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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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—
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.