House of Commons
Wednesday 4 November 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Referendum on the Future of Northern Ireland
My apologies for not being with you in person, Mr Speaker, but as you know, I am self-isolating at the moment.
The UK Government are fully committed to the requirements set out in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in relation to the circumstances that require the Secretary of State to hold a referendum on a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. It remains my view that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland continue to support Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
It is now just seven weeks before we embark on the biggest change to our trading arrangements that we have seen for a generation, yet food producers still have no idea what arrangements they have to put in place to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government’s avoidable failure to prepare now risks damaging Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK internal market?
I simply do not agree with that outline. Apart from the discussions that I have had with food producers and, indeed, the suppliers and retailers of food across Northern Ireland, one of the key things we have always been focused on delivering is unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the market across the whole United Kingdom. We are still focused and determined to do that, and that is what the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill delivers. I am confident that the work of the specialist joint committee will be completed to ensure that we continue to have that good, free flow of goods, so that Northern Ireland continues not just to be an integral part of the United Kingdom, but to have a unique opportunity to develop its economy as we leave the European Union after the transition period, from January 2021.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the conversation about our constitutional future is happening right across our community and every family in Northern Ireland. Of course, the Good Friday agreement provides the mechanism for dealing with that constitutional future through a unity referendum. Will the Secretary of State tell us exactly what criteria he will use in future to determine when a border poll will be called?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman in the sense of people having a strong constitutional debate. We are seeing that across the United Kingdom and I encourage that; I think it is important that we all look at and discuss the strength and importance of the Union. In Northern Ireland, we have seen about £2.4 billion of support, because it is part of the UK, as we deal with covid. On his specific question, the High Court, in a recent judicial review on this very matter, agreed that there is no legal requirement, nor that it is in the public interest for the Government to set out a specific policy detailing any fixed criteria on the holding of a poll.
Union between Northern Ireland and the Rest of the UK
We have always as a Government stressed the importance of the Union. The UK is a family of nations and a Union of people that works for everyone. We share cultural, social and economic ties that together make us safer, more secure and more prosperous. As a Government, we are absolutely committed to levelling up across the whole UK, taking every opportunity to strengthen the economy of Northern Ireland and its place in the United Kingdom. We have shown this, as I say, through the £2.4 billion that we have supplied to support Northern Ireland through the fight against coronavirus, including the extra £900 million announced in the summer and the £200 million announced as part of the winter economy plan.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response. Does he agree that we need unfettered trade across the Irish sea so that business such as mine in North Devon can trade with the rest of the United Kingdom as usual?
Absolutely. It is imperative that we ensure that the UK internal market continues to function effectively and efficiently at the end of the transition period. A strong UK internal market provides benefits to our domestic businesses and consumers, as my hon. Friend outlines, and it gives confidence to our external trading partners. That is why we as a Government have been very clear that there should be no tariffs on internal UK trade—that we want to deliver that unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses, Of course, we are ensuring that unfettered access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain as provided for in the protocol.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are committing £600 million towards growth deals that will help to boost the recovery and ensure that we level up in every part of Northern Ireland?
Yes, absolutely. We have committed £617 million already for the city and growth deals programme in Northern Ireland. That is the largest across the United Kingdom, together with the complementary inclusive future fund. That commitment has been matched by the Northern Ireland Executive, so the funding totals more than £1.2 billion, which provides a real opportunity to deliver on that levelling-up programme. Such initiatives help to drive growth and innovation in local economies, and have a positive and lasting impact on employment, skills, infrastructure, tourism and regeneration. That will benefit people across Northern Ireland and, indeed, the United Kingdom.
Northern Ireland has had higher covid-19 rates than any other part of the United Kingdom in this second wave, yet its calls for the furlough scheme to be extended to cover lockdown were ignored for almost three weeks until the Government finally caught up with the rest of the country. Despite repeated questioning, however, it is still totally unclear whether the furlough scheme will be extended for Northern Ireland and the other devolved Administrations. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether Northern Ireland will receive the full backing of the 80% furlough scheme should it extend or reintroduce restrictions?
The 80% furlough scheme ran until the end of October, and the Government announced an extension so it will continue for businesses that need it until 2 December. The Treasury has been clear about this. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor will keep it under review, because we want to make sure that we get the support there for people who need it. Our track record has shown that we have done that. We continue to do that and to make sure that support is there for the people and businesses that need it across Northern Ireland.
That is just not good enough. Northern Ireland has been in lockdown since 16 October and has not had the furlough scheme in place. The Prime Minister confirmed on Monday that the furlough scheme would be in place for the devolved Administrations should they need it. The confusion reflects the complete contempt with which the Government treat the devolved Administrations.
Further to the commitments made by the Government, significant sections of New Decade, New Approach, which supported the reinstatement of the Northern Ireland Executive, have still not been delivered. Key among the promises was to increase police numbers to 7,500 in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State now ensure that that promise is kept and that the upcoming Finance Bill is used to deliver the funding for vital community policing?
In the hon. Lady’s question, she outlined the answer about furlough in a sense, because the scheme has been in place. It was in place until the end of October and the Chancellor has extended it to 2 December, so it covers the period for which Northern Ireland has had extra restrictions. We have been working with the devolved Administrations and the Northern Ireland Executive throughout the period. I meet and speak regularly to the First and Deputy First Ministers.
That scheme is on top of the £2.4 billion of support that the Government have put in place through the Barnett consequentials formula to ensure that the Northern Ireland Executive have what they need to support people and businesses through covid-19. That is on top of the furlough scheme and the bounce back loans, so it is clear that we have put that support in place.
On the wider NDNA commitments, it is important to continue to deliver on them despite the challenges of covid-19. We have been doing that. We have been having joint board meetings, which I instigated recently. The next one will be in January. We will continue to assess the programme of work to deliver NDNA. It is important that some of those things are done, particularly the independent fiscal council that can give transparency and confidence to people about the expenditure of the Northern Ireland Executive.
I am sure the hon. Lady knows that policing in Northern Ireland is devolved, so it is a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. I know from my conversations with the Chief Constable that they work closely with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and I encourage them to make sure that they have the funding that they need.
The Secretary of State will be aware that strengthening the Union is also a matter for the local community level. He will know of the excellent and transformational work of organisations such as the Resurgam Trust in my constituency and the Schomberg Society in the Mournes. The Government committed to establishing a culture and community fund as part of New Decade, New Approach to promote our heritage and culture at community level. What steps has he taken to implement that fund?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We provided a further £2 billion of funding to implement the New Decade, New Approach agreement. We have ring-fenced £140 million for Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances. That fund can cover a range of projects that support community reconciliation initiatives to ensure that we are removing barriers and bringing people in Northern Ireland together. The allocation of funding for specific projects remains subject to final decisions, but Ministers will be taking those forward through the joint board, which is now meeting regularly.
Staying with the agreement, the Government also gave a commitment to scope the establishment of a Northern Ireland hub here in London. Given the current economic situation, does the Secretary of State agree that such a hub is important for strengthening Northern Ireland’s economic position and its trade with the rest of the United Kingdom?
Yes, I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. We are committed to the agreement and to scoping the potential for a Northern Ireland hub in London. It is something I believe would be good for Northern Ireland; I absolutely share that view. We will be working with the Northern Ireland Executive to explore the options for delivering such a hub, which would complement Invest Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Office itself in ensuring that Northern Ireland is fully and loudly represented at the heart of government and at the heart of the UK in our country.
Universal Credit Migration: Child Poverty
The UK Government have provided unprecedented levels of support to families and employers throughout the covid crisis. We want to see a prospering economy that reduces child poverty. Welfare is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, with no official statistical information yet available on its impact in the current year. However, the Northern Ireland Executive are committed to combating poverty via the anti-poverty and child poverty strategies, which were agreed in “New Decade, New Approach”.
The first lockdown saw an 80% increase in universal credit claims in Northern Ireland. The five- week wait for universal credit increases family debt and child poverty. With Christmas seven weeks away, and in the middle of a second lockdown, is it not now time to end the five-week delay?
I say to the hon. Gentleman that nobody has to wait five weeks for a payment under universal credit. Advances are a mechanism for getting claimants faster access to their entitlement, allowing them to receive 13 payments over 12 months, with up to 12 months to repay the advance. Basic eligibility checks for advances are now completed remotely, allowing people to access the support they need despite covid-19 restrictions. The repayment time for advances has already been extended to 12 months, and it will be further extended to 24 months from October 2021.
The legacy of the troubles and the intergenerational trauma means that Northern Ireland has some of the highest levels of disability, mental health issues and low pay in the entire UK. This means that the £20 per week cut to universal credit planned for 2021 will hit Northern Ireland the hardest of all. Will the Minister urge his colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to rule it out, to stop families sliding into hardship?
I recognise the factors that the hon. Lady points to, and it is important that there was extra funding under NDNA to recognise some of the unique factors facing Northern Ireland. The extra £20 a week has been put into universal credit to support people through this difficult time.
We are ever mindful that Northern Ireland has already given £1.3 million for free school meals. Can the Minister further outline the impact of child poverty on the additional 100,000 children in Northern Ireland who are now on that list due to covid, according to the facts from the Department for the Economy? Will he also tell us whether additional assistance will be available for those in households who are now excluded from tax credits if they have a third or fourth child born after the 2017 cut-off date? How can we help these extra children who are now subject to child poverty?
I do not recognise that estimate. The official figures that the Executive have published suggest that child poverty has decreased in both absolute and relative terms since 2015, but I absolutely recognise the need to provide extra support during this time. There is extra resource available to the Executive in terms of the £2.4 billion provided so far, and we will continue to work closely with them to support families in Northern Ireland, while recognising the £9 billion that has already been put into strengthening the welfare system across the UK.
Leaving the EU without a Deal
The UK left the EU on 31 January 2020 on the basis of the deal set out in the withdrawal agreement, including the Northern Ireland protocol, which will apply in all circumstances. The question now is whether we can agree a deeper trading relationship with the EU, similar to the one that it has with Canada, or whether our trading arrangements will be more comparable to those the EU has with countries such as Australia. We have taken extensive steps, in close co-operation with the EU, to implement the protocol, and we continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive and a wide range of stakeholders across Northern Ireland to deliver this by the end of the transition period.
The health service in Northern Ireland is facing incredible pressure from the pandemic, with warnings from some hospitals about running out of beds and key supplies for covid and non-covid patients. The Minister will know that our health service relies on medicines from across the EU and on co-operation with the health service in the Republic of Ireland, which is made possible through the EU common framework. Does the Minister agree that the disruptive end of the transition—right in the middle of this battle with the pandemic and winter pressures—is bad enough, but that leaving without a deal would be downright dangerous for people’s health in Northern Ireland?
Let me agree with the hon. Lady about the huge importance of the national health service, which benefits Northern Ireland enormously, and the enormous importance of access to supplies of medicines, both through the Republic of Ireland and from the rest of the UK. It is important that Northern Ireland’s position and the supply of goods to Northern Ireland are protected by the protocol and that unfettered access is delivered both in terms of north-south movements and of access to the rest of the United Kingdom, which provides crucial support to Northern Ireland.
Let us now head to the Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee.
May I wish you a happy first anniversary in the Chair, Mr Speaker?
Criminality, smuggling and modern slavery, as my hon. Friend knows, cannot be the winners in a no-deal Brexit scenario at the end of this year. Can he assure me that the importance of these issues with regard to Northern Ireland are well understood at the heart of government and that he and the Secretary of State are doing all they can to combat them going forward?
Absolutely. I recognise that the Chair of the Select Committee is doing an important inquiry into these issues. I have written to him with some initial written evidence, and I look forward to giving more detailed evidence in due course. The protocol does preserve the huge gains of the peace process and the Good Friday agreement by removing the major security risks associated with any requirement for checks at the land border and by providing a practical solution to avoid such processes on the island of Ireland. All the way through the implementation of the protocol, we have remained very aware of other potential security implications, including in the event of a non-negotiated outcome with the EU. We have well-developed and well-rehearsed plans in place, and we believe that the excellent working relationship between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and An Garda Síochána will continue, but I absolutely recognise the importance of the issues that he raises.
The Minister, Lord Agnew, said that there had been a “head-in-the-sand” approach by traders to the Brexit changes to come, but less than 60 days until the protocol comes into force, the IT system to underpin custom declarations is not fully operational, the border operating model has not been published and the port infrastructure needed is now rated undeliverable by the Department in charge. This is a monumental failure of preparation, but it is not the fault of business; it is the fault of this Government— the only people to have their head in the sand. Will the Minister now apologise to Northern Ireland businesses for the worry, the stress and the additional burdens that they are having to bear?
I recognise the importance of providing certainty and information to Northern Ireland businesses. We have set up the business engagement forum through which we have been engaging with businesses large and small to provide them with the detail, but, as the hon. Lady will recognise, talks are ongoing in the Joint Committee. What we need to do is ensure that we deliver the smoothest access to protect unfettered access, as we are doing through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, and to deliver on the protocol for those businesses to provide the certainty that they need.
The leaders of the Scottish Episcopal Church, the Church of Scotland, the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland, the United Reform Church Scotland, the Methodist Church Scotland and Quakers in Scotland are united in their concern over the UK Government’s actions on Brexit, with their plan to break international law, to act on devolved matters against the wishes of devolved Administrations and to place the peace of Northern Ireland in peril. That concern, they say, is shared by church leaders across the Irish sea. What can the Minister say to reassure these representatives of Scotland’s faith communities that his Government are listening to anyone as they career forward on their misguided path?
I reiterate to the hon. Lady the answer that I gave earlier that we have already left the European Union with a deal and that we want to make sure that we deliver on our commitments under the protocol, absolutely protecting our commitment to the peace process and the Good Friday agreement. I am afraid that, rather than raising concerns about the reality of the Government’s intention, some of these people may have been misled by some of the statements from the SNP.
Transport Connections to Great Britain
The Government are building a stronger and fairer economy for the future. To support the aim, the Prime Minister has announced an independent Union connectivity review, which is being led by Sir Peter Hendy. The review will consider how connectivity by road, rail, air and sea across the whole UK can support economic growth, increase quality of life and strengthen our Union.
The north Wales main line railway connects Great Britain across the Irish sea and is vital for travel. Will my hon. Friend work with the Department for Transport and the Union connectivity review to see the line enhanced for the benefit of my constituents and the people of Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend speaks up for north Wales effectively and makes an important point. The Government will engage positively with the Union connectivity review, which will look at how we can improve the transport landscape across the whole UK, including connections between Wales and Northern Ireland. Levelling up across the whole United Kingdom is an absolute priority for this Government.
What input can the Minister say that he has had into the Union connectivity review, and how tangible does he expect the outcome to be in promoting and cementing business and cultural relationships across the whole United Kingdom?
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that connectivity is crucial to business. As such, it will not surprise him that both the Secretary of State and I, along with the Department for Transport, the Cabinet Office and other groups, have met the Union connectivity review to make clear the importance of this for Northern Ireland.
Net Zero Emissions Target: Manufacturers
The Government are committed to meeting our target of net zero emissions by 2050. The Secretary of State and I regularly engage with businesses across the manufacturing sector to discuss how the green economy is an opportunity to drive economic growth and reduce emissions in Northern Ireland. We are pleased that the Northern Ireland Executive have endorsed the extension of the Environment Bill to Northern Ireland and have pledged to pass a climate change Act.
I thank the Minister for his answer. I know that he is a keen advocate of the hydrogen economy, as am I. Manufacturers such as Wrightbus in Northern Ireland are leading the way in the production of hydrogen buses—a perfect example of how we can decarbonise public transport. Does the Minister agree that greater investment in the hydrogen economy is essential not only for our net zero targets but for building jobs in every part of the United Kingdom?
Let me say an absolute yes, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that he does with the all-party parliamentary group on hydrogen. Northern Ireland has proven expertise with hydrogen electric power in the bus sector, and we have seen the introduction of the world’s first hydrogen and electric double-decker bus by Wrightbus this year. We continue to support and promote hydrogen technologies in Northern Ireland and right across the UK. The UK Government have already invested £121 million into UK hydrogen technology, and we are actively exploring with UK Departments and with the Executive how best secure specific funding for hydrogen production in Northern Ireland.
I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the acquisition of Bombardier in Northern Ireland by Spirit AeroSystems. He well understands the importance of aerospace for the Northern Ireland economy, but the aerospace sector needs to transition to meet the needs of the green economy, so will the Northern Ireland Office be a powerful advocate in government for a substantial investment in green technologies across the aerospace sector throughout the UK?
The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point. I very much welcome the news that Spirit AeroSystems has acquired Shorts. I recently met with union representatives, who outlined their concerns about the immediate challenges facing the aerospace industry. This investment in such a major local employer of high-quality jobs is an important step in providing certainty to the company and its employees at a difficult time for the industry. Of course, there is much more to do, and the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that innovation and green investment have an important part to play in the recovery phase. The UK Government will be doing everything we can, working alongside the Executive, to support a strong economic recovery and innovation in the green economy in Northern Ireland.
End of Transition Period: Ports of Entry
The Government continue to engage regularly with the Northern Ireland Executive as we get on with delivering the protocol and preparing for the end of the transition period. As well as working with the Executive, we are working with port authorities, district councils and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland to deliver protocol requirements at pace. We are also continuing discussions with the EU in the Joint Committee, informed by close working with the Executive, to secure a pragmatic approach to agrifood checks.
Last month, the operators of Northern Ireland’s four ports told Stormont that facilities to check goods arriving from Great Britain would not be in place by the end of transition. There were also concerns about the IT system, potential delays and the lack of clarity from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. With eight weeks to go, this is an absolute shambles. Who does the Minister hold responsible?
The work is continuing. As we have previously set out, we are expanding some existing entry points for agrifood controls in Northern Ireland, building on what already happens at ports such as Larne and Belfast to ensure that new processes are as streamlined and efficient as possible. We continue to work closely with the Executive, port authorities, district councils and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland to take this work forward at pace, but the hon. Lady will recognise that some of these issues are subject to ongoing discussions in the Joint Committee.
The Minister rightfully has a reputation as being a decent individual, but will he not now apologise to businesses that so close to the beginning of next year—so close to the new regime coming in—businesses still do not know what regime they are going to operate under? Is not an apology now absolutely necessary from this Government to businesses in Northern Ireland?
Let me first say what a pleasure it is to see the hon. Gentleman, if only on the screen, and welcome him back to the House, certainly from my perspective. In the last three months, we have published, on 7 August, operational guidance to Northern Ireland businesses covering customs, sanitary and phytosanitary measures and manufacturing goods, announced a £200 million trader support scheme service to support traders in Northern Ireland to meet the requirements of the protocol, announced over £150 million of investment in IT systems needed to operate the protocol’s requirements, and made progress on the recruitment and training of new staff to operate the protocol. However, I absolutely recognise the need to provide greater certainty, and we will continue to do that both through the business engagement group and through our work on the Joint Committee.
The Prime Minister was asked—
The whole House is talking about the result of a heavily contested election—and indeed it is a year ago to the day, Mr Speaker, that you were elected Speaker. May I, on behalf of all Members, wish you therefore a very happy anniversary, and thank you, Mr Speaker, for making the speakership great again? [Interruption.] Thank you, Mr Speaker.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
The city-wide testing trial starting in Liverpool on Friday using the new lateral flow tests will cut the time to get results, cut the spread of the virus by identifying people who are infected but not showing symptoms, and vastly reduce both the number of people and the time involved in isolating, so the benefits to the NHS, to schools and to business are profound. When does the Prime Minister think the results from this trial will be available and its benefits extended across the UK?
I thank my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. I can tell him that the pilot is planned to last for approximately two weeks and we will keep the House updated on the results as they are evaluated.
Can I start with the elections in the United States? Whatever the results, will the Prime Minister join me in saying that it is not for a candidate to decide which votes do and do not count or when to stop counting? The next President must be the free and fair choice of the American people.
Can I also express my revulsion at the terrorist attacks in Nice and Vienna? I am sure I speak for the whole House in saying that our thoughts are with all those affected.
Of course, Mr Speaker, I join the congratulations on your one-year anniversary.
Turning now, if I may, to covid-19, on 21 September, when the Government’s scientific advisers indicated that a circuit break would bring the virus back under control, the number of people that day who tragically lost their lives to covid-19 was 11. The Prime Minister ignored that advice. On Monday, 42 days later, the number of people who tragically lost their lives to covid-19 was 397—that is a staggering 35-fold increase. Does the Prime Minister understand the human cost of his delay in acting?
In answer to the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s opening question, of course we do not comment, as a UK Government, on the democratic processes of our friends and allies, and I do not think, in all seriousness, he would expect otherwise.
Turning to the point about covid and the decision—the difficult decision—that this House has to face tonight, I think I speak for many hon. Members across the House when I say that I do not think any Government or any Parliament would want to impose these measures lightly on the people of this country.
It was always right to pursue a local and regional approach, as our scientific advisers said. I will tell you why, Mr Speaker: because that regional approach was showing signs of working and still is showing signs of working. It did get the R—the transmission rate—down lower than it would otherwise have been. But we have to face the reality that, in common with many other countries in this part of the world, we are facing a surge in the virus, which this House must now tackle with the measures we have outlined. They will, as hon. Members know, expire on 2 December, and I hope very much that Opposition Members will support them tonight.
I am sure that nobody wants a lockdown, but it is a question of timing. Had the decision been taken a few weeks ago to put in place a circuit break, it could have been done for two to three weeks and taken advantage of schools being closed over half term. Now the Prime Minister’s proposed lockdown will be for at least four weeks, which means that businesses will be closed for longer and in the critical run-up to Christmas. Does the Prime Minister understand the economic cost of his delay in acting?
It is precisely because we understand the economic cost and the social and psychological damage of lockdowns that it was right to go for the local and regional solution, which was supported by many Members—indeed, it was supported by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, as long as it was useful to him for a while. That was the right approach. By the expiry of this period on 2 December, as I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), we will be rolling out across this country new types of testing on a scale never seen before, beginning this week in Liverpool, enabling us to detect asymptomatic cases. That is crucial, because as the House knows, 70% of transmission is taking place between people who have no symptoms. That will enable us to find new ways on a mass scale to break the chains of transmission. I want to particularly the Labour leadership of Liverpool for their co-operation—a manner of co-operation that I commend to those on the Opposition Benches.
The Prime Minister’s delay in acting is a huge failure of leadership, and it is no good saying that there was support for the tier system. As he well knows, I looked at the evidence and made a decision three weeks ago that the right thing was a circuit break. I do not buy the argument—I do not think anybody does—that the facts suddenly changed this weekend. The direction of travel and the number of infections, hospital admissions and, tragically, deaths have been clear for weeks.
But we are where we are. Millions of people across the country are really concerned about the restrictions that will come into force at midnight tonight. I accept that we all have a duty to pull together and try to make this lockdown work, so I just want to ask some basic and direct questions on behalf of those millions of people. First, will the lockdown end on 2 December come what may, or will it depend on the circumstances at the time? People need to know that.
I am grateful for the support that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now offering, and I can answer him very simply. As the House knows, and as I informed him repeatedly on Monday, these autumn measures to combat the surge will expire automatically on 2 December, and we will then, I hope very much, be able to get this country going again and get businesses and shops open again in the run-up to Christmas. But that depends on us all doing our bit now to make sure that we get the R down. I have no doubt that we can and that we will be able to go forward from 2 December with a very different approach, but of course, it will be up to the House of Commons to decide thereafter what to do.
I accept that there will be a vote in the House. That does not tell us anything; that is the process. I want to press the Prime Minister. Is he saying that if, by 2 December, the R rate has not come below 1 and is still rising, we will come out of lockdown come what may, with infection rates going up on 2 December? That does not seem sensible to me.
It is thanks to the efforts of the British people that the R is now currently only just above 1 as it is. We are doing the right and the prudent thing at the right time to get that infection rate down, and these measures, as I have said repeatedly to the House, will expire on 2 December. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is now saying he wants to protract them beyond 2 December, then perhaps he should make his position clear.
I just want some basic honesty, and this is serious. If the infection rate—[Interruption.] We have to look the public in the eye. If the infection rate is still going up on 2 December, it is madness to come out of the system back to the tiered system, when we know the one thing the tiered system cannot cope with is an R rate above 1. That is the basic point. We can come back to it on 2 December, as we always do, but that is the point I am making.
The one thing we know a circuit break or lockdown does is buy time, and the Prime Minister needs to use that time to fix Test and Trace. I know he will talk about the capacity of 500,000, what is going on in Liverpool, how it is world beating, etc., but we have been going round and round in circles on this. The latest figures show that 113,000 contacts were not even reached, and that is just in one week. Only 20% of those who should be isolating are doing so, and the majority of people still do not get results in 24 hours. So can the Prime Minister give a straight answer: what is he going to do in the next four weeks to fix this, because if he does not, we will be back here again?
With greatest respect to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who has stood up and said that I will brag about NHS Test and Trace and its achievement of a target of capacity of 500,000, I am perfectly willing to accept the failings of NHS Test and Trace. Of course I am, and of course I take full responsibility for the frustrations people have experienced with that system, but to go from 3,000 tests a day, 2,000 tests a day to 500,000 is a quite remarkable feat. It is the biggest diagnostics exercise this country has ever carried out, and they are helping to drive down the R. They are doing, in my view, an absolutely invaluable job, whatever the difficulties they face. What we now need to do is to come together as a nation, briefly—if we can—put aside party political wrangling and point scoring, and work together, as I think he will tonight, to support this package to get the R down and allow us to go forward in a different way, with the mass testing that I have outlined from 2 December.
The Prime Minister must see that if four out of 10 of those who should be contacted are not being contacted, we have a problem in the system that needs to be fixed in the next four weeks.
Finally, I want to ask about care homes, which of course were hit so badly in the first wave of this pandemic. Can I pay tribute to all those working in care homes, who have given such dedication and commitment in the toughest of circumstances? We owe it to them not to repeat the mistakes of the first wave, but, Prime Minister, as we face the second wave, there is an increasing concern about the emotional wellbeing of those in care homes and their families if all visits are stopped. It must be possible to find a way—perhaps a dedicated family member scheme of some sort—to allow some safe visits to alleviate the huge fears of isolation and despair across the coming months. Will the Prime Minister work cross-party to find a scheme that will work for those in care and their families?
New guidance on care homes and visiting relatives safely—because the point the right hon. and learned Gentleman makes is incredibly important —is going to be announced today to try to strike the right balance between people’s real, real need to see their loved ones and obviously the risk of spreading the disease in care homes. We are going to be publishing some guidance about how that can be done today.
I am grateful for the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s offer to work collaboratively, but I have to say that the House will generally have noted that he has used this crisis as an opportunity to make political capital and to have what I think a shadow spokesman called a “good crisis”—a “good crisis”. Can I commend a different approach, because he has attacked the Government’s strategy? Can I commend a different approach? The former Labour leader, the right hon. former Member for Sedgefield, who is not as fashionable on those Benches as he once was or should be—[Interruption.] Not with all of them; perhaps on the Front Bench, but not all of them. He had written a good piece in today’s Daily Mail, in which he supports—broadly supports—this Government’s strategy: praising UK drugs companies for what they are doing; supporting our search for a vaccine; and supporting mass testing in Liverpool, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman deprecates. I think what he should do is actually take a leaf out of the Blair book, and by the way, I can tell him that Tony Blair would not have spent four years in the same shadow Cabinet as Jeremy Corbyn, standing shoulder to shoulder with him.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Department for Transport is already engaged on that matter, and I am sure it would be happy to meet him and representatives from the iPort that he describes.
Let me take this opportunity to send my best wishes to our friends in the US during this anxious time. Donald Trump claimed an unsupported victory and major fraud, with millions of legitimate ballots left to count. I hope that the Prime Minister will join me in condemning his actions this morning.
On Monday, the Prime Minister agreed access to the furlough scheme for Scotland, at 80%, if lockdown restrictions require it. Subsequently, a number of his Ministers have rolled back on that promise, and the Scottish Government have not received any detail about what the commitment means in practice. Today is the Prime Minister’s opportunity to clear up this mess of his Government’s making. Will Scotland receive full 80% furlough and payments for the self-employed under current eligibility criteria, whenever that is requested by the Scottish Government in the months ahead?
I hesitate to accuse the right hon. Gentleman of failing to listen to what I said on Monday—I think he heard exactly what I said. I gave a commitment then, and I in no way budge from that. Furlough is a UK-wide scheme and it has helped to save about 10 million jobs in this country, including about 1 million in Scotland.
What the Prime Minister said on Monday was that if the devolved Administrations asked for furlough, it would be granted. That was the direct answer that he gave to the question. The Scottish Government have been waiting for clarity on whether Scotland will receive additional money as a result of increased spending from English local government, and there is also no clarity about whether the unlimited payments for business support in England will be made available on a similar demand-led basis. Will the Prime Minister clarify those two points now, and commit to confirming in writing to the Scottish Government today, that access to the furlough scheme will be there if they need it?
Perhaps the most efficient thing I can tell the right hon. Gentleman is that tomorrow, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be making a general statement about all the support and provisions that we are making for this latest phase to tackle the autumn surge of coronavirus. I repeat the points that I have made about Barnett consequentials—£7.2 billion has already gone to help Scotland, and we will support people in Scotland and throughout the UK during this crisis.
I thank my hon. Friend for campaigning for places of worship in the way that he does, and I am so deeply sorry that these restrictions have to be put in place right now. We will work as hard and fast as we can to allow people to worship in the way they want from 2 December, and that is why I hope the House will approve this package of measures tonight.
If every vote is counted in the US election, it is likely that Joe Biden will be the victor. The Prime Minister has a major challenge to build relationships with any incoming Administration. Therefore, in the light of Joe Biden’s entirely correct analysis of the impact on the Good Friday agreement of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, how quickly will the Prime Minister recognise the inevitable and remove those clauses from the Bill?
The UK Internal Market Bill, which has cross-party support, is a vital part of the armature—the skeletal structure—of the whole UK economy as we leave the European Union, and it ensures that goods and services placed on the market are available throughout the UK on the same terms. It is vital for our country and the hon. Gentleman should support it.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. We stand shoulder to shoulder with France, as I have told President Macron, and shoulder to shoulder with Austria, as I have told Chancellor Kurz, in our joint war against this abominable ideology. Together, we will defeat it.
I do indeed congratulate all the voluntary organisations that have stepped up, and I am proud that this Government have also helped to fund them to the tune of billions of pounds—not just the £9 billion increase in universal credit, but of course an extra £1.1 billion going to help councils. This Government will ensure that no child goes hungry this Christmas— this winter—thanks to any inattention or inactivity by Government. Never forget that it was a Conservative Government that instituted free school meals for five, six and seven-year-olds after all the years Labour was in power.
I do indeed believe that such a deal would be massively in the interests of our EU friends and partners, as well as anybody else, but that is of course up to them. What I can tell my hon. Friend is that we are supporting green technology of all kinds, particularly hybrid and battery vehicles, and we have just put another £49 million into grants for exactly the kind of vehicles that he and I have inspected and driven together so that this country can bounce back greener.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right, in the sense that, although the absolute numbers have not gone up in the way we feared, we are unquestionably seeing repeat victimisation in domestic contexts. It is intolerable. As the House knows, we have set up helplines to tackle it, and we are investing in refuges and independent domestic violence advisers. It is absolutely crucial that we tackle the scourge of domestic abuse and also deal with the mental health consequences for the victims. That is why we are investing massively in mental health and mental health charities.
An independent study published recently suggests that the writing ability of year 7 pupils is some 22 months behind expectations. My right hon. Friend will know that it is the life chances of the most disadvantaged that are hit hardest when schools close. We have rightly said that those children are an absolute priority for this Government. Will my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister give an assurance that, first, we will do whatever it takes to make up for lost ground and, secondly, we will never again contemplate closing our schools?
I thank my right hon. Friend. He is completely right about the paramount importance of keeping our schools open. Out of this crisis has come at least one potentially innovative idea that can really help exactly the types of pupils he is talking about: one-on-one tutoring of the kind that we have been able to support with our catch-up premiums and our national tutoring programme. As we come out of this pandemic, I want to see us keeping up with one-on-one tutoring because I believe it can make a huge difference to children’s confidence and academic attainment.
I listen to a huge range of scientific advice, and indeed there are eminent scientists and epidemiologists who say that we should not do any kind of lockdowns or measures like this at all—David Nabarro of the World Health Organisation, whom I esteem greatly, for instance. We have to take a balanced decision and make a judgment about when the right moment is. The hon. Gentleman talks about the long-term effects on people’s lives. We have to make a balanced judgment about the effects on people’s mental health, livelihoods and prospects, the prospects of young people, and the importance of saving lives and protecting our NHS. That is the balance we are trying to strike tonight, and I hope he will support it.
In a few short weeks, we end the transition period with the European Union. May I ask the Prime Minister to confirm that the transition team will endeavour to keep Dover clear of traffic gridlock, and that work will continue at pace on the proposed upgrade to the A2 between Whitfield and Dover’s eastern docks?
I thank my hon. Friend and I congratulate her on her campaign for the people of Dover. I can tell her that, thanks to her lobbying, Highways England is now developing plans to improve Brenley Corner junction and access into Dover along the remaining single-carriageway sections of the A2 from Lydden.
I hesitate to accuse the hon. Lady of not listening to what I have just said, but I want to repeat that the furlough is a UK-wide scheme that will, of course, continue to be available to the people of Scotland. For any further elucidation of the details of the entire package of support that this Government are putting in place for the people of the entire UK, I direct her to what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will say tomorrow.
A potential vaccine for covid provides us all with hope, and that hope is thanks to investment in research and development. The Prime Minister has pledged more money for research than any of his predecessors put together, to deliver on his vision of the UK as a global science superpower. Does he agree that maintaining the Government’s commitment to spend 2.4% of GDP on research and development by 2027 will also be essential for that vision?
You have asked for speed in my answers, Mr Speaker, and the answer to my right hon. Friend is basically yes. I reiterate that we are committed to that 2.4% and to increasing public investment in R and D by £22 billion by 2024-25.
I am very interested in what the hon. Lady says because, as she knows, this Government are investing massively in 5,000 low-carbon buses. I would be interested to know what type of coaches she is talking about and the details of the company that she rightly represents. That company should be eligible for bounce back loans and for all sorts of support. She is shaking her head, so I invite her to write to me with details of that company’s needs, and I will do my best to oblige her.
Northern communities, including my Cheadle constituents, have already been subject to restrictions for months, which has meant a disproportionate effect on northern livelihoods. The importance of the Prime Minister’s levelling-up agenda has never been starker, so today I ask him to fast-track infrastructure spending in the north, including Northern Powerhouse Rail and a new train station in Cheadle. Will the Government, with northern MPs and business leaders, formulate a northern economic recovery plan, to ensure that our region comes out of the pandemic stronger than ever?
I can certainly confirm that we are going ahead with Northern Powerhouse Rail. In addition, I can tell my hon. Friend that Cheadle will receive at least £500,000 from the towns fund to support the local high street and the local community.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think that he is raising the 1983 miners’ strike—or the early 1980s at any rate. I would be obliged to him if he could send me further particulars of his concerns, which I will do my best to address.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking teachers across Elmet and Rothwell for keeping the schools open this term, and does he share my frustration that half of the laptops that he provided to Leeds City Council for distribution to the city’s most vulnerable learners remain in the storeroom at Leeds Civic Hall? What can be done to get the Labour council to pull their socks up?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. That is indeed disappointing, because over 2,500 laptops and tablets and 400 routers were delivered to Leeds City Council for disadvantaged 10-year-old pupils. I will do whatever I can to spring those laptops from the cupboard as fast as I can.
Let’s head up to Manchester to see if they are in the cupboard with Jeff Smith.
They are not going to. The furlough scheme, as the hon. Gentleman knows, was extended until the end of October. We are putting in measures now to support people across the whole UK throughout this period until 2 December, and that is the right thing to do. We are putting our arms round the people of this country to get them through the pandemic and beyond.
I understand that the Prime Minister will soon receive from the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Transport a recommendation that we enable quarantine periods to be cut for air passengers who have tested covid-negative. When is a decision likely to be made, and will he look favourably on this proposal, which will allow the aviation industry in this country to get back to its rightful place?
I thank my hon. Friend. He is right to lobby for the aviation industry. This country has the third biggest aviation industry in the world. It is currently having a terrible, terrible time, and my sympathies are very much with all the employees involved. One of the benefits of getting polymerase chain reaction testing up to 500,000 a day is that we have new possibilities for testing of all kinds across the country. We will be bringing forward further measures and proposals as soon they are finalised.
What has possibly undermined people’s confidence in, and understanding of, what the Government are trying to do is the constant party political point-scoring, and the attempts by the Labour party and the hon. Lady to obscure what we are trying to do. The best thing would be to advise her constituents on what to do: follow the guidance, and get the virus down—and let us all do it together.
Levelling up will matter more than ever as we emerge from the pandemic next year, and I was delighted to see the first town deals announced last week. They will deliver transformative investment for places such as Darlington. Will my right hon. Friend prioritise rapid decision making in the cases of Middlesbrough and Loftus, which have applications pending for this vital fund?
Yes indeed, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on lobbying for Middlesbrough in the way that he has. I can tell him that Tees Valley is already getting £126 million from the local growth fund. The devolution deal will mean £450 million extra for transport, skills and employment, and Middlesbrough will get at least £500,000 from the towns fund, thanks at least in part to his lobbying.
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the issue. In addition to the £600 million care home action plan that we announced earlier this year, we will put further funding into care homes in the short term, but also making sure that we have long-term reform of that sector. As I said to the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) earlier, we will bring out specific guidance to enable people to visit loved ones in the way that they should and they must.
My right hon. Friend and I share similar libertarian views, and I guess that some of the decisions he has taken for the country’s common good were contrary to his personal creed and feelings. While those of us with higher political morals than Captain Hindsight on the Opposition Front Bench have sought to do our collective best during recent times, what does my right hon. Friend believe are the views regarding antisemitism, following the recent Equality and Human Rights Commission report, that the current Leader of the Opposition—a knight of the realm, no less—holds now? Does my right hon. Friend believe that they are any different from those the right hon. and learned Gentleman displayed when serving the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)?
The only comment I would make on all that was that I was genuinely amazed that the leader of the Unite union should make a remark of the kind that he did, and that the Labour party should remain in receipt of funding from Unite and take no steps to dissociate itself from that union after that remark. I did find that absolutely astonishing.
I am not going to pretend that every aspect of NHS Test and Trace has worked in the way that I wanted to, but as I said earlier on, it has achieved some very considerable things. What I think it has also done throughout the pandemic, from the get-go, is work with local authorities and local people. What we will be doing now, as we roll out the mass testing that I have described to the House in Liverpool and elsewhere, will be led by local people, and we will be working with those local authorities to deliver those programmes.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. May I seek guidance on the powers of the House to summon witnesses to attend Select Committee inquiries and answer questions on their businesses’ involvement in UK matters? I ask this because there is a very real public concern about Disney, which made the film “Mulan” among the Uyghur slave camps in Xinjiang, and is therefore implicated in the mass human rights abuses of the Uyghur people by the Chinese state and may be profiting from them.
You might have thought that Disney would want to come in front of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee to explain its position, but Disney—a firm based in Hammersmith and with a substantial footprint in the UK—and its representative, Jan Koeppen, are refusing to attend. Can you advise what steps can be taken to ensure that Disney fulfils its obligations, not only to Parliament but to the public? Can you confirm that the House can require Disney to attend and that a refusal could be a blatant contempt of Parliament? What should the Committee do next?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving me notice of her intention to raise this matter. It is very important that Select Committees have access to witnesses to assist them in carrying out their important work, and I am sure representatives of Disney will have heard what she has said. What I would say to Disney is that it is a major corporation, and it is good at communications, so I would expect it to reflect what it does as a business. If witnesses refuse to attend when invited, it is open to Committees to summon them formally. If a witness fails to appeal when summoned, I would expect that to be reported to the House. Consideration could then be given to how the matter could be taken forward. As I understand that the Committee has not yet taken the first step, which only it can do at this stage, it is therefore a matter for the Chair of the Committee. With the hon. Lady’s good offices, I do not think this will rest here today.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The suggestion has been raised on the Floor of the House this week that in the current pandemic we should have a special coronavirus Select Committee. I thought it would be helpful for hon. Members to know that the Science and Technology Committee and the Health and Social Care Committee are together embarking on a large inquiry into all aspects of the pandemic and all the lessons that need to be learned. On the issue of whether we should have lockdowns and what their scientific basis is, we will be having a session later this month to which we will be inviting the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care.
Once again, let me thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving me notice of his point of order. As he knows, it is not really a point of order for the Chair, but it is now on the record. Quite rightly, he has made his point, which follows Monday’s point of order. I do not want to get into a debate between the two—it is a matter for the House, not a matter for the Chair—so I think we will leave it at that, but I thank him for giving me notice.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June).
Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit employers dismissing employees and subsequently re-employing them for the purpose of diminishing the terms and conditions of employment; and for connected purposes.
Since I introduced the Employment (Dismissal and Re-employment) Bill in its first incarnation in June, I have been taken aback by the level of support for the measure. The messages I have received from people across the country asking how they can help and support the progress of my Bill have been touching and gratifying. I thank the great many colleagues from all parts of the House who have been supportive since the outset. That is perhaps evidenced by the fact that every political party that has elected Members in this place is represented in the list of sponsors of the Bill. I should add that without the help of Public Bill Office staff, I would have no Bill to speak to today, and I offer them my thanks for their help with getting it this far.
Tens of thousands of workers have been forced to the edge of a cliff by employers who have suddenly discovered the value of ignoring loyalty. Some 30,000 British Airways employees were told to suck up huge wage cuts and slashed conditions or join the dole queue. For some, this meant a cut in take-home pay of 60%-plus. They were told that they were the lucky ones. More than 10,000 of their colleagues have joined that queue.
Like many of my colleagues on the Transport Committee, I have received hundreds of emails from BA employees who have been subjected to such tactics. Those emails tell individual stories of fear, worry, anxiety, disappointment, anger and resignation, but they also paint a picture of a corporation intent on badness from the start. Workers who had decades of service with BA received emails just before midnight advising them to sign on the dotted line or face the sack. Employees who had recently returned from leave for ill health were told that their annual leave would be slashed, or they would face the sack. People were told that their wages would be slashed and they had no option but to accept, or face the sack. This is not how a modern, civilised country manages its labour market. These are the tactics and behaviour of characters from a Dickens novel, and the behaviour of these companies is like yet another remnant of the 19th century.
No one argues that the economic crisis that the world faces means that businesses do not have tough decisions to make; of course they do. The impact of covid-19 on commerce and industry will not disappear as soon as we have tackled the virus and normality begins to return. The after-effects will be long-lasting and damaging, but that does not give employers the right to behave like absentee lairds, returning to their assets only to inflict yet more damage on people they appear to hold in contempt.
We should expect—and, given their various answers and statements on the matter, the Government fervently hoped—that these companies might self-police their behaviour. Most other employers are able to treat their staff fairly, with decency and respect, but it is clear that we cannot rely on rogue bosses to show that same decency and fairness voluntarily. That is where the state, this Parliament and the UK Government must step in to guarantee fairness for every worker in the UK, as Governments around Europe have done in the past.
It is one of the sad ironies of the British Airways situation that in the other two countries where its parent company, International Airlines Group, operates—Ireland and Spain—fire and rehire tactics are banned. IAG could not tell its Aer Lingus subsidiary to copy and paste from the playbook of Willie Walsh and Alex Cruz, because the Irish Dáil took a decision to extend protections to workers in Ireland. Ireland’s economy is better placed, better structured and better regulated than that of the UK. It is time for the UK Government to learn lessons from our nearest neighbour and follow its lead.
The Government can, in the words of the Prime Minister himself, put their “arms around” millions of workers across these isles with one very simple action: put aside Government time for my Bill. Get it into Committee, where we can debate how best to offer workers more protection from rogue bosses, and encourage those who are yet to be convinced to back this measure. My Bill would simply amend the Employment Rights Act 1996 and equip workers with the tools to protect their living standards virtually overnight. It would put our labour market on a level playing field with those of our European friends and allies, and, crucially, it would put our workers on a level playing field with workers in the rest of Europe. It would put our businesses on notice that the Victorian era is fit for the history books, not a guide to human resources.
As I said to the Minister when we met to discuss the merits and content of my Bill, I am not precious about it being my Bill—this Bill—that makes the changes required. If the UK Government and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy come up with their own plan that achieves the same ends, I will wholeheartedly welcome it. I know that hon. Members on this side of the House would do the same, and that a great many of the Minister’s concerned colleagues, who have spoken to him about the issue, would also appreciate action.
Workers do not care whose name is on the Bill. They care that their interests are being protected and that their jobs are not being used as pawns in a war in which the only winners are the likes of Willie Walsh and well-upholstered shareholders. The Minister said that although he and the Government could not support the Bill at this time, he remained open to looking at the issue and further protections. I hope to continue the dialogue.
My Bill would make a simple amendment to the Employment Rights Act 1996 to add the re-employment of a worker on less favourable terms and conditions to the definition of unfair dismissal. That would allow employees to use the existing employment tribunal system to enforce their rights if required, and would mean that employers could no longer act with impunity. Amending the Act in that way would allow employees targeted for fire and rehire to take cases against unscrupulous employers and, where appropriate, secure reinstatement and compensation. In short, the Bill creates no extra bureaucracy, no extra administration and no extra complexity, but creates a necessary protection for workers that employers will be forced to respect or face judicial proceedings.
I am grateful for the opportunity to lay out the case for action in that area. I look forward to the Labour Party re-tabling an Opposition day motion on it to allow us to have a real discussion and debate on the finer points. I also look forward to one or two Conservative Members potentially attempting to justify the actions of rogue employers such as Willie Walsh and Alex Cruz. Their actions were and are utterly shameful and immoral and should be illegal. After wrecking thousands of lives, they have both skipped off into the sunset. Mr Walsh took an £800,000 bonus pay-off having thrown more than 10,000 loyal staff on the dole in the middle of the biggest economic crisis since the war and effectively rehired 30,000 more on reduced terms and conditions.
BA would say that fire and rehire has been taken off the table. Indeed, the outgoing chief exec told the Transport Committee a few weeks ago that that was the case, but there are two problems with that. First, a lot of the damage to thousands of lives has already been done. BA threatened the workforce with taking an effective pay-cut of 40%, 50% or 60% or taking redundancy, then followed through with the process of accepting voluntary requests, selecting who was successful in getting their old but less well-paid jobs back and making thousands more compulsorily redundant. Only then did it take fire and rehire off the table. That is callous and fools absolutely no one.
Secondly, it seems that employees under the BA/IAG umbrella still face being fired and rehired at the turn of the year. When Alex Cruz confirmed to the Committee that it had been taken off the table, he was being at best disingenuous and at worst misleading. I should say that there is a new management team in place at BA. I wish them well in fixing the mess and trying to repair the broken relationship with the workforce. They need a lot of luck.
It is not just British Airways. We said that its practice would be swiftly followed by others if the Government refused to follow the Prime Minister’s warm words with action, and so it has proven. Fellow blue-chip company, Centrica British Gas, has made the same fire and rehire threats to more than 20,000 of its employees, although it has not served notice on anyone at this point. Ground handler Menzies Aviation has also followed a similar path, despite assuring me personally that it would absolutely not be taking that approach. Many other companies across the UK, including Heathrow, have followed in British Airways’ dark and ever-growing shadow.
Trade unions across the board, including Unite, GMB, Unison and Prospect; thousands of betrayed BA and Centrica workers; thousands more who feel that they will be next; and crucially, I believe, a natural majority in this House are all demanding action from the Government. They should act sooner rather than later, back our constituents and give them the support and protection they deserve, not just in the short term during the pandemic and its economic impact, but in the long term as we collectively build the economic recovery that we all need and hope for. But that recovery will be a hollow one if the Government leave workers in the same position they were in previously, at the mercy of corporations that treat the lack of regulation over their actions as a green light to mistreat and bully their employees.
We must act to give workers security and dignity at work and my Bill would go some way—only some way, but an important way—to providing that security and dignity. I ask the Government and Government Members to go that way too and get behind my Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
That Gavin Newlands, Huw Merriman, Neil Gray, Chris Stephens, Lilian Greenwood, Sarah Olney, Sammy Wilson, Caroline Lucas, Stephen Farry, Claire Hanna, Liz Saville Roberts and David Linden present the Bill.
Gavin Newlands accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 29 January 2021, and to be printed (Bill 206).
I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Act and Measure:
Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Act 2020
General Synod (Remote Meetings) (Temporary Standing Orders) Measure 2020.
Business of the House (Today)
That, at this day’s sitting, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 16(1) (Proceedings under an Act or on European Union documents), the Speaker shall put any questions necessary to dispose of proceedings on the motion in the name of Secretary Matt Hancock relating to the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 (SI, 2020, No. 1200) not later than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the motion for this Order; such proceedings may be entered upon, though opposed, after the moment of interruption; and Standing Order No. 41A (Deferred divisions) shall not apply.—(Matt Hancock.)
[Relevant Document: Oral evidence taken before the Science and Technology Committee on 3 November 2020, on UK science, research and technology capability and influence in global disease outbreaks, HC 136.]
I beg to move,
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1200), dated 3 November 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 3 November, be approved.
We come together today to implement time-limited restrictions across England from midnight, so that we can contain the autumn surge of the virus, protect our NHS and save many lives. Of course, this is not something that any of us wanted to do. None of us came into politics to tell people once again to shutter their shops, furlough their staff or stay away from their friends and family. In common with all Members, I feel the pain and anxiety that we will all share in the month ahead. But as Prime Minister, when I am confronted with data which projects that our NHS could even collapse, with deaths in the second wave potentially exceeding those of the first, and when I look at what is happening among some of our continental friends and see doctors who have tested positive being ordered to work on covid wards and patients airlifted to hospitals in some other countries simply to make space, I can reach only one conclusion: I am not prepared to take the risk with the lives of the British people.
I know it might be tempting to think that, because some progress has been made, we just need to stay the course and see through our locally led approach. It is true that the extraordinary efforts of millions across the country—especially those in high and very high alert level areas—have made a difference, suppressing the reproduction rate of the virus below where it would otherwise have been. I want to record again my thanks to the millions who have put up with local restrictions. I want to thank the local leaders who have understood the gravity of the position.
But I am sorry to say that the number of covid patients in some hospitals is already higher than at the peak of the first wave. Even in the south-west, which has so far had lower case rates than most of the rest of the country, hospital admissions are over halfway to their first-wave peak. The latest analysis from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, published on Friday, suggests that the R remains above 1 in every part of England, which means that the virus is continuing to grow among the population. Every day that the number is above 1 is another day that the number of cases will rise, locking in more hospital admissions and, alas, more fatalities, pushing the NHS ever closer to the moment when it cannot cope.
Every one of us in this House has received numerous emails and telephone calls about the closure of church services. I understand that, and I am making a plea to the Prime Minister for that to be reviewed. For many people, it is the only outing they have in the week and the only opportunity to have any contact with people for prayer and contemplation. In Northern Ireland, churches have been able to remain open through the use of masks and hands, face, space. Could that be looked at? I believe that people across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would appreciate that, especially in England.
I know the hon. Gentleman speaks for many people in this House in raising that concern, and I feel it very deeply. It is an awful thing to restrict people’s ability to worship in a communal way. Obviously, as he knows, we are allowing private worship, but for many people that will not be enough. The best I can say is that in all reality, if we approve this package of measures tonight, we have a very good prospect of allowing everybody to return to communal worship in time for Christmas and other celebrations in December.
The course we have before us is to prevent R from remaining above 1 and to get it down, otherwise we face a bleak and uncertain future of steadily rising infections and admissions until, as I say, the capacity of the NHS is breached. I know there has been some debate about the projections of some of these models.
On uncertainty, we have had a week of uncertainty from the Prime Minister and his Cabinet on whether the extension of furlough will apply to Scotland if it chooses to go into lockdown, if it needs to go into lockdown, beyond 2 December. That comes after the Prime Minister’s Government refused the request of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Governments for furlough support at the end of September.
Can the Prime Minister finally provide us with a clear, unambiguous answer as to whether, if Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland requests 80% furlough after 2 December, it will be granted?
The hon. Gentleman cannot take yes for an answer. Not only will I come to that point later, but my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be saying more about the matter tomorrow, and the hon. Gentleman can interrogate him.
What I will say, on the point of uncertainty, is that I know there has been a debate about the statistics on how big the loss of life might be and on the precise point at which the NHS might be overwhelmed, but all the scientific experts I have talked to are unanimous on one point. As the chief medical officer has said, if we do not act now, the chances of the NHS being in extraordinary trouble in December would be very high.
Be in no doubt about what that means for our country and for our society. It means that the precious principle of care for everyone who needs it, whoever they are and whenever they need it, could be shattered for the first time in our experience. It means that those who are sick, suffering and in need of help could be turned away because there is no room in our hospitals—even in East Sussex.
All of us in this place will be concerned about saving lives. What evidence has my right hon. Friend received that we will save more lives by the lockdown he proposes than we will lose from public health, from a lack of jobs and from a mental health crisis? That is the evidence I seek from the Prime Minister today in order to cast my vote his way.
My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and it is the crux of the debate. Alas, as leaders and as politicians, we have to look at the immediate peril we face. I do not in any way minimise the risks to mental health and physical health that come from the measures we have to apply. That is, of course, why we debate and insist that we explore every other avenue before we go down that route, but we have to look at the real risk of mortality, and mortality on what I think would be a grievous scale, that would stem from doing nothing.
To give my hon. Friend a picture of what it would mean, those who are sick, suffering or in need of help could be turned away because there is no room in our hospitals.
I will give way in a moment.
Doctors and nurses could be forced to make impossible choices about which patients would live and which would die, who would get oxygen and who could not. I know that some Members, like my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), are hearing from their local hospitals that the pressure is not that great yet, but the whole point about a national health service is that when hospitals in one part of the country are overrun, sick patients are transferred to another, until the whole system falls over. Let me be clear that this existential threat to our NHS comes not from focusing too much on coronavirus, as is sometimes asserted, but from not focusing enough, because if we fail to get coronavirus under control, the sheer weight of demand from covid patients would not only lead to the covid casualties that I have described, but deprive other patients of the care they need. We simply cannot reach the point where our national health service is no longer there for everyone.
This fate is not inevitable. We are moving to these national measures here when the rate both of deaths and infections is lower than they were, for instance, in France, when President Macron took similar steps. If we act now, and act decisively, we can stem the rising waters before our defences are breached.
I accept the Prime Minister’s logic and think it is far more dangerous to do nothing than to do what he proposes, but does he accept that we need to learn some serious lessons from the first lockdown, particularly about the impact on cancer patients? There was a 100,000 backlog when it came to treatment and diagnosis at one point. Cancer Research UK estimates that 35,000 people might unnecessarily lose their lives to cancer because of wrong decisions. Will he accept that, while there are many hospitals that are, shall I say, clean sites, where covid is not being treated or is not present, there is an opportunity to use those sites to treat cancer patients, catch up with cancer, save those lives and not make the same mistakes as we did first time?
The hon. Gentleman is exactly right and has encapsulated the argument that we make. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary and I have talked repeatedly to Simon Stevens of the NHS and his teams about making sure that throughout this period, we continue to look after cancer patients—those who need the decisive care that the NHS can provide. I do believe that this approach—these regulations—are the way that we can do that.
I know there are many in this House who are concerned about how long these measures might last and that, if people vote for these regulations today, they could suddenly find that we are trapped with these national measures for months on end. So let me level with the House: of course, I cannot say exactly where the epidemiology will be by 2 December, but what I can say is that the national measures that I hope the House will vote for tonight are time-limited. It is not that we choose to stop them. They legally expire, so whatever we do from 2 December will require a fresh mandate and a fresh vote from this House. As I have made clear, it is my express intent that we should return to a tiered system on a local and regional basis according to the latest data and trends.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
The whole House will share my sorrow and regret at the necessity of these measures, which I know is a perspective shared by my right hon. Friend—I am happy to give way to him.
I have listened carefully to the argument and looked at the data very carefully. What I am troubled by—when I have looked at the basis on which the modelling has been done, both in terms of SAGE and the NHS—is that the modelling does not take into account the effect of the introduction of the tier system and any of the effects of it. I think, therefore, that we have acted too soon, because we are starting now to see the tier system working. The data from Liverpool yesterday, published by Steve Rotheram, is very encouraging and shows that the tier system is working, but the modelling that the NHS is using for its capacity usage does not take into account that introduction at all.
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. He is expressing a point of view that is shared by many people, but, alas, I believe that he is wrong. The facts do not support his view. I looked at the data and, unfortunately, this is what we have: hospitalisations mounting very, very steadily, which, as he knows, are leading indicators of fatalities. We have 2,000 more people on covid wards than this time last week and 25% more people today than there were last week and, alas, 397 deaths tragically announced yesterday —more than we have had for many months. The curve is already unmistakable and, alas, incontestable.
In the past two weeks, we have gone from seeing cases mainly among young people to them being mainly among older people. We have seen it going from a problem in a few cities to a problem across the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we do not need a fancy model to see the numbers piling up in hospitals and to see what has happened in France—because it has not taken action as quickly as we have—to know that the thing to do is to take action now, not just to save lives, but to save the economy as well?
The economic dimension of what we are doing is absolutely right and the argument, as my hon. Friend rightly says, works both ways. I know how difficult it is, particularly for businesses that have just got back on their feet, that have done their level best to make themselves covid-secure, installing hand- washing stations, plexiglass screens and one-way systems, and, as the Chancellor has set out, we will do whatever it takes to support them. We have protected almost 10 million jobs with furlough and we are now extending the scheme throughout November. We have already paid out £13 billion to help support the self-employed, and we are now doubling our support from 40% to 80% of trading profits for the self-employed for this month. We are providing cash grants of up to £3,000 per month for businesses that are closed, which is worth more than £1 billion a month and benefits more than 600,000 business premises. We are giving funding of £1.1 billion to local authorities in England further to support businesses in their local economy in the winter months.
The Prime Minister accused us earlier of not being able to take yes for an answer on differentiated furlough for the other nations of the UK. The problem is that we have not heard a clear, unequivocal yes to the question, so can he sort that out now? If Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland need to introduce lockdown measures at different times than England, will the Chancellor be there to support us with furlough?
Yes. I really do not know how to exhaust my affirmative vocabulary any further—they won’t take yes for an answer, Mr Speaker. All of this comes on top, as the hon. Gentleman knows—
With great respect, Mr Speaker, I think that I have answered the question and I think that my friends opposite are going to oppose.
This comes on top of the more than £200 billion that we provided since March. We will also ensure that, throughout this period, our schools stay open. We will not allow this virus to do any further damage to the future of our children. I said in the summer that we had a moral duty to reopen our schools as soon as it was safe to do so, and that they would be the last element of our society to close down again. We have stuck to that pledge. Our schools will remain open, as will colleges, universities, childcare and early years settings.
The measures before the House are designed to arrest the virus, to drive it down and to get on top of it once and for all. If we are able to test on a big enough scale to identify the people who are infected, often without symptoms and who unwittingly and asymptomatically pass the virus to others, those people will be helped immediately—this is the key thing—to self-isolate and to break the chains of transmission, reducing the spread of the virus, reducing the numbers of people in hospital, and reducing the numbers of people dying. I think that if we all play our part in this system it could be a hugely valuable weapon in our fight against covid in the short, medium and long term, and an alternative to the blanket restrictions that have been imposed in so many parts of the world.
This week we are piloting a mass test in Liverpool, where an immense effort benefiting from the logistical skill of the armed services will offer everyone a test, and our aim is to make mass repeated testing available for everyone across the country. Thanks to the pioneering work of British scientists, we already have a life-saving treatment for covid and the genuine possibility of a safe and effective vaccine next year. Taken together, these achievements provide every reason for confidence that our country can and will pull through this crisis, and that our ingenuity will prove equal to the challenge.
Will the Prime Minister give way?
No, I will not—I am finishing up.
This year, I and the whole of Government have asked much of the British people: more than any Prime Minister, I believe, has asked of the British people in peacetime. I have to say that the public have responded magnificently and selflessly, putting their lives on hold, bearing any burden, overcoming every obstacle, and tolerating every disruption and inconvenience, no matter how large or small—or inconsistent—so that they could do the right thing by their fellow citizens. I wish that it had been enough to defeat this autumn surge. But while I am more optimistic now about the medium and long-term future than I have been for many months, there can be no doubt that the situation before us today is grave and the need for action acute.
It is absolutely right for this House to have doubts—
Order. I am sorry, Prime Minister, but Mr Murrison, you cannot read newspapers in the Chamber.
It is absolutely right for hon. Members to consult relevant documents that may contain information to the advantage and betterment of the House.
He could have been reading his horoscope —come on!
I can assure my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) that his future is rosy.
It is right for Members on all sides of this House to have the doubts that have been expressed, to seek answers from me, and to provide scrutiny. That is the purpose and duty of the House of Commons. But while it pains me to call for such restrictions on lives, liberty and business, I have no doubt that these restrictions represent the best and safest path for our country, our people and our economy. So now is the time for us to put our differences aside and focus on the next four weeks in getting this virus back in its box. I know that once again our amazing country will respond to adversity by doing what is right—staying at home, protecting the NHS and saving lives. In that spirit, I commend these regulations to the House.
I know that a lot of Members want to speak, particularly on the Government Benches, and so I will keep my remarks brief.
Nobody votes for these regulations today with anything other than a heavy heart, on both sides of the House. I did not come into Parliament to restrict people’s freedoms, to prevent people meeting their friends and their loved ones, or to decide when people can and cannot leave their home or how many people may attend a funeral. I do not want Parliament to be closing businesses, gyms, bars or places of worship. Frankly, I do not want Parliament to be legislating on any of these issues, least of all after the British public have made so many enormous sacrifices already.
Parliament probably should have had more time to scrutinise the regulations, to amend them and to consult. There are going to be anomalies and inconsistencies that we cannot amend and probably could have been ironed out. I am very concerned about the impact on businesses who spent thousands of pounds becoming covid-secure, doing everything the Government asked, only now to be forced to shut. However, while these regulations are not in any way desirable or perfect, they are now necessary because the Government have lost control of the virus, and we will support them.
The country is at—indeed, we are several weeks past—the tipping point in the fight against the virus. We must never forget that on Monday, 397 people lost their lives to covid-19, more than 1,000 patients were on ventilators and there were over 20,000 positive cases. To anybody who disputes the trajectory of the virus or what the cost of inaction would be, I would point out that when SAGE warned 44 days ago that if we did not act at that time there would be catastrophic consequences, there were then, six weeks or so ago, 11 deaths from covid-19, just over 4,000 infections and 181 people on ventilators. That is not graphs. That is not projections. That is the grim facts in the past few weeks, and we know that the figures double, then double and then double again. That direction of travel has been clear for some time, and I am afraid the reality is that the two pillars of the Government’s strategy—the £12 billion track and trace and the regional restrictions—have been washed away by the second wave. If we are to have any chance of getting the virus back under control, to prevent many more people from falling ill or losing their loved ones and to protect the NHS, we need to take decisive action now.
There are some wider points I want to raise, and I suspect that they are shared points. There needs to be additional support during the lockdown. This is going to be incredibly hard for the British public. Millions of people tonight are really anxious about what will happen over the coming weeks. They are anxious on the health front for themselves and their friends and family, and anxious about their jobs. That is why we called for the restrictions to be put in place some weeks ago when there could have been a shorter period, which would have been better on the health front, with fewer lives lost, and better on the economic front.
More broadly, I was struck by the words of the chief executive of Mind, who warned earlier this week that the second lockdown was likely to be even harder on people’s mental health. We know that there has already been a large increase in demand for mental health services, so there needs to be emergency support in the next few weeks to address this. I think that this is a cross-party issue that we can work on together. I am also concerned about domestic violence, which was one of the issues in the first lockdown. We saw an appalling rise in domestic violence during that period. The charity Refuge reported a 50% increase in demands to its helpline, and there was a 300% increase in visits to its website. I passionately believe that we need to do much more as a country and as a Parliament to tackle this, and that must start with a clear, well-resourced plan for addressing domestic abuse during this lockdown and this winter.
I want to turn to the question of faith, which has already been raised. These regulations will have a serious impact on faith communities and places of worship. There is real concern across faiths about the lack of consultation, and I hope that the Government can urgently address that, including by convening the places of worship taskforce.
The leaders of every single faith community have now written to the Government asking for the evidence behind the closure of churches during the next four weeks. The fact is there is almost certainly no evidence. Can the right hon. and learned Gentleman confirm that all the faith communities —Muslims, Jews, Christians—have really done their best to comply, through cleansing and in every other way, and will he demand of the Government now that the churches, mosques and temples are opened as soon as possible?
On the question of whether all faiths have done their level best to comply, I do agree. A huge amount of effort has gone in, in places of worship and many other places, to try to defeat the virus. The British public have done a huge amount, and so have all the institutions and faith organisations, to try to keep the virus down, but the truth is that it is out of control. The taskforce needs to be convened so that these issues can be discussed during the next few days and weeks, because this is a very deep issue for many people.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is making some very important points. Does he accept that, for churches and other faith communities, although the buildings themselves may not be sacred, what goes on within them is? We have noticed over the last few months the importance of verbal and non-verbal cues when people are gathered together, which allows them to help one another when they are mentally and emotionally struggling. While I understand the logic behind the closure of these places, it is potentially hugely damaging to people’s mental health and wellbeing. Does he agree that this needs to be reviewed at the soonest possible opportunity?
I do agree that it should be reviewed as soon as possible. I think that is probably a shared sentiment across the House, as nobody wants these measures to be put in place. It is a bit like the care homes issue that I raised earlier. We all know the risks to care homes from the first phase of the pandemic, and we all know the toll that the next few weeks are going take—not only on those in care homes, but on the families who are desperate to visit those in care homes. That is why I think it may be possible, on a cross-party basis, to find a way to have safe visits during the next few weeks. There are very difficult questions.
Let me turn to the question of homelessness, which is already a moral emergency in this country. The lockdown now comes as the weather has turned, the winter is setting in and sleeping rough is more dangerous than ever. It is therefore vital that the Government restart the “Everybody In” programme and reintroduce the evictions ban so that we do not see a further spike in homelessness. That needs to be done urgently.
More broadly, the Prime Minister needs to show that he has a plan B on 2 December to control the virus and rebuild the economy and a clear strategy to ensure that we never, ever get into this situation again. The explanatory notes in the regulations show just how vague the plans for 2 December are, as they say: “It is expected that at the end of the 28-day period, the previous alert levels introduced in October will once again be brought into force. This policy is subject to review”. There are millions of people who have been in restrictions for many months who will be very worried about that paragraph.
Let us take Leicester as an example. Leicester has been in restrictions for over 120 days. It is very hard to make the argument to the people of Leicester that the restrictions are working. It is very hard to make the argument to the people of Greater Manchester, who were in the equivalent of tier 2 restrictions for six weeks, that the tiered system is working. That is because the public’s experience of the tiered system is that areas that are in tier 1 or the equivalent end up in tier 2, and that areas that have been in tier 2, sometimes for weeks on end, drift towards tier 3. If the tier system worked, tier 2 areas would go back to tier 1; that would be success. But, actually, the vast majority—if not all of them—have gone up to tier 3.
The Prime Minister sometimes says that this is a party political issue, but it is not. If the idea at the end of the exercise on 2 December is to go back to the system that we are leaving tonight, when that system—certainly in tiers 1 and 2—simply is not working, that is very hard for the public, because they know that that is not going to keep them safe, they know that it puts further health and economic matters at issue and they know that it means that Christmas is not going to be what it could be.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is talking about my constituency. I gently point out to him that during the period of the most restrictions in Leicester, the number of cases did come down from 160 to 25 per 100,000. That shows that tough controls of the kind that we are about to vote to bring in today do work.
Let me help people. A few Members have now intervened a couple of times. We want to get everybody in. If they go down the list, I am sure that they will appreciate that.
I have looked at the Leicester figures frequently; they do go up and down, but Leicester has never come out of the restrictions. It is a point that I have been making, and it is not a party political one. The point is that if an area is in restrictions and does not come out, the restrictions are not working. If an area was in tier 2 restrictions and ends up in tier 3, tier 2 did not work. To go back to that system does not make any sense. For heaven’s sake, we have got to use the next four weeks to come up with something better than that for 2 December, otherwise we will do the usual thing, which is to pretend that something is going to happen on 2 December, and then, when we get there, find out that what we said would happen will not happen. I can predict what is going happen because it has happened so many times in the past seven months: the Prime Minister says, “x won’t happen”; x will happen; it does happen; and we start all over again. It is not fair to the British public to pretend that something is going to happen on 2 December.
Is not the right hon. and learned Gentleman confounding his own logic? He has spent the past several days berating the Government for not introducing a circuit breaker, but at no time did I hear him explain how we would leave the circuit breaker, which it seems to me was simply the half-term holiday rebadged.
The lower the rate of infection and the lower the admissions, the more chance there is to get the virus under control. That is why you have to go early. If you want to safeguard the economy, go early. How on earth has it helped the British economy to delay and to go into a lockdown for four weeks when, on 21 September, SAGE was saying it could be two to three weeks? How on earth has it helped the British economy to miss the chance to do lockdown over half-term?
All Members will have seen the data about schools. We all want schools to stay open. How on earth did it make sense to miss half-term? Most schools would happily have said, “We’ll get up early—the Thursday before half-term—and we’ll use Monday and Tuesday as inset days,” and we could probably have got the best part of two weeks of schools being closed naturally, because of half-term, and have the lockdown over then. I do not think there can be anybody in this House who does not think that would have been a better period for a circuit break, lockdown—call it what you like.
It has not helped the economy to waste three weeks. If, at the end of those three weeks, the Prime Minister could say, “Well, there we are—the tiered system is now working, and I’m going to stick with it,” that would be one thing, but the Prime Minister is now saying, “I am going to do the lockdown,” which is failure. That is failure.
The next four weeks cannot be wasted—cannot be wasted. We have got to fix test, trace and isolate. The last figures show that, in just one week, 113,000 contacts were missed by the system. Four in 10 people who should be contacted are not being contacted under the system. If you are not contacted, you cannot isolate. It is not just a number; that is 113,000 people walking round our communities when they should have been self-isolating. Hands up if you think that has helped to control the virus.
We have been on about the track, trace and isolate system for months. The promises come by the wheelbarrow, the delivery never. Only 20% of people who should be isolating are doing it. Something is going wrong. Just continually pushing away challenge and pretending the problem does not exist is a huge part of the problem. Those figures have got to turn around, and they have got to turn around in the next four weeks. If we get to 2 December and those problems are still in the system, we will be going round this circuit for many months to come. If this is not fixed in the next four weeks, there are massive problems.
The Government have also got to stop sending constant mixed messages: “Go back to work, even if you can work from home,” or “Civil servants, get to work,” only a week later to say, “Stay at home.” The constant changing of the economic plans is creating even more uncertainty. There have been huge mistakes made in recent weeks during this pandemic. We have been told so many times by the Prime Minister, often on a Wednesday afternoon, that there is a plan to prevent a second wave—it is working. Well, there was not, and it did not.
Now, less than four months after the Prime Minister told us that this would all be over by Christmas, we are being asked to approve emergency regulations to shut the country down. That is a terrible thing for the country to go through, but there is not any excuse for inaction or for allowing the virus to get further out of control, so Labour will act in the national interest, and we will vote for these restrictions—these regulations—tonight.
I say to Members that we are going to start with a four-minute limit, starting with Theresa May.
May I first say that I do not envy my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Government the decisions that they are having to take and the difficult position they find themselves in? This pandemic has challenged Governments across the world, and Ministers have been under relentless pressure in dealing with this issue. However, just as Ministers are making tough decisions, so is Parliament, and Parliament will make better decisions if it is fully and properly informed.
I want to comment on the circuit breaker idea. I looked at the SAGE paper of 21 September and what was absolutely clear was that this was not a two-to-three-week circuit breaker, full stop, end of story. It would have had to have been repeated, possibly again and again, and I doubt if any economy could have borne the irreparable damage that would have done, with the impact on lives that that would have had, which would have been significant.
Of course the Government introduced the tiered approach. I would echo the comment made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) that one of the issues with that approach is that we have not had a proper analysis of its impact. The evidence from Liverpool shows that the number of cases is falling. I raised this in a briefing the other day and was told that that was because fewer students were coming forward to be tested. But when we look at the figures, we see that the number of cases is actually falling across the age ranges. We need a proper assessment of how the tiered approach is working.
There are other examples of figures being used in a way that I think has been unhelpful to Parliament and to the public. Let me take the 4,000 figure. The decision to go for this lockdown appears to have been based—partly, mainly or to some extent—on the prediction that there would otherwise be 4,000 deaths a day. But if we look at the trajectory shown in that graph, we see that we would have reached 1,000 deaths a day by the end of October. The average number of deaths in the last week of October was 259, by my calculation. Each of those deaths is a sadness and our thoughts are with the families, but it is not 1,000 deaths a day, so the prediction was wrong before it was even used. This leads to a problem for the Government, because for many people it looks as though the figures are being chosen to support the policy, rather than the policy being based on the figures. We need these proper analyses; we need to know the details behind these models; and we need to be able to assess the validity of the models.
There is one set of data that has not been available throughout. There is a lack of data on the costs of the decisions being made: costs in non-covid treatment in the NHS, and in non-covid deaths; costs in domestic abuse; costs in mental health, with possibly more suicides; and of course costs to the economy, with jobs lost, livelihoods shattered, businesses failing and whole sectors damaged. What sort of airline industry will we have as we come out of this? What sort of hospitality sector will there be? How many small independent shops will be left? The Government must have made that assessment, so let us see it and make our own judgments.
I want to make one point about public worship, echoing the concerns of others. My concern is that the Government today making it illegal to conduct an act of public worship, for the best of intentions, sets a precedent that could be misused by a Government in future with the worst of intentions, and that has unintended consequences. The covid-secure remembrance service in Worcester cathedral will now be turned into a pre-recorded online service. Surely, the men and women who laid down their lives for our freedom deserve better than that.
The public and Parliament want to support the Government to take the right decisions, and to do that we need to have the right figures, the right data and the proper information.
Congratulations on your anniversary, Mr Speaker.
We in the SNP are not unused to the Prime Minister scuttling out before our spokesperson gets to their feet, but the fact that he could not wait four minutes to listen to his predecessor was, I think, extremely unfortunate. Like her, I want to acknowledge the personal tragedies and loss of life caused by the pandemic and extend our condolences to everyone who has lost a loved one this year.
I will be as brief as I can, because none of us wants to deny the 48 Tory Back Benchers lined up on the call list the opportunity to make their views known to their Government. Perhaps even more Members would be taking part if the Government had allowed them to continue to contribute virtually in this Chamber. Asking Members to travel hundreds of miles to Westminster while the public are being asked to stay at home looks increasingly untenable and puts too many staff of the House at risk. Perhaps it suits the Government not to hear from their own Back Benchers with constituencies or households in the high-risk category.
In any event, had the Standing Orders on English votes for English laws not been suspended during the pandemic, this motion would be subject to the double majority procedure, which would have had the effect of negating any votes cast by MPs representing Scottish constituencies. I can confirm that the SNP will not be taking part in any Division arising from the motion, which probably gives the Government some comfort in the Lobbies. That is because the development and implementation of public health policy is devolved across the United Kingdom, and it is right that the relevant legislatures should make decisions for their own areas and not interfere in the decisions of others. However, the Tory Government’s continued delays and obfuscation on the provision of economic support, especially for job retention and furlough, have effectively interfered with the ability of the devolved Administrations to make the decisions that they might have wanted to, so even if we are not voting on the motion before us, we have to use this opportunity to press the Government yet again.
The obfuscation is continuing—even at Prime Minister’s questions and in the Prime Minister’s responses to my hon. Friends who intervened on him. On Monday, to Members across the House from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the Prime Minister kept saying that furlough was UK-wide. Then, conveniently, in response to the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), he said “of course” furlough would be available whenever the devolved Administrations need it. Today at Prime Minister’s questions, he said, “Well we have to wait for the Chancellor to make a statement tomorrow.”
The Prime Minister repeatedly says that the SNP will not take yes for an answer. We will take yes for an answer when it is put in writing to the Scottish Government and it is clear and unambiguous. This Tory Government must urgently engage with the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and confirm that if any of those Governments move all or part of their territories into lockdown-level restrictions, with the closure of non-essential retail, hospitality and leisure, funding will be available on the current furlough terms for employers to retain staff at 80% of their wages.
The Scottish Government are also still waiting for clarity on Barnett consequentials as a result of increased spending for English local government, and there is still no clarity on whether the unlimited payments for business support in England will be made available on a similar demand-led basis for Scotland. That has to come in writing, on usual-channels terms, from the Chancellor before he gets up and makes his statement in the House tomorrow.
As I said to the Prime Minister in the Chamber on Monday, his furlough scheme is in place across the UK until December this year; the equivalent scheme in Germany is in place until December 2021. That is the kind of certainty that employers and employees alike are crying out for. That is the kind of certainty that businesses need in order to plan for and adapt to a health and economic crisis that will not go away any time soon.
That is why the Government must use this time wisely and well. They must use the period of heavier restrictions to work with the devolved Administrations to improve test and trace across the United Kingdom and to ensure that capacity and support gets to where it is needed in the four health services, and they have to put in place provision to support businesses and the economy in a way that will provide certainty for however long the crisis lasts.
I want to acknowledge, as the First Minister of Scotland has repeatedly, that lockdown is tough. There are hard times behind us and hard times ahead, and all of us in the SNP want to say thank you—thank you to our amazing NHS and social care workers and others on the frontline; thank you to the businesses owners who are being forced to close and to their employees, who are making huge sacrifices; and thank you to the excluded, who have had no support whatsoever from this Government and are still holding their heads high.
The rules being introduced in England today and the restrictions in place elsewhere in the UK are difficult, but they are necessary. They help us to protect ourselves, they undoubtedly help us to protect our loved ones and those around us, and they help wider communities. They definitely help to protect our NHS and, ultimately, they help to save lives. We thank everyone making sacrifices to follow these restrictions. Together, we will get through this.
I agree with what the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) said in giving thanks and recognising the sacrifice that many have made in their lives, their work and their relationships.
Where the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister agree on these regulations, I shall agree as well. Were it possible to table amendments, I would have done so. I have been to three church services recently. One was for a funeral, one was the morning service on Sunday, and the other was the monthly communion at St Margaret’s, where I am the parliamentary warden. All those services were covid-safe. I believe that if we have to come back to this again, the Government ought to be able, with the faith leaders—the Jews, the Muslims, the Christians and other faith groups—to find a way for them to provide for at least a body of people to be together with the celebrant, with others participating remotely.
May I also say that after 34 years, Pamela Carrington, who has looked after successive rectors of St Margaret’s, Westminster, is retiring? I pay tribute to her this afternoon, and I hope that it may be possible in the future, Mr Speaker, for you to make a presentation to Pamela Carrington in recognition of all the support that she has given to Members of Parliament. We thank you for letting us use your dining room in normal times for our monthly breakfast, too.
On the regulations, provision has been made for the centenary of the tomb of the unknown warrior in Westminster Abbey. I am glad that that has been built in. That was thoughtful. Perhaps as a result of the work of Coxswain Iain McKenzie in my constituency, who raised the question of the Submariners Association memorial on the Embankment, provision for remembrance attendance, appropriately and safely, is in the regulations. I give my support to that.
I want to come to the points where I believe we have not got it right. I believe that two people playing tennis, separated by a net, can do so safely, and as safely as if they went for a walk. The golf restrictions are unnecessary. There is obviously responsibility on a club or a premises, but I think that should be possible. If I can go for a walk with a dog or a cat or fly after my parrot—I do not have any of those—I ought to be able to go around with golf clubs. There are interesting questions as to whether swimming, so long as one does not have infection risks in changing rooms, can be safe. Basically, I think that all separated sports should be allowed. I can see the problem with more intimate sports, such as wrestling and other recreations of that kind, but I believe that we ought to be able to make provision for people to get exercise.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I give way—to a wrestler?
I am not a wrestler, but I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on the issue of physical activity. I have just heard from councillors in my constituency that, under the restrictions, a skate park for young people has to be closed. How can that be sensible when young people need something to do? It will just end up being damaged while it is closed as they try to break into it. They can socially distance and have physical activity, which is also good for their mental health.
I hope the Secretary of State for Health will pass that on to other people to see if provision can be made and guidance provided. Obviously, there are going to be boundary problems, with one side saying yes and one side saying no. There ought to be space in between where, under conditions, that is possible. We all have to take responsibility for contributing to reduced social contact to reduce risk, but if we do those things, we can learn from what we have done in the past and do it better in the future. I hope that this month of restrictions has the effect that we all want it to.
I want to finish by saying that we are not just looking at these regulations. I still criticise the Government for using the covid provisions to bring forward the regulation to put extra storeys on leaseholders’ blocks of flats. That was improper. It was not necessary and it should not have happened. I return to the last point, which the Chancellor will be dealing with: what will the compensation be for those who are affected and are not getting support? The people in the events industry, whether music or exhibitions and so on, and those in the freelance sector, which has been a growing part of our economy for the past 20 years, seem to have been hung out to dry. Those who started new businesses—we know that four out of five new businesses do not last—in the past year or so seem to have been excluded. I believe we have a duty to do more for those people. The excluded should be included.
I will not be supporting the Government’s regulations in the Lobby later this afternoon.
There are two reasons for a lockdown: to save lives, and to buy time to improve the situation. I do not believe that, when one looks at the details, the Government have provided the information necessary to vote on those issues, or that one can have any faith that they will improve the situation at the present time. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), the Leader of the Opposition, made a devastating case for the Government’s incompetence over this period.
If we look at saving lives, the problem is that we have had exaggerated claims, both by the Government and some scientific advisers, about the consequences of not having a lockdown. People are undoubtedly dying of this dreadful disease, but we have not been given the other side of the equation. We have not been told how many people will die of cancer or need various other treatments. We have not been told how many people are likely to commit suicide. For us to take a decision in the round, we need both those figures. We need the figures on the economic catastrophe that is happening in my constituency and in other parts of the country because of the lockdown, and on the long-term consequences for the jobs of the people we all represent. That is one side: we simply do not have the information about that.
In terms of improving the situation, we have a national test and trace system that does not work because the Government do not want it to work and because it is fundamentally flawed. If contracts are given out beforehand to private companies, which need to be nimble on their feet and act quickly in order to respond to a particular outbreak, the contracts often cannot respond to that. In one case in the centre of Manchester, workers from the central test and trace system walked off site because the contract said that they did not have to work after 10 o’clock.
The central system simply will not work. It cannot pass on the information in time and the responses are getting back to the people who can do something about them in more than three days. I talked to the north-west regional health people earlier this week, and they said that their time for returning the information is more than three days. If people are going to infect other people, that time is lost.
The system does not work because it is centralised. The history of public health in this country is of decentralisation. Local people can find out where there is a problem, whether it is in a school, a factory or a street, and do something about it. They can test and get people to isolate. The central system will not work. If I believed that the Government were going to improve it over this period, I might be tempted to vote for these regulations, but they will not. They have failed to give us information not just about the economy and the other side of the equation—the damage to people’s health —but about what is happening in the health service, so I cannot join them in the Lobby.
I rise in sadness, because I simply have to say to the Government that I cannot support them today, and I want to set out the reasons why.
I say to my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary—I have supported him enormously in every task he has had, and I stand behind him on most of these charges—that this is difficult; the Government face the most terrible compromise and consequences. I obviously feel for them and I want them to succeed, but we are taking arguably the second largest decision that any Government have taken since the second world war. The first was back in March. Locking down an economy plunges individuals and businesses into a terrible state of lost jobs.
We are doing this on the basis of SAGE’s advice on Saturday—it was leaked on Friday night. I thought that the leak was appalling. Whoever did it should it be sacked, strung up to dry, made to come here to apologise and grovel out the door on their hands and knees, and beaten on the way out. What they did was appalling because they bounced the Government. I would like to think that the Government would have spent their time investigating the data that was presented to them, which has subsequently unravelled in the past few days. I would have loved them to have looked at it carefully and understood it. For example, SAGE talks about reaching 4,000 deaths by December, but even Professor Whitty said yesterday:
“I think all of us would say that the rates will probably be lower than that top peak…I think there has been some rather overblown rhetoric on this.”
Well, it was SAGE’s overblown rhetoric, in case he missed the point. The reality is that that figure has turned out to be incorrect. Professor Tim Spector of King’s College London has said that he believes that the rate is now at 1, and is falling after some plateauing. There is good evidence that, across the board, the tier system is beginning to work.
I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was not able to stay for the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—he must have been busy—but she made the point that I want to make now. As she has said previously, many of the tests were looked at before the tier system has a chance to bite. I thought that what the Prime Minister did back in October, when he chose to go for a tier system, was brave because SAGE was arguing for a circuit breaker. By the way, I hate the term “circuit breaker”. It is a euphemism that is appalling. It is not a circuit breaker, it is a business breaker and, as the Prime Minister said himself, it is a very big decision. It is a decision that damages lives, and the people who will be damaged by it will be the poorest in society, because they will lose their jobs. The loss of a job is not just an income problem. It is about self-respect; it is about status; it is what someone does. It is about how someone stands up in front of their family and shows them that they are bringing money back to the house and improving their lot.
All these measures are damaging, and I believe that this decision was not necessary now. The Government could use the tier system to ensure that we press down on covid, and evidence from all the areas we have looked at in Liverpool and the north-west shows that levels of the disease are beginning to come down. I believe that further such pressure would work. All the data that are now unravelling do so on the basis that, as we move into a full lockdown, the damage to the economy will be enormous. I ask my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether we may now urgently have an economic impact assessment to show what the damage will be to our economy, livelihoods, lives and people’s wellbeing and mental status, and I will oppose these measures tonight.
I wish to set out my concerns about the regulations, primarily because I believe that economic pain will be inflicted on my constituency, and hardship on my constituents. We have unintended health consequences from the first lockdown, the Government lack a plan to deal with the backlog, and they are failing with the testing system, not least because they decided to hand it to the private sector. Let me remind the House of the Prime Minister’s response to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). On 20 May he said that
“we will have a test, track and trace operation that will be world-beating, and yes, it will be in place by 1 June.”—[Official Report, 20 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 568.]
The Government introduced changes to local restrictions for September, before the tier restrictions were passed in this House on 13 September. Those measures were supposed to be reviewed on 11 November, and not enough time was allowed to assess whether they were working. It appears that they might have been working, because we have seen a notable improvement in the infection rate in Merseyside and Halton. I speak to hospitals in my constituency on a regular basis. I know that they are under a great deal of pressure, and what a fantastic job everybody who works there is doing. I will continue to keep an eye on that.
In the proposed regulations, the Government state that a “vulnerable person” could be
“any person aged 70 or older,”
“any person aged under 70 who has an underlying health condition.”
The Government believe—rightly—that it is important to give the meaning of a “vulnerable person”, but they do not set out how we can specifically protect that group. That is shocking, given that that group of people make up a significant proportion of patients who are admitted to hospital with covid. That vulnerable group must be better protected to save lives and ease the pressure on our hospitals. People tell me that they simply cannot afford to live on £95.85 a week, and that they have to choose between putting their health at risk from covid and not being able to afford the things they need. They are frightened and going to work. The Government should be focusing everything possible on that clinically vulnerable group.
Instead of sensibly shielding our most vulnerable people, why are the Government closing businesses when there is no evidence to suggest that they are responsible for the spread of covid? There is no reliable evidence for closing gyms or stopping golf and tennis, and no evidence to suggest that such activities are responsible for spreading covid. In coming to their decision, the Government do not appear to have taken into account how many organisations and businesses have invested large amounts of money to become covid-safer, which was not the case prior to the first lockdown. Where is the evidence that churches pose a significant risk? Constituents tell me that going to mass helps them, and there is no evidence for this measure.
Today, figures from the Office for National Statistics show that many more people are being paid below the minimum wage. Many of those are younger, low-paid people in the hospitality and service industry.
I have written to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care three times since April to ask him to put Halton forward as an ideal place for mass testing. My requests have been ignored. Liverpool has now been chosen to be a mass testing area. Although Halton is included in the city region for tier 3 restrictions, we have not been included in the testing. Why has Halton not been included in that mass testing?
The 18-week NHS target has been missed by a quite considerable amount for people on waiting lists with a range of conditions, from cancer to coronary disease and gynaecological conditions. A significant number of my constituents have not been seen or treated in time, which may mean that some people with treatable conditions are not treatable in the future. There is real suffering going on in my constituency, and there is, of course, an effect on mental health. I cannot support these regulations as they stand.
May I start by apologising for reading a newspaper during the Prime Minister’s contribution? Mr Speaker was quite right. However, I was not, in my defence, reading my horoscope, even if the Prime Minister kindly did. I wonder whether, in mitigation, I could bring to the House’s attention the headline that I was reading in the Metro this morning, which says, “Vaccine on front line in a month”. Just imagine my excitement at reading that. I hope that the Metro is correct, but I gently point out to those on the Front Bench that, in the event that it is not correct and we do not get a game changer soon, we will seriously have to think about a plan B. In the few minutes available to me, I shall explain why I think that is the case.
Irrespective of the Prime Minister’s kind remarks about my future career prospects, I will be supporting the Government this evening. I cannot think of a single issue since 2003 that has occupied me quite as much as this, and I have agonised over my choice. I am going to support the Government because it hinges on one thing for me, which is that schools are remaining open, which I have discussed with the Secretary of State. In the light of evidence produced by Ackland et al in Edinburgh, it seems to me that it would be foolhardy to close down schools based on deaths to do with covid, due to the consequences of such an extraordinary move. It is the right decision to keep schools open and prioritise them, and it is for that reason that I will be supporting the Government this evening.
I will also be supporting the Government this evening because it seems to me that, broadly speaking, they are doing the same thing that other jurisdictions are doing, and there is safety in numbers. I will be supporting the Government too because of the wide margin of uncertainty that attends all this and a sense of some humility in trying to examine all this complicated material and make sense of it. Finally, I shall be supporting the Government because I know that the Prime Minister, who shares many of the libertarian instincts that I hold, has pushed back as much as he can on some of the advice that has been given to him. I find that convincing, and if I was in any doubt, having analysed the data over the weekend, that has pushed me over the line in the decision I have made.
I am concerned about the clarity of data and the logistics chains for the vaccine that the Metro hopes will be with us within a month. As the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care knows, I am concerned because I have granular evidence from my constituency that the organisations that can provide the wherewithal to guarantee the cold chain necessary for the distribution of the vaccine have not yet been tapped into. I cite the company Polar Thermal in my constituency, which is a leader in this technology and has yet to be contacted.
I am concerned about the lack of a plan B. Plan B has been made all the more possible by the advent of lateral flow testing technology, which will facilitate focused protection if necessary, and we need to give much closer thought to that. I am concerned about places of collective worship. I am concerned about non-contact sports such as tennis and golf. I understand the logic behind proscribing those activities, but we have to treat the British public as adults and individuals with autonomy and agency. I respectfully disagree with the decisions that have been made on those fronts, and I hope very much, particularly if this sadly has to be continued beyond the beginning of December, that they are looked at again.
I have been feeling quite emotional today, not just because of the news that is coming from the US, but because of the gravity of what we are being asked to debate and vote on. Having been an MP for only 11 months, I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would be asked to make a decision such as this.
I am horrified by the regulations that I am being asked to vote for today. I am horrified by the impact that the restrictions will have on people’s lives, their mental health and their livelihoods. I am horrified by the upward trajectory in infection and hospitalisation rates, and the bleak projections that so many experts have presented to us. I am horrified that we are being put in this position in the first place by a Government who have dithered and delayed when we might have had a second, shorter lockdown sooner, while schools were closed for half-term, to try to get the virus under control.
I am horrified that the warnings from the Academy of Medical Sciences that I put to the Secretary of State back in July about addressing the test and trace system were not acted on. Alongside all the draconian and damaging measures that we are being asked to support—my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I feel we have absolutely no option but to vote them through—there is not a shred of evidence that the Government will use this lockdown wisely to address the deficiencies in the main weapon that we have until a vaccine comes along, which is to test, trace and isolate every case to keep people safe and to keep our economy going.
We hear a lot about testing, but nothing about boosting contact tracing rates by allowing local authorities to lead the tracing, as they have so effectively proved they can do, and nothing about properly supporting, practically and financially, those who need to self-isolate. Even the Prime Minister has finally acknowledged that the sub-20% isolation rates are a major problem. Although I and other Opposition Members have made the case for such measures for some time, I am pleased that, finally, Conservative Members—not least the former Health Secretary and Chair of the Health Committee, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt)—are now also doing so. If the Secretary of State will not listen to me and other Opposition Members, will he please listen to the right hon. Gentleman, and, for the sake of our country—for people’s lives, their wellbeing and their jobs—listen and act wisely during the next four weeks? There is no shame in changing course and learning from other countries.
My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I have said repeatedly since the start of the pandemic that sharing the data, the evidence and the Government’s workings is essential to public trust and compliance when such draconian measures are being put in place, so I whole- heartedly endorse the comments by the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I urge the Government to publish the impact assessment and show us the scale of the trade-offs that are being made in terms of physical and mental health, jobs lost and damage to the economy. This is not an election campaign. Both sides of the argument must be shared openly, and the evidence shared transparently, so that Members and, most importantly, the public can look at the evidence and trust that we are collectively doing the right thing in the nation’s interests.
In the few seconds left available to me, I add my support to comments that have been made by Members on both sides of the House about looking again at the regulations surrounding collective acts of worship and publishing the evidence to show whether they are a source of infections and outbreaks; and looking again at non-contact sports, particularly for adults, but also as outdoor activities for children and young people. That is critical to people’s mental health and physical wellbeing.
For weeks and months now, businesses across Greater Manchester and our communities have been subject to restrictions to reduce the rate of transmission of coronavirus and enable us to return to living our lives normally. Towns and cities across the north have been particularly hard hit, so we must deal with this virus and aim, by the end of the year, to enable people to spend time with their loved ones again and give certainty to businesses.
The restrictions have so far been hugely difficult for businesses and caused immense strain, but many—like Ryan in Cheadle, who transformed his café into a green- grocer’s to meet local demand—have been innovative. Businesses have been willing to start up, and that shows that they really want to get going. That is true of Inventery in Cheadle Hulme, a new bar that already has rave reviews. With Government assistance, businesses have kept going, but they are truly worried about the effects of a further month-long lockdown. I know that the Government have heard the urgings of businesses and people who work in the leisure and hospitality sector about the support that is needed to keep them open. I welcome the financial measures announced and applaud the measures that businesses have taken to minimise transmission and operate in a covid-secure way. However, in this debate, we are called to balance our economy, our communities and the lives of our constituents. It will be hard, therefore, for any hon. Member to claim to be unequivocally right in their view or decision.
Back in March, we spoke of the pressure on the NHS as the virus raged through the continent and reached a critical point here. The NHS remains at the forefront of my mind, as do the health and the lives of my constituents in Cheadle. My local hospital Stepping Hill is not yet receiving the number of covid patients it did in the peak earlier this year, but it is close. At the height of the first wave, 130 coronavirus patients were admitted. The number is now just seven less than that at 123.
This week, the North West Ambulance Service declared a major incident, with ambulances waiting hours outside the hospital with sick people needing to be admitted. A four-hour wait for an ambulance at a hospital door means that the ambulance crew and paramedics caring for and treating those patients have to work hard. While the ambulances idle at the hospital, people have to wait for them to attend at home, sometimes having suffered heart attacks or strokes.
Hospital pressure always has a knock-on effect whether through ambulance delays or cancelled operations. For those whose elective surgery has been cancelled, it means many more months of pain and uncertainty with potentially deteriorating conditions. It is essential that we do not let the pressure increase as we enter the difficult winter season.
Whatever decision we make, there are growing concerns about the mental health of people who have set up businesses and put their life savings into them; workers who are concerned about their future; and people who are facing and fearful of loneliness, who miss socialising with their friends and who cannot go to church and receive the solace and spirit that they need. I ask for that to be considered. I also ask for a post-covid mental health strategy to be put in place so that, after all this, in the new year when, hopefully, we are in a better position, people know that charities such as Mind and the Samaritans and local authorities have the funding and packages there to support them. We must do so too.
We were told that the reason for the first national lockdown was to give time to build capacity in the NHS, presumably so we would not need any further lockdowns. So what has the Secretary of State been doing? Why has he failed in that task? Well, we know what he has been doing. Instead of building capacity and sorting out Test and Trace properly, he has spent far too much of his time seemingly relishing the power of seeking to micromanage every aspect of everybody’s life.
It is perfectly clear that lockdowns do not even work. They do not save lives; they merely spread deaths over a longer period. But lockdowns do cost lives, as well as livelihoods, not to mention the other health implications of collapsing the economy, particularly the effect on people’s mental health.
If lockdowns and blizzards of arbitrary rules were a solution to the problem, we would have solved it months ago. We have not been short on version after version of senseless arbitrary rules with no scientific basis behind them. There has been a new set of rules virtually every week, yet the Government persist with that failed strategy. People are not stupid. They can see that the rules do not make any sense, which is why they, like me, no longer have any faith in the people making the decisions at the Department of Health and Social Care and Public Health England.
Earlier this week, I asked the Prime Minister how many collapsed businesses and job losses he and his Government believe are a price worth paying for pursuing this strategy. I do not think I got an answer, so perhaps the Secretary of State can answer that question today. How many job losses would it take before he accepted that we needed a different strategy? How many jobs is he prepared to sacrifice to keep to this policy of lockdowns and arbitrary restrictions? Two million? Four million? Six million? People would like to know. How many house repossessions is he prepared to see while keeping to this strategy?
That gets us to the nub of the matter. People like the Secretary of State and Public Health England are not offering to sacrifice their jobs so that we can pursue this strategy. Nobody voting for the motion tonight is offering to sacrifice their job so that we can pursue this lockdown policy—of course not; they are just expecting millions of others in our country to sacrifice theirs. Nobody voting for this motion tonight is offering to give up 20% of their salary, or to forgo all their income completely, as so many in our country are expected to—oh, goodness me, no! Those sacrifices are conveniently being expected of everybody else. It stinks.
I would at least have some respect for those voting for this motion, and for the Secretary of State, if they offered to sacrifice their job in solidarity with all those in the country whom they are expecting to do that, but there is no chance of that. No wonder so many people have no faith in politicians. No wonder so many people feel that there is one rule for us and another for them. I never thought I would see the day a so-called Conservative Minister urged Parliament to further sacrifice our most basic freedoms, collapse the economy, and destroy jobs, all to pursue a failed strategy. Speaking as a Conservative, whatever the problem, collapsing the economy and destroying people’s jobs and livelihoods can never be the right solution.
The Government have repeatedly failed to listen to the voices of people on the frontline in this pandemic, and to our communities’ fears about the impact of covid. The Government’s centralisation of their response, and the way that they have handed it to the private sector, has been catastrophic, and will go down in history as such. On the eve of another national lockdown, my fear, once again, is about whether a Government who are ideologically hellbent on using the pandemic as a testing bed for the promotion of the private sector over public services can listen and learn from their failings.
In Liverpool, West Derby, the community and mutual aid groups have had to step in where the Government and their friends in private companies such as Serco have failed us all. In the first lockdown, the community in Liverpool came together to form mutual aid hubs because of these failings. We distributed 48,00 visors, 37,000 masks, and thousands of aprons and scrubs to frontline workers who had been left without personal protective equipment by the Government. Fans Supporting Foodbanks and North Liverpool food bank distributed thousands of food parcels to families and other people in our community, often shielding, who have been left without adequate financial support by the Government.
In Liverpool, it was evident back in September that the pressure on hospitals was increasing due to a steep rise in covid-19 cases. Liverpool’s Mayor and, following that, the Leader of the Opposition called for a circuit-breaker lockdown, which would have been timed to run alongside the school holidays. This would have relieved pressure on our health and social care services and saved lives, but tragically that call fell on deaf ears once again.
The challenges facing our communities will be even greater over the winter, and will not be helped by this Government refusing to provide free school meals over the holidays, or refusing to reinstate measures such as the eviction ban. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that he will start to listen, and that lessons have been learned from the failings of the first lockdown? Will he finally start prioritising our public services over the interests of private companies that have a track record of failure, and will he finally start listening to the people in communities who are being hit hardest by this pandemic?
We are being asked today to take away the fundamental freedoms of nearly 68 million people in this country. First, I thank Mr Speaker for his strenuous, successful efforts to persuade the Government that we should have three hours’ debate on this subject, and not 90 minutes, but the fact that we have three hours of debate on such a massive intervention taking away liberty shows how little we value the liberty of our constituents. It is not good enough: it should have been at least a day of debate before we took such extreme action.
Can I just put on record that it is probably only thanks to my hon. Friend that we are having this debate at all in advance of the measures coming into force?
My hon. Friend is too kind, but I am grateful to him.
I fully accept the sincerity of the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State in bringing forward these measures, and their belief that they are doing the right thing. None the less, I have to say that, in more than 23 years as a Member of Parliament, when I vote against this motion tonight, I will do so with greater conviction than I have in casting any vote in those 23 years. Other Members have commented on the paucity of information and proper data presented to the House and the fact that we have been asking for the proper impact assessment that gives both sides of the account. That is important for us to be able to make a balanced judgment and, crucially, it should be the basis on which the Government have made their judgment. Why it is not possible to publish that impact assessment should be deeply troubling for all of us.
I will say a word about a particular sector that is very important for my constituency. The aviation sector was decimated by the first lockdown and by an absurdly long period of quarantine without airport testing being introduced to reduce it. Just as the sector was looking forward to the introduction of an airport testing regime in the next few weeks, instead—and for the second time this year—the sector has been effectively closed by the Government. Businesses such as supermarkets have enjoyed record profits but also have enjoyed rates relief during this period. Airports and airlines have been reduced to zero revenue again, and it is essential that they are given proper support or they simply will not be there when we come through this crisis and are looking to them to resume what has been a very successful British industry over the years.
In my last two minutes, I want to raise a more fundamental question. I want to ask whether the Government actually have any right to take the measures they are taking. What troubles me most is that the Government are reaching too far into the private and family lives of our constituents. There is an arrogance—unintended, perhaps—in assuming that the Government have the right to do so, that they have the right to tell people whether they can visit their elderly parents in a care home; that they have the right to tell parents and grandparents that they cannot see their children or grandchildren; and whether they have any right, for heaven’s sake, to tell consenting adults with whom they are allowed to sleep.
Do the Government have the right to ban acts of collective worship? I am glad that at this point the Churches are standing up against this and objecting, because earlier in the year I thought they possibly went a little too quietly. Do the Government have any right, for heaven’s sake, to ban golf or tennis without giving any reason whatever? When the Prime Minister was challenged on this on Monday, he simply said, “Well, if you start to give exemptions, the whole thing will unravel.” We cannot vote for measures on that flimsy basis. We cannot ask people to follow rules that patently make no sense and expect them to have respect for what is being done.
So I have a fundamental problem with much of what we are being asked to do here—the economic impact as well as the human toll. I cannot be the only Member who has sat in a constituency surgery with a constituent in tears as they have said that they cannot see a vulnerable elderly parent with dementia in a care home. We must not do it.
Given the near crisis point in the capacity and the ability of the NHS to cope with rising cases and hospital admissions across the country, I believe that action is necessary. I am, however, at a loss as to why the Government have acted so late. This has led to more cases and ultimately more deaths, and means that we now need a longer lock- down that will have a huge human and economic cost.
For weeks we have seen the evidence pointing to a growing second wave of the virus, not just in areas like Bradford, which has been subject to restrictions for months, but right across the country. I know these are difficult decisions for the Government to make. However, weeks ago the Leader of the Opposition called for a circuit-breaker lockdown, in line with SAGE advice. The Government chose not just to ignore that but to ridicule it. Had it been enacted then, that short lockdown coinciding with half-term could have put a brake on the virus at a critical moment. We would have been spared some of the pain and hardship we are now facing. Now we are facing a potentially open-ended lockdown, with Ministers unable to confirm when it will end. Businesses will be shut for longer, families will be separated, and mental and physical health will suffer. The economic and social cost of lockdown has been made worse by the Government’s failure to act earlier.
In West Yorkshire, things have been even more chaotic. The Government announced last Thursday that our region would go into tier 3 from the following Monday. At that point, Ministers repeatedly denied that the country was facing a national lockdown. Businesses and families across the region began to prepare for the new restrictions. Yet the very next day—the very next day—the national lockdown was leaked to the press and it was announced that West Yorkshire would stay in tier 2 until the lockdown. Over recent weeks, the Government have treated the people of the north with utter contempt, and this is just the latest example in a long and sorry saga. The Government must commit to honouring the financial commitment they made to the people and businesses of West Yorkshire when the tier 3 agreement was made.
I turn to a couple of specific points. The Government need to plan and to deal with social isolation and loneliness, particularly among older people and those with caring responsibilities. Many of my constituents across many faiths have asked me to tell the Government and the Prime Minister that collective acts of worship are essential and should not be made illegal by any Government: they are an essential part of their faith and an essential part of their lives. I ask the Government to reconsider the ban on collective worship. The Government should also look at how gyms and other sports facilities can be reopened safely. Again, this is essential for maintaining mental and physical health through these long and difficult winter months.
Finally, the Government need to plan for getting out of this lockdown and dealing with the economic consequences. The lack of an impact assessment of these regulations, and the subsequent cost to jobs and businesses, is simply neglectful, because areas like Bradford will suffer most if, at the end of the lockdown, we return to a new set of local restrictions when many businesses will simply not survive. There needs to be an absolute focus in Government on saving and creating jobs, because without this, the consequences for my constituents will be devastating. So I say to the Government: do not waste this time; use it to get a grip on the virus and begin planning for our economic recovery. A failure to do so will lead to a prolonging of the lockdown and all the human, social and economic harm that that brings.
It is lovely to see you in the Chair, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Our freedoms are like the air we breathe. They are fundamental to us as a nation and to who we are as its people. Yet once again we stand on the threshold of using the rule of law to undermine the rule of law, the foundations of which have been laid over centuries. We are not asking our constituents to do anything. We have never asked; we have coerced them. We have coerced them through criminal and civil law. Let us not use the word “ask”, because it is not an accurate description of what we have done. We have criminalised freedom of association, the freedom to go about one’s business, the freedom to travel—and the freedom to protest. The freedom to protest is the oxygen of democracy. This hurts my head and it hurts my heart. Dismissing these sincerely held concerns as wanting to let the virus rip is both deeply ungenerous and deeply, deeply unkind, but in responding to that charge, I say that if this Parliament is not the place for disputation, delectable or otherwise, where is this rigour to be found? I want people to live long lives, full lives, happy lives, myself included, but my mortality—our mortality—is ultimately our contract with our maker, whereas our fundamental rights are our contract with Government. I will not be supporting this legislation. I think it is terribly unjust and, like my dear friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady), I think it is, in many parts, cruel.
I will have no part in criminalising parents for seeing their children and children for seeing their parents—no part. This legislation goes against my every instinct—perhaps an instinct even more fundamental than the love and touch of my family. I am not living in fear of the virus. I will not live in fear of the virus, but I am living in fear of something much darker, hiding in the shadows, and when the sunlight returns, and it will return, I hope that it chases those shadows away, but I cannot be sure that it will. I cannot be sure, and that is at the heart of my anxiety and the anxiety of so many of the people whom I represent in this place.
It is a pleasure to be able to contribute this afternoon.
We undoubtedly face a very difficult and, indeed, challenging situation, and I support the Government’s approach. Cases of the virus are doubling every few days and, given the sheer pace of growth now, it is quite clear that they will outstrip the capacity of the NHS to respond. We cannot ignore the very serious position that we now face. These measures, however difficult, are necessary and, indeed, other options, such as the tiered system, have quite clearly now failed.
I pay tribute to all those who are contributing so bravely in the NHS and other services: our care workers, NHS workers, key workers, volunteers, and, indeed, other members of the community. This bravery and determination is impressive and it is being demonstrated by people who have been through this once already this year and, in some cases, during the summer and the early autumn as well.
I wish to raise a series of very specific points, to which I hope the Minister will be able to respond later. First and foremost, it would have been so much better had the Government acted sooner. The numbers were quite clear. As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) mentioned earlier from the Dispatch Box, had this action been taken sooner, lives would have been saved and the economy protected. It is worth reflecting on that and I do hope that Ministers will reflect quite deeply on this issue and on the delay, which has been so unfortunate.
I hope the Secretary of State for Health will look into fixing the test and trace system. It is quite apparent that it is currently failing. There is a low rate of test and trace going on compared with what is needed. In my own area, we have seen some very serious problems, including delays in facilities coming to Reading and Woodley. We have also seen a very unfortunate incident in a care home, and I ask him to look again at whether it is possible to have a much greater capacity for testing in care homes, as people are particularly vulnerable at this time. I also ask him to look at the scope for far greater testing across the health and care system, perhaps looking in much greater detail at the scope for testing home visiting staff. Constituents have raised that with me with great concern. Elderly vulnerable residents would be reassured if there were more capacity for testing visitors coming into their homes.
There are a number of other measures, mainly economic and social measures, that I hope the Government as a whole will look into and that other Members have raised today. In particular, I mention the concerns of many self-employed people. I realise that Members across the House share this issue. Someone said to me only today, “I have paid in all my life through taxes and the national insurance system, and now—at a time of great need—I am not able to get anything back.” I hope that the Government look at the loopholes in the current measures, reconsider them and understand that there are people who may be missing out on support at this difficult time; I do appreciate that they are reviewing some of the measures.
I urge the Government also to look across sectors in the economy, not just at the most visible end of them. For example, measures have been put in place in the hospitality sector to support pubs, and it is right that they should be supported. Across the supply chain and other dependent businesses, though, there has been much less support. It is important that Ministers remember that and take further action to look at whole supply chains and sectors, and to understand that a wide range of businesses are under pressure at this difficult time.
Finally, I agree wholeheartedly with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras and others across the House about the importance of people being able to worship, and I hope that the restriction will be reviewed. I also hope that the contribution and value of sport to our society, to children and to people’s mental health is reconsidered.
Prior to this debate, I was contacted by many constituents with their opinions on how to vote today. My default position would be to support those who wish for fewer restrictions, to allow others to live their lives as they choose to, and to help and support each and every constituent in that choice. However, this is an unprecedented situation, and the first duty of any Government must be to protect their citizens. I know that the Government—and especially the Prime Minister—have not taken any of these difficult decisions lightly.
I have supported and will continue to support the tiered structure, and the ability to look at the situation at a very local level and understand what is going on in each locality. That has enabled some of the country to remain at a low level of restriction for an extended period. However, in order to prevent a deluge of intensive care beds being needed, I have come to the conclusion that we must have a heightened restriction of our liberty throughout November to stem the tide of the virus. That is not to say that our constituents have not followed the rules. I thank the people of the Loughborough constituency—residents, visitors, students and pupils alike—who have very clearly followed the rules, which has helped not only themselves but their friends and neighbours.
There is a hard task ahead for many during November. There are a number of religious festivals and commemorations which in other years have attracted huge crowds and gatherings, such as Diwali, Advent and the birthday of Guru Nanak. These are often times when families get together to celebrate their faith. That will not be possible in private homes this year, but I still press for churches and places of worship to be allowed to open for those specific events in order to support their communities. Loughborough usually has a large and very moving remembrance service in Queen’s Park, along with others in Shepshed and the surrounding villages. Again, they will not be able to happen in the same way this year, but that does not diminish our need to honour our fallen; we will remember them.
My friends, colleagues and those who live in the Loughborough constituency will know that I have been “going on”—as they would put it—about a V-shaped recovery for a long time. We owe it to those who have lost their lives to ensure that we come back stronger and better as a country and as a constituency. In Loughborough, we have capitalised on all the support from the Government: the grants and support for small businesses; the loans that have been available to keep businesses going; and the individual support for those who have found themselves in a difficult situation. Programmes such as eat out to help out and kickstart, and the early town deal funding, have all supported the local community. I welcome the fact that the support package has been extended to ensure that a safety net remains for those who need it.
Let us get ready for the time that these new restrictions will ease. Let us take the time to plan—each individual, each family, each business and each organisation. Let every one of us make a positive decision to create a good recovery for ourselves, our local communities and our businesses. Risk assessment is the key to this. With risk, we eradicate if we can and mitigate where we cannot. This is a global pandemic; we cannot eradicate, so we must mitigate. As part of the planning process, we should therefore look at taking a different approach to events and venues, whereby each produces its own risk assessment of how many people it can safely accommodate while adhering to social distancing guidelines. Let us spend this month making sure that each of us has a plan to get on in life. Let us turn the negative into a positive, and all take part in the recovery of this great country.
Like many hon. Members, I would like to start by paying tribute to all the British public, including those in my Aberavon constituency, who have shown such resilience and fortitude throughout an extremely difficult 2020.
These new restrictions are, of course, for the people of England, but the economic package accompanying them will have a significant effect on Wales and on my constituents. Regrettably, it has become all too evident that the Prime Minister and Chancellor only took decisive action in terms of economic support once London and parts of the south-east were put into tier 2 and then full lockdown. When we in Wales went into our fire breaker, the UK Government refused to extend furlough. When the north of England went into tier 3, the Government refused to extend furlough. Now, with new restrictions affecting the south-east, the money suddenly appears as if by magic. Furlough must be fair for all—it is as simple as that.
During his successful general election campaign, the Prime Minister promised to level up the UK. In reality, the very opposite has happened. This virus has turned the gap between the south-east and the rest of the UK into a chasm. We now need a clear and specific plan that states what levelling up is actually supposed to mean in practice. This plan must have our steel industry at its heart.
A focus on steel would deliver three interlinked benefits. First, it would support the creation of high-skilled, well-paid jobs in areas of the UK that have been ignored by successive Conservative Governments since 2010, including in south Wales. Secondly, it would strengthen the UK’s sovereign capability. One of the most important lessons of the pandemic is that we are far too dependent on supply chains from other countries, and increasingly, those countries are run by authoritarian Governments who are not our natural allies. Thirdly, it will enable our transition to net zero, backing the industries of the future but also greening current industries. Yet, by failing to provide the UK’s largest steelmaker and the employer of 4,000 steelworkers in my constituency with the emergency loans during the pandemic to plug the cash flow gap caused by the fall in demand, the Government have again chosen to sit on their hands. There can be no post-pandemic recovery, no levelling up and no modern manufacturing renaissance without a strong and healthy steel industry.
I will end by saying a few words on test, track and trace. While Welsh Labour backed local experts and our local authorities, the UK Government have put test, track and trace in the hands of Serco, without any proper tendering process. Serco won huge contracts to the tune of £500 million and, through no fault of the vast majority of its employees, I might add, utterly failed our country at this time of need. The choice that the Government have taken is to privatise and centralise when they should have been keeping what is a truly public function in the public sector and allowing local authorities to mobilise the expertise that they have on the ground. I hope that the UK Government will look to Cardiff Bay—to the Welsh Government—learn the lessons of Test and Trace, and take this four-week lockdown as an opportunity to fix the system and learn from the way in which the Welsh Government have done it.
Order. I will be moving straight to the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), but after he has spoken, I will reduce the time limit to three minutes to try to accommodate as many colleagues as possible.
I am grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. You will have understood from my intervention on the Prime Minister earlier that, for only the second time in my 15 years in Parliament, I am not able to support my Front Bench. You will know from our shared endeavours and experience in the usual channels that it is not easy for a former Chief Whip not to support their party, but I do so for the following reasons.
I very strongly supported the tiered approach, and my part of the world, which I am here to represent, has a very low level of the virus. My constituents have been working incredibly hard—businesses and individuals—to keep the virus under control, and there is a very low level of prevalence not just across the community, but particularly among those who are over 60, where the level of virus remains low and, over the last few weeks, has been flat or falling. Certainly in conversation with my directors of public health and my local NHS, no concerns have been raised about the NHS being over- whelmed. That was my starting position.
I listened very carefully to what the Prime Minister set out in his press conference on Saturday, and I looked yesterday at the data that was published, but there are several flaws with that data. First, the modelling that has taken place about the number of deaths is old data, and we already know—my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) set this out very clearly—that the most extreme of those models is wrong. It has predicted things for dates that have already passed, and it has been wrong by a factor of four or five.
The second thing we know is that the modelling that SAGE has undertaken does not take into account—it is set out very clearly in documents published yesterday—the introduction of the tiered system over the last couple of weeks. Therefore, all the modelling just does not take into account the fact that over half of the country has been placed under tier 2 or tier 3 restrictions. We know from the information published just yesterday by Steve Rotheram, the Mayor of the Liverpool city region, that that region, which was the first region placed in tier 3 restrictions, has seen quite a significant reduction in virus across all parts of that region.
Of course, it is that data from SAGE that has been fed into the national health service, and all of the modelling done by the NHS about its capacity has been based on that SAGE modelling. So if that modelling is wrong, as I believe it is, the NHS forecasts are wrong. It was very interesting that one of the leaked slides last week, which showed the capacity of the NHS being exhausted in the next few weeks, was not used in the presentation by the Prime Minister at the press conference, and no data has been published to substantiate it. That is because, according to that slide, the south-west hospital capacity should have been exceeded already, and it has not, and it is nowhere near being exceeded. Therefore, I simply do not believe the Government have made the case.
One further reason for me is that these regulations also give the power to use reasonable force to enforce them to officers of the state who are not trained to safely use that power. The Secretary of State knows I have raised this on the Floor of the House and with him and his Ministers. I had understood a review was to take place to remove it. That power should only be used by police officers who are properly trained to safely use it. For those reasons, I am unable to support the Government and will be voting against the regulations later today.
My communities in South Cumbria, in the lakes and the dales, are arguably the worst hit on both counts: in terms of our vulnerability economically, with 40% of our entire workforce on furlough at one stage and a sixfold increase in unemployment; and, on the other hand, with an age profile 10 years above the national average, the vulnerability and the potential for fatality in the face of the virus is great.
At the same time, we are seeing huge pressure on our local health service, which has done a stunning job over the last seven or eight months, making personal sacrifices in every single department. We see the beginning of signs of being overwhelmed by the virus at this period. Just in the last few days, the North West Ambulance Service has been urging no one to call 999 unless their call is for a life-threatening emergency. This is what the Government are seeking to prevent. The greatest threat to our liberty is a threat to our right to life, and our access to medical services threatens to be overwhelmed if action is not taken.
Having said that, I am deeply critical of some of the Government’s approach on this issue, not least on some of the economic areas, where there has been a blind spot when it comes to the 3 million people, we believe, who have been excluded from any kind of support whatsoever. I think of people who have been self-employed for 18 months or so in my constituency. I think of people running small limited companies—taxi drivers, personal trainers, hairdressers—getting absolutely nothing for seven or eight months, or people who happened to have been on the payroll just a day or two too late earlier this spring. Those people, who are the backbone of our economy—the entrepreneurs we need to drive the recovery when, eventually, it comes—are left in deep and desperate debt, not sure if they can afford to put food on the table for their children or pay to keep a roof over their heads. The Government must act and must act now to help those who have been excluded.
I also point out that a third of those who are excluded are private renters. The Government immediately extended mortgage holidays for those lucky enough to own their own homes, and rightly so, but they have done nothing for renters in the past few days or weeks. Surely this is a moment for the Government to rush through some legislation, to suspend section 8 on rent arrears and section 21 on no-fault evictions, and to increase the local housing allowance so that people can afford to pay their rent. It is important that we protect all our constituents from hardship, and that we protect their lives and well- being. Above all, it is essential that we protect them from potential homelessness and destitution.
My final word is on the news about the furlough. We are told that people who were laid off prior to 23 September will not be furloughed. I can tell the House that there are thousands of people in the tourism industry who have been laid off because of the hardship that industry is facing. I ask for a package of support for hospitality and tourism, backdated before 23 September, to run right the way through to the Easter holidays next March.
Thirty-four years ago, as an otherwise fit and healthy 24-year-old, I was carried out of my home by an ambulance crew with a collapsed lung. I had an emergency operation in the middle of the night. I was frightened, worried and concerned about many things. Would I live? What would be the impact on my health for the rest of my life? The one thing that I was not worried about was whether there would be a hospital bed for me. Yesterday, in England, there were 10,971 covid patients in our hospitals, which was an increase of 2,376 on the previous week, or an increase of over a fifth. My own local hospital, Luton and Dunstable University Hospital, has told me that it now has much less spare capacity than it did in April and May, during the first lockdown, so the margin for error is very small.
There are no good choices before any of us. We are being asked to do a horrendous thing today. The impact on jobs, businesses and the loss of our freedoms, which every one of us who will support the Government tonight cherishes just as much as those who will not, are awful things for us to have to do. Against that, however, we must set lives lost, hospitals turning people away, and a lack of treatment for people who are ill or have had terrible accidents. I cannot in all conscience not support a measure to prevent that happening.
I wish the motion was amendable, because I think there are things that we could do on safe care home visits. As the Second Church Estates Commissioner, I am of course concerned about the lack of collective worship, and I think that churches are some of the safest places I have been in recent weeks. I am concerned about businesses with bills they cannot pay. I am concerned about the events industry, which seems to have fallen outside so many of the support packages. Whipsnade zoo in my constituency, which has a full 600 acres, cannot open, but Kew can. Why not just close the indoor elements of zoos and allow the outdoor parts to welcome people? Let us make sure that we have click and collect for small independent shops, so that they do not lose out and so that people can shop safely come 3 December, rather than standing in long queues. Let us make sure that we do not have huge crowds celebrating on new year’s eve.
The most important thing I want to say is about enforcement. It is not just about explaining and educating; the police, councils and shops themselves must do more about people not wearing masks in shops. People should wear masks at work. It is terrible that eight out of 10 people are not self-isolating properly. This is a shared responsibility for all of us.
I fully understand the lure of the precautionary principle, given the dreadful scenarios that the Government are facing, with increasing cases and projections. I understand the lure of saying, “Let’s do this, just in case; let’s take no chances.” I certainly do not envy the Prime Minister or any member of the quad their decisions. However, I have a number of concerns that simply cannot be overcome.
Let us cast our minds forward to 2 December, because I feel that we will be in this situation again. What will “Good enough that we can unwind” look like? It took three and a half months last time for us to have a haircut or our first pint in a pub. What level of daily infections or hospitalisations will be deemed good enough to unwind?
It is a mistake for the Government not to consider what those figures might be, because they would at least give the public something to aim for and look forward to, but we have no data and no concept of what that is likely to be. We are told that this is the last bridge before the cavalry come over the hill and that we have better treatments. We are told that we will have the vaccine that we are all looking for, but we do not know when it will be ready, how effective it will be or the timeframe over which it will be rolled out across the population. Let us not forget that HIV has been with us for 40 years, and we still do not have a vaccine.
There are so many clear nonsenses in the regulations. I and many others in the House, I am sure, are getting emails from gym owners and users, people who enjoy outdoor archery and those concerned about the golf situation, and a lot from churchgoers. How can it be sensible that a couple are allowed to go for a walk on the course of the golf club that they belong to, but they face a fine if they dare do it with a golf club and a ball?
Has the hon. Gentleman received, as I have, a letter signed by 1,500 managers of church organisations, ministers and people of religion opposing these regulations and asking why on earth the Government are closing churches?
An overwhelming number of the responses that I have had are from churchgoers, and I will develop that point very briefly. Congregations that go to churches, synagogues, mosques and temples are adherent, sensible, disciplined people. To treat them as anything but is, I am afraid, nothing but an insult.
A few weeks ago, we were offered the tiered system and the House supported it. It was deemed to be the new holy grail. Liverpool, under tier 3, seems to be having results, but we simply have not given enough time for those opportunities to bed in. Kent and my constituency of South Thanet are currently under tier 1. What will all this mean to businesses and pubs that have invested heavily in covid-friendly and secure facilities? We have already seen flip-flopping on the earliest-published proposals on off-sales, and microbreweries can now continue selling beer outside. The supermarkets could always sell as much as they liked. That, I am afraid, is at the heart of the muddled thinking. I want to develop what I want to call the Wilkinson conundrum—a great store on every high street. How can it be that it can continue to sell essential and non-essential items when it is illegal for the independent shop next door to sell just some of the non-essential stuff?
I am being asked to spend £50 billion extra today, or perhaps even more. There is no data about what that means for other health issues, and no assessment about what it means to family members who are not able to see grandchildren or see off loved ones in their final days. I am here to make a decision. I will not abstain; I am paid to have a view, and I will be voting against the measure.
Order. I just want to point out gently that not everybody is going to get in on this debate. If interventions are taken at this stage, particularly from people who are not on the speaking list, that will prevent others from speaking.
If we are going to defeat this virus, the public have to have confidence in the Government. They have to know that everything the Government do is based not on opinion polls but on evidence. Modelling is not evidence; scientific fact is evidence. There has been too much chopping and changing of Government policy. We have been encouraged to eat out to help out, get back to offices in September, and then stay away from offices. Everything should be based on evidence.
I have very little time, but I want to mention one point for which evidence is all-important. The leaders of all the faith communities have written to the Prime Minister demanding evidence that people attending church services are spreading covid. I know there is no evidence. The chief scientific adviser to the Government has confirmed there is no evidence. Everybody knows, if they go to their local church or, indeed, their mosque, that mask wearing and social distancing are in force. Even in mosques, my friends tell me, people are bringing their own prayer mats. There is no evidence for this ban. The ban comes because the Government say, “If we’re going to stop people going to pubs, we have to stop people going to churches or mosques or synagogues.” There is no evidence.
However, when I intervened on the Prime Minister a couple of days ago, he assured me that this was only a temporary ban on religious services. He took the trouble to come up to me before this debate and say, “Edward, we’re going to get churches open.” I said, “When?” He said, “Soon.” I understand that contacts are taking place with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster to try to get the churches open as soon as possible.
On that basis, and on that basis only—that this is a temporary measure, that the Government will provide evidence and that the churches will open on 2 December—I am prepared to vote for this measure today. I will do so on that basis and on that promise. It is a fundamental human right in any society—we are signatories to the convention on human rights—for people to be able to go to communal worship. We cannot just tell religious people, “Sometime in the future you’ll be able to go to a religious service.” That is not good enough for them. They want to be able to have that communal worship, and to have it now.
It is not good enough for the Government—I am looking at the Health Secretary—just to say that we are all in this together and that, because they are stopping people playing golf or going to bars, religious people have to be under the same restrictions. Provide the evidence. I have received an assurance that churches, synagogues and mosques will open before 2 December, or at least by 2 December. On that basis, and on that basis only, I will vote with the Government.
This, of course, is the eventuality that we all had hoped to avoid. I hate even contemplating a curtailment of freedoms in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) set out, but no responsible Government could sidestep what this Government are faced with.
We have spoken a lot in the last few days about the “overwhelming” of the national health service. It is worth dwelling on that word and thinking about what it means in practice. As my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) outlined, it means people who need other essential treatments just not being able to get them in the way that we have come to expect we will always be able to rely on the national health service. Of course, this time, unlike the previous lockdown, we are approaching winter, with all the stresses and strains on the national health service that that brings in any case.
This is a global pandemic, but we often speak about it as if we were the only country involved. In fact, every one of the five major countries of western Europe had a steep rise in covid cases during the course of October, and now there are new restrictions coming across the continent, perhaps most notably in France and Germany, the other two large economies of Europe. They have very different political traditions, different health systems and different experiences with test and trace. Both of them, like us, sought to exhaust the possibilities of a localised and a regional approach, and now they are returning to a national programme.
It is true that in different parts of our country there are different rates of prevalence of this virus, but the trend is upwards pretty much everywhere, with the rate above 1. Of course, as the Prime Minister outlined earlier, when one hospital gets full, it moves patients on to another hospital; staff have to move on in order to shore up the system. Ultimately, we are one nation and we have one national health service.
This lockdown is not going to be the same as the previous one, in particular because education will remain fully open. I really thank the Government for that and welcome that approach. I acknowledge that prioritising schooling involves some trade-offs, and we must acknowledge that any time people get together there is a risk of transmission of this virus, but I would ask for special reconsideration in two areas: non-contact outdoor sports and, as so many colleagues and others have mentioned, religious services. Obviously, not everyone has faith, but for some who do, the solace that they receive from attending church or another place of worship with other people is as important for their mental health as other mental health services, which we rightly prioritise and will keep going come what may.
I welcome the business support. I hope the Government will also use this time to make sure that there are medium-term support packages for the most affected sectors. Nobody wants to be doing this, but I will be backing the measures this evening.
In Huntingdonshire, as of last Friday, we had a very low and stable figure of 58 cases per 100,000, and about half a dozen hospital beds in Hinchingbrooke Hospital were occupied by covid patients. In effect, without lockdown we would have remained at tier 1 status. That is of great credit to the caution and sensible behaviour shown by residents locally, and also reflects the excellent local public services and council provision that I am seeing. If I were to support these further massive restrictions on our liberty and democracy, I would need not only more evidence for their chances of success than I have received to date, but an understanding as to why Cambridgeshire should be treated in exactly the same way as high-risk areas in the country.
One well-respected local family business of some 40 years’ standing has just contacted me to say that they will not be able to stand a further lockdown. The majority of local businesses I speak to have already made redundancies and now dread for their futures. Huntingdonshire has one of the highest proportions of small business ownership in the country, typically without the capital reserves of large corporations. Those businesses have done everything they can to stay afloat, through finding new markets, taking up Government loans and furlough schemes, and general twisting and turning to do anything and everything to keep their businesses alive. I have been incredibly impressed by the resilience and resourcefulness of those local businesses. Frankly, they deserve more than for me to tell them that I have voted for a further lockdown, given our low local covid rate and the national lack of evidence.
Our local health workers, carers and volunteers have also done a magnificent job, and many lessons are now being learnt that should improve health and care provision in the second wave of the virus. Yes, of course, we need to save the NHS, but that cannot be at the cost of wiping out the economy, without which there will be no money to pay for the NHS. The problem is that we are not getting a weighted assessment of the health costs in the context of all the other costs. When the allied forces planned D-day, an assessment of the human and material costs was drawn up before deciding to invade. It would be wrong to say that Churchill and the generals failed to show humanity in their assessment of likely casualties, but they weighed that up against the strategic objective of retaining a democratic European continent.
We now roll from one lockdown to another, with no vaccine, and no effective track and trace system. We need urgently to consider a weighted strategy, our objectives here accepting that whatever happens, lockdown or no lockdown, we are ultimately going to have to learn to live with the virus.
There are three questions here. How did we get into this situation? What do we do about it now? How do we find our way out of it? Much has been said about whether we should have done this or other things earlier. When the crisis is passed, there should be a full and detailed examination of decision making in response to the pandemic. When the time comes for that I will fully support it, but that time is not now. We have more immediate questions to answer.
This House has to take decisions today on the basis of where we are, not on where we wish we were. We have to make those decisions, as so often, on the basis of imperfect information and in the knowledge that all our options will harm someone. I respect the fact that different Members of this House can, for good and decent reasons, come to different conclusions on that. I do not dispute for a moment the human and financial cost of the measures, but it seems to me that the preponderance of the scientific evidence we have seen is telling us that if we do not take a decision with damaging consequences, we face an outcome with devastating consequences. For that reason, I will support the measures today.
At times of threat, we act to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, even when it hurts the rest of us. That is who we are as a nation. Whatever else the pandemic changes, it must not change that. The Government’s job is not just to react, but to plan for the future. On this, I have to say that I do not think the Government have said enough. We must now accept the need to live with this virus in the longer term. It is simply impossible for businesses or individuals to manage their lives if we are to find ourselves continually and unpredictably in and out of lockdown, so these measures may be a short-term strategy, but they cannot be a long-term one.
In a second lockdown, everyone knows that it can happen more than once. What was tolerable as a one-off looks less so when it seems like a repeated occurrence. As others have said, lockdown is hard on our mental health and harder still when it is dark and wet outside, and I am afraid that all this affects likely compliance with these restrictions. If people do not comply, the health benefits of a lockdown disappear altogether. There must be clarity on how we come out of these restrictions, not just on what date the Government hope that we do. The Government must say clearly what objectively we need to see to have these restrictions lifted, so that everyone can see the way out of them as well as the way in, thereby, I hope, making it more likely that people will comply with them and that they will have the desired effect.
As the Prime Minister said earlier, none of us wants this. Pitting lives against livelihoods and, I would add, the quality of our lives is excruciating, uncomfortable and tugs at our values and sensibilities. The truth is that it is an invidious conundrum with no good options, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) said. We cannot escape the fact that these measures will come at a significant cost for many people in our constituencies, including mine, whether that is social, financial or from a mental health perspective.
I take a particular interest in the impact on children, who we know have had a whole range of new experiences during the first lockdown, not all of them good, that may play out for many years to come. I welcome the fact that schools will remain open for the next four weeks. That is incredibly important for a whole range of reasons, and I urge every parent to do their bit in ensuring that their child gets the education and all the other benefits from schools remaining open. I ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to clarify whether a child who is classified as clinically vulnerable is still expected to go to school, as I have had some queries about that.
We know about the financial damage that this will cause—the scarring of the economy, as it is sometimes known. I have highlighted previously, and I will do so again in a debate on Monday in Westminster Hall, the wedding industry, pubs, zoos and beauty salons. We cannot forget that, despite the significant package from the Chancellor to support those businesses, there are still gaps that need to be filled, and they need some hope for the future.
I understand that the figures we have—I would like to see more granular data in the future—are not good to read, in terms of the number of covid patients in hospital and the trajectory that many of our hospital trusts tell us they are on. We need to act, and I will be supporting these measures, but I urge my right hon. Friend, as other Members have, to ensure that we do not end up in a vicious cycle of lockdowns, which will do more and more damage as we try to control the virus. We need a plan for how we can live with it in the longer term and keep the R below 1 once we have reduced it, so that we can continue to reopen the economy and, most of all, give Eddisbury residents and businesses the normality, certainty and hope that they crave.
When we entered lockdown in March, none of us could be sure how long the measures would be necessary for or what measures would be necessary in the future, but we accepted the privations and limitations on our life to defeat the virus. We quickly realised that we would not return to normal. We grieve the loss of life, and we grieve the loss of livelihoods as well.
It is with a heavy heart that we contemplate what we are doing in the House today, but it is clear when we look at what many of our constituents are telling us to do: I have only had two constituents write to me to say that I should support the Government tonight, and I have a responsibility to those constituents, but we, as Members of Parliament, have a greater responsibility. We have a responsibility to our constituents, but we also have a responsibility to our country. Whatever we think about whether we should have persevered with the two-tier system, or whether the restrictions on many activities have been too onerous—I will touch on a couple in a moment—no responsible Government and no responsible Secretary of State could sit and not listen to the overwhelming weight of the scientific evidence. I regret that that is where we are, but it must be right that we cannot allow the national health service and people’s right to health to be threatened if we can avoid that.
Therefore, with some reluctance—as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care knows—I will support the Government tonight. I am reluctant because we take these measures by consent, yet there are huge contradictions in some of the guidance and regulations that the Government have set out today. They still have not had a chance to clarify them, but they should do so. The most obvious one relates to the off-sale of beers, where the regulations clearly say that this is allowed but the guidance this morning still has not been changed. That is maybe not most important one, however. Some of the guidance on what educational establishments are able to do is much worse and has not been clarified. There are also inconsistencies. Why can I go for a run, where someone could cough and splutter, when I cannot play a round of golf?
Like so many of my fellow Members, I regret that we are putting privations and restrictions on the huge numbers of people who wish to worship and express their faith, and I say to the Secretary of State that I hope that the commitment that was given to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) will be honoured. I will support the Government today, but I hope that they will use the time to set out clearly what their targets and objectives are and to set out clearly that they can stand up the test, track and trace system and the new, more widespread, testing.
When looking at this issue and my vote this evening, I look at the evidence and ask myself three questions. Can our local NHS cope? Have we properly assessed the impact of the regional lockdowns? Which path will be the least destructive to the health and wellbeing of the constituents who sent me here to serve them?
When it comes to the local NHS, the figures today show that we have 24 covid in-patients being treated by East Sussex county hospitals. Of those, a third are being treated in the community, and not one of them is in a high-dependency unit. The NHS system in East Sussex coped fantastically last time, and it has learned lessons. This is another important aspect. It has learned lessons on how to treat people, on the oxygen levels required and on life-saving treatments such as dexamethasone. It has a better understanding of how to treat, and that matters.
When looking at the evidence from the regional lockdowns, I just do not believe that we have given it significant time to properly tell us whether or not they are working. Data coming out of University College London suggests that the R rate is close to or at 1, and the word coming out of Imperial College suggests that it is too early to tell. The daily average has now gone down to 20,018. What that tells me is that we should have taken more time to determine whether the regional lockdowns were working before shutting down other parts of the country where covid rates are low, as they are in East Sussex.
Then we come to the question which path is the least destructive. Again, I have asked for evidence to show that, given the destruction and damage caused to people’s lives and livelihoods, they would actually be worse off if we did not take these measures. This evidence has not been provided to me, and it is difficult to make a decision when we do not have two competing sets of analysis. I have been asked whether I have met anyone who has lost a loved one through covid. The answer to that is, tragically, yes I have, and the heart goes out to them, but I have also attended the funeral of a friend in the past year who took his life, having lost his job. I have met people who have not attended hospital appointments and now have terminal illnesses and who wish to goodness that they had attended them. I have met people who suffer domestic abuse behind closed doors that has not been uncovered. I have met people who have lost their jobs and the roofs over their heads and who have lost everything in life and become destitute. I have also met people experiencing mental health torture from isolation and loneliness from which they cannot recover. Those lives matter, too, and because I cannot see any evidence that there will not be more of those lives impacted than the lives we save, I am unable to support these measures and will vote against them this evening.
The decision facing us today has big implications for how we will recover from this pandemic and how we take people with us, and I am pleased that we are at least having a vote on it. I have kept an open mind and listened to the debate, and I know that the Government have a difficult balance to make. They have to make a judgment call based on clinical advice, on what the economy is saying and on what people are saying is sustainable for their compliance.
Let us be clear: there is no risk-free option. This is all about balancing and managing risk, but too often the advice from clinical experts is confusing and contradictory. Why is SAGE using predictions of 4,000 fatalities per day, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) said, when the actual figure turns out to be 1,000 at most? Why can projections from a couple of weeks or 10 days ago turn out to be so wrong that they need to be revised so sharply? Is the problem that too often we seem to conflate scenarios with forecasts? Where is the clarity over how many of those deaths might reasonably be expected as seasonal flu deaths if covid was not a thing?
What weighting is being given to the rise in non-covid deaths at home because people with cancer, heart disease and other conventional killers are not getting treatment in hospitals that have been reconfigured almost exclusively to deal with covid, let alone the impact on suicide, on rates of stillbirth and on babies? We are now talking about a third wave. How many more will we have? Clearly, the science is not black and white, and we must consider the impact of all the measures holistically and not look just at what one set of scientists is telling us.
The impact on business is of greatest concern, as many hon. Members have said, and the hospitality industry has been hit hugely. The service industry that relies on the hospitality industry has almost been forgotten, and already struggling small and apparently non-essential shops that have just stocked up for Christmas are losing their trade to supermarkets and garden centres up the road. In the aviation and international tourism industry, travel agents cannot be furloughed because they need to process refunds, for which they get no payment at all. For many, this is economic death by 1,000 cuts. It is a salami-slicing of business, and the resulting redundancies, bankruptcies and reduced wages will affect the livelihoods and lives of many of our constituents. At the very least, we should have an economic audit of the impact of lockdown, which feeds into and challenges the scientific advice.
The other crucial factor is what people are prepared to accept and follow, and that is linked to confidence and the explanations they are given. People see apparent contradictions such as, “Go and exercise, but you can’t play golf. You can’t play tennis and children cannot exercise outside. You can’t go to church,” and if logic is not being applied, people’s confidence is trashed. National lockdown is a big step. The science for it is questionable, and the business case against it overwhelming. Why are we doing it at this stage before seeing the effects of regional lockdowns? For me, the case is not proven, the proposed measures are not proportionate, and I cannot vote for them.
I do not know whether it is with pleasure or huge difficulty that I follow the powerful speeches from my neighbours in the south-east my hon. Friends the Members for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). As for most hon. Members, this has been an agonising decision, and it has not been made easier by the Government and those on the Front Bench putting forward data that contains inconsistencies or inflated projections. In constituencies such as mine, which only rarely gets near the R rate of 1, it has been hard to explain why we need to go into a national lockdown.
Many of us fought for the right to have this debate and vote, and those on the Front Bench should have shared with us the data that enabled them to make those decisions. We could have used that data to argue in our constituencies up and down the country, instead of spending time arguing with the Government and trying to get hold of it in the first place. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle laid out, it is a very different picture in the south-east. We do not have a huge infection rate or a huge number of beds taken up with covid patients, and all our local health practitioners have explained that such things will not be the case for many months down the line. I would have preferred the tier system to have played out for a period, to see how it was working. I keep being told, however, that we need a national decision and a national endeavour, that it is one national health service, and that the Prime Minister has no choice but to put us into a national lockdown.
I will be reluctantly supporting the Government tonight, but with a caveat. I am putting the Secretary of State and the Government on 28 days’ notice. They have had many months, but over this short period, they need to put in place a public health strategy that works for the whole country—not just the north and the midlands, but me in Wealden. That means taking care of the most vulnerable people in my care homes. If we can test, track and trace in Liverpool, the same should be applied to people who wish to visit their family members in care homes. I am still hearing from my care home staff that they cannot get hold of tests and, when they do, they are never returned within a decent time.
We also need a real financial analysis of the decisions that we are taking. When people lose their jobs, they lose their security and their homes and it has an impact on their mental health. It is more than just the job; it is everything else.
In the short time I have remaining, I will make a point that has been made by many hon. Members already. We are overstepping the mark as a country, as a Government and as the Conservative party by making legislation about how people live their lives in their private homes. That is not a space that we should enter easily. In my experience, when men, institutions and Governments get hold of that power, they give it up very reluctantly.
There have been many powerful contributions, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Ms Ghani), which have stressed the importance of liberties, lives and livelihoods in the difficult decisions that the Government are taking. The argument for the 28-day lockdown 2 hinges on the capacity and resources of the NHS and the threat of our hospitals nationwide not being able to cope in the season most favourable to the spread of the virus.
The national data is convincing and the international evidence is compelling, but at a local level it varies. My neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), has made the case that it is hard to support restrictions on the lives, livelihoods and liberties of his constituents, given the relatively low numbers of covid patients there. The argument that persuades me, however, is that ultimately, no area is an island.
Everyone who lives in Gloucestershire, whether in rural areas or towns, depends on the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital in my constituency for A&E treatment of the virus. Although I believe that our hospital has the staff, ventilators and beds to withstand a second wave on its own, there is a real risk of mutual aid being called for in Bristol, Swindon or other cities nearby, which would considerably increase the scale of the challenge for us. Ultimately, rural areas with lower rates of infection, wherever they are in our nation, depend on the hospitals in our cities in their hour of need, so we have to accept the temporary new closure with huge reluctance and sadness about what it means for many of our constituents.
This statutory instrument is not amendable, but I hope that the Secretary of State, who I am sure is listening hard, and his colleagues will continue to fine tune the detail and the guidance. Balancing what I called in October the small joys in life with the risks and infection rates is important in a democracy where only consensus and agreement to comply will deliver the result that we all want.
In that context, the letter from the leaders of all the major faiths is the single largest plea in numbers of lives and wellbeing touched. The voices supporting visits to care homes, gyms and other things precious to constituents are also important within an acceptance of the second lockdown. Such voices must be heard. In cities such as ours, with a cathedral, dozens of churches, a handful of mosques and adherents of the Hindu, Jewish and Sikh faiths, the freedom to pray is welcome, but the freedom to worship together is one that I strongly support. I urge the Prime Minister to ensure that that comes back with a return to local tiers on 2 December.
These are extreme measures for extreme times. I think I agreed with every word of my hon. Friends the Members for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) and for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker). Against my instincts, I have forced myself to confront the reality of the Government’s arguments. I say a big thank you to the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister for giving me a privileged opportunity to take scientists into No. 10 to interrogate the data. I confess it was as a red team, as I said in public. I was rather hoping that we would take the wheels off the data and thereby stop this lockdown altogether, and I am sorry that that has not been possible.
The best argument for the Government’s policy is the one I put in a Telegraph article earlier. With R above 1, and perhaps up to 1.5—it is, I understand, easier to suppress it to 1.5 than to below 1—and the plateauing phenomenon, there will be intolerable pressure on the NHS. Because Professor Whitty had to clarify, if not correct, the record on what he said yesterday to the Select Committee, I went back to see what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said to me about Liverpool’s cases when I intervened on him on Monday. On this complex subject, he did not get it wrong. I have checked very carefully, and I am sure that he got it right. But the reality is that there are different datasets. Professor Tim Spector tweeted:
“Further evidence today from our Zoe CSS survey that we have passed the peak in second wave new cases in the U.K. there will be a four week lag before this is seen in a decline in deaths and 1-2 weeks in hospitalisation. R value close to one in most areas now”.
The point I want to make is that the Government’s strategy, as advocated by some of the best scientists—it has been my privilege to meet them—relies on a bet that science will deliver vaccines, improved testing and improved treatments. I am delighted that people are optimistic about it, but I am being asked to impose the most enormous costs on my constituency and my country, on a bet about science delivering in an environment in which there are contested datasets, including a dataset that suggests that R is going below one. I am not able to do it, and it is with a heavy heart and many misgivings that I will be voting no tonight. I really wish I had the clarity—on either side of the argument—that is occasionally expressed in this House, and much more routinely expressed outside it.
I want to make a point about compliance. If we have this lockdown and it is not complied with, it will be a disaster. We can have no more innovative eye test procedures in the course of this lockdown. There must be compliance, and a good example must be set. In 28 days, I will not behave as I have done this week. I will continue to behave responsibly in working with the Government, but there will be no equivocation about my views. We must learn to live with this virus, deliver on the new science, reform expert advice, reform modelling and improve standards in Government so that never again do we see a model such as the one that was presented on Saturday, which evaporates like morning mist under the sunlight of close inspection.
Forty-eight hours ago, I came to the House and asked the Government to sharpen the axe with regard to the measures that are being put in place. Today, the House will decide whether to use that axe. This is a Rubicon moment, with a national Sophie’s choice. If we use the axe, we will have the biggest impact we have had on civil liberties since the war. We will cause economic damage and job losses, and we will mortally wound businesses. There will be mental health problems, and we will indebt our children and our children’s children.
On the other hand, if we do nothing, NHS surge capacity is likely to be breached. The quagmire of covid will kill off all the non-covid cancer, stroke and joint operations. More people will be left with long covid. Staff will struggle to cope, facing burnout or, worse still, literally having to choose whose mother, father, grandfather or grandmother will get treatment. This is a horror choice for any Government, and I think it is right that the 650 representatives from across the country will make this decision.
Unfortunately, there is no double-blind trial running, with a second UK where we can see what else is happening. We have to make a judgment call about what we think might happen. For me, the concern is over surge capacity. In the Health Committee, we have seen evidence of what happens when it is breached. In Italy, there were so many over-subscribed beds that people could not get treatment. People aged over 60 were written off, purely on the basis of their age. Many in the House might well find themselves written off for that very reason. In Spain, nursing homes were abandoned with people in them. We have to take that seriously. If hon. Members think that that cannot happen here, I ask them to look at the letter they received this morning from NHS Providers, which represents all 216 trusts. It asks us to support the motion, because urgent action is needed.
I spoke before about how the virus has opened Pandora’s box, and how we need hope. That hope comes in the ingenuity of vaccines, but until then I believe our communities will follow the lockdown rules. I believe that the Treasury should continue to actively listen and do its darnedest to support businesses and jobs, and I believe that mass testing must be rolled out so that people can get a test and carry on their daily living. I will support the lockdown but I will hold the Government to account to mitigate the impact of using this tool and make sure that we cut down the covid pandemic.
It is a profound moment in which we are being asked knowingly to restrict the civil liberties of our fellow citizens to an unprecedented degree in peacetime, and knowingly and deliberately to harm the economic welfare and, in some cases the personal welfare of our fellow citizens, because lockdowns have consequences and do damage. In deciding whether that can ever be acceptable in a country that believes in the rule of law, it is important to consider whether such measures are necessary, proportionate and supported by evidence. I accept that the covid pandemic is an emergency of a kind that can make such draconian measures necessary. I regret to say, however, that I do not believe that the measures set out in the regulations are either proportionate or based on the evidence.
I do not doubt the good intentions of the Secretary of State and the Government, but the details of the measures go beyond those that are appropriate to achieve the objective that is set out. We could refer perhaps to the briefing from the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law and its reference to the late Sir John Laws who suggested doing the minimum that is necessary to achieve the objective with the minimum intrusion on civil liberties. I am afraid some of the measures here go beyond that. There is no scientific basis for the banning of non-contact outdoor sports. There is no scientific basis for treating grassroots football and community sport differently from elite sports. There is no scientific basis for stopping and, indeed, criminalising people of faith joining in collective worship when they do so in a safe fashion, forgoing the right to join in communal hymn singing or music to limit the risk of transmission. That goes beyond that which is proportional.
There is no economic impact assessment, but as to the disbenefits to businesses, I have seen family businesses of 20 years’ standing already go under in my constituency. I cannot vote to support that without clear evidence as to why it is necessary, the extent to which it is likely to continue and what the plan is to come out the other side in good order.
With a heavy heart, I cannot support the Government in the Lobby today. These measures are not amendable, but I would have been prepared to look at a more limited or proportionate form of regulations, An example of the short notice that we have had to consider these measures and the poor drafting of them is that people are allowed to go to an estate agent, but they cannot go to a solicitor. But the documentation that people will need to get a mortgage and to move house will frequently need to be witnessed in person by a solicitor. These are poorly drafted regulations, and that is only one of many examples. That is why I cannot support them.
It is with a heavy heart that I stand today to support the Government’s proposals for a national lockdown, which, incidentally, are supported by 55% of Bishop Auckland residents, according to a local survey I ran this week. Let me begin by making it perfectly clear that the notions of freedom and liberty remain at the core of my values, my ideology and my very ethos, and it goes entirely against my instincts to impose restrictions on the freedoms of our residents. I certainly did not come into politics to tell people why they could not leave their homes, who they could visit, whether they could spend time with their families or to tell people they are not allowed to go out on a first date. This is not a decision that any of us will take lightly, but I believe we must make the choice to do the next right thing and support this four-week lockdown.
We know that the next four weeks will be difficult. I remember all too well the solitude of living on my own during the first lockdown and what that did to my mental state, and that is a tiny speck of nothing compared to what some of our constituents have gone through. People have lost loved ones, either to covid or to other illnesses that covid left undetected, and my deepest condolences go to everyone affected in that way.
Mental health is an issue very close to my heart, and it continues to decline for so many across our communities. Each of us must do all we can to support them in the difficult, dark nights ahead.
Many businesses are facing unprecedented difficulties, and each has a group of employees who are desperately concerned about their jobs, their livelihoods and their futures. I am incredibly grateful to the Chancellor and the Treasury team for the support they have put in place, and I urge them to continue engaging with MPs, businesses, local authorities and individual residents to ensure that we can continue to support as many people as possible through this period of economic hardship.
I hear people ask how I can justify voting for these restrictions today, and it is because I am thinking about the future of our freedom. Like all of us, I want to see life return to normal as soon as possible. I want to see children playing with their friends, students celebrating freshers’ week, couples having the big wedding of their dreams and families getting together to celebrate Christmas. But getting our freedom back means biting the bullet now, acting decisively and suppressing the virus through this time-restricted lockdown.
We will defeat this virus, of that I am completely confident. We will return to the sunlit uplands of hope, optimism and promise, and we will be able to refocus all our efforts, not on an unexpected global pandemic but on rebuilding our country—as the PM says, building back better—on levelling up the left-behind areas and on massively increasing opportunity for people in Bishop Auckland and beyond.
To reach the light, we first have to go through a tunnel. I know our communities will, once again, join hands to make it through this difficult phase, and I know that in doing so we will eventually emerge into a brighter post-covid future.
Members have spoken with sincerity and eloquence this afternoon, and it is clear that the House would have benefited from, the regulations would have been improved by, and indeed our constituents would have expected, a full day of debate. We are invited to endorse a long, hard lockdown that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster himself conceded at the weekend could well need to stretch beyond the beginning of December.
We will endorse the regulations before the House because, for all the disputes about graphs and modelling, the trends are clear: general and acute beds are filling up, critical care beds are filling up and more people will die over the next two to three weeks because we did not act sooner.
Our constituents will want to know there is a plan. It is still not clear what criteria will be used to judge whether the lockdown should be lifted. Is it bringing the nationwide R under 1? Is it falling hospital admissions? Is it lower prevalence rates among the over 60s? Is it a prevalence with which contact tracing is effective? I hope the Secretary of State can answer that.
I want to underline three quick points raised by Members on both sides of the House. John Steinbeck wrote:
“A sad soul can kill you far quicker than a germ.”
That is not entirely biologically correct, but we understand the point. Loneliness and isolation extract a heavy mental and physical toll, so will the Secretary of State guarantee a mental health plan for the winter? Will services continue to be accessible, either online or face to face?
At times of crisis, many of our constituents find solace in faith, communion and congregational prayer. Churches, mosques, temples, gurdwaras and synagogues have gone to great lengths, often at great cost to volunteers, to make themselves covid secure. We have Diwali coming up soon. Many mosques have been in touch with me to ask, if individual prayer is allowed in a church or masjid with social distancing in place, why not congregational prayer?
With respect to social care, I understand that the Secretary of State has published some guidance and that visits will be allowed outside or behind screens, which is welcome, but could he use the mass testing that is now coming online to allow people to be tested so that they can see their relatives inside a care home, and perhaps even hug them? Many will fear that this is the last Christmas for their loved ones in care homes.
Finally, what happens next? The Paymaster General warned yesterday of further lockdowns, but a hokey-cokey of lockdowns has to be avoided. This virus is controllable with the correct measures in place, so we urge the Secretary of State to use these four weeks to quickly expand saliva testing to all NHS staff and key workers. We also need tracing teams, led locally, doing the detective work to identify super-spreading events with retrospective tracing. East Asian countries are avoiding lockdowns with this cluster-busting approach. We should institute it here.
We need decent sick pay and support for those isolating, and we need to improve ventilation systems in public buildings. Finally, we need a plan for Christmas. When the lockdown ends, thousands of students will be travelling the country to go home. What is the Government’s plan to keep us safe through Christmas and the new year?
Tonight we will support these measures, but we are demanding that our constituents, who have paid a huge price, make greater sacrifices because of a failure to act sooner.
The measures that we have just debated are indeed extraordinary; they are in response to an extraordinary threat to our nation’s health and prosperity. Taking these measures does not come easily to me or my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, nor should it to the House. Our historical liberties are hard-won and precious, and should not be infringed save in the gravest of times, but these are grave times indeed, and if we do not act now, the NHS will not be able to cope. No Member of this House wants to see the scenes that we have witnessed elsewhere in the world of hospitals overrun, or of doctors forced to choose who to treat and who to turn away.
We must drive this virus down together and take these tough yet time-limited measures, making sacrifices now for the safety of all. It will not be easy—I know that—but in a pandemic there are no easy choices. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Edward Timpson) put it, we face an invidious choice. We are called to make fundamental changes to how we live, work and socialise, but it is in pursuit of a common cause. We must and will use this time to drive forward innovations that will help ensure, if at all possible, that this lockdown is the last: the mass testing mentioned by so many, which we began to roll out this week and are driving forward night and day; the vaccine mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) and others, which, while not yet assured, we will be ready to roll out as soon as we safely can; and the treatments that this country has pioneered.
There have been some excellent speeches, all made with a heavy heart and with regard to the seriousness of the situation. My right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) spoke of the need to assess the impact on not only health but the economy. We know that the economic impact of the measures will be significant, but we also know that if the virus continues to rise—to double—the economic impact will be still more serious.
Many Members raised the issue of the impact on mental health. I take that very seriously. Before supporting this decision, I consulted with the Royal College of Psychologists, which has said that stricter measures to control the virus are needed, because the virus itself has a negative impact on people’s mental health.
There is a wider point on mental health services and health services more broadly: the NHS is open. We are determined to ensure that it stays open as much as is possible for non-covid treatments. My hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), for whom I have a huge amount of respect, argued passionately about the impact of the first lockdown on the health services available. I say to him with all sincerity that it is by tackling the rise in the virus that we will keep the NHS open, rather than by allowing the virus to grow. In his constituency, the number of cases has almost doubled in the last two weeks; I looked that up as he was speaking. I urge him and others who support the NHS so strongly to support these measures, in order to allow the NHS to continue to do its job.
The Prime Minister very honestly said to me on Monday that one of the lessons from the end of the first lockdown was that we did not insist enough on people isolating when they were contacted by Test and Trace. Going forward, at the end of lockdown 2.0, how will we improve on that?
We have to constantly improve on that. First, the number of people being contacted and who are isolating has risen sharply. Secondly, while of course there is always a need for more, the proportion has started to rise recently, and the amount of resources and support that we are giving to the Test and Trace service continues to grow. I absolutely support my hon. Friend’s point that we must use this month to ensure that that service is there and ready. Those who have said that it does not have any impact are wrong. It is having a significant impact on bringing the R down from its natural elevated rate of around 2.5 to where it is today, but with the R above 1, the virus continues to grow, and we must bring it down.
A number of colleagues in all parts of the House raised the issue of communal worship, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham). I can tell the House that Ministers are talking to faith leaders to do everything we can to reach an accommodation as soon as possible. I understand the impact of this infringement on liberties, which many colleagues mentioned.
We saw support for the measures from across the House. The hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) talked about how furlough must be fair for all, and we have extended the furlough system. My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond) talked about the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. While science of course consists of men and women with different views, I truly believe that the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence is in favour of suppressing the virus. We heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Wealden (Ms Ghani) and for Loughborough (Jane Hunt) about how, with heavy hearts, they are supporting these measures. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright) talked about taking damaging decisions to prevent a disastrous outcome later, and I think that was about right.
The hon. Members for Reading East (Matt Rodda) and for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) expressed their support, even though they also wished that this had come in earlier. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds) and my hon. Friends the Members for Bosworth (Dr Evans) and for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) spoke so eloquently of what the promise that the NHS is always there for you means. It is something that binds us together as a country and something that we must protect and cherish. The issue of care homes was raised, including by the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth). The updated visitor guidance was published this morning. I agree with him about seeking further expansion of testing in care homes, including for visitors.
There was a widespread debate about the need for more data publication. All I can say is that we are constantly expanding the data that is being published. There is more and more data from the NHS on hospitalisations, more and more data on cases and where they are, and more and more contact tracing data. I am absolutely enthusiastic about publishing more and more data. Indeed, we have been commended, as a country, for the open approach that we are taking to the amount of data that is published.
Ultimately, this comes down to a very significant judgment about how we best lead a nation through an incredibly difficult period with a virus that exists only to multiply, and lives and breathes off the essence of what it is to be human. My hon. Friend the Member for Broxbourne (Sir Charles Walker) spoke of a passion for freedom and I, too, am a lover of freedom, but I also care about protection, and it is the combination of the two that we must balance and address.
In ordinary times, these measures would be unimaginable, but these are not ordinary times. The virus in circulation feeds off the human contact that makes life worth living, and we must act to thwart its deadly march to protect our NHS and to save countless lives while supporting every person with everything that we have, and supporting the science that, with increasing confidence each day, I know will help us to find a better way through. I commend these regulations to the House.
Order. Hon. Members, apart from those on the Front Bench, should leave the Chamber by the doors behind me. We must try to keep social distancing going.
4 November 2020
The House divided:
Question accordingly agreed to.View Details
That the Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (England) (No. 4) Regulations 2020 (S.I., 2020, No. 1200), dated 3 November 2020, a copy of which was laid before this House on 3 November, be approved.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Consideration of Lords message
Queen’s consent signified.
After Clause 42
Duty to seek equivalence on agri-food standards in relation to future trade
I beg to move, That this House disagrees with Lords amendment 16B.
With this it will be convenient to consider:
Lords amendment 18B, and Government motion to disagree.
Government amendments (a) and (b) in lieu of Lords amendments 16B and 18B.
I should start by declaring my farming interests and the fact that I come from a farming family, but that is not the only reason hat I think this is one of the most exciting Bills before the House this year. This Bill matters to everyone who sees a great future for British farming as we leave the EU and the confines of the common agricultural policy. As we have seen from the huge amount of public interest in it, this Bill matters to everyone who is interested in what we eat and in where and how it is produced. Food standards are important, particularly as we forge new trade deals around the world.
This Bill has been much improved during its passage through this place, and I must thank Members on both sides of both Houses for their assistance, starting with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Lord Gardiner and the Minister for the Environment, with whom I am working closely on future farming policy, and our marvellous Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), who is a strong voice for her farming community, as is Emma Pryor, our Spad. I should also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), Lord Grantchester and Lord Curry of Kirkharle.
I thank the many Members who voted for previous incarnations of the Bill, voicing their concerns privately to me and believing, rightly, that it would come right in the end. We must recognise that a large number of people outside Parliament have been involved in the debate on standards, including the National Farmers Union and the many members of the public who signed its petition, and many British farmers.
It would be remiss of us not to thank the Minister for the way that she has engaged in this process, listened to farmers and their representatives and got the Bill to such a good place. May I put on record my thanks to her?
That is very kind. We should also thank the farmers, who are rightly proud of the food we produce.
It has proved very difficult to find the right form of legislative words to protect our standards. It is important that we comply with World Trade Organisation rules and that we do not impose impossible conditions on future trading partners. I feel that, following the gargantuan efforts of many people, we have got to a sensible compromise. My concern about amendment 16B is that it would cause problems for our negotiators and impose burdensome administrative measures on our trading partners. Demonstrating equivalence of standards is a complex and technical task that involves delving deeply into the cowsheds, chicken huts and legislatures of other nations. I feel that our amendment in lieu is a better way to achieve the goal.
We stood on a clear manifesto commitment that in all our trade negotiations we would not compromise on our high environmental protection, animal welfare or food standards. As I have said many times before, we need a range of tools to help us achieve that goal. The first tool is legislative. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 transferred all exiting EU food safety provisions, including existing import requirements, to the UK statute book. These include, as I have said several times before, a ban on chlorine washes for chicken and hormone-treated beef. Any changes would require new legislation to be brought before this Parliament, and I do not see any appetite for that.
The second tool is the regulatory body, the independent Food Standards Agency, and Food Standards Scotland. The third tool is consumer information. Earlier this year I committed to a serious and rapid examination of the role of labelling in promoting high standards and high welfare across the UK. We will consult on that at the end of the transition period, so very shortly.
The fourth tool is Parliament, which plays an important role in scrutinising our trade policy. The Government have provided a great deal of information to Parliament on our negotiations, including publishing our objectives and our scoping assessments before the start of talks, and we also work very closely with the relevant Select Committees. However, during the passage of the Bill it has made it clear that further parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals is desirable. That is why we have tabled an amendment requiring us to report to Parliament on the impact of new trade agreements on the maintenance of our food, animal welfare and environmental protection standards. This proposed new clause would add a duty on the Secretary of State to present a report to Parliament before or alongside any free trade agreement laid before Parliament under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 procedures. The Secretary of State for International Trade has said that the Government will find time for debate. If Parliament is not satisfied, it can delay ratification through the CRaG process.
Turning to Lords amendment 18B, the Government will in fact go further than is proposed. We are putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing, with a provision to review it every three years. This will be done through a Government amendment to the Trade Bill, which has finished in Committee and is about be considered on Report in the House of Lords, where the amendment will be introduced. That will ensure that our trade policy is examined in detail by key experts. This House asked for parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals, and I am delighted to provide it.
Can I take the Minister back to amendment (a), because she moved on before I got to make my point? Subsection (5) of the proposed new clause provides that any report would have to be laid before Welsh Ministers and Scottish Ministers. Can she outline what would happen if those Ministers, or indeed Northern Ireland Ministers, disagreed with the content of the report?
The whole purpose of the reporting mechanism is that it will not just be for Parliament, or indeed any of the devolved Administrations, to object to the report; it will be publicly available and, I suspect, widely scrutinised—we have all seen how interested the public are in these matters. In those circumstances, I am quite sure that we would find a way of discussing the matter in this place, so that the views of the Commons could be tested in the normal manner. Were that situation to arise, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman would find a way of making his views and those of his constituents clear.
Will the Minister give way?
I will not, because many Members wish to speak and I have been asked to be as quick as possible.
We are putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing. The House asked for scrutiny of trade deals, and I am pleased to provide it. Parliament will have the reports from the Trade and Agriculture Commission, and it will have time to study the texts and specialist Committees in both Houses to examine them in more detail. It will be the lawful duty of Ministers to present both Houses, and indeed the devolved Administrations, with the evidence they need to scrutinise future trade agreements.
I believe that the Government amendment provides a comprehensive solution that really gets to the heart of this important issue. I therefore urge the House to reject Lords amendments 16B and 18B and to accept the Government’s amendment in lieu.
Before I call the spokesman for the Opposition, I warn Members that there will be an immediate limit on Back-Bench speeches of three minutes. We obviously have very little time and many people wish to speak, so the shorter the better. I remind Members that brevity is the soul of wit.
I rise to speak in support of Lords amendment 16B. Like the Minister, I declare an interest: my little sister is a sheep farmer in Cornwall. I thank all farmers for their work throughout the covid-19 pandemic and the work they will be undertaking during the second lockdown.
We have been here before, and we may yet be here again. I welcome the Government’s adoption of large parts of Labour policy since the last time we spoke about the Agriculture Bill. I have to say to the Minister that we are not quite there yet, but we are nearly there. The vote on food standards today is being followed by people in all our communities. It is a decision about what type of country we want Britain to be. I want Britain to be a country of high standards that respects the welfare of animals and ensures that environmental protection is baked into our food chain. We therefore continue to press Ministers to put our high food and farming standards into law.
I turn to the Government’s concessions and the amendment in the Minister’s name, which puts them into action. I am glad that, after voting against attempts to strengthen the Trade and Agriculture Commission a short time ago, the Government have changed their mind and listened to farmers, the National Farmers Union and Labour, in particular, on strengthening it. I thank Ministers for their efforts, and in particular the Farming Minister for her personal effort in trying to reach a compromise on that. I am grateful for all the work she has done. In particular, I thank Lord Grantchester, Baroness Jones and the Lords Minister, Lord Gardiner, for what has taken place. It has been a team effort, and it has included the work of the National Farmers Union and Minette Batters.
The Minister was up against a hard deadline to pass this Bill because of the Government’s decision to oppose an extension to the powers in the Direct Payments to Farmers (Legislative Continuity) Act 2020, which Labour proposed when we discussed this on 21 January. We suggested that Ministers take an extra 12 months of power so that they would not be up against a deadline, and I recall Ministers saying that that would not be necessary. It turns out that a bit of forward planning is a good thing. I encourage Ministers to look at such amendments the next time we introduce them, rather than arguing against them simply because of where they came from. It is important that farmers are paid.
Working side by side with our nation’s farmers, we have helped to secure two key concessions from Ministers. The first is that the Trade and Agriculture Commission should be put on a statutory basis, renewable every three years. That will happen in the form of an amendment to the Trade Bill. That amendment has not yet been published, so we cannot see the words, the meaning and the effect that it will have. When will we see the Government’s Trade Bill amendment on strengthening the Trade and Agriculture Commission so that we can understand how it will work legally with the new clause in this Bill?
We know that the International Trade Secretary and the Environment Secretary have not always agreed on food standards. The truth is that I do not trust the Department for International Trade not to break any promises once this Bill is passed. It is clear that despite having one Government, we sometimes have two competing food agendas. Will the Minister confirm that discussions about the wording of the amendment will take place with the Opposition and will involve DEFRA and DIT Ministers?
Will the Minister also give a commitment on the membership of the Trade and Agriculture Commission? Although it is broad at the moment, we feel it could be strengthened by an enhanced consumer voice, and with trade unions being part of it. I know that there is a proposal for trade unions to sit on a small union sub-committee, but having unions—a voice of the workers in our food sector—as part of that main body would be important.
The second concession that the Minister accepted was to enhance the scrutiny of trade deals, in recognition that the proposals put forward previously were inadequate. Strengthening that is supported on both sides of the House. There is more that can be done here. That is an argument that the shadow International Trade Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry), and I have been making consistently, but I feel that we can go a wee bit further.
I welcome that the Government will require a report to assess any trade deals against the standards of animal welfare, environmental protection and plant health, but this is extra scrutiny; it is not a vote on this matter. That is what we agreed and I think what should happen. The amendment the Minister has tabled only proposes that the report will be laid before parliamentary Committees and not to the House itself. It will not be subject to an automatic vote; only to a circuitous and fragile route. The House will know that, for a vote to happen, the CRaG process requires that the Government, in their generosity, would award the Opposition an Opposition day to challenge the trade deal if that trade deal falls below the standards we expect, regardless of what the TAC report may say.
The Minister mentioned that the Trade Secretary says she will find time for a debate, but having seen the Government refuse the Opposition Opposition days in the lead-up to the general election, I hope they will forgive us for not believing that until we see it in writing. I must say that should the parties swap places after the next general election, having that in writing would be useful for the Conservatives, too.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will carry on for just one moment, if I may.
The Minister says that a deal can be prayed against, but what we need is a proper system of parliamentary scrutiny, not a reliance on the benevolence of any Government Minister to afford the Opposition an Opposition day. To avoid any further ping-pong, I would be grateful if the Minister could guarantee now, and furthermore say in a published ministerial statement, that the Government will not unreasonably refuse an Opposition day for that purpose, in particular when it comes to a vote on any food standards in any future trade deals.
I want to press the Minister on the wording in Government amendment (a). We have spoken about this and I hope she will be able to give some clarity. The wording “consistent with” is used in relation to our own standards. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out where that has the same legal meaning as “equivalent to”. Many Lords had a similar concern about that and I would be grateful if she could set out the difference around what that means. I also think there is a logic to using production standards as one of the areas. I know the Government can ask the Trade and Agriculture Commission to look at things beyond what is in primary legislation, so I would be grateful if the Minister could look at whether production standards could also be used in relation to that.
Will the plans for parliamentary scrutiny include deciding negotiation objectives, consultation, access to texts during negotiations, and a statutory role for the relevant Select Committees as well as the TAC? The duty in the Government’s new clause is to report to Parliament on to what extent commitments in new free trade agreements relating to agriculture products are consistent with maintaining UK standards. Will the Minister explain if that will allow deals to let in imports of those products, provided that it is merely reported to Parliament, or will that provision enable goods produced to lower standards to be stopped from entering the UK?
One important factor for us in Northern Ireland, and especially in my constituency, is the milk sector. It is very important that the high standards we have in our products which are sold across the world are maintained. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that under the Bill the high standards we have will be maintained by every other country in the world that will have a chance to bring their products into the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for intervening. I think that is a point the Minister should address in her remarks as well. We should be a beacon for high standards. As the Minister herself moved an amendment to the Fisheries Bill on seal protection precisely to enable our trade with the United States, which had higher legislative standards on seal protection—not on other things, perhaps—we need to make sure that that works on both sides of the Atlantic. That is a good principle that I hope the Minister will adopt.
I am mindful of the time, Madam Deputy Speaker, so will quickly run through this. We need to put our food and farming standards into law. Farmers have a genuine and widespread concern about that, and I think it is still missing from where the Government have moved to. The movement from the Government is welcome. It showed that the arguments the Government whipped their MPs to support could be further improved, an argument made by Conservative Back Benchers, as well as Labour. I believe there are further concessions that could help to undo the final concerns on this matter. I want to see farmers paid. I want to see the Agriculture Bill put into law. I expect that many of these issues will return to us when the Trade Bill comes back to this House.
It is a great pleasure to rise to support the Government amendments this evening. I am sure the Whips will be delighted to hear that. I thank the Prime Minister for his involvement in getting us to this solution. I also thank the Secretaries of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for the Department for International Trade, and I thank the farming Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), for all her hard work in bringing us all together. I believe that this is a very good day not only for agriculture and food, but for the environment and animal welfare in this country and across the world.
The hon. Gentleman knows that his opinions are very well regarded in Ulster by many of the farmers there. What would he say to the farmers in my constituency? Does he believe that the Bill, with the amendments that he is supporting, now addresses the concerns that have been expressed by farmers and consumers across Ulster about food standards, and are they now properly protected?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I believe that it does, because it brings us the opportunity to have the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory basis for three years. That has to report on every individual trade deal and it will give us that opportunity to scrutinise them, but it will be up to all of us Members in this House to make sure that the Government do stand up to the high standards. That is what I would say to the farmers of Ulster.
The work that the Government have done to bring this forward over the weekend has been very welcome. We have recognised the need to put our manifesto commitments in law and give everyone confidence that our standards are a priority and will not be traded away. This new Government amendment to the Agriculture Bill, along with extending the Trade and Agriculture Commission in the Trade Bill, is very welcome and I will be voting for the amendment.
Our Lordships—I pay particular tribute to Lord Curry—have rightly kept the pressure up with their amendments and helped to bring this about tonight. Government Members, along with the National Farmers Union and others, have been working very hard to find a way that we can show our commitment to the highest standards of food production in law. The Government amendment to the Bill is not quite perfect, but I accept that it is very hard to put these things in legislation, and they have moved a very long way from where we were. I am very grateful for the fact that we are here tonight and I think that all my Government colleagues can very much come together on this. We all know that trade deals are a tough business. Every country wants the very best for its business and its people.
I think the hon. Gentleman is right. There is no reason why we would wish to reduce our food standards in the United Kingdom, especially since we export all around the world on the basis of our high food standards. Has he any concern that the role of the commission will be to look at trade deals and make recommendations as to their impact but that it will not have the ability to change the regulations if the Government should decide to go down the route of changing them?
I thank the hon. Gentleman very much for his intervention. The commission will not have the powers to stop proposals but it will have the powers to bring them to this House. Therefore, it is very much for us to make sure that we raise that and drive this through. The measures will also make it more difficult for the Secretary of State for International Trade to sign away animal welfare in a future trade deal because of the commission.
I have said from the start that I am pro-trade with any country, but we do need fair trade. We also need to make sure that we have good negotiating teams that will gather years of experience in negotiating, because it is absolutely essential that we get good trade deals. We need to use all our experience and expertise in Parliament, Government and across the industry so that we are wise to the challenge that new trade deals can present. I want deals that deliver for British farmers and help them to sell more brilliant produce across the world, such as lamb and cheese—dare I say it, from Devon, but also from the whole United Kingdom—into America and Scotch whisky to India, and I know that the Government are really keen to ensure that this happens. Let us use organisations such as the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, which has a levy paid into by farmers, to get our market open in developing markets, with a high British standard of food and with us presenting it well across the whole of the world’s markets. We need to back British food and get it out into those markets, because until people have actually tasted our great British food, they will not realise how wonderful it is, and the moment they have tasted it, they will want more of it. We really can do this.
I very much welcome what Ministers are doing and the beefed-up Trade and Agriculture Commission. We need fair trade, not just free trade; they are compatible. I believe that we will see good trade deals in the future but we will maintain standards. I assure the Minister that all of us on the Government Benches, and I suspect those on the Opposition Benches too, will hold the Government to account, and I look forward to us delivering these good and fair deals in the future.
My inbox has been full of messages from constituents looking for food standards to be maintained. I know from conversations with colleagues that their inboxes have been filled, too, and we know from comments that we have heard already today that other Members have had similar experiences. If Ministers will not protect those standards in legislation simply because it is the right thing to do, perhaps they will consider doing it because there is huge public pressure for it.
Throughout the passage of this Bill and in other debates, we have never been given an adequate reason why the Government are so determined to keep food standards off the face of legislation. We were told that they should not be in this Bill but in the Trade Bill; come the Trade Bill, we were told that they should not be there but somewhere else. We have been told to trust the Government to deliver, and that future deals could be scrutinised by Members. Indeed, we have just heard that from the Chair of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish).
We are always being told, “Not here, not now,” but we have never been told why exactly the Government are so opposed to putting food protection in legislation. The EU manages it and other countries manage it, so why not the UK, particularly in view of the overwhelming support from the public and our agricultural communities? I would be happy to give way if any member of the Government wanted to let us know what the thinking is there, and why the standards we are told will be insisted on are not written into law. It is an issue that causes grave concern to food producers and consumers, because the guarantees that help to protect farm businesses also help to protect the health of people who pick up their food from the shelves of supermarkets.
The hon. Lady says she has received a great many emails about this from her constituents. I hope she has gone back and told them about the triumvirate of checks and balances that are now in place from CRaG, the Trade and Agriculture Commission and the International Trade Committee. The Government have put in place the mechanisms to scrutinise all that. That is the solution to this situation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but of course he is talking about scrutiny in the face of a Government with a nearly 80-Member majority. We have no way of pushing that forward if we disagree with whatever comes up in whatever trade deal comes before this House. The Government’s majority means that those of us on the Opposition Benches will be completely overruled. That argument is spurious, frankly, and I am afraid that many in agricultural communities, and certainly many of my constituents, simply do not believe the Government.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
No, I am going to get on for the moment —and I can see that Madam Deputy Speaker is encouraging me to do so.
Lords amendment 16B is a watered-down version of those protections, not the gold standard that people were hoping for, but it is what we have. Surely, it is something that Ministers can accept, given their repeated insistence that food standards will be respected in trade deals. Similarly, Lords amendment 18B would be a tiny imposition on ministerial life but, likewise, a little reassurance that is worth having. I recognise, however, that it will fall in the face of the Government’s amendment in lieu.
I am afraid that the Government’s amendments fall far short of offering us any reassurances or any meaningful way forward, and that the future for high-quality food production and consumer confidence in the end product is in danger. [Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) chuntering from a sedentary position about the National Farmers Union Scotland. Just today in the Scottish Affairs Committee, we heard from the NFUS on its concerns about the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill—the potential for a dive to the bottom in food standards that comes with it, and its relationship to what happens in trade deals on the back of the Agriculture Bill and the forthcoming Trade Bill—so the NFUS still has its reservations.
Like the hon. Lady, I have had many emails from constituents raising concerns about this. Does she agree that part of those concerns stems from the time it has taken the Government to come back and the fact that they have repeatedly issued confusing messages about this matter? There is deep concern that the way the Government have responded has not really dealt with it.
I absolutely agree. That is basically what I am attempting to get across. I feel very much—the contact I am receiving from constituents across agricultural communities indicates that this is also how they feel—that this is a sop, really. The Government are encouraging Back-Bench MPs to vote for the Bill and ensure that it gets through, but this House will have no meaningful way to stop anything that endangers food standards in future trade deals when they come before us. I suppose it is a step forward that reports have to come before the House, but it is not enough. The future of high-quality food production, potentially animal welfare rights and consumer confidence in the end product are in danger.
I will mention in passing a point that I was going to make in an intervention on the Minister: there is still no representation of the devolved Administrations on the Trade and Agriculture Commission. That is a huge oversight, which I suggest and hope the Government reconsider.
We face a twin danger as we roll up to the end of the year. The pandemic will continue to disrupt lives and the working of society, but Brexit lurks and waits. The potential disruptions can be seen in the nature of the emergency planning that has been done, and we can sore do without any further disruptive elements flung into this fire. The National Audit Office report—out today—makes stark reading on that subject. I recommend it to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie).
I regret the leaving of the EU and the loss of the protections that come with that exit. We were promised repeatedly by this Government and their predecessors that there would be no diminution in quality arising from Brexit. We were told by many that it would bring the opportunity to raise standards. The time is ripe for Ministers to prove that—at least in the very limited way offered by the Lords amendments. I invite the Government to accept that the road has been walked to the end and it is time to accept that compromise.
It is a pleasure to be here this afternoon. I thank Ministers—in particular the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis)—for the work that they have done and for listening to the concerns that we have all expressed. I also thank Minette Batters, the president of the NFU, for her tireless work with the EU this year, and Lord Curry, Lord Grantchester, Lord Gardiner and their other lordships for their work and for listening and putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing, as we have all been asking for.
This is a good moment, and not just because Government Members get to honour our manifesto commitments, which were sincerely made and taken by the public. It is also crucial for us to make Brexit a moment when we take back control of trade so that we can protect UK standards, ensure a level playing field for our farmers and go further by using our market leverage as one of the great markets of the world to promote UK leadership in modern farming: low carbon, low water, low plastic, low input, high productivity farming—the very farming that we need to be exporting around the world. To that end, we need to be looking in the Trade Bill at the use of variable tariffs to promote the export of British agricultural leadership around the world.
This battle now goes to the Trade Bill, where I will be pushing for three key things. First, I want a proper impact assessment for all trade deals, including the impact both for this country and for the third party. I congratulate the International Trade Secretary on renewing our trade arrangements with Kenya, which is an interesting and important market for us. I would like to think that we might be able to go further in due course and have a trade deal whereby we in this House could understand what it means for Kenyans as well as for agriculture in this country. After 15 years, we have lost the architecture for assessing the impact of trade deals, and we need to put that back in place so that this House can understand exactly what it is voting on.
Secondly, I want us to explore variable tariffs. What I mean by that is a world in which, yes, it is wrong that the EU imposes a 40% tariff on food from Africa—I am pleased that will be moving away from that—but also where we rightly do not accept food that is unsafe. I want us to imagine a world where we put a basic tariff on food that is safe but not produced to the standards that we would like to encourage, and zero tariffs on food produced in the way in which we need the world to produce it—with less carbon, less water and less plastic—and to use that to help drive our exports.
Thirdly, I would like us to put in place proper parliamentary scrutiny that is better than the CRaG process to ensure that we hold Ministers to account on the aims of trade deals and on the final terms, so that the House can show that we have used this moment genuinely to protect UK farmers, to make sure that they have a level playing field and to show our support for the best of British farming and all that it stands for.
I rise in support of the amendments from the other place. In recent days, the Government have moved to address some of the concerns that I and other Members have raised in this House, and we welcome that progress.
Let me make it clear that I do welcome the announcement by the Trade Secretary that the Trade and Agriculture Commission is to be placed on a statutory footing with an extended remit. It is good news, and it is of some comfort to the industry and to consumers. I would echo the sentiments expressed by the Ulster Farmers Union that it is a step forward and a win for those of us who have lobbied hard for enhanced protection for our agriculture industry. However, right now, as I see it, this is not enough.
Right now, with what we know—and I recognise amendment (a) tabled by the Government—I see no reason why Members who want to protect our standards and who really believe this must be done would disagree with the amendments from the other place. Indeed, if the Government’s good intentions are genuine, they ought to support these proposed changes to the Bill, legislate today and remove any question mark over the commitment to protecting our industry and our consumers.
The remit of the Trade and Agriculture Commission still does not go far enough. It does not have the legislative power to stop the imports of food that do not meet the demands we place on our own industry. Yes, we can be told by the Trade and Agriculture Commission what to do, but it is advisory, and for that bar there is no legislative blockage. For me and my colleagues, that is simply not enough. It is not that cast-iron guarantee that legislative protection will be given.
In the election campaign one year ago, the Conservative manifesto stated that, in exchange for future funding, UK farmers
“must farm in a way that protects and enhances our natural environment, as well as safeguarding high standards of animal welfare.”
The message was clear: “If you farm in the UK and want to benefit from financial support, we have certain demands of you that must be met. Make the standards or derive no public funding. Make the standards or we will not do business with you.”
A huge burden is placed on our own industry, and it is a burden that it embraces at considerable cost, so why are this same Government unwilling to go further and legislate to place the same requirements on those outside this country? Why not legislate today, and remove any doubt? Today provides an opportunity to provide the absolute clarity our farming industry needs to say that we have its back.
In putting the environment at the heart of our new system of farm support, this is one of the most important environmental reforms for decades. I was proud to be the one to introduce the Bill to Parliament in my previous role as Environment Secretary.
Dismantling the common agricultural policy is, of course, one of the key benefits of Brexit, but there is no doubting that this legislation, although not a trade Bill, has been overshadowed by trade matters. Like the Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish), I warmly welcome the significant concessions the Government have made on trade. Setting up the Trade and Agriculture Commission, extending its duration and putting it on a statutory footing will toughen up scrutiny of our trade negotiations in this country. It will also provide invaluable support and an invaluable source of independent expert advice for this House. It will strengthen our ability to hold Ministers to account on trade and farming issues, as will the requirement in Government amendment (a) to report to Parliament on how any future trade deals impact on food standards.
I welcome the statement at the weekend from the Trade and Environment Secretaries that the bans on chlorine-washed chicken and hormone-treated beef are staying on the statute book and will not be lifted, even if our negotiating partners ask us for this. Real progress has been made, which is why I will vote with the Government this evening, but this is not the end of the campaign on trade and food standards. This Government were elected with a stronger commitment on animal welfare than ever before. We must use our new status as an independent trading nation to build a global coalition to improve animal welfare standards.
Many countries use trade agreements to impose conditions on their partners. Even the US has fought lengthy battles in the WTO over protection for turtles and dolphins. It is possible, so while the debate on the Bill is drawing rapidly to a close, the task of scrutinising UK trade negotiations is really only just beginning and will require continued vigilance by all of us in this House. We must ensure that our negotiators stand firm and refuse to remove any of the tariffs that currently apply on food unless it is produced to standards of animal welfare and environmental protection that are as good as our own. The UK market for food and groceries is around the third largest by value in the world. Greater access to it is a massive price for any country. We should not sell ourselves short.
I rise to support the Lords amendments, but I acknowledge the progress that has been made in putting the Trade and Agriculture Commission on a statutory footing. I do not think that I am being churlish when I say that the Government were dragged kicking and screaming to do this; I am just stating the blindingly obvious.
The progress that has been made is testament to the campaigning prowess of the NFU, Minette Batters and, indeed, the whole farming community; otherwise this matter would not have come to this place a few weeks ago, would it? So it is blindingly obvious that the Government’s heart is not in this. Nevertheless it is a step—[Interruption.] Government Members