Delegated Legislation Committee
Draft Immigration (Health Charge) (Amendment) Order 2020
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Mr Laurence Robertson
† Anderson, Stuart (Wolverhampton South West) (Con)
† Baker, Duncan (North Norfolk) (Con)
† Carmichael, Mr Alistair (Orkney and Shetland) (LD)
† Cates, Miriam (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Con)
† Elmore, Chris (Ogmore) (Lab)
† Foster, Kevin (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
† Griffith, Andrew (Arundel and South Downs) (Con)
† Lewer, Andrew (Northampton South) (Con)
† Lynch, Holly (Halifax) (Lab)
† McDonald, Stuart C. (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (SNP)
† Mohindra, Mr Gagan (South West Hertfordshire) (Con)
† Moore, Damien (Southport) (Con)
† Owatemi, Taiwo (Coventry North West) (Lab)
† Pursglove, Tom (Corby) (Con)
† Ribeiro-Addy, Bell (Streatham) (Lab)
† Sturdy, Julian (York Outer) (Con)
† Whitley, Mick (Birkenhead) (Lab)
Huw Yardley, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Tenth Delegated Legislation Committee
Tuesday 22 September 2020
[Mr Laurence Robertson in the Chair]
Draft Immigration (Health Charge) (Amendment) Order 2020
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Health Charge) (Amendment) Order 2020.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. The immigration health charge was introduced in April 2015. Its aim was to ensure that temporary migrants—those with a limited period of leave in the United Kingdom—made a direct contribution to the NHS services available to them during their leave, subject to some specific exemptions.
The charge is currently paid by non-European Economic Area migrants who apply for a visa of more than six months’ duration. It also applies if they wish to extend their stay in the UK for a further defined period, although those who receive indefinite leave to remain do not need to make the payment once they have achieved ILR. The charge is paid up front as part of the immigration application process, and is separate from the visa fee.
From their point of arrival in the UK, a charge payer can access the comprehensive range of services that the NHS provides in broadly the same manner as permanent residents of the UK—that is without having made any prior tax or national insurance contributions. They pay only the charges that a UK resident would pay, such as prescription charges in England. They may also be charged for assisted conception services within England. To date, the charge has raised more than £1.5 billion for the NHS. That income is shared between the health administrations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, using the formula devised by Lord Barnett, with which Members will be familiar.
Under the new points-based system, which comes into force on 1 January 2021, all migrants to the UK will be treated the same. They will pay the charge if staying for longer than six months, unless exemptions, such as being eligible for the health and care visa, apply. The Government recognise the value and importance of migration to the UK. We welcome talented individuals and the contribution they make to our economy, our communities and our public services. However, it is right that migrants contribute to the comprehensive and high-quality NHS services available to them from the moment they arrive.
This draft order amends schedule 1 to the Immigration (Health Charge) Order 2015. In line with the Government’s manifesto commitment, it will increase the annual amount of the charge to a level broadly reflecting the cost of treating those who pay it. The Department of Health and Social Care has estimated that the cost to the NHS of treating charge payers in England is roughly £625 per person, based on analysis carried out in April 2019 using 2017-18 NHS England data. However, to support the administration of the charge, the new level is set at £624 to make it easier to divide.
In reaching the figure that the Government now bring forward, what account has been taken, especially for those renewing their visas, of the tax and national insurance contribution made by those working in our economy?
To be clear, the eligibility for the charge is based on the immigration status, rather than what tax or national insurance people have paid. We were clear in our manifesto, which was firmly endorsed in the December general election, that we would base it on the average cost of treating charge payers. Of course, when they come to achieve indefinite leave to remain, they are no longer liable to pay the charge. As I say, it is subject to the £1 discount, because £624 is more divisible than £625.
A quick question: is the working for the £624 estimate available anywhere? I cannot see where to find it.
My understanding is that that has been published, but I will certainly be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the Committee with more details about how the DHSC arrived at that figure.
Students, dependants of students and youth mobility scheme applicants will continue to pay the discounted rate, which will increase from £300 to £470 per person. The Government are aware that the charge has a greater financial impact on family groups than on individual applicants. To support families, therefore, the charge for children under 18 at the date of application will also be set at £470, in line with the discounted rate set for students and the youth mobility scheme.
In specifying the new amount of the charge, the Government have considered a range of health services available without charge to those given immigration permission to be within the United Kingdom, and, as I have touched on already, have considered the cost to the NHS across the four nations of treating those who pay the charge. Also considered is the valuable contribution that migrants make to our economy and the need to ensure that the UK remains an attractive destination for global talent.
I turn to the exemption for tier 2 health and care visa applicants. On 21 May, the Prime Minister asked the Home Office and the Department of Health and Social Care to work together to exempt NHS and health and care workers from the immigration health charge. Consequently, this order amends schedule 2 to the principal order to provide exemption for tier 2 (general) health and care visa applicants and their dependants.
The tier 2 (general) health and care visa was launched on 4 August, and a large number of applications were received and permissions granted. It is a fast-track visa offer with a reduced application fee for eligible health professionals, including doctors, nurses and allied health workers. It covers not only people working in the NHS directly but those working for organisations commissioned by the NHS to provide essential services and those in the relevant professions who work in the adult social care sector, which is the basis of their application and their visa. Until a formal exemption is in place for that group, the Secretary of State has waived the requirement for them to pay the health charge.
It might be helpful to explain how the current system of immigration works in the United Kingdom. At the moment, it is not possible to get a visa under the rest of the world system for some of the jobs that the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned. Those coming to the United Kingdom to work in those roles do so under either the European economic area free movement rights, which continue until 31 December, when immigration permission and the immigration health surcharge will not be relevant, or they will have come to the UK with permission—as a dependant of a skilled worker, for example, although not a health and care worker, who will be covered by the visa offer—and have a more generic right of work in the United Kingdom that is not tied to working within the health and social care sector. Those who come with a specific job offer under the health and care visa, however, go straight into employment. That is why we will look at the refund scheme. Colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care are working on that.
As we bring in the new system on 1 January, a much wider range of skills will be recognised, including, for example, senior care workers who, at the moment, cannot get a visa under tier 2, but will qualify under the new points-based system from 1 January. Again, we will look to expand who will be eligible in the health and care sector. People will not be tied to a specific job offer. There will be a general permission to work in the United Kingdom’s economy in any role. Again, we need to make sure that we have a route to support the NHS and social care, not a way to avoid an immigration charge.
Tier 2 migrants who have paid the health charge on or after 31 March 2020, but who would have qualified for the new health and care visa had it been in operation, are being refunded. Those who work in the NHS and wider health and care sector and who paid the charge on or after 31 March, but who do not qualify for the health and care visa and have a general ability to work in the UK, which I have just touched on, may also be eligible for reimbursement of the charge that they paid.
On 15 July, the Minister for Health announced that the reimbursement would be paid in arrears of six-month increments, and the scheme will be launched next month. More details on the scheme will be published by the Department of Health and Social Care shortly. Given the queries that have been raised, I am sure it will be read with interest by members of the Committee.
Those who move to a new country expect to pay towards healthcare. In many countries they are required to do so by securing private health insurance or by direct charges when they become unwell or need to access healthcare, yet here in the UK they can access our fantastic NHS, if necessary, from when they arrive.
The health charge is designed to benefit the NHS and support its long-term sustainability. Those NHS and other health and social care workers who are granted visas to work specifically in those roles are doing that through the important contribution that they make in their work. They are exempt from the payment, and those who contribute to the work once they have arrived, but whose right to work in the UK is not tied to the sector, will have the payment reimbursed. However, it is only right and fair that people arriving in the UK to work in non-healthcare roles should pay towards the extensive and high quality range of NHS services available to them in the United Kingdom until they are permanently settled here in the UK.
That is a point that the electorate agreed with in the December general election. When we debated the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill, we had the debate that we expected. The Scottish National party set out its principled objection to the charge, and I outlined why the Government believe it is right. We heard from others that they were making their minds up on what the policy should be. In commending the orders to the Committee, I look forward to getting more clarity about whether the approach is the right one—yes or no.
Thank you ever so much, Mr Robertson; it is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship. I thank the Minister, in the main, for his opening remarks on the statutory instrument. It will not come as a surprise to him that we shall oppose it. Before I discuss the reasons for that, I shall take the opportunity to flag up some concerns about version control. Because of the previous publication of the SI on 19 March, superseded by the later one taking account of the health and care visa, I think I have seen two versions of the SI and, if I am not mistaken, three versions of the accompanying explanatory memorandum.
I know how hard the Table Office staff and the Clerks work, but those documents have been circulated in various combinations, and even this morning when I asked for the latest copy at the Table Office I was provided with the version published on 19 March. I just ask the Minister to consider ensuring that the Opposition have all the information we need to do our jobs properly. It would certainly assist us in the constructive dialogue that we need to engage in on important measures such as this order.
I turn to the order itself. We cannot support the increase in the health surcharge at a time when access to healthcare is essential, in the middle of a global public health crisis. We need fewer barriers to healthcare, not more. That is particularly true in relation to those already in the UK. Also, the detail of the Government’s proposals to exempt health and care workers from the fees falls a long way short of what was promised.
The Minister referred to the discussion in the Committee that considered the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Bill; he and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East, will no doubt recall much of the discussion with great fondness. However, to keep tightly to debating the SI, there is a theme of measures that do not reflect the spirit of “clap for key workers” and the genuine gratitude that we feel to those on the frontline. Many of those we are landing with an increased bill will be in lower-paid but essential work as part of those efforts.
We welcome the intention in the SI to exempt from the fees those who plan to come to the UK on the future health and care visa. We passionately made that case, and the fees were described as “appalling, immoral and monstrous” by Lord Patten, a former Conservative party chairman.
The explanatory memorandum states:
“There has been strong support for those working in health and social care to be exempt from paying the Immigration Health Charge.”
That is precisely the point—that for those currently working in health and social care the SI does little to remove the burden of the health surcharge fees. It fails to offer automatic exemption from the immigration health surcharge for migrants currently working in health and social care. Migrant workers still have to pay it, and have been promised a refund only down the line. We hear about significant variations in how long it takes people to get their money back from the Home Office. Some doctors I have spoken to have stated that they have had reimbursements only after sending multiple emails to the Home Office, many of which went ignored.
The refund approach is an excessively bureaucratic measure that illustrates the disconnect between policy makers and health workers. Like everyone working in healthcare right now, migrant workers continue to face those stresses on a daily basis while their own lives are on the line to help us to combat coronavirus. Within the care sector in particular, many of those key workers are on salaries that do not begin to reflect the immense contribution and value that their work provides for us all. The statutory instrument should be clear that all those working in health and social care are exempt and simply do not have to pay the fee.
The Prime Minister’s pledge on 21 May to abolish the immigration health surcharge for health and care staff as soon as possible was met with excitement and praise. Yet the prospect for many migrant workers of still having to pay an increased fee and face the exact same financial difficulties that they were experiencing before the announcement seems an incredibly unfair and unnecessary way of going about it. I will share the experiences of some real-life migrant NHS and social care workers to make that very point.
Mary is a healthcare assistant and a Unison member from Nigeria. She and her care worker husband work all hours possible to provide for their three children, aged 13, nine and three. Owing to their immigration status and having no recourse to public funds, the family is not eligible for any state aid, free school meals or child benefit. Despite that, Mary, her husband and her three children have all had to pay the immigration health surcharge individually and have not been told by the Home Office when they will receive a refund. When the increase comes into effect, that will only get worse for families such as Mary’s.
Helen is a nurse from the Philippines, working on a tier 2 visa. She came to the country two and half years ago on a hospital-sponsored three-year visa. She is currently on maternity leave expecting her second child, and is faced with the burden of paying the visa charges for herself, her husband and their children, including for the baby once it is born. The family have had to downsize to a one-bedroom property to be able to afford to pay the immigration health surcharge, despite the Prime Minister’s announcement. Like many, the family also has no recourse to public funds, so receives no free school meals or child benefit.
I have already raised in the House the story of Dr Ahmed Bani Sadara, originally from Pakistan. He had to pay the surcharge for his new-born daughter twice in a year—first, when she was born and again when he changed his role six months later within the NHS, in addition to paying the surcharge again for himself and his wife. We implore the Government to listen to those individual case studies and to devise a solution that offers immediate exemption of the immigration health surcharge for all migrants working in the NHS and social care.
The absence of such an exemption is just one reason why we cannot sign off on the increases. The current initiative does not work for people, and I am sceptical about whether it works for the Government or the Home Office either. Can the Minister share a sense of the administrative cost to the Home Office of issuing refunds in that way? Beyond the delivery of the exemption, we are concerned that the eligibility does not reflect the spirit of what was promised. All staff within the NHS and social care sector have played a front-line role during this crisis. Everyone from specialists in intensive care, allied health professionals, nurses and hospital porters have collectively pulled together, and as such should all be recognised for their herculean efforts.
Labour believes that every migrant worker in the NHS and social care sector should be exempt from the immigration health surcharge; however, on 15 July, the Minister told the House that only those who qualify for the new tier 2 visa will be eligible for automatic exemption, and that other health and care workers would qualify for the refund only if they had worked in the NHS for six months. The Government have failed to clarify how the refund will work in practice.
I heard the Minister say that colleagues in the Health team will provide some clarity, but it would have been incredibly valuable to have had that prior to discussing the SI. Paragraph 7.11 of its most recent explanatory memorandum merely promises the publication of another reimbursement scheme in due course. That is clearly a million miles away from what the Prime Minister promised, so we hope that the Minister can be clear with the Committee when that will be published and what the mechanism will be for delivering it.
The Minister will be aware that we face a clinical skills shortage in the NHS. Until there is a successful domestic training programme, that shortage cannot be resolved without migrant medical staff. Yet Government policy still acts punitively towards those vital workers. The UK has a world-beating system, I am afraid, for discouraging skilled migrants, which in turn threatens to compromise the quality of our public services at the time when we need them the most. The immigration specialist law firm Fragomen carried out international comparison analysis and found that out of 119 countries only the UK required an advance yearly fee payable upfront in one lump sum to the relevant country’s Government, as the SI does.
We place a significant financial burden on applicants, due to the payment of lump sums such as the immigration health surcharge. The Government should look to abate the up-front costs and could do so by making it possible for the IHS to be paid in yearly or six-month increments, rather than in one lump sum at the outset; again, that applies particularly to those who are already here.
Beyond the implications for healthcare workers, Labour rejects the proposed increase in the IHS from £400 to £624, and the rise from £300 to £470 for the discounted rates more broadly. Right now, people are in more vulnerable and precarious work than ever before—people with families, who could be key workers, who have come to the UK for good jobs, worked hard and paid into the system face uncertainty in the workplace, as almost everyone does right now.
To ramp up the costs for those who are already here, who might be changing jobs and who have to apply for a change of sponsor so that they have to pay the fees again, whether or not they will be reimbursed, and find the extra money to access healthcare, when the financial outlook is more precarious than it has ever been, is simply not the responsible thing to do in the middle of a public health crisis. It is wrong to increase the surcharge during this time, and it will further increase the financial burdens faced by lower paid migrants. Let us remind ourselves that they could include those working on farms and in shops, keeping shelves stocked and food on our tables.
This statutory instrument represents one step forward and two steps back for migrants in the UK. We agree that future tier 2 visa applicants should be exempt from the immigration health surcharge, yet the decision to make current healthcare and social care workers pay the fee and be refunded down the line is illogical and harmful, with some of them still missing out all together in the long term.
We would also welcome much greater clarity from the Government on who will be eligible in the future for exemption, and we make the case once again that the exemption must be extended to all healthcare and social care workers, as well as their dependents. We oppose the rise in the immigration health surcharge for all other migrants to the UK. At the start of the pandemic, the Chancellor stated that we are all in this together, but measures such as this SI suggest that some people are more in it than others. As a consequence, Labour will vote against it.
The Minister referred to some of the discussions that we had at the Committee stage of the Immigration Bill. He knows that what I said then was that Labour is engaging in a huge amount of work to make sure that we have a radically different approach to immigration in the future. Of course, there are cost implications, and we are not in a position just yet to outline all of them the Minister, but he knows that work is under way and I look forward to sharing the results of it with him in the not-too-distant future.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Robertson; it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair. I also thank the Minister for his introduction to the debate.
I echo the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Halifax regarding the miscommunication about which statutory instrument we are debating today, because there was a chance that if I had missed an email this morning, I would have come here with absolutely no idea at all that we were discussing the healthcare workforce. Such things do not happen very often, but it is important to try to make sure that we learn from them and put in place processes to stop them from happening again.
Nevertheless, we are where we are, and of course I absolutely agree that NHS workers should not pay the health surcharge. It is welcome that the Government have moved some way towards what campaigners and the Opposition have been saying in that regard. However, for the reasons outlined by the hon. Member for Halifax, there is still further to go. We also welcome the fact that in this draft SI, children will be charged at a reduced rate—basically a frozen rate—instead of the full increased rate. If the Government were to bring back an SI with those features alone, then fine. However, if my amendments to the Immigration Bill had been accepted, no NHS worker would have to pay the health charge and no child would have to pay the health charge, because it would have been scrapped all together. So no teacher, firefighter, shop worker or distribution worker would have had to pay it either.
That is because, as the Minister alluded to, we as a party object much more fundamentally to this monstrous fee. We object on a point of principle, we continue to oppose the charge and we certainly oppose the 50% increase that is being pushed through today. An exemption for one group of workers cannot be justified by whacking thousands of pounds in extra charges on all sorts of other workers. I do not need to repeat everything I said on this topic during the passage of the Immigration Bill, but in short we regard this surcharge not as a charge at all, but as a double tax. It is also a poll tax, and an extortionate one at that.
The fact that this charge is a double tax is confirmed absolutely by the impact assessment that all Members received with their other papers. Deep in annex four, there is reference to the many thousands of pounds that the migrants subject to this charge contribute in the form of direct and indirect taxes every year, and those thousands of pounds dwarf the estimate of the cost of providing them with NHS care that the Minister referred to. That same impact assessment says, in its “key assumptions” section,
“This analysis looks at the impact on the health costs of migration, without considering the scope to offset these costs with fiscal revenue raised from migrants (e.g. income tax).”
In short, we are handing out a bill for the average cost of treating people on the NHS, but not giving those people any credit for the taxes they pay. Anyone wanting to apply a degree of fairness would take into account the tax that people are paying.
The question then arises: why are the Government sticking to just an NHS charge? I share the views of the chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, who told the Select Committee on Home Affairs that he did not think that made sense. Why not have a policing surcharge, a transport surcharge and an education surcharge, so that migrants are contributing to all those services as well? The answer, of course, is that they already pay tax for those services. Exactly the same principle should apply in relation to the NHS. This charge is a poll tax, because an international celebrity coming to work here on a multi-million-pound salary will make precisely the same contribution as a junior doctor coming to shore up the NHS, and it is particularly brutal in its application to families for whom Britain is home and who get put on the 10-year road to settlement. Kids who have known no other country will have this fee levied against them year after year for a decade.
Finally, I have a couple of requests of the Minister. I say again that we urgently need to see analysis of the impact of extending the surcharge to EEA nationals. We should have seen that when the immigration Bill was being debated, and we certainly should have seen it before today, before we started discussing increasing the fee that the Government want to extend to EEA nationals. As of next year, if a business in my constituency wants to employ somebody from Germany or Italy, they are going to have to pay thousands of pounds in health fees to recruit that person, whereas a business in Ireland or Denmark will not have to pay a penny. That is going to have a profound effect on my constituents, never mind the people of Northern Ireland. Businesses there will have rival companies just a few miles down the road that will be able to recruit people from all across Europe free of charge, yet we are going to be levying fees of thousands and thousands of pounds on those people. We need to know what assessment the Government have made of the impact of that.
The Minister alluded today, as he has before, to the argument that the surcharge is comparable to the cost of health insurance in other countries. Of course, it is fair that people going to countries with insurance-based systems pay in the same way as citizens of those countries, in a way that is related to their income. However, as the hon. Member for Halifax has also pointed out, I have seen absolutely no evidence that they are charged anything that remotely resembles the UK double poll tax on top. Again, I rather suspect that apples are being compared with oranges. The impact assessment also refers to “internal analysis by DHSC” to justify the assertion of competitiveness; I would like to see that too. Where is this DHSC research into how this operates in other countries? In short, there is a lack of fairness and a lack of transparency behind these proposals, and we in the Scottish National party continue to oppose them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. First of all, I associate myself with a number of the arguments that we have heard, particularly those made by the hon. Member for Halifax about the inappropriateness of bringing forward an increase in this charge at this time and in the circumstances of the global covid pandemic. To pick up the point made by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East towards the end of his speech, the lack of proper underpinning analysis to justify the figure is something that should make us all pause for consideration. It is not good enough for the Government to pluck a figure out of the air, as seems to have been the case here, and bring it forward in the way they have done.
The Minister perhaps has a fair point when he says that anybody stepping off a boat or a plane has immediate access to care on the NHS, but the longer that person is here, the less relevant that case becomes. Of course, as the Minister himself made clear in his contribution, this charge applies to not only those who are just arriving, but those who have been here for a number of years and are seeking to renew their visas. I am afraid that it also conforms to a pattern that we have seen before, whereby this Government seem to view visa application fees as some sort of extra cash cow—another little bonus for the Treasury. The actual application processing cost of a tier 2 visa is something in the region of £317, but the fee paid by the person making the application is £704, so we see that the Government are creaming off something in excess of 50% of the fee as pure profit—nice work if you can get it, I am inclined to say.
Let me put that into the broader context of the contribution made by those who, having come here, work in our economy. Let us be honest, that is why most people come to this country: to work and to contribute to our community. The work by Oxford Economics for the Migration Advisory Committee concluded that the average non-European economic area national made a net fiscal contribution of £310 per annum more than that of the average UK adult. The same analysis states that the net contribution of an EEA national is some £1,940 greater than that of the average UK adult. That goes to the point that was made by the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East—I wish he had a shorter constituency name—about the lack of underlying analysis and justification for the figure that the Government have brought to the Committee in support of the provisions before us.
Then of course there is the question of those who are exempt from paying the health surcharge. As I said to the Minister, it is of course welcome that healthcare and associated professionals are exempt. I am afraid, however, that it bears no scrutiny to say that when somebody works in the NHS as a cleaner or a porter—doing critical and, sadly, as we have seen in recent months, quite dangerous work—it is somehow too difficult to work out whether they work in our hospitals and care homes. The concessions that have been made are welcome, but it is almost as if they are given grudgingly. Really, I think that all those who contribute to our NHS and its success should be valued more highly than that, and are entitled to expect better for the contribution that they make to our NHS and our community in both the work they do and the financial contributions they make.
We heard the Minister talk about the rebate system, but yet again, it is being offered without any clear timeline. When will we see the details of that rebate system? Again, tabling an instrument such as this without having that detail is, I would suggest, a case of putting the cart before the horse.
The instrument is part of a bigger picture. About one in seven people who work in the NHS are foreign nationals —some 36,000 doctors, 59,000 nurses and 40,000 clinical support staff. Meanwhile, one in six of the adult social care workforce is a foreign national; that is 249,000 care workers who are not given the benefit of the exemption given to the professionals in the NHS. That is the number of people who will be affected by this approach to migration.
The instrument tabled by the Government, although it is being considered by the Committee and done through delegated legislation, is not a matter of detail or a minor accounting adjustment. It reflects a quite fundamentally objectionable principle that states that the people who help us most seem to be valued least. That is why, in the event that the Committee divides today, I shall oppose the instrument.
I want to associate myself with the remarks of the three previous speakers, particularly those of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax, because I believe that, overall, immigration surcharges are based on a series of falsehoods.
First, the statutory instrument claims that the order will increase the amount of charge to cover the full cost of use. As a flat charge on all visitors or temporary residents, it is not at all related to use. Some might require no NHS support at all, while others might require substantial NHS assistance, and increasing the surcharge during a pandemic is potentially a disastrous false economy, so I do not know why we are discussing this.
This statutory instrument is also premised on the false notion that the NHS is overwhelmed by health tourism. Despite various Ministers making that claim over a number of different years, they have yet to provide the evidence. On the contrary, according to the Department of Health’s own estimates, the sums are tiny in relation to the overall health budget, which I believe is £140 billion in England alone. In the past few months, the Government have wasted millions on a failed tracing system, faulty face masks, unsafe testing kits and useless antibody tests.
Despite the false claims, it should be clear that that is just another part of the hostile environment policy which, in this case, is used to support the false assertion that the severe problem in the NHS is due to the demand from overseas visitors, when that is simply not so. The truth is that the NHS is underfunded, has health staff shortages—something that could be resolved by allowing more migrants to work in the NHS—and has been starved of funds by outsourcing and privatisation. Those are all Government policies, so I will oppose this statutory instrument.
I thank the members of the Committee for their valuable contributions.
I will start with the comments of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. I was pleased to hear him say that it was a fair point that, when someone steps off a plane, they need to have access to the NHS if they have the type of immigration permissions that we are discussing today. That is why the measure was introduced under the coalition. To reassure him, given his comments on wider charges in the immigration system, the fundamental charging criteria are still pretty much what they were back in 2014, when agreed during his own time in Government.
To come on to some of the wider points made, the first by both the SNP and Labour spokespersons, any confusion in the supply of the explanatory memorandum is concerning. I am certainly more than happy to pick that up through my private office. When we lay statutory instruments, I am also more than happy to ensure that copies of relevant documents are sent directly to hon. Members. I am conscious that an important part of scrutiny is to have those documents easily to hand, without having to rely on the Table Office. I will ensure that that is actioned.
I will also clarify a couple of comments made on the pandemic by the hon. Member for Halifax. To be clear, anyone who needs treatment for covid-19 may approach the NHS for it. Across the United Kingdom, there is no charge for that, and whether people are able to access treatment does not in any way relate to their immigration status. As I said in the Chamber in response to a question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), information supplied to the NHS will not immediately be supplied to immigration enforcement. Our priority is to ensure that people feel they can approach the NHS in this country if they have symptoms of covid-19, regardless of whether they have lawful immigration status or are undocumented. I wish to very clear on that point.
I will go into some of the other issues raised. To be fair to the hon. Member for Halifax, she was specific in her wording, probably for a reason, that other countries do not require payment to the “relevant Government”—the exact words used. That rather misses the point about the situation in other countries. We all know the situation in the United States of America, where a payment may not be required to the US Government, but in reality people take a risk with their own health and of potentially crippling medical bills if they do not have medical insurance. Thankfully, we do not have such surcharges for people living here in the United Kingdom, and never will. Talking about no payment to the Government also misses the fact that to get the type of cover provided by the NHS here, people have to spend a significant amount of money. That is true in other countries, such as New Zealand, which requires foreign fee-paying students to hold acceptable medical and travel insurance as a condition of their visa. They do not have to pay the Government, but they do have to buy something specific. In addition, they still have to pay for GP practice consultations, which would be free here in the UK.
That was a series of points about the fact that the way we ask people to make that fee—up front, in advance and in one lump sum to the Government—is very unusual. Even comparing it with insurance, which is slightly different but it is the point that the Minister is making, I would imagine there would be different payment plans to make it a bit more manageable for people if that financial contribution, up front and in one go, is a challenge and a barrier to healthcare. Can he reflect on that point?
Again, some of those costs are up front, then followed up by having to pay for healthcare treatment. One thing that is unusual and which is really good about this country is the level of free-at-point-of-need healthcare that we have across the nations of the United Kingdom, dating back to 1948 and the introduction of the NHS. That is not replicated in many other countries, where there is either a social insurance system or there is still co-payment for many areas.
Ireland was another example given and we have had a quick look at the position for someone who has moved there. In my understanding, there is a charge levied more generally, not just on migrants, where people pay €100 if they attend an accident and emergency department without a referral letter from the doctor. Again, we do not have those sorts of charges here and neither will we look to have them. Similarly, there can be charges for being an in-patient in a hospital in Ireland. Again, that would not apply to someone here who has paid the immigration health surcharge or who has indefinite leave to remain and therefore is exempt.
I am happy to have this debate, but I will say two things. First, can we see the analysis that I referred to earlier that the Department of Health and Social Care has done on this point so we can have the debate in full knowledge of that? Secondly, in terms of Ireland, migrants there are being charged on the same basis as local residents, but here people are being asked to pay the tax—as local residents do—and the dreamed-up £600-odd fee, for which we have are yet to understand the full basis.
We are happy to supply how we come to the costings. As we said in our manifesto, it is the cost of treatment to those who are covered by the health charge element. I think the situation is different. We rightly have got a social contract in the UK that those of us who are long-term residents or who have been here for a period of time pay taxes year in, year out. That is not dependent on whether we have been ill and not dependent on how much we have needed to use the NHS; we all pay that fee.
It is not unreasonable to ask those who have moved to the United Kingdom specifically at a point in their lives, who will not necessarily have that long-term payment of tax and other contributions, to make their contribution for the period, as some of them will have limited leave. Then, when they make the commitment that indefinite leave to remain represents—that is, permanent settlement—they become exempt. That has been the basis.
I appreciate that the Scottish National party has a very different view on this particular area despite its having produced £120 million of funding for Scotland’s NHS in its period of operation—and it will continue to produce income for Scotland’s NHS. We believe it is the right approach that when someone has just arrived, they make a payment that reflects the fact that others who have been here—permanent UK residents—have made contributions over a period of time, on average.
I heard the comments by the hon. Member for Streatham. The basis is that some need it more or less. That is, of course, the basis of how the NHS, which is taxpayer funded, works. We would not want to link that to how much someone uses the NHS, although I accept that in other countries people face direct healthcare charges, including those who are permanent residents and sometimes those who may not have built up the level of social insurance payments of a longer-term resident. As for the expression that it is unique to a certain Government, it is certainly not unique for those migrating to other nations to face either up-front charges or the prospect, if they become unwell, of having to find money to fund their treatment. That is a prospect they will not be facing here in the United Kingdom.
As for further details on reimbursement, I mentioned in my speech that the Department of Health and Social Care intends to launch that in October and to publish the figures shortly. That is for those who are not automatically exempt as a result of qualifying for the health and care visa and, similarly, those who are applying to renew their migration status.
The hon. Member for Halifax used the example of how a doctor can seek to apply—if they are on tier 2 —for the health and care visa if their migration status is coming up for renewal. She also made points about when sponsors change. To reassure her, we are looking to make some changes under the new points-based system from 1 January to make it slightly easier for people to move between sponsors if they are doing fundamentally the same job. That also partly responds to legitimate concerns about ensuring that employees are not wholly tied to one employer.
Obviously, the NHS overall is a unique organisation, but if someone is absolutely tied to one employer for their migration status in the United Kingdom, that can present some challenges. We will make it slightly easier for people here in the United Kingdom to move between employers, subject to the workplace role still being fundamentally what their status was based on.
The debate has been a useful opportunity to scrutinise the order. It sounds like, in the Labour party’s immigration policy, I have some Christmas reading to look forward to from the hon. Member for Halifax. I very much recommend that she bases it on the policies the Government put out on 13 July. There will be further details about the new points-based system, which will be a very firm base. The hon. Member for Streatham has her view on whether the immigration health surcharge should in principle be part of the immigration system in the future, and I look forward to hearing the view of the hon. Member for Halifax.
The order is the right approach, based firmly on our manifesto commitment and on reassuring the UK taxpayer that, as a whole, our migration system exists to support our health services and make a contribution to them. I commend the order to the Committee.
That the Committee has considered the draft Immigration (Health Charge) (Amendment) Order 2020.
HEALTH PROTECTION (CORONAVIRUS, RESTRICTIONS) (NO. 2) (ENGLAND) (AMENDMENT) (NO. 3) REGULATIONS 2020 HEALTH PROTECTION (CORONAVIRUS) (RESTRICTIONS ON HOLDING OF GATHERINGS AND AMENDMENT) (ENGLAND) REGULATIONS 2020
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Dr Rupa Huq
† Argar, Edward (Minister for Health)
† Baker, Duncan (North Norfolk) (Con)
Bryant, Chris (Rhondda) (Lab)
Cryer, John (Leyton and Wanstead) (Lab)
† Double, Steve (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
Duffield, Rosie (Canterbury) (Lab)
Jones, Mr Kevan (North Durham) (Lab)
† Longhi, Marco (Dudley North) (Con)
† Morden, Jessica (Newport East) (Lab)
† Norris, Alex (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)
† Randall, Tom (Gedling) (Con)
† Saxby, Selaine (North Devon) (Con)
† Throup, Maggie (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Webb, Suzanne (Stourbridge) (Con)
† Whittaker, Craig (Calder Valley) (Con)
Whittome, Nadia (Nottingham East) (Lab)
† Williams, Craig (Montgomeryshire) (Con)
Kenneth Fox, Anwen Rees, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Sixth Delegated Legislation Committee
Tuesday 22 September 2020
[Dr Rupa Huq in the Chair]
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2020
If Members speak in the debate, will they please email their speaking notes to hansardnotes@ parliament.uk? The Hansard reporters can then turn your contribution into something erudite—which I am sure it will be anyway.
With this, we will consider the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions on Holding of Gatherings and Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 907).
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Dr Huq. I will start by summarising the changes to the regulations. The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) Regulations 2020, which I will refer to as the national regulations for simplicity, were laid on 4 July. There have been five changes to the national regulations, the first of which was debated and approved in both Houses before the summer recess. The second amendment was debated by a Delegated Legislation Committee on 14 September, and today’s debate focuses on the third and fourth amendments to the regulations. As the Minister for Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), set out last week in a Delegated Legislation Committee, the second and third amendments to the national regulations continued to ease business closure restrictions.
To briefly recap, the second amendment to the regulations permitted the reopening of the following businesses and venues from 25 July: indoor swimming pools, including water parks; indoor fitness and dance studios; and indoor gyms, sports courts and associated facilities. Alongside the changes, the Government produced supporting guidance advising that the most high-risk activities within those businesses and venues, such as saunas and steam rooms, should not reopen at that time.
The third amendment to the national regulations allowed the following venues to open from 15 August: bowling alleys; indoor skating rinks; indoor play areas, including soft play areas, with several adjustments advised in guidance, such as the closure and removal of ball pits; casinos; and exhibition halls and conference centres, with guidance advising that this was only to enable Government-endorsed pilots at that time.
Alongside the regulatory changes are a series of non-legislative changes to allow close contact services, including treatments on the face, to resume. They include allowing socially distanced and outdoor performances to take place, pilots for large crowds in sports stadiums and business events, and the relaxation of guidance on wedding and civil partnerships to allow receptions of up to 30 people.
As I have set out, those amendments opened businesses and venues that had been required to close, with covid-secure guidance developed with industry and with medical advice to ensure they opened in a safe way. Nationally, this has meant that only nightclubs, dancehalls, disco- theques, sexual entertainment venues and hostess bars are required to remain closed. Such venues are considered to pose a high risk of transmission because of the close proximity of members of staff and customers, so they need to remain closed for now in line with the current scientific advice to control the virus.
Although we were able to successively ease business restrictions over the summer, we also now better understand how the infection is transmitted and the role of social activity within this. Between the end of June and the middle of August, the Metropolitan police responded to more than 1,000 unlicensed events. Over one of the weekends in that period, the force received information about more than 200 illegal gatherings across the city. That is why the Government have acted quickly to strengthen the enforcement and restrictiveness of social distancing measures against the backdrop of a slow but steady increase in infection levels nationally. I note, at this point, that although we are debating regulations that came into force earlier this summer, which therefore pertain to the circumstances at the time, we are all cognisant of the chief medical officer’s and the chief scientific adviser’s recent comments and we will see what the Prime Minister announces later today.
The fourth amendment to the national regulations that came into force on 28 August created a new offence of holding or being involved in the holding of an illegal gathering of more than 30 people, giving the police the power to issue a fixed penalty notice of up to £10,000. The fixed penalty notice level has been set at such a significant amount to reflect the seriousness of organising or facilitating an unlawful gathering. It was introduced because this is considered to be particularly egregious behaviour that carries a high risk of transmission of the virus by proactively gathering a large group in breach of the restrictions under the regulations. We hold the view that that level of fine is justified on the basis that this is a narrow offence that targets those holding an illegal gathering. The prospect of an accidental breach of the restrictions is highly unlikely, given it requires an active decision to organise a large event. The regulations set our how large gatherings can be lawfully organised.
I suspect that the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris) will raise the issue of the use of emergency powers and how the decisions are made. If he does, I look forward to responding as fully as I can in my closing remarks. We believe that it is right that we use the emergency power to amend the regulations so we can respond quickly to the serious and imminent threat to public health posed by the coronavirus. We also recognise that the national regulations have caused real disruption to people’s lives and businesses, placing restrictions on who people can see, what they can do and where they can work. Just as the Secretary of State has the legal obligation to protect public health, he is also obliged to ease restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so for businesses and others. Indeed, the Government continue to pay close attention to the measures, assessing them to ensure they continue to be necessary and proportionate and taking other steps where they are deemed appropriate. The regulations set out that a review of the restrictions must take place within 28 days. However, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care also keeps their necessity under constant consideration between review points.
The question to be considered is whether the restrictions or requirements contained in the regulations remain necessary for the regulations’ public health purposes. Each restriction must be judged by reference to its continuing necessity as the pandemic develops and based on the information available at each stage about the effectiveness and impact of the measures. That is what we are seeing at the moment with the recent updates from the Prime Minister and the chief scientific adviser. We will continue to use the best available scientific advice along with consideration of the most up-to-date data available at the time to inform decisions, and central to that continues to be a robust assessment of the rate of transmission and infection.
The Government have also undertaken significant wider analysis and evaluation of the national regulations, including consideration of economic impact, the level of compliance with the measures, the amount of enforcement needed and the impact felt by local authorities. Understanding the full impacts of the regulations is key to continuing to improve our approach to controlling the virus and we must remember we have both to protect the health of our nation and to balance that with protecting its economic health. I believe that this shows the Government’s commitment to ensuring restrictions are only in place for as long as necessary, while also showing the evolution in our understanding and approach to tackling the virus.
Throughout, the Government have moved with speed to ensure action is taken rapidly to address the needs of the population as the pandemic continues. Over the summer recess, we combined that with tightening restrictions in areas with local outbreaks, alongside the easing of some restrictions nationally. That is an important balance to be struck and we have given local authorities powers to act quickly in response to local outbreaks by closing specific premises, shutting public outdoor spaces and cancelling events. I take the opportunity here in the Committee to pay tribute to the work of local authorities and local councillors up and down this country, working in partnership with the NHS, social care providers and public health officials to protect their populations and do what is right for their areas. I am extremely grateful to them for their service, as I suspect all Members are.
In that context, we asked councils to develop dedicated local outbreak plans, giving them £300 million of additional funding to support that, and published the contain framework, providing further guidance on managing local outbreaks. Where regulations have been required, the Government have worked with local partners to develop tailored and proportionate restrictions based on the best scientific evidence available, varying from a single factory to, indeed, an entire region such as the north of England. We have seen similar approaches adopted in the devolved Administrations, including recently in Wales.
Last week, colleagues will have seen new restrictions were mandated in areas of the north-east, requiring, among other things, the closure of a range of businesses linked to the night-time economy. Such interventions continue to be underpinned by scientific evidence and local data.
On Monday 14 September, colleagues will have seen the rule of six come into effect. This change brought the gathering policy from guidance into regulation, meaning that people can only gather in groups of six. That applies both indoors and outdoors. Single households or support bubbles of more than six are still able to gather together, and there are a small number of exceptions such as for work, school, weddings and organised activities. As the Prime Minister recently announced, these measures are not a second national lockdown but are aimed at preventing the need for one.
Colleagues will also have seen that on Friday we laid new regulations for businesses, which make a number of behaviours and activities already encouraged through guidance legally mandated under the Public Health Act (Control of Disease) Act 1984. If businesses and venues do not adhere to the regulations, they could be issued with a fixed penalty notice to ensure strict enforcement of measures designed to keep customers and workers safe from the virus. We will continue to seek to ensure timely scrutiny of these changes.
I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the Committee not only for their valuable contributions to these debates but for their continued scrutiny of the Government’s response to the crisis. We continue to learn and adapt our approach to ensure that these and all restrictions remain a proportionate and necessary public health response to the threat of coronavirus. As I have said before, it is thanks to local health officials, local councils and others that we continue to bear down on the virus, but there is clearly more to do. In this context, it would be remiss of me not to thank the public, who have made huge sacrifices to try to beat the virus. It is important that we recognise the burden that places on individuals, businesses and families and that we continue to do only what is absolutely essential to tackle this public health challenge.
I believe we have met the bar set for us in such debates thus far that the regulations are proportionate and necessary. I look forward to constructive challenge, as always, from the hon. Member for Nottingham North, and I commend the regulations to the Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair for the first time, Dr Huq. I am grateful to the Minister for his introductory remarks and his service over the last seven-plus months. Whatever we think about coronavirus and whatever our views on where to go next, Ministers have clearly been working at very high frequency for a long time, which would tire anyone. We are grateful for that important public service.
It is risky business, Dr Huq, to be on your feet speaking at the same time as your party’s leader makes their speech to conference. In fact, it might the first time that I or any colleague would be so brave. I hope the Whip will get me out of any trouble, should it be seen that I am trying to elevate my standing prematurely. I apologise to the hon. Members for Erewash and for St Austell and Newquay, because they may have heard some of this speech 18 hours ago, but they will see just how many of my jokes really are ad hoc rather than just delivered with aplomb.
I will start, as I did yesterday, with a couple of things about opposition in the time of covid—like love in the time of cholera, or the other way around. We have set out our stall throughout the pandemic to be a supportive Opposition. The Leader of the Opposition spoke about that on Sunday and, as I said yesterday, some of the replies to his tweet are extraordinary, saying that perhaps we should not be as supportive of these sorts of restrictions and regulations. But we are, and we think that is right.
It would be easy to fall into the narcissism of small differences that one can in opposition, with the Government saying it should be a role of six and us saying it should be a rule of seven or five. Or the Government could say, as they do in SI No. 907, that the fixed penalty should be £10,000, and we could say it should be £9,500. We are not doing any of that—it takes up time and it does not help—but that shared and collective well of goodwill has to come from being able to scrutinise what the Government choose to do and to regulate in a proper and timely manner and in a way that is effective for our constituents. I would gently say, and I will talk about this shortly, that we are on the edge of that goodwill with these regulations. In fact, we are probably past the edge.
I am sure the irony will not be lost on hon. Members of discussing legislation that reopens part of the economy as we wait to hear at half-past 11 details of it being closed down again. It will definitely affect venues that are covered in SI No. 863. I have seen it said by industry bodies, certainly about casinos, that they will hear about the retrospective rubber-stamping of their ability to reopen on the one hand and the 10 pm curfew on the other, if what has been briefed to the newspapers is accurate, and that is likely to be harmful for them.
That does not mean that it is the wrong thing to do, but when we are not discussing such matters in a timely manner, they start to look inconsistent and a bit chaotic. Part of that is inevitable because of the fast-moving pace of the pandemic, but part of it is a need for better organisation. I hope that the Minister will talk about where we might go in future on that.
We broadly support the measures and we will not divide the Committee on them, because halting the spread of the virus and keeping people safe is the No. 1 priority for us all. SI No. 863, however, came into effect nine and a half weeks ago, so we are scrutinising it long after the fact. SI No. 907 is much more recent and came into effect only three and a half weeks ago. That is pretty hard to justify. I had a similar conversation with the Minister for Public Health, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), yesterday about measures that were eight weeks old. She discussed the backlog and the complications because of recess, but we had four or five sitting days after SI No. 863 came into effect on 15 July. We are running just to catch up and we are a long way behind.
We understand the need to be efficient. We never want to be in a situation where important regulations that would reduce infection rates are being held up merely because of our opportunity to talk about them, but I do not think that is the same. No one could make a solid case for the public interest of waiting nine and a half weeks to discuss these things. It is a pattern that has been raised many times.
I welcome the constructive tone of the hon. Gentleman’s speech which, in Wales, we try to emulate, given that the Welsh Labour Government are in charge of similar regulations. May I gently push back, however, since he is gently pushing, and say that the level of scrutiny that we are operating for these regulations far exceeds what we have in Wales in terms of the scrutiny of the regulations there?
I am certainly no expert in the operation of secondary legislation in the Senedd; my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East might be better at that than me. From what we have in front of us, however, I know that nine and a half weeks does not work, whether that is a good level of scrutiny or not. We are here on a fool’s errand, frankly. Our time is not being used in particularly constructive way. I do not know if that is revealing what is behind the curtain in a way that we are perhaps not allowed to do, but that is true. I cannot address the specific point about Wales, but I know that it will not do for us.
The issue has been raised by hon. Members on both sides of the House and, indeed, in the other place. We do not exist to rubber stamp and nobody would want us to. We are here to scrutinise, because these are exceptionally important regulations. They are important in their substance, because we are all significant stakeholders in their success, and our scrutiny of them is important because of public confidence. We need public confidence in the changes that are made because we need people to comply with them. People are smart. If they think that the process has been cooked, they will smell that a mile off.
Some 17 statutory instruments are being debated this week, all of which are in force. Recently, regulations have come into force only a quarter of an hour after they have been available to read, which does not work. Other regulations have come into force and been revoked before being discussed. That will not do; it is not proper parliamentary scrutiny. We absolutely need a solid commitment from the Government, hopefully today, or definitely soon, about how we will get upstream and catch up. I said this yesterday and I was not contradicted by my Whip so I will say it again: we would be minded to be efficient and fast-moving in our scrutiny of the backlog if it meant that we could get upstream to the consideration of the measures that are coming in.
Indeed, it seems that extra restrictions are coming in today, so when does the Minister foresee a Committee discussing them? What will be the timeline for that? The Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) asked yesterday what we would be willing to do workwise in order to be available at the right time, and my answer is whatever it takes. I hope the Whip does not contradict me; I am volunteering myself more than anything else. The Under-Secretary asked whether I would be willing to be here seven days a week. Well, yes, if that is what it takes. I have no doubt the Minister is working seven days a week. We are more than willing to match that energy.
To make a very quick point, I see lots of 2019 Members and I envy them to a great degree because they missed what we were doing this time last year on Brexit. Putting aside the massive substance of that issue, we have an awful lot of debates, increasingly on other Bills too, on statutory instruments and the negative and affirmative procedure. Sometimes I think it looks as if we are being deliberately obtuse and saying, “That is by the negative procedure; it should be by the affirmative procedure.” Of course, that is what an Opposition would want. We do not want really significant changes such as these discussed at such a distant time period so that the discussion is meaningless and the horse is already three or four fields down. That is why it matters to us. I raised the matter at length during debates on the Medicines and Medical Devices Bill, and I know that on Second Reading peers in the other place did, too. I hope the Government can come up with something more sensible because there are significant powers under the negative procedure. I think that is disproportionate and I have explained the reasons why.
Moving back to these statutory instruments, our operating them competently proves the value of the Coronavirus Act 2020. Colleagues will have had conspiracy theory emails about coronavirus, many of which carry little value, but they will also have had a smaller number of emails that sometimes get lost in it all about very legitimate concerns to do with the Coronavirus Act—I would say rightly; we all supported it—because it gives the Government a lot of power to act swiftly to make significant regulations regarding individual freedom. The catch in that, or the check and balance in that, is that we reassure constituents that these things are scrutinised properly, and that has to be true. We cannot be far from the Act being up for renewal. I have already had emails, as others have, saying, “You had better not support it now; it is a massive breach of personal liberty”, but I do not buy that analysis. We have to be able to say that, during the six months, it has done its job competently, and we are, as I say, stretching that as a credible argument at the moment.
SI No. 907 is significant. Again, I think it is proportionate. The Minister made the point that someone cannot stumble accidentally into a party of more than 30 people. There is no way that someone acting responsibly and in line with regulations could accidentally get caught up in that. That is why the fine is significant and probably about right. How many times has it been used? I know it has definitely been used once in Nottingham—not in my constituency, but in the Nottingham South constituency. It got a lot of interest locally, which is not a bad thing because it was a good reminder of what people can and cannot do. I am interested to know how many times it has been used.
The vast majority of people have done the right thing the vast majority of the time. The Minister was right to praise the British people because they have responded incredibly in really difficult times, but the shoe has to drop sometimes, and that is the right thing to do.
I want to make a final point on testing and tracing because I cannot miss an opportunity to raise it with Ministers. This afternoon we are almost certainly going to backslide. We are going to rubber-stamp opening up parts of our economy, and in about two hours’ time we are going to close it back down again. That is not a good sign. To a certain extent it is to be expected. As infection rates rise, restrictions will increase. We have known that from the start. However, it would be less likely to happen, if at all, or would happen in a much more modest way, if we had an effective testing and tracing operation in place, which we do not, as everybody knows. Part of the problem is that the Minister is very defensive when we raise that, but we do so it because we need it to work. A vaccine is something in the middle distance, but testing and tracing is a way to drive down infection rates today. It clearly is not operating at its full capacity—forget world-class and all the nonsense public relations elements of it. We need it to be an effective operation so that people can have confidence in it. Again, I would be very grateful for the Minister’s engagement and reflections on that.
I note that the Minister referred to sports pilots, but it seems that we are going to find out that they cannot take place. Perhaps I have a personal vested interest in that, but there will be a lot of disappointment. There will be an existential problem for a lot of clubs in our communities that are struggling. People who are desperate for one of those great pleasures in life will be very disappointed. We need that proper test and trace operation in place if we are to do everything we can to drive down infection rates. I will conclude on that point. I am grateful for the Minister’s remarks, and I hope he can address some of my points.
I am grateful to the shadow Minister, a fellow east midlands MP, for his typically constructive tone, his well-informed and measured remarks, as ever, and his kind words about the work of Ministers in this context, even if there is political disagreement at times. As he and others will see, I am a little greyer, and there is rather less hair there than there was six months ago.
Before responding to some of the questions that the hon. Gentleman posed, which I will endeavour to answer, I reiterate the Government’s commitment to working with colleagues across the House in ensuring proper scrutiny of these regulations. I will come to his specific points in a minute. Although, as we have both acknowledged, these restrictions have been tough for people, businesses and public services, they have been absolutely necessary to protect the public, and I remain incredibly grateful for the sacrifices that people have made.
We will continue to be guided by the scientific data. I am always cautious about using the words “the science”, because as we know there are multiple views within the scientific community, and that is inevitable in the context of a new disease about which we knew virtually nothing six or seven months ago. Every day, we learn more about it. It is quite right that that debate is going on in the scientific community, because it is through that that we learn and understand more about this disease.
With the recent rule of six and the restrictions on the north-east, the Government have shown that we are willing to reimpose restrictions at a national or local level to restrict the spread of the virus where necessary. Notwithstanding the ability of the ladies and gentlemen of the press to seem to be always slightly ahead of things, I will not prejudge what the Prime Minister will say later this morning to the House. It is quite right that he does that to the House, so I will not pre-comment on what he is going to say. I would say, however—the hon. Member for Nottingham North alluded to this—that hospitality businesses, pubs and restaurants have done extraordinary work to prepare to reopen after a period of closure. We are entirely sympathetic to the impact that this has had on them. It is no fault of theirs; they have done everything they can to make their businesses, where people are in their businesses, covid secure. Of course, once people leave those premises, other challenges arise. The Prime Minister will set out in greater detail later this morning the response to what we are seeing, in terms of the infection rate.
The hon. Gentleman raised a point about penalty notices and fines. I am afraid that I do not have the number of £10,000 fines that have been issued, but between 27 March and 17 August, 18,683 fixed-penalty notices for a variety of infringements of regulations were issued. That, of course, is reflective not just of the number of offences but of the efforts by the police across the country. I know that they see enforcement with a fine as a last resort; they will try in the first instance to educate, engage with people and explain why they should not be doing things and why they should change their behaviour where they are contravening regulations or guidance. I pay tribute—I am doing a lot of this today, but it is right to do so—to the police around the country, who have done amazing work in very difficult circumstances.
Before I turn to the hon. Gentleman’s points about parliamentary scrutiny and the nature of the process that we have followed, he mentioned briefly the testing system in this country. I will say two things on that. First, let us not fail to recognise the significant progress that has been made in getting a testing system up from scratch in the past six months. Per 1,000 of the population we are testing more people than France, Germany, Spain and Italy. In the latest figures I saw, which were possibly about a week and a half out of date, it was about 2.3 per 1,000 of our population, which is double what it is—it is about 1.15, I think—in France, Italy, Spain and similar countries.
It is important that we recognise that a huge amount has been done on testing, but the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight it. Being straight with people is hugely important in the business that we are all in—in public service and in politics. The Prime Minister was right to say that we have made progress, but there is a huge amount still to do and we need to do more to achieve it. That is why I welcomed the new Lighthouse lab, which has just about come onstream, very near me—and very near the hon. Gentleman—in Loughborough, to increase the lab testing and processing capacity, which is where the bottlenecks have been. Further lab capacity will be brought onstream in the coming weeks significantly to ramp up the capacity to process tests and thereby avoid those bottlenecks. He is right to highlight the importance of testing, but we are taking every step that we can to address those challenges within the system.
I recognise the concerns that colleagues across the House have sometimes expressed about the scrutiny of coronavirus regulations and the rules put in place due to the Government’s having to rely on the emergency procedures set out in section 45R of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984. We have needed to move extremely fast both to tackle outbreaks of disease and to address behaviours that can lead to an increase in infection rates. Equally, as soon as we can safely ease restrictions, given the impact that they have had on individuals and businesses, it is right that we do not wait to do that either.
The arrangement of business in this House, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Government Chief Whip, the Leader of the House and their opposite numbers and, indeed, the usual channels. The hon. Gentleman will know that Standing Order 72 prevents us from taking affirmative statutory instruments until the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has reported on them. When regulations have to be debated, those debates take place in the light of reports from the JCSI.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the idea of our sitting day seven days a week if necessary. Although it is always a pleasure to spend time with him, and indeed with all colleagues in the House, I would gently say, as I look at the Government and Opposition Whips, that that is a matter for the usual channels. On a serious note, I am sure that they are continuing to work closely together to find ways in which we can facilitate timely discussion and debate of the regulations.
Each statutory instrument is subject to full parliamentary scrutiny in line with the requirements of its parent Act, with the requirement that they are debated in both Houses within 28 days, beginning from the day when the instrument is made, unless during that period the instrument is approved by a resolution of each House. Timely scrutiny is important, and the hon. Gentleman will have heard me recognise that in my recent evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. I am not a million miles away from agreeing with the reasons that he cited.
When we are taking very difficult decisions, transparency and scrutiny are hugely important in conferring legitimacy on what we are doing, and in building awareness of them and building the consent that is necessary in this country to ensure that people comply. I take his point and, as he knows, I never shy away from an opportunity to appear before the House or Committees such as this.
The hon. Gentleman rightly touched on the recess. Although I note his comments about the regulations that were made just before recess, the recess period limited our ability to introduce some of the regulations at that time. We are, however, to use his phrase, catching up a bit with the backlog. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash was sitting in the same seat, going through Delegated Legislation Committee procedure. We were debating four sets of regulations, two of which were made in September. The lag between making regulations and debating them is therefore being significantly reduced. I know that she and other colleagues—ministerial and the usual channels—are working hard to try to ensure that we can debate things in a timely fashion.
Alongside that, Ministers continue to provide oral statements and answer urgent questions in the House on the broader themes of what we are doing and how we are approaching the pandemic, and to answer questions in oral questions sessions. I believe that Westminster Hall sittings may be due to resume at some point in the near future, which will provide further opportunity for scrutiny and debate. With that in mind, I am grateful to the shadow Minister and to all colleagues, and I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (No. 2) (England) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 863).
HEALTH PROTECTION (CORONAVIRUS) (RESTRICTIONS ON HOLDING OF GATHERINGS AND AMENDMENT) (ENGLAND) REGULATIONS 2020
That the Committee has considered the Health Protection (Coronavirus) (Restrictions on Holding of Gatherings and Amendment) (England) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 907).—(Edward Argar.)
Draft International Monetary Fund (Limit on Lending) Order 2020
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: Stewart Hosie
† Anderson, Lee (Ashfield) (Con)
† Bailey, Shaun (West Bromwich West) (Con)
Barker, Paula (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab)
Begum, Apsana (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab)
† Coutinho, Claire (East Surrey) (Con)
Efford, Clive (Eltham) (Lab)
† Fletcher, Mark (Bolsover) (Con)
† Gibson, Peter (Darlington) (Con)
† Glen, John (Economic Secretary to the Treasury)
† Green, Chris (Bolton West) (Con)
† Hunt, Tom (Ipswich) (Con)
† Johnston, David (Wantage) (Con)
† McFadden, Mr Pat (Wolverhampton South East) (Lab)
Oppong-Asare, Abena (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
† Rutley, David (Lord Commissioner of Her Majesty's Treasury)
† Smith, Jeff (Manchester, Withington) (Lab)
Thompson, Owen (Midlothian) (SNP)
Martyn Atkins, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Ninth Delegated Legislation Committee
Tuesday 22 September 2020
[Stewart Hosie in the Chair]
Draft International Monetary Fund (Limit On Lending) Order 2020
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft International Monetary Fund (Limit On Lending) Order 2020.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. The International Monetary Fund plays a critical role at the very heart of the international economic system that ensures global economic stability and facilitates long-term economic growth and poverty reduction around the world. It operates as the global lender of last resort, providing crucial financial assistance to countries in economic crisis and supporting their return to a stable economic footing. This helps to prevent economic instability overseas from spilling over into the UK economy.
The indispensable role of the IMF has never been more evident than during the covid-19 pandemic. The fund has responded with unprecedented speed and breadth to support countries’ health and economic responses, in turn preventing further instability overseas from affecting the UK. The order will increase the legal limit on the amount that the UK is able to lend to the IMF, allowing us to fulfil the internationally agreed outcome of the 15th general review of quotas.
In December 2019, IMF members, including the UK, agreed to maintain the size of overall IMF resources at current levels. It was agreed that this would be done by maintaining the level of quota resources, doubling the new arrangements to borrow and significantly reducing the bilateral borrowing agreements. Quota resources are permanent while the NAB and BBAs are intended to be temporary and are together classed as borrowed resources. IMF members agreed to implement the agreement by the end of 2020, ahead of the existing NAB and BBAs’ expiry. The UK contributes to both types of borrowed resources and therefore must implement the agreement by doubling our commitment to the NAB and decreasing our commitment to the BBAs. As the UK contributes a relatively larger share of the NAB than the BBAs, that will result in an increased UK commitment to the IMF overall.
The UK’s loan agreements to the IMF are denominated in the IMF’s unit of account, the special drawing right. The UK’s maximum commitment to IMF borrowed resources stands at 18.66 billion SDR, which is approximately £20.65 billion at today’s exchange rate. The order will raise the UK’s ceiling for lending to the IMF to 22.91 billion SDR, equivalent to £25.36 billion. The new ceiling is equal to our new contribution as agreed at the 15th general review of quotas and represents an increase in the UK’s commitment to IMF borrowed resources of 4.25 billion SDR or £4.7 billion.
I want to make it clear that lending to the IMF does not represent public spending and such loans do not detract from money that we need to spend in the UK; nor do they contribute to UK net debt levels or the deficit. The IMF holds primary creditor status, meaning that it is repaid even if other creditors are not. It conducts rigorous analysis on all lending and cannot lend into unsustainable debt positions. A loan to the IMF is a loan to probably the most creditworthy institution in the world. No country has ever lost money lending to the IMF. I also want to make it clear that such lending does not represent an additional up-front financing commitment for the UK, but simply increases the potential amount of financing from the UK that the IMF can call on, should it be required. At present, neither the NAB nor the BBAs are being used. While that may change if global financial conditions deteriorate, the UK can use its independent seat at the IMF’s executive board to continue to scrutinise, debate and vote on the use of such resources.
It is in our interests to support the IMF in implementing the 15th general review of quotas. It preserves the IMF’s resources, allowing it to respond quickly to economic crises and retain market confidence. Key members such as the US are also significantly increasing their commitments under the agreement. Although the agreement was reached in December 2019, the covid-19 pandemic makes its implementation more important than ever. Over the past few months, the IMF has provided financial assistance to 80 countries, totalling about £67 billion, and has approved debt service relief grants to 28 of its poorest members. A well resourced IMF is critical to achieving a strong global economic recovery, ensuring a strong trading environment for the UK, and reducing the risk of overseas crises having an impact on UK growth.
The Government believe that it is in the UK’s interests to have a strong and effective IMF at the heart of the international financial system. It is essential that the UK plays its part by increasing its ceiling for lending to the IMF, and in so doing implementing the internationally agreed 15th general review of quotas. I hope that hon. Members will join me in supporting the order, which I commend to the Committee.
As the Minister explained, the order authorises an increase in the UK’s contingent contribution to the IMF of just under £5 billion, and it does so at an important time. The increase was agreed by Finance Ministers and central bank governors in December last year, before it was known how big a challenge the pandemic would become. The question we are faced with is whether what we are doing internationally is anywhere near enough.
The pandemic has produced drastic economic effects across the world. Of course, many of the lowest income countries lack the medical resources to fight it, to treat patients, to test on a large scale or to support workers who have lost their jobs as a result of lockdowns or a decrease in economic activity. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 400 million full-time equivalent jobs were lost in the second quarter of this year. The World Bank projects that an additional 71 million people will fall into extreme poverty.
The race is on to devise an effective vaccine to help the world to recover. We should be proud that British science is at the forefront of that effort, but even if it is successful, there will be a huge logistical and healthcare challenge to make sure that a vaccine can be administered to the world’s population. Many countries will need economic help to make sure that that can happen. If ever there were a situation where we are all in it together, this is it.
Our chief medical officer reminded us yesterday that no one can think of just themselves in this situation; the actions that we take affect others. What goes for individuals goes for countries too. In a world as connected as ours, it is in all our interests to make sure that every country is as equipped as possible to fight the virus. As the managing director of the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, wrote earlier this month:
“An uneven rollout might improve economic conditions in countries that secured the vaccine first but would not shield them from weak demand from trade partners struggling to recover without a vaccine.”
There are also the damaging social effects of what is already happening. She continued:
“young children, especially those from poor households, may suffer permanent losses…from a lack of schooling, adequate nutrition, and medical access.”
In the face of such challenges, it is striking how little international co-ordination there has been. Country by country, we have fought the virus, but the world has lacked the leadership to bring different countries together and co-ordinate a truly global economic or health response. We approve the increased funding for the IMF, but the real question is why more has not been done globally to co-ordinate the fight against the pandemic that we are in the midst of.
I thank the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East for his support of the order. He makes some general points, probably outside the scope of this specific order, about the need for greater collaboration among nations in supporting the dire circumstances of the most vulnerable. I will just point out that at a time when the UK is providing, through the order, more money for the IMF, the IMF’s lending toolkit consists of the general resource account and the poverty reduction and growth trust, and the £2.2 billion loan announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was directed to the PRGT, which is the IMF’s concessional lending resource. Similarly, the £150 million grant through the IMF’s catastrophe containment and relief trust is targeted only at the poorest and more vulnerable PRGT members.
Quoting the managing director of the IMF, the right hon. Gentleman makes some very valid points about how we will need to look at how we co-ordinate responses to the full effect of the pandemic, but I think that those matters are perhaps beyond the scope of today’s order. What is clear is that it is in the UK’s interest to have a strong, effective and legitimate IMF at the heart of the international financial system and it is therefore key that we implement our part and our duty in this agreement.
I do not wish to detain the Committee any further. I hope that everyone will be able to join me in supporting the order this afternoon.
Question put and agreed to.
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Greencore) Regulations 2020
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: David Mundell
Abrahams, Debbie (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab)
† Bell, Aaron (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con)
Brennan, Kevin (Cardiff West) (Lab)
† Bruce, Fiona (Congleton) (Con)
† Caulfield, Maria (Lewes) (Con)
† Churchill, Jo (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care)
Coyle, Neil (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (Lab)
† Crosbie, Virginia (Ynys Môn) (Con)
† Fell, Simon (Barrow and Furness) (Con)
† Howell, Paul (Sedgefield) (Con)
† Madders, Justin (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab)
† Mayhew, Jerome (Broadland) (Con)
† Osborne, Kate (Jarrow) (Lab)
† Richards, Nicola (West Bromwich East) (Con)
† Stringer, Graham (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab)
† Twist, Liz (Blaydon) (Lab)
† Wheeler, Mrs Heather (South Derbyshire) (Con)
Jack Dent, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee
Seventh Delegated Legislation Committee
Tuesday 22 September 2020
[David Mundell in the Chair]
Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Greencore) Regulations 2020
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Greencore) Regulations 2020 (S.I. 2020, No. 921).
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Mundell. The regulations came into force on 29 August. On 21 August, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced that, due to a significant covid-19 outbreak at Greencore Food to Go Ltd, regulations would be laid requiring the workforce and their households to self-isolate for a period of 14 days, to contain the outbreak and avoid the need to impose restrictions on the wider community.
The concern about the risk of transmission across the workforce at Greencore and out into the wider community of Northampton was significant. Engagement with local leaders and company directors was extensive, repeated and productive. To that end, I would like to thank Greencore, Public Health England, the joint biosecurity centre, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department of Health and Social Care, Northampton Borough Council, Northamptonshire County Council and, in particular, Lucy Wightman, the latter council’s director of public health, for their constructive engagement with one another.
The decision to act was not driven by numbers only; it was a judgment about the overall situation. It was necessary to make this change as quickly as practicable in recognition of the immediate risk of a continued increase in the incidence of covid-19 among the workforce at Greencore as the main cause of wider community transmission. During the period from 9 to 15 August, Northampton saw a sharp spike in its weekly incidence rate to 116.4 per 100,000 of population. NHS test and trace data showed that most of the covid-19 transmission appeared to occur within the household and community settings that were then traced back to the staff who were employed or had worked at the local Greencore site.
Action had already been taken to protect Greencore employees. The whole workforce were tested. The factory layout was amended to make it more covid-secure than before, and deep cleaning was carried out. We had hoped that those interventions and the work of local public health teams would drive the infection rate down without our having to take further action. However, a large percentage of the workforce continued to test positive for the virus. It was likely that that was due to people socialising together outside work, for example by sharing accommodation or by car sharing to get to and from work.
At the local action gold committee meeting on 20 August, a decision was taken to require Greencore to close its food manufacturing site in Northampton and to require the workforce and their direct household contacts to self-isolate for 14 days. Those actions were supported by Greencore’s leaders. Current Government guidance advises that anyone who tests positive for the virus should self-isolate for 10 days from the date of the test. Anyone who has been in close contact with them is advised to self-isolate for 14 days. Requiring household members of Greencore workers to self-isolate went further than current Government guidance. However, that measure was necessary due to the scale of the outbreak and the risk posed to the wider community if further transmission was not prevented.
I now turn to the data provided that informed the decisions to which I have referred. Mass testing at Greencore started on 10 August. Following that first round of testing, nearly 300 members of staff tested positive for coronavirus. On 19 August, Greencore commenced retesting all staff who had previously tested negative, detecting further positive cases. In total, some 317 staff tested positive, giving a final positivity rate of over 20%. The weekly incidence rate for Northampton peaked at 125 per 100,000 people, and positivity rose to 9.2%. By comparison, the background incidence rate for Northampton, excluding positive tests from the Greencore workforce, was 38 per 100,000 for the same period.
The regulations required Greencore staff who have worked at the company’s designated production site since 7 August 2020 and members of their household to self-isolate for 14 days from 21 August, or for a shorter period in certain specified circumstances. Those dates were calculated to reflect the incubation period of covid-19. Although the regulations only came into force on 26 August, the workforce and their households were able to start their isolation from 21 August, when the site had closed temporarily.
The regulations specified exactly who was required to self-isolate and for how long, recognising that some workers had already started to self-isolate following their earlier positive tests. The regulations made provision to exclude household members if the Greencore worker had chosen to isolate separately. Provisions were also included to enable those self-isolating to access or provide emergency care and support, or to obtain basic necessities such as food and medical supplies.
Given the urgency of the Greencore situation, we used the emergency procedure provided for by the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to make the present regulations as soon as possible. The regulations will expire this Friday, 25 September, 28 days after they came into force.
Regulations 7 to 11 set out how the provisions will be enforced. It is a criminal offence to breach the requirement to self-isolate. As with the national regulations, there is the possibility of a fixed penalty notice or a fine following conviction. We also published guidance on the gov.uk website for Greencore workers and their households, to help them understand what they can and cannot do under the regulations.
We always knew that the path out of lockdown would not be entirely smooth, that it was likely that infections would rise and that, in particular areas or workplaces, we would need to be able to respond quickly and flexibly to outbreaks. Greencore should be commended for acting so promptly and choosing voluntarily to go above and beyond its role as an employer to support the wider community in Northampton. Local rates have reduced to a weekly incident rate of 38 per 100,000 from 7 to 13 September.
The Greencore regulations have demonstrated our willingness and ability to act quickly, where we need to, to control specific outbreaks. We will of course use the experience of the Greencore restrictions to inform and develop our responses to future local outbreaks.
Finally, I thank those Greencore employees and members of their households who completed the required periods of self-isolation and who responded so positively and well to the measures put in place. It is thanks to their continued effort that we were able to contain the outbreak and avoid the need to impose restrictions on the wider community. I commend the regulations to the Committee.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. I thank the Minister for her introduction. As we know, coronavirus has not gone away; it remains an ongoing threat, which means that we still require regulations of this nature. We will no doubt hear some more in the Prime Minister’s statement later today.
The desire to avoid another national lockdown has meant that over the past few months we have seen the introduction of regulations to allow local restrictions to be introduced where they are needed to curb the spread of the virus, although I think this is the first statutory instrument to specify a workplace, rather than a geographical location. As we heard, the instrument imposed restrictions on Greencore workers and members of their households to reduce the likelihood of further transmissions of the virus to workers, their families and the wider community following an outbreak of cases at the company’s premises in Northampton.
Between 9 and 15 August, Northampton saw an increase of 8% in the number of individuals testing positive for coronavirus, raising the weekly incident rate from 38.6 per 100,000 of population the previous week to 116.4. Based on test and trace data, most of the covid-19 transmission appeared to have occurred within households and community settings that could be traced back to staff who were employed at the Greencore factories in Northampton. Following that, Greencore arranged for mass testing their workforce of 1,140 workers, of which 214 tested positive—a positivity rate of about 19% or 20%. A further 79 cases were identified through test and trace.
As the Minister outlined, these regulations, which came into force on 29 August, set out which workers were required to self-isolate, which members of their household were also required to self-isolate, and which workers were exempted from that requirement. They required those identified to self-isolate until 5 September, either in their home, the home of a friend or family member, a hotel, a hostel, or another suitable place. The regulations also set out the conditions required by self- isolation, including who the person in self-isolation does not need to isolate from, and the reasons for which the person can leave or be outside of the place where they are self-isolating. They further set out the requirement for anyone who joins the household of a person who is self-isolating to self-isolate for a further 14 days from when they joined that household.
The regulations also provide powers for an authorised person, such as a police officer, to enforce compliance with self-isolation, and create summary-only criminal offences for contravening requirements to self-isolate or, without reasonable excuse, contravening a requirement imposed under the enforcement powers. They create a further offence of wilful obstruction without reasonable excuse of any person carrying out a function under the regulations. Finally, the regulations authorise the issuing of fixed penalty notices to anyone who an authorised person has reasonable grounds to believe committed an offence under these regulations, designates persons who may prosecute the offences, and officers who may collect the fixed penalties. Again, these are similar powers to those we have seen in other regulations, although I have a little issue with the powers in this one, which I will come back to later.
As with all the restriction regulations that we have debated in Committee, we are debating these regulations late. The Greencore workers have self-isolated as per the regulations and have returned to work, so although the regulations are still in place, they are no longer relevant—as we heard, they are due to expire shortly anyway. However, it is important that we understand whether they have been effective and whether we can learn anything from this situation, because they represented the single most serious action taken to deal with an outbreak in an individual institution. This hopefully puts us in a better position to learn from the outbreak, so we are best placed to prevent similar future outbreaks and respond swiftly and effectively in future. I say that because, from the information I have received, it appears that there were opportunities that were missed, which related to three things: a failure to listen to concerns raised by those working at Greencore, a failure to provide adequate financial support for workers to self-isolate, and a failure to communicate with workers.
As far back as March, Greencore workers were challenging the adequacy of covid-19 protections, including concerns about staff access to risk assessments, social distancing, the availability of personal protective equipment, and temperature checks. In May, they also raised concerns about the effectiveness of the company’s contact tracing process after it had taken it 48 hours, following a member of staff notifying the company that they had tested positive, to inform six other staff members that they needed to self-isolate. In the same month, concerns were also raised about the lack of a written covid-19 procedure and a lack of company sick pay for most workers during self-isolation because of their flexible contracts.
When 287 cases of covid-19 were identified between 10 August and 12 August, those who tested positive and their households were told to self-isolate and did so, but the factory remained open. It was not until 21 August, following pressure from the Bakers, Food and Allied Food Workers Union, that Greencore announced that it would immediately cease production at its Northampton site in order to allow staff to self-isolate for 14 days. Of course, we will never know whether that delay had any impact on the spread of the virus, and clearly the account I have is somewhat different from the Minister’s. However, I suggest that, following the review of this regulation, we ought to consider whether any delay could have been avoided, and to what extent that had an impact on the spread of the virus.
We do know for certain that the financial impact of a complete shutdown of production was felt most harshly by the lowest paid workers. I will come back to that point momentarily, but I just want to say a word about the unions. Although not all of their concerns were listened to or acted upon swiftly, and they were not able to play their part in preventing a serious outbreak, there is no doubt that their interventions led to great improvements to protect workers and, in turn, the wider public. I pay tribute to the Bakers, Food and Allied Food Workers Union for its work, as well as the many other bodies the Minister mentioned in her opening speech.
We know that for many others in other workplaces, airing concerns can be difficult or even impossible at the moment: no space is made for it. The Office for National Statistics’ figures for May of this year found that people in low-paid manual jobs faced a much greater risk of dying from coronavirus than higher-paid, white-collar workers, with men in low-skilled jobs four times more likely to die from the virus than men in professional occupations. Raising health and safety concerns at work has never been an easy thing, and those who put their head above the parapet often face consequences for doing so. Yes, they may have legal protection in theory, but that protection is full of loopholes and having a theoretical chance of justice in an employment tribunal months down the line is far from satisfactory.
It is little wonder that workers do not always feel confident in raising their concerns. In the current climate, it is not just about individual justice, but also about making sure everyone can do their bit to stop the spread of the virus. I ask the Minister, in the light of those experiences, whether any consideration has been given to increasing protection for workers who raise concerns in relation to coronavirus.
Greencore has said, as has the Minister, that it works closely with the Department of Health and Social Care. When responding, can the Minister advise whether there has been any assessment of the effectiveness of the instrument, or any formal assessment of health and safety arrangements at Greencore following its re-opening? I mention that in particular because I believe that on 1 September the BFAWU submitted a formal grievance stating that some health and safety procedures were still not being followed. That is of concern because we do not want a repeat of the situation we had in August.
Coming back to the pay situation, the workforce at Greencore is about 2,100, with approximately 1,800 production staff, about 800 of whom are on minimum-wage, flexible contracts. Greencore also makes heavy use of agency staff, with a lot of Greencore workers also working at other factories and warehouses nearby, which is one of the concerns people had about the spread of the virus. When the 292 workers who initially tested positive in the middle of August were sent home, they were on statutory sick pay. Then, when the factory was shut down on 21 August, workers were furloughed on 80% of their wage, although it is reported that the management received full pay.
When workers were furloughed in March, they too received 80% of their wage, which for many was the minimum wage, so there was no company top-up. I assume it was the same level again here, which according to the BFAWU meant that 60% of Greencore workers received less than the minimum wage during the period of isolation. As one would expect, that would potentially make it harder for them to comply with subsequent self-isolation requirements if some felt compelled to work to make ends meet. The impact was particularly felt by those workers living in households where everyone worked for Greencore. In some cases, the families work and live in the same house and travel together to work, which, again, is another reason the virus was spreading so much.
As Members will know, the Opposition have long called for those who are self-isolating to get proper financial support. The scientific advisory group for emergencies has said that the value of SSP appears to be having a negative impact on people’s ability to self-isolate. It really should not have taken until this weekend for the Government to realise that people on low incomes need more help. It suggests a lack of basic understanding about people’s lives, which is undermining the effort to stop the spread of the virus.
The belated announcement of additional financial support for those who have to self-isolate is of little comfort to the Greencore workers who found themselves in the terrible position of having to choose between complying with regulations and putting food on the table. Did the Government consider whether the payments being made would be sufficient in that situation to encourage self-isolation? Can the Minister advise what discussions, if any, were undertaken with the company about that?
Finally, I want to say a few words about communication. The instrument was published part way through the self-isolation period over a bank holiday weekend. That is despite the placing of significant responsibilities on the workforce and, indeed, significant consequences for breaching the regulations. I am told that no effort was made to disseminate the regulations to the workforce, either in English or in any of the languages spoken by the workforce. The majority of staff who work there come from minority groups—their first language might be Romanian, Russian, Polish, Hindi or Portuguese. Clearly, the interpretation of complex regulations such as these ought to have been considered. I am sure that all of us who can read the regulations can appreciate that they are not that straightforward to understand.
I have also been informed that there was no official notification of the beginning or end of the self-isolation proceed. Instead, members of the workforce started to be called back to work by text message from 4 September. We have said from the start that communication and clear messaging matter; they are crucial in our fight against the virus. If we want public support for what we are doing—none of these measures will work without it—people need to understand what is happening and why. Unless we are clear, the public will not respond. We cannot expect them to follow instructions if they have not been communicated to them. I believe that, in this instance, more consideration could and should have been given to ensuring that the regulations were both clear and accessible to the workforce affected. Will the Government take additional steps to ensure that any future restrictions of this nature reach the entire desired audience in a clear and accessible format?
I will make one final point. Although I will not seek to divide the Committee on the regulations, I will make my customary reference to the fact that they are being debated after the event. I remind the Minister that the Opposition’s view is that parliamentary accountability remains an essential part of democracy and that decision making is improved as a result of debate. I will not repeat my entire repertoire of all the reasons why the regulations should be debated before they become law, as the Minister has no doubt heard it many times before. On this occasion, I absolutely accept that it was not possible to do that, because of the urgency of the situation and the fact that the problems emerged when the House was in recess.
Can the Minister say anything about the fact that the regulations came into force eight days after the period of self-isolation set out in the regulations began? I am sure that she can see that there might have been problems if someone had really wanted to challenge their self-isolation before 28 August. In fact, they might well have been able to do so. It cannot legally be correct to impose a power on someone before the relevant regulations came into force. There was no power for people to be required to self-isolate with the criminal offences attached before 28 August. Can the Minister say whether fixed penalty notices could have been issued if someone had failed to comply with the regulations before 28 August, and whether retrospectivity would have applied in that situation?
We will not seek to divide the Committee, but I hope the Minister can address some of the points that I have raised and tell us whether any lessons that can be learned from the impact of the regulations can be used to good effect in future.
I thank hon. Members for this important debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston for his comments. If it has highlighted anything, it is that the regulations are of a timely nature and use the 1984 Act in a way that is defined and applicable. I am glad that the hon. Member sees that the Act has use for controlling the virus. We have often traded words: he would like more notice before, and I have often said, “Actually, we need to act at speed. We need this to be agile, which is why we are proceeding in this way.”
The Greencore sites were deep cleaned and inspected by the relevant agencies—the Health and Safety Executive and the Environmental Agency—before reopening. There are currently ongoing reviews, and I am sure that the hon. Member appreciates that we are very much in the time zone. The regulations do not expire until Friday, but reviews of the effectiveness of the regulations are happening now.
It is my understanding that guidance was given in different languages and made available by the local authority and employers in multiple languages. Greencore used the furlough scheme to support workers who were self-isolating, and it voluntarily paid up to 80% of salaries to staff who could not be furloughed.
The restrictions that we have debated are necessary and important for three reasons. First, and most importantly, they have helped to protect the Greencore workforce and the people of Northampton and the surrounding area from the transmission of this terrible virus. The restrictions we had to impose were difficult for those affected, but I hope the Greencore employees and their households recognise that letting the virus spread unchecked would have been worse. I once again place on the record my thanks for the way they approached the matter.
I am grateful for the Minister’s answers. She is right that on this occasion we have no difficulty with the speed with which the regulations were introduced. However, there is the outstanding question of retrospective power to hand out fixed penalty notices for a period before the regulations came into force. Is that legally possible?
Secondly, the restrictions are important because they protect those of us who do not live in Northampton. As a result of the restrictions, the risk of transmission beyond Northampton was reduced, and high infection rates in the city did not spread elsewhere. We should recognise the restrictions and the difficulties faced by Greencore employees and their households. The sacrifices they made will have benefited the whole country.
Finally, the restrictions show our absolute determination to respond to outbreaks of the virus in a focused, locally effective way. We are learning from what has happened in Greencore as we work with local authorities, directors of public health and other businesses to respond to future localised outbreaks, one of which recently happened in Norfolk. I am pleased that as of 25 August Greencore was able to restart food production and that those affected were able to return to work once they completed the required period of self-isolation.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his contribution today, and want to conclude by recording, on behalf of the Government, my thanks to the people of Greencore in Northampton, and particularly to NHS and care workers, and all the key workers in the city, for their ongoing hard work to keep vital services running and save lives through the crisis.
Question put and agreed to.
DRAFT SERVICES OF LAWYERS AND LAWYER'S PRACTICE (REVOCATION ETC.) (EU EXIT) REGULATIONS 2020
The Committee consisted of the following Members:
Chair: James Gray
Ali, Tahir (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab)
Cadbury, Ruth (Brentford and Isleworth) (Lab)
Carter, Andy (Warrington South) (Con)
† Chalk, Alex (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
† Charalambous, Bambos (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
Cummins, Judith (Bradford South) (Lab)
† Cunningham, Alex (Stockton North) (Lab)
† Davison, Dehenna (Bishop Auckland) (Con)
† Everitt, Ben (Milton Keynes North) (Con)
† Fletcher, Katherine (South Ribble) (Con)
† Gibson, Peter (Darlington) (Con)
† Holden, Mr Richard (North West Durham) (Con)
† Nici, Lia (Great Grimsby) (Con)
† O'Brien, Neil (Harborough) (Con)
† Pursglove, Tom (Corby) (Con)
Rees, Christina (Neath) (Lab/Co-op)
Timms, Stephen (East Ham) (Lab)
Nicholas Taylor, Kevin Maddison, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee
Eighth Delegated Legislation Committee
Tuesday 22 September 2020
[James Gray in the Chair]
Draft Services of Lawyers and Lawyer’s Practice (Revocation etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020
Before we start, I remind everyone that social distancing applies in this Committee as elsewhere. The little blue markers indicate where you can sit. Please observe all the other rules and regulations that the House has set out. If you make a speech, it would be very helpful to Hansard if you sent your notes by email to email@example.com.
I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Services of Lawyers and Lawyer’s Practice (Revocation etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020.
May I begin by saying what a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gray? The draft instrument relates to the recognition of legal qualifications and European lawyers’ practice rights, and forms part of the Government’s preparations for the end of the transition period. It will revoke and replace our existing legislation, which was made in 2019 in preparation for the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement and is now consequently out of date.
The regulations remedy the deficiency in retained EU law, as such law makes provision for reciprocal arrangements with the EU that will no longer exist. Consequently, by applying that principle of reciprocity, the regulations will remove from our domestic legislation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland any preferential practice rights for EU, European economic area and Swiss lawyers permitted under the EU frameworks for lawyers, so that they are treated in the same way as third-country lawyers after the transition period. I should stress that EU, EEA and European Free Trade Association-qualified lawyers who have already successfully become solicitors or barristers before the end of the transition period will be able to retain their qualifications and related practice rights.
The Committee will be aware that the Government have signed agreements with the EU, the EEA-EFTA states and Switzerland, which contain arrangements regarding the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Those agreements make provision for EEA and Swiss nationals living and working in the UK, and vice-versa. The instrument will give effect to provisions in those agreements relating to lawyers’ practice rights and the recognition of legal qualifications for EEA and Swiss lawyers in scope of the agreements. Let me be clear: Scotland will be taking forward its own legislation on this matter.
Before I turn to the detail of the instrument, I will briefly set out the background. EU law currently enables UK, EU and EFTA lawyers from one state to establish and practise in another state under their home state professional title, without necessarily having to requalify in the other state. The lawyers’ services directive allows specified lawyers to provide regulated legal services in a member state other than the one in which they qualified—termed a “host state”—without the need to register with a host state regulator. Lawyers provide services under their existing professional title, which is otherwise termed their home state professional title. The directive clarifies the applicable regulatory rules and the conditions for providing services in a host state.
The lawyers’ establishment directive allows specified lawyers from one member state to practise reserved legal activities on a permanent basis in another member state, under their home state professional title, and sets out the conditions for doing so. It also allows lawyers who are practising in another member state to be admitted to the profession in that member state after three years of practice in a host state, without having to go through the usual qualification routes. A European lawyer practising in the UK under the lawyers establishment directive must be registered with a UK regulator as a registered European lawyer—or REL, as they are referred to. As RELs, they have the right to own legal businesses without a UK qualified lawyer.
In 2019, in preparation for the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, the Government made legislation that removed the preferential practice rights of EU and EEA-EFTA lawyers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to come into force on exit day. I will refer to that legislation as the 2019 regulations. A further amending instrument was made—again in 2019—to implement parts of the Swiss citizens’ rights agreement, in readiness for exit day.
The 2019 regulations and the 2019 amendment regulations were not designed to come into force at the end of the transition period under a withdrawal agreement—in other words, they were put in place for no deal, in the event that no withdrawal agreement was secured. Given that the UK secured a withdrawal agreement and a separation agreement with the EEA-EFTA states, as well as the citizens’ rights agreement with Switzerland, some provisions in the 2019 regulations are either no longer needed or will not function correctly. Furthermore, additional provisions are needed to implement the relevant provisions of the agreements relating to lawyers. As such, we require new legislation to correct those deficiencies.
The draft instrument will revoke the 2019 regulations and the 2019 amendment regulations, as well as the domestic legislation that implemented the lawyer-related EU directives, subject to the transitional provisions required to implement the arrangements relating to lawyers in the agreements. Those are the European Communities (Services of Lawyers) Order 1978 and the European Communities (Lawyer’s Practice) Regulations 2000.
The lawyers’ services directive and lawyers’ establishment directive will no longer apply to the UK. There will be no system of reciprocal arrangements under which EU and EFTA lawyers—including UK nationals holding EU-EFTA qualifications—can provide regulated legal services and establish on a permanent basis in the UK and vice-versa for UK lawyers in the EU, so it is a balanced arrangement. The instrument therefore remedies a deficiency in retained EU law as such law makes provision for reciprocal arrangements with the EU that will no longer exist, while ensuring that we meet our obligations under the withdrawal agreement and the other previously mentioned agreements.
As I have indicated, EU and EFTA lawyers will be treated in the same way as other third-country lawyers who wish to practise in England and Wales or Northern Ireland. The instrument will also implement provisions in the EU withdrawal agreement and EEA-EFTA separation agreement that allow applications made before the end of the transition period to join one of the legal professions in England and Wales or Northern Ireland to be completed under the current rules.
In addition, the instrument will implement provisions in the Swiss citizens’ rights agreement for Swiss lawyers within the scope of that agreement—who are established, registered and providing services in England and Wales or Northern Ireland under their Swiss professional title—to retain their current rights, so long as they remain registered. The instrument will also implement a transition period of four years from the end of the transition period for Swiss lawyers to register as an REL and practise under their Swiss professional title, or to apply to join one of the legal professions in England and Wales or Northern Ireland under the terms of the Swiss citizens’ rights agreement.
Additionally, the instrument will implement provisions that allow lawyers who are established and employed in Switzerland to continue to provide temporary services under the lawyers’ services directive for up to 90 days in a year, for at least five years, when under a contract agreed and started before the end of the transition period. The instrument will also implement provisions in the agreements to facilitate regulator-to-regulator co-operation in relation to applications for admission to the host state legal profession, and in relation to registration and regulation of an REL under the Swiss citizens’ rights agreement. The instrument will make further provision to enable regulators in England and Wales and Northern Ireland to complete any ongoing disciplinary proceedings against EU and EEA-EFTA lawyers that commenced before the end of the transition period.
To conclude, the regulations are a necessary element of preparation for the end of the transition period, and I commend them to the Committee.
It is a pleasure to serve briefly under your chairmanship, Mr Gray. It is quite a sad business that we have to spend so much of our time preparing for the potential of no deal at the end of the transition period.
The Minister has still given us full value in outlining what the statutory instrument means. As he said, it ensures that the applications of EU lawyers who apply to practise law across England, Wales and Northern Ireland before the end of the transition period can have their applications properly considered. As he said, the instrument also protects the rights of Swiss lawyers who have been practising law in England, Wales and Northern Ireland before the end of the transition period, and implements a transition of four years after Brexit for Swiss lawyers to register and practise law across the three countries, as well as allowing cross-border co-operation between England, Wales, Northern Ireland, legal regulators and EU regulators.
I see no need to go into much detail about what these technical changes mean—the Minister has done that in tremendous detail—but we have to recognise that the regulations ensure that foreign lawyers who apply to practise here can continue to do so in future, when we will need the benefit of their skills and expertise. I am sure it will be interesting to see how the legal system operates in relation to lawyers after the end of the transition period on 31 December, when we will see an end to the preferential treatment of EU and EEA-EFTA lawyers compared with lawyers across the rest of the world.
It is clear that the Minister agrees with me that it is important that people from overseas are able to practise in this country and that we remove the impediments created by our leaving the EU to allow anyone who has already applied to join one of our legal professions to do so. The regulations have the important provision to allow existing lawyers to be properly subject to disciplinary proceedings that might have been started against them in recent times.
I hope the Minister also agrees that it is only right that we meet all our obligations under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, even though many on the Government Benches would simply rip it up and happily break international law. I seek his confirmation that it is the intention of the Ministry of Justice to honour the law. I would be obliged if he gave us an insight into how the Government will ensure that equally robust measures are put in place to ensure that people from across the wider world seeking to practise here are properly qualified to do so and will be subject to the same standards and codes as UK lawyers. Having dealt with that, I can confirm to the Minister that the Opposition will not oppose the regulations.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks and for his support for these necessary regulations. Yes, the United Kingdom recognises that we are an open society, particularly when it comes to legal practice, and we want that to continue. We want to be a country that continues to attract the brightest and best lawyers from around the world, as long as they are, as he rightly indicates, properly qualified and this is the appropriate place for them to practise.
We will continue to remain an attractive part of the world, because we believe in upholding the rule of law. Long may that continue. I thank members of the Committee for their valuable contributions to the debate, and I commend the regulations to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.