House of Commons
Monday 7 September 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 2 September).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Free Speech: Universities
We are all shocked and saddened to learn of the incident in which a young person was seriously hurt on their way to school in Suffolk today. Our thoughts are very much with the young person, their family and the whole school community at this difficult time.
Free speech is a fundamental underpinning of Britain’s liberal democracy, and universities should always do as much as possible to champion it, ensuring that students, staff and visiting speakers are free to explore a range of ideas and challenge perceived wisdom. We are exploring a range of legislative and non-legislative options to ensure that this is the case.
Many of us take free speech as an absolute given and expect it to be an absolute given in every part of this country, and if legislation is required, that is what we will do. But it is not just at universities that we sometimes see a challenge to free speech. Conservative Members understand the importance of free speech, whether in universities or a free press, and that is why we will always be the ones who stand up for a free press so that people can enjoy their newspapers every single day.
University Student Numbers
We are working across Government and closely with the higher education sector, utilising the higher education taskforce I have created, to ensure that the vast majority of students who want to go to university this year can do so at the university that their grades unlock.
Universities need financial support to expand physical buildings and facilities and to fund the expansion of wellbeing and support services and other important areas of university life. Will the Secretary of State confirm that this additional support will be granted to ensure that his algorithm does not cost thousands of students their futures, and when will he do this?
Last week, in fact, we announced a £10 million capital fund to cover capital as well as equipment. This is on top of our announcement of additional funding to support high-cost subjects and the announcements we made in May for the sustainability of the sector, and is supported by the package of £280 million from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
In a recent National Union of Students survey, 55% of students reported that the income of their parents or those who provided financial support to them had been negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, and 80% were worried about how they would cope financially, not to mention the fact that part-time jobs will be in short supply. Given that the university hardship funds were not designed for such demand, what extra provision will the Government make to ensure that universities can properly support students facing hardship?
If a student is not already accessing the maximum loan and the income of their parents or carers has changed, they should fill in a change of income form with the Student Loans Company. On the hardship funds, we have worked with the Office for Students so that it can show more flexibility, and the funds will amount to £256 million for the coming academic year.
My constituent, Hannah Moat, is one of the top high-jump athletes in the UK and was on track to study psychology and criminology at Loughborough University. Unfortunately, owing to a clerical error that someone made when inputting her centre-assessed grade, she has so far been denied her place on that course. Will the Minister work with me to make sure that students such as Hannah who have been affected by administrative errors made by their schools will not be denied their place at university?
I am really sorry to hear about the problems that Hannah is experiencing. The exam boards have committed to turning around appeals quickly, and Hannah and her school should inform the university of the situation. I have agreed with all universities that all students, including those successful on appeal, with the required grades will be offered a place at their first-choice university and that deferred places will be offered only as a last resort. Specific admissions cases are the responsibility of individual institutions, but I will alert Loughborough to this case.
I share the serious concerns of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies that the annual mass migration of millions of students to university means that significant outbreaks of covid-19 are “highly likely”. Universities have worked hard to make campuses covid secure, but the Department must take responsibility and ownership of this crisis and recognise that most students live, work and socialise outside the campuses. When will universities and communities receive the updated guidance on safe reopening promised in a DFE press release late on Friday night? What additional testing capacity is being deployed to keep staff, students and communities safe, and will the Minister make a statement this week on the safe reopening of universities?
SAGE did indeed publish its updated guidance on Friday, and the Government will issue updated guidance this week that supplements our original guidance of months ago. The safety and wellbeing of university staff and students is always our priority. As SAGE pointed out, there is also evidence that physical and mental health will be impacted if universities do not open. Universities have worked hard to ensure that they are well prepared for covid and have prioritised safety and wellbeing, including by introducing numerous social distancing and covid-secure measures.
School Exercise: Covid-19
The return to school is an important opportunity to support pupils to increase their physical activity. The Department’s guidance includes information on how schools can provide physical education and opportunities for pupils to be active, including links to detailed advice from the subject organisations.
I think that is a disappointing answer because we know that, going into this crisis, councils were already having to deal with the fact that they had had £42 million cut from their sports budget, which has a knock-on impact on schools. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to put on record what he personally is going to do to increase funding support to make sure our kids are physically active at school?
It was a Conservative Government who introduced the sports premium, and it is a Conservative Government who are ensuring that £320 million is going out to schools so they can ensure that youngsters have the kind of activity they want to see. Returning to school, yes, is incredibly important for the learning that all children benefit from, but it is also about the physical health they will get from being back at school. We are backing this with that money and ensuring there are great sports activities in all schools right across the country.
Home Education: Grades/Covid-19
Exams will be available in all GCSE, AS and A-level subjects in the autumn. Schools and colleges that accepted entries from private candidates, including home-educated students, in the summer should enter those who wish to sit an exam, and there should be no financial barriers to their doing so.
I thank the Minister for his reply, but I want to raise with him the issue of my constituent Ella Hampson, a year 10 home-educated student. She was due to take several GCSEs a year early, but the decision to withdraw private candidates meant that, unlike her friends and her peers, she was not given estimated grades on GCSE day. That caused a delay, and she has not been able to move on to college in the way that she had hoped. In any event, she has been told by her exam centre that she needs to be 16 on 31 August, so is not eligible for the autumn examinations as she is only 15. What advice can the Minister give Ella about how to get the grades to recognise the work she has done this year?
Private candidates who were entered for the summer series or whom the school intended to enter for the summer are eligible to enter the autumn series. The candidate’s age is actually not relevant. We expect the school or college that enters students for the summer series to enter them for the autumn.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Many thousands of private candidates, including mature students and those undertaking resits, have been left without a grade under this year’s exam arrangements and unable to progress to the next stage of their education or employment. Will the Minister ensure that UCAS predicted grades are confirmed for all external candidates, provide them—just to confirm—with the option to sit autumn exams free of charge, ensure that the highest grade of the UCAS result and autumn resit will be awarded, and urge universities to honour their offers for a September 2021 start date? Will he allow those external candidates who have received a centre-assessed grade to appeal against their results?
My right hon. Friend raises some important points. Of course, as my hon. Friend the Minister for Universities said, universities are being flexible on entry to universities this year. Schools, colleges and further education colleges are able to provide additional support for students sitting their exams in the autumn if they have the capacity to do so. Schools can also now use their pupil premium funding to support these pupils. The autumn exams are an important backstop to the summer grade process, and we are helping schools to offer them to students by assisting with additional space and invigilators, where required.
Further Education College Finances
Colleges are facing financial uncertainty as a result of covid-19, and many face reductions in commercial income and uncertainty with apprenticeship starts. We have a team, including skilled finance professionals, who are working closely to support colleges, and we are also working with banks to ensure access to commercial lending where required. Since April, only five colleges have needed to access emergency funding.
Further education colleges provide lifelong learning, and they will be essential if we are to provide the levelling-up agenda that the Prime Minister speaks so fondly of. However, coronavirus has left many with a black hole in their funding. We understand that it could be as much as £2 billion, and at the moment we are facing unprecedented demand. I fear that the Government do not understand the value of further education to the economy and the new skills we require in this country. FE colleges are flexible and adaptable, and they can help many young people who have been let down by this Government during the fiasco of the GCSE and A-level results. Will the Minister confirm today that she will look into this and provide the necessary funding, which, according to the Sixth Form Colleges Association, should be £4,760 per year for 16 to 17-year-olds and 18-year-olds?
Let me assure the hon. Lady that we absolutely have FE colleges at the very heart and centre. We are planning a big reform of the sector, and as somebody who went to FE college myself from the age of 16, I am absolutely passionate about this area. The colleges have done an amazing job in responding to covid-19 to support students throughout coronavirus. We continue to pay the grant funding and monthly payments for 2019-20, and will do so for 2020-21. We have also provided catch-up funding of £96 million for small group tutoring for disadvantaged students who need it. On top of that, we have allocated £200 million to enable FE colleges to improve their buildings. We have a team of officials right now working with every college that needs that support. We are working with 40, and so far only five have needed financial assistance, but we will keep this under review.
The Government’s own commissioner for further education has warned that as many as 40 colleges are currently at risk of running out of cash, and despite the measures that the Minister has just spoken of, the Association of Colleges is warning of a £2 billion cash shortfall. We also know from the May report that the Government have inadequate mechanisms for identifying colleges in crisis, so the truth is that all those measures that the Minister speaks about simply are not enough. We need far greater action if we are going to see our colleges and their pupils and staff not being let down and left in financial crisis this autumn.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Just so we are clear, we have provided grant funding to the FE sector, with more than £3 billion for a full year, and it received that gratefully. We have also announced an increase of £400 million for 2020-21, an increase of 7% in overall funding. As he rightly said—and as I said in answer to the earlier question—we are working with 40 colleges to structure their finances and helping them to get the advice and support they need. If they need emergency funding, as has been available, it will be available to them as well. We have a team of people working on this all the time, and the colleges accept that we are putting our arms around them to ensure that they get through this period.
Testing, Marking and Examination Systems
Exams are the best and fairest way of judging students’ performance. Following the difficulties experienced with awarding grades this summer, we are determined that exams should go ahead next year. We are working with Ofqual, the exams boards and other stakeholders to consider our approach to ensure that they are fair.
The Minister is the one permanent feature in the Department for Education—he has been there for 10 years—but surely he must admit that many families and students were hurt by the chaos and instability in his Department. It is no good trying to blame Ofqual and Ofsted; the responsibility lies in the instability and lack of firm leadership in his Department. What is he going to do about it?
When we were aware of the problems with the A-level results, we took swift action. Ofqual decided to move to centre-assessment grades and within 48 hours of that decision being taken the recalculated A-level grades were sent to all schools. The GCSE results on the new basis were also given to schools to enable them to give them to their students on the scheduled day, 20 August. The model used to ensure we were able to give students qualifications, notwithstanding the fact that we had to cancel exams because of the pandemic, was supported in a wide-ranging consultation by the regulator. It was supported by 89% of respondents, and a similar model was used in all four nations of the United Kingdom.
The fiasco surrounding last month’s exam results caused huge distress to students, their parents and teachers, and chaos for universities and colleges. Now it turns out that the Secretary of State was repeatedly warned of the dangers of the system of calculated grades and the flawed standardisation methodology he adopted. He was warned by a former senior official of the Department, he was warned by the regulator and he was warned by what happened in Scotland. Why did he ignore those warnings?
Those warnings were not ignored. Every time we heard from people such as Cambridge Assessment, Jon Coles and others, we raised those issues with Ofqual. All the various challenges made by individuals were raised with Ofqual. We were assured by the regulator that overall the model was fair. We pressed Ofqual strongly on the appeals arrangements that would address any issues for individual students which arose as a result of the operation of the model. No model is as accurate as young people taking the exams themselves, but when the A-level results were published on 13 August it became clear that there were anomalies and injustices in the results that went beyond the anomalies we had been made aware of and for which we had put in place an enhanced appeal process. As I said earlier, swift action was taken to ensure that all young people got the just and fair results they deserve.
Adult Education: Unemployed People
We understand that ensuring adults can access the training they need is vitally important and more important than ever. Latest figures show that between August 2019 and April 2020 over 195,000 learners, out of a total of 1,624,000 further education learners over 19, benefited from support for the unemployed. We are supporting people by investing £1.34 billion in 2020-21 in adult education and we are investing £2.5 billion over the course of this Parliament in the National Skills Fund.
I thank the Minister for her response. The Centre for Ageing Better highlights the fact that the number of older workers on unemployment-related benefits more than doubled to over 600,000 in July. The Minister will know that the core adult education budget is still frozen in cash terms at last year’s amount. Those who are recently unemployed or redundant and who want to access training or retraining to upskill often cannot afford it, or risk losing universal credit if they do so. The Minister will not, I am sure, want that to sum up the Government’s approach to lifelong learning, so will she meet me, Ruskin College and West Thames College to hear about the issues we are facing in Hounslow, an aviation community, and to give people hope so that they, too, can have the opportunity to move on and get back into work?
We are, of course, absolutely committed to helping everybody who may find themselves looking for a job during this period through no fault of their own to have access to training at any age, at any stage. That is why the Chancellor set out his plan for jobs to give businesses confidence to retain, hire and get careers back on track. That includes £1.6 billion of scale-up employment training support and apprenticeships. We are investing in high-quality careers provision, incentivising employers to hire new apprentices, tripling the number of sector-based work academy placements and doubling the number of work coaches. We are also investing £2.5 billion, which will be available in April 2021. I am sure the colleges will be very much looking forward to that. We are working to make sure that everyone has access to training. I am, of course, very happy to meet colleges and will be very happy to do so with the hon. Lady.
Early Years Providers: Covid-19
The Government will fund local authorities for our free childcare entitlements for the rest of this calendar year at the pre-covid levels of attendance, even if fewer children are present, so early years providers will continue to benefit from the £3.6 billion investment in the provision this financial year. We have also announced supplementary funding of up to £23 million for maintained nursery schools, which often care for higher numbers of disadvantaged pupils, and will continue to work with local authorities to monitor the sector.
I thank the Minister for that answer, but last week research was published by the TUC showing that four out of 10 working mothers either did not have or could not rely on childcare to enable them to return to work. Of those, a quarter could not rely on having a nursery place. Given that there is already a £660 million gap in early years funding, what is the Minister doing to make sure that we do not see a further loss of early years providers in the coming months?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Childcare is vital for working parents, which is why this Government introduced the 30-hour entitlement and why we are investing £3.6 billion in early years this year. Breakfast and after-school clubs are also able to open and schools should be working to resume this provision from the start of this term. We have updated our guidance for providers. Any parent who may be struggling to find early years provision should contact their local authority, but I hope the hon. Lady will join me in welcoming the funding for maintained nursery schools, including three in her constituency.[Official Report, 14 September 2020, Vol. 680, c. 2MC.]
School Finances: Covid-19
Ministers and officials have been in regular contact with representatives of schools and academy trusts on all aspects of the Government’s covid response, including financial issues. Schools have been able to claim funds to meet certain additional costs and we are providing £1 billion in catch-up funding.
Schools in Newcastle went back this week and teachers have spent the summer working incredibly hard to make them covid secure while dealing with the exams debacle. Sacred Heart school in my constituency tells me that it has had to alter classrooms; it has bought visors, face masks and sanitisers; and it has had to increase cleaning rotas and produce online video guidance for every year group. This has cost tens of thousands of pounds, following years of budget cuts. The Minister cannot give them their summer back, but he can give them their money back. Will he do so?
I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the headteachers, teachers and other staff up and down the country who have worked tirelessly to get their schools ready to welcome back students in a safe way from this September. Schools have been able to claim for unavoidable costs incurred between March and July caused by the pandemic that cannot be met from the school’s existing resources—up to £75,000, depending on the size of the school. Core schools funding this year has risen by an additional £2.6 billion. That is part of a three-year settlement, which is the biggest funding boost in a decade. Although of course we keep these issues under review, our priority for additional funding has been to put the maximum possible into catch-up funding—some £1 billion—for schools to enable them to help young people to catch up on their lost education.
The Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) is disappointing. It is extraordinary that back in July the Schools Minister told me that the Government did not consider it necessary for schools to make significant adaptations to their sites to enable them to welcome children back to school this autumn. That is not what headteachers are saying. They have told me that they are very concerned about the extra costs that schools are facing in relation to covid-19 for hand sanitisers, signage, barriers, cleaning and the support and teaching staff that they may need to cover covid-related absences. What steps will the Government take to ensure that all schools can be reimbursed for covid-related costs, and what would he say to those headteachers who are now openly saying that they are having to weigh up pupil safety against financial stability?
We have, as I said, announced a generous three-year settlement for schools. It is the best funding settlement in 10 years, with £14.4 billion over three years. Schools that are in financial difficulties can approach their local authority and the Education and Skills Funding Agency, which will provide support for schools that are experiencing difficulties, including the deployment of school resource management advisers. Schools and academies have £4 billion of cumulative reserves, and we expect those to be used first, but we keep this issue under review, and our regional teams are constantly monitoring whether schools are struggling to provide the hygiene and all the other measures that schools are putting in place right across the country.
School Safety: Covid-19
We continue to do everything in our power to ensure that all children and staff can be back in the classroom safely. Our guidance is clear: if schools implement the actions set out in the system of controls in that guidance, they will effectively reduce risks in their schools and create an inherently safer environment for all to operate in.
I want to place on record my thanks for the professionalism and efforts of all our teachers and senior leadership teams across the country, who have done such an amazing job over these weeks; I am sure that that is echoed across the Chamber. However, just in the last week after the start of term, we have had 46 cases in schools across the UK and 86 cases in Scotland. A total of 158 schools already have cases. In a Suffolk school—I think it is in the Health Secretary’s constituency—five teachers have tested positive, and the school has had to close. Is the Secretary of State confident that the Government have this under control?
Very much so. I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the joint letter from the chief medical officers of England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland in which they pointed out that children are best served by being in school, but he is right to highlight the risks and challenges of children returning to school. That is why, at every stage, working right across the sector, we have put in place the strictest level of controls, and a system of controls, in order to create a safe environment for not just the children and those who work in schools, but the community as a whole.
Last week marked the long-awaited return to schools for many students and young people across Coventry North West. However, this was a time marked by anxiety for parents, students and teachers about what school would look like during the pandemic. I have had a number of constituents contact me about being cramped into small spaces and a lack of support for students with pre-existing medical conditions that put them at greater risk of contracting and responding badly to coronavirus. What allowances or provisions have the Government given schools to keep students with pre-existing medical conditions safe, and will they stop passing the buck to schools and make face coverings compulsory in communal areas in secondary schools?
At every stage—when we saw over 1.6 million children return to school before the summer holidays, and as we see the full return after the summer holidays—every precautionary measure that can be taken has been taken to ensure that the needs of children of all ages, including those who suffer disabilities, are properly catered for. If the hon. Lady would like to write to me about specific issues, I would be happy to look at them in detail.
Getting our children back to school is critical. It is vital that there is not just safety in school but safety and capacity within school transport. I know from talking to local family coach operators such as J&C Coaches in Newton Aycliffe that the environment for coach operators is particularly challenging. While the postponement of the implementation of the Public Service Vehicle Accessibility Regulations for school transport provides some relief, it is still a sword hanging over coach operators and their future viability. If a longer-term viable option is not signposted, this could result in their withdrawing from the market, reducing capacity when precisely the opposite is needed. The current approach drives excessive costs for coach operators and, by extension, local authorities. While I endorse the need for accessible transport, can the Department work to make this more fit for purpose for school transport?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important issue and highlighting the concerns of his constituents and coach operators in his constituency. Dealing with the issue of children getting to school as schools fully return has been important. That is why the Department for Transport made over £10 million available to build capacity in local authorities, and that is why we made over £40 million available to local authorities to provide extra transport. The issue that he raises has been a concern for many MPs, and as a Member of Parliament in Staffordshire, I know that it is one we have highlighted with the Department for Transport. The DFT’s decision to delay the implementation of these regulations was a positive move, but I will ask a Minister in that Department to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this further.
School Support: Increased Covid-19 Infection Areas
In local areas where restrictions have been implemented, we anticipate that schools will usually remain fully open to all. There may be exceptional circumstances in which some level of restriction of education or childcare is required in a local area. In those situations, local and national partners will carefully consider the most appropriate actions, with the aim of retaining as much face-to-face education as possible.
I presume that when the Secretary of State says “open to all”, he does not mean people who have tested positive for covid.
There is a great deal of confusion among children, parents and our wonderful school staff about what the arrangements are in the event of a local lockdown or an isolated outbreak, and of course that extends to what the arrangements are for home learning. Will the Secretary of State please tell us where is the guarantee that all children who have to study from home will have access to broadband? Where is the guarantee that all staff will have the capacity to deliver home learning? Will he tell us what happened to the laptops that were promised months ago to enable that to happen?
The hon. Gentleman is probably aware that we distributed more than 200,000 laptops, as well as more than 40,000 internet router connections, for children from the most disadvantaged communities. They went to local authorities and multi-academy trusts— [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says, “They never arrived.” I suggest that he takes that up with his local authority, to which they were sent directly.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the continuity of education. On 2 July, we outlined our expectations of what is required of schools in terms of the delivery of continuity of education. That is why we have made an investment in a further 150,000 laptops, which will be provided for communities that are not able to provide face-to-face teaching within schools. To be absolutely clear, schools will only ever be closed as an absolute last resort. We all understand, on both sides of this House, how important it is for children to be benefiting from being in school with their teachers and learning in the school environment.
Attainment Gap: Disadvantaged/Affluent Areas
In addition to the pupil premium, the £350 million national tutoring programme will provide affordable, high-quality tuition to disadvantaged pupils in schools and colleges. The catch-up premium provides a further £650 million to schools to make up for the lost teaching time of all pupils.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that the recent data highlighting the learning gap between rich and poor secondary-age pupils demonstrated that the disparity is wider in Blackpool than in any other part of the country. I know the Government are determined to close the gap, so will he join me in calling for additional resources for schools in opportunity areas, such as Blackpool, that face particularly acute challenges?
It was a great pleasure to join my hon. Friend in visiting St George’s School in Blackpool South to see the amazing work being done there to raise educational attainment in his constituency. He is right to highlight the important role that opportunity areas can play. That is why we have already invested £6 million in the Blackpool opportunity area, and why it was a pleasure to announce, just a short time ago, that we are investing another almost £2 million in the Blackpool opportunity area, on top of all the extra investment we are making in terms of schools and the covid catch-up fund.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the key to tackling this issue is to start early? Will he commend the role of nursery schools in that provision, and can he find a way to give them a long-term sustainable funding settlement so that they can plan for the future?
My hon. Friend tempts me into a discussion that I shall probably have to have first with the Chancellor, but he is absolutely right to highlight the important role that early action and early support play in children’s lives. I was delighted to see that we will take action to invest in the Nuffield early language interventions, which have already shown that they can deliver so much for youngsters. Building on that into the future is an important part of the work that the Department is doing with our schools and so much more.
Missed Education: Covid-19
The Government have announced a catch-up package worth £1 billion, including a catch-up premium worth a total of £650 million, to support schools to make up for lost teaching time. That is in addition to the national tutoring programme, which is targeted at those children who are most disadvantaged in all our constituencies.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. There has been huge variation in the amount of school missed, often caused by the amount of online learning available and the capacity to access it. The amount of catch-up needed is therefore individual and diverse, and that is challenging for both families and teachers. How is my right hon. Friend supporting schools in their assessment of individual need and their response to it?
I very much point to the work of the Education Endowment Foundation, which we issued with our guidance. It has undertaken evidence-based work to ensure that, while schools will make the assessment of the individual needs of children and what help and intervention can be put in place for them, there is clear guidance on what works in the classroom environment. That might mean extending the school day for some; it might mean Saturday classes for others. There are so many different interventions that can deliver significant results in terms of helping youngsters catch up on the learning they have lost.
My local authority, South Gloucestershire Council, was the first in the country to implement a recovery curriculum to support schools, working with experts from a range of fields and taking in international examples to get children back into the classroom. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating South Gloucestershire Council and all the teachers on their hard work to provide vital support for local pupils, and encourage his Department and other local authorities to consider this model as potential best practice?
I very much join my right hon. Friend in congratulating South Gloucestershire Council on the work that it has been doing and rolling out across schools in its area. I would be delighted to look at that work and maybe to meet my right hon. Friend and colleagues from South Gloucestershire Council to understand some of the work that has been undertaken and what we can use from that to roll out in different parts of the country.
Special Educational Needs and Disabilities: Covid-19
The pandemic has been challenging for all families, but it has been particularly challenging for children with special educational needs and disabilities and their families. We have published a range of guidance to support children, families, carers and educational settings, and I wrote an open letter to all children and those who support them last week. We are increasing high-needs funding by £730 million next year on top of this year’s £780 million, which is an increase of nearly a quarter over the two years, and providing additional catch-up support on top of that.
Special schools for physically disabled children, such as the superb Pace centre in my constituency, have faced especial challenges over the past few months. How will my hon. Friend ensure that, as term gets under way, they receive advice and support that is tailored to the specific physical needs and circumstances of their pupils and the wider circumstances of their families, so that all children, whether they are disabled or non-disabled, can benefit from a full and varied education?
I thank all the staff at Pace and special schools across the country for all that they do. We have worked with the sector to provide detailed guidance, which we continually update as needed, and we will continue to do so. Those who need tailored support will be glad to hear that specialist therapists, clinicians and other support staff can attend school sites and provide those interventions as usual. In terms of our £1 billion of catch-up funding, there will be three times more going into special schools than into mainstream schools.
Many children with special educational needs and disabilities will find their return to school after a prolonged period of absence extremely challenging. The Children’s Commissioner for England has warned that Government guidance on school exclusion could encourage a zero-tolerance approach to challenging behaviour that may result in children with SEND who are struggling to readjust being excluded in large numbers. Can the Minister reassure me that she will not allow this to happen, and will she commit herself to reporting to the House the number of children with SEND being excluded from school as the term progresses?
Permanent exclusion should only ever be used as a last resort and must be lawful, reasonable and fair, and that is why we have already asked all schools to be understanding of the needs of all children and young people, including those with SEND, especially as they return. That is exactly the point I covered in my open letter last week to all children with SEND and their families. Off-rolling is never acceptable, and it will be monitored by Ofsted.
Since last week, schools across the country have begun welcoming children back into the classroom with a range of protective measures in place. I thank all teachers, support staff and the whole school community for making it such a positive and pleasurable experience for all children.
A great and important strength of our university sector has always been its ability to attract students from across the globe, and we have been working with Universities UK and all universities to ensure they are properly supported. We are supporting them with a campaign to attract more students to the UK and working across Government to make sure that students applying for visas can do so with ease. The Home Office has been incredibly supportive in ensuring that for those who want to come and study here it has been a positive experience.
Last month, the Prime Minister ordered parents back to work, and while it may not have occurred to the Prime Minister, I want to draw the Secretary of State’s attention specifically to their need for wraparound care at the start and end of the school day, where parents tell me there remains a gaping hole. Can he set out precisely what he is doing to ensure that working parents’ need for wraparound care will be met?
The hon. Lady raises an important point about the importance of wraparound care. We are working with all schools to ensure it is provided to parents. We have issued guidance setting out how this can be done safely and cautiously and in a way that works for those who work in schools and, importantly, for the children who benefit from this wraparound care as well as the parents who depend on it.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this important case in her constituency. Uppingham Community College is actually covered by risk protection arrangements, and I know that officials in my Department are working closely with it to see what is needed in order to ensure that there is provision. I know that Baroness Berridge would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss in more detail some of the particular issues that she faces in Rutland and how we can best support her and, most importantly, the provision of education in her constituency.
I would be more than happy to meet with such a delegation, and I know from my own experience of having a child who arrived prematurely some of the challenges that can come about. I would be very interested to listen and to see what more can be done to provide support in the future.
I know that, as a former teacher, my hon. Friend was itching to get back into the classroom if there was a need for extra teaching support. He was ready, willing and most certainly able to do so had the call come. He will probably have seen that schools in his constituency are receiving a more than £47 million cash increase, which will be followed in the next financial year by a substantial cash increase, and then in the third financial year there will also be a substantial cash increase. Schools were one of the few areas—if not the only area—that were able to get a three-year deal, and I believe this will have a real impact in helping them plan for the future delivery of the best education.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his offer to step in for any supply needs schools may have, but he raises a very important point. I would be happy, if it is possible, for him to meet the Minister for School Standards if he has particular details or concerns so that we can take them up. I am not aware of the situation that he outlines, but it is important to keep an eye on all this. We have been very clear in the guidance that we have issued to schools, and we need to ensure that that guidance is properly considered by all schools but that people do not develop it in ways in which it should not be developed.
My right hon. Friend raises the important point of young people’s mental health and the benefits they get from going to back to school, college or university. We have worked incredibly closely with not just the school sectors but the university sector to ensure that that return is done in a safe, cautious and planned way, and I give thanks for all the work done in the higher education sector. We do recognise that covid has presented some quite challenging mental health problems to many young people as well as staff, which is why we announced a £9 million fund for additional enhanced mental health work to support those who work in and those who benefit from being in the education sector, students included.
We have funded the National Association for Special Educational Needs on behalf of the Whole School SEND Consortium to work to recruit teachers to deliver high-quality teaching across all types of special educational needs, and that support is available to all schools. We also funded targeted support, focused on particular areas of concern flagged by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission. We are putting £730 million into high needs next year, coming on top of £780 million of additional funding this year, which means that high- needs funding has increased by 24% in just two years.
We do want all children to return to school, and to return to school safely, including children with special educational needs and disability. We have given guidance to schools, and the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), has written an open letter to parents of children with special educational needs about returning. Where there are families who have particular concerns about the safety of returning, the advice we give is to talk to the headteacher, who hopefully will be able to provide them with reassurance.
Maybe in anticipation of the question, Cornwall College has already been a beneficiary of £1.4 million of extra money heading towards it as a result of our commitment to putting more money into further education in respect of capital build. I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and the college to discuss further their plans for St Austell and to hear about how they want to transform educational outcomes for those not just in St Austell, but more widely in Cornwall.
I very much agree with the fact that there needs to be a robust regulatory framework around any use of algorithms. Algorithms are used every single year in the management of grade boundaries as youngsters are awarded both GCSEs and A-levels. That has always been the case and will always be the case.
It has been incredibly impressive to see the turnaround at West Nottinghamshire College and the work that has already been undertaken. I would be more than happy to work with my hon. Friend to see what opportunities can be created in the future for this college, which has had some difficult times, but is very much looking to the future with optimism and with a real sense of purpose in delivering the very best for young people in his constituency.
I am very happy to meet the hon. Member. This was an issue that we discussed at great length with the regulator. We wanted to find a way in which those students could be awarded grades, notwithstanding the fact that the summer series had to be cancelled. However, for some students who do not have a relationship with a school, it was not possible to have centre-assessed grades. That is one of the reasons why we put on an autumn series of exams in all subjects across GCSEs, A-levels and AS-levels to ensure that they have the opportunity to take their exams this year.
I am happy to join my hon. Friend in congratulating Bungay High School on its new specialist facility, and I pay tribute to him for his passion and his support for a GCSE in British Sign Language. I do remember meeting Daniel Jillings and his mother who made a compelling case. As this is a brand new subject at GCSE, we have been taking care to consult experts very closely on the detail of the subject content. The covid pandemic has affected the timeline for developing the GCSE, but my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that that work has now been resumed.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about international travel corridors.
In June, 14 days’ isolation was introduced for travellers arriving in the UK, with a small number of workers’ exemptions. This action has helped to ensure that the sacrifices of our nationwide lockdown were not wasted, and it has played a part in keeping our infection rate lower than elsewhere. At the same time, we set up the Joint Biosecurity Centre and tasked it with pulling together intelligence in order to assess the risks of inbound travel from hundreds of territories. By July, the Joint Biosecurity Centre’s analysis helped to inform our decisions to establish travel corridors, meaning that people could return to the UK from low-risk countries without quarantine.
Of course, we all know that this dreadful disease takes instructions from no one. Even with our increased understanding about how covid preys upon and capitalises on close human contact, we can still be taken aback by its speed of transmission, whether at home, through the imposition of local lockdowns, or abroad, where a country suddenly sees infection rates take off. I am the first to admit that the unpredictable nature of the virus can take us all, holidaymakers included, by surprise. As I landed in Spain on my family holiday, I was immediately joining a ministerial call during which I helped to impose 14 days’ quarantine on Spain, thereby effectively terminating my break—but more importantly, sadly, disrupting the holidays of tens of thousands of Brits in Spain and elsewhere. I know how distressing this has been—but I also know that the hard-won gains from the earlier days of this crisis must not, cannot and will not be sacrificed. Ministers will continue to take proportionate action informed by JBC analysis.
During July and August, we did not have the means to accurately assess risks within countries and within regions. The kind of comprehensive Office for National Statistics data that we now have through its testing was never available overseas, and it was too easy for the virus to migrate between regions without borders or boundaries. However, as JBC resources have strengthened, we have been able to collaborate much more closely with other Governments and their health authorities. This has led to a more forensic picture. Now, for the first time, we are able to consider a granular approach to assessing detailed data abroad. I have looked at whether this means that we can implement regionalised systems for international travel corridors, but in many cases the international data is still simply too patchy, and in all cases there is next to nothing to prevent people from moving around within a country’s border.
People will rightly point out that infection rates also vary across the United Kingdom—indeed they do—but the difference is that all the countries we are talking about have, by definition, higher rates of infection than we do. I hope the House understands that the JBC and the Government are therefore at present unable to introduce regional travel corridors from within the geographical boundaries of a nation state.
However, where a region has natural boundaries, such as an island, the risk diminishes significantly, and that presents us with a real opportunity. Our passenger locator form, combined with NHS Test and Trace, will, and has started to, give us a clear picture of exactly where infections are coming from. As a result, I can today announce a new islands policy. For the first time, we have the data and the capacity to add and remove specific islands from quarantine, while still providing maximum protection to the UK public.
There are thousands of islands across the globe—far too many for the JBC to monitor on a detailed level—but it may assist the House if I outline the four guiding principles that we intend to apply. First, the regionalised approach can only apply to land that has clear boundaries or a clear border—in other words, an island. Secondly, the data collected must be robust, reliable and internationally comparable. Thirdly, the island must have direct flights from the UK, or at the very minimum, transport must be able to take place through quarantine-exempt territories. Fourthly, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office travel advice should align as far as practicable with the policy.
The JBC methodology for islands that I have described has been developed in consultation with the chief medical officer and Public Health England. This new capability means we will now be able to nuance our decisions, first and foremost to safeguard the health of British citizens, but also to enable British tourists to enjoy trips to islands, even if the mainland is deemed too risky. However, it is worth noting that the policy will not necessarily open up additional islands immediately. For example, when we removed Spain from the travel corridor list, there were 24 cases per 100,000 people. Today there are 127 cases per 100,000, and the rate remains too high in the Balearic and Canary islands as well.
On the other hand, Greece remains within our travel corridor programme, but our new analysis shows that some of the islands are well outside the parameters. Indeed, despite overall Greek infection levels being lower than ours, Scotland has already felt compelled to add the entirety of Greece, including the mainland, to the quarantine. However, using our newly acquired JBC data, we are now in a position to remove Greek islands where holidaymakers are at risk of spreading new infections back home. Seven Greek islands will therefore be removed from the travel list at 4 am on Wednesday 9 September, while mainland Greece will be maintained.
I thank our medical experts, who have forged these professional relationships and improved capacity. However, I want to make one thing clear: travelling during coronavirus is not without risk, so those who do so should please go with their eyes open. Remember that not only is breaching quarantine an offence that can gain you a criminal record, but you are putting the lives of your loved ones at risk, as well as the loved ones of those you have never met before.
I know there is considerable interest across the House in testing at borders to see whether we can remove the necessity to self-isolate at all. It sounds completely logical, yet, as the chief medical officer reminds us, it simply will not capture most of those who are asymptomatically carrying coronavirus. As you know, Mr Speaker, those who are symptomatic should not be travelling in the first place.
The point was brought home to me in a conversation with the head of one of Britain’s major airport groups. He decided to trial airport testing for himself and a group of eight returning holidaymakers. They all tested negative. After a week in quarantine, they took a further test and one of their group was positive. This illustrates PHE’s point that, due to the incubation period of this disease, and even using highly accurate tests, the capture rate of those carrying covid-19 may be as low as 7%, leaving 93% of people who are infected free to go about their business, more likely—most likely, under those circumstances—in the misguided belief that they do not carry coronavirus.
However, quarantine combined with testing is more promising. We are therefore working actively on the practicalities of using testing to release people from quarantine in fewer than 14 days. For the reasons described, this could not be a pure test-on-arrival option, which would not work. However, my officials are working with health experts with the aim of cutting the quarantine period without adding to the infection risk or infringing our overall NHS testing capacity, which now also needs to cater for schools going back and universities returning. The islands policy becomes active immediately, and I will of course update the House on quarantine testing in the coming weeks. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Transport Secretary for prior sight of the statement, although I should say for the record that it arrived only five minutes before it was due to be made. I am not sure that is quite in the spirit of things, and it might be worth taking that back to officials to make sure it does not happen again. However, I should say that he made the effort to give me a call today, which is appreciated.
The Government’s response to the covid-19 crisis has been nothing short of chaotic. At almost every turn they have lacked a clear strategy, and that failure has been acutely felt in aviation. For months, even when the virus was at its peak, millions of passengers were coming from all over the world without any restrictions placed on them at all. By the time restrictions were introduced, we were one of only a handful of countries in the world that up to that point had failed to take action to put them in place. It is this pattern of the Government being too slow to act, coupled with blunt interventions to overcompensate, that has dogged the handling of the pandemic right from the outset.
First, there was a blunt quarantine for all, bar France, but then France was back on. Then air corridors were on the table; then they were not. What we then saw was not really air corridors, air bridges or whatever name is given to them, but essentially a list produced by the Foreign Office, half of the countries on which had placed restrictions on British travellers going there—no travel corridor or air bridge at all. Now we are seeing countries coming and going off the list, with very little notice for those who have decided to go on holiday and incurred the cost of doing so.
It is all very well for the Government now to change position and tell people that they should travel with their eyes open. It was not that long ago that the Government were defending a very senior member of No. 10 for driving for an eye test, let alone going with eyes fully open. The British public are not stupid. They understand fully the pandemic and what it means to everyday life, but people work hard, and they are desperate to return to a sense of normality. For many, that one holiday a year is something they save up for and look forward to, but they cannot afford a 14-day quarantine to be imposed with very little notice.
We need to see when the data was really made available. We all know that localised and regional data is made available across Europe, so why was it not reviewed when the decision was made in Spain, for instance, to have the restrictions on the islands? The point was made at the time and the Government did not move, but it strikes me that the evidence base was in place, so it makes sense to publish that evidence in the House of Commons Library, so that it can be reviewed.
We need to make sure that we do not make this intervention all the time. It appears chaotic because it is chaotic. There will not be a single intervention in itself that will keep this country safe; it will be a number of interventions taken together that make us safe, and a key part of that is testing. Frankly, it is beyond belief that people arrive in this country from all over the world without any tests being carried out, either at the airport or five days later. It is important that we now carry out a full review, not just of quarantine in the very blunt sense that the Government approach it, but also to ensure that a proper test and tracking system is in place. In my town, the national contact tracing system has failed to get through to half of those it should have made contact with. When we have that infrastructure and such weak performance, it is little surprise that the Government are constantly going from one crisis to another.
Aviation is on its knees. The limited support offered by the Government has meant job losses all over the place, in a sector that was always going to take longer to recover than other parts of the economy. The Government knew that, but even with the money given over to the airlines, where are the conditions to protect workers’ rights? It is a scandal that hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is being given out with no conditions to protect the workers at British Airways or easyJet, and the rights that they have built up.
Labour’s position is clear. We have set out a plan for a sectoral deal, with six key conditions, supporting jobs, tackling climate change and providing fair play on tax. It is important that the Government now come forward with a proper sectoral deal. We will absolutely work in partnership, in the national interest, but the Government cannot continue to go from one crisis to another, because key to beating the virus is maintaining public support. I have to tell the Transport Secretary that we are in real danger of losing that support.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not getting the statement to him. I do not know why that happened, and I will make inquiries. As he mentions, I did make a call in advance, unrelated to the statement itself.
This is not a virus that any of us control, beyond the way in which we all behave individually and the extent to which we all have contact that we perhaps should not be having. It is easy to come to the Dispatch Box and be a professor of hindsight, saying, “You should have done this. You shouldn’t have done that.” If the hon. Gentleman could explain to me how he can find out that one week Jamaica will have three or five cases per 100,000 and the next week be breaching 20 cases per 100,000, even though the Joint Biosecurity Centre, Public Health England and all the other experts were unable to predict it, I would be the first to welcome that kind of detailed information and knowledge. It does not exist. I believe that no country in the world has combined as much information as has been pulled together here in order to work on a detailed island policy. In fact, it is difficult to think of another country in Europe that is doing more testing than the UK now, with testing capacity of a third of a million tests per day, going up to half a million today. I was speaking to my opposite number from France, who told me that there they would reach 400,000 tests a week—in this country, we can do that in a day and a half.
Our NHS test and trace system, combined with the passenger locator form, has enabled us to extract very specific data to know where infections are coming back from, and that has been extraordinarily useful. I reiterate—I cannot say it any more clearly, and I am grateful for the opportunity to say it again—that in these times when we travel we must accept that we have to go with our eyes open. I gave the example of Jamaica, but, unfortunately, the same thing exists everywhere else. I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting. Is he saying that we should not have travel corridors at all and we should prevent everybody from travelling? That cannot be the case, because he tells us that he wants to support the aviation sector. In which case, some kind of corridors must be open, otherwise we would not be supporting it.
That is why we have pumped an enormous amount of money, via the British taxpayer, into supporting the aviation sector. Off the top of my head, 56,400 members of staff are using the furlough scheme, which will add up to well over £1 billion. There is a £1.8 billion fund, the Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility, which has supported aviation-specific companies, and there have been all manner of other funds, including the coronavirus job retention scheme, from which £283 million has gone to the aviation sector.
Of course we want the aviation sector to get going again. As I mentioned towards the end of my statement—I will come back to the House on this— testing is a part of that, but I also explained the complexity of testing on day zero. I did not hear whether that is what the Opposition Front-Bench team are calling for, but there are significant issues with testing on day zero in a manner that will not necessarily find those who are carrying the virus but that will convince lots of people that they are not. That approach is not the answer. We are working on all those things, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman to work with us, rather than score points from us, when everybody is trying to do the right thing, nationwide, to beat this virus.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to look at islands separately from certain mainland territories. May I also ask him to give a little more detail on his thought processes with regard to testing? He is absolutely right that this has to be all about proportionality. On the one hand, there are many in this country who have forgone their holiday abroad, and it is right that they are not put at more risk of getting the virus than those who have gone abroad. Equally, there may well be the testing capability, not at day one, which we know does not work with any reliability, but perhaps a certain number of days afterwards, which could allow quarantine to be ended and the aviation industry to get much-needed support. So on the scale of zero to 14 days, is he looking at about the day eight period for where there will be that proportionality on safety? Also, he mentioned that the House would know more in the coming weeks; may I push him to be a little more specific about when the House is likely to see a different approach come in?
I pay tribute to the Chair of the Select Committee for his boundless work during this crisis in following up on all manner of transport issues, and aviation issues in particular. He is absolutely right that testing in all its senses is a large part of the solution to everything related, or at least it is an aid to everything related, to coronavirus, and it is extremely important that we get it right. We know that there is pressure on the testing system. Schools are going back and entire classes and years require testing, and the same goes for universities—Dido spoke about this last week. It means we need to ensure that we are prioritising that. We also know that it can be helpful for returning holidaymakers and other travellers. Day zero does not work at the airport, but testing later can work. That capacity will be an issue for the reasons NHS Test and Trace mentioned, and I can reassure my hon. Friend that I will return to the House with proposals, which are currently being worked on with the industry, for something that is both practical and workable and that people can rely on as much as the NHS test and trace system itself.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, which we also received late, a minute after he was due to deliver it.
We can see from all the recent data that coronavirus is currently spreading far more rapidly throughout the UK and many parts of Europe than in recent months. As a result the red list of countries from which travellers must quarantine on their return has been increasing steadily in recent weeks. Often the UK’s four Governments have come to the same conclusions on quarantining decisions at the same time. However, Scotland and Wales have occasionally made different decisions, as is their devolved right. Portugal was recently placed on the red list for Scotland and Wales, as it is now experiencing 23.2 cases per 100,000, but the Secretary of State accused the Scottish Government of creating confusion by placing Portugal on the quarantine list and of jumping the gun on Greece. Indeed, he doubled down on this in his statement today. The Scottish and Welsh First Ministers have not criticised him or his Government for their decisions on quarantine, so these are very unfortunate remarks that the Secretary of State should reflect on and perhaps apologise for.
The resurgence of coronavirus has shown that the trouble for the airline and tourism industries will persist for quite some time. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, what further support for the airline industry specifically can the Secretary of State commit to, and will he actually keep his promise to the industry of specific support? If there is a second wave of coronavirus that decimates international travel again, the industry could go back to square one in terms of the pandemic. Does he agree that that makes a strong case for the argument that targeted extensions of the furlough scheme are necessary?
Further to the point made by the Chair of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), may I push the Secretary of State on the timeline for this aviation traveller quarantine testing programme? By when will he bring that back to the House? Finally, nobody travels more internationally than cabin crew and pilots, and recent weeks have seen many loyal British Airways cabin crew out of a job having refused to be fired and then rehired on slashed wages. Will the Secretary of Secretary of State apologise to those workers for failing to protect them?
Once again, I will certainly be investigating the statement issue. I am very intolerant of things being dispatched late from my office. I will write to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Members concerned to let them know what happened.
I know that the hon. Gentleman shares my passion for aviation, and I want to answer his points, but it is important to mention the need not to believe everything you read in the newspapers. I know that this will come as a shock to Members across the House, but things are not always accurately reported. I did not criticise Scotland. I simply used the example to explain that it was unable to have the granular data and had to remove the whole of Greece as a result. On Portugal, as he may have heard me say, although the incident rate was higher, the percentage of positive tests had reduced, which is why we came to different decisions. That is within our right. I have spoken to my opposite number in Scotland today and explained that we will be further sharing the data to make granular decisions on islands, if that is what the Scottish Government wish to do.
I want to stress our support for not just airlines but the whole aviation sector. It is interesting that this is frequently mischaracterised as being a lack of support, although when we add it up, it comes to billions of pounds. Billions of pounds is not a lack of support. This is taxpayers’ money that we are giving to commercial organisations to try to keep them going.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about testing, I absolutely will return to the House. We have to have the science behind us to do this. It is the same with travel corridors and the island approach. We cannot return here until there is a test, for example, that will work under the circumstances described. So far, as far as I am aware, Porton Down has not approved any of the private tests that we read about every weekend in the newspaper—“It’s solved; we can just do this.” I can only work to the speed of the scientists, but I certainly will not delay.
International visitors spend around half of the £10 billion generated in the west end alone, which is in the heart of my constituency. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that he will continue to monitor and consider taking more countries off the red list as and when it is safe to do so, in order for us to be able to welcome more overseas visitors back to our shores as soon as possible?
My hon. Friend is right. I am very concerned about not just the City but the cities and towns across the country that should be enjoying a far greater number of tourists, visitors and business people than they are. I will certainly do exactly what she asks. It is a fact that, at the moment, numbers—particularly from European destinations—are, I am afraid, on the rise, which has led to countries coming off the list, but most weeks we add a territory or two as well.
Given the scale of the challenges faced by the aviation sector and the scale of job losses, today’s announcement seems to fall woefully short of the integrated Government leadership that we need to get planes flying and give passengers the confidence to travel safely. Indeed, many local employers tell me that they do not feel the Government are really listening to the challenges that they are facing. Airports have been working on increased testing pilots for months, and they do not feel that the Government have listened to them either. When does the Secretary of State plan to update the House on increased testing, so that we can reduce quarantine times? Will he come back to the House to tell us when he can extend the measures announced today—for example, to trial flights from Heathrow to John F. Kennedy airport, with New York now having lower covid rates than other parts of the US?
I speak very regularly—including at least twice over the weekend—to the boss of Heathrow airport, John Holland-Kaye, and to businesses in the hon. Lady’s constituency and all constituencies that are concerned about aviation and the issues that have been created. The simple fact of the matter is that, as I mentioned, until we have tests that are reliable enough and signed off through the PHE and Porton Down process, it is not possible to simply jump the gun, but I am very actively working with the airports. As I say, it has been a bit of a challenge to convince people on this—it sounds so simple and obvious that someone can just take a test on day zero when they land, a bit like pointing a temperature checker at someone’s head, and then we have to work through the reasons why that will not actually protect us from coronavirus. It is about doing the right things as well as doing those things quickly, but she has my assurance that I am on it day and night, and we will continue to be until we get solutions.
In Stockton South, we have seen a small rise in the number of confirmed covid cases. Can my right hon. Friend assure us that he will continue to keep the travel corridor list under constant and scrupulous review, allowing people to travel where it is safe to do so and, importantly, ensuring that we act to control the virus?
Liverpool airport in my constituency is already losing 15% of jobs in operations—jobs in air traffic control, ground handling and security, and in the airlines operating from there, such as easyJet—because passenger numbers are about 65% down on what they would normally be. Even worse jobs carnage will result if furlough is ended without a sector-specific deal for aviation. If the Secretary of State is focusing on testing to release people earlier from quarantine—there will be an ongoing imposition and lifting of blanket 14-day quarantines, whether or not the islands are included—will he undertake to ensure that there is support like furlough in place for the airports, the airlines and the aviation industry until those arrangements are put in place?
I assure the hon. Lady that we have worked very hard on the package, which is nothing that this country has ever seen before, in terms of size, scale and impact. It has saved literally hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of jobs in this country. As the Chancellor said, we have to balance that with making sure there are jobs to go back to. I respect what the hon. Lady said: airports such as John Lennon in her constituency are really struggling. I spoke earlier today to the boss of easyJet, which is one of the main carriers there and is desperate to get back in the air. We cannot detach policy from the reality, and this virus is very real. Nobody has a simple solution to deal with it until we get a vaccine, but I assure the hon. Lady that I will be working very hard with Liverpool airport and the carriers that come in and out of it, and with the Chancellor, who will be speaking more at this Dispatch Box at the autumn statement, to do everything we possibly can.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement of the islands policy, which seems like a pragmatic, sensible thing to do, but I am sure that a lot of people who are about to go away tonight or tomorrow must be wondering what will happen when they return from their trip. My point is about the testing regime and the possibility of introducing something far more robust at airports. If there is such great capacity available in the system, as the Secretary of State suggested, why is there not a mandatory test for everyone seven days after they return?
I just want to clarify the amount of testing in the system. We have a third of a million tests a day, and we are taking that up to half a million by the end of October, but Members will be aware—this has been discussed in the past few days—that schools and universities have gone back, and pressure on testing is very real at this moment. I am not sure we should be prioritising returning holidaymakers in the testing system over, for example, children going back to school. The simple solution is, of course, to create more testing—which is something that I absolutely want to see happen—but that will need to come through the private sector route, which means that the tests will need to be approved and signed off on a scientific basis. As soon as that is done and we can prove the whole thing will stack up, we will be in business.
The £160 billion of support that the Government have made available to businesses has helped many firms within the travel industry and will ensure that jobs are protected for the time being. However, many of those firms now face an extremely difficult winter period. Will my right hon. Friend commit himself to working with the Treasury to look at different ways in which businesses within the sector, such as Highfield Travel in my constituency, can receive additional support?
I can tell my hon. Friend that I most certainly will. The only thing with which I take issue is the amount of money, which is a lot bigger. There is £283 million just on the coronavirus job retention scheme, and a lot of the travel companies will have taken advantage of the smaller loan schemes. On a smaller level again, there are things such as the bounce back loan scheme, and that is before we get to the very, very large-scale covid corporate financing facility, at £1.6 billion, and the furlough. There have been an awful lot of projects that put money into businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere. He absolutely has my assurance that that will continue.
Two constituents have approached me who, like the Secretary of State, were already in Spain when that country was added to the quarantine list. Their employer chose not to pay the couple’s statutory sick pay—he is not required to—which is causing them considerable hardship. Is that not unfair, and does not a lack of sick pay make it less likely that people will comply with quarantine?
As I have mentioned, no one feels this more acutely than I do, given that I effectively put myself into quarantine with that decision. Travel is something that we must all do with a degree of eyes open, accepting the risk at this time. As I mentioned again from the Dispatch Box, people will need to think carefully when they travel about whether, if the country does suddenly end up in quarantine—I explained, with examples such as Jamaica, that this can happen very quickly—they are able to quarantine afterwards. Otherwise, it might be best not to travel, and that is a judgment that everybody will make. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Chancellor and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions have also made significant moves to assist, particularly where people are in local lockdown areas.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend has been contacted by dozens of his constituents, as have we all, asking whether one country or another is about to be added to the quarantine list. With that in mind, I wonder whether he might share his Department’s thinking on whether some of the Joint Biosecurity Centre’s data might be opened up, to inform those decisions by our constituents.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and when people ask me whether such and such country will be added, I usually say, “I don’t know why you are asking me. I couldn’t get it right in Spain and I went there myself, so I am probably not the best guide.” The virus moves in ways that are difficult to predict. I agree that the more information is available, the better, and he may have seen that I have spent some time publicising and tweeting the various different measures that the JBC uses to assess the risk from each country. This goes way beyond the number of cases per 100,000 over seven days.
I appreciate what the Minister has said about the need for people to have holidays, and in my constituency, we appreciate the value of the aviation industry. Edinburgh airport has already confirmed that around a third of its staff are to be made redundant, so can the Minister assure us that the Government will take every opportunity to balance the need to shorten quarantine to support the aviation industry with following the medical evidence about what is best?
I absolutely can. I have spoken to the boss of Edinburgh airport during this crisis, and I know how difficult it is to run those businesses when people do not know what is going to happen next. Quarantine is of course a devolved matter for Scotland, and those decisions and discussions are ongoing between the Scottish Government and Edinburgh airport, but the hon. Lady has my assurance that this is certainly at the front of my mind.
My right hon. Friend will know that 900 Harlow residents are employed at Stansted airport, directly and indirectly. However, we have already seen many job losses at ABM Blue Handling and easyJet, which has also closed its Stansted airport base, so will he ensure that the measures that his Department is taking will protect the jobs of my constituents?
I know that my right hon. Friend fights hard for his constituents. I spoke to the boss of Stansted, Charlie Cornish, earlier today, and we discussed the measures that we have been taking and our hopes for the way that the policies can develop. One of the things he said that would be helpful in this regard is the islands policy that we have announced today. This will help to protect jobs because, in time, it will enable islands to be added when the mainland would not have been flyable to, and I very much hope that that assists.
The Secretary of State suggested three days ago that differences in quarantine rules among the UK nations led to confusion. The UK Government have had more than 20 years to get used to the fact that health is devolved in Wales. Will he therefore clarify that any confusion between the rules in England and Wales arises consistently from a failure on the part of his Government to communicate when their rules apply to England only?
No, that is factually incorrect. I speak to my counterparts from the other three parts of our nation every single week on various occasions, and each of us at different times has had cause to say to the other, “I’m sorry that we couldn’t have done this without you.” It has happened with both the Welsh and the Scottish Governments at various times, so that is simply untrue; I do try to share the data. It is helpful for travellers if we can move in unison but it is not always possible. The right hon. Lady points out that there have been 20 years of devolution, but that has never meant decisions over things like quarantine in any past situation that I can think of. This has found new territory for devolution.
Many of my constituents were very grateful to get away this summer after the introduction of travel corridors. I know it has not been easy for everybody all the time, with the decisions that had to be made—my right hon. Friend knows that better than anybody—but everyone who did make that choice, and it was a choice, went into it with their eyes open, as he says. They and I will welcome what he says about islands and further granularity. I hope we can get more granularity going forward. In the meantime, can he assure me that the list of countries and islands will be kept under constant review, so we can get to more destinations as soon as it is safe to do so?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right and others have mentioned this issue, too. I know that everyone’s constituents will be in contact to ask whether certain places will be able to be added. I am always very happy to ask the JBC to look at particular countries, which I do regularly on behalf of Members from across the House, and it will put some extra time into studying those countries. Of course, it is already looking at the entirety of the world on a week-by-week basis, and he has my assurance that that will continue.
Like many hon. Members, I have had frequent contact with bemused constituents who cannot understand why day after day they see on their televisions pictures of thousands of people streaming in through our airports with neither testing at the airport, which the Secretary of State said would not be effective, nor testing a number of days later, which the Secretary of State conceded would be effective, and nor, indeed, without, seemingly, tracing of where those people are going and who they are meeting. For hundreds of thousands of those journeys it is too late, and if those people were bringing coronavirus into the country that has now happened, but we are responsible for what happens from today. Will the Secretary of State give a clear assurance that for every single person arriving at a UK airport we know where they are coming from, we know where they are going, we know whether they quarantine, and we know whether they have the coronavirus and, if so, we know who they met? If not, all the talk today is moot.
The passenger locator form has been introduced. That was an innovation. It had to be brought in at great speed during the crisis, but it is now ensuring that we know where passengers are coming from. If people do not fill it in, that is an offence and they can be and are being fined. When people do not quarantine—I want to make this very clear for the benefit of everybody in the House—that is a criminal offence. If you do not quarantine for 14 days and you spread the virus around, you are endangering the people you love and others you have never even met. You can get a criminal record for that. To answer the hon. Gentleman’s question directly, we will be stepping up enforcement. In particular, I know that phone calls are made to one in five people—my wife actually, separately, got a phone call—and text messages will be sent. People should be aware that enforcement will be increasingly stepped up.
I thank my right hon. Friend for today’s statement and for being the strong voice for aviation that I know he is. No one wants to see a second spike, least of all one that arises from cases overseas, but will he assure me that he will continue to explore with an open mind any opportunity, including testing, that will allow the aviation industry to return to the skies and get on with its vital role of unleashing much-needed economic growth?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am a great champion of the aviation sector, as he is, and it breaks my heart to see it suffering, jobs being impacted, and the second or third greatest and biggest aviation sector economy in the world being affected. He is absolutely right to ask whether I will keep my eyes and ears open for absolutely everything that we can do. I have my officials working on that all the time, and I will return—a number of Members have asked when—to the House the moment the scientists provide the information we need to be able to take further testing forward.
Finally, in that last answer, the Secretary of State actually acknowledged that we have a major aviation sector, which is hugely important to Britain and to Britain’s place in the world. There was no acknowledgment of that in his statement, nor any acknowledgement of the 10,000 jobs that have already gone and the 100,000 jobs that are at risk. Also, frankly, the Secretary of State seems to be focusing on seeking complete risk avoidance rather than intelligent risk management. He needs to recognise that unemployment kills and poverty kills. We need to be getting Britain back to work as we go into autumn facing a national jobs crisis and, in particular, a crisis in the aviation industry. When he is going to get a move on?
I may have taken the rather presumptuous position of thinking that the House knew how much I love aviation, but I will put it on record again. As a qualified pilot for 25 years, I absolutely think it is a terrific industry. However, the right hon. Member is right about the balance between getting people back to work—he knows how hard we are working to persuade people to go back—and doing it in a safe way. I do slightly take issue with him over the idea he expressed when he talked about the risk-benefit ratio, and it is very important that we do not see another spike. We are seeing the numbers creeping up, and I think it would be unforgivable if, having got on top of the virus, we re-imported this disease.
The Iceland example is very interesting. I have seen some other countries where they have been doing day zero testing and they will privately, in conversation with me, concede that it does not actually provide the answers they require. A test later—whether that is five days, seven days or eight days is to be calculated by the scientists—is a much more possible and probable solution. I gave the example earlier of what happened when one of the airport bosses had his group tested a week later, and he found somebody who already had the virus but was not picked up at the beginning, so I think my hon. Friend is absolutely on to something.
The University of York is going to extraordinary lengths to support international students arriving in the UK—from picking them up at airports to isolating them for two weeks at the university before teaching begins. However, this process could be significantly improved if a clear testing and tracing regime and testing infrastructure were put in place. The Secretary of State has said that there are capacity issues, but why has he not properly planned for this, having known the arrival programme of international students? It appears that he is shifting the responsibility on to universities to manage this situation, rather than sorting it out himself.
No, I do not accept that, because students actually come from lots of different places. Some of them will be in travel corridors and will not need to self-isolate; others will require self-isolation. But in the context of being here—for perhaps a year, or two or three years—this, I hope, will be a manageable situation for them. Again, let us not pretend that this is all straightforward, and that somehow we can magic tests that are signed off and work. I remind the House again: there are no tests—such private tests have been referred to many times—that are currently signed off as being usable, and we have to be led by the medicine first.
Many of my constituents work in the aviation and travel industries, with both Manchester airport and Leeds Bradford airport within an hour’s travelling time. With that in mind, will the Secretary of State continue to do everything he can to introduce the testing regime that will not only support the aviation and travel industries, but give certainty to holidaymakers and business travellers alike?
It has been incredibly heartening, during this pandemic, to see how our communities have come together and done the right thing. They have followed the rules, and that is great to see. However, during this quite chaotic conversation about tourism, with tourists coming back from Leeds Bradford and Manchester airports, I have constituents now contacting me on email and by telephone concerned that their neighbours are not doing the right thing. Is the Secretary of State aware of this, what is he going to put in place to protect those people—particularly in constituencies such as Batley and Spen, where, in Batley, we have enhanced restrictions—and what is he going to do to reassure constituents like mine?
I agree with the hon. Lady. It is not only wrong and frustrating; it is also illegal for people to do that—come back and break the quarantine. We absolutely will be stepping up measures, and I am working with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and others to secure that. Again, I will say more about it very soon. In the meantime, I send the message clearly from this Dispatch Box that when people break their quarantine, they are breaking the law and putting themselves in line for a criminal record, and that is not something that anyone should want to do.
The travel corridor policy, while clearly very upsetting for those affected who have worked very hard for a holiday, is absolutely the right thing to do to keep us all safe. Will the Secretary of State consider one change, though, which is to move the weekly time for coming back from 4 am on a Saturday to midnight on a Sunday? Changeover, for most people, is on a Saturday or a Sunday, so most people could complete their week’s holiday without having to buy expensive flights, which they do not have the money for, and ruin their holiday. Will he at least just consider that?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is true that changeovers do indeed often take place on a Saturday. It might help if I explain the tensions that have to be measured off. The medical community would of course say, “Don’t leave any time at all: do it immediately,” which is virtually what happened with Spain, the very first country to be removed from a corridor—and the other view is to allow it to continue. It is a question of finding the best balance between the two that would satisfy the chief medical officer and his concerns as well as trying to get people home. I promise to undertake to continue to look at this, but I hope my hon. Friend understands and the House will appreciate the natural and proper tensions that are in place.
Yes, I can help the hon. Lady, because I have already, several times, published the basis for the decision-making process. The easiest way to find it is on my Twitter feed, @grantshapps, which explains the measures put in place. The data is then available for somebody to look at. We have been quite clear about where people need to go to see exactly which measures are taken into account.
When are the Government going to give the financial support package to the aviation sector, which the Chancellor promised in March, so that we can ensure the protection of workers’ rights, particularly those at British Airways and easyJet?
As I mentioned in previous answers, billions of pounds have gone into support for the sector, and even once all those schemes have been exhausted, there is a programme run specifically by the Treasury that enables bespoke support for the industry. I cannot go into details because those are confidential arrangements, but they do already exist.
Will my right hon. Friend address international rail travel? He will know that Eurostar services from Ashford and Ebbsfleet have been suspended until 2022. Can he assure me that it remains the Government’s intention that those services should be resumed as soon as possible and that the Government recognise the importance of Kent’s international rail services?
Absolutely. I can assure my right hon. Friend that we are very concerned to see those stations closing and the lack of activity. As with our discussions about airlines, this is entirely driven by the progress, unfortunately, of the virus. We will continue to keep it under review and work very closely with HS1 and that line to get them reopened as soon as possible.
The Prime Minister has ruled out testing at airports, claiming that it gives a “false sense of security”. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister about airport testing, or is this likely to be revisited when he updates the House on quarantine testing?
I mentioned a few moments ago the example from an airport boss relayed to me this morning where a day zero test failed to pick somebody up whereas a day seven or eight test was able to do that. That shows why a single test on arrival is not the solution, much as it is not the solution to temperature-test somebody on arrival to see whether they have got coronavirus. We need to be more sophisticated than that, and we absolutely will be. I remind the hon. Gentleman that different parts of the devolved Administrations will need to come to their own decisions on it as well.
I agree completely with my right hon. Friend on the need for testing to improve and to increase. Given that in most international travel, someone arrives at the airport sometimes many hours before travelling, will he give consideration, as the science moves forward, to enabling testing to take place before people get on aircraft so that if they are showing signs of symptoms, or they actually have the virus, they are not allowed to travel at all and not allowed to infect people on the plane they were travelling on?
A sort of pre-quarantine is something that other countries are using; my French counterpart is using a 72-hour test before people arrive in France, for example. Again, you need to be certain that somebody has quarantined during that period and be cognisant of the incubation period, which can be up to 14 days with coronavirus, so it is not an entirely straightforward solution, but I do think it is worth additional examination. Again, I look to the scientists to help advise on this, and they are being very forthcoming with that advice.
Heathrow airport has a large testing facility that is sitting idle, the UK economy is losing an estimated £60 million a day in tourism revenue, and constituencies near airports, such as mine, are in economic crisis due to covid. If equivalent countries with lower infection rates, such as Germany, can provide targeted support for their aviation sectors, such as furlough extension in our case, and quick-turnaround tests—tests are getting more accurate all the time—why cannot the UK?
I am not sure whether the hon. Lady heard my previous comments about day zero testing, but Germany is one of the countries that I know has been carrying out some tests at the border, along with France, Iceland and others. Some of those countries have found that that on-the-day test is not the solution that we want it to be in terms of detecting the disease. As I said earlier, we are following the science and allowing the scientists, including at Porton Down, to look at the various tests and then provide advice about what would be a safe time, and I am working closely with the industry to try to get that in place.
I welcome the statement and the pragmatic way in which the Secretary of State is proceeding. My view is that the 14-day quarantine is a bit of a blunt instrument, and I am doubtful whether everybody does it. I think that if we moved to a seven-day double-test system, it would make people safer but could also encourage more travel, so we might get a double advantage from doing that. I welcome what the Secretary of State has said, and all speed to him.
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s comments. The only respect in which I disagree with him is that I think the first test is not required and will lead people, if they test negative, to think that they may not need to quarantine. The test that helps to shorten would be the important one.
I think the rises here and elsewhere are concerns for everybody. We saw with France, for example, that its case numbers went up and so far there has not been quarantine in return, but of course it remains a live issue. It is something that we in this country can all do something about by following the rules and by reminding others that this virus has not gone away and to make sure that we do not spread it.
Just in recent days, Bolton has seen the highest infection rate in the country; today it stands at 115.8 per 100,000, with local media associating the dramatic spike in cases with a British holidaymaker who went on a pub crawl after returning from Spain. Will the Secretary of State join me in calling on everyone to do the right thing by staying home for the full quarantine period if mandated to do so after returning from abroad?
Will the Secretary of State outline what discussions are had and what information is shared with the Northern Ireland Executive to align international travel advice as closely as possible while still accepting and respecting devolved authority? I am ever mindful that people from Northern Ireland travel from Belfast directly and use Glasgow, Manchester, Heathrow, Gatwick and even Dublin International airport for connections to further afield. Does he believe that there is a case for mandatory alignment to keep all regions safe?
As discussed earlier, there is a devolution settlement that for 20 years has not been subject to these types of questions, which are usually to do with reserved powers. They are what they are. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am in very close contact with my opposite numbers in Northern Ireland, including as recently as today, and we continue to try to co-ordinate across our Union as much as possible.
As international travel slowly but surely gets back on its feet over the coming weeks and months, will the Secretary of State look at what further support he can give to help the many, many jobs dependent on the travel industry, such as through airport slots for airlines?
My hon. Friend raises the interesting question of the 80: 20 rule—I think that is what he is referring to—which, at the moment, is a European competence, but from 1 January will be a matter entirely for the United Kingdom. I will be considering it very carefully to help the entire sector.
This in-out, hokey cokey of on-off air bridges and quarantine comes without interruption. Passengers have landed at Heathrow and gone straight on to the Piccadilly line through Ealing and Acton, which is now a petri dish—we have an above-average virus rate—so can he please stop playing politics and give Transport for London the bail-out that it deserves at a time of national crisis to save my constituents and the whole of London from that second spike?
Travel corridors are a necessary, albeit blunt, instrument to control covid levels in this country, and I welcome my right hon. Friend’s further announcements today. However, does he agree that differing rules across different parts of the UK are confusing and awkward for both passengers and tourist industries?
I do accept that this adds to some confusion for people, but none the less, we respect the settlement that is in place. It is important, though, that we work as four nations as closely as possible together, and I will continue to look for opportunities and ways to do that, including through a lot of information- sharing to enable us, I hope, to come to decisions that confuse people a bit less.
I am surprised that the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Dr Davies) did not welcome the fact that the Transport Secretary is following what was done in Wales in relation to having an islands policy. It is good that devolution is helping each different Administration to learn. Can we, though, have a look—as his hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) said—at the issue of announcements at 4 am on a Thursday, rather than at a time when people can have their travel arrangements in place?
Yes, the usual pattern is in the afternoon on a Thursday with the measures then coming in at 4 am, as the hon. Gentleman says. I understand the point about the changeover date, as I mentioned before, which has to be measured against the question, “If you know there is a problem, is it right to wait and allow that problem to develop?” But it is a judgment call and I am not going to pretend otherwise. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), I will certainly be reflecting on this further.
Thousands of international travellers used to come into the country via HS1 before the virus hit. Now HS1 is in a perilous position, with both Ebbsfleet and Ashford stations closed until at least 2021. Given the Department’s commitment to high-speed rail, would the Secretary of State or one of his team care to meet HS1, Eurostar and me to try to resolve this serious situation?
Yes, it is a concern that those stations are closed until 2021, and I would be very happy, with the Rail Minister, to have that meeting. It is extremely concerning and is, again, another sign of how all-encompassing the fight against this virus—it is not over yet—actually is. I will make sure that the meeting is set up.
Birmingham Attacks and Extinction Rebellion Protests
Before I call Minister Kit Malthouse to make a statement, I should remind right hon. and hon. Members that a person has been arrested in connection with the Birmingham attacks and that they should take care not to say anything that might prejudice the trial. It may also be helpful to tell the House that, given that this statement covers two issues, I will run it for up to 90 minutes.
By your leave, Madam Deputy Speaker, before making a statement on the Extinction Rebellion protests, I want to say how shocked and deeply saddened both I and the Home Secretary are by the incident in Birmingham in the early hours of Sunday. Our thoughts are with the families and victims of this appalling attack. The police have made a number of arrests overnight and it therefore would not be appropriate for me to comment further on what is an ongoing investigation. I am in contact with the chief constable, and the Home Office stands ready to support the force in any way it needs. Just a few hours after the incident, a man sadly lost his life following a stabbing in Lewisham, and we have also seen a serious shooting incident in Suffolk this morning.
I want to reiterate before the House that this Government are absolutely committed to tackling violent crime in all its forms. We have increased police funding, provided surge funds for those forces most affected by violent crime, and set up violence reduction units to identify those at risk and to intervene early. We will do everything in our power to tackle violent crime and prevent more senseless loss of life.
On Friday night, Extinction Rebellion protesters used trucks and bamboo scaffolds to block roads outside the newsprinters works at Broxbourne, Hertfordshire and Knowsley, near Liverpool. These presses print The Sun, The Times, The Sun on Sunday and The Sunday Times, as well as The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Mail, The Mail on Sunday and the London Evening Standard. The police reacted quickly on Friday night, arrested around 80 people nationally and worked throughout Saturday to clear the sites completely. In Broxbourne, approximately 100 protesters were reported to be in attendance. Assistance from neighbouring forces was required, with work long into the early hours to ease the disruption. Fifty-one protesters were arrested for public nuisance and subsequently charged with obstruction of the highway. They were taken to three custody suites in Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and London. Disruption concluded by midday on Saturday. All main roads remained open, including the nearby A10. However, there was disruption to the distribution of newspapers as well as for local businesses.
In Knowsley, a group of 30 protesters were reported to be in attendance alongside 10 observers, one legal adviser and one police liaison individual. Thirty protesters were arrested, with disruption concluding by 10.45 the next morning. These protesters were subsequently charged with aggravated trespass and bailed to appear before magistrates at a later date. Twenty-four protesters also attended a print works in Motherwell, Lanarkshire in Scotland. In this instance there was no disruption caused and no arrests were made.
A free press is the cornerstone of a British society. The freedom to publish without fear or favour, to inform the public, to scrutinise our institutions and to stimulate debate on events that affect each and every one of us is indispensable. The actions of Extinction Rebellion were a direct challenge to this freedom and the values of liberty and tolerance that we hold dear. Extinction Rebellion claims to be an environmental campaign group, yet that worthy cause is undermined by its tactics. Its actions show that it is not interested in purely peaceful protest, dialogue and debate. Instead, it seeks to impose its view through this kind of direct action.
The right to peaceful protest is a fundamental tool of civic expression and will never be curtailed by the Government. Equally, it is unacceptable for groups such as XR to hide behind the guise of protest while committing criminal acts that prevent law-abiding citizens from going about their lives. All of us will remember the disruption caused last year as the group blocked roads and major transport routes. Police forces across the country were forced to divert resources away from tackling other crime in order to oversee those occupations. It is a terrible shame to see those counterproductive tactics revived in the midst of a pandemic, when we are only just recovering from the profound disruption of lockdown. Throughout the pandemic, our police officers have been on the streets every day working to keep the public safe and to stop the spread of coronavirus. In placing unnecessary pressure on our emergency services, the actions of the protesters are contemptuous not only of the police but of the public whom they seek to protect.
The irony is that the United Kingdom is already doing more to tackle climate change and decarbonise our economy than almost any other nation on earth. The UK is the first major economy to legislate to end our contribution to climate change by 2050. Since 2000, we have decarbonised our economy faster than any other G20 country. The Prime Minister has set up two Cabinet Committees focused on tackling climate change—one for strategy and another for implementation—discussing how Departments can go further and faster in meeting our legally binding 2050 net zero target. We are also hosting the next UN climate change conference, COP26, which will take place in November in Glasgow. It would be far more productive if, rather than plotting disruption and chaos, those behind Extinction Rebellion put their efforts into working with the Government to tackle climate change and build the green economy. While they persist in their current course, however, our message to those individuals is clear: if you plan to curtail our freedoms through criminal acts, be in no doubt that you will face the full force of the law. As a Government, we will not stand by and allow the livelihoods of hard-working people to be undermined by a minority using the pretence of tackling climate change to impose an extremist world view.
Extinction Rebellion’s actions have shown how the tactics of disruptive protests are changing. The Home Office has been engaging with police chiefs to understand the challenges they face and to assess how they can facilitate peaceful protest while not causing significant disruption and infringing on the rights of others with differing views. The Home Secretary and I are committed to learning the lessons of recent protests and ensuring that the police have the powers required to deal with the disruption caused by groups such as XR. I will keep the tools available to tackle this behaviour under constant review. As always, our thanks go to the police for their tireless efforts to respond to all manner of incidents, and particularly at this time when so many have worked so hard during the pandemic. I hope that the leaders of Extinction Rebellion will issue an apology to them for actions that have been roundly condemned by all mainstream opinion in our country.
By its actions this weekend, XR has done nothing to bolster the cause of fighting climate change. Rather, it has reminded us of the value of a free press and free expression and made us think about what more we may need to do to protect those freedoms. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Minister for his statement and for advance sight of it. I will first turn to the awful events that took place in the early hours of yesterday in Birmingham. This terrible attack in our second largest city was an absolute tragedy. A young 23-year-old man lost his life, two people—a 19-year-old man and a 32-year-old women—suffered critical injuries, and a further five people were injured. Our thoughts are with the family and friends of the man who was killed and all those injured in this senseless attack as well as those affected by other violent incidents in Lewisham and Suffolk, to which the Minister referred.
Like the Minister, I pay tribute to the first responders and emergency services who were on the scene rapidly to attend to the injured. They acted with dedication and bravery, and we are all grateful to them.
I would also like to pay tribute to the people of Birmingham. The police and crime commissioner for the west midlands, David Jamieson, told me this morning how calmly people were getting on with their business, despite this tragedy. That is a testament to the spirit of the people of Birmingham and the hard work of the local police to keep them safe. I also want to thank officers from surrounding forces in Lincolnshire and Staffordshire, who came to the city to help police locally and provide reassurance.
As the Minister said, this incident is the subject of an ongoing investigation, so we must not jump to any conclusions or prejudice any potential investigation or conviction. However, whenever such an incident occurs, there are of course serious questions that must be asked. What was known about the suspect, and when, prior to arrest? What systems were in place to respond to such incidents, and what systems would prevent such an incident from occurring again? As the picture becomes clearer, it is vital that these questions are answered and that any lessons are learned going forward.
More generally, all Members of the House will be deeply concerned about the wider rise in violent crime that we are seeing. As the former chair of the all-party parliamentary group on knife crime and violence reduction, I am all too aware of the seriousness of this issue. I know that West Midlands police, along with David Jamieson, the PCC, is taking this very seriously, and the violence reduction unit is doing some great preventive work in the west midlands. Does the Minister accept that over the past decade we have seen knife crime rise in every police force area in England and Wales, and that easing lockdown restrictions poses particular challenges? Does he further accept that rising violent crime must be urgently addressed?
Turning to the matter of Extinction Rebellion, I trust that the Minister will agree with me, rather than with some members of his own party, in recognising that tackling climate change is the challenge of our generation. However, we also know that the free press is the cornerstone of democracy, and we must do all we can to protect it. Actions that stop people being able to read what they choose are therefore wrong. They will do nothing to tackle climate change. Those who break the law should be held to account. As the Leader of the Opposition said over the weekend, the actions of those who deliberately set out to break the law and stifle freedom of the press are completely unacceptable. Stopping people being able to buy the newspapers they choose and hitting small businesses in the process is hugely counterproductive. It does nothing to tackle the vital cause of tackling climate change. In fact, it sets it back.
On the policing response to the incidents, can the Minister confirm whether the authorities had any intelligence that these incidents might occur? Today in the media, new laws have been mentioned by the Home Secretary. Can the Minister confirm what aspects of our current public order laws he believes are inadequate? Will he also confirm which aspects of the Coronavirus Act 2020 dealing with gatherings he believes leave gaps? Does he agree that we should not forget the many people who are concerned about climate change who wish to peacefully and lawfully protest, and that that right should be protected?
Climate change is one of the biggest challenges that this generation faces, and I am sure that many colleagues across the House have had the same experience as me. Whenever I go into a school, it is the children who want to talk about climate change and who cannot understand why we have not done more to tackle this existential crisis. The Government must do all they can to drive climate change up the agenda, and on this we will hold them to account.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her remarks and her thanks to the police, which are very welcome, and also for clearing up a little confusion about the Opposition line on the XR protests. Her unequivocal support for the rule of law is very welcome. As for her questions, obviously there will be lessons to learn from the Birmingham attack. As with all these unusual events—and it is an unusual event, thankfully—there will be lots of analyses done post event and post the case that may be brought, if there are charges to be brought. We will then use our general networks and work in the Home Office to try to promote them in similar police forces.
It is gratifying, as the hon. Lady pointed out, both with regard to that incident and with the protests in mind, that police forces have honed their ability to co-operate and provide mutual aid to each other very swiftly. Much of that has come out of the covid preparedness work to make sure we are able to deploy large numbers of police officers across the country if and when we need to. Certainly the response of neighbouring forces around Birmingham and Hertfordshire over the weekend was gratifying and very welcome.
In terms of the hon. Lady’s specific questions, the intelligence picture is not entirely clear. The fact that the disruption was successful would indicate that there was not a police presence there to prevent the intervention. No doubt there will be questions asked about how intelligence around these protests can be improved. As part of that work, we will be looking at the tactics deployed by the protesters, not least the gluing on and locking on. That is a new phenomenon of the past couple of years, which has required the police to develop specialist teams and techniques, paradoxically using quite unpleasant chemicals to get people unglued. We will ensure that the police have got exactly the tools they need, from a legal and practical point of view, to deal with these kinds of problems swiftly.
Finally, I reassure the hon. Lady that we absolutely believe that peaceful protest is a key freedom and a key part of our way of life in this country, and we will do everything we can to protect it, but that also means protecting those who have different views from a protest group and ensuring that they can express their views, whether that is through the pages of The Daily Telegraph or, indeed, on the streets. Making sure that we have a sense of order around protest and debate in this country is critical to our freedom in the future.
Would it be possible for us to release some of the pressure on the police and the courts by, when people are arrested for breaking the law, such as blocking the highway in some of these riots, removing them from that place, giving them a fixed penalty notice and telling them that it might appear if a background check is done on them in the future, although it might not be a criminal matter? That seems to me to be something that might help, but I am no expert—the Minister is. What does he say about that?