs and higher than normal vacancy levels; help for those who will have to stay shielding; support to keep homeless people off the street; and help to our countless food banks to ensure that thousands of people have enough to eat. That extra work comes with an extra cost. Will the Government meet it?

Do the Government recognise that there is extra work for our police? That was particularly so during the first weekend when the lockdown came in. The media said all sorts of things about whether people would be going out into the county, to the pub where everyone else was going, and what they would be doing. We had more police on that weekend than on a typical new year’s eve. Our two universities are seriously concerned about the impact of the extended lockdown, particularly on whether international students will decide to come to Leicester. Our schools are worried about children falling even further behind and how they will ensure that parents are confident that it is safe for their kids to go back to school in September.

Our vital local community organisations and charities face extra costs because they are being locked down for longer, and cannot rely on their usual sources of income. LOROS, which runs an incredible hospice in my constituency, had just reopened 11 of its 29 shops when the renewed lockdown came in. Six of those shops are in the city. As a result LOROS is losing about £15,000 a week. Its chief executive asked me to find out whether any extra help is available. I wonder whether the Minister can respond, or ask one of her colleagues to do so.

Above all, people in Leicester and Leicestershire want to know when and how we will exit the lockdown. Our businesses want to know when they can go back out and try to get back on their feet. People want to know when they can go out and start earning a living. The Secretary of State originally said that the lockdown would be reviewed on Saturday 18 July. In his statement to the House of Commons on Tuesday he said he would be reviewing the data today. I hope that the Minister will confirm when people in Leicester will hear the news. Will it be today or Saturday? Surely, if there is one thing that we have learned from this whole business it is that leaving people hanging is unfair and a recipe for chaos and confusion.

Will the Minister explain the criteria that will be used to judge whether the lockdown will be lifted? Will it be the total number of positive tests or the proportion of positive results per 100,000 of population? Will it be the rate of increase or decrease in positive tests? Will it be the famous R rate that the Government initially said they would use to determine the exit from lockdown for the country as a whole? Will it be the rate of hospital admissions due to covid-19, care home infection rates or death rates in either or both? I know that it is difficult, but it seems unbelievable to me that we still have no sense of how the Government will judge whether Leicester can exit the lockdown. I hope that the Minister will enlighten us.

I will conclude—the Committee will be glad to hear—with some thoughts about the future. I know that my constituents and people across the city are worried about the long-term implications of the pandemic and, in particular, Leicester’s extended lockdown, on lives and livelihoods and people’s perceptions of Leicester as a whole. However, by working together and with the right support and leadership we will, I know, get through and build a brighter future.

Ours is a great, diverse and thriving city. We have amazing businesses, arts, culture, sport and universities. Leicester could and should play a key role in levelling up the midlands economy, particularly in the east midlands. The Space Park in my constituency is a partnership between the University of Leicester and industry that has the potential to create thousands of high-skill, high-value jobs in a global market worth billions. Our financial services sector and IT companies have grown hugely in recent years. We have a burgeoning tourism sector, following the amazing discovery of Richard III. That is not to mention our great restaurants, comedy festival, theatres and vibrant music venues.

In order to fulfil our potential, however, we need a Government who work with us. We need a Government who take their responsibility for helping to crack down on exploitation in the textile industry. Contrary to many reports in the newspapers, we do not have evidence that that is the cause of the outbreak in Leicester. That is not to say it is not, but the local director of public health and Public Health England have found no evidence that that is the cause. However, there are serious problems that need to be addressed. In order to do that, we need a Government who properly fund the bodies responsible for enforcement, such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Health and Safety Executive, instead of slashing their budgets. We need a Government who actually implement the recommendations to tackle worker exploitation that were made by the Environmental Audit Committee in its report on fast fashion last year, rather than simply ignore them. We need a Government who invest in our infrastructure and people, because today’s global economy is utterly unforgiving towards people without skills.

We need a Government who understand that, with the right support, we will emerge from this crisis stronger than before, play a critical role in boosting the lives and livelihoods of people across the east midlands, and contribute towards the success of our country as a whole. I hope the Government listen to our concerns, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.

If no one else wishes to participate in this important debate, I call the Minister to respond.

I thank the hon. Lady for her—as always—reasonable, intelligent and impassioned response. Some of her points were much wider than the scope of the regulations, so I cannot respond to them, but I will try to respond as well as I can to her substantive points about Leicester.

I want to correct a number of the hon. Lady’s points. We both know whom we are talking about: Ivan Browne, the local director of public health in Leicester, who has done a fantastic job. However, he does not need to wait a week for anything; in fact, as a result of the Joint Biosecurity Centre, all local authorities have daily access to all the data relating to their area. Ivan has an authentication code with which he can log on each day to find out the daily data. No one has to wait a week for anything; if that were the case, we would be in a difficult situation with regards to the epidemiology of the virus.

I do not believe that any announcement was made—this is another one of the hon. Lady’s points—about extending Leicester’s lockdown. I am not aware of the article that she mentioned, but there have been no statements on extending the lockdown. She asked me when an announcement will be made—will it be today or on Saturday? All I can say is that the decisions regarding Leicester will be made very shortly.

The hon. Lady asked whether the decision to lockdown Leicester was based on the R rate or the number of infections. Actually, the decision to lockdown Leicester was based on a number of factors They include not just the positivity rate and the R rate—the transmission rate—but the way people live their lives in Leicester and where they travel to and from. I have never been to Market Harborough, but it has been mentioned to me numerous times in the past two weeks that people have been travelling from Leicester to Market Harborough during lockdown. Lots of considerations were pulled into the decision-making process.

I first spoke to Ivan—I believe it was before the lockdown took place—when we were aware that there was a spike and that the rates were rising, and he named a number of his concerns about households, living conditions, working conditions and the movement of people across Leicester. The hospital is on the far west side of Leicester, but one of the areas most affected is in the east, so Ivan was concerned about travel across the city. There were a number of considerations, and the same issues will be considered when easing the lockdown in Leicester. It will not be down to one issue, but a number of issues. We are advised on those issues on the ground in Leicester. It is not a decision that is just taken in Whitehall; it is taken with local leaders, the local director of public health, Public Health England via the Joint Biosecurity Centre, and the chief medical officer. There is a huge number of considerations and people who have input into the decision

On funding, we have assisted 9 million people across the UK with furlough, and the furlough scheme will continue until October, so people will not be out of pocket in terms of salary. Very few would say that the Government are not being generous in their provision to compensate people under threat of losing their livelihoods, businesses or jobs during the epidemic. We stepped up to the plate, and we have supported people throughout so far. The people of Leicester are no different in that consideration, and they will continue to be supported.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the boundaries. I make the point that the Mayor of Leicester set the boundary himself. He drew the map, and I was at the meeting at which he explained where he had put the boundaries and why he had drawn the map as he had, along with Nick Rushton, the leader of Leicestershire County Council. Overnight, between them, with their officials, they drew the boundary plan; we approved it the next day, on the basis of their recommendation. They recommended, “This is where we think the boundary should fall”, and we approved it. The hon. Lady made issue of the postcodes, areas and local geography, but it was the Mayor of Leicester who decided where the lockdown boundaries should fall. If I have missed any other points, I am happy to speak to the hon. Lady afterwards, but this is all very fast moving.

On finance, we have made £4.8 million available, including for the management of the local outbreak plan and support for local businesses. The funding is there for Leicester. We will continue to review Leicester and any area that goes into lockdown as we move forward.

I felt the passion in the hon. Lady’s voice when she was talking about Leicester, as I have in the voices of many people who have spoken about it. It is as though some people feel upset and almost embarrassed that Leicester has gone into lockdown, but 153 councils across the country have put in place local management outbreak plans. We have put £300 million into supporting those plans and helping every area—every upper-tier authority, which has responsibility for public health management—to be ready for when an outbreak occurs anywhere. Leicester is not the first and it may not be the last—living with coronavirus will be part of our lives.

In my opening speech, I said that we will learn from Leicester and what has happened there. I do not think that we were too slow in what we did. We worked with the data, which was made available, and I have a timeline of when that was available. It does not concur with the hon. Lady’s timeline: on 11 June, the new local dashboards went live and the authentication code was provided to local directors of Public Health England, not just in Leicester, but across the UK; and Leicester accessed its dashboard on 19 June.

Even before we began the enhanced testing—with discussions taking place on the ground a considerable time before that—we were aware at the Joint Biosecurity Centre, as the data was coming in, that a problem was arising. We analysed the data daily, and we could see that a problem was coming in Leicester. Public Health England worked with Leicester long before we announced the lockdown. On 19 June, Leicester used its authentication code to access the Joint Biosecurity Centre to get hold of its data.

I take on board the hon. Lady’s points about ethnicity and named households. That is being considered by the JBC. Obviously, a number of considerations have to be gone into to release that information and data. That is for authorities far higher than here. However, I take on board what she said, and she is not the only person to make the point; the Mayor of Manchester made similar ones. The issues are being discussed.

In conclusion, I thank Members for taking part in the Committee. I emphasise that some of the hon. Lady’s questions will be answered shortly—she will be relieved to hear that. The restrictions we debated today are necessary, and they are important for three reasons: first and most important, to protect the people of Leicester and the surrounding area from this terrible virus. The lockdown we have had to impose has been difficult, but I think that people in Leicester recognise that letting the virus spread unchecked would have been far worse for their continued livelihoods, businesses and future.

Secondly, the restrictions are important because they protect those of us who do not live in Leicester. As a result of the lockdown, few people will travel out of or to Leicester, and that greatly reduces the risk of transmission and of the high infection rates in the city spreading elsewhere. We should recognise that the restrictions and difficulties faced by the people of Leicester will benefit the whole country.

Thirdly, the restrictions show our absolute determination to respond to outbreaks of the virus in a focused and effective way. As I said, we will learn from what has happened in Leicester as we work with local authorities and others to develop our response to any future localised outbreaks. We will say more about that in the coming days.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her contribution today. I will conclude by placing on the record on behalf of the Government my thanks to the people of Leicester and particularly the NHS and care workers in Leicester—indeed, all key workers across the city—for their ongoing hard work to keep our vital services running and to save lives throughout this difficult crisis.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Leicester) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 685).

Committee rose.

Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mrs Sheryll Murray

† Baker, Duncan (North Norfolk) (Con)

† Bhatti, Saqib (Meriden) (Con)

† Churchill, Jo (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care)

† Courts, Robert (Witney) (Con)

† Crosbie, Virginia (Ynys Môn) (Con)

† Eagle, Maria (Garston and Halewood) (Lab)

† Goodwill, Mr Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)

† Johnson, Gareth (Dartford) (Con)

Jones, Mr Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)

† Kruger, Danny (Devizes) (Con)

† Madders, Justin (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)

† Rutley, David (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

Slaughter, Andy (Hammersmith) (Lab)

† Stevenson, Jane (Wolverhampton North East) (Con)

† Western, Matt (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)

Whitley, Mick (Birkenhead) (Lab)

† Whittome, Nadia (Nottingham East) (Lab)

Yohanna Sallberg, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 16 July 2020

[Mrs Sheryll Murray in the Chair]

Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020

Before we begin, I remind the Committee that Hansard colleagues would be most grateful if Members sent their speaking notes to hansardnotes@parliament.uk.

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations (S.I., 2020, No. 684).

What a privilege it is to serve on the Committee for your very first time in the Chair, Mrs Murray. I hope it will be an enjoyable sitting for us all. The regulations, which were made on 3 July by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), came into force on 4 July. We had previously amended the original regulations, but the amendments made at this stage resulted in a significant number of changes.

It is for that reason that the original regulations were revoked and replaced with a set of new regulations, to make the legislation clearer and easier for the public to understand. The SI has not been formally cleared by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. Further changes were made following the announcement made on 9 July by the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden), and a set of amendments to the regulations that were made on 10 July came into force on 11 July and 13 July. Those changes will be debated on 20 July.

I am aware that there are concerns in Parliament about allowing for the timely scrutiny of regulations that have been laid and made in response to the public health emergency caused by coronavirus, particularly relating to the timing of debates. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will bring these matters to the fore today. We have listened to those concerns and have endeavoured to hold this debate as soon as possible after the regulations were laid.

I acknowledge the situation in Leicester and appreciate how hard it must be for the people who live there. Although the rate of infection is declining nationally, we have been clear that we must take swift action to keep people safe when local outbreaks are identified. It is now vital that everyone in the protected area in and around Leicester stays at home and avoids non-essential travel. Anyone with symptoms needs to come forward for a test and share their contacts with NHS test and trace if they test positive.

We will continue to monitor rates of infection across the country, to work with local authorities, and to take action locally where necessary. In the event that the local response is not sufficient to deal with an outbreak, including to prevent the virus from returning to general circulation, the Government will act rapidly. We are in the process of drafting new regulations to enable action to be taken, and we will be ready to reintroduce national measures if necessary to control the spread of the virus.

We are now in phase 3 of our recovery strategy, as the Prime Minister set out in the Government’s roadmap on 11 May. Through continuous review of the measures, we have gradually and cautiously replaced existing social restrictions with targeted measures to ensure that any remaining restrictions are proportionate and necessary. In his statement to the House on 23 June, the Prime Minister announced the changes that we are debating, which came into force on 4 July.

The regulations enabled the reopening of many businesses across different sectors of the economy—a welcome change for many and a significant moment in our journey to restart the economy. Most of the restrictions on social gatherings are no longer set out in legislation, but the Government continue to issue guidance to support the public in meeting friends and family in a safe and appropriate way. We understand how vital it is for people to maintain contact with friends and acknowledge the positive impact that has on wellbeing and mental health. As we have done throughout the pandemic, we are trusting the British public to remain alert and stick to the published guidance.

I will now outline the changes made on 3 July, which came into effect on 4 July. These include: easing the restrictions on gatherings and overnight stays by removing most of the relevant rules from legislation and issuing guidance to support the public to meet their friends and family safely; allowing more sectors to reopen, including hospitality, leisure, tourism, recreation and sport; allowing further public and community services to reopen; and continuing to require some businesses considered too high risk to remain closed. The regulations also provide new powers to close public open places where it is considered necessary to do so, to prevent, protect against, control or provide a public health response to the incidence or spread of coronavirus.

Last week I received a letter from someone who delivers complementary therapies. What consideration has the Minister given to allowing such treatments to recommence, as many patients seem to find them useful?

The opening of massage parlours, spas and so on was laid out in subsequent regulations, and they have been allowed since 13 July. Perhaps I can have a conversation with my right hon. Friend on the specifics of the type of treatment to give him a fuller answer on whether they are allowed. It is about the context. As we have seen with beauty parlours, which are reopening, there are still restrictions on facial treatments that require proximity.

I think many of us have received such representations. Does the exchange we have just heard not illustrate that one of the problems with the regulations and the law is that their sheer complexity and swiftly changing nature make it difficult for even the most assiduous of observers to keep up to date with where we are? In that regard, the guidance to which the Minister has just referred is incredibly important. How will she ensure that people can understand the fast-moving current state of the regulations and the law?

I thank the hon. Lady. If she will excuse me, I will take another intervention from my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby and then answer both.

I support what the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood said. My constituent was a sports physiotherapist, but he was also representing people who do acupuncture, yoga or homeopathy, which are still not permitted.

What both my right hon. Friend and the hon. Lady are outlining is that the approach has had to be measured and consistent with Public Health England advice for specific areas. That guidance is available on gov.uk. My right hon. Friend has articulated different treatments, some of which need a degree of invasiveness. Guidance on that is incremental, and the Government are endeavouring to give people accurate information in a timely fashion.

However, I would readily say that there are times when there is perhaps a degree of confusion. At that point, if one refers to PHE guidance and gov.uk, one will find that it articulates why PHE is making changes incrementally. I am sure that no one on the Committee would have wanted us to open up at a more rapid rate and seen a rise in the R number. All of this is about us working permanently to keep control of the R number while trying to allow the economy to reopen.

On 6 July, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced that further amendments would be made to continue to ease existing restrictions and reopen many businesses and facilities. The changes being made, along with the updated guidance, have allowed team sports, rehearsals and outdoor performances to resume, with close contact services—including nail bars, salons, tanning booths, spas, massage parlours, body and skin-piercing services—and outdoor swimming pools and waterparks to reopen from 13 July. Those amendments will be debated on 20 July in the House. Our assessment that we are meeting the five tests, which we set out as considerations for change, mean that more restrictions will be lifted.

Covid-19 is the biggest challenge the UK has faced in decades.It threatens to take both our way of life and our loved ones from us. That is why the Government put in place strict social distancing measures, to slow the spread of the virus so that the NHS would not be overwhelmed. Thanks to the hard work and sacrifice of the public, and despite the extremely tragic loss of life, the UK has slowed the spread of the virus. We have been working with and consulting widely with businesses and organisations throughout the pandemic and continue to receive expert scientific advice from SAGE—the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies—the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, as we continue to work on easing the restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so.

I have already noted that further amendments were made to the regulations on 10 July, which will be debated in due course. I am grateful to all parliamentarians for their continued engagement in the process and for their valuable scrutiny.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mrs Murray. I hope that your début is memorable for all the right reasons.

I thank the Minister for her introduction. As we know, this is the fifth iteration of the lockdown restrictions, although it is only the fourth time that we are actually debating them. In that lies a tale, which highlights the far from satisfactory approach to parliamentary scrutiny that has been a feature of the Government’s response to the pandemic.

Is my hon. Friend content that we are discussing today a set of regulations that have already come into force and that have since been changed? However one describes scrutiny, that is a strange definition.

I will be expanding at length on the unsatisfactory nature of the way these regulations have been dealt with from the start. I think it is fair to say that at the start of the pandemic we understood why it was not possible to debate the regulations straightaway, but there is no longer any reason why regulations cannot now be debated in an orderly fashion, before they are formally made law.

Nearly a fortnight ago we saw the reopening of pubs, restaurants and hairdressers, among other businesses. I am sure that many of us were very pleased to be able to support those businesses in our constituencies, but I am sure that we are all equally concerned at the scenes we now regularly see where social distancing appears to have gone out the window. The chairman of the Police Federation, John Apter, commented that it was “crystal clear” that

“drunk people can’t/won’t socially distance.”

That rather begs the question of what consultation was going on before the regulations came into force. On the face of it, they are creating additional risks.

To be clear, none of the regulations has ever stopped people from being closer than 2 metres. That has never been a law that could be enforced, but it is an important element of the guidance designed to help stop the spread of the virus, so changes to the regulations should always consider whether they make social distancing easier or harder to adhere to.

Unfortunately, the Government do not seem to have learned from their experience, because we know that the police were not consulted on the face mask announcement that was made on Tuesday either. That is just one reason why it is frankly ridiculous that we are not debating the regulations before they are introduced.

The Minister was gracious enough to acknowledge the concerns that we have raised on every occasion about the timing of these debates; when we debate the regulations is getting a little bit closer to the due date—next week we will get even closer—but the fact is that we are debating changes that came into effect nearly two weeks ago, and a new set of regulations have already been introduced. That makes a mockery of the parliamentary process for approving legislation.

That brings me to the previous amendment to the regulations, which we were due to debate last Monday—well after they were first introduced, of course. In the end, we did not actually get to debate them at all, because a few hours before the Committee was due to meet, we were told that the sitting had been cancelled—the reason being, apparently, that the regulations had already been superseded and there was no need to debate them. Well, I respectfully disagree with that analysis.

Parliamentary scrutiny is not something that can be ditched because it is inconvenient or the dates do not match. It is why we are here and why we have parliamentary debates, especially for regulations that have huge ramifications. It is not only right but essential that we debate them in Committee. I believe that we should find the time and make it a priority. These issues are too important not to be debated; they demand timely and full parliamentary scrutiny. I make the plea to the Minister, as I have done on previous occasions, that whoever timetables parliamentary business should be made absolutely aware that the Opposition believe that contempt is being shown towards parliamentary scrutiny.

The fact that we were not able to debate the last set of regulations matters because they included what can only be described as a most remarkable and disorderly U-turn, as they enabled outdoor areas, aquariums, visitor farms, zoos and safari parks, as well as drive-in cinemas, to reopen. Members may well wonder why that is a particularly memorable U-turn, given that we have seen quite a few of them in recent weeks. It is because the last set of these regulations that we debated included laws to close those places down. The debate on those regulations took place on the same day that the next set of regulations came into force to open those places up again. We ended up debating one set of laws that had been expunged by another set of laws that Parliament was not debating. If that is democracy, it is a farce. It was all the more remarkable that at no point during the debate did anyone on the Government Benches point out that that was happening.

Even if the Government are not making it up as they go along, they are doing a very good job of creating the impression that they are. As I have said previously, of course we accept that the initial regulations had to be hurriedly introduced in response to the rising number of infections, but since that time the House has been up and running for more than two months and Members on both sides and in the other place have expressed concern about time not being provided to ensure that future changes are debated before they are made. I see no good reason for the Government to continue in this way.

Paragraph 3.1 of the explanatory memorandum states:

“It is the opinion of the Secretary of State that, by reason of urgency, it is necessary to make the regulations without a draft being so laid and approved so that public health measures can be taken in response to the serious and imminent threat to public health which is posed by the incidence and spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2”.

I think that was a perfectly reasonable thing to say at the start of the crisis, but we are now four months on and it really ought to be possible for there to be a little more formality and order to these things.

The regulations require there to be a review at regular intervals—it was every three weeks, but it is now every four weeks. That is because the Secretary of State has a duty to terminate any regulations that are not necessary or proportionate to control the transmission of the virus. That also means that, from the introduction of the first set of regulations, we have had a clear timetable for when new regulations might be created, and therefore a clear opportunity to factor in parliamentary time for their scrutiny. There is therefore no excuse for us to debate the measures late once again, and neither is it acceptable for us to debate them without the full extent of the information upon which the Government have based their decisions.

My hon. Friend, as always, is making some extremely important points. To go back to his point about the frustration with the enforcement of the regulations as laws, the difficulty for businesses and members of the public is not just in keeping up to date with the laws, but in trying to understand if they will be enforced and how seriously. As he said, the police are totally frustrated by these pieces of legislation because they do not really know what their powers are. Likewise, local authorities do not know what they should be doing. If they do not know, there is no chance of anyone taking this seriously.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the blurring of the lines between what is guidance, and therefore advisory, and what is the law. It is important that people do not act unlawfully or, indeed, against the guidance. The police do not enforce issues in which there is only guidance, rather than law.

For example, we know that it was advised that face masks should be worn on public transport back on 11 May, but that only became a legal requirement approximately one month later. The police have been clear that they do not see it as their role to enforce that, which poses the question of who exactly will enforce such rules. We will see the same issues with face masks in shops. It is important not only to have clear sight of what is lawful or not, but that the bodies charged with enforcing the rules and laws have the necessary resources and power to ensure that they are adhered to.

In a previous debate, I asked the Minister to commit to the review of 25 June and the introduction of more relaxations being debated before implementation. Obviously, as we can see from the fact that we are in Committee today, that was not possible. I am grateful that the Minister acknowledges the concern, but it really should not be happening. In previous debates, I asked the Minister why the legally required reviews of 16 April, 7 May and 28 May have not been published. I ask the same question again in respect of the review of 25 June, which again we have not seen.

It is not only me who thinks that that is a problem. On 25 June, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee specifically expressed concerns about the Government’s refusal to publish reviews, stating that

“it would assist the House and the Committee if the Explanatory Memorandum in such cases included specific information about how and where the outcome of any review is to be promulgated and… We expect Government departments to ensure that in future this information is always provided.”

We have no review and all we have published alongside the regulations is an explanatory note telling us that no consultation has been carried out, no regulatory impact assessment has been undertaken and, worryingly, this time, no declaration that scientific advisers agree that the changes are likely to have an acceptably small impact on transmission rates. That is important, because there are no SAGE minutes to state that such matters have been considered.

In fact, not only do the regulations not state that they will have an acceptably small impact on transmission rates; they actually state that there is recognition that the changes may lead to an increase in transmission rates and will continue to be kept under review. As we have not seen the scientific evidence, will the Minister please give us more detail on that important statement? Is she able to provide clarity about which measures, individually or collectively, are considered likely to lead to an increase in transmission rates? That, above anything else that she says today, has to be the most important thing for us to hear from the Government Benches on this piece of legislation.

It would be better if the review of the regulations were published in full, alongside the full scientific evidence and a full impact assessment, but unfortunately we have none of that. I hope that the Minister will be able to come back to us on some of those concerns before the end of the Committee.

As we heard yesterday, the Imperial College research data commissioned by the Government showed that lockdown significantly reduced the rate of coronavirus infection in the community. The study did not cover care homes or hospital places, which is where we know there has been a significant issue with transmission throughout. Will the Minister confirm when the findings for June—when we saw the easing of lockdown restrictions—will be available? Have those findings been taken into account as part of the consideration in the review of the regulations today?

That is particularly important for public confidence, given that a whole raft of new measures are included in the regulations, as outlined by the Minister. As we have heard, they allow for the reopening of indoor and outdoor public houses, restaurants, cafés and bars, hairdressers, barbers, holiday accommodation, and several leisure and recreational attractions.

The regulations also impose restrictions that require certain businesses to remain closed, including night clubs, dance halls, discothèques, sexual entertainment venues, hostess bars, casinos, nail bars, tanning booths, spas, beauty salons, massage and tattoo parlours, and piercing services. Certain leisure and recreational facilities must also remain closed, including indoor skating rinks, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, water parks, indoor play areas and soft play areas, indoor fitness and dance studios, indoor gyms and sports courts and facilities, and bowling alleys. Conference centres and exhibition halls must also remain closed to external bookings.

As we have already touched on, Members will notice that that list is now out of date, following the amendments to the restrictions that came into effect on 11 and 13 July: those now allow swimming pools and water parks, nail bars, tanning booths, spas, beauty salons, massage and tattoo parlours, and skin piercing services to reopen. That re-emphasises the point about the confusion and lack of clarity about what is and is not permissible. We will be back here on Monday to debate those changes, so I will not go into more detail now, except to reinforce the point that it is wrong for us to be debating regulations to be brought into law to close these places down after they have already reopened.

The regulations significantly change the rules around gatherings. They prohibit gatherings of more than 30 people in private dwellings or on a ship or boat, other than for public transport, or in unmanaged outdoor spaces, save for a small number of exceptions. There is prohibition on indoor raves involving more than 30 individuals. Gatherings of more than 30 people are permitted where reasonably necessary for work, for voluntary or charitable services to provide emergency assistance, to avoid injury or illness, to escape from harm, for education or childcare, or to fulfil a person’s legal obligations.

These are now the only restrictions on people gathering together. Gone completely are the regulations about who people can meet, where and when. Those rules have now become guidance. The guidance on seeing friends and family is still that people should only be socialising in groups of up to two households indoors or up to six people from different households outdoors, but it is only against the law for gatherings of more than 30 people to take place in private homes. I am not sure everyone could fit that many people in their homes anyway, but there is clearly a difference between what the law says and what the guidance says.

It is particularly unfortunate that the Government website that lists what people can and cannot do has not been updated since 9 July, despite the new regulations coming into force on 11 and 13 July. We need clear and consistent messaging from Government on the rules, the laws and the changes that lie ahead. The confusion we have seen this week around face masks proves that there is still some way to go on consistent and clear public messaging.

With regards to compliance, following the scenes of overcrowding and poor social distancing on Bournemouth beach and at other locations, I note that these regulations also provide the Secretary of State with the power to restrict or prohibit access to a specified public outdoor place or public outdoor places of a specified description, in order to prevent, protect against, control or provide a public health response to the incidence or spread of covid-19. I am sure local authorities will welcome that support as we enter the summer holiday period, but they may also be wondering why on earth this was not put in place prior to the easing of lockdown restrictions last month. Can the Minister set out what procedure and consultation will take place with local councils and police forces before such decisions are taken? Presumably, they will be the ones tasked with enforcing the measures.

Finally, as with previous regulations, these regulations provide that fixed-penalty notices may be issued by authorised persons to persons over 18 whom they reasonably believe have committed an offence under the regulations. I have some questions about that, too, as there is a lack of transparency in those situations where fines are issued for a breach of the regulations.

I understand that the Crown Prosecution Service is doing a monthly review of every charge, sentence and conviction under emergency powers in England and Wales, during which it has found that eight wrongful charges were brought under the regulations in May. That figure is proportionately worse than the previous month, with a 10% rate of unlawful charges, increasing from 6% in April. Those failures included the charging of four homeless people and two people in England who were charged under the Welsh regulations. The lack of any appeals process means that the risk of miscarriages of justice is greater.

It is a concern that the regulations appear to be disproportionately impacting the BAME community. Some 12% of fixed-penalty notices were issued to those identifying as Asian, who represent 7.8% of the population in England, and 35% of the fixed-penalty notices were issued to those identifying as black, despite the fact that they represent 3.5% of the population in England. Analysis by Liberty Investigates and the Guardian found that BAME people were 54% more likely to be fined than white people. What are the Government doing to deal with regulations that appear to be being applied in a discriminatory manner?

We will not oppose the regulations today, because we want people to be able to get back to work and to see their families and loved ones; we also want children back at school and the economy to reopen. However, that does not mean that we do not have concerns. Relaxation must be carefully planned and clearly communicated. The country cannot afford for the Government to get this process wrong, but what we have seen through these regulations from the start is an alarming lack of clarity and a disorderly approach to changing the rules.

We also know that an essential component of the successful relaxation of the lockdown will be a fully functioning test, track and trace system. However, instead of the “world-beating” system that the Prime Minister promised on 1 June, we have a system that still has a long way to go because the Government have got the planning wrong and have been too slow in putting matters right.

We have serious questions about these measures that the Minister needs to answer. Why, for example, are a quarter of people still not being contacted by the test and trace system? Why is the current system not reaching about two thirds of those who are suspected of having covid-19? Why are more than a quarter of people who are being tested at regional testing stations waiting more than 24 hours to get their results back? Home tests are even worse, with virtually everyone who takes one waiting longer than 24 hours for their results.

We have also heard today about the problems with the Randox tests. Can the Minister please set out, if possible, what the issue is? The risks around this process are too great to be underestimated. The risks associated with a failure to develop an app in time can be highlighted by the fact that about half of those who have had close contact with someone who has tested positive are not being reached. That is an awful lot of people who will potentially go on to infect others.

These are not minor points; they are integral to developing an effective system to combat the spread of the virus. We need greater candour about the problems in meeting the targets and a little more detail about what is being done to put matters right.

Finally, I hope that the Government will implement as a matter of urgency all the recommendations in the Academy of Medical Sciences report, which was discussed at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday. The report stressed the importance of an effective test and trace system. When the Minister responds, I hope that she will be able to confirm that that report and all its recommendations will be implemented in full as a matter of priority.

I thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston for once again asking for proper scrutiny. However, as he articulated the challenges, he also very readily showed how dynamic the situation is and why the challenge of using parliamentary procedure and the normal channels, which are scheduled through House authorities in conjunction with the Whips, leads to a disconnect.

The hon. Gentleman will also be very much aware that Parliament expressly gave the Government the power in section 45R of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984: it is under that provision that we are now having this debate. It gave the Government the power to respond quickly in an emergency, such as the one we now face, before they have to come to Parliament for the right and proper parliamentary scrutiny.

Given that just along the corridor in another Committee room Members are debating the lockdown regulations for Leicester, I gently push back against earlier comments: we are making great progress, and the assertion that this crisis is still not the complete focus of the Government is wrong. That is why we are coming forward in this way. The Government will keep the restrictions under review; as the hon. Gentleman said, the Secretary of State has a duty to keep them under review in a timely fashion and a duty laid upon him to make sure that he releases these restrictions as rapidly as possible. That is what we are involved in.

I do, however, hear the point that this is, once again, a timing issue for the Opposition in respect of being allowed to scrutinise measures in an effective way. I hope that my comments have set out, in part, where we are.

The point is that all the Opposition and Members from across the Committee are trying to do is help come up with the best legislation. It is a surprise that a lot of this is not being done in anticipation of what is likely to happen, so that we can help collectively to ensure that any inconsistencies are avoided. To use an example from my constituency, someone who provides beauty treatments asked me a very simple question: “Why is it that a barber can work on a man’s face, but I cannot work on a woman’s face?”

I agree that there are challenges to making guidance seem consistent, but we are led by advice from PHE and the risk assessments done in each individual business.

To answer my right hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby, there is a duty on each and every business to ensure that it has done suitable and sufficient risk assessments to allow itself to restart. Yoga, for example, is an activity that can take place outdoors. However, there are restrictions on covered areas for indoor sports, so at the moment it cannot take place in an indoor sports venue.

We have made progress in the past few weeks. I hope that my right hon. Friend, who was previously a business Minister, welcomes the fact that we are reopening the economy for, among other things, people’s wellbeing—one of the biggest determinants of inequality is people’s ability to work, which has a long-term effect on their mental and physical health. It is important that we push forward and open businesses, with proper scrutiny from Public Health England, and ensure that they are safe places for work, for staff and for people visiting them.

My right hon. Friend spoke about having more oversight of the reviews and so on. We recognise that transparency is important in these times. SAGE has been publishing its statements, and the accompanying evidence as it is reviewed, to demonstrate how the scientific understanding of covid-19 has continued to evolve as new data emerges. SAGE’s advice has quickly adapted to new findings that reflect the changing situation.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the Imperial College study, which gratifyingly noted that the R number was lower than had been thought. That shows the benefits of the lockdown restrictions. I am sure all MPs agree that the vast majority of our constituents have behaved extremely responsibly. I trust them to continue to do so, notwithstanding the fact that over the past 17 weeks we have all had in our inboxes challenging stories of people who wanted to meet a grandchild or say their last goodbyes to someone.

This has been a national effort. The releasing of these regulations and guidance is the next step to ensuring that we get to where we want to be and start to resume life with our new normal, ensuring that social distancing still applies where possible—the advice is incredibly clear that social distancing is the primary measure for stopping the transmission. In places where that is not possible, we have the 1 metre-plus rule, with interventions such as Perspex screens in shops—or even in Parliament, as we now see in some of the Committee Rooms—to keep people safe, and the wearing of face masks.

I gently say that the face covering regulations come in on the 24th. We have been having conversations about enforcement with the National Police Chiefs Council and the College of Policing, and they have released guidance on each set of regulations. We are in daily contact with them to ensure that there is consistency around enforcement. People with inside businesses will not be expected to enforce.

The equalities impact has been considered throughout the restrictions across a range of protected characteristics, but the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston will have to raise the more specific instances for different protected groups with the relevant Department.

The hon. Gentleman asked two very specific questions on testing: on the Randox test and comments from yesterday. If he will forgive me, I will write with a more comprehensive answer on testing. He will be well aware that we now have the capacity in this country to test some 300,000 across the suite of tests per day. On the turnaround time, we get 91% of the tests done at either the satellite or mobile testing back within a shorter than 24-hour period, and 97.5% within the day.

The Minister will be aware that some 3 million tests are unaccounted for. Is she able to advise what the understanding is on where those have gone?

As the shadow Minister well knows, some of the tests that are sent out are counted on the out and we do not have the ability to ensure that the test is used and sent back to us. As I said, I will write to him with full and comprehensive details on testing.

The hon. Gentleman may or may not be aware that in the Leicester local lockdown, we are going door-to-door in order to ensure that asymptomatic testing and testing throughout Leicester is ramped up. We are also using translation services, both on the doorstep and on some of the phone lines.

This has been an unprecedented situation. We are dealing with a new virus and we have ensured that each time we have taken the learning and tried to deliver an enhanced service. It is well recognised that the numbers we are testing have grown. It was a stretching target and we have matched it. We are now providing one of the most comprehensive testing systems—across mobile testing, satellite testing, the Lighthouse testing, home testing, testing in care homes and hospitals, which now stretches out into asymptomatic as well as symptomatic testing—ensuring that anyone is now able to ring and get a test.

On testing information, pillar 2 is being fed back into local areas so that they have a much clearer idea of what their locality looks like, as per the number of tests.

It is indisputable that the number of tests has significantly increased, but what has happened to the false negative rate? We heard earlier on that it was about 30%. Is it still in that area?

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I have said that I will write to him on testing. I fear that we are straying slightly from the point of today’s debate on the regulations. I thank everyone for their contribution—

The Minister is about to finish, but it is really important that we hear from her about the statement in paragraph 7.4 of the explanatory notes, which says:

“There is recognition that these changes may lead to an increase in transmission rates”.

What is the scientific advice in relation to that risk? How is the Minister going to be able to report back and monitor that, particularly in terms of parliamentary scrutiny?

As far as the R rate is concerned, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State meets regularly with the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer, plus SAGE, the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group—NERVTAG—and the Joint Biosecurity Council. All that information is fed back into the decisions that are then made in and around the R number. If he will forgive me, I am going to push on, because I feel we are straying off into areas away from the regulations.

We will continue to keep the restrictions placed on individuals, businesses and society under continual review over the coming weeks and months. The new regulations debated here today have been a major step in the gradual return to normality for individuals, businesses and society as a whole, and, as we have heard, that is something we welcome.

I am pleased that, as of 10 July, we have continued to take those steps and have made further amendments to reduce restrictions in a safe way. We appreciate that restrictions have placed a significant strain on individuals. The Government will only continue to impose restrictions that are necessary and proportionate, but we remain prepared to impose further restrictions should that become necessary.

Today’s debate has provided an opportunity for hon. Members to debate the range of activity that the Government have undertaken in response to coronavirus. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 684).

Committee rose.

Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chair: Mr Laurence Robertson

Begum, Apsana (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab)

† Britcliffe, Sara (Hyndburn) (Con)

† Charalambous, Bambos (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)

† Clarkson, Chris (Heywood and Middleton) (Con)

† Cleverly, James (Minister for the Middle East and North Africa)

† Davies, Gareth (Grantham and Stamford) (Con)

† Harris, Rebecca (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)

† Hart, Sally-Ann (Hastings and Rye) (Con)

Keeley, Barbara (Worsley and Eccles South) (Lab)

Lewell-Buck, Mrs Emma (South Shields) (Lab)

† Longhi, Marco (Dudley North) (Con)

† Morrissey, Joy (Beaconsfield) (Con)

† Nici, Lia (Great Grimsby) (Con)

Osborne, Kate (Jarrow) (Lab)

Thompson, Owen (Midlothian) (SNP)

† Vickers, Matt (Stockton South) (Con)

† West, Catherine (Hornsey and Wood Green) (Lab)

Dominic Stockbridge, Committee Clerk

† attended the Committee

Ninth Delegated Legislation Committee

Thursday 16 July 2020

[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]

Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020

Just before I call the Minister to move the motion, I ask all hon. Members, if they speak, to email details of their speaking notes to Hansard, please.

I beg to move,

That the Committee has considered the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 680).

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.

As the Committee is aware, on 6 July the Government laid the Global Human Rights Sanctions Regulations 2020 under the powers provided by the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018. The regulations were made on 5 July.

On that day, in a statement to Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs set out the Government’s vision for a truly global Britain. He underlined our commitment to the United Kingdom being an even stronger force for good in the world: on climate change, as we host COP26; on gender equality, as we champion 12 years of quality education for every girl in the world; and on human rights, as we defend media freedom and protect religious freedom.

The regulations demonstrate that the Government are acting on that commitment. They give the UK a powerful tool to hold to account those involved in the worst human rights violations and abuses around the world.

The idea of taking targeted action against human rights abusers originated, as Members know, as a cross-party initiative. The Foreign Secretary has paid tribute to the contribution of hon. Members in all parts of the House, and I echo that. My colleagues and I have been grateful for the strong words of support that we received from all parties on laying the regulations last week.

Targeted human rights sanctions were a clear commitment in the Conservative party manifesto. I am proud that under this Prime Minister and this Government, we are bringing into force the UK’s first autonomous human rights sanctions regime.

As the Foreign Secretary stated, we have designed the sanctions as a forensic tool, which will allow us to target perpetrators and abusers without punishing the wider people of a particular country. The regulations will enable us to impose travel bans and asset freezes on those involved in serious human rights violations and abuses. The rights in question include: the right to life; the right not to be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; and the right to be free of slavery, servitude, or forced or compulsory labour.

The powers also enable us to target the larger network of perpetrators, including those who facilitate, incite, promote, support or profit from such crimes. That extends beyond state officials to non-state actors. The regulations are the next step forward in the long struggle against impunity for the very worst human-rights violators.

We are already considering how a corruption regime could be added to our armoury of legal weapons. In particular, we will look at the United Nations convention against corruption under existing frameworks and jurisdictions such as the United States of America and Canada.

We also published a policy note, which sets out how we will consider designations under the regulations for maximum transparency. The legislation will enable due process to be followed in relation to those designations, reflecting on the rigorous process rights contained in the 2018 Act. In practice, the designations will be able to request that a Minister review that decision. As a matter of due diligence, the Government will review all designations at least once every three years.

As the Foreign Secretary said, we welcome the ongoing and rigorous engagement by Members of this House in all parties. We will continue to report to Parliament as requested under sections 30 and 32 of the 2018 Act, to provide Parliament with regular opportunities to scrutinise the operation of the human rights sanctions. Of course, parliamentarians can continue to engage with the Government in the usual ways, including writing to the Foreign Secretary and asking parliamentary questions.

In addition to introducing this new legal regime, the Foreign Secretary announced the first set of designations under the regulations, including individuals and organisations involved in some of the most notorious human rights violations in recent years. These names are published online in the UK’s sanctions list for these regulations. Those sanctioned include those individuals involved in the torture and murder of Sergei Magnitsky, the lawyer who disclosed the biggest tax fraud in Russian history; those responsible for the brutal murder of the writer and journalist Jamal Khashoggi; those who perpetrated the systematic and brutal violence against the Rohingya population in Myanmar; and two organisations bearing responsibility for the enslavement, torture and murder that takes place in North Korea’s wretched gulags, in which we estimate hundreds of thousands of prisoners have been punished and perished over the past 50 years.

With these first designations, this Government and this country will make it crystal clear to those who have used their power to inflict unimaginable suffering on others that we will not look the other way. Given the sensitivities involved, including the risk of asset flight, I cannot and will not speculate on who may be the target of future sanctions under this regime, but, rest assured, we continue to consider targets, guided by the regulations’ human rights goals, as well as the evidence.

In practice, targeted sanctions are most effective when they are backed by co-ordinated, collective actions. We will work closely with our Five Eyes partners, in particular the United States of America and Canada, which already have Magnitsky-style sanctions legislation, and Australia, which is considering similar legislation. We also strongly support the efforts to bring an EU human rights sanctions regime into effect and stand ready to co-ordinate closely with our European partners in the future.

I welcome the opportunity to set out these regulations to Members, and commend them to the House.

I am pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson.

The Labour party is pleased to support today’s statutory instrument. As we said in the Chamber, we welcome the introduction of the sanctions. As my hon. Friend the shadow Foreign Secretary recently made clear to the House, for too long there has been a sense of there being a haven for individuals who use torture, murder and corruption to achieve their goals, and seek a place to stash dirty money. Those days must end, and we have to stand against those individuals. These sanctions are a good first step. The Government have been right to make it clear that actions will have consequences.

As this is a cross-party matter, I place on record my own tribute to the family of Sergei Magnitsky. We all know that the family has waited far too long to see justice, and to see the Government and our allies take action against those who took Sergei Magnitsky’s life after he exposed the web of international corruption involving so many individuals and corporations. In doing what we can to punish those involved in Sergei Magnitsky’s death, and those involved in other appalling human rights abuses in other parts of the world, we have the chance to send a strong, principled message that Britain will not look the other way when offences are committed and that we will not allow perpetrators to use the UK as a base to profit from their criminality. That has to be the cornerstone of our foreign policy and our approach to the world, with our historic and ongoing international commitments.

That being said, we have concerns that the sanctions do not go far enough. While action has been taken against those involved in the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, it must be matched by action against Russian Government officials who oppress lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, the Muslim community and other minorities, and who use chemical weapons on the streets of the UK. We also need real and tangible action against other regime officials in parts of the world where gross human rights abuses continue. As we know, the world is increasingly uncertain and unpredictable, and a scattergun approach to a sanctions regime does not meet the scale of the challenges.

I am also concerned that the sanctions may have been undermined by the short-sighted decision to resume arms sales to Saudi Arabia, only days after those involved in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi were identified by the sanctions regime. Mixed messages are not appropriate. As we all know, there are serious concerns about abuses of human rights in Saudi Arabia and in the execution of the war in neighbouring Yemen. We must be consistent in our approach. It cannot be right that we hold people to account one day and reward their state shortly afterwards. In the spirit of cross-party working, I hope that the Government will reconsider the decision to resume the sale of defence equipment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and, in general, that they will press for peace and a settlement in Yemen. People there have suffered for far too long.

Our allies in the US and Canada have introduced similar sanctions regimes, but have gone further and specifically covered corruption in the scope of their legislation. Corruption is a cancer that blights the most vulnerable people in the world. The UK must follow suit with Canada and the US and prevent London from remaining home to the ill-gotten gains of corruption. We have a unique chance to get that right, and I sincerely hope that the Government will expand the scope of the sanctions in the near future. I was pleased that the Minister mentioned that, and I hope for genuine action on that front. We all know that, as British MPs, the thing that we have the most control over is the question of tax status in the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies. While the matter is being debated, and there is a lot of cross-party support, steps have still not been taken to close the loopholes completely. I hope that we are taking a step in the direction of doing what we can closest to home on the question of corruption.

I must draw the Minister’s attention to one further serious concern: the possibility that the introduction of sanctions can make, and indeed has made, the work and life of in-country human rights defenders more precarious. After US sanctions on the Chechen President Kadyrov, public officials in Chechnya doubled down on their vilification of and attacks on human rights defenders in the territory. That is just one example. I would like the Minister to suggest how human rights defenders can be protected when sanctions are imposed. We need to be alive to the risk and do what we can to safeguard human rights defenders who take enormous risks to highlight human rights abuses and to improve their day-to-day lives.

I also draw the Minister’s attention to the procedure relating to the sanctions. I heard him say that there can be parliamentary questions and urgent questions. However, I was unsure whether he would outline the role of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs or the Joint Committee on Human Rights. I am happy, if he does not have an answer, for him to write to me on that point. It is important to have a cross-party commitment to human rights, and to enjoy that vision together on that particular point. There is nothing better than Select Committee proceedings for pursuing that.

Advocates have raised some concerns that sanctions may not work, particularly if they are unilateral rather than multilateral. I would be grateful to hear assurances from the Minister about how we will judge the effectiveness of the measures in changing the culture and climate around respect for human rights. To maximise the effectiveness of our sanctions regime we need to ensure that there is a procedure for Parliament—I have mentioned Select Committees—so that we can all have confidence that sanctions are transparent and thought out, and flexible enough to cover a range of issues.

The sanctions also need to be tied into the working of a wider human rights-led foreign policy. There are a range of existing measures that the UK can use in all regions to help to improve human rights. One is halting all military, security and policing transfers and training —I mentioned the Yemen example. Another is pushing for the imposition of multilateral targeted financial sanctions—against Myanmar, for example, where there could be a more comprehensive approach. Another is exercising universal jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute. That would apply to Syria, for example. Another is pushing for a United Nations Security Council referral to the International Criminal Court, in the case of Sudan, among others.

The sanctions regime should be seen within the wider family of other measures by which people can be held to account. I am sure everyone present would like to see President Assad in front of the International Criminal Court at a future point. A full use of the suite of measures, as well as targeted sanctions, will allow the UK to be a serious player in human rights and to put it genuinely at the heart of foreign policy.

In conclusion, the Opposition welcome and approve of these sanctions, but we have made it clear that the Government need to go much further and wider to ensure that we achieve a robust and fit-for-purpose independent sanctions regime. A narrow focus on the human rights of individuals does not befit the challenges facing the world. Labour will support the Government in establishing a wider framework for these sanctions, and we will work with the Government in improving the regulations in the weeks and months ahead.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who maintained a balanced, thoughtful and constructive tone in the Committee, as she and her party have done throughout the process in response to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary’s statement to the House. I thank her for engaging in that spirit, because it will enable this regime to become stronger over time, to transcend any future changes in Government, and to be a serious, meaningful and effective means of dissuading human rights abusers and of targeting and punishing such abuse where it takes place.

I listened to the hon. Lady’s examples of other potential targets for the sanctions regime. She will understand that, as I said, we will not publicly speculate in order to prevent things such as financial flight, but I listened to her points. It is important to understand that the sanctions are designed to target individuals and to separate the targeting of such individuals from the wider populations within those countries, or indeed from the Governments of those states. That is important to ensure the appropriateness and effectiveness of the sanctions regime.

The hon. Lady mentioned human rights defenders, and she is absolutely right to do so. We have to be careful to ensure that the work we do at an international level to dissuade human rights abusers does not have the perverse effect of increasing targeting, but the simple reality is that human rights defenders are often the target of aggressive action. We recognise and value their work.

Britain has always been strong on human rights and a world leader in adhering to the rule of law. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that these sanctions regulations come under the sovereignty of the UK and no other external jurisdiction?

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. She is right: this is a domestic UK sanctions regime—the first such regime of its type. We will, of course, work with other like-minded partners around the world to ensure there is a co-ordinated effort. I mentioned the United States of America and Canada, and we will work with Australia in the future. Of course, we will maintain a close working relationship with our European partners, even though—or perhaps because—we have left the European Union. This is the United Kingdom’s discrete sanctions regime.

We will continue to fight human rights abuse and to highlight the plight of human rights defenders. It is important to understand that the sanctions regime is one weapon in a broader arsenal of protections for human rights and human rights defenders. The Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Government as a whole are absolutely committed to continue the UK’s position as a force for good in the world and to defend human rights defenders.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green mentioned scrutiny of the process, and she was very generous to say that she would be happy for me to write to her on the subject. I suspect that, as often with these things, the exact nature of the scrutiny of the Government’s actions on this will evolve over time, because this is a new process. Quite frankly, this is something of which the Government are incredibly proud. We want to celebrate and champion the work we do, and we welcome the positive spirit in which the scrutiny we have received on this issue has been given thus far.

I repeat my thanks to the hon. Lady and to my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye for their points. We are proud that the United Kingdom is taking a global lead with a sanctions regime targeting human rights abuse, and I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Committee rose.