House of Commons
Tuesday 2 February 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Coronavirus has had an enormous effect globally and on public services in this country, which is why this year we have invested an extra quarter of a billion pounds to facilitate court recovery. As an important part of that we have already, as of today, opened up 40 additional Nightingale courtrooms, with a further 20 to open by the end of March.
But there are huge delays in the justice system. Her Majesty’s justice chief inspectors report 53,000 cases waiting to come before Crown courts. In Cambridgeshire, housing associations tell me that when they file papers for community protection notices, they are frequently lost or not even opened. Will the Minister tell me exactly how many Nightingale courts are hearing criminal trials today, and how many will be by the end of 2021?
In relation to criminal cases, I am pleased to report to the House that since August last year, every single month, relentlessly, the number of disposals in the magistrates court has exceeded receipts, so the outstanding caseload in magistrates courts has been declining relentlessly since August, as the system has recovered. We now have more than 290 effective Crown court jury trials, which is more than we had before the pandemic, and just before Christmas disposals exceeded receipts for the first time during the pandemic. That quarter-of-a-billion-pound investment is working and we are getting the justice system back on its feet following the very substantial and understandable challenges that coronavirus has presented.
The Minister already knows that Nottinghamshire’s police and crime commissioner, the chief constable and I are all extremely concerned about the delays in bringing serious criminal cases to trial and the failure to establish a Nightingale court in Nottinghamshire. I look forward to the discussion that he promised last week, but all Members will want to understand why progress is so slow. The Minister talked about 40 courts being open now and 60 by the end of March, but Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service said that 200 would be needed; what is preventing him from addressing that problem? How much investment has the Treasury earmarked for Nightingale courts?
On the question of investment, I have already said that in the current financial year we have spent an extra quarter of a billion pounds on justice recovery. We are hiring an extra 1,600 HMCTS staff and we have more Crown court jury trial rooms operating than we did before the pandemic. I am, of course, carefully studying the proposals for Nightingale courts in Nottingham and look forward to a conversation with the hon. Member on that topic in the near future.
In terms of speeding up the system, even before coronavirus hit us we had increased expenditure on the Crown Prosecution Service by £85 million a year, hiring an extra 400 prosecutors, and we are on track to hire an extra 20,000 police officers. Our commitment not only to dealing with coronavirus but to speeding up the justice system more generally is clear for all to see.
The extra investment is important and should be recognised, and Nightingale courts can make an important addition to court capacity, but does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that most Nightingale courts are not equipped to handle custody cases and therefore many of the most serious trials? Is not the long-term solution sustained investment, over a period of months and years, to make sure that all available physical Crown courts sit the maximum number of days that they can safely sit, and to ensure that there are resources in terms of judiciary, support staff and a safe environment for court users, to make sure that that can be done? Is that not the top priority?
As he is so often, my hon. Friend the Chair of the Justice Committee is correct. Often when a Nightingale court is set up, it does not have the required custody facilities, but it does free up space in our existing Crown court estate, which does have custody facilities, and allow more Crown court or jury trials in which the defendant is remanded to take place in existing facilities.
Crown court sitting days are very important. We have been clear that in the current financial year Crown court sitting days should not impose any constraints on listing and sitting cases. The situation for the coming financial year, starting in April, is the subject of discussions between my right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, but it is fair to say that we are expecting a substantial increase in Crown court sitting days.
The Government’s answer to the question about the scale of the crisis in our justice system is that the backlog has been higher in the past, but the Minister knows that this is just a distraction. In 2010, Crown court cases took, on average, 391 days to complete. By 2019, the Government had closed half of the courts and had 27,000 fewer sitting days, meaning that each case took an average of 511 days. A total of 30% fewer cases were completed, but they took 75% longer. Each year that the Minister’s party is in government, justice for victims is further delayed. How can he be so complacent, announcing just 40 extra rooms? We have 20 Nightingale courts and the head of Her Majesty’s Courts Service said that we needed 200. When are we going to get them?
A range of other measures are being used, not least the roll-out of the cloud video platform, which led last week to more than 20,000 remote hearings across all jurisdictions, and, as I have said, 290 jury court rooms, which is more than we had before. The right hon. Gentleman asked about the past, but he rather conveniently skated over the fact that the outstanding caseload in the Crown court before the pandemic in 2020 was 39,000, whereas in 2010, under the last Labour Government, it was 47,000. He asked about the number of cases and the number of cases being disposed of, but he neglected to mention that crime, according to the crime survey—the only Office for National Statistics-certified source of statistics—had fallen from 9.5 million cases in 2010 to 5.6 million in 2020 under a Conservative Government delivering reductions in crime. I notice that, last week, the shadow Justice Secretary talked about wartime juries of seven. I also noticed that, in June of last year, writing in The Guardian newspaper—
We are committed to cutting crime and reducing reoffending. A total of 80% of people in our prisons have reoffended, so if we want to cut crime we absolutely need to stop reoffending. In the past two weeks, we have announced a transformative cross-governmental package to address the underlying causes of reoffending: £80 million to increase the number of drug treatment places for prison leavers; and £70 million investment to cut reoffending by supporting people from prison into accommodation.
My hon. and learned Friend will know that, under the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, it is the duty of prison governors to enable people leaving prison to have a secure roof over their heads, so that they are not tempted to reoffend. I welcome the package of measures that has been introduced. Can she go further and explain the roll-out that will take place so that we can ensure that every person leaving prison is offered safe and secure accommodation, and is not tempted to return to a life of crime?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and, indeed, for the superb work that he has done in introducing the Homelessness Reduction Act. I commend him for his work in this area. He is right to reiterate the £70 million that we have put in to ensure that prisoners do not end up on the streets. That builds on what we have been doing throughout the pandemic: we have been operating an £11.5 million scheme to get people into accommodation from prison. That and other measures will continue to ensure that we cut crime and that people do not reoffend.
It is important to support former prisoners, who sadly include ex-armed forces personnel, to ensure that they do not reoffend. Can my hon. and learned Friend please reassure me that her Department is committed to supporting probation services and the fine work that they do?
I am very pleased to commend the work of the probation service, which has been doing important work at this time. We are supporting it with the finances that it needs, with increased funding of an additional £155 million per year, making a total of more than £1 billion for our probation services. That will enable us to recruit 1,500 additional probation officers next year. The investment will also allow us to help people from custody into the community and create specialist short-sentence teams so that prisoners get help before and after they go through the gate.
The Dyfodol centre provides drug rehabilitation services in Bridgend town, and lots of businesses close to the centre are telling me that its presence has negatively impacted on them. The situation has been made worse during covid as the centre socially distances its users, often outside. G4S, which runs the centre, has engaged constructively with me on this and we now have an agreement in principle to move the service to a more appropriate location. Will my hon. and learned Friend meet me to discuss how her Department can facilitate and expedite this?
We are aware that there have been some difficulties with the building in Bridgend, and we are working with the local community, via the commissioned services to which my hon. Friend refers, to find an alternative location. I know that he has discussed the issue with his Dyfodol partners, and I am happy to have a meeting to discuss it further.
All too often, we see the same people committing the same crimes. In Redcar town, we have a specific issue where the same people are willing to steal from garages or to steal cars, sometimes just for a couple of quid. Our Conservative candidate for police and crime commissioner, Steve Turner, wants to crack down on these repeat offenders by using technology and tagging, if he is elected in May. Will the Minister outline what more the justice system can do to stop reoffenders committing these so-called low-value crimes?
The measures to which my hon. Friend refers—those which his prospective candidate is interested in—are exactly the measures that we are rolling out. We are looking at shortly rolling out tags for persistent offenders, and expanding and refreshing our integrated offender management tools to ensure that the police crack down on neighbourhood crime.
I declare an interest as the founder and chairman of a prisoner rehabilitation charity. I very much welcome the announcement of a new package to support the reduction in reoffending that my hon. and learned Friend just mentioned. Does she agree that the dynamic framework for probation contracts should have an explicit objective of enabling small frontline charities and social enterprises to play a full role, with full cost recovery, in the delivery of rehabilitation services?
I do agree, and I commend my hon. Friend for the work that he did before he came to Parliament to support youths at risk of reoffending. He will be interested to know that of the 221 organisations that qualified for the dynamic framework, nearly 80% are voluntary sector or community organisations. So far, we have awarded 17 contracts, four of which have been awarded to the voluntary sector or community organisations, but we hope to build on this. We expect the proportion of awards in those sectors to increase in the next round, because 70% of the personal wellbeing bids and 100% of the women’s services contracts have come from organisations in those sectors. As I have discussed with him, we are also conducting a review of the first stages of the competition to ensure that we maximise those sectors’ participation in future competitions.
Supporting Ex-Offenders into Work
We know that offenders are 9% less likely to reoffend if they have a job, which is why we are working with the Department for Work and Pensions to increase the number of work coaches to ensure that ex-offenders have the support they need to enter into the workplace. That is in addition to the work that we are doing in the Ministry of Justice to build up the New Futures Network, which continues to broker partnerships between prisons and employers to improve employment opportunities for prisoners and prison leavers.
Getting information and opportunities to prison leavers as early as possible is key to helping them to build a new life on the outside, so does the Minister agree that the Government’s excellent kickstart programme should be available to suitable offenders under the age of 25, and that ideally they need to get connected to the scheme before they leave the care of the Prison Service?
I absolutely agree. It is appropriate that the work programmes that are available in the community are available to prison leavers. That is why I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on this issue, including by delivering on our manifesto commitment to increase the number of prison work coaches, who will further support prison leavers. It is those work coaches who will enable us to connect to those long-term Government programmes.
Human Rights Act 1998
The Government established the independent Human Rights Act review to examine the framework of the Act—how it is operating in practice and whether any change is required. The review will consider the approach taken by the domestic courts to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, and it will also examine whether the Act currently strikes the correct balance between the roles of the courts, the Government and Parliament. It will then consider whether—and, if so, what—reforms might be justified. It will report back in the summer and its report will be published, as well as the Government’s response.
Last week in the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Lord Neuberger pointed out that the Human Rights Act plays an important role in ensuring that people have access to justice and the means to protect their rights in court, and that the Act is even more vital as legal aid is squeezed. Does the Secretary of State agree with this statement, and does he recognise that removing human rights avenues at the same time as legal aid centres will reduce the ability of citizens to protect their human rights?
I agree with the noble Lord that the Act has played an important part in helping many applicants with important cases that have been brought before the courts. However, I can reassure the hon. Lady that the review is all about the framework of the Act itself, not about the scope of the convention rights that are scheduled within it, and the two issues should not be confused, either accidentally or intentionally.
I would like to start by noting the focus and perspicacity with which my predecessor, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), approached this role.
In my previous role as equalities spokesperson, I noted a change in narrative from those on the Government Benches, who had started to deny the existence of structural inequality based on, for example, race or disability. In my new role, I note that the same Government Members seem resistant to properly explaining the need for or aims of their review of the Human Rights Act. Are the two linked, and do this Government simply not recognise human rights and the need for robust legislation?
May I welcome the hon. Lady to her new role? I well remember working with her on the Investigatory Powers Bill in the 2015 Parliament. I will not dwell upon the internal grief of the Scottish National party; I will simply pay tribute to the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who always prosecuted her case with extreme perspicacity.
Let me reassure the hon. Lady in one word: no. They are not linked. As I have already said, this is not about the ambit of convention rights; it is a sensible and measured review of the mechanism that we have here domestically. It involves representatives from all corners of the United Kingdom, very much including Scotland. It has a balanced panel with a diversity of thought, and I am confident that it will produce robust and important recommendations.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his answer and his welcome, but I am not the only one questioning this Government’s commitment, because the globally respected Human Rights Watch recently published a report stating that this UK Government showed a
“willingness to set aside human rights for the sake of political expediency and a worrying disdain for the rule of law.”
Is it wrong, and if so, can he offer any reason as to why it might have come to that conclusion?
Yes, it is totally wrong. In this Lord Chancellor, and indeed in every Minister, there is an absolute understanding and a deep respect for the rule of law, which underpins the United Kingdom Government’s approach internationally, representing a force for good in world affairs and underpinning what is a proud liberal democracy. I and my colleagues will stand up steadfastly for that, and we do so with confidence and clarity.
The covid pandemic has had an enormous effect on public services, including the court system, but we have risen to that challenge, investing a total this year, as I said earlier, of an extra quarter of a billion pounds in court recovery. That has included installing 450 plexiglass screens in courtrooms to facilitate covid-safe hearings and installing the cloud video platform in 150 magistrates courts and 70 Crown courts to enable remote hearings, which last week delivered a record in excess of 20,000 remote hearings across all jurisdictions. We are not resting. There is more work to do and this Government will take whatever action is required to ensure justice is delivered.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, and I welcome the establishment of the 40 Nightingale courtrooms and the rapid increase in the use of video technology, but may I reinforce a point and ask him to confirm the importance of prioritising urgent cases to protect the public during this extremely difficult time?
My hon. Friend is right to raise the prioritisation of urgent cases. Listing is a judicial function and is a matter for judges, but I know that judges do prioritise the most urgent cases. For example, right from the beginning of the pandemic, domestic violence protection orders were one of those matters that were most prioritised. I hope I can also reassure my hon. Friend by saying that for those most serious Crown court cases where the prisoner was remanded in custody, well over half that had their first hearing in November will have had their substantive trial by July this year.
The Minister will I hope be aware that in the year ending March 2020, an astonishing 99% of rapes reported to the police in England and Wales resulted in no legal proceedings against the alleged perpetrators, and even the 1% of victims whose cases do proceed to the courts have to wait years for justice. What concrete steps is the Secretary of State taking to speed up the process and to address this appalling situation?
The hon. Lady is right to draw the House’s attention to this very serious problem, which most certainly does need to be sorted out. Some steps have been taken already, such as the roll-out of section 28 video-recorded evidence to help the most vulnerable witnesses, where that would be of assistance. Changes have also been made to disclosure rules very recently, which often pose obstacles in these kinds of cases. In fact, only yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and the Lord Chancellor announced an additional £40 million to help victims, including victims of these terrible crimes, but it is fair to say that a great deal more needs to be done, as the hon. Lady rightly references. There is a cross-Government, cross-criminal justice system rape review currently being undertaken, led by the Minister for Crime and Policing. That will be reporting very shortly and will have further concrete actions in this very important area.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for those earlier answers. The additional funding that Suffolk constabulary has received for victims’ services is extremely welcome, as many victims of the most horrific violent and sexual offences are, along with their families, in urgent need of additional support at a time when the period between charging and the commencement of a trial can now be between a year and 18 months. That delay is causing great distress, so to reduce the backlog of cases, will my hon. Friend provide more court staff and a Nightingale court in Suffolk to increase capacity in Crown courts?
I can most certainly offer my hon. Friend an assurance about the additional staff. We are in the process of hiring an extra 1,600 HMCTS staff. As I mentioned to the Justice Committee Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) earlier, we are also expecting a significant increase in Crown court sitting days in the next financial year. More money is being invested in the Crown Prosecution Service, which of course brings these prosecutions, with an extra £85 million a year to hire 400 more prosecutors. The purpose of all those measures is to speed up the system in the way that my hon. Friend has rightly just requested. I would be very happy to study proposals for a Nightingale court in East Anglia. Perhaps we could discuss that after this session to see what ideas he has.
My constituent owns a construction firm. He completed a significant project before the first lockdown, but his customer has not yet paid. He understands from his solicitor that it is impossible to submit a request for a winding-up order through the courts at present, even in cases where the temporary restrictions on them do not apply. If that is the case, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that businesses can request winding-up orders when required while covid restrictions are in place?
It is important that people to whom debts are owed can enforce those debts and get judgment; it is the foundation upon which commercial transactions are built. I am not sure that I entirely recognise the situation to which my hon. Friend refers. Perhaps we can correspond after today’s session, and I would be happy to look into the particulars of the case that she references and see whether I can assist in any way.
My constituent reported her case of historical sexual abuse four years ago. The trial is listed for mid-2022, but with court delays, there is no certainty. Meanwhile, this traumatised victim cannot access therapy, as it might jeopardise the conduct of the trial. She is seriously unwell. What equality impact assessment has the Minister undertaken on the impact of court delays on victims of sexual and domestic crime, and will he look to expedite those cases?
I recognise the considerations that the hon. Lady raises. I know that when judges make listing decisions, they carefully take into account the sort of considerations that she rightly outlined. Of course, many of the delays in bringing these cases predate coming to trial; they might be related to issues to do with disclosure or the time it takes to investigate and then assemble the case. We hope that many of those issues can be addressed via the rape review, in addition to the work that is being done on disclosure rules, and the extra money going into the CPS will help. As I said, we recognise that there is a problem in this area, which the rape review and the other measures aim to address, because delays do not serve the interests of justice; they cause distress for victims, as the hon. Lady rightly says. That is one of the reasons we have invested so much extra money in supporting victims, but I agree that delivering speedy justice in this area is critical.
From all the evidence in Yorkshire and the north-east from judges, retired judges and senior barristers, I get the feeling that there are serious problems. Is it not the case that the Government are using covid as a fig leaf for the fact that our justice system was in terminal crisis before covid, and we must have a renewal of our justice system and investment in it? When are we going to see the royal commission on criminal justice up and working?
I am afraid that I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the justice system prior to coronavirus. Waiting times in the magistrates court prior to coronavirus were about eight weeks, which is an entirely respectable figure. The outstanding case load in the Crown court prior to coronavirus—39,000—was quite low by historical standards and significantly lower than the 47,000 it was when Labour left office in 2010. Moreover, the HMCTS budget in 2020 was higher by some £200 million that it was in 2010. There is, of course, a great deal more that we need to do. A lot of money is being invested this year, and more money will be invested in the future. My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor is working at pace on the royal commission on criminal justice, and we are expecting announcements in due course.
It was revealed in a coroner’s court last week that in August 2019, an 18-year-old woman who was a victim of sexual assault was told that she would not get her day in court for 19 months. The day after, she lost her life to an overdose. The coroner said that the two events were linked. This was six months before covid landed on our shores. It is not covid that broke our system of justice—it is this Government who did it. Will the Minister offer an apology to that young woman’s family and to every single victim of assault and every single victim of crime in this country who is waiting month after month after month for justice?
I have already pointed out that our justice system prior to coronavirus was in good shape, with magistrates court waiting times, as I said in response to the last question, at about eight weeks and a Crown court outstanding case load that was low by historical standards, but we do recognise the distress that witnesses and victims in particular suffer. That is why, only yesterday, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), and the Lord Chancellor announced an additional £40 million to support victims—that is extra money on top of additional money already—because we recognise the importance of victims in this system. A rape review is under way to make sure that these cases are brought to court as quickly as they can be, because we do recognise that they are taking too long. However, that is not just a courts issue; it is to do with disclosure rules, putting a case together and properly investigating these cases. Of course, the extra 20,000 police officers will help. Victims are at the forefront of our mind, and we will do everything we can to look after and protect them.
Evictions and Bailiff Enforcement Activity: Covid-19
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. Effective enforcement is essential to the administration of justice, but it must be done safely during the pandemic. This Government have banned bailiffs from enforcing evictions in England, except in the most serious circumstances, until at least 21 February, to help control the spread of infection. We have published covid-safe guidance for bailiffs who are enforcing debts and fines, and have requested that they do not enter homes at present to take control of goods.
I am glad that the Minister has touched on this, but I am sure he will agree that, in the middle of a deadly pandemic, there could be no worse time for hard-up families to receive a knock at the door, yet the Government are still permitting bailiffs to undertake unsafe and unfair doorstep enforcement action. The shadow Minister for legal aid, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner), has written to the Lord Chancellor twice in the last six months, urging him to pause home visits, as have 11 debt advice charities, which have also outlined widespread abuse of bailiff action during covid-19. Can we have a very clear answer from the Minister: will he reimpose the ban on home visits from the first national lockdown, and will he deliver on the Government’s 18-month-old promise of better industry regulations?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. It is very important to distinguish between evictions and enforcement. In respect of evictions, the Government have been very clear: people cannot be evicted before 21 February unless arrears are of over six months. In normal circumstances, if someone simply had two months of arrears, they could then be subject to enforcement action. Now there needs to be six months’ notice before possession proceedings even start. This Government are clear that we want to ensure that enforcement agents do not contribute to the spread of this virus, and that is why we have strict regulations in place.
We have, on average, over 20,000 new covid infections each day and, tragically, more than 1,000 deaths, so how can the Minister possibly justify allowing bailiffs to crack on with business as usual in the midst of this deadly pandemic?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, but he knows and I know that it is not business as usual. In making that remark, he has completely disregarded the guidance that is in place. Of course we want to make sure that these proceedings happen safely. That is why Public Health England has considered these matters, and it is satisfied with the situation as it exists. We have to make sure in this Government that we respect all rights, including convention rights—article 1 of protocol 1—and he should be in favour of that too.
Prison Service Pay Review Body Recommendation 3
In July 2020, the Government accepted in full six out of seven recommendations made by the Prison Service Pay Review Body. This delivered an increase of at least 2.5%, with some staff receiving up to 7% with progression. This delivered an above-inflation increase, and it was the third year in a row that prison staff have benefited from a pay award of at least 2%. In rejecting recommendation 3, the impact on recruitment, retention and staff morale were carefully considered alongside affordability and value for money for the taxpayer. I would like to say that I highly value the work of the prison staff, and the decision to reject recommendation 3 should in no way suggest otherwise.
Prison officers are poorly paid for the incredibly difficult job that they do, and the Government’s experts recommended a £3,000 pay rise for band 3 prison officers to tackle the crisis in recruitment, retention and morale. The Government are committed to departing from their recommendations only under exceptional circumstances, so will the Minister explain what exceptional circumstances justify not paying band 3 prison officers what they deserve?
To repeat, I recognise the very difficult work that prison officers are doing up and down the country at this time. The pay proposals that we have accepted deliver an increase in pay, and as I mentioned, we took into account factors including affordability and value for money at this time.
Violence in our prisons has increased massively over the past decade, and skilled staff are essential to keep prisons safe. The Minister knows that the pay review body recommended a one-off increase to wages in band 3 as a job retention package, to ensure that our prisons keep the staff they need. She knows that staff and vulnerable prisoners will be at greater risk if yet more skilled officers leave the profession, so let me give her another chance to answer the question: she chose to ignore that recommendation—why?
I would like to address the point that the hon. Lady raised about violence in our prisons. I am pleased that violence in the adult male estate has gone down over recent months. Of course we accept that it is too high, and we must continue to do more to protect our prison officers. That is why we are rolling out body-worn cameras, and why we have 24/7 counselling and trauma support, as well as other things to support prison officers. Of course pay is a critical factor in the way that people value their job, and we are introducing a package of measures to ensure that prison officers continue well in their roles.
Covid-19: Court Estate
We take covid safety very seriously, and as I said earlier, we have invested £0.25 billion in making our courts covid-safe this year. That has involved the buildings and other measures that include plexiglass screens, nightingale courts, social distancing, and an enhanced cleaning regime. We work closely, of course, with Public Health England to ensure that our courts are covid-safe.
Solicitors in my constituency, particularly those who may be vulnerable, have contacted me to say that they are frightened to attend court due to the lack of safety provisions. That has led to some of them refusing to take on new cases, and resulted in defendants not having the levels of representation to which they are entitled, and further backlogs. Those solicitors have a simple request: that the Court Service resumes video remand hearings, such as those in place at the peak of the first lockdown, so that we can get through the backlog and they can conduct their work from home if possible, which is the Government’s national advice.
The Lord Chief Justice rightly gave a direction in January at the beginning of this lockdown that every case that can be heard remotely should be, for all the reasons mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. Video remand hearings have been recommenced as much as possible, and they are used a lot more now than they were in December, for example. I reassure the hon. Gentleman’s constituents that Public Health England says that our court estate is safe, and incidents of covid among Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunal Service staff are no higher or lower than in the general population. I hope that gives his constituents confidence to continue their work in person where that is absolutely necessary.
Labour Members share the horror of the legal profession at the fact that the already huge court backlog has increased by 35% since the start of the pandemic, and now includes more than 53,000 Crown Court cases. Lawyers want to keep the justice system open and moving, but it is wrong to ask them to pay for years of Tory cuts by putting their health and safety at risk. Like everyone else they are anxious, and given the hundreds of covid cases across the court estate, as revealed in answers to my parliamentary questions, we should not be surprised. More than 100 new cases were reported in just eight days in January alone. Sadly, we hear that precautions vary considerably across the country, so what new measures will the Minister take in the estate to ensure that all courts operate best practice, and provide those who use them with a guarantee that they will be safe?
We have already invested, as I have said repeatedly this morning, a quarter of a billion pounds in total this financial year to make our court estate covid-safe. That is why we have managed to keep the court system operating in the month of January and beyond in a way that was very difficult back in March and April last year. Public Health English is regularly consulted.
On the covid cases the hon. Gentleman mentions, there are tens of thousands of people passing through our court system every day, and the number of covid cases reported among HMCTS staff is in line with what we would expect in the general population. Indeed, those cases are now going down. Best practice is being adopted. Our courts are safe. Of course, where hearings can be done remotely they should be, as we are doing here in Parliament, and that is why we had over 20,000 remote hearings across all jurisdictions last week, but where hearings have to be done in person courts are safe to hear them.
The criminal justice system can struggle to meet the needs of those who live with serious mental health problems or conditions such as autism and learning disabilities or learning difficulties sometimes described as neurodivergent conditions. That is something we are determined to change. Last month, we announced landmark reforms to the Mental Health Act 1983 that will strengthen the role that our justice system plays in protecting the most vulnerable, enhancing vital checks and balances to ensure that patients’ rights and wishes are respected, and making sure that offenders with serious mental health problems can gain access to the care they need as quickly and as early as possible. At the same time, we commissioned an independent review to increase our understanding of neurodiversity in justice services, so that we can see what provision is available currently and how we can improve support in the future. A greater emphasis on specialist needs will enable us to build back a fairer and more effective criminal justice system.
I would like to pay tribute to all the incredibly hard work that prison staff in my constituency at HMP Bure in North Norfolk have contended with over the pandemic. There have been some extraordinary dedicated staff working long hours with onerous duties as we fight the pandemic. Can my right hon. and learned Friend tell me, given the risks prison staff are facing, what assessment has been of vaccinating them as soon as possible?
I join my hon. Friend in his tribute to staff not only at HMP Bure but at every institution in the prison estate and the wider Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service community for the tireless work they have been doing since the outbreak of the pandemic.
My hon. Friend is right to point to the importance of vaccination. Already, prison staff who come within the existing criteria in wave one are being vaccinated in accordance with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation advice. For the next phase, I am strongly and actively supporting the prioritisation of prison staff. My officials are working on that with the Department of Health and Social Care. The JCVI has already said that
“those involved in the justice system”
should be considered for prioritisation. I strongly agree.
Cases of covid-19 are now getting out of control in our prisons. In December, there were 75 cases per 1,000 in prison compared to 46 in the wider community. There are 87 outbreaks, across an estate of 170, in prisons in England and Wales. There have been reports of prisoners who have tested positive for coronavirus leaving cells and being taken to court, putting all at risk. In December, the total number of deaths in prison throughout the whole pandemic spiked by 50% in just one month. Can the Secretary of State tell the House how many prisoners and prison staff died after being infected by the coronavirus in the month of January?
I will furnish those precise figures to the right hon. Gentleman when they are finally available, which will be very shortly. May I deal with the general points that he makes? It is important to note that an outbreak is defined as any number of cases in excess of two in our prisons. Every case is regrettable, but it is important to put this in context: at the moment, as I speak, two thirds of the prison estate either has no outbreaks at all or outbreaks of fewer than 10 cases. That is an important qualification. Clearly, as a result of testing, which we have ramped up right across the estate, we are able to identify more asymptomatic prisoners, and we test prisoners before they go to court. Nobody who presents with symptoms should be presented at court anyway.
This work has been impressive. The quarantine compartmentalisation work that the right hon. Gentleman knows about continues, and I am confident from my daily briefings with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service that everything is being done to control outbreaks in our prisons. It is not right, with respect to him, to say that this is out of control in our prisons. That, frankly, is an insult to the hard work that staff are doing every day to contain covid-19.
I pay warm tribute to my right hon. Friend. Indeed, I met her recently in connection with her important work, which she has championed for many years. She will be glad to know that women on mother and baby units are supported by multidisciplinary teams to enable mothers to have the positive experience with their babies that she passionately believes in, and I share that belief. We still apply covid compassionate leave, the most recent release having taken place last month. There are individual care management plans for all pregnant women as well. We are in the process of a fundamental review of all policy here to make sure that we are getting it right for as many women as possible.
The hon. Lady is right to raise the particular challenges facing women prisoners. There does seem to be a different effect of the current restrictions on women prisoners as opposed to the male estate. Sadly, we have seen rates of self-harm and, indeed, repeated self-harm from individual prisoners increase. I assure her that the female offender strategy that we launched two years ago is at the heart of our considerations. It is all about understanding why a lot of women not just self-harm, but end up in the custodial estate in the first place. We continue with work on that. More investment is coming, with the creation of secure centres. We will continue to look at ways in which we can reimagine and redesign how women are incarcerated. She will be glad to note that overall numbers in the custodial estate remain quite low compared with recent years as a result of covid and, indeed, the approach that the courts have been taking.
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. We have taken steps to minimise the risk from transfers. We allow only essential transfers—for example, where courts need to be served and justice must carry on. We have clear policies in place to define the need for essential transfers, and we have our compartmentalisation strategy, which means that new admissions to prisons are kept separate from the general population. We are testing new prisoners and, indeed, testing those being transferred between prisons to minimise the risk of spreading the virus.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that important issue. He is right to talk about retail workers being on the frontline. He can be reassured that in relation to offences such as assault and other serious crimes well known to the law, the Sentencing Council has set out guidelines in which it specifically refers to people such as retail workers in an important public service position, which means that the courts should be increasing sentences and finding aggravating factors where shop workers have been the victims of crime. I think all of us in this House share the need to support our shop workers, particularly at this time of covid when they have done an outstanding service to us all.
My hon. Friend is quite right to highlight the particularly egregious nature of offences that are based either on the threatened spread of covid or on the abuse of trust that is inherent with anybody who purports to be a vaccinator but who tries to profit out of it. Having considered the matter carefully with my officials, I think that we have provisions within the Fraud Act 2006 that can cover a lot of the false representations that are being made. Indeed, there does not need to be a detriment proved as a result of the provisions of that Act. We also have other legislation. Any spitting, for example, is an assault and should be treated as such, and I note that a number of cases have been brought against the perpetrators of that appalling crime.
The hon. Lady is right to raise the position with regard to our outstanding prison officers. She can be reassured that as a result of the Chancellor’s announcement regarding the pay freeze, a lot of officers will receive the £250 rise next year, and there will be incremental increases to pay that are part of their current terms of employment. I hear what she says about the particular decision that we had to take. It was not an easy one. We are living in exceptional times, and I will continue to work as constructively as possible with the Prison Officers Association and other representative bodies to ensure not only that we reflect the need for support for our prison officers but that we retain as many of them as possible. It is not an easy balancing exercise. We did carry out the vast majority of the recommendations, but considering the times in which we live at the moment, that particular recommendation was not one we felt able to support at this time.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point so powerfully. We fully recognise the devastating impact that domestic abuse has on children and their futures. The Domestic Abuse Bill will ensure that all children who experience the effects of domestic abuse are considered victims of domestic abuse in their own right, whether or not they are related to the victim or the perpetrator. I am pleased to report that the Bill was given a Second Reading in the other place last month, and we expect it to complete its passage by the spring.
The hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point. I can assure him that the degree of partnership with the DWP is better than it has ever been, with work coaches in our prisons to support prisoners prior to their release, in the weeks and months beforehand. Indeed, we are working actively to make sure that if benefit is needed, for example, it can be available in loan form on release. Of course, on Friday we made a major announcement about accommodation for people who are released from prison. It is all part of an overall approach that involves a home, a job and a friend, and of course the benefits system is playing its part in helping to improve that provision.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point so perfectly on behalf of his constituent. Good progress is being made following the expert panel’s report. First, we have launched a review into the presumption of parental involvement. Secondly, the design of the pilot integrated domestic abuse courts is under way. Thirdly, measures in the Domestic Abuse Bill to provide further protection to victims and survivors who use the family courts are passing through the other place. Guidance is a matter for the judiciary, but I have raised this with the president of the family division and he is very much seized of it and will consider making recommendations on judicial training to the judicial college in light of the recommendations of the harms panel and other developments.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, but she must not repeat the myth that covid is out of control in our prisons. It serves nobody’s interests, least of all those of staff who are working day and night to control it. She makes an important point about education. Clearly, in this lockdown we wanted to ensure that more education and skills training were available. That is absolutely right and everyone would support it. However, there is a problem with what she says because, of course, the passage of paper and other documents in and out of prison inherently poses a security risk. That is the reality we live in and it is therefore important that we balance the needs of prison security alongside the needs of prisoners to access education. I will look carefully at the point she makes, but I think she will understand that a sensitive balance has to be struck.
My hon. Friend will understand that it is very important that proper calculations are made about prison capacity and that we do not end up in a position like that under the last Labour Government when we were having to use police cells to house prisoners, which was both expensive and, frankly, inhumane. He will know about and will welcome the huge commitment of £4 billion to deliver 18,000 additional prison places—modern places—across the estate by the middle of this decade. That additional space will allow us to do even more purposeful activity. On maintenance, we have committed £315 million next year—a huge increase on the previous capital settlement for maintenance—because we need to get on with ensuring that our current estate is decent, safe and secure.
We have been very clear that there should be no enforcement of evictions during this pandemic—the law is in place—save for the most exceptional and egregious circumstances. I am very concerned to hear the hon. Lady’s point about bailiffs behaving inappropriately. I would of course be delighted to meet her to discuss it further.
This Government consider the opening of Nightingale courts to be absolutely essential. I have visited a number myself. They play an important role in taking the strain, allowing other courts to carry out custody cases. We have already opened 40 Nightingale courts—an additional 20. That will play an important role in our ongoing courts recovery.
Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) for the chance to update the House on recent developments on the Northern Ireland protocol.
On Friday afternoon, the European Commission, without prior consultation, published a regulation to enable restrictions on the export of vaccines from the EU. That regulation also invoked article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, barring the free movement of medicines from Ireland into Northern Ireland.
It is important to be clear about what was proposed: not only plans to stop vaccines being delivered through legally binding contracts, at the height of a pandemic, but critically, a unilateral suspension of the painstakingly designed and carefully negotiated provisions of the protocol, which the EU has always maintained was critical to safeguarding the gains of the Northern Ireland peace process.
Article 16 exists for good reasons, but it is meant to be invoked only after notification and only after all other options are exhausted, and in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. None of those conditions was met. Worse still, neither the UK Government, representing the people of Northern Ireland, nor the Irish Government, an EU member, were informed. The Commission’s move has provoked anger and concern across all the parties and throughout civil society in Northern Ireland, as well as international condemnation.
Following the reaction, the Commission did withdraw its invocation of article 16 and subsequently clarified, in conversations with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, that it would not interfere with vaccine supplies to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his robust and sensitive intervention, and also to the Taoiseach, the Northern Ireland Executive and Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič for moving quickly to resolve the situation on Friday evening, but trust has been eroded, damage has been done and urgent action is therefore needed.
Peace, progress and strong community relations in Northern Ireland have been hard won, but in recent days we have seen an increase in community tension and, as was reported last night, port staff in Belfast and Larne have been kept away from work following concerns for their safety. The decision was taken by Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister, Edwin Poots, and the local council. My right hon. Friend the Northern Ireland Secretary is engaging closely with the police and authorities on this issue, and of course, the safety and security of staff are the absolute priority.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Edwin Poots for his dedicated work. He is, coincidentally, stepping down from his post for health reasons this week, and I am sure all of us in the House would want to send him every good wish.
Fixing problems on the ground now requires us all to work calmly. The EU needs to work with us, at speed and with determination, to resolve a series of outstanding issues with the protocol. I am grateful to Vice-President Šefčovič for his understanding of the need to make progress to see these problems resolved and to ensure that the protocol does what it was designed to do: avoid disruption to everyday lives while protecting Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market and our customs territory.
I am also grateful to the First Minister of Northern Ireland and her Executive colleagues for their close working with the UK Government and their shared determination to resolve these issues. We will work over coming days to fix the difficulties on the ground, preserve the gains of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and, of course, uphold Northern Ireland’s place as an integral part of our United Kingdom.
May I join the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in sending all our best wishes to Minister Edwin Poots for a speedy recovery?
The European Commission’s actions on Friday night were a serious mistake. Of that there can be absolutely no doubt, and I very much welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s response, but they must not be used as an excuse to go back to square one and undermine the protocol, with all the damage and instability that that would cause. Yesterday, as he has said, we saw staff withdrawn from the ports of Larne and Belfast because of alleged threats to their safety. This is totally unacceptable, and we all have a responsibility to dial down our rhetoric and to ensure that people in Northern Ireland are safe.
After the difficult past few days, calm heads must now prevail and serious, pragmatic, practical politics must begin to find shared solutions to the legitimate concerns and to ease tensions. With those practical solutions in mind, the looming end of the grace periods in April and July is causing serious concern for businesses, so will the right hon. Gentleman convene urgent sessions of the Specialised and Joint Committees to secure long-term mitigations of unnecessary red tape? Does he agree that an extension to those grace periods might be necessary?
Will the right hon. Gentleman update the House on the work that the Government have been doing to get British-based businesses up to speed on new requirements? Can he confirm that EU officials have all the access necessary to the databases they need to do their work? Will he ensure the joint consultative working group is urgently established so that politicians, industry and civil society in Northern Ireland have a formal structure to engage with? Finally, will he advise on how he will ensure that the protocol is never again undermined and that the political realities he has outlined regarding its existence are well understood by all concerned? What steps have been taken to reassure all communities in Northern Ireland that their lives and livelihoods will be protected?
The events of the last few days demonstrate that all sides have a profound responsibility to uphold the protocol and ensure that it works for all communities. They showed the dangers of unilateral action. It is now vital that, together, shared solutions are found that ease disruption, preserve stability and protect the gains of peace.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments, which I wholeheartedly endorse. She is absolutely right to say that it was a serious mistake on the part of the Commission; I think everyone recognises that now. I also underline her words that it is completely unacceptable to place anyone in Northern Ireland in the position in which the port workers in Belfast and Larne have been placed, so it is vital that everyone in Northern Ireland and indeed in the UK exercises calmness and moderation as well as resolution in seeking to resolve the problems that she outlined.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the end of grace periods for export health certificates and other issues do need to be addressed. I will be writing to Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič later today to outline some specific steps that we believe we need to take. Tomorrow, I will meet him and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland Executive in order to ensure that we can make rapid progress through the Joint Committee.
We are also communicating with UK businesses to stress that they have an obligation to ensure that their goods are available for the citizens of Northern Ireland in the same way as they are available to her and my own constituents. It is not just the Government’s responsibility but the responsibility of all of us to work together to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland recognise that they are valued citizens of one United Kingdom.
I am sure my right hon. Friend will agree that we have to make the protocol work and work well, but the window for doing so is small and shrinking. May I urge him during this month, with Exocet focus and precision, to iron out speedily with the Joint Committee those creases and teething problems that have been identified in order to spend next month—March—explaining those solutions to businesses across the United Kingdom and what they need to do? My judgment is that to extend the grace period would not be desirable, but business needs to have confidence and certainty, so all power to the Joint Committee for speedy and focused work.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the work that he and his Committee have done to help ensure that the protocol is well understood and to resolve some of the problems that have arisen. There are a number of specific issues. I alluded earlier to the requirement that export health certificates are provided, but, as his Committee well knows, there are other issues such as the grace period covering the supply of chilled meats to Northern Ireland and the movement of pets between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. All those issues and more are ways in which the protocol is having an impact on people in Northern Ireland that is not in the interests of Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom or, indeed, good relations between us and the EU. Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič totally understands the need to resolve these issues and, with good will, I believe that we can do so speedily, as my hon. Friend rightly points out that we need to.
I extend my best wishes to Mr Poots for a speedy recovery. The indication from the EU that it was considering triggering article 16 was a significant error of judgment—albeit one that was quickly walked back. Nevertheless, it was a mis-step that has followed significant problems with the Northern Ireland protocol, with businesses facing delays—and perhaps not helped by the Prime Minister saying that he would have no hesitation in triggering article 16 after spending months denying that there would be any kind of post-Brexit checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
We now have a situation that has escalated to the point that port inspection staff have needed to be withdrawn from their duties over concerns for their safety, which is completely unacceptable. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster give me an assurance and explain how he intends to work with the Northern Ireland Executive, the Irish Government and the EU to de-escalate all the issues around this matter and explain what further steps he will take to ensure that the protocol—an agreement entered into freely—works as it needs to for the benefit of all in Northern Ireland?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his elevation to the Front Bench in the SNP shadow Cabinet reshuffle that has just taken place. I look forward to working with him, as, I know, does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman on one point. I think the Prime Minister was absolutely right to say that, if necessary, article 16 can be invoked. There is a difference between recognising that it is there as an emergency cord to pull if we need to in order to ensure that the rights and interests of the people in Northern Ireland are protected, but it can be invoked only in specific circumstances, none of which, as the hon. Gentleman knows and has acknowledged, were in place when the European Commission invoked it. More broadly, we all want to make sure that the lives of people in Northern Ireland can be as safe, secure, prosperous and free as possible, in the same way as any other citizen of the United Kingdom. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the Scottish Government to ensure, through provisions such as the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, that we continue to do everything necessary to safeguard our precious Union.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree that the reality is that the protocol is simply not working? These are not teething problems. He mentioned article 16, but article 16 is very clear that it can be invoked if the protocol leads to “economic, societal and environmental problems” leading, for example, to a “diversion of trade”. We have already seen companies that normally ship to Northern Ireland now saying publicly that they will not bother to do so any more if it is too difficult. We are also seeing diversion: some supermarkets and others are talking about depots in southern Ireland rather than in mainland GB. Therefore, for all the talks about teething problems, what will he do in the short term to rectify this terrible disaster, with advertisers now saying that they simply cannot supply goods to people in Northern Ireland? What will he do both in the short term and the longer term to rectify the mess that is becoming obvious with this particular protocol?
My right hon. Friend is right that the problem needs to be addressed both in the short and in the medium to long term. In the short term, there are a number of issues that I would not describe as teething problems; they are significant issues that bear on the lives of people in Northern Ireland, which do need to be resolved. We need to make sure that grace periods are extended. We need to make sure that supermarkets and other traders can continue—as they are at the moment—to be able to supply consumers with the goods that they need. There are a number of specific issues and they extend, as I mentioned earlier, to everything from pet transport to the provision of plants and seeds to gardens in Northern Ireland. The daily life of our fellow citizens does need to be protected and we must deal with all those questions. In the medium to long term, it is important that we take all the steps required to ensure that citizens in Northern Ireland recognise that they are an integral part of the UK and that their daily lives and the way in which this Parliament works reflect that fully.
May I express my appreciation to the Minister and colleagues for their kind words about my constituency colleague and friend, Edwin Poots?
The Democratic Unionist party opposed this protocol from the outset because we recognised that it would cause societal and economic problems for Northern Ireland—for businesses and consumers—and would lead to a significant diversion of trade, as has been evident in its first month of operation. Fundamentally, this protocol upsets the very delicate balance of relationships that were provided for under the Belfast agreement. There is no Unionist supporting this protocol. What we need is not tinkering around the edges but a recognition that Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market must be restored, and this protocol is preventing that from happening.
I entirely appreciate and understand the right hon. Gentleman’s point of view. He is right: he and his party colleagues issued consistent warnings and concerns about the operation of the Northern Ireland protocol. At the same time, he and his party have been working in the context of a protocol with which they disagree and which has uncomfortable aspects for many of us, in order to ensure that we can address specific issues to improve the lives of people in Northern Ireland. I want to continue to work with him and his colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive. Thanks to him and his party colleagues making representations, questions on, for example, the import of steel from the rest of the world and VAT on cars have already been addressed. It is in that spirit that we will continue to work with him and his colleagues to address these issues. Of course, he is right: if necessary, article 16 is there, and it can be invoked. But I want to ensure that in the days ahead, we make a practical and beneficial difference to his constituents and others in Northern Ireland.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. The actions of the European Commission on Friday not only worried my constituents about vaccine supplies but worried everybody on the island of Ireland. Does he share my view that its actions not only constituted a clear breach of the rules set out in annex 7 of the Northern Ireland protocol but risked cutting across the Belfast agreement itself?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is striking that every political party in Northern Ireland, every political party in the Irish Republic and every political party in this House recognises that a mistake was made. It is important that we take this opportunity to recognise that trust has been eroded, and rapid work to restore that trust needs to be undertaken.
On behalf of my party, I join those who have expressed sympathies and sent good wishes to Edwin Poots.
May I invite the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to join me in condemning those who were responsible for the attacks yesterday on Alliance party offices in Northern Ireland, including those of the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), and to make it clear that there is no place in our politics in any part of this United Kingdom for that sort of intimidation? Do those attacks not illustrate the importance of using the time available to us in the grace period to get things right, so that we do not see what his colleagues elsewhere in government have called “teething problems”, come the end of that grace period? So much of this paperwork can now be done digitally. Are the Government going ahead in that direction?
I am always grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his interventions, because he so often talks good sense, and I find myself uncomfortably agreeing with him—not all the time, but a lot of time. He is absolutely right: the threats that have been issued to Alliance party and other political and community leaders in Northern Ireland are totally unacceptable, and we need to stand together against that sort of behaviour. He is also right that we need to help business to use the online and digital facilities that the Trader Support Service provides, to ensure that commerce can be as trouble-free commerce as possible across the whole United Kingdom.
My right hon. Friend is at last coming to the European Scrutiny Committee on 8 February. The European Commission outrageously enacted this regulation last week, which even today hypocritically asserts that it would create a hard border through article 16 and, moreover, continues even now the prohibition of the delivery of vaccines from member states to the United Kingdom. Does he accept that this demonstrates that the protocol is not fit for purpose as it stands and that this cannot be resolved without revocation of the regulation itself? Will he take this up with Mr Šefčovič in his meeting tomorrow?
I look forward to appearing in front of my hon. Friend’s Committee next week. He is right: it is important to recognise that the regulation as laid places within the Commission’s hands the capacity to restrict exports. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister secured a commitment from the President of the Commission that there would be no interruption in vaccine supplies, but, like my hon. Friend, I deprecate the fact that this regulation was introduced in the first place.
First, I express my solidarity with the politicians in Northern Ireland—including, of course, the hon. Members for North Down (Stephen Farry) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—whose offices were attacked last night.
In Northern Ireland, words can have very dangerous consequences, so does the Cabinet Secretary agree that it is now time for all political leaders to dial down the rhetoric and deal with the actual issues that exist around the protocol, while of course recognising that the protocol is a direct consequence of Britain’s leaving the customs union and single market?
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s expressions of solidarity and I agree with him: politicians and civil leaders from all parties and all parts of society should not have to face that sort of despicable behaviour. He is also right that it is incumbent on us all to seek calmly and purposefully to resolve the issues on the ground. I am grateful to all the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive, and to the First Minister in particular, for the calm and purposeful way in which they have addressed the challenges that we share.
The European Commission’s actions on Friday were deeply irresponsible. Although the Commission might want to cast them aside as a mistake, they would have had serious implications for the UK and Northern Ireland’s place in it.
On vaccines in particular, will my right hon. Friend assure me that whatever action the EU takes, our supply of vaccines to every part of the UK is secure?
Yes, absolutely—my hon. Friend is completely right. On Friday evening, immediately following the publication of the EU’s regulations, the Prime Minister was on the phone to Commission President von der Leyen to make it crystal clear that contracts had to be honoured and there could be no interruption of the supply to the UK during a pandemic of vaccines that had been legally secured in a fair way. The Prime Minister received that absolute assurance; it is just a pity that the Commission acted in such a way in the first place.
First, I thank colleagues for their solidarity in respect of last night’s graffiti attack on my office, from which I am currently speaking, and join the wider condemnation of threats to staff at the ports.
Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirm that violence, or the threat of violence, will not be allowed to influence Government policy, and that the central means of addressing issues relating to the protocol is through the UK and the EU working to address issues, such as by developing a wider veterinary agreement?
Again, I offer my sympathy to the hon. Gentleman and his staff who have faced this intimidation and graffiti. Members across the House stand fully in solidarity with him. He is right that it is vital that we work to ensure that the real issues are dealt with and that we say and demonstrate that we are not influenced by intimidation, violence or extra-parliamentary action. What we do is in the interests of the people he represents, and I look forward to working with him, his party colleagues and others to make sure that we resolve these questions.
The action taken last week follows the EU’s track record of a lack of understanding of the sensitivities in Northern Ireland. We saw it during the Brexit process, with the EU’s intransigence about not providing the then Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May), with an exit mechanism to the backstop, and we saw it again in the run-up to the protocol, with the EU ignoring our requests for trusted-trader schemes and other flexibilities.
I urge my right hon. Friend to take this discussion out of the purely technical discussions around the Northern Ireland protocol and transform it into a more strategic discussion with the EU. What does the EU need in return from the UK on other fronts to resolve these issues in the long term, and what does the EU need to do to give confidence, particularly to Unionists across Northern Ireland, that it understands that the Good Friday agreement and the protocol are matters of a joint duty of care for both the EU and the UK?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely spot on and makes the central point. People in Northern Ireland will have heard, during the whole Brexit process, professions of care and concern from EU politicians about Northern Ireland. Some of those were sincere, but the way in which the Commission has behaved in the course of the past week is of deep concern. I should say that I absolutely exempt Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič from this: he completely understands the need to make sure that we have a pragmatic resolution to this problem. But not every European politician understands the situation in Northern Ireland anything like as well as my right hon. Friend does, and we do need to make sure that we have a resolution that recognises Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK, while also ensuring that we have the best possible relationship with all our neighbours.
The right hon. Gentleman has just said that he would like to see the grace periods extended, but the Northern Ireland Secretary recently told the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs that
“we are not at the moment in a position where we want to be looking at extending the grace period.”
Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster therefore explain what Government policy actually is on this? Given that UK supermarkets have expressed grave concerns about having to provide export health certificates for each food item in their lorries heading for Northern Ireland supermarkets, do the proposals that he will be putting to the Joint Committee involve doing away with export health certificates on such goods altogether?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. We want to work through the Joint Committee to address precisely the issues that he raised. It is important that in that Joint Committee we have a practical, step-by-step analysis of the disruption and difficulties that are currently faced, and we judge which of those issues can best be resolved either through an extension of the grace period or by revisiting the operational aspects of the protocol. The Joint Committee exists for that purpose, and even though his Select Committee no longer exists in its current form, I look forward to having the opportunity to update him and others in the House about the progress that we make.
At such meetings, will my right hon. Friend raise the issue of food producers in Great Britain already having had their standards approved by the BRCGS, under the global standards for food safety? When they are approved at the place of manufacture, there is no need to check each and every case of food products when they reach Northern Ireland. We could, thus, end the totally unnecessary disruption when they reach those ports and the delays to fresh food.
Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that last Friday’s disarray demonstrates the real danger to stability in Northern Ireland of triggering article 16 and the profound uncertainty it would create for businesses? Does he agree that the focus should instead be on making the protocol work and on finding long-term solutions that will avoid disruption caused when the grace period comes to an end and minimise the disruption of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady that in the hours and days ahead the focus should be on making life better for the people of Northern Ireland by making sure that goods can flow freely and that their lives are not affected in the way that they have been. As I mentioned, it is appropriate to recognise that there may be circumstances in which article 16 may need to be invoked or deployed—it exists for a purpose. However, the Commission invoked it in a way that was completely outside the rule book.
Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to confirm that the UK Government will never tolerate any attempt by the European Commission or any other foreign authority to deny the people of Northern Ireland access to the covid vaccines, which this Government have been so successful in securing?
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that. It gives me an opportunity to say thank you to everyone who has been involved in the vaccine roll-out across the UK. Our national health service is a precious aspect of our citizenship of the UK. It is NHS personnel who have been responsible for making sure that our vaccination programme has, so far, gone so well. They deserve the credit and it is the Government’s job to make sure that people in Northern Ireland can continue to receive the vaccines that they deserve.
May I extend my appreciation to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and, indeed, the Prime Minister for their continued engagement in seeking resolutions to what appear to be intractable problems? The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has helpfully suggested that the grace period for pets, and the work on seeds and plants, can be solved not through continual extensions of those grace periods, but with a practical and workable solution that balances the zero risk associated with those sectors. I also thank him for his comments about the threats and intimidation to the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), and Assembly colleagues in east Belfast and north Belfast. What we need to see, and what we need to demonstrate clearly and quickly, is that constitutional politics works, and that we need to get those solutions through constitutional politics.
I could not agree more. The hon. Gentleman and his party colleagues have been assiduous in bringing to my attention and to the attention of the Secretary of State each of their individual concerns, and they have done so in a speedy, effective and low-key way, which has reflected their desire to resolve these problems. He is absolutely right; we need to see that resolution in order to ensure that people’s electoral representatives are heard and are effective.
As someone who cares passionately about our United Kingdom and Northern Ireland’s permanent place within it, does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that the European Union’s willingness to trigger article 16 as soon as it was in its interests clearly undermines its claims during the negotiations that a border in Northern Ireland was not something that it could tolerate? Does he also agree that the Government should now seek to replace the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU because the EU has clearly shown that it was not simply about the interests of Northern Ireland, but more about its own economic and political control? The EU has been shown up for what it really is, and it is time that we put the interests of the United Kingdom and the people of Northern Ireland first.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that we have to put the interests of all the citizens of the United Kingdom, including the citizens of Northern Ireland, absolutely first. I also agree that it was regrettable that just 28 days after the protocol came into effect, it was the EU that decided to trigger article 16 in the way in which it did. I want to work with those in the EU who are genuinely committed to the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, such as Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, because the most important thing for me now is to do everything I can to help ensure that the lives of people in Northern Ireland are improved. My hon. Friend makes a fair point about the need to take a step back and look at all these issues in the round.
Recently it has been reported that the Ministry of Defence will have to complete customs forms before moving equipment or personnel to Northern Ireland. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster assure us that this will not impede UK military support to the Police Service of Northern Ireland under Operation Helvetic?
The whole point of the Northern Ireland protocol was to avoid the creation of a hard border on the island of Ireland; and yet, late last week the European Commission—in an act of stunning hypocrisy—attempted to do exactly that, affecting medicines and critical vaccines. It has blown up in the Commission’s face, but if it ever doubles down and tries it again, the President of the Commission would unquestionably have to resign. In the meantime, will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster work with Mr Šefčovič in the Joint Committee to try to really rip back these problems? In particular can we narrow down the goods at risk to a very, very small number instead of, as is the case at the moment, virtually everything being treated as if it were at risk, with all the attendant bureaucracy?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I mentioned briefly in my response to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), the whole point of the Joint Committee is that it is there to safeguard the interests of the people of Northern Ireland; it is not there to ensure that we can somehow control the export of vaccines from Belgium and the Netherlands. That is not appropriate. His broader point is absolutely right: we do need to make sure that we work rapidly within the Joint Committee to address those issues, and, once we have done so, take a step back and look at how we can safeguard Northern Ireland’s position in the round.
Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that the protocol is the best way to ensure stability in Northern Ireland and that it must work for businesses and communities? Does he therefore also agree that further joint steps are needed with the European Union to reduce the potential mountain of red tape on food products when the grace period ends in April?
How can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents in Lincoln and all Northern Ireland citizens that article 16 is not triggered as lightly by the European Commission in the future? It took less than a month for it to be triggered, with little realisation of the potential ramifications by anonymous foolish actors in the European Commission, but thankfully ministerial colleagues, including the Prime Minister, saw to it that the European Commission made a swift U-turn on this occasion. Do the Government intend to revisit the arrangements, as after recent events this would be a justified request?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. One can never predict the future with accuracy, but I think, given the universal condemnation with which the Commission’s actions were met, that it knows that it has to step away. It is remarkable; the Archbishop of Canterbury, Carl Bildt, Alexander Stubb—the former Finnish Prime Minister—all the parties in Northern Ireland, the Taoiseach and the Irish Foreign Minister were all critical of the decision that was made. This is not some sort of gaggle of Eurosceptics rehearsing traditional lines—it is a recognition that the Commission mucked up.
The Joint Committee is empowered to determine the practical arrangements relating to the UK’s implementation of the protocol. Given this morning’s need to suspend animal-based food checks at the port of Larne because of paramilitary threats, it is clear that these decisions have real physical consequences. What conversations has my right hon. Friend been able to have with his counterparts in the Joint Committee on the practical steps not only to de-escalate the situation but to ensure that food supplies are maintained and eased in future?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I had the opportunity to talk to Vice-President Šefčovič over the course of the weekend, on Friday night and on Saturday afternoon as well. As I mentioned earlier, he is very conscious of these questions. Although criticisms might be directed at some, he should be exempt from criticism because he is absolutely committed to working to resolve these issues in a practical way.
I join others in the House today in condemning the attacks on the parliamentary office of the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry) and indeed my own party colleagues.
The Minister will know that Unionism is looking closely at how the Government address our very valid and principled opposition to the protocol. These are not teething problems, and the Chair of the Northern Ireland Committee should desist from using such dismissive language. Does the Minister agree that continuing to ignore one section of our community would be reckless when the foundation of political progress in Northern Ireland, which I want to see protected, is predicated on cross-community consent? Does he also agree that as the mechanics of east-west are broken by this protocol, it is inconceivable that north-south mechanics will continue to operate with the consent of the wider Unionist community?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. In reflecting on the gains that have been made since the Belfast agreement was secured, we need to recognise that that agreement underpins the principle of consent. It made certain that Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom would be respected by all. It requires respect for every citizen in Northern Ireland, all communities, and all traditions. As a committed Unionist and as a Government who are committed to the United Kingdom, it is vital we demonstrate that daily. That is why appropriate action needs to be taken of the kind we outlined earlier. Every day, UK Government officials, national health service doctors and nurses, and people working in every aspect of government are working to serve the people of Northern Ireland as UK citizens. That is absolutely integral to the mission of this Government. I look forward to working with her and her colleagues to make sure that we move forward in the right way.
I rise to make a statement on the fightback against coronavirus.
Across the country, our vaccine roll-out continues at pace. With each vaccine we administer, we are one step closer to normal. As of today, we have vaccinated 9.2 million people. I thank everyone involved in this collective national effort that saw nearly 1 million people get vaccinated last weekend alone, or, to put it another way, one in 60 of all the adults in the UK. We have now protected almost nine out of every 10 people over 80 and half of people in their 70s. I am delighted that we have been able to visit every eligible care home, 10,307 in total. I want to thank everyone involved in that effort, including the NHS, our dedicated staff in social care, and the residents themselves, too, for coming forward. I pay tribute to the Minister for Care, who has worked so hard to help us meet this ambitious target.
I know that many of us in this House are playing our part in the national vaccination effort. Today, we published a new resource for the House that provides more information on the vaccine roll-out and how all colleagues can play an important part in increasing the take-up of the vaccine in their area, because the take-up will directly impact how effective the vaccines are and how fast we can safely get out of this.
We are confident we have the supplies to meet our target to offer the vaccine to the four most vulnerable groups by 15 February. We now have over 400 million doses of vaccine on order, including the additional 40 million doses from Valneva that we ordered yesterday. That we find ourselves in this position is no accident. Our strategy has been to invest early and invest at risk. We have backed many horses, no matter where they are from, and we have also built up our vaccine manufacturing capability here at home.
As a result, today we have the AstraZeneca jab being manufactured in Oxford, Staffordshire and Wrexham, the Novavax vaccine made in Teesside and the Valneva vaccine manufactured in Livingston in Scotland. It is a great example of what we can achieve together, working as one United Kingdom.
Despite this optimistic backdrop, we must continue to act with caution, not least because of the renewed challenges posed by new variants of the coronavirus. We have found here 105 cases of the variant first identified in South Africa, including 11 cases that do not appear to have any links to international travel. As with the variant first identified here in the UK, there is currently no evidence to suggest it is any more severe, but we have to come down on it hard. Our mission must be to stop its spread altogether and break those chains of transmission.
In those areas where this variant has been found—parts of Broxbourne, London, Maidstone, Southport, Walsall and Woking—we are putting in extra testing and sequencing every positive test. Working with local authorities, we are going door to door to test everyone in those areas. Mobile testing units will be deployed, offering polymerase chain reaction tests to people who have to leave their home for work or other essential reasons. We have also seen 11 cases of mutations of concern in Bristol and 32 in Liverpool and are taking the same approach. In all these areas, it is imperative that people stay at home and only leave home where it is absolutely essential.
When your local authority offers you a test, you should take up the offer, because we know that around one in three people with coronavirus has no symptoms, but can still pass it on. We are offering testing to everyone aged 16 and over, even if they have been vaccinated. If you live in one of those areas, but have not been contacted and are unsure whether you should have a test, I encourage you to visit your local authority website to find out.
Anyone who must leave home—to go to a workplace, for instance, because they cannot work from home—should get tested. All local employers should support and encourage their workers to get tested. The message is more important than ever: stay at home, maintain social distancing and get tested.
Across the whole country, we are expanding workplace testing, including here in Parliament. This morning, Mr Speaker, you and I together visited the new covid testing site in Parliament, which offers all those who work here—peers, MPs and staff—the chance to get tested. I took a test this morning—it was, thankfully, negative. It is quick and easy and you get the result back fast. I encourage colleagues who have to be here in person to sign up and do the same.
For all of us, no matter where we live, we need to continue to follow the rules, because while more scientific work is under way to learn more about new variants, we know with absolute certainty that social distancing works. It denies the virus the social contact it needs to spread. We must all keep at it. We have sacrificed too much—and come so far with the vaccine—to give up now. I know that we will not.
While we have been working night and day to fight coronavirus, I have often drawn inspiration from our fight against another killer pandemic, HIV, a disease that also took too many people before their time.
This is National HIV Testing Week. It is a reminder of how important it is to get your free HIV test, but it is also a reminder of the progress we have made in tackling that terrible pandemic that we can credibly commit to no new transmissions by the end of this decade. Today I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing Lord Norman Fowler a very happy 83rd birthday. He was an inspirational Health Secretary and a fearless advocate for tackling HIV and AIDS. Lord Fowler is someone who knows the importance of taking action early and the power of testing to turn the tide.
As we face these difficult weeks ahead, we can all draw inspiration from that great struggle and know that even when faced with a mountain of challenges, science, ingenuity and the sheer power of will can see us to better days ahead. I commend this statement to the House.
I am grateful, as always, to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I thank you, Mr Speaker, for putting in place the arrangements for testing on the estate. I am sure that Members and, crucially, staff on the estate are extremely grateful for that initiative. I also extend my best wishes to the Lord Speaker on his birthday today.
The news that the South African variant has been identified in eight different local authority areas is alarming and suggests significant community transmission. Can I just ask the Secretary of State to run through the timelines? When did these 11 cases test positive, and how long does the genetic sequencing take? When was he told of the cases? Can these processes be made speedier? I am told, for example, that the Ealing case tested positive in late December.
The variants bring into focus the importance of border controls. Times Radio reports that hotel quarantine arrangements will not be in place until 15 February. Why the delay? According to The Times, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies warned two weeks ago that tougher quarantine restrictions for everyone entering the UK were needed. The Government dispute that interpretation, so will the Secretary of State publish the SAGE minutes from 21 January?
I welcome the extra testing, but may I suggest the Secretary of State goes further, because people move beyond their postcode boundaries? They go shopping and many still have to go to work. Will he therefore roll out testing in neighbouring postcodes? He wants to come down hard on this variant, but is not the lesson of mass testing, such as in Liverpool, that people are hesitant to take a test if they are not compensated for any loss of income associated with self-isolation? We are fighting this virus with one hand tied behind our back, asking the low paid to go hungry in order not to spread the virus. Transmission chains will not be broken without decent sick pay and isolation support.
We have seen the Kent B117 variant spread with speed. Public Health England’s latest technical briefing reports that B117 sequences with the E484K mutation seen in the South African variant have now been identified. That is very worrying, because this is the mutation thought to be behind the partial vaccine evasion. Surely that suggests that further action will be needed. For example, Germany, Austria and France are recommending FFP2 face masks on public transport and in shops. The Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) has also suggested that. Will the Secretary of State now review the evidence and look at that measure?
On vaccination, I again congratulate the NHS. Not all care homes have been vaccinated—those with a covid outbreak have not, for understandable reasons—but will the Secretary of State tell us how many such care homes are outstanding? There have been reports of some care staff turning down vaccination, so can he tell us how many care staff have been vaccinated? Will he ensure that the NHS collects data on the numbers turning down vaccination, so that we can target and overcome the vaccine hesitancy more effectively?
Public health services have an important role in tackling vaccine hesitancy. When will public health directors know their allocations for the next financial year? UNICEF has warned:
“Children are not the face of this pandemic. But they risk being among its biggest victims”.
I accept it was inevitable that schools would close given community transmission levels, but that does not make it any less devastating. We are depriving young people of social interaction and of play with their friends. Learning is not the same and mental health problems are increasing. There will be children in homes where there is violence or where drink abuse or substance misuse is prevalent.
Children’s health must always be a priority. On current plans, how many teachers will be vaccinated as part of bands 5 to 9, and how many teachers and support staff will have to wait until the period between Easter and summer to be vaccinated? Last September, it was reported that 25,000 teachers had been off sick related to covid, further disrupting children’s learning, so how can the Secretary of State ensure that we do not see the same disruption again from March when it is hoped that schools will return?
Finally, this is indeed National HIV Testing Week. Over the weekend, I binge-watched “It’s a Sin”, and I was in tears. Thankfully, HIV is not a death sentence today. People living with HIV are in phase 6 for vaccination, but only if they have disclosed their HIV status to their GP. Many have not and still do not want to because of the stigma that we saw portrayed in “It’s a Sin”, so will the Secretary of State ensure that people living with HIV are able to access vaccination at their HIV clinic?
To answer the hon. Gentleman’s many questions, he is absolutely right to raise the importance of coming down hard on the cases of new variants that we have discovered here in the UK. These are cases that have been seen over the past two months. The action that we are putting into place is to make sure that we stop further spread, and further spread in the community, alongside the action taken to ensure that there is no spread from those who have a history of international travel. As he knows, we have brought in tougher action at the border and we stand ready to do more.
The hon. Gentleman asks for the SAGE minutes to be published. They are published regularly. He also asks about the neighbouring postcodes to those where a new variant case has been found, where it is a new variant of concern. We absolutely do that where it is epidemiologically sensible. For instance, if the case is found on the border of a postcode, obviously we go across that border. We also investigate linked premises—for instance, if somebody had a child at a school or is going to work in a particular workplace—and, working with the director of public health, we will ensure that testing is directed there as well.
The hon. Gentleman raises the issue of isolation payments. We have the £500 isolation payment in place, so nobody should, as he put it, go hungry because they have to isolate. What is critical in these areas is that people stay at home unless they absolutely have to go out. It is imperative that people follow the rules to get these new variants completely under control.
He asks about the care home success. I am delighted that we have been able to reach so many care homes. I said in my statement that we have reached 10,307 care homes in England. There are 110 care homes where the vaccination programme is still outstanding because they have had outbreaks and, for clinical reasons, the vaccination programme cannot start there, but it will as soon as it is clinically possible.
The hon. Gentleman also asks about the data being shared from the vaccination programme. That data is now routinely shared with local directors of public health, precisely for the reasons that he set out—so we can reach more parts.
Finally, he ends on the question of education. Of course we understand how challenging the impact of this lockdown is on those with children who have to be schooled at home. That is why the Prime Minister said that schools should be the first thing to open when it is safe and possible to do so. Sadly, that time is not yet, but the more that we all follow the rules that we have set out so clearly, the quicker that time will come.
I thank the Health Secretary for liaising with me on the issues in Surrey over the weekend, where the actions taken by him and the outstanding leader of Surrey County Council, Tim Oliver, are absolutely right. My right hon. Friend mentioned that, at the weekend, we reached the milestone of offering the vaccine to everyone in care homes, except for where there has been an outbreak. Does he agree that we should crown that tremendous achievement by making 2021 a year as significant for the social care sector as 1948 was for the NHS—the year it was founded—with a long-term financial settlement implementing Dilnot and setting it up for the future with a 10-year plan?
My right hon. Friend knows that we set out in our manifesto, committed in the manifesto and were elected on a manifesto to resolve the long-standing problems in social care. The Prime Minister has set out to the Liaison Committee, of which my right hon. Friend is a member, the timetable on which he hopes that we are able to deliver that commitment. Alongside dealing with this pandemic, we are working to deliver our manifesto commitments, whether on social care or the 40 new hospitals or the 50,000 more nurses. I look forward to being held to account by the Select Committee on Health and Social Care on those commitments.
I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments on HIV test week, but it is concerning to hear that over 100 cases of the South African variant have been detected in the UK, particularly as they do not represent a single outbreak, but are widely scattered across England. The concern, of course, is that while current vaccines will still give a significant degree of protection, this variant’s resistance to some covid antibodies could reduce their effectiveness, so does he plan to tighten internal travel restrictions to avoid it spreading across the UK as happened with the Kent variant?
Will there be increased random genomic testing of PCR specimens outwith those areas to identify just how widespread it already is? Unfortunately, this is shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted. The Government have been aware of the concern about this variant for some time, and the SAGE advisory group warned that limited travel bans would not be enough to keep out new covid variants and that the only way to stop them would be mandatory quarantine for all arrivals, so why did the Government choose not to follow that advice? This variant is already present in many countries and new, more resistant covid variants could evolve anywhere in the world, so will the Government reconsider their very minimal quarantine plan and extend it to all incoming travellers? As new strains brought in through holiday travel last year contributed to the second wave of covid, is the Prime Minister seriously suggesting that people should go abroad on holiday this summer?
What the SNP spokeswoman failed to mention is that it is only because we built the huge genomic surveillance capacity that we now have, which is available right across the UK, that we have been able to spot these variants of concern. This is a critical point, because those sorts of variation happen everywhere, but the challenge is to spot them as soon as we can and act on them.
The hon. Lady asked about travel. We already have in place rules against all non-essential travel, with clear “stay local” guidance. We also have mandatory isolation for new arrivals, so yes, we have tightened in response to the new evidence that she mentioned, but she did not also mention the fact that it is only because the vaccine programme is rolling out so rapidly across the whole UK that we are able to protect people against the old variant, which of course is the most widespread, in combination with the variant discovered in Kent. That is the way that we will get out of this situation. It is a UK programme, and we are enthusiastic and willing, from the UK Government point of view, to do everything we possibly can to support that roll-out, including all the way across Scotland, to make sure that people in Scotland and every other part of this United Kingdom can get their jab as soon as possible.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and to the vaccines Minister, my hon. Friend Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), for the work they have done on vaccines. Will my right hon. Friend thank Essex Council, NHS staff and volunteers in Harlow who have, so far, vaccinated many thousands of residents?
Public Health England has said that adults over 18 with learning disabilities are at greater risk of dying than most people aged 65 to 74. International studies show that if someone is learning disabled aged 55 to 64, death rates are comparable to those for people aged over 80. My right hon. Friend will have seen the parliamentary petition on this, signed by many thousands, so will he work with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation to move the adult learning disabled high up the priority list for vaccinations?
I pay tribute to all those working in Harlow, including at the Harlow mass vaccination site, and also to the GPs and the pharmacists who are working so hard to vaccinate people right across Harlow.
On the question of the JCVI ordering and the prioritisation for vaccination, as my right hon. Friend knows, I think the best approach is to take the clinical advice and to follow that clinical advice. The sorts of considerations that he raises are an important part of the JCVI deliberations. I know it has looked very closely at the subject he raises. What matters now that it has made and published its decision is that we drive through the vaccination programme to get through as many of those groups as possible, and I am very pleased to see the hundreds of thousands of new vaccinations that are taking place every day.
SAGE warned about the dangers of the South Africa strain weeks ago, but the Prime Minister dragged his feet, and he has now decided on a partial quarantine arrangement that SAGE has already warned will be ineffective in preventing further introduction of this variant. Is it not the case that, once again, the Government have acted too little and too late to stop the spread of this new and dangerous variant in the UK?
No, on the contrary, we removed the travel corridors to ensure there is a self-isolation requirement that is mandatory for all those who are coming to this country. Protecting this country from new variants coming from abroad is important, hence we have taken the action swiftly, and we did that on the basis of the scientific evidence.
Could I commend the Health Secretary for the difficult and brave but correct decisions he made early on in the pandemic in relation to vaccines, which have led today to Britain having a world-leading vaccine roll-out? Could I also draw his attention to NHS Northamptonshire, which, thanks to the very hard work of all the local staff and volunteers, has one of the very best vaccine roll-out programmes in the whole country?
Yes, I have been watching the progress of those at NHS Northamptonshire, who are going great guns, and I know they are working incredibly hard. This does not happen by magic; it happens by hard graft, especially of the GPs and the pharmacists, and the support teams and the volunteers, who are doing such a great job in Northants.
I am very grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. We did take decisions at risk early, before we knew whether they were going to come off, and knowing that we would be criticised if it did not work out. However, that meant we could get those contracts signed ahead of many other places, and it means that we will be able to deliver vaccines for UK citizens and then, of course, play our part in ensuring that everybody across the world can have access to this life-saving vaccine, too.
The Government’s catastrophic mishandling of the virus has meant that, in the past month, there were over 32,000 covid deaths in the UK, an average of more than 1,000 a day. In New Zealand there were zero, in Vietnam zero, in Australia zero and in Taiwan one. The difference is that these countries pursued a zero-covid strategy—suppressing cases, saving lives and reopening economies. The vaccine offers hope, but so long as the virus circulates, there is a risk of thousands of more deaths and, now, of more dangerous new variants. Does the Secretary of State regret his Government’s decision not to pursue a zero-covid strategy, and will he now commit to this strategy?
All countries that have attempted a zero-covid strategy have found that this virus transmits and gets round the boundaries that have been put in place. There were parts of this country that tried a strategy of zero, and in fact we were urged to do so in this House, but what matters is making sure that we get the tools that are going to be used permanently for us to get through this, and that we get them deployed as fast as possible. That means testing, with the hundreds of testing sites that are now available and, crucially, it means getting this vaccine rolled out. The hon. Member said the vaccine offers hope, and I think that is where we should all focus—on getting this vaccine rolled out as quickly as we possibly can.
The Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board in north Wales has had some difficulties over a number of years, and it was not surprising that there was a collective sharp intake of breath, and mutterings of “here we go again”, when the vaccine got off to a bit of a faltering start in north Wales. My colleagues and I have been in constant contact with the health board, and are pleased to report that things are now back on track. It is making good progress, and is very confident of being able to hit the target of vaccinating the first four groups by the middle of February. Will my right hon. Friend join me in paying tribute to the staff of the health board, and to the legions of volunteers, the armed forces, and all those involved in that process who are doing such a fantastic job in north Wales?
That is close to my heart, Madam Deputy Speaker, and across the UK people have done extraordinary things and worked incredibly hard to deliver this vaccine roll-out. We have been working as hard as we possibly can as a United Kingdom to support the NHS in Wales, including north Wales, and in Scotland and Northern Ireland, to ensure that the vaccine is delivered as safely and rapidly as possible to all parts of these islands.
It is wonderful to see so many people being vaccinated so quickly, and it shows the value of investing in the right people, in the right place, at the right time, and of using our national health service GPs and local public health professionals. The vaccination is not the end of the story. Social distancing will continue to play its part, as will test, trace, isolate and support, and new variants threaten to take us back to square one. Will the Secretary of State learn the obvious lessons from this Government’s failures and successes, put local health teams in charge of test and trace with the proper funding they need, and fix the broken system of support, including the £500 payments and those not entitled to statutory sick pay, as quickly as possible?
I take all that as a compliment. The £500 payment is incredibly important in supporting people on low incomes, as is the huge roll-out of test and trace, with more than 90% of contacts now identified and contacted by NHS Test and Trace, which is doing a magnificent job. Of course, the roll-out of the vaccine is going rapidly, and this weekend, one in 60 of all adults in the country got a jab, which is testament to that. We are always looking to improve and learn lessons wherever we can, but I am glad that things are making the progress they are.
I echo what the Secretary of State said about HIV. Binge-watching “It’s a Sin” is five hours well spent on a reminder of how close we are to that magic zero transmission. The Government’s acceptance last week that the release of our society, rightly starting with our schools, should move in lockstep with the success of the vaccine roll-out, was welcome. Will the Secretary of State assure parents that we will follow an increasing number of countries around Europe, and in the UK, and stick to that as the vulnerable groups, and those liable to overwhelm the NHS, are protected?
With the Prince’s Trust reporting a record high of more than half of young people often feeling anxious, and some A&Es reporting daily seeing children coming in after self-harming or overdosing, it is clear that the pandemic is taking an enormous toll on children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing due to school closures, family pressures, social isolation, and bereavement. Will the Secretary of State commit today, in children’s mental health week, urgently to form a cross-departmental plan for tackling the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of children and young people?
We have put a significant amount of extra funding into supporting children’s mental health alongside adult mental health. We know that one of the consequences of the lockdown, which is absolutely necessary, is that it puts significant pressure on mental health services. We have seen the increased burden on those services, and it is very important that people get the support they need.
May I add my congratulations to those who have been rolling out the vaccine? I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) said, and I want to put on record my thanks to those in Gloucestershire, which, as of last Thursday, was the top performing part of the country. Hereford and Worcestershire next door was the second highest performing part, which kind of makes them the highest-performing roll-outs in the whole of the western world. I thank the Secretary of State for his help and that fantastic performance.
I want to take the Secretary of State back to his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine). The whole point of the vaccine roll-out is to ensure that we protect the vulnerable, reduce the death toll and reduce hospitalisations and the pressure on the health service. Given that the vaccine roll-out is going so well and is, I suspect, ahead of where the Secretary of State thought it would be, will he confirm that when schools start going back on 8 March, it will be those two metrics falling—deaths and hospitalisations—that will guide the reopening of not just schools but the rest of the economy?
The Prime Minister has set out four metrics that we will follow. Deaths and hospitalisations are two of them, and they are both incredibly important. We expect deaths to fall faster than hospitalisations, because older people who are higher up in the JCVI cohorts are more likely to die by a greater degree than they are more likely to use hospital beds. The other two considerations are that we do not see further new variants that put all this at risk and, of course, that the vaccination programme rolls out well. I would not say that the vaccination programme is ahead of plans. I would say that it is on track; I make no further claim than that.
I thank the Secretary of State for his and his Department’s wisdom and forethought in securing the vaccine for all of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—better together; I always say that, and it is the truth. As some Members will remember, the last smallpox outbreak in the UK was in the 1970s and was combated by health workers doing door-to-door testing. I understand the rationale behind that decision. What discussions has his Department had with the Treasury to secure additional financial support to enable each devolved Administration to carry out similar schemes if the need arises in every part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
We of course stand ready to put in place financial support for the devolved nations, should that be needed to tackle outbreaks such as this. We have a constant conversation with the devolved authorities. For instance, I speak to Robin Swann, the Health Minister in Northern Ireland, on a regular basis. I was talking to him on Saturday morning about the supply of vaccines, as the hon. Gentleman might imagine. It is something that we work very closely together on.
The fundamental point that the hon. Gentleman makes is absolutely right: it is by working together as one United Kingdom that we are managing to do this on vaccines. If we want a shining example of why this country performs so well when we work together, we just need to look to the vaccine programme being rolled out in every corner of the country, in every locality, with all nations working together in a single combined mission. It is a celebrated example of why this country works well when we are better together.
I thank my right hon. Friend for repeating his commitment to ensuring that schools can reopen as soon as it is safe to do so. As he reflects on that, will he keep in his mind the sobering words of Professor Russell Viner, the president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, who said to the Education Committee that when we close schools, we close children’s lives, and went on to refer to 75 international studies that suggest significant mental health damage for children? Will he reiterate the huge importance of putting children’s mental health and wellbeing alongside the other onerous responsibilities that he bears?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The Royal College of Psychiatrists has been clear in describing the negative impact of school closures and also the negative impact of the virus getting out of control. The challenge we have is to try to mitigate both those problems, and it is the vaccine that is the best way through.
I start by thanking our amazing NHS staff, and especially those working in the Aneurin Bevan health board here in south-east Wales, for their amazing work throughout the pandemic. Will the Secretary of State update the House on any conversations he may have had with the pharmaceutical companies about the need to modify the vaccine in the light of the new variants?
We are working with pharmaceutical companies and the scientists to understand whether and where such modifications are needed and how they can be brought to use on the frontline as quickly as is safely possible. That is obviously an important consideration given the new variants that we have seen. We have confidence that, should modifications to vaccines be necessary in large scale, they will be available more quickly than the original vaccines and, just as the first time round, when we got in there early and bought at risk, we are having conversations right now with the pharmaceutical companies to ensure that we are right at the front.
There have been scare stories in Lancashire about vaccines being diverted to elsewhere in the country, causing a shortage and perpetuating further urban myths. Will the Secretary of State assure me and the House that my constituents will be covered, that vaccines are not being redirected to other regions of the UK, and that Lancashire will continue to receive the required proportions in the future, safeguarding my constituents?
Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that absolute assurance. Of course, the supply of vaccines is the rate-limiting step. We have seen the strain on vaccine supply from some of the things that have happened over the past week, and some weeks the supply is greater than in others. The website shows the daily move in the overall supply across the country as a whole. Lancashire will get its fair share and get enough to be able to deliver on the target of the offer to everybody in cohorts 1 to 4 by 15 February. I have looked closely specifically into the figures for the north-west, and it is getting its fair share. I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that the reports circulating on the internet do not come from credible sources.
I add my congratulations to the workers in the NHS who are delivering the roll-out of the vaccine. Reopening schools will be a major step towards returning to some form of normality for young people in particular, but the presence of the new variant is likely to create some anxiety among staff. To minimise the disruption to education when we return and to create some confidence among staff when they are asked to go back into schools in large numbers, does the Secretary of State agree that we should plan to vaccinate school staff if at all possible before half-term, if not during it?
The challenge with the proposal the hon. Gentleman puts forward is that vaccinating those who are not as vulnerable to the disease before those who are more vulnerable would essentially increase the overall clinical vulnerability to the disease. I am glad that the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) did not raise this issue as health spokesman on the Labour Front Bench, although I know others on the Labour Front Bench do so. We have to follow the clinical order of priority, because my priority is saving lives.
Further to the Prime Minister’s suggestion yesterday in Batley that we may not see a return to different regional tier restrictions due to the virus’s behaviour, how will the Government avoid unfairly disadvantaging areas with low covid rates? Or does the fantastic vaccination programme roll-out mean that the whole country can now make steady progress out of lockdown together?
That is our goal—that the whole country can make steady progress together. In fact, case rates across the UK are more similar in all parts of the UK than they have been for some time. There were significant regional variations over the autumn, but that is much less widespread now, hence the comments that the Prime Minister made yesterday.
The Secretary of State will know that I have written to him several times recently on the subject of the gut microbiome, which the immune system heavily depends on, and its impact on covid-19. Will he meet me to discuss the emerging research, including on the use of prebiotics and probiotics, and positive mitigation of the impact of the worst effects of covid-19, helping people to suffer less and saving the NHS money?