House of Commons
Tuesday 14 September 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business Before Questions
HIGHGATE CEMETERY BILL [LORDS]
Bill read the Third time and passed, with amendments.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
I am pleased to tell the House that there are currently 47 Nightingale courtrooms in operation, of which 28 are used for Crown court purposes, and we are in the process of extending the operation of 32 of those until the end of March. I am sure colleagues across the House will welcome that. In addition, we are in the process of reopening 60 existing courtrooms in the Crown court estate that had been closed owing to social distancing; more than half have already reopened. When all of that is done, we expect to have about 500 Crown courtrooms available, of which well over half will be capable of accommodating jury trials.
I am grateful for that answer. We have one such Nightingale court in Nottingham, but the backlogs across Nottingham and Nottinghamshire have grown to be extraordinary, with constituents finding the dates for their cases going to the back end of 2022. That will not do. It is bad for victims and bad for the strength of those cases as memories fade for witnesses and similar. Will the Minister commit to meet me and other Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Members to talk about what more we can do in our community to get the backlogs down?
The relevant Justice Minister would be delighted to meet and discuss these issues. Naturally, the covid pandemic has had a significant impact on the justice system, but that is why the Government have: invested an extra quarter of a billion pounds in covid recovery; hired 1,600 staff for Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service; deployed the Cloud video platform that at its peak was hearing 20,000 cases across the system remotely; and had the 47 extra Nightingale courtrooms. I am sure the House will unite in welcoming those measures. Our aim is to get cases heard as quickly as possible.
Nationally we have a record high Crown court backlog of about 60,000 cases a result of the court closures and a decade of Tory cuts. Will the Government commit to continuing Nightingale courts until the backlog has cleared? When does the Minister think that will happen?
First, the number of outstanding cases is principally a function of the pandemic. The hon. Member may be interested to know that in March 2020—before the covid pandemic—the outstanding case load was about 39,000, which the House will be interested to hear was substantially lower than the 47,000 bequeathed by the last Labour Government. I have laid out the investments we are making in court recovery, including the quarter of a billion pounds being spent, and this financial year there is no limitation on Crown court sitting days. The Government’s commitment to hearing these cases is without question.
Oldfield Report: Probation Service Dynamic Framework
I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his interest and input in this area. I welcome the findings and recommendations of Richard Oldfield’s report, and in particular his primary conclusion that we should do more to encourage the participation of smaller organisations in the delivery of rehabilitation services. We are looking at how we can use more grants rather than contracts where it is appropriate to do so as well as how to simplify the qualification process and bidding process for the dynamic framework.
I declare that I am the founder and chairman of a small charity working in prisons and probation. I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. I congratulate Richard Oldfield on his report and the Minister on commissioning it. I am pleased to hear about the progress being made. Does the Minister agree that we need a culture change across the justice system, with managers and commissioners being prepared to trust the small community-based organisations that can deliver such good value, and that that entails having a bolder attitude to risk?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. It is really important that local community services deliver rehabilitative services in the communities that they serve and we are trying to ensure that culture change. Of the 26 organisations delivering rehabilitative services in the unified model, 23 are voluntary and community sector organisations, but we will do more to ensure that those small community organisations deliver services for us.
Beating Crime Plan
I speak regularly with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the actions our Departments are taking to beat crime. Our joint approach will protect the law-abiding majority, swiftly bring criminals to justice, and ensure that offenders are managed with rigour and discipline. Significant work is already under way to deliver on our beating crime plan, including more joint supervision of offenders by probation and the police, working with other local services.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his answer. One of the key focuses in the beating crime plan is tackling violent crime, something I wholeheartedly endorse, but we know that this often follows drug offences. Can I urge him to review drug sentencing, because often the sentences that go with drug offences do not act as the real deterrent we need to make sure we do not end up with narco-neighbourhoods across the country?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who speaks passionately for his community. He knows of course that sentencing guidelines are a matter for the independent Sentencing Council. Indeed, earlier this year it issued revised guidelines for drug offences that reflect many of the issues he raises, including the increased exploitation of children and vulnerable people to facilitate drug offences, changes to drug purity and the types of drugs commonly in circulation. Of course, I will continue to speak with him about these important matters.
As we know, antisocial behaviour blights all our towns and cities, and Wrexham is no exception. I welcome this Government’s strong stance to tackle crime through community sentencing orders. Will my right hon. and learned Friend congratulate Inspector Luke Hughes and the Wrexham town police station on their work, collaboratively with the council and other agencies, to tackle antisocial behaviour as our town has reopened and on championing the sobriety tags?
I am more than happy to join in that praise. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the local work that has been going on in Wrexham and in Wales. As announced in our beating crime plan, we are going to be trialling alcohol monitoring tags with prison leavers in Wales later this year. That I think will provide a clear incentive for offenders to control their drinking and ensure swift consequences if their alcohol-related risk is escalating.
Surely any beating crime plan worth its name should include fraud. Ministers must be aware that a person is more likely to be victim of fraud than of any other crime, yet according to the Home Affairs Committee, a mere 3% of cases reported to Action Fraud even result in a charge or a summons, let alone a conviction. The system is failing and failing badly. When are Ministers going to do something about it?
Well, we are. The announcement of a replacement of the Action Fraud system was made some time ago. That represents just the sharp end of the Government’s response to this growing issue. I can assure the hon. Member that the work that goes on with colleagues in the Home Office on fighting economic crime more generally and fraud is sustained. It involves work with the private sector, particularly the financial services industry, to help to design out fraud. So this is an end-to-end approach, and I can assure her that the work continues apace.
The Government committed in the Queen’s Speech to bring forward a Bill to enshrine the rights of victims in law, and the hon. Lady can expect to see a consultation on this issue later this year.
As the Minister says, we first heard about this in the Queen’s Speech over four months ago now, and we have heard nothing since. In the year ending March 2020, the crime survey for England and Wales estimates that more than 600,000 women aged 16 to 74 were victims of sexual assault. For these women, who desperately need to see protections enshrined in law, I ask the Minister: when can we expect this legislation on the Floor of the House?
I do recognise the issue that the hon. Lady raises, and she will of course appreciate that we have spent significantly more money on increasing the number of independent sexual violence advisers across the whole of England and Wales. However, she is right to be impatient for the Bill, and as I say, she will see a consultation on this shortly.
It is hard for members of the public to feel confidence in the statutory provisions outlawing the rough sex defence in the Domestic Abuse Act 2021 while a young woman such as Sophie Moss can be so violently killed and the perpetrator receive a sentence of just four years. Does my hon. Friend think there is an opportunity with the victims Bill to look seriously at the length of sentence for this kind of homicide, and could I urge him to press the Director of Public Prosecutions as to why so many of these cases are prosecuted as manslaughter, not murder?
That case obviously caused consternation not just in the House but across the country, and Law Officers will be looking carefully at its implications. I am more than happy to consider the issues raised by my hon. Friend during the passage of the victims Bill, not least because we want to ensure that every victim of crime in this country not only gets justice, but sees that justice is done.
For six years the Government have promised a victims Bill. Indeed, five Secretaries of State have promised that that will be their priority—will this be the one, Mr Speaker?—but meanwhile, victims are left waiting and traumatised, their rights ignored. I recently spoke to the father of a young girl who reported sexual assault two years ago. Delay after delay has meant that the family have been left not knowing when their case will be heard, with no explanation, poor communication, and the young girl having to relive her trauma. We now learn that one-third of victims would not report a future crime because of past experience. Labour has a victims Bill ready to go. Will the Minister work with us to bring that in? If not, will he tell that young girl why the Government continue to treat her as an afterthought?
I think that is a deeply unfair characterisation of the work to which all Ministers, and indeed the professional public servants who are involved in victim and witness care across the country, including police officers, devote themselves every day. Having said that, we recognise that many victims are dissatisfied with the support they get, and they do not necessarily see the victims’ charter writ large in their experience of the criminal justice system. As I said, we will soon be bringing forward legislation to enshrine their rights in law, and a consultation on that matter will be issued in the coming days.
Sentences for Rape
The maximum penalty for rape is life imprisonment, and already rapists rightly receive significant sentences, with the average sentence in 2020 being more than 10 years. The Government believe that those who commit rape should spend more of their sentence in prison, and under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently before Parliament, we will increase the time that they spend behind bars.
In 2019-20 just 3% of reported rapes led to a prosecution—an historic low. It may be that life sentences can be imposed, but of those who received a jail sentence since this Government came to power, almost 3,000 rapists have been jailed for six years or less. How can the Government claim to reassure victims that justice will be served with those appalling figures?
As I said earlier, the average sentence for rape is more than 10 years, and two-thirds of those convicted of that appalling crime receive more than seven years in prison. However, the hon. Lady is right, and as the Lord Chancellor and I have said before in this House, the number of cases of this horrendous crime that get to court are not high enough. I am leading a taskforce, which includes the Crown Prosecution Service and police leaders across the country, to drive that number upwards. We are determined to get more cases into court, so that more victims see justice done.
Prison Officer Retirement Age
Our prison officers have done a truly remarkable job during the pandemic, and through their decisive actions and rapid contact tracing, literally hundreds if not thousands of prisoners’ lives have been saved. Although there are no plans to revisit the retirement age, we are pursuing a series of initiatives to boost morale, safety and retention, and ensure that prisons are as secure and rehabilitative as possible.
The Government have previously stated that because of the higher potential for serious injury and fatality among firefighters and police, they do not consider prison officers deserving of the same pension age protections and the right to retire at 60. With serious violence against staff still plaguing our prisons, does the Minister accept that the message received by prison officers is that they will have to wait until one of their own is killed in the line of duty before their safety concerns are taken seriously?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Mercifully, during the pandemic violence has come down in prisons, which we welcome. It is also important not to make false comparisons. For example, employee contributions for police officers are at 12%, and 14% for fire officers, and 5.45% for prison officers. Of course we keep such matters under review. We made a generous offer in 2017 to bring forward the retirement date when the taxpayer would pay the entirety of employee contributions, but I regret that that was rejected by the POA.
Our prison officers do fantastic work keeping prisons and communities safe, and they have gone above and beyond throughout the pandemic. However, the Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that more than 86,000 years of prison officer experience has been lost since 2010. These key workers are moving on to better-paid work that does not involve abuse and assaults on a daily basis. Why, then, did the Government reject the pay review body’s recommendation of a £3,000 uplift for band 3 prison officers? Should we not be giving these key workers a pay rise to recognise their vital work in keeping our country safe?
Where the hon. Lady is absolutely right is that retention matters, because having more experience in a prison leads it to be safer and more rehabilitative. However, it is disappointing that she did not note that last year there was a minimum increase in pay of 2.5%, and in fact some officers received up to 7.5%. That was much higher than wage inflation in the economy. We will continue to do everything possible to increase retention, including, by the way, among new officers, many of whom I met over the course of the summer, who would really benefit from increased mentoring on wings to improve morale and retention. We are absolutely committed to that very important agenda.
Judges and Legal Professionals: Afghanistan
I acknowledge the grave concerns of judges, legal professionals and beyond, both here and in Afghanistan, which are real and present. My Department continues to work urgently to support cross-Government efforts to provide safe passage for judges in Afghanistan, including by ensuring that individual cases that are brought to my attention are immediately lodged with relevant parts of the system.
We have seen some of the most talented legal professionals leave Afghanistan and come to the UK, and they should have a valuable place in the UK when they come here. What engagement has the Secretary of State had with the judiciary and legal professionals on supporting Afghan judges and legal professionals who will come to the UK or have already arrived?
I can reassure my hon. Friend that I am in daily communication with the judiciary and the wider legal profession—in fact, I am in daily communication with judiciary in Afghanistan—and I commend everyone for their efforts to support those judges and those who have dedicated themselves to building the rule of law and human rights in Afghanistan. As an example, the noble Lord Wolfson and I have been in regular contact with Mrs Justice McGowan, and we have discussed ways in which the legal community might provide support to help resettle Afghan legal professionals here in the UK.
After raising directly with the Government hundreds of separate cases covering thousands of people, I know of only two cases that have been resolved. What are the Government doing to help refugees from Afghanistan who are facing massive delays in the tribunal backlog?
Let me deal with the specific issue of judges and other lawyers in Afghanistan, because that is what I am directly involved with. Yesterday, the Afghan citizens resettlement scheme was announced. That provides a clear route to safety for judges, who are one of the groups to be prioritised under the scheme. Some judges have already been resettled here in the UK, and I will not rest until everyone who fits those important criteria and needs the support and safety of the rule of law is accommodated.
Last month, soon after the Foreign Secretary was found topping up his suntan instead of doing his job, Labour worked with the Bar Council to send to the Foreign Office a list of 126 Afghan judges who were at risk. We received no response, and our only update was seeing the Justice Secretary publicly celebrating the fact that just nine of them have been relocated to the UK. Can he confirm whether the number of Afghan judges relocated to the UK remains in single digits, what the number currently is, and how much higher he expects it could have been if the Foreign Secretary had not been missing in action?
I am sorry, but the right hon. Gentleman has not been in touch with me once about these matters directly. I have been working directly with the legal sector, the Bar Council and individual leading members of the profession, virtually daily to try to identify particular schemes and approaches we can take to assist judges, prosecutors and other lawyers in Afghanistan. I would love to see the list he talks about, because I can assure him that I will not rest until we do everything we can to help these dedicated professionals. I will, of course, keep the House updated on numbers as and when they are made available to me.
The Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are working in close collaboration to beat crime and reduce fear of reoffending. I am the personification of that collaboration. The refreshed integrated offender management strategy is an example of that collaboration, improving working between probation and local police, meaning we can more easily identify persistent offenders in any particular area and take action to stop them from committing neighbourhood crime.
I thank my hon. Friend for being the personification of collaboration between the police and the Department. Will he join me in thanking and congratulating my local police forces in Runnymede and Weybridge on the incredible preventive work they have done around offending? Does he agree with me that prevention is better than cure, and could he lay out some of the work they are doing in terms of pre-offending, not just reoffending?
My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that prevention is better than cure. One emphasis I have tried to bring to my mission as a joint Minister between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice is that we should shift away from enforcement towards prevention as much as we possibly can. For example, he will know that we funded a series of violence reduction units across the country, working with young people well ahead of them moving towards offending or being involved in crime to make sure that they do not. We are also looking at innovative ways to deal with offenders leaving the secure estate to prevent them from offending, such as GPS tags. We are now currently tagging 100% of acquisitive criminals who leave prison in six police forces, soon to be expanded to a further 13, which is proving to be an enormous deterrent to their continuing offending, and is getting them back on to the straight and narrow.
My constituent had a successful career until addiction took control and she ended up in prison for crimes related to her addiction. She is out of prison, she is not reoffending and she is clean. She is getting her life back. Last year, however, she was raped. The rapist has been convicted, but she has been told that she is not entitled to criminal injury compensation because she has a prior conviction. Is that fair?
I am not aware of the specifics of that particular case. I am happy to meet or correspond with the hon. Lady if she wishes, but it is the case that people who have been convicted of a prior criminal offence are not entitled to compensation through the criminal injuries compensation scheme.
My hon. Friend will be aware that one of the best ways to reduce reoffending is education and work. When I speak to people in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, one of the things they want to see from people who are currently in prison who may be looking to leave is them not only gaining level 3 and level 4 qualifications, but getting out and working and earning money, whether that be through picking fruit and veg, or digging up roads. Can we see how that can be done through the Ministry of Justice?
My hon. Friend, in his usual forthright way, is quite right and cuts to the heart of the issue. We believe there is a simple formula for success after prison: giving people a job, a house and friend. If we think about it, those three pillars are the foundation of success for most of our lives and so it should be for prisoners, too.
Many people who reoffend are involved in substance misuse and, as a result of that, have a criminal conviction. If a public health approach is taken, that not only diverts people away from crime but gives people a new opportunity for a future. North Yorkshire police are working very hard on diversion. What is the Minister doing across Departments to make sure that a public health approach is taken?
The hon. Lady will recall that we were successful at the last spending round in securing, I think, £85 million to make sure that every single person who left the secure estate with a drug addiction was able to access treatment to help them back on to the straight and narrow. It is worth remembering what a public health approach means. Although there are therapeutic and often medical treatments and services that should be offered to offenders to help them with regard to their offending, at the same time we have to bear in mind that enforcement counts, too. Making sure that we treat them with rigour and discipline and that there is consequence for their non-compliance with the conditions that we put on them post-release from prison is critical to getting the psychology right. We are seeing this, for example, with our GPS tagging. In particular, when we expand the use of sobriety tags to those prisoners who are leaving the secure estate who have had an alcohol problem before, we hope to see that writ large.
The Government recognise the deep distress that is caused when a pet is stolen, and the pet theft taskforce carried out a thorough investigation of this issue. Its excellent report, published earlier this month, contains a comprehensive set of recommendations that will allow us to tackle this issue head on.
As a fellow animal lover, Mr Speaker, I know that you, like me, will appreciate the extreme distress that the theft of a much loved family pet can cause, particularly with over 2,000 pet dogs reported as having been stolen last year. These measures cannot come soon enough, so can the Justice Secretary confirm how soon they will be brought forward to tackle pet theft?
I reassure my hon. Friend that we are already working on the new proposed offence of pet abduction and that work is already under way with many of the other recommendations stemming from the report, such as the review of microchipping and improvements in the recording of these offences. This will continue and I remind the House that the recommendation of the pet abduction offence is leagues better than the weak amendment proposed by Labour.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his work on bringing criminals to book with the much needed criminal offence of pet theft. Does he agree that it is important that the sentence for this offence, when determined, will reflect the unique emotional suffering caused by the theft of a beloved pet, and will he ensure that that is reflected?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The use of the term “abduction” is a crucial reflection of the fact that these are sentient beings; they are not mere chattels or goods. The emotional effect both on the pets and their owners has to be taken into account. I think there is a read-across to animal cruelty and the important reforms that we made recently in increasing maximum sentences.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his response and for his recent visit to our Crown court in Lincoln castle, the magistrates court in the city and Her Majesty’s prison Lincoln, none of which are up for sale, Mr Speaker, but the judge’s lodgings are, if you are interested. Pets are not just animals; they are often members of families, and many of my constituents in Lincoln would welcome changes to ensure that we protect our pets to the highest possible degree. As well as strengthening prosecution powers through the pet abduction offence and expanding pet ownership databases, does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that we must educate prospective owners to buy pets only from reputable breeders and potentially encompass farm animals in the same legislation?
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head. The idea that buying an animal by the side of the road or in a garage forecourt for cash is somehow legitimate trade is clearly wrong. I am grateful to colleagues at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for doing important work on promoting safer purchasing through the “Petfished” campaign. We will build on that in the way in which we identify and track cases better, improve the recording of keepership data and deal with through-the-loophole breeders, who are frankly responsible for a lot of cruelty and suffering.
I rarely congratulate the Justice Secretary, but I do on this issue because he has eventually agreed with Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition about making pet theft a specific offence. On a serious note, I congratulate all the campaigners on the issue, particularly John Cooper, QC, who has done an awful lot of work on it.
The Justice Secretary knows that when the shadow Justice Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), tabled his amendment to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Tories rejected the idea of a specific offence time and again; I think I am right in saying that the Justice Secretary’s argument was that the Theft Act 1968 was sufficient. The taskforce has now reported, but I am not clear on when we expect the legislation to take effect. When can we expect those who are alleged to have stolen pets to face the criminal courts?
I am always grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s words of wisdom, but I will just correct him in this respect: there was a general agreement that the use of theft legislation to deal with what were more than goods and chattels just was not an adequate way to reflect not just the taking of a pet, but the suffering of the pet and of the owner. That is why abduction is a much better read-across, as he knows from the matter of child abduction, for example.
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman on the point and I challenge him and the Opposition: if the matter is brought forward in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, which they voted against again and again, will they now support it?
Anti-competitive Behaviour: Small Businesses
The Government are currently consulting on a range of reforms to competition and policy in order to more effectively and swiftly address anti-competitive behaviour. The consultation includes many of the recommendations that my hon. Friend made in his excellent report. As part of it, we welcome suggestions from small businesses about how the system can be improved.
The Secretary of State understands that anti-competitive behaviour is just as likely among small firms as among big ones. The effects are terrible: fast-growing small firms that are future world beaters get throttled by slightly bigger incumbents, levelling up is slower and less likely because competition and productivity are much lower outside London, and residents are left with less choice and more vulnerability to rip-offs. Does he agree that the justice system plays a central role in tackling the problem and ensuring that small firms have some kind of redress? Will he therefore look closely at the proposal in my Government-commissioned report for a new tier of local county competition courts?
I will be as brief as I can, Mr Speaker. We have read my hon. Friend’s paper with great interest. With respect, I do not think that the way forward is to create a further tier of specialist courts. However, there is much that can be done with colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to make sure that the overall structure of the competition mechanism is reformed and improved. His point about access to justice is absolutely right: it should apply to small and medium-sized enterprises as much as to individuals.
The Rule of Law
Naturally, I do not disclose the details of my private conversations with Cabinet colleagues, but they and everybody else should be in no doubt that I am, and will continue to be, a very active Lord Chancellor in supporting the rule of law. I use the authority of my office to advise, to warn and to encourage. I am absolutely committed, under the oath I took, to my constitutional duty to respect the rule of law.
The Secretary of State will no doubt agree that for any Government committed to the rule of law, respect for international law is as important as respect for domestic law. Will he therefore join me in condemning suggestions by the Home Secretary that she is prepared to break international refugee conventions and turn away boats in the channel? Will he meet her to stress how damaging that action would be to the United Kingdom’s international reputation and credibility?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has taken the fullest and most comprehensive advice on these matters. There is an immediate challenge: we face the appalling exploitation of people by gangmasters and traffickers across the English channel every day. It is absolutely right that she and Home Office colleagues explore every possible lawful avenue to deal with that. That is what this Government are committed to, and there is no question that her actions would come close to breaking international law.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
In the middle of a pandemic, the Secretary of State’s Government are prioritising attacking the Human Rights Act and judicial review, disenfranchising millions of voters with the Elections Bill on voter ID, and, now, threatening to break international law to make it harder for asylum seekers, including those from Afghanistan, to find sanctuary in Britain. The new president of the Law Society recently warned that those measures put respect for the rule of law in jeopardy in the UK. What does the Secretary of State say to the president of the Law Society?
I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that, across the piece, the commentary that has followed my speech and the introduction of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill has reflected the fact that this is a measured and incremental approach to constitutional reform, as, I am sure, will be the work on the independent review of the Human Rights Act. The idea that somehow I am the most dangerous Lord Chancellor in history is risible. [Laughter.]
None of this is funny. This Government’s disregard for the rule of law is wide-ranging, as we have heard. They are reducing access to justice, planning, for instance, to remove Cart judicial reviews; the Nationality and Borders Bill simply ignores the refugee convention, while the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill strips away legal certainty; and the Secretary of State’s own comments to me in this place on 18 May demonstrated his disregard for our international obligations. Can he match my necessarily shortened list with examples that demonstrate the opposite?
I am afraid that that is emblematic of the problem that we are facing. Dressing up legitimate political debate as somehow a direct criticism of our adherence to the rule of law is, I am afraid, a regular trick of the left, and I am not going to fall for that sanctimonious list of nonsense. This Government are absolutely committed to the rule of law across our United Kingdom.
The Nationality and Borders Bill also lengthens the time for which those seeking asylum must wait for a decision, while shortening the time that they have in which to appeal. As we have heard, 22 female judges are trapped in Afghanistan, and neither yesterday nor today have we heard any firm plans to get them out. If they manage somehow to make it here without our assistance, how surprised does the Secretary of State think they will be to discover the complete disregard for them and for the rule of law in that Bill?
Again, the hon. Lady is way off the mark. The idea that there is not a clear plan was plainly negatived by yesterday’s statement from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins). We have a very clear plan for Afghan judges. If the Scottish National party wishes to conduct a proper dialogue and a proper debate, I shall be interested to hear it; thus far, I do not hear it.
Prisoners Released on Licence and Victims’ Families
It is for the probation service, through its victim liaison officers, rather than the Parole Board to notify victims of upcoming parole reviews and to ensure that they are able to exercise their statutory rights to make a victim personal statement or request licence conditions. It is understandably distressing when victims are told of an offender’s release, and we are therefore investing heavily in the probation service and its designated professional staff to give them further support.
My constituent Michael McGrath is battling for justice for his family. His sister Rachel McGrath was murdered in a brutal stranger attack by Nicholas Burton in 1997. The trial judge described Burton as merciless and manipulative, and stated that no Home Secretary—as the arrangement was at the time—would ever be likely to allow his release. Rachel’s elderly parents were recently told that Burton would walk free next year. They have not even been able to make a victim statement, and they believe that correct procedure has not been followed. Will the Secretary of State please agree to a ministerial meeting with the family to help to ensure that they have all the information they need, and that their voice is heard and respected?
I thank the right hon. Lady for raising that extremely sensitive, distressing and frankly appalling case. Yes, of course I would be delighted to meet the family. May I also make a general point? We—and, in fairness, I think that this applies across all parties—are very keen for victims to be not spectators but participants in these matters, so their voice shall be heard, and we will continue to do everything possible to strengthen that voice.
Human Rights Act Review
The Government have established the independent Human Rights Act review to examine the framework of that Act, how it is operating in practice and whether any change is required. The review is considering the approach taken by our domestic courts to the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, and it will also examine whether the HRA currently strikes the correct balance between the roles of the courts, the Government and Parliament. It will report back later this year.
I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer and welcome this review, as I think we all do on our side of the Chamber. However, will he commit to an open consultation on any proposed reforms resulting from the independent review of the Human Rights Act?
May I take this opportunity to welcome the Minister of State, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Lucy Frazer), back to her place in the Ministry of Justice? We are grateful to see her back.
Our pets are valuable members of our families, and we rely on their companionship daily. This has been especially true throughout the pandemic. The reported rise in pet thefts throughout this time has being truly shocking, and the Government are not prepared to ignore the growing concern about this issue. The pet theft taskforce published its report this month, and it contains a comprehensive set of recommendations that would allow us to tackle this issue. Chief among them is the creation of a new offence of pet abduction. I agree wholeheartedly that this is the right course of action because it recognises that pets are more than mere property and distinguishes them from inanimate objects that can be replaced. The new offence also acknowledges that when the pet is stolen, there are two victims, not one. We will look to introduce the new offence when parliamentary time allows.
Does the Secretary of State believe that it is safe or appropriate for prison officers—the invisible emergency service—who by definition deal with the most violent and dangerous criminals across the UK, to be expected to do so up to the age of 68, which is their retirement age? Does he not agree that this completely unrealistic retirement age has negatively impacted on retention and recruitment rates?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the retirement age issue. Indeed, the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), rightly pointed out in answer to an earlier question that there had been two attempts in recent years to resolve this issue. No agreement was reached with the Prison Officers Association, but I very much hope that any future discussions will result in some agreement. We continue to look at this issue, and I want to put on record my warm tribute to the prison service and to the much hidden and misunderstood work of jailcraft that prison officers do, day in and day out, in England and Wales, and indeed in Scotland.
My hon. Friend raises a critical point, and we agree, which is why we have invested £100 million in gate security to ensure, for example, that body scanners can be installed to allow concealed items to be detected, that there is money for counter-corruption, and that rehabilitation and treatment can take place in jail. A time when our jails are completely drug free is something that we aspire to, and we are making important progress.
At the last Justice questions, I raised the issue of the wrongful prosecution and conviction of British citizens under schedule 22 to the Coronavirus Act 2020, an issue that has been publicised by Big Brother Watch, Fair Trials, and The Guardian newspaper. Sadly, the Minister blamed the Crown Prosecution Service and did not promise to correct this injustice, and more people might have been wrongly convicted since then. That said, following our intervention, the Government have expired the schedule. I am grateful for that, but can the Lord Chancellor tell us what action he is taking to quash all the illegal convictions?
With respect to the hon. Gentleman, this is not a question of our blaming the Crown Prosecution Service. There is a constitutional principle here. The Crown Prosecution Service is independent, and the Law Officers are responsible for the superintendence of that service. I am sure that his colleague the shadow Solicitor General will be able to ask the Law Officers these questions in the next few days.
My right hon. Friend will appreciate that there are ongoing proceedings, including in the civil courts, and the extradition proceedings may be subject to further appeals, so it would not be right for me to comment directly on that case. The SFO is superintended by the Law Officers. However, I undertake to talk to him about the general issues of concern that he properly raises.
I am always keen, as the hon. Gentleman knows, to make sure that the law in England and Wales is consistent. I will, of course, look carefully at that particular issue. The report is welcome as we particularly looked at a read-across to scrap metal and the way in which we banned cash payments there. The evidence is emerging, and we are gathering it as quickly as possible. We will do everything we can, consistent with an appropriate approach, to deal with this type of illegitimate trade in defenceless animals.
I am extremely sorry to hear about the event in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and I am pleased that he has raised it on the Floor of the House. He will know that, for the last two years, we have made dismantling the county lines business model a key priority of our work between the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. He will be pleased to know that, following significant investment in the key exporting forces of London, the west midlands and Liverpool—Merseyside police—we have made significant progress. We reckon that we have managed to dismantle about a third of the county lines, but there is still significant work to do. He will be pleased to know that some counties, such as Essex and Norfolk, are showing significant success, but there is still a lot more to do to overcome this pernicious and particularly unpleasant business model that focuses on exploiting young and vulnerable people as part of its way of making money. I assure him that we will not stint over the coming years in trying to eradicate county lines from our country.
The hon. Lady raises a case that shocks and concerns us all. I would be more than happy to talk to her directly about these issues. As she knows, the law of criminal damage is being reformed in other respects in the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, but I want to make sure that we reflect the often devastating consequences of thoughtless and criminal acts of damage against vital pieces of life-saving equipment such as life belts.
I am extremely sorry to hear of the experience hon. Friend’s constituent has undergone. I can confirm that this area is a priority in court recovery from covid. For example, domestic violence protection orders are being prioritised. In cases where there is a particular vulnerability, the judiciary, in deciding which cases to list, give that careful consideration. As I laid out in answer to the very first question, significant additional resources have gone into the justice system, which have resulted in higher levels of public family law disposals—they are significantly higher this year than last. We are using remote hearing technology and getting extra sitting days organised, for exactly the reasons he mentioned; hearing awful cases such as the one he described remains a significant priority.
As I said to the House earlier, the Afghan relocations and assistance policy scheme covered the initial flights out. We have now extended and created a new scheme yesterday, which will cover and make a priority those particular judges. The hon. Gentleman knows that the issues in the country are complex and that colleagues across Government are working out ways in which we can facilitate safe passage, but I assure him that everybody who fits that category will get the warmest of welcomes in this country and that that work goes on daily. [Interruption.] I do not know how many times I can explain this: there is a clear plan and we are getting on with it.
Prison officers and staff have done an amazing, excellent job of keeping prisoners safe during the pandemic, with much lower infection rates in jails than had been feared. That has mainly been achieved by keeping prisoners locked in their cells, but, obviously, we now need to move beyond that so that they can access education, work and other rehabilitation programmes. So will the Minister tell the House what progress has been made on rolling out vaccines in prisons, which would allow this vital work to resume?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right to pay tribute, and let me tell him why. At the beginning of this pandemic there was a prediction that 2,700 prisoners would die in English jails, but the actual figure is under 130. Although every one of those is a tragedy, this is a powerful tribute to the work that those staff did. He makes an important point about vaccination. Every prisoner has been offered a vaccination, although there are some decline rates, which are higher in London, of up to 50%. Every effort is being made to encourage prisoners to get vaccinated, because we could then open up the regime.
The hon. Lady makes an important point, because if we want to cut crime, we have to reduce reoffending. That means we have to get people who come out of prison a job, they need to get a home and if they are on drugs, they need to get off drugs. This is absolutely what we are doing and in July we launched our £20 million scheme to provide temporary accommodation for prison leavers at risk of homelessness in five probation regions. We are also working closely with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that we have work coaches in prison to get people jobs.
Last year, the expert Family Solutions Group produced a hard-hitting report called “What about me?”, which focuses on the 280,000 children each year who experience their parents separating. With the divorce Act fast approaching and family courts increasingly stretched, will my right hon. and learned Friend meet me to discuss ideas and some of the report’s identified policy gaps on separating families?
My hon. Friend has considerable professional experience as a family lawyer of distinction, and I am more than happy to speak to her. It sounds as if that report complements the family harm report that was published earlier this year and the excellent work that is being done by senior judiciary in the family division to minimise the fight when it comes to the future of our children.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising the Law Commission report. I will write to him to clarify the date by which the commission will publish that clearly important piece of work. There is a shared will throughout the House to take action wherever it is appropriate, and the hon. Member can rest assured that the Government will not slack when it comes to the protection of women and other vulnerable people.
I know, Mr Speaker, that you will be exercised by the Public Service Pensions and Judicial Offices Bill that is currently going through the other place, and particularly by clause 103, which will raise the retirement age of magistrates from 70 to 75, thus fulfilling the ambition behind the private Member’s Bill that I introduced in the previous Session. While we wait for that legislation to go through, what other measures is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to get through the backlog of cases in courts, particularly through online cases?
My hon. Friend was himself a practitioner of many years’ standing. I assure him that we are using every tool available—including remote hearings, bringing back judges who have recently retired and, indeed, harnessing the entire legal profession—to deal with the number of cases before the courts. The restriction on sitting days has been lifted and colleagues in Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service are working tirelessly to deal with the case load.
May I return to the case of the female Afghan judges, which I raised yesterday with the Lord Chancellor’s Home Office colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins)? A female former Afghan judge who escaped two assassination attempts by the Taliban and is now a British citizen contacted me at the weekend to explain the very real and immediate danger that her colleagues face, particularly from dangerous criminals and terrorists who have been released from prison. I am bringing her into Parliament at 5 pm this evening to meet informally with the Justice Committee; will the Lord Chancellor, or perhaps one of his junior colleagues, come to that meeting and meet this lady to hear at first hand how desperate the situation really is?
I will of course make sure that my diary is adjusted so that I can do that. The hon. and learned Lady can rest assured that I am getting emails from her colleagues directly to my parliamentary account. These are harrowing tales of harrowing experiences, which is why I meant what I said in my answers earlier. I am very grateful to the hon. and learned Lady.
Yes, Mr Speaker.
In oral questions, the whole House expressed tremendous concern about the situation that faces Afghan judges. In response to my question earlier, the Secretary of State for Justice said that he has not been written to by me once about judges in Afghanistan, in reference to my role as shadow Secretary of State for Justice. With all graciousness, I ask the Secretary of State to correct the record: I wrote to him on 16 August—I have the letter in front of me and it is available online—and he replied to me on 25 August.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am happy to correct the record and, of course, to apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. I remind him that I am more than happy to speak directly to him. He will know that the urgency of this situation means that phone calls and texts are absolutely acceptable, and I would be more than happy to discuss the matter with him in that way. As you know, Mr Speaker, this has been a very busy time, and I hope the House will forgive me if on this occasion I got it wrong. I do apologise to the right hon. Gentleman.
Mr Speaker, before I make my statement today, I am sure that the whole House will want to join me in offering our condolences to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my noble Friend Baron Johnson of Marylebone on the loss of their mother who sadly passed away yesterday. Our thoughts are with them and their whole family at this most difficult of times.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the pandemic and our autumn and winter plan to manage the risk of covid-19.
Over the past few months, we have been making progress down the road to recovery, carefully and cautiously moving closer to normal life. As we do this, we have been working hard to strengthen our defences against this deadly virus. We have been continuing the roll-out of our vaccination programme, with 81% of people over the age of 16 having had the protection of both doses. We have expanded our testing capacity yet further, opening a new mega-lab in Leamington Spa, and we have continued supporting research into long covid, taking our total investment to £50 million.
Thanks to that determined effort, we have made some major steps forward. The link between cases, hospitalisations and death has weakened significantly since the start of the pandemic and deaths from covid-19 have been mercifully low compared with previous waves. None the less, we must be vigilant as autumn and winter are favourable conditions for covid-19 and other seasonal viruses. Children have returned to school. More and more people are returning to work. The changing weather means that there will be more people spending time indoors, and there is likely to be a lot of non-covid demand on the NHS, including flu and norovirus.
Today, keeping our commitment to this House, I would like to provide an update on our review of preparedness for autumn and winter. The plan shows how we will give this nation the best possible chance of living with covid without the need for stringent social and economic restrictions.
There are five pillars to this plan. The first is further strengthening our pharmaceutical defences such as vaccines. The latest statistics from the Office for National Statistics show that almost 99% of covid-19 deaths in the first half of this year were people who had not received both doses of a covid-19 vaccine. This shows the importance of our vaccination programme, and, by extending the programme further, we can protect even more people. Almost 6 million people over the age of 16 remain unvaccinated in the UK, and the more people there are who are unvaccinated the larger the holes in our collective defences. We will renew our efforts to maximise uptake among those who are eligible but who have not yet, for whatever reason, taken up the offer.
Next, we have been planning our booster doses, too. As with many other vaccines, there is evidence that the protection offered by covid-19 vaccines reduces over time, particularly for older people who are at greater risk. Booster doses are an important way of keeping the virus under control for the long term.
This morning, we published the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation on a booster programme. It recommended that people who were vaccinated in phase 1—priority groups 1 to 9—should be offered a booster vaccine; that this vaccine should be offered no earlier than six months after the completion of the primary vaccine course; and that, as far as possible, the booster programme should be deployed in the same order as phase 1. I can confirm that I have accepted the JCVI’s advice and that the NHS is preparing to offer booster doses from next week. The NHS will contact people at the right time and nobody needs to come forward at this point. This booster programme will protect the most vulnerable through the winter months and strengthen our wall of defence even further.
As well as that, we will be extending the offer of a covid-19 vaccine to even more people, as the Minister for covid-19 vaccine deployment announced yesterday in the House—thank you, Mr Speaker, for allowing him to make that statement yesterday. All young people aged 16 to 17 in England have already been offered a dose of a covid-19 vaccine to give them the protection as they return to school. Yesterday, the UK’s chief medical officers unanimously recommended making a universal offer of a first dose of a vaccine to people between the ages of 12 and 15. The Government have accepted that recommendation, too, and will move with urgency to put this into action. We are also seeing great advances in the use of antivirals and therapeutics. Several covid-19 treatments are already available through the NHS and our antivirals taskforce is leading the search for breakthroughs in antivirals, which have so much more potential to offer.
Secondly, testing, tracing and self-isolation have been another vital defence. Over the autumn and winter, PCR testing for those with covid-19 symptoms and contacts of confirmed cases will continue to be available free of charge. Regular asymptomatic testing, which currently identifies about a quarter of all reported cases, will also continue in the coming months, with a focus on those who are not fully vaccinated: perhaps those in education or other higher-risk settings. Contact tracing will continue through the NHS Test and Trace system. We do not want people to face hardship as they carry out their duty to self-isolate, so we will keep offering practical and financial support for those who are eligible and need assistance who are still required to self-isolate. We will review the regulations and support by the end of March 2022.
The third pillar is that we are supporting the NHS and social care. Last week, I announced a £5.4 billion injection for the NHS to support the covid-19 response over the next six months, including £1 billion extra to tackle the elective backlog caused by covid-19. We have also launched a consultation on protecting vulnerable patients by making covid-19 and flu vaccinations a condition of deployment for frontline healthcare staff and wider social care workers in England. We are already making this a condition of employment in Care Quality Commission-registered adult care homes. Although we are keeping an open mind and will not be making a final decision until we fully consider the results of the consultation, it is highly likely that frontline NHS staff and those working in wider social care settings will also have to be vaccinated to protect those around them, and that this will be an important step in protecting those at greatest risk.
Fourthly, we will keep encouraging people to take steps to keep seasonal illnesses, including flu and covid-19, at bay. The best step we can all take is to get vaccinations for covid-19 and flu if we are eligible, so along with our covid-19 vaccination programme the next few months will see the largest flu vaccination campaign that the country has ever seen. Our plan also sets out a number of changes that we can all make to our daily routines, such as: meeting outdoors where possible; trying to let in fresh air if we need to be indoors; and wearing a face mask in crowded and enclosed spaces where we come into contact with people who we do not normally meet.
Our fifth pillar is how we will look beyond our shores and pursue an international approach. Last week, I attended the G20 Health Ministers’ Meeting, where I met counterparts from across the world and talked about the part that we will be playing to lead the global effort to accelerate access to vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics. As we do this, we will maintain our strong defences at the border, allowing us to identify and respond to variants of concern. It is these defences, and the progress of vaccination campaigns both here and abroad, that have allowed us to manage the risks and to start carefully reopening international travel once again. We have already relaxed the rules for fully vaccinated travellers and I asked the Competition and Markets Authority to review the issue of exploitative behaviour in the private testing market. The review reported last week and I am looking into what further action we can take. On top of those measures, we will be publishing a new framework for international travel. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will be announcing more details ahead of the formal review point on 1 October.
Thanks to the defences that we have built, we have been able to remove many of the regulations that have governed our daily lives—rules that were unprecedented yet necessary. Our plan shows how we will be removing more of these powers while maintaining those that are essential for our response. This includes expiring more of the powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020, such as the powers directing the temporary closure of educational institutions. The remaining provisions will be those that are critical to the Government’s response to the pandemic—for example, ensuring that the NHS is properly resourced, and supporting statutory sick pay for those who are self-isolating.
The plan before the House today is our plan A—a comprehensive plan to steer this country through the autumn and winter. But we have seen how quickly this virus can adapt and change, so we have prepared a plan B of contingency measures, which we can call upon only if they are needed and supported by the data, to prevent unsustainable pressure on the NHS. These measures would be: communicating clearly and urgently to the public the need for caution; legally mandating face coverings in certain settings; and, while we are not going ahead with mandatory vaccine-only covid status certification now, holding that power in reserve. As well as those three steps, we would consider a further measure of asking people to work from home if they can for a limited time if that is supported by the data. Any responsible Government must prepare for all eventualities. Although these measures are not an outcome that anyone wants, it is one that we need to be ready for just in case.
Ever since we published our road map to recovery seven months ago, we have been carefully but cautiously getting this nation closer to normal life. Now we have come so far and achieved so much, we must stay vigilant as we approach this critical chapter, so that we can protect the progress that we have all made together. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Like him, I want to send my condolences to the Prime Minister and the wider Johnson family at this difficult time.
Infection levels today are actually higher than they were at this time last year, so the test of the Secretary of State’s plan A and plan B is whether we push infections down, minimise sickness and save lives, keep schools open, protect care homes, maintain access to all care in the national health service, and avoid a winter lockdown. He has talked about a plan B. Can he tell us what level of infection and hospitalisation would trigger plan B? Yesterday, Downing Street briefed about a lockdown as a last resort. What, then, is the first resort in combating the virus to avoid a winter lockdown? Will the Secretary of State rule out today local and regional lockdowns like we saw in my city of Leicester, in Bolton and in parts of West Yorkshire last year?
On vaccination, last night we had confirmation of a vaccine programme for children. We welcome and support that. The Secretary of State has now confirmed a booster jab as well. Again, we welcome and support that. But how will he boost vaccination in those areas of the country where vaccine take-up remains relatively low? For example, in Bradford, second doses are running at about 65%, in Wolverhampton at 65%, in Burnley at 69%, and in my own city of Leicester at 61%. What support will be made available to those areas, or others, so that they can boost vaccine take-up?
Vaccinating children is often justified, in my view wrongly, on the basis of its impact on adults and wider transmission. But children and young people would actually benefit further if vaccination rates were increased among adults. Among younger adults—25 to 30-year-olds—it is running at about 55% on a second dose, and among 30 to 35-year-olds at 68%. So what is the Secretary of State going to do to vaccinate more younger adults? What campaign is he going to run to get those vaccination rates up?
What is the plan for those who are immune-suppressed and have shielded throughout this crisis? For example, 1 million cancer patients cannot produce an immune response to vaccines. Will they be offered the prophylactic antibody treatments that are now available, or will they be expected to shield further throughout the winter?
The Secretary of State is right to raise flu and seasonal viruses, but he will know that the Australian flu season has been minimal. That is good for Australia, obviously, but it impacts the ability to collect samples to make an appropriate vaccine for the strain that might hit us. Is he confident of the effectiveness of the flu vaccine to match this year’s strain?
On Test and Trace and wider diagnostics, we are likely to see more flu and RSV—respiratory syncytial virus—and more common colds and coughs. These are viruses with overlapping symptoms to covid, and an increasing range of symptoms is associated with covid as well. Will he look at multiplex testing, which as well as diagnosing whether someone is covid positive also diagnoses flu and RSV? The Academy of Medical Sciences has recommended this.
The Secretary of State said that PCR testing will continue free of charge through autumn and winter. I think that is the first time that a timeframe has been put on free PCR testing. Is he suggesting that we will move to a different system for PCR testing from next spring and summer, where perhaps people will be expected to pay for a test? Could he clarify the Government’s thinking on testing next spring and summer and the rest of the year?
Isolation rules have changed, understandably, but we still need tracing systems. So will local authorities get the resources they need to do contact tracing? For those who need to isolate still, will local authorities have more money in their funds to pay isolation payments? We know that it is such a struggle for those who are low-paid, on zero-hours contracts and so on to isolate.
The Secretary of State has talked about mask wearing and working from home, but he has not talked about ventilation so much. We know that the virus is airborne. We know that workplaces have legal standards about the quantity of fresh air and purified air that is appropriate, so what will he do to drive up ventilation in workplaces and to support public buildings to install the relevant air purification kits, so that people are not effectively breathing in contaminated air?
The Secretary of State did not mention social care. One of the most devastating consequences of failing to protect care homes or to put that protective ring around them was the tragic number of deaths in care homes. The infection control fund ends on 30 September for social care. Will it be extended?
On vaccine passports, will the Secretary of State clarify what exactly the Government’s position is now? What are the Government actually proposing? What will they ask the House to decide? On Sky, he said he was not ruling vaccine passports out. On the BBC, he said he was ruling the idea out. He is now saying they will keep it in reserve. Yesterday, Downing Street said that vaccine passports are a “first-line defence” against a winter wave. What exactly is the position? Rather than zig-zagging all over the place on vaccine passports, can we just get clarity and can the House make a final decision on whether or not we think they are an appropriate intervention?
The right hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions, so I will quickly plough through them. We have made clear that plan A is absolutely our focus. It is the situation we are in. Vaccines remain a critical part of it, as do testing and surveillance. I thank him for his support for our vaccine programme, including his comments yesterday. He also asked me about plan B. It is absolutely right that the Government have a contingency plan, and the trigger, so to speak, for plan B, as I mentioned in my statement, would be to look carefully at the pressures on the NHS. If at any point we deemed them to be unsustainable—if there was a significant rise in hospitalisations and we thought it was unsustainable—we would look carefully at whether we needed to take any of those plan B measures. That would be informed by the data, and of course we would come to the House at the time and make the appropriate response.
It is really important to emphasise, as we cannot do enough, the importance of vaccines. We now know from data just yesterday from the Office for National Statistics that, in the first half of this year, 99% of those who died from covid-19 sadly were not vaccinated. That highlights the importance of vaccination.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about people who are immuno-suppressed. He will see that we set out more details on that in the plan we have published today, including treatments that either are currently available or may soon be available. I have mentioned the antivirals taskforce, which is doing great work. There are a number of possible new treatments, and it is something in which the UK is very engaged. He will know that, for those immuno-suppressed people who can take the vaccine, just last week, we announced a third dose as part of the primary treatment. That again is a reminder of the action we are taking. Our advisers are constantly looking to see what more we can do.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the flu risk. It is a significant risk this year, not least because, for reasons we are all familiar with, there was not much flu last year. There is a lot less natural immunity around in our communities, and the flu vaccine, which is being deployed not only in the UK, but across Europe, has less efficacy than normal, but it is still effective and a worthwhile vaccine, and that is why we will be trying to maximise uptake with the biggest roll-out programme and communications programme that this country has ever seen for the flu vaccine.
On diagnosis, the right hon. Gentleman made a good point, and it is something that we are looking at with covid and flu jointly. On testing arrangements, I think I have set them out clearly in the statement. We have no plans to change the current arrangements, but of course we keep that constantly under review. However, as long as those tests are needed available free for the public, that will be the case. But as I say we will keep that under review.
In terms of infection control in social care settings, a substantial amount of funding is available. We have already made available for this financial year some £34 billion of funding in total for the NHS and the care system for a lot of these extra measures. That is a huge amount of funding. Much of it is going to essential work, such as infection control, and we will ensure that what is needed is there.
The right hon. Gentleman’s last question was about vaccine certification. I think I have made the Government’s position clear. It is not something we are implementing. We are not going ahead with any plans for that. For any Government to do something like that, it would be such a big decision, and it would have to be backed up by the evidence and the data. That evidence is not there, and I hope that we will never be in the situation that it is. To keep it in reserve is the right thing to do.
I welcome this announcement, particularly on boosters. Yesterday, I asked the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), when we would hear about boosters. Just 15 hours later, the Secretary of State is making a statement. It is almost as if the Government are listening, and it is very good news. Nowhere wants to get back to normal more quickly than the NHS itself.
Will the Secretary of State commit that the backlog in mental health treatment will be treated every bit as seriously as the backlog in physical health? In particular, will he commit that the NHS and the Government will continue to adhere to the mental health investment standard, which says that mental health spending will increase at a higher rate than overall NHS spending, particularly when it comes to the extra money coming from the levy? Parity of esteem is supported by all parts of the House and legislated for in this House. There is a lot of worry in the mental health world that the money from the levy will not reflect the needs of the mental health backlog.
First, I always listen to the former Health Secretary. He always has some good advice, and I am pleased that he thinks the Government are moving quickly. He is absolutely right to raise the backlog in mental health. The Government are absolutely committed to parity of esteem. That is not just in law, but in our manifesto. I take this opportunity to reassure everyone who is particularly concerned and who may have raised this issue with my right hon. Friend that that commitment remains. The new funding that will go in over the next three years to help to deal with the backlog absolutely includes mental health funding.
I start by extending my condolences and those of my party to the Prime Minister on his family bereavement. I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement, and I echo his call for vigilance and the importance of getting vaccinated. Covid data has shown how few deaths between January and July were among the fully vaccinated and clearly demonstrates the effect of vaccines in driving down deaths, which is a message we all have to take home to our constituencies.
With winter approaching and more favourable conditions for the transmission of the virus, it is welcome that we are extending vaccines to our younger citizens. The news on booster vaccines is also welcome. However, what more does the Secretary of State think can be done to encourage the million people over the age of 60 who have not yet been double-vaccinated to become so? The winter will be a difficult time for many in the UK, with the annual flu wave potentially coinciding with another covid wave. The disruption that that will entail will come immediately after the end of furlough and the universal credit uplift, and at a time of rising fuel bills. Why are the UK Government insisting on ending two of the key measures supporting people through the pandemic shortly before a potentially difficult winter for millions? It is essential that self-isolation remains affordable.
Finally, the UK Government have cancelled the contract with vaccine company Valneva, which was set to produce vaccines for the UK in Scotland, at its Livingston facility. Those on these Benches would be very grateful if the Secretary of State could provide an explanation of why the deal was cancelled before the trials were even completed, threatening jobs in Scotland.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for again raising the importance of vaccines. I agree wholeheartedly with what he said about that, and he is right to think about what more can be done to encourage people, and particularly older people—over 60s—throughout the UK to take up the offer. A number of things are being done both here in England and in Scotland to focus on that, including making greater use of family GPs and taking the time necessary to allay hesitant people’s concerns, allowing them to speak to the clinicians to whom they want access to give them that comfort. That work will continue, and we are constantly looking for new and perhaps even better ways to do that.
On universal credit, it was made clear when the Government announced the increase that it was temporary. As it is temporary, it has to come to an end at some point, and the time for that is now. As our economy has—thankfully—started to reopen, job availability is increasing and economic growth has come back, and this is the right time to do that. However, as I said earlier, we must continue to provide the necessary financial support such as that for those who are self-isolating.
Lastly, the hon. Gentleman asked about Valneva. I should be careful what I say as there is a commercial contract, but it might help him to know that I have been in touch with the Health Minister in Scotland, who is fully aware of the situation. We remain in dialogue.
Given that figures sent to me by the Secretary of State’s Department show that since the pandemic the number of hospital beds has fallen by more than 6,000, will he assure me that proper additional capacity will be built back into the NHS as part of his plan rather than resorting to hugely damaging lockdowns and restrictions?
My right hon. Friend is right to raise the importance of capacity in the NHS. She will know that the reason for the fall in capacity in the first place was to control the spread of the virus and ensure that those in hospital, who are naturally vulnerable in any case, are protected. Hospitals currently have what are referred to as green channels and red channels to try to segregate those who have the virus from those who do not. I assure her that the NHS keeps that under review and would like to get rid of the segregation as soon as possible. When it does, that will increase capacity.
What are the Secretary of State’s plans for communications with immunocompromised people who do not yet know how effective the vaccine is for them? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) said, the group accounts for 13.1% of deaths within the fully vaccinated population despite making up less than 1% of the general population. Does he agree that we should be advising them not to return to unsafe workplaces until we know more?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this important issue. Throughout the pandemic we have offered advice for those who are immunocompromised and given guidance through clinicians working with the NHS, and that is constantly updated as the nature of the covid threat is constantly changing. As I said a moment ago, we got clear advice that for certain people who are immunocompromised but can take the vaccine—I think it affects about 500,000 people—the antibody response from two doses was not enough and there should be a third dose as part of a primary course. We accepted that advice and acted on it immediately. We will continue to keep that under review and do whatever we can.
I welcome the Government’s rethink on vaccine passports and hope that it presages a move to trusting people more to make decisions for themselves. The Secretary of State will know about the evidence that people who returned from green list and amber list countries over the summer had a lower level of covid than those who stayed here. Does he accept that that makes a powerful case for getting rid of the day 2 PCR test for people returning from those countries?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. That is why we have kept our travel rules relating to covid constantly under review. He may have heard that I referred in my statement to a set of changes that we are looking to make, and my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will bring those changes to the House as soon as he possibly can.
The Secretary of State is quite correctly urging people to get vaccinated. He will be aware that, sadly, certain ethnic minorities have relatively low vaccine take-up, and we see that in my borough of Hackney. Has he considered anything that the Government could do nationally to support outreach to ethnic minority communities?
The right hon. Lady makes an important point. We want everyone to take up the offer of a vaccine, and she is right to point out the disparity in take-up in certain communities. The good news is that—I think partly as a response to Government action and especially because of the fantastic people I have come across in London working for Public Health England, who have worked with and reached out to communities to increase uptake—we saw a significant increase in uptake over the summer in the communities to which she referred. That work continues, and it remains a priority.
I welcome the booster programme for the vulnerable as set out by my right hon. Friend, but may I ask him about the vexed issue of parental consent? The NHS website states that it would rarely be appropriate or safe for a child to consent without parents’ involvement and that a parent’s consent must be sought before vaccination. Will he confirm whether the intention is to follow that advice? If not, on what legal basis has that decision been made? The Gillick competence and later case law was intended for a far narrower set of circumstances than a mass roll-out of treatment to otherwise healthy children. If he is to make that decision, there must be parental consent to ensure credibility in the system.
I reassure my right hon. Friend that, first, the legal basis that we are following for vaccinations, and for child vaccinations in particular, has been set out since the 1980s and applied by successive Governments for all child vaccinations. The covid-19 vaccine offer will work no differently from the processes currently deployed. That requires, in the first instance, parents to be asked for their consent.
I am told by the school-age immunisation service—the specialists in the school system who work on child vaccination—that there is no dispute between what a child and the parent decide in the vast majority of cases; it works normally. Where there is a difference of opinion between the parent and the child, the service will bring both parties together to try to reach consensus, and only in the rare situations where they cannot reach consensus is it determined through the Gillick competence whether the child in question is competent enough to make decisions regarding their own health. I am told that, in general, the older the child, the more likely there is to be a decision that they are competent enough, but I stress that this process has been followed for decades under successive Governments and we will not be changing it.
We know that the ring of protection that the Government spoke of last year was non-existent and left many vulnerable adults in social care exposed to infection. Will the Secretary of State therefore say what specific resources will be made available for care homes this winter to ensure that they have the staffing levels they need and to prevent the devastating infection rates we saw last year?
I echo the comments my constituency neighbour and the Chair of the Health Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) made in raising concerns about mental health. I am dealing at the moment with a constituent who has been sectioned under the Mental Health Act, but there were no beds in Surrey and she has had to be moved to Kent. Would my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State look at increasing capacity in the most severe cases so that families do not have to undertake such a journey in what is already a difficult set of circumstances for them?
Could I start by extending my condolences and, on behalf of my party, those of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the Prime Minister and his family today?
Children and young people have done everything that has been asked of them through this pandemic, as have their parents, yet children have paid a high price in lost learning and mental health particularly, and they have been an overthought for the Government throughout. It is all very well announcing today that the power to close schools in the Coronavirus Act will be expired—it makes a great headline—but the Health Secretary is well aware that that power was never used previously to close schools; it was just guidance from the Education Secretary. Will the Health Secretary give pupils and parents across the country a cast-iron guarantee today that his Government will not close schools again this winter?
I think the hon. Lady would agree that we are as a country in a much better place today with covid than we were even at the start of this year. That is down to many factors, and I referred to a number of those in my statement, but I believe that with the measures we have set out today, we can be confident that our children will not have to go again through the kind of disruption they have seen in the last couple of years.
The distinguishing characteristic of the emergency Coronavirus Act was not so much the new powers, which already existed in the Civil Contingencies Act 2014 and other Acts, but in the fact that Ministers were not required to get them approved by Parliament before implementation, which is one of the reasons for the poor quality of some of the decisions taken in the last year. Will the Secretary of State give an undertaking that any new regulations and indeed any regulations he retains will be put to the House before implementation, including vaccine certification if the Government are unwise enough to pursue that course?
I can tell my right hon. Friend that when the Government or any Government make decisions that have such an impact on people’s liberties, even if those decisions are made for all the right reasons—in this case, of course, to deal with this pandemic—they should be working with the House and working with colleagues. On any measures that are significant, of course the Government will come to the House and seek a vote of the House.
The Secretary of State talked about international work, and unless we tackle this issue across the world we are going to be in a pandemic forever. When he was at the G20, he shared with other countries what we are doing to help tackle it internationally, so could he please share with the House what is being done to tackle vaccination rates across the globe?
I can tell the hon. Lady that there was significant discussion about that with my G20 colleagues, but not all of them have, let us say, behaved in the same way as the UK in offering donations to poorer countries of vaccines. The hon. Lady will know that we are committed to offering 100 million doses to international friends, and that we have already provided or donated 9.2 million doses, most of those for the COVAX programme. We remain committed to that programme, and one of the things we are trying to do internationally, including through the Foreign Secretary, is encourage more countries to honour their commitments to COVAX and encourage those who have not joined the COVAX commitment to come forward and help in that way.
Across Watford, we are served by some amazing GP surgeries, including the Manor View practice and its team. However, I am hearing from constituents that some GP surgeries are still not opening their doors to do face-to-face appointments. Would the Secretary of State agree with me that we should encourage those GP surgeries to start opening up to help with the backlog and help see people face to face?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend, and he is right to raise this. I think everyone can understand why, during the height of the pandemic, GPs could not provide access in the normal way, but we are way past that now. Life is starting to return almost back to completely normal, and as that is happening it should be happening in our GP surgeries too. More GPs should be offering face-to-face access, and we intend to do a lot more about it.
The Secretary of State rightly speaks of the importance of vaccines, and Valneva in my Livingston constituency is playing a crucial role in the global fight against covid. Those at Valneva have worked incredibly hard to augment and adapt their work on a vaccine as new variants have emerged, as requested by his UK Government. So, Mr Speaker, you can imagine their shock and mine that its contract to produce 100 million vaccines was cancelled with very little notice or consultation. To compound that shock, there appears to be little clarity and reasoning, and while I will not repeat the rumours printed in the media, does the Health Secretary not agree that this is a shocking way to treat a company that is working tirelessly on a vaccine? Will he meet me to ensure that the future of this site, its work and its workers is secure, and will he rethink this disastrous decision?
I have to say to the hon. Lady that I do not agree with her. There are commercial reasons why we have cancelled the contract, but I can tell her that it was also clear to us that the vaccine in question that the company was developing would not get approval by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency here in the UK, and obviously she is not recommending that we administer vaccines that do not get approval.[Official Report, 16 September 2021, Vol. 700, c. 10MC.] I do understand her point about Livingston and the factory there. That is very important to the UK Government and of course to the Scottish Government, and it is something we will be working on together to see what more we can do.
I have a clarification and a request. On the clarification, I welcome the boosters, but could the Secretary of State clarify whether people who have had the AstraZeneca or the Pfizer will be having the same vaccine or mixing vaccines? On the request, one of the slowest things when it comes to dealing with the Pfizer vaccination is the 15-minutes that people have to wait to see that they do not have a reaction. We should now have the data, so will he ask the NHS to look at whether this could be removed to relieve some of the pressure on those delivering the vaccines over the winter?
On the booster programme, everyone on that programme will be offered either the Pfizer vaccine or half a dose of the Moderna vaccine. In the vast majority of cases I think it will be the Pfizer vaccine. On the data that is now available on the 15-minute wait, we are analysing it to see whether we can make any difference to the way in which we administer vaccines.
Jane Roche from Erdington lost her father to covid and then, five days later, lost her sister to covid. She led the hundreds of families who came to London last week to walk down the memorial wall, calling with one voice for the promised inquiry to take place. They are frustrated because they want not just to know why their family members died, but that no one else should die as a consequence of mistakes made. When will the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister agree to honour the pledge that has been made to meet Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, because those families have a right to be heard at the next stages?
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the concerns of Jane and many others up and down the country and to express her frustration in the way he did. I am certain that, when this inquiry gets going, people such as Jane and many others will have the opportunity to set out their views.
First, thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting the statement last night. I think it was important that the House heard at an early opportunity the Government’s decision. Regretfully, there were one or two inadvertent inaccuracies in some responses to the questions, but having raised those with the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment, whom I respect greatly, I am very pleased to say that a correction has either been made or is going to be made very quickly. I think it is admirable that the Department has sought to put the record straight at a very early opportunity.
In his statement, the Secretary of State said of those in education:
“Regular asymptomatic testing…will also continue in the coming months”.
My understanding is that there was to be a review at the end of September of regularly testing children who have no symptoms. Is that still going to continue? My view is that we should not be regularly testing children who have no symptoms, only those who have symptoms, and that is also the view of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. Can I urge the Secretary of State to drop regular asymptomatic testing of children, which I think would be good for their education and good for their mental health?
My right hon. Friend mentioned yesterday’s statement. My hon. Friend the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment was referring to whether the Department had received advice on boosters from the Joint Committee on Vaccines and Immunisation, but at the time of his statement he was not aware that we had received such advice. As my right hon. Friend says, that was inadvertent, and the Minister has written a letter of correction that will go in the Library of the House today. Asymptomatic testing of schoolchildren is planned to continue this month. I am not aware whether a final decision has been made on whether we will continue beyond that, and that is something on which my Department consults the Department for Education. My right hon. Friend’s general point is that we should end such testing as soon as we can, especially if we believe it is not making much of a difference. Of course we keep the issue under review, and if we continue with it, it must be supported by the evidence.
In Wirral there has been a 13% increase in levels of infection in one week, and sadly four people have died in hospital. After a period of there being very few deaths, we now have a much higher infection rate. What level of deaths are the Government prepared to accept from covid before they consider measures to try to prevent the ongoing spread?
No one wants to see deaths from any disease, including covid. As we have learned more about covid, everyone understands that it is not completely preventable, but our vaccines are making a difference in Wirral and across the country. There is no level of deaths that I would describe as acceptable, and the job of the Government is to keep that to an absolute minimum. However, there are not just covid deaths, and we must also be alive to deaths from cancer, heart disease and other things. As the hon. Lady will know, at the height of the restrictions many people suffered in other ways because they were not able to go to the NHS, and we must keep that at the front of our minds.
Covid has been tough for all health professionals, so will the Secretary of State wholeheartedly condemn the abuse that some GPs have been suffering recently? If vulnerable people are unable to get through on the telephone to their surgery, should it be the clinical commissioning group or the Department that steps in to try to sort that out?
I join my hon. Friend in condemning anyone who gives abuse to our fantastic GPs up and down the country. If someone cannot get through to their GP, they should try their clinical commissioning group. If for any reason that does not work, they should please come to the Department and consult Ministers.
The Secretary of State has not delivered a concrete plan today, and there is no real clarity on thresholds for further lockdowns, or details of what draconian and unnecessary powers in the Coronavirus Act 2020 he wants to hold on to. Will he at least say when that soon-to-expire Act will be back before the House for a vote?
I welcome much of what is a sensible plan from the Secretary of State, although I have a creeping feeling that we are preparing to treat flu like covid, more than the other way round. Before we start extending the vaccine programme and boosters, will the Secretary of State get a grip on the creeping issue of people who have had one vaccination in England and another in Scotland, or the other way round, but the two systems are not talking to each other, and people are not getting the benefits of having been fully jabbed? We need to deliver for those who have done what we asked them to do before we deliver vaccines to others.
My hon. Friend is right to make that point—indeed, people in my family had that very issue. I know that the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment is looking at that matter, and I have discussed it with the health Minister in Scotland. We are working to see what more we can do.
As we go into another winter, placing the welfare of our communities in the hands of health and social care staff, will the Secretary of State reflect on the fact that in England the 3% NHS pay rise does not marry up well with the 4% backdated pay rise in Scotland? Why will he not grant the same esteem to health and social care staff in England as we do in Scotland?
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the likely course of the pandemic means that more and more people, vaccinated or not, are likely to be infected by covid, but that levels of protection from the vaccines will keep them from serious disease? Will he say something about the triggers for any future lockdown or other restrictions, and confirm that the expected increase in the transmission of covid will not be among them?
My right hon. Friend is right about the importance of vaccines. On any potential triggers, I have not yet today mentioned the importance of being on guard against future variants, especially if there is ever a vaccine-escape variant. No one can rule that out, which is why our surveillance system is so important, and in that situation the Government would have to take further action. We cannot say today what such action would be, but that is the kind of risk against which we need to be on guard.
Hull has the second highest rate of covid infection in the country, and one ward in my constituency has only 51% coverage of second doses of the covid vaccination. The Secretary of State said that the national average is 81%, and those figures go to the heart of our problems with regional and health inequalities. How will he ensure that we maximise the number of people in Hull who receive the vaccination, so that people in Hull are not left behind in the recovery?
Of course no one should be left behind, wherever they are in the UK. The differential take-up of the vaccine can be based on a number of factors—for example, there is definitely a difference in age groups. Working with the NHS, we are trying to tailor our message to convince people about the benefits of the vaccine to those respective age groups, and we also try to do that on a localised basis. If the right hon. Lady has any particular suggestions about Hull, we would be more than happy to listen to her.
The Secretary of State retains all the powers of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, which were used to take away our liberties without prior parliamentary authority. Will he undertake to review that and to give us a new public health Act?
The Secretary of State will know from the discussions he describes with international colleagues that although travel in the rest of Europe has recovered to 60% of pre-covid levels, it is a fraction of that in the United Kingdom. When will he scrap the outdated, unnecessary and hugely expensive travel testing regime, save what is left of an industry, and end a situation in which foreign travel has once again become the preserve of the rich?
I would say two things to the right hon. Gentleman. First, it is important that we have a system of surveillance, especially for variants across the world. There are different ways to do that. We have chosen a particular path at the moment, and I hope he agrees it is important to have that surveillance. Also, as I said in my statement, we are planning to make some changes to the travel regime, and my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary will come to the House as soon as he is ready.
Time and again I hear from constituents that they cannot get face-to-face appointments with GPs, who I know are under immense pressure. Further to the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Dean Russell), will the Secretary of State elaborate on the work that he and his Department are doing to encourage GPs to give face-to-face appointments to those who need them?
Yes, I will. This is an important issue, and we are working on it with the British Medical Association, the NHS, and other important organisations. We can do a number of things, but we are trying to do so by agreement at this point. My hon. Friend is right to raise that issue and, as I said, it is high time that GPs started operating in the way they did before the pandemic, and offering face-to-face appointments to everyone who would like one.
The first issue that the Secretary of State mentioned in his statement was the importance of vaccines. We know that 40% of the world’s population has been single-vaccinated against covid, but only 1.8% of those in low-income countries have been vaccinated, and those countries are not on track to vaccinate their populations until 2023. To be frank, the Government have previously taken a dangerous route with their international policies, such as their anti-refugee Bill for an insular Britain. Will they commit to ensuring that the UK plays its part in vaccinating the poorest nations in the world, first to save lives and secondly to avoid the potential emergence of further covid variations?
I know that the international travel sector will welcome the framework. Given that it will come out on 1 October, will that give colleagues, and indeed Select Committees, the opportunity to feed in their ideas on behalf of their constituents? Will the Secretary of State entertain the idea of moving to lateral flow tests, which are cheaper, with only the small proportion of positive cases needing to take a PCR test?
I know that these are important issues for the House, and particularly for my hon. Friend, who chairs the Transport Committee. I do not want to pre-empt the statement by my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary, but I believe that when he makes that statement, my hon. Friend will be pleased.
Pages 23 and 24 of the autumn and winter plan specify that, as part of plan B, the Government will introduce vaccine passports for all nightclubs, for indoor settings of 500 people or more, which presumably would include this Chamber of 650 Members, for outdoor settings of 4,000 or more, and for anywhere—that is a very big place—where there are 10,000 people. How does the Secretary of State square that with his assertion in reply to the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), that the evidence on the usefulness of vaccine passports is just not there? If the evidence is not there, why are they part of plan B? The Government’s document also says that plan B could be brought into force at very short notice, so can the Secretary of State give the House some assurance that that will not happen without a vote?
We have made huge progress as a country in fighting this virus, and that is why we do not need certification; we do not need the plan B measures that the right hon. Gentleman has just set out. As I made in clear in my statement, while we can keep other measures in reserve, what matters is what we are actually doing, and if we keep making progress against this virus in the way that we are, we will not need any of the things he talked about.
It is worth highlighting once again the latest stats from the Office for National Statistics, which show that almost 99% of covid deaths in the first half of this year were of people who had not received both doses of the covid-19 vaccine. That really shows the importance of our world-leading vaccination programme. As we roll out these booster jabs, how will the Secretary of State build on the success of the network of GP surgeries, community pharmacies and volunteers who have helped, particularly in my part of the world, roll out all these covid vaccinations?
My hon. Friend is right to raise that. The booster jabs will be hugely important in maintaining protection. The GP networks and the NHS vaccination centres have all been part of our planning for this. Given that these are booster jabs, I think we can move much more quickly than we did with the original doses.
Parents will quite rightly have questions and concerns, but can the Secretary of State confirm that those questions and concerns should not be directed to school staff or headteachers, even if the vaccination happens to take place in a school building, and that all questions related to the vaccine should instead be directed to the appropriate medical team?
Among other things, my right hon. Friend is keeping covid status certification in reserve, and he is leaving mass asymptomatic testing in place, together with contact tracing. As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) said, the public health powers are still there, of course allowing the Secretary of State to lock us down at the stroke of his pen without prior votes or any formal way of justifying the proportionality of those powers. When can we expect all those things to be dealt with, so that we can all have the certainty that will come from knowing that, thanks to the vaccine, we are living with an endemic disease, in the way that we live with the endemic disease flu, and we can all get on with our lives?
I know that my hon. Friend may not agree with every measure that the Government are keeping in place or have set out, but I hope that he agrees that at least the measures that I have set out—around making sure that we are vaccinating the public, offering vaccines to as many people as possible, having some kind of testing regime, and having some surveillance of the results of those tests to look out for any new variants—are the right measures and the kinds of things that need to be done as we live with covid-19.
We were told by the UK Government that vaccine passports were going ahead, then they were not going ahead, then we were told that they were still the first line of defence against a winter wave, and now the latest position is that they are a definite maybe. We have not seen such dithering since the great confusion over mask wearing, which we can see if we look around this Chamber. How irresponsible does the Secretary of State think that dangerous and confused public messaging is during a pandemic?
Last Friday, Leicestershire MPs met NHS officials locally. We were told that around three quarters of all those in hospital with covid were not vaccinated. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we do not want to be in lockdown this winter, all who can get the vaccine should get it, especially in Leicester, where I now understand from the shadow Secretary of State’s comments that take-up is only 61%?
I am seriously concerned about the hole in the Secretary of State’s defence—taking away contact tracing from public health teams. The data coming through is now completely insufficient to carry out an effective operation locally and therefore to lock down the virus, and not people, in the future. Will he look at that and ensure that local authorities such as York can have that zero data so we can get on top of contact tracing as soon as the data emerges?
There are measures that, when it makes sense, we must remove. The reason that we can take a different approach to contact tracing than we did a few months ago is largely down to the high rates of vaccination we are seeing throughout the country. Of course we want them to increase, but as we vaccinate more, that allows us to start removing these restrictions, additional costs and burdens on individual livelihoods. It is right that we take a balanced approach and keep increasing vaccination so we can keep removing other restrictions.