House of Commons
Monday 23 March 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Yesterday, 22 March, marked the third anniversary of the death of PC Keith Palmer, who died in the line of duty protecting this Parliament from terrorist attack. His sacrifice will not be forgotten. May I express, on behalf of the whole House, our sympathy with his family, friends and colleagues on this sad anniversary? We are grateful every day to the police service and emergency services in all parts of the country for all that they do.
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme
All right hon. and hon. Members will also associate themselves with your remarks, Mr Speaker.
It is vital that we help those in greatest need, including those requiring medical treatment and support, which is why we are working closely with local authority and civil society organisations.
Will my right hon. Friend consider making budgets available from the official development assistance funds to support refugees with their ambition to learn the English language after their resettlement to the UK?
My hon. Friend asks an important question and makes a very important point about the vulnerable persons relocation scheme He will know, as will all Members, that our ODA budget is used exactly for that purpose, and the Government have a proud and considerable record of achievement when it comes to the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme.
Covid-19: Law and Order
I know that, at this particular time of emergency, the public are incredibly anxious about the provision that is in place. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that my priority as Home Secretary is to ensure that the British people are kept safe, and of course that means working with our law enforcement agencies throughout this outbreak of covid-19.
Is my right hon. Friend as confident as I am that the police will have the full support of the British public during this difficult time?
My hon. Friend asks an important question, and he is right. The police are doing an excellent job when it comes to providing public confidence, as well as protecting the public. This is an incredibly challenging time for our entire country, but also for everyone who works in our emergency services and our public sector. I am here to back the police and make sure that we provide them with the resources and support that they need.
I associate the Opposition with the remarks about PC Palmer. I ask this question in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) in order that we can have social distancing in the Chamber.
The challenges for police in tackling covid-19 will be unprecedented. Will the Home Secretary consider relaxing regulations, as the NHS has done, to allow recently retired and leaving police officers to rejoin the force? Will she suspend the tax and pension disincentives to recently retired officers returning to work? Will she include special constables in the emergency volunteer scheme provisions of the Coronavirus Bill, with access to the compensation fund?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions. I can categorically say that work is already taking place across Government on suspending the tax and pensions disincentives—because they are disincentives at this time of crisis and national emergency. We want to make sure that retired police officers, for example, can come back and join the service. I have specifically asked Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs and the taxman to look at that, and they are doing so right now. When it comes to looking at special constables in the emergency volunteer scheme, we are absolutely doing that too.
I would like to take this opportunity to give the House this reassurance on policing. I am working with the National Police Chiefs’ Council every day—as, of course, is the Policing Minister—and engaging with Martin Hewitt, but also with all forces across the country. That is the right thing to do to understand the operational challenges they are facing and to make sure that our officers are supported, but also in terms of looking at all the ways we can make sure that we have flow in the service, bringing back people with the right kind of skills and capability to keep our country safe at this critical time.
On behalf of the SNP, I also echo your powerful words in relation to PC Keith Palmer, Mr Speaker.
The weekend saw a new but worrying development, with significant numbers heading to isolated and scenic areas—the highlands and islands, for example—for purposes of social distancing, not appreciating that these areas are not well equipped to deal with new arrivals as coronavirus spreads. Will the Home Secretary send a clear message that this behaviour is not appropriate? Although we do not want it to become a police matter, is she satisfied that sufficient powers are available to stop this trend continuing, if required?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his comments. He is absolutely right. He and the public have observed very clearly the type of behaviour that happened over the weekend. It is not acceptable. The Government could not have been clearer that, to save lives and protect the public during this public health emergency, it is right that we practise social distancing, in the way that the Government have outlined and are reinforcing, and that the chief medical officer and many others are reinforcing day in and day out.
With that, we ask the public to take responsibility. Of course, there are enforcement measures now in place, through a statutory instrument that was put in place over the weekend, which covers places for social gatherings —pubs, clubs and cafés, for example. The public have been observing those measures, but the police, local authorities and trading standards are working together now to make sure that they are being put in place.
My final comment is that the guidance that is coming from the Government and Public Health England is there to protect and save lives. I urge everyone—all members of the British public—to follow that guidance and absolutely not to use this period for any other practices. It is important that we observe social distancing and do everything we can as individuals to be responsible in our conduct.
Some of my constituents have asked for a police presence at supermarkets. Does the Home Secretary agree that, although there may be a case for increased patrols around supermarkets, the main answer is for the public to buy responsibly?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is unsurprising that we are seeing greater demand on our supermarkets right now. There are a number of important points here. It is not appropriate for police officers to be inside supermarkets. I and colleagues across Government have been working with the Security Industry Association, whose members provide guards at supermarkets to look after their functioning. Of course, the answer is that everyone should behave responsibly, and that we should ensure that we are kind to people and observe the right kind of social practices in supermarkets.
May I, through the Home Secretary, thank the National Police Chiefs’ Council and our senior police officers? We had an extremely reassuring brief from them at the Home Affairs Committee the other day, and I thank them for all they are doing. Will the Home Secretary say a little about ensuring that personal protective equipment is available not only to police forces across the country but to our Border Force? We had very worrying evidence from the ISU, the immigration service union, about actions its members are having to undertake without any equipment at all. Can she provide some reassurance?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right; the work of the police is crucial, and I am aware of the briefings that he and others have received. PPE is vital for all frontline workers. There is a cross-Government effort taking place, yes for Border Force—I spend every day with Border Force officials on my team—but also for police officers. Over the weekend, I spoke to individual chief constables to understand the challenges on PPE. Of course, not all PPE is the same; it depends on the service someone is working in, so we are ensuring that the right type of PPE goes to the frontline for the type of worker. Where there have been issues, not with supply but with distribution, we are working across Government to unblock them.
I commend Dorset police and all its officers, who are doing a fantastic job down in Dorset. Unfortunately, with South Dorset being the most attractive seat in the House of Commons, thousands disobeyed the Government’s guidelines and descended on Dorset’s coastlines, parks and everywhere else, causing local residents to get extremely cross. Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House and remind the public that they have to stay at home and not mix in such huge numbers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Notwithstanding the beauty of his constituency and that part of the country, he makes a very important point. The Government guidance on social distancing, self-isolation and staying at home is critical for public health, protecting lives and saving lives. I urge all members of the public to follow that advice and guidance.
A large number of law-abiding workers in my constituency have leave to remain but no recourse to public funds. Those who need to self-isolate will do so only if they have support, along with others. What plans does the Home Secretary have for that particular group during the current crisis?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We are already working on a range of measures across Government and at pace, and rightly so; obviously, access to public services such as the NHS, and to support systems, is vital. Working across Government means working with the Department for Work and Pensions. He will be familiar with many of the measures that are being put in place and with those that are being looked at for particular groups, in the way that he mentioned.
My hon. Friend has been a persistent correspondent with the Home Office on this matter, but, as he hopefully knows, the provision of custody suites is an operational decision for chief officers and police and crime commissioners, who best understand the needs of their local communities. The Government are committed to supporting the police in their vital work protecting the public and keeping us safe by recruiting 20,000 officers over the next three years and delivering the biggest funding increase in a decade, to ensure that police officers have the resources they need.
Can my hon. Friend confirm that police forces will continue to arrest suspects throughout the covid-19 outbreak?
I can confirm that. My hon. Friend is correct in his supposition that there will be extra burdens on the police, but the Home Secretary and I are in close contact with forces across the country, and we are confident of their ability to continue to manage crime in the way they have been doing.
Knife crime is a scourge on our society that leaves a trail of grief, anger and despair across entire communities, costing lives and leaving people afraid. That is why the Home Secretary has increased police funding by more than £1 billion this year, is giving the police more powers to stop and search known offenders, has started recruiting 20,000 more police officers, and is ensuring that those who carry a knife are locked up for longer. We will do everything in our power to end these shocking acts of violence and this senseless loss of life.
Aylesbury young offenders institution in my constituency has a large number of young men aged between 18 and 21 who have been convicted of very serious offences, many of them involving knives, yet many young teenagers still believe—wrongly—that they need to carry a knife for their protection. What message does my hon. Friend have for them?
My hon. Friend is quite right to raise this appalling issue which, notwithstanding the current crisis, has dogged this country. As somebody who, in my role at City Hall in London 10 years ago, had to fight a similar upsurge in knife crime, I know he is right that we need to send the right message to young people. It is statistically true that someone is much more likely to be stabbed or injured if they are carrying a knife than if they are not. That is a basic truth that we need to communicate to young people.
What plans does my hon. Friend have to invest even more in youth facilities based in local communities like the city of Wolverhampton, given the strong link between youth knife crime and a lack of youth services?
My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that alongside police enforcement, we need to do longer-term intervention work with young people of all ages to turn them away from a life of violence and crime. He will be pleased to know that the Government are making significant investments, not least through the youth investment fund, to ensure that that is the case. We want to make sure that all young people across the country have access to good, rigorous, disciplined, socialised activities that teach them the way of truth and light.
Settled Status for EU Citizens: Internet Access
We are committed to giving all EU citizens living in the UK the certainty they need. Last week, I announced that 3 million people have been granted status under the European settlement scheme. We have made available a further £8 million of funding to help vulnerable EU citizens apply. For those who are unable to access the support mechanisms in place, including assisted digital, a paper application form will be made available.
I have met a number of constituents and organisations who are providing vital support to vulnerable people applying for EU settled status. Some of the stories they have shared about the difficulties faced by those challenged by an internet-based system, such as people with dementia, are harrowing. While the news that funding to support those groups has been extended until this June is welcome, with a bidding process until June 2021, many vulnerable people are currently only able to secure pre-settled status. They will be required to apply again for settled status within five years. Where should those individuals turn when the funding to support them is cut off?
As the hon. Gentleman reflected, we are making funding available, and the current grant-funded organisations will continue until the new funding comes in, one of which is Fife Migrants Forum in his constituency. As with any Member, I invite him, once the current situation is over, to visit the team in Liverpool who are dealing with the European settlement scheme to see at first hand the lengths to which they go to ensure that everyone gets the status they are entitled to.
On behalf of Opposition Members, I offer my profound sympathy to the families of the 289 persons who have died in this unheard-of pandemic.
On the settlement scheme, we obviously welcome the fact that 3 million persons have been successfully processed, but Ministers will be aware that the number of rejections is on a rising curve, with 300 last month. That is increasingly because of problems with documentation. Last week, the House debated the Windrush lessons-learned review and one of the problems at that time was documentation. Is it not time that the Government ended the uncertainty hanging over the heads of EU citizens and guaranteed the rights of EU citizens in the UK?
A very small number has been rejected—just 300 out of over 3 million applications—and the core reason for rejection, for saying no to someone, is criminality. Where there are eligibility issues, people can make a free re-application but the evidence levels are quite basic. People must prove their identity; they must prove that they have residence in the UK, particularly for pre-settled status; and they are subject to the eligibility and suitability checks around criminality. Actually, the system is working very well, and again, I extend an invitation to the right hon. Lady to come to meet the team and see at first hand the work that they are doing and why this has been such a success. It is the biggest documentation of immigration status in history and it is going well.
County Lines Drugs Gangs
We will not tolerate the abhorrent gangs that are terrorising our towns and exploiting our children, when it comes to county lines drugs gangs, and we have committed £25 million of targeted investment to boost law enforcement to roll up these drug lines.
Does my right hon. Friend think that the covid-19 outbreak might lead to an increase in the number of county lines gangs, and will she take steps to address that?
My hon. Friend is right about the risks associated with drug line gangs and covid-19. We are working with the police on this, because they are on the frontline and they monitor everything that goes on with gangs. They will not desist from the work that they are doing, and it is important that we pursue this work throughout the crisis to give the public confidence and provide reassurance that we are determined to roll up these drug gangs.
We hear plenty about county lines networks but not so much about the customers. It is simply not acceptable for people to pop down to Waitrose on a Saturday afternoon and buy their quinoa and then invite their friends round on a Saturday evening for some recreational cannabis. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what she is doing to try to disrupt the drugs trade—not just those who supply drugs, but those who use them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The use of drugs is simply unacceptable and the fact of the matter is that those who misuse and take drugs should also be aware of the consequences of their actions: children around the country are being trafficked and abused and used by drugs gangs to fuel people’s drug addictions. A great deal of work is taking place across Government on this, including by Dame Carol Black, who did a review of drugs and has provided further evidence on what other measures the Government can bring in, in addition to law enforcement measures.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s robust approach to this, but I echo the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Robert Courts). The concern is that with schools closed, children will have more time on their hands and that is a vulnerability. Will she assure us that what we do to encourage online activities and so on for them can be looked at across Departments, so that we reduce the likelihood of this happening?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is important that we recognise the nature of the vulnerability of young people and children. It is a fact that, throughout this crisis, children are not at school. They could therefore become prey to gangs and are, equally, more vulnerable, so we are working with the police to make sure that greater work takes place on protecting young people. We are doing the same with local authorities, but the public need to do much more as well. It is a collective duty of the state to protect our children and make sure that they are safeguarded. Right now across Government, with covid-19 taking place, we are absolutely determined to make sure that we safeguard children, protect vulnerable children and ensure that more kids do not become vulnerable to county lines drugs gangs.
It is very good to hear about the Government’s robust approach to tackling county lines. The issue of dealing around schools, including even at school gates, has been raised with me by anxious teachers and parents over the past year. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when schools reopen, her focus will be on making sure that they do so safely for all those attending?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is about protecting children, including vulnerable children, but it is also about safeguarding. Everyone has a duty and a responsibility when it comes to safeguarding children. When schools finally reopen, they will play a very important role in making sure that children are protected, that they get back into education and on a stable footing, and that they will not be susceptible and vulnerable to these types of criminal activities.
Hastings and Rye has serious issues regarding county lines, with drug dealers deliberately targeting young and other vulnerable people. Sussex police is working hard with local partners to combat drug dealers, but it needs the support of the justice system, imposing strong deterrent sentences to ensure zero tolerance of drug gangs, particularly during the coronavirus crisis. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are working together to pursue a zero-tolerance policy for drug gangs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Through the crime and justice Cabinet Committee that we now have, we look at this from an end-to-end perspective. The Home Office has put in £25 million specifically to target county lines drugs gangs and to roll up county lines. She has highlighted a really important point about the role of the criminal justice system in sentencing and deterrence, and about how we should work together to use intelligence to go after the gang leaders and cut the head off the snake—the people who are fuelling this awful, abhorrent crime.
County lines are one aspect of the threat posed by serious and organised crime, in respect of which the coronavirus crisis presents hugely difficult challenges. I should be grateful if the Home Secretary passed my thanks on to the Minister for Security for the discussions that I have had with him on measures on warrants, but can she set out what other measures she will take to ensure that our police can deal with urgent issues, including their having the appropriate protective equipment? Does she agree that we need to ensure that this period in which we will be in emergency measures is not exploited by those who wish us harm?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise those matters. I am aware of the discussions that have taken place between him and the Security Minister about the legislation that will be discussed this afternoon on the Floor of the House. He is absolutely right—I restate the points that I made about PPE, in particular, to protect frontline workers.
The hon. Gentleman will know that there are various measures in the Bill on the appointment of temporary judicial commissioners, as well as on biometric data and information—the essential steps that we have to take to make sure that we protect our people, our communities and our country. We cannot have any gaps or loopholes that would allow people who want to come in and do us harm to come in and do us harm right now.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about our collective focus, and I thank him and the Opposition Front-Bench team for the way in which they are working with us to make sure that we have those protective measures, because the duty of Government during this epidemic and crisis is to make sure that we have responsible measures in place to protect our country and our people.
I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that answer. Of course, the police are going to be under pressure in the months ahead, and they deserve all our support. We should all say that any abuse directed towards the police is totally and utterly unacceptable. However, there will be people carrying out the role of police officers in the months ahead. Thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the police have the protection of the Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018, allowing courts to take into account the fact that they were on duty when the abuse occurred. Can we look at extending that measure to those who are carrying out the role of police officers in the months ahead?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. I have put on the record in the House my views about the appalling abuse to which our police officers and emergency workers are subject. That is simply unacceptable, and my intention, as he will know from the police powers and protections Bill, is to introduce the right legislation to bring in enhanced powers and measures in the criminal justice system to make sure that the right kinds of penalties are put in place.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. At this particular time, when there are additional pressures and strains on public workers—our public sector, our emergency workers and our police officers—we should do everything possible, and I will absolutely look into that.
Covid-19: English Language Testing
These are extraordinary times, and we are working hard to ensure that no foreign students are penalised unfairly by these events. We recognise the concerns of the education sector about the impact of covid-19, and we are working with it to mitigate the adverse consequences. We are also working closely with secure English language test providers to ensure that there is sufficient capacity for all those who need to take tests while prioritising the health and safety of staff and applicants.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Clearly my question was tabled before we hit the mission-critical phase in our actions to combat the virus, and of course it feels rather discordant to talk today about international travel when we are talking self-isolation and social distancing. But below that there is another really important message—that we will come through this, we will rally and we will rebuild. So can the Minister say what measures are being taken to expedite the process for international students coming to our universities in particular, because it is so vital in towns such as Eastbourne and across the country?
I recognise the comments my hon. Friend makes, and as she says, at the moment it seems strange to be talking about international travel when we are rightly advising against all non-essential travel within the United Kingdom, let alone abroad. We are very clear that no one will have a negative outcome through the immigration system due to a circumstance that was beyond their control. We have already done a block extension of visas for Chinese nationals, and we are looking at further measures that we can take—for example, allowing in-country switching that we would not normally allow—to ensure that no one is penalised because they followed the advice and did what they could to protect our NHS and save lives.
Police Disciplinary Procedures
The vast majority of police officers fulfil their duties to a very high standard, but where they fall short, it is only right that they are held to account. In February this year, the Government overhauled the police complaints and disciplinary procedures, introducing reforms to make the systems more accountable, proportionate and efficient.
I was disappointed to learn that two Metropolitan police officers are facing potential disciplinary action for crashing their car while in hot pursuit of an active terrorist on the rampage. I know that the Minister cannot talk about individual cases, but is he satisfied that all circumstances are taken into account before a police officer faces suspension? If he meets the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police any time soon, will he pass on to her my personal thanks to every single one of the police officers involved in that operation, including those who are facing disciplinary sanction?
I am certainly willing to pass on the hon. Gentleman’s good wishes to the men and women of the Metropolitan Police Service, who we are in touch with daily, if not several times a day at the moment. He is right that I cannot talk specifically about that particular case, but he can be confident that in that case, and in all cases, the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which will conduct the investigation, is well aware of its duty to take into account all the circumstances.
Covid-19: Screening for UK Entry
We are facing an unprecedented threat from covid-19. In response to that, an enhanced monitoring process was implemented by Public Health England during the containment phase to monitor direct flights and identify any ill passengers from affected countries. However, the UK Government do not intend to introduce port screening measures such as temperature checks, as the scientific advice suggests that they simply do not work.
I thank the Minister for his reply, but can he tell us what steps he is taking to ensure that British citizens returning from high-risk countries are fully aware of the need to self-isolate on their return? Will he also promise that any advice that he gives is shared with the Governments of the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies, and also the territories and dependencies? They all need advice, support and help during this very difficult time for our country.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and he raises an extremely good and important point, as always. All aircraft flying into the United Kingdom will have an announcement on the symptoms and what to do if any passengers have those symptoms. In the UK, that has been enforced by a notice to airmen filed with the Civil Aviation Authority. In addition, the Government have made sure there are posters and leaflets containing public health information in all international airports, ports and international train stations. The need to self-isolate when people have those symptoms is critical, and I will take up his suggestion and make sure that is propagated to all the other Administrations to which he referred.
Will the Minister and the Home Secretary pass on huge thanks to the Home Office staff, the Border Force staff and the police, who are working immensely hard on the response to the coronavirus? Given that other countries have mandatory quarantines in place for people arriving and that the Government in this country withdrew on 13 March the previous advice for travellers coming from high-risk countries such as Italy to self-isolate, does the Minister accept that it is hard to understand why there is no guidance on self-isolation on a precautionary basis for travellers coming from high-risk countries? Will he and Home Secretary look at that issue again? Will they also work with the Home Affairs Committee to ensure that they can attend remote meetings to answer our questions during this crisis?
First, may I echo the right hon. Lady’s comments about the fantastic work being done by civil servants and staff of various Executive agencies? As she has said, they are doing an incredible job in very difficult circumstances. On mandatory self-isolation for people returning from high-risk countries, she is right to say that the advice changed. However, let me reassure her by saying that it is under continual and ongoing scientific evaluation. The Home Secretary and I have both asked recently for refreshed scientific advice, and that is being monitored almost daily. If the scientific advice says that the safety of our country requires a further change in policy, we will certainly do that in response.
On the right hon. Lady’s question about enabling remote hearings for her Select Committee, I am sure that civil servants, officials and Ministers at the Home Office will do exactly that if required, to make sure that her Committee can function and discharge its scrutinising responsibilities, regardless of our current circumstances.
In previous Home Office questions, I have asked for reassurances from the Home Secretary that those who enter or seek to enter illegally from France are immediately returned, but I have not received that absolute reassurance. As we have a pandemic going on, it is even more important that people who seek to enter illegally are first apprehended, and are then returned, tested and, above all, put into isolation. Can the Minister reassure me that that is going on?
Significant resources are being put into protecting the short straits, particularly the crossing in the direction of Dover. Where people make that crossing cladestinely, they are met by the relevant officials, particularly from Border Force and from immigration enforcement. Of course, one of the screening checks now being done relates to their health, to make sure that if they need to be isolated to avoid the disease being transmitted onwards, that happens. On returns, we are currently bound by the Dublin regulations, but once we exit the transition period, we will not be and there will be an opportunity for us to form our own policy in this important area.
Overwhelmingly, people entering the UK in Orkney and Shetland do so because they are coming off cruise ships. That traffic is currently suspended, as a result of the businesses themselves suspending it. Will the Minister reassure me that if these businesses were to try to reinstate cruise ship business before it was safe to do so, steps would be taken to prevent their doing it?
Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman that, as I said previously, the scientific advice is at the forefront of the Government’s thinking and there is no question at all of allowing any unsafe operating practice—by cruise ship operators or anyone else. The Government will not contemplate allowing this business to happen until the scientific advice categorically states that it is safe.
Burglary and theft are a blight on all members of our community, which is why this Government are committed to reducing burglary and other neighbourhood crimes. We recently launched the £25 million safer streets fund to protect areas that are disproportionately affected by burglary and theft and to invest in well-evidenced crime prevention measures. A reduction in burglary, along with other neighbourhood crimes, will form one of the many outcomes we will be putting forward to the police that we expect to see as part of the recruitment of 20,000 police officers.
As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will know following her recent visit to Ipswich, it has seen a number of burglaries in our town centre recently. These break-ins have been targeted at stores in specific parts of the town, including important local businesses like Willy’s & Milly’s café and Emilia Hair & Beauty Studio. Given that Suffolk constabulary’s resources are stretched and Suffolk urgently needs a review of the police funding formula, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that the police in Ipswich have every resource they need to thoroughly investigate each burglary, bring the perpetrators to justice and prevent more such serious crimes from happening in the future, especially in the light of the additional pressures that tackling covid-19 will place upon the local force in Suffolk?
Ipswich has rarely had a champion quite as robust as my hon. Friend, and he is right to be as persistent as he is in the defence of his town. I urge Suffolk constabulary, or the police and crime commissioner who represents Ipswich, to make a bid to the safer streets fund. Lots of things can be done to target-harden in particular areas where there are burglary hotspots. My hon. Friend is aware that we have given Suffolk constabulary another £9.2 million this year to start the recruitment of police officers, and of course there will be more to come in the years that follow, but he is right to keep up the pressure and I hope he will see results soon.
In Cheshire, the police rural crime unit recently reported having dealt with 170 crimes, including burglaries and thefts, in three months. Will my hon. Friend guarantee that tackling such crimes will remain a key focus for his Department, and that the extra resources being made available will help to keep specialist police officers out there to protect the Eddisbury countryside and its farms and businesses into the future?
I offer my hon. Friend a belated welcome back from his extended recess; it is nice to see him in his place. He is right to raise the issue of rural crime. As somebody who represents 220 beautiful square miles of rolling Hampshire down land, I am well aware of the problems that rural communities face with crime. My hon. Friend will understand that it is an operational matter for the chief constable in his area to decide where and how his police officers are deployed, but I know that some of the more rural forces are working hard to maintain their capacity in respect of that crime type. As he will know, there is a National Rural Crime Network, which is looking at what more can be done.
Shop Workers: Protection from Violence
We are committed to driving down crime and violence in all its forms, which is why, to strengthen our understanding of the scale of violence and abuse towards shop staff, we launched a call for evidence. The findings are supposed to be published this month, and it is still my ambition to do so, but we will see what happens given the current circumstances. We will continue to work closely with the police, industry and other partners to ensure a robust collective response.
Many colleagues from all parties will share the concern that the criminal justice system can be too slow and too lenient in dealing with those who cause violence against shop workers and owners. Right now, will the Minister share his expressions of solidarity with all the shop owners and workers who are putting themselves on the frontline to help those in our community to be fed and looked after? Can we send a message out from the House that we expect those people to be treated not just in line with criminal standards, but with respect and gratitude?
I wholeheartedly endorse my hon. Friend’s remarks. He is right that when we emerge from the crisis that is engulfing our country, there will be a general reassessment of who is important in this country and what a “key worker” means. He is right that those on the frontline, delivering, stacking shelves and taking money at tills, are as much part of the national effort to beat this coronavirus as a police officer or NHS worker, and we thank them for it.
On the question of protecting shop workers and owners, as was referred to earlier, we have all seen the unfortunate recent scenes of disorder in supermarkets when persons attempt to stockpile in response to the coronavirus. We have seen shelves swept clean just hours after the shops open, the apparent shortages of very basic products such as paracetamol, and the elderly being unable to purchase their basic needs. A number of measures are being taken to deal with the situation, but we note that even when supermarkets tried to set aside hours at the beginning of the day for the frail, elderly and NHS workers, others just barged them aside. No one on the Opposition Benches wants to see police officers in supermarkets, but if the situation remains unmanageable, will the Minister consider talking to the shops, the supermarket owners and their security officers to see whether patrols by police community support officers in the vicinity of some of the larger supermarkets might play a role?
The right hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. I hope to reassure her that we are in very close contact both with the police about the patterns of behaviour they are seeing, and with representatives from the food industry, particularly from the supermarkets, which I know are meeting regularly with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to monitor the situation. We hope and believe that, over the next few days, things will settle down. Our food and supply chains in supermarkets are extremely strong, and we are reassured by those companies that they can fulfil the demand as it comes, but she is right to hold us to the challenge of monitoring the situation. If we need to take further steps, obviously we will. As the Home Secretary said, we are also talking closely with the Security Industry Association about the welfare and capability of its staff in these circumstances. We want to ensure that this is managed proportionately and calmly, but we are keeping an eye on it.
This country is facing its greatest challenge since the second world war. The covid-19 pandemic requires us to change our way of life for many months to come and, throughout this uncertainty, nothing has made us as a nation prouder than the extraordinary humanity and dedication of our police officers, firefighters and, of course, our NHS workers and key workers. This battle against coronavirus is being fought in our hospitals and will be won through the efforts of the public, who need to stay at home to protect the NHS and to save lives. On behalf of the Government and the country, may I say that, although we are all facing this unprecedented challenge, we will come through it together? There is a role for compassion and commitment to ensure that we all work together at this challenging time.
Over the weekend, I spoke both to my local resilience forum and Staffordshire police, who raised various concerns with me about access to personal protective equipment and lack of personnel if people are off with self-isolation. What conversations is my right hon. Friend having with police forces across the country to ensure that they have the resources that they need for dealing with covid-19?
I have daily conversations across the entire policing network across the country with regard to the resources that they need at this incredibly challenging time. The Government are, of course, working closely with all partners, including the emergency services, on a range of issues, including suitable PPE and the development of suitable testing. Those are the things that our police officers and police chiefs are asking for right now, and we are working with them to co-ordinate supplies and the policing response.
I wish to return to the subject of that category of person under immigration legislation who has no recourse to public funds. Because of the coronavirus epidemic and the consequent shutdown of large parts of the economy, these persons will not be able to work. We welcome the help for workers through bank loans and the benefit system that the Government have brought in, but the category of person to which I refer are not entitled legally to benefits of any kind. I note that the Home Secretary is talking to the Department for Work and Pensions about this matter, but when can she give some assurance to people who are literally facing destitution that this matter will be resolved and that there will be a way of offering them some measure of financial support?
Let me repeat to the right hon. Lady the comment that I made earlier. This is work that is taking place across Government, and not just in the Home Office. We are engaging with the Treasury and with the DWP. It is vital that, at this particular stage and given the really significant challenge that our country finds itself facing, we provide resources and support for people at all levels, and that is something that the entire Government are committed to do. I would be very happy to come back to her on this specific point in due course.
My hon. Friend is right to raise an issue that has been of concern in the media and across the country. As I said earlier, we are talking to the Security Industry Association about what more it can do, and we are in close touch with, in particular, the supermarkets as to how they are administering and making sure that those who need to get resources can do so. We are monitoring the situation very closely with our colleagues in the police, but, as I say, we hope and believe that, in the next few days, the good sense of the British public will reassert itself and everyone will start to behave appropriately.
May I welcome the fact that no recourse to public funds rules appear to be being looked at just now, but there is a host of other immigration and asylum policies, which surely also need urgent revision to deal with the coronavirus crisis, of which immigration detention, requirements to report or attend appointments and interviews, and shared asylum accommodation are just three. Are all of these issues being looked at urgently and could we simply receive a comprehensive update from the Home Office in early course?
The answer is yes.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We have never said that people at lower skill levels are unimportant. As we know, throughout this crisis everybody is making a tremendous contribution and effort to keep all services functioning and running, while at the same time ensuring care and compassion for workers in service provision that is essential right now. I have already committed to keeping all aspects of the points-based immigration system under review. The important thing about that system is that we will ensure that points are tradeable based on skills and labour market need across particular sectors.
I am afraid that the lack of sense displayed by some parts of the British public is putting retail workers under enormous pressure and threat. Retail workers often cannot be 2 metres apart from other people, especially at checkouts. This point was brought home to me by a constituent who witnessed somebody being spat on for refusing to allow bulk buying. Will the Minister please revisit what he and the Home Secretary have already said about the need to protect retail workers? We are going to need them to continue at work; we cannot afford for them to become sick.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise this issue once again. As I said earlier, the protection of retail workers is one of the uppermost issues in our mind. I have noticed a number of retailers who are taking protective measures—for example, measuring out the distance and putting tape on the floor to indicate where people should stand in order to stay 2 metres away from a retail worker. However, the hon. Gentleman is right that action needs to be taken when there are serious offences. As far as I can see, the incident that he mentioned is a crime that should be reported to the police and actioned accordingly.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Today we have spoken clearly about policing and the daily calls we have with the police, but there is a similar system with the fire service, which is providing incredible work and support, particularly for vulnerable communities across the country. We should all pay tribute to the fire services; their work is truly remarkable. They are an integral feature of the local resilience forums that cover all our constituencies, and we are in close contact with them to ensure that they are getting the equipment, support and resources they need throughout this crisis.
Foreign national doctors and medical students at Morriston Hospital in Swansea are very concerned about their immigration status. They face significant bills if they want to renew their visas now, and obviously want an expedited process. Would it not simply make sense for the Government to announce as swiftly as possible that they will waive all fees for such doctors and medical trainees, that they will try to ensure that those processes can be expedited and that anybody who wants to stay can stay?
Let me give the hon. Gentleman, his constituents and all public health workers in that category reassurance. Some very fast work is taking place at the Home Office right now to look at exactly that issue. I would be very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman outlining that work.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise her concerns, which have been echoed in the House today. She does have a beautiful constituency and an incredible police force, which I pay tribute to. The police have robust contingency arrangements. They have the ability to work with others in the community and alongside the other emergency services to ensure that we stop people from behaving irresponsibly. I restate the message that everyone should take responsibility and follow the Government’s advice. This is about saving and protecting lives, and we all have a duty to follow that advice.
The Home Secretary is well aware that the emergency legislation being brought forward this afternoon provides quite extraordinary but important measures for immigration officials and extends the power of detention. Does she not understand that without adequate proactive screening, that power will be rendered useless? Will she keep open the option of providing a better regimen of screening at our air and sea ports?
We are working with the Department for Transport and across Government on screening, but it is important that the House recognises that where there is proper scientific evidence, we are following it. This will all be under review, and as things change and more evidence comes from the chief medical officer, that is what we will being doing across Government, day in, day out.
My hon. Friend raises an essential question about the safety and security of the public and our communities at this time. It is fair to say that we have seen incredible resilience among the British public. In all constituencies, people are behaving in a generous and community-minded way. That helps and it is what we want to see. At the same time, we are seeing organisations and individuals coming together and working with our local police, our local authorities and our local resilience forums, and we will continue to encourage that.
At the weekend, I was horrified to receive calls from constituents telling me that some pub landlords were trying to let customers come in through the rear entrances to their pubs, leading to my local authority having to send licensing officers to ask those people to leave the pubs. What punishment will be given to the landlords if they continue to flout the law and break the licensing conditions set out by the Prime Minister?
Fines will be put in place, but licensees also run the risk of losing their licence and their livelihood.
As the Home Secretary will know, covid-19 has already had an impact on police numbers on the frontline and in back office support roles. What discussions has she had, or would consider having, with the Foreign Office about getting the key workers, including police officers, nurses and support staff, who are currently stranded in other parts of the world back as a priority?
On police officers in particular, the numbers of frontline staff are proving to be very resilient, but my hon. Friend makes an important point about those who are abroad and how we can repatriate them, so that they can rejoin the frontline services in our country. That work is taking place across Government, specifically with the Foreign Office, and Border Force is now tasked with joining up with the Foreign Office to make sure that happens.
Before leaving their country of origin, many of my asylum-seeking constituents were skilled doctors or nurses. Given that there is such a shortage of nurses and doctors at the moment, will the Government consider lifting the work ban on asylum seekers to let them take part in this national effort?
I have already indicated that many measures are under review. We are working at pace across Government to consider what changes we will bring in.
Over the weekend, I was alerted to the fact that a number of religious workers, students and business people whose visas are soon to expire are not able to return to India. What advice does my right hon. Friend have for the people in that category?
We are going to announce changes we will make very soon. I will write to my hon. Friend and all colleagues about how we will enable extensions.
Coronavirus is driving many aspects of our daily lives online. Hopefully that will help bring us together, but it will also undoubtedly attract criminal elements to new crimes, particularly with all the vulnerable people going online. What additional capacity is the Home Secretary ensuring in the police forces to patrol the online streets and keep us safe at this time?
The hon. Lady raises an extremely important point. While we might see other forms of crime fall because of the lack of activity in the street, we are well aware and sensitive to the fact that fraud might emerge. I have seen over the weekend some reports in the media of unscrupulous individuals exploiting elderly and vulnerable citizens in particular, and certainly when we have been discussing these matters with police leaders on our regular calls, they are aware of that issue and are thinking more about how they could redirect resources towards it, if it becomes systemic.
We probably have more than half a million undocumented migrants in this country—people who, if they fall ill with coronavirus, might be afraid to declare themselves to the health authorities for fear of deportation. The Irish Government, who have the same issue in Ireland, have firewalled their national health service data from other parts of Government. I do not know whether that is the right answer, but will the Secretary of State look at the issue and find a similar resolution?
The point is well made and we will certainly look at it. No one should fear accessing medical advice from our superb NHS for an immigration reason.
Concerns have been raised in Croydon—I have seen them elsewhere—that religious organisations are not adhering to the new guidance about holding their services or not. Indeed, I have seen some people seeing it as an act of faith that they are bold enough to go to their religious services. What more can we do in terms of enforcement and communication to ensure that people are doing what they should?
The hon. Lady is quite right, and I received reports just this morning that certain communities in London in particular are not observing the rules. We will be talking to Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government colleagues this afternoon about what they can do to draw people together to create better observance.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for referring to the death of PC Keith Palmer, who tragically died three years ago. The pressures on the Home Office are only likely to increase. We have seen 20,000 armed forces personnel mobilised, many of whom will probably provide military assistance to the police. In the event of a lockdown, will the Home Secretary say what role the armed forces might play?
My right hon. Friend is right to raise the capacity and capability of our military, which is second to none. Where we can, we will draw upon it. He will know that this country has a proud tradition of a strong division between the civil and the military, and we wish to maintain that. However, our armed forces colleagues have superb expertise in logistics in particular, but also in planning and construction, which we aim to use to the fullest extent.
I wish to make a statement relating to parliamentary services, aspects of the Chamber and other parliamentary business. I ask that hon. Members bear with me, as it is longer than I would like.
On Chamber attendance, Parliament as a whole continues to follow the latest Government advice relating to covid-19, including advising Members and staff to work remotely where possible and limiting all but essential access to the parliamentary estate. I remind Members and those watching our proceedings that steps are being taken to preserve social distancing in the Chamber. As a result, attendance will be more limited than usual, but that does not curtail the commitment of hon. Members to fulfilling their parliamentary duties.
We recognise the need to improve our video conferencing facilities to enable those working remotely to engage in Committee proceedings. Regarding evidence sessions, these facilities are currently limited, not least because the management of these sessions requires expert operators to produce audio-visual output of a suitable quality for broadcast use and Hansard transcription purposes. The teams who make such arrangements work are currently under—I do stress—significant strain because of staff absences. Further work in this area will be taken forward as a matter of priority over the Easter recess. Once the current situation has settled, I will commission a review to ensure we can develop systems to ensure we are ready and able to be more agile in the future.
Some Members and key parliamentary staff are still required to work on the estate to enable the House to continue to fulfil its important constitutional role. As this is a workplace, it is important that they continue to have access to adequate canteen facilities. A number of venues have been closed, but in those that remain open, we are employing a range of measures to increase social distancing, while encouraging diners to use takeaway options where possible. The following outlets remain open: Tea Room, Terrace Cafeteria, Debate and Dispatch Box. The Members’ Smoking Room remains open, but there is no service. I can confirm that, from today, the sale of alcohol in House of Commons catering venues has been suspended until further notice. I took that decision on Friday evening. All those measures will be kept under constant review.
If Divisions take place from today onwards, until further notice, the arrangements will be modified to allow for social distancing. The entry of Members will be staggered, with entry at separate times for three alphabetical groups. Members will be able to record their names at any of the desks. A Division may take between 30 and 40 minutes to conduct in that way. Further details will be communicated via the Whips and announced again if a Division takes place. I want to ensure that Members feel satisfied that all the staff are trying to do their best.
I understand the wish of Members—particularly those not able to attend the Chamber—to fulfil their duty to hold the Government to account. However, I urge Members to think twice before tabling parliamentary questions. In particular, they may want to think about the impact of such questions on Government officials who are working incredibly hard to respond to the current crisis. If they are desperate questions, I will understand, but multiple questions will block not only staff members in this House but Government Departments that need to be carrying on with their duties, so please think twice. When a Member puts 60 questions down, that is not helpful to anybody or to this country.
I should also mention that names added to early-day motions that are not submitted electronically are not being processed. I am sure all Members will understand that, in these exceptional circumstances, some changes to procedural services have proved necessary, and further changes may be needed.
Finally, I want to again express my thanks to Members and staff across Parliament for their hard work in enabling this House to continue to function and for their efforts in limiting the spread of coronavirus among our community. We have some absolute heroes in this House who I want to thank on behalf of all of us.
Business of the House
With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a short business statement.
Further to my announcement to the House last Thursday, the first item of business tomorrow will now be consideration of a business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Contingencies Fund Bill. This will be followed by Committee and remaining stages of the Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Bill, followed by a motion relating to appointments to the parliamentary works sponsor body. The last item of business will be a general debate on the situation in Yemen, as determined by the Backbench Business Committee. The business for the rest of this week remains unchanged.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for remembering PC Keith Palmer in your earlier statement. I thank the Leader of the House for the business statement. We agree that the Contingencies Fund Bill should be accommodated through this change of business.
I am grateful for the support of the right hon. Lady. Our hearts continue to go out to the family of PC Keith Palmer. It was a great sadness that afflicted them and the whole House three years ago.
Mr Speaker, I welcome your statement and the steps you have set out to enable this House to continue to fulfil its democratic role, but in a way that is safe and consistent with the advice that the Government have set out and expect our constituents to follow. In that spirit, if the Leader of the House is not able to update us today, will he think about what further steps can be agreed between Mr Speaker and the usual channels to enable the House to properly hold the Government to account over what might be a considerable period, as we deal with this virus, in a way consistent with the firm, important advice that we are giving to the rest of the general public?
My right hon. Friend raises a point that is being considered by the Government and which will be discussed with the official Opposition and other opposition parties. We will need to legislate and to ensure that the Government are held to account, but we may well have to do that in ways that are different from those we have used previously.
It is very encouraging to see that right hon. and hon. Members seem to be sitting at least 6 feet away from each other in the Chamber, and I would encourage that even on my own Front Bench. Government Front Benchers seem to be observing the suitable gaps at this moment, as do Opposition Front Benchers.
We are happy to support the Government in their efforts to get the Contingencies Fund Bill through so they can make the expenditure needed to get the country through this crisis. We welcome, Mr Speaker, the announcements you have just made, particularly about social distancing should we find—and perhaps we will not—that Divisions are necessary.
However, the continuing business of the House continues to put pressure on staff and Members. Can the Leader of the House say what consideration is being given to bringing the recess forward to the end of this week? The reality is that any of us who return to our constituencies from London, the epicentre of the virus, are going to have to self-isolate—it would be inappropriate for us to go into our communities—and it would therefore be impossible for us to get back for sittings next week. Will the Leader of the House please take that into consideration?
Yes, absolutely. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that is being considered. I would say to the House that pairing has been very widespread for this week to ensure that right hon. and hon. Members who do not be here are not. We obviously need to ensure that the emergency legislation is successfully passed this week: that depends on the other place as well as here and then the receipt of Royal Assent. We will have other legislation to do in due course, but whether the Bill about rate relief for toilets and the general debate before the Adjournment are essential business that we all need to come back for is debatable.
When the Leader of the House speaks at Cabinet tomorrow, will he convey my appreciation to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for the package of measures to support workers that he announced on Friday? He may have been Chancellor for only a few weeks, but he may have saved more jobs than any of his predecessors. However, will the Leader of the House ask him urgently to come back to the House on a comparable package for the self-employed—I know he is working very hard on that—whose businesses are crucial to every constituency in this country and, indeed, to the nation?
I will do better than my right hon. Friend asks; I will ensure that an extract of Hansard recording the thanks of my right hon. Friend is sent to the Chancellor. His proposals have received widespread support across the country and the House. My right hon. Friend’s point on the self-employed is very well made, and I will ensure that that is also passed on.
May I add my welcome to the support given last week to those in employment? There is, however, real anxiety out there among the self-employed. For example, Bill Croney, one of my constituents who runs an event catering business contacted me this morning. These people have got no money coming in, and I think people need to realise that. The Government need urgently to bring forward active measures, and the indication of a statement tomorrow would at least be a ray of hope for some of those people in desperate times.
Although the Bill coming before the House tomorrow is not specifically directed at the self-employed, the scale of tomorrow’s Bill is such that it will allow expenditure of £260 billion on account. That gives the Government the flexibility that they need, assuming the House is willing to pass that Bill, to ensure that steps can be taken. I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is giving urgent attention to ways of helping the self-employed. I think it is accepted across the House that that needs to be tackled.
Mr Speaker, I , too, welcome your measures to try to keep all the staff and ourselves safe in this House.
We are to go into recess some time in the near future. We do not know what is going to happen over the next few weeks, but undoubtedly there will be problems in all our constituencies. May I ask the Leader of the House to urge all his Front-Bench colleagues to treat any queries from any of us as if the House was sitting and with the urgency that they need to be dealt with?
Mr Speaker, may I refer to your statement, which, I think, gave the House very good advice? We, as right hon. and hon. Members, need to consider what is urgent and pressing and needs raising with Ministers and what is routine and can wait until after this crisis is solved. It is of the greatest importance that urgent messages get through and are not swamped by routine messages that we would usually be passing on to try to seek high-level responses. Self-denial by us will help Ministers to ensure that the right responses are given to the most urgent items.
I add my voice to those of the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) about the self-employed and freelancers, and I ask the Leader of the House to convey to the Chancellor the urgent requirement for him to come back to the House for a statement about them. I also commend to him the report issued today by the Musicians’ Union, which outlines the impact that this has had on many people in the creative industries.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue of those in the creative industries, who are mainly self-employed and have been particularly affected because, of course, the places where they perform have been closed. The Government are inevitably conscious that when we close places by order and that has an effect on people’s livelihoods, there is a societal responsibility. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is fully aware of that.
Mr Speaker, you may recall that I have over the past couple of years secured not one but two emergency debates on Yemen and have been a pretty staunch critic of the Government’s policy in respect of that country. However, even I wonder about the timing of the debate tomorrow and whether it is wise for the House to sit and devote time to that particular subject.
My right hon. Friend has, I know, campaigned to bring the attention of the country at large to what is going on in Yemen. It is always open to somebody who is going to move a motion not to move that motion, and hon. Members might consider whether they wish to bring forward specific business.
As things stand, we will return from the Easter recess just as this epidemic reaches its peak, or heads towards it. Inevitably, either by agreement or for any other reason, a lot of Members will not be here. Mr Speaker, may I ask the Leader of the House to take seriously your indications about the use of modern technology for distance working over the recess, so that the appropriate provision is in place for Members? After all, distance working is what we are asking people in workplaces the length and breadth of the country to do.
Many aspects of distance working are already available, such as e-tabling and so on. A motion will be brought to the House later today to allow greater flexibility for the working of Select Committees, which will be an important step in allowing them to hold the Government to account during this period.
As regards the workings of things on the Floor of the House, there will be discussions with leading figures in Opposition parties, I hope during the course of this week, to see whether we can by agreement and consensus work out how to limit the numbers of people who need to be in the Chamber.
Some businesses in my constituency are already looking to the future. When they get back on their feet, they will, sadly, have to make some redundancies because they will not be turning over or making the profits that they are making now. They are asking who will meet that bill. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Chancellor what the answer to that particular conundrum is?
My hon. Friend raises the question at the heart of what many right hon. and hon. Members have been saying: how do we take care of businesses that were sound on 1 March but which might find that they are not sound when this crisis ends? The Government are doing everything we can to help ensure the continued soundness of businesses, and that, in my view, is absolutely the right thing to be doing.
The House is due to return on 21 April, but that might not be possible for health reasons. In light of that, is it possible to lift the convention that Members do not usually table parliamentary questions over the recess? In that way, questions could be spaced out sensibly, rather than a huge backlog being caused by their being put in next Tuesday afternoon.
The hon. Lady makes an interesting point that is certainly worth our looking into in the few days that remain before we go into recess.
Following on from the question of the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), can I ask that a statement on the self-employed and freelancers comes forward quickly, given the immediate need of many self-employed people? There are 6,500 self-employed people in my constituency of The Wrekin. Will that statement be forthcoming when the House is sitting, rather than when the House has risen, so that right hon. and hon. Members can constructively interrogate the Government’s suggestions?
My hon. Friend puts his finger on why it is important for the House to be sitting so that the Government can be held to account and so that questions can be asked on statements. I am sure that if there are no statements from the Government within the next few days, there may be a receptiveness to urgent questions, so I think information will be forthcoming.
I welcome the indication that we will move to more virtual ways of working, but may I ask that that also incorporates electronic voting as soon as possible? It is ridiculous that we will all be cooped up in the Lobbies.
Secondly, I reinforce the importance of action for the self-employed. In particular, the insurance companies need to be pressed: they are saying that, because coronavirus was not listed as a disease, they will not pay up. The insurance bodies clearly need to be brought to heel.
I record my gratitude to the Opposition for deciding not to divide the House last week. We have become aware that politicians in this country can act in the interests of the nation and of us all by coming together to do this, and we have shown that with surprising speed. I reiterate the thanks given by my right hon Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to his shadow, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), who has been particularly helpful in this difficult period.
The issue regarding the self-employed is of great importance and has been widely raised.
I warmly condemn—warmly commend, I mean—the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care for recognising that, sometimes, Opposition Members want to be helpful with their criticisms. There are specific issues, such as the treatment of employees, of those in rented properties and, for that matter, of freelancers and sole traders, on which proper questions from Members on both sides of the House can get us to a better place.
My anxiety is that we are telling the nation that we should bend every sinew to deal solely with this issue, yet we are still doing all sorts of other things in the House that are not solely directed at coronavirus. May I suggest to the Government that we shred every other ongoing legislative process? We should only be debating issues that relate to the national crisis.
When will we have the necessary votes under the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to enforce the measures that were introduced last Friday in relation to pubs and clubs?
I will not make cheap shots about the hon. Gentleman’s default position when he is trying to be helpful.
The difficulty is that some of the business we carry on needs to be carried on. It is important that the Windrush compensation scheme is debated and dealt with tomorrow. The hon. Gentleman knows the procedures of this House better than almost anybody: he will be aware that we need to introduce the Finance Bill within a set period of the motions being introduced, so there is routine business that needs to be carried out. Other things are happening on which MPs will want to hold the Government to account so, although I understand his point, we cannot go quite so far as he suggests.
But we can lead by example in this place—right here, right now. There are four people sitting within 6 feet of the Leader of the House; certainly within 2 metres. [Interruption.] I will come over with a tape measure in a moment. We have to demonstrate it by our actions, and the visual example of people sitting immediately in front of and behind other Members does not do that.
My main point is about the self-employed. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) mentioned the statement by the Musicians Union, which makes two specific proposals. One is for an immediate payment of £400 a week to every self-employed person, and the second is to use the tax records as evidence to deliver 80% of long-term income. Will the Leader of the House make sure those figures are given to the Chancellor?
I accept the point and encourage right hon. and hon. Members to try to keep 6 feet apart. I think we are doing pretty well, considering how much we practically sit on each other’s laps during ordinary sittings of Parliament—this is a significant and visible improvement on how things used to be. As the hon. Gentleman has asked me to be the postbox for the Chancellor, I will of course make sure that those points are passed on.
May I add my voice to the chorus of those asking for the Chancellor to bring forward measures on the self-employed? Every single day that goes by without them means livelihoods devastated. In particular, the voice of musicians and from the creative industries is vital—I draw attention to my declaration of interests as a supporter of the Musicians’ Union.
Will the Leader of the House urgently arrange a statement on the situation facing charities? The Chancellor introduced a very welcome set of measures on the wage subsidy, but charities are expending large sums of money on providing services, not just on staff, and they face a £4.3 billion drop in income over the next 12 weeks. Hundreds of Members from eight parties in this House have signed a letter on that. Will the Leader of the House urgently arrange a statement, written or otherwise, to clarify the situation?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the plight of charities, which is well known to the Government, and for the wonderful work that charities are doing to help in these circumstances.
I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will understand that the Government are working through a very large number of issues and doing it in an orderly way. The priority was rightly to give reassurance to those in employment, so that we did not face mass redundancies, which was likely, but that does not mean that the charity sector and the self-employed have been forgotten.
May I also echo the sentiments on support for the self-employed? One sector crying out for support and clarity is the aviation industry. In addition, we have bus and coach companies with drivers on short-time working that are unsure how to treat those employees. Has the Transport Secretary indicated to the Leader of the House whether he will be making a statement in due course?
I think the issues in the transport industry have been at the forefront of people’s minds from very early on in this crisis, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is working hard to try to find solutions for these problems. I will bring this issue to his attention and point out that there is an interest in a statement being made to this House.
I very much associate myself with the calls from across the House for urgent action to help the self-employed. May I ask the Leader of the House to bring forward an urgent debate about an issue that we have not touched on—the need for urgent price caps and action to stop price gouging?
I highlighted an issue in my constituency last week: a disreputable chemist had increased the price of children’s medicine tenfold. Since then I have been flooded with complaints about businesses, small and large, doubling, tripling or quadrupling prices. Two thirds of American states have legislation, activated in emergencies, that sets a price cap of 10% to 20%. We are obviously going to need such measures here—and the sooner we debate them, the better.
Whenever a large number of right hon. and hon. Members raise one issue with me at business questions—in this case, the self-employed—I invariably raise it with the relevant Department immediately after the session. I absolutely assure the House that I will do that in relation to this session.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s second point, profiteering is extremely disagreeable. There have been times in our history when it has been illegal and subject to quite strong penalties. His point is exceptionally well made, and I will ensure that it is made also to the right person in Government.
I thank the Leader of the House for coming and making a statement, and also put on the record my thanks to the Chancellor. The issues coming to me and others in the House are legion, whether they concern Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, employment, health issues or Department for Work and Pensions business.
The support for small businesses that the Government have guaranteed is helpful, because moneys are coming forward to cover 80% of employees’ wages. These are people in small companies, by the way, employing between six and 16 people, who are lucky to have their jobs, but what happens is that their employers cannot employ them, because it seems that there is nothing in the package to help those people. So it seems that the employees are looked after—and thank you for that—but the employers who employ them are not. What can we do for them?
The hon. Gentleman, as always, gets to the nub of any matter that this House is discussing, and he is absolutely right. We are bringing forward packages to help as many people as possible, and the more people who are kept in employment, the more business there will be across the economy. The effect of these closures on the economy is much bigger than anything that we have normally come across, which is why it has required this enormous response, including the announcement that I made at the beginning about a Bill allowing for up to £260 billion to be advanced to Departments.
I am delighted that my right hon. Friend will go back to the relevant Department about some of the matters raised. May I add my voice on the importance of looking after the self-employed? In my constituency, we are going to be especially badly hit because of our reliance on tourism and the visitor economy. Many of the people involved have small businesses and are self-employed, and our economy is going to be devastated this summer.
My hon. Friend’s point is extremely well made and echoes what has been said by many other right hon. and hon. Members.
Coronavirus Bill: Business of the House
That the following provisions shall apply to the proceedings on the Coronavirus Bill:
(1) (a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be taken at today’s sitting in accordance with this Order.
(b) Proceedings on Second Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
(c) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings on Third Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) six hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order.
Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put
(2) When the Bill has been read a second time:
(a) it shall, despite Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of bills not subject to a programme order), stand committed to a Committee of the whole House without any Question being put;
(b) proceedings on the Bill shall stand postponed while the Question is put, in accordance with Standing Order No. 52(1) (Money resolutions and ways and means resolutions in connection with bills), on any financial resolution relating to the Bill;
(c) on the conclusion of proceedings on any financial resolution relating to the Bill, proceedings on the Bill shall be resumed and the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.
(3) (a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chairman shall report the Bill to the House without putting any Question.
(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill as amended without any Question being put.
(4) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (1), the Chairman or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply:
(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;
(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;
(c) the Question on any amendment, new Clause or new Schedule selected by the Chairman or Speaker for separate decision;
(d) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a Minister of the Crown;
(e) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded; and shall not put any other Questions, other than the Question on any Motion described in paragraph 15(a) of this Order.
(5) On a Motion made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.
(6) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (4)(d) on successive amendments moved or Motions made by a Minister of the Crown, the Chairman or Speaker shall instead put a single Question in relation to those amendments or Motions.
(7) If two or more Questions would fall to be put under paragraph (4)(e) in relation to successive provisions of the Bill, the Chairman shall instead put a single Question in relation to those provisions, except that the Question shall be put separately on any Clause of or Schedule to the Bill which a Minister of the Crown has signified an intention to leave out.
Consideration of Lords Amendments
(8) (a) Any Lords Amendments to the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(9) Paragraphs (2) to (11) of Standing Order No. 83F (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on consideration of Lords amendments) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (8) of this Order.
(10) (a) Any further Message from the Lords on the Bill may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(b) Proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (a) shall thereupon be resumed.
(11) Paragraphs (2) to (9) of Standing Order No. 83G (Programme orders: conclusion of proceedings on further messages from the Lords) apply for the purposes of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (10) of this Order.
(12) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of Standing Order No. 83H (Programme orders: reasons committee) apply in relation to any committee to be appointed to draw up reasons after proceedings have been brought to a conclusion in accordance with this Order.
(13) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on the Bill.
(14) Standing Order No. 82 (Business Committee) shall not apply in relation to any proceedings to which this Order applies.
(15) (a) No Motion shall be made, except by a Minister of the Crown, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.
(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.
(c) Such a Motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
(d) The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.
(e) Standing Order No. 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply to proceedings on such a Motion.
(16) (a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings to which this Order applies except by a Minister of the Crown.
(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
(17) No debate shall be held in accordance with Standing Order No. 24 (Emergency debates) at today’s sitting after this Order has been agreed.
(18) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.
(19) No private business may be considered at today’s sitting after this Order has been agreed.—(Matt Hancock.)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
Coronavirus is the most serious public health emergency that has faced the world in a century. We are all targets, but the disease reserves its full cruelty for the weakest and the most vulnerable. To defeat it, we are proposing extraordinary measures of a kind never seen before in peacetime. Our goal is to protect life and to protect every part of the NHS. This Bill, jointly agreed with all four UK Governments, gives us the power to fight the virus with everything that we have.
Like many hon. Members, I have had a huge number of issues raised with me by NHS workers regarding the availability of personal protective equipment to frontline staff and testing. I know the Secretary of State wants to protect NHS staff through the Bill, so will he take the opportunity of Second Reading to update us, perhaps with any information he has from across the UK, about progress on these matters?
Yes. If it is okay with you, Mr Speaker, I will answer that intervention and then get on with the point in the Bill. These issues are outwith the Bill, but they are incredibly important and very much part of the topic.
In terms of making sure that NHS staff, social care staff and those who need it clinically get the protective equipment they need—especially but not only the masks— we are undertaking enormous efforts to get that equipment out. The equipment is there; we have it. It is a distribution effort. I was not satisfied with the stories I heard of people running short, so we have brought in the military to help with the logistical effort. I want to hear from every single member of staff in the NHS or in social care who needs that equipment but does not have it, so we have also introduced a hotline and an email address, which is manned. I have had an update on that, and it has had a number of calls, which are all being responded to. In that way, we will find out where the gaps are, so that we can get this distribution out. It is a mammoth effort; we have been working on it for several weeks, but the increase in the use of the protective equipment in the last week has been very sharp, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman and the House will understand. The logistical effort is very significant.
We are expanding the amount of testing. We are buying tests, both ones made abroad and ones made here in the UK, because testing is absolutely vital to getting out of this situation. I want to get to a point where anybody who wants to get tested can get tested. At the moment, we are having to reserve the tests we have for patients, especially in intensive care, so that they can be properly treated according to whether or not they have coronavirus. Very soon, we are getting the tests out to frontline staff so that they can get back to work, where somebody in their household might have the symptoms and they are household-isolating. I understand absolutely the importance of testing. We are working on it incredibly hard. We were working on it all weekend, and we are making some progress.
On the point about testing, will the Secretary of State be absolutely clear? Does the current test that is available show whether somebody has got covid-19 or has perhaps previously had it? Does it do both, or does it do just one? If it does just do one, when are we likely to have a test that does both?
Tests for both have recently been developed. The test for whether someone has coronavirus, which we call the case test, was first developed here by Public Health England, and that is being expanded. The antibody test, which tests whether someone has the antibodies that make them immune to coronavirus, has now been developed, and we are buying it in large quantities.
Nobody denies that the Bill is necessary, but given that it gives the state, for the first time in our history, unprecedented powers to enforce isolation on people who have committed no crime, will the Secretary of State reassure the House that it will be fully involved in renewing this once this crisis is over, and that there will be no drift in this matter?
Yes. I will turn to this point shortly, but let me just correct my right hon. Friend. The measures we are taking to be able to hold people in quarantine build on those in the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, which we have been using hitherto. In that element, the Bill is not unprecedented. The Bill makes these powers UK-wide and strengthens the basis on which they can be exercised, but the powers are not unprecedented. Nevertheless, the point he makes about the House’s ability to scrutinise these measures and to ensure that we are, as a House, content with their continuation is important.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Let me make a little more progress in answering my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), and then of course I will give way.
The Bill is jointly agreed between the four UK Governments. Of course, there are measures that are significant departures from the way we normally do things, but they are strictly temporary. I think that they are proportionate to the threat we face, and they will be activated only on the basis of the best possible scientific evidence. Crucially, to my right hon. Friend’s point, the legislation is time-limited for two years and the measures can each be switched on and off individually as necessary by the relevant authority, whether that is the UK Government or the devolved Government, depending on who exercises the powers. As an additional safeguard, we today tabled an amendment to give the House the opportunity to confirm that the powers are still required every six months.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Everyone admires the steps he is taking. He knows that I have been questioning and corresponding with him on testing for some time. Given that, as he pointed out, the test was developed in this country, can he explain why it seems to be so much less available in this country than in other countries around the world?
We have done more testing than most countries. There are some countries that are ahead of us, and we are racing to catch up. We have tested far more than, say, France or America, but not as much as Italy. It is something that we are putting a huge amount of effort into. I understand the pressure my right hon. Friend rightly puts on me to expand testing capability. We are increasingly using private companies to do the testing—to expand their production and execution of the tests—rather than just doing it in the brilliant public health labs we have at Porton Down and around the NHS.
I commend what the Secretary of State said about working with the devolved Administrations to get the measures in the Bill right. It is crucial that many of these measures are UK-wide; I realise that these are unusual times. There is a specific power in schedule 21 to limit entry to premises and, if necessary, to close them down, which applies to all four Administrations. Can he be clear about whether that will apply to care homes? I have heard a lot of concern from constituents who are worried that some care homes still are not restricting entry to individuals and are therefore putting elderly residents at risk. There is real demand for this to be unified across the country to protect elderly residents.
We have other ways to enforce that with care homes, not least contractually through local authorities. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern; people in care homes need to be protected, and many of them shielded, from the virus, because many of the most vulnerable people are in care homes. I will take away the point and look at whether more needs to be done, but we do have other powers available to deliver on what he and I—I think—agree is needed.
I commend the Secretary of State for accepting the six-month review that he has just announced, but in the event that the House decides that one element of the Bill is working badly, will we be able to amend or strike out that element, or will we have to take the whole thing or reject it at that six-month point?
As discussed with the Opposition, we are proposing a six-month debate and vote on the continuation of the Bill, and before that debate we will provide evidence and advice from the chief medical officer to inform the debate. There is also a reporting mechanism for a report every eight weeks on the use of the powers in the Bill.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the time he has taken in explaining at every stage how he has used the powers of his office to this House and, indeed, to the people through the media. I am hugely grateful and I know many others are. Could I just, however, state that over the last three weeks the world has changed in a rather more radical sense than many of us appreciate? The powers in the Bill, even over six months, are likely to change and to be exercised in different ways. Can he assure me that he and all other Ministers will exercise their powers reasonably, in keeping with only the coronavirus issue, and making sure that they are limited to the purpose for which they were intended, because these powers could—in different circumstances—be used in a particularly malicious fashion?
I can confirm that the Bill is to deal with the current coronavirus emergency, and that is an important point. But I would also say that although the world has changed in the past three weeks in ways that many could not have imagined, every measure that has been taken by the Government has been part of the action plan that we published three weeks ago. Of course, the Bill has been drafted over a long period, because it started on the basis of the pandemic flu plan that was standard before coronavirus existed and has been worked on over the past three months at incredible pace by a brilliant team of officials right across Government. The Bill is consistent with the action plan, so while some people might have been surprised by each of the measures we have taken, they have all been part of the plan that we set out right at the start. I can confirm that it is only for coronavirus.
I also want to give further detail to my previous answer to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), which is that section 21 does not specify what it defines as a gathering or an event. It is deliberately broad, so it could include a care home, should we need it to, and that would be defined in secondary legislation should that be necessary.
I am sure the whole House will want to support my right hon. Friend and the provisions in the Bill. I just want to reinforce two points. The first is that I was very concerned to see the two-year provision, which is why I put my name to new clauses 1 and 6, and I am very pleased to hear what the Government have said about the six-month review. Notwithstanding what he just said about the period of time in which this has been produced, it is a heroic effort— 321 pages of legislation which may well be subject to changes in the next few weeks and months as this crisis develops. I hope, therefore, that he will see the six-month review not just as a rubber-stamping effort, but as a chance to improve the legislation, should it require that improvement.
We could consider that. The proposal is to have a debate and vote as opposed to a whole new piece of legislation and, of course, only to renew it if the measures in the Bill are still necessary. Then, of course, they will fall after two years. I understand the concern of my right hon. Friend and his wisdom. I know that as Secretary of State he dealt with some of these issues, albeit not here but around the world, and he knows the sorts of measures that are needed, which are contained in the Bill.
Will the Secretary of State provide clarity on the six-month period? Obviously, six months is quite a long time for people who are chronically ill or have a serious disability. Some of the proposals have implications for social care for the devolved regions or local government. What will happen if there are negative effects on people who receive social care within that six-month period? What recourse will Members have to bring that to the House?
There will be recourse, and I will come on to that in a moment. The purpose of the social care measures in the Bill, which are very important, is to allow for the prioritisation of social care, should that be necessary. However, there are a number of restrictions on that, because local authorities will still be expected to do what they can to meet everyone’s needs during that period. While local authorities will be able to prioritise to ensure that they meet the most urgent and serious care needs, there are restrictions to require them to meet everyone’s needs and, indeed, to fulfil their human rights obligations to those in receipt of care.
I thank the Secretary of State for the excellent work he has done to ensure that individuals get the care they need in these difficult and challenging times.
On the human rights perspective, I thank the Secretary of State and the Government for listening to faith organisations. Initially there were concerns that under part 2 loved ones would have to be cremated. As somebody from a Muslim background and the Prime Minister’s special envoy for freedom of religion or belief, it was completely unacceptable to consider that if taking account of the views of the Muslim and Jewish communities. I therefore thank the Government for ensuring that the wishes of the deceased will be taken into account in relation to their final rites.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has worked hard to ensure that we come to a solution in the Bill, through the amendments we have tabled today, that ensures we can not only have dignity in the case of a large proportion of the workforce not being available, but accede to the wishes of families from the many different faith communities who had concerns about the way it was originally drafted. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, who found a way through that I think everybody can be content with.
Essentially, the Bill gives all four UK Governments a legislative and regulatory toolkit to respond in the right way at the right time by working through the action plan. While I hope that some of the powers never have to be used, we will not hesitate to act if that is what the situation requires.
To follow on from the hon. Member for Gillingham and Rainham (Rehman Chishti), I am grateful for the work the Government have done in this area, because many of my constituents—both those from a Muslim background and those of the Jewish faith—were naturally concerned. It is one of the major tenets of faith that everybody has the right to dignity in death, so I am grateful to the Government for listening. Will the Secretary of State join me, at this difficult time for all our communities, in thanking our faith communities for the role they are playing, the difficult decisions they are taking and the support they are giving?
I entirely agree. This exchange is an example of the cross-party approach we are all taking. I am very grateful to the hon. Member for the work he has done, together with the Paymaster General, to bring this point to light.
I am also grateful for the work the hon. Member and many others have done with faith groups of all religions who want to gather. Understandably, it is upsetting not to be able to do that, but it is right that they cease large gatherings—or, indeed, any gatherings—where there is social contact that can spread the disease. It is happening around the world. It is a difficult thing for some, and I pay tribute to the faith organisations and faith leaders across all faiths who have made the right decision. I urge all faith leaders to see what has been done by those who have taken the right steps and to follow them.
I wish to thank the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) for his constructive approach to the passage of this legislation and his constructive tone in respect of this whole crisis. I reassure him that I listen to what he says very carefully. Even when he does not agree, he has done so in a calm, sensible and evidence-based way. I think the House can see from the Bill that we have taken on many of his suggestions, and they will go into law. Along with the Labour Administration in Wales, the SNP Government in Scotland and the multi-party Administration in Northern Ireland, we have taken on ideas from all parties.
The measures in the Bill fall into five categories: because we rely on the NHS and social care staff now more than ever, the first set of measures will help us to increase the available health and social care workforce; secondly, there are measures to ease the burden on frontline staff, both in the NHS and beyond; thirdly, there are measures to contain and slow the spread of the virus so that we can enforce social distancing; fourthly, there are measures on managing those whom the disease has taken from us with dignity and respect; and fifthly, there are measures on supporting people to get through this crisis. I shall briefly take each of them turn.
The first part of the Bill is about boosting our healthcare workforce at a time when it comes under maximum pressure, both through increased demand and because of household isolation and the fact that large parts of the workforce may fall sick. The Bill allows for the emergency registration of health and social care professionals, including nurses, midwives, paramedics and social workers. I can update the House with numbers: 7,563 clinicians, including Members of this House, have so far answered our call to return to work, and I pay tribute to every single one of them. These are difficult times and they have risen to the call of the nation’s needs. We know that many more will join them.
Our thanks also go to the social workers who play such a vital role in protecting the most vulnerable in this country. The Bill protects the income and the employment status of those who volunteer in the health and social care system. Volunteers will play a critical role in relieving the pressure on frontline clinicians and social care staff. Again, I offer our thanks.
Is the Secretary of State aware that many people in the refugee community in the UK are qualified healthcare professionals? I have spoken to the refugee charity RefuAid, which says it has 514 qualified healthcare professionals on its books. These are people who are willing to work and fully qualified in their own country, but there are bureaucratic barriers to their coming forward. Will he please look into this matter with great urgency so that such people can help us out?
Yes. If the right hon. Gentleman emails me with the details, we will get right on to it. He refers to bureaucratic barriers; we of course have to make sure that people are able to do the work that is necessary, but we have already shown in the Bill that we are willing not only to bring people back into service but to put into service those who are towards the end of their training, to make sure that we get as many people as possible in full service. I absolutely want to pick up on the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal and take it up with the General Medical Council or the relevant regulator to see whether we can find a way through for the period of this crisis.
I wonder whether the Secretary of State may not need an additional power in relation to the Home Office being able to waive fees for tier 2 and tier 5 visas for foreign nationals who are already working in the NHS and are about to have to renew their status in this country, or for those who have been studying as students.
It is already within NHS trusts’ power to pay those visa fees if it is necessary.
Will the Secretary of State look at the immigration surcharge for doctors and nurses who are working in intensive care units? Will he also look personally at the issues relating to research trials for potential new drugs or treatments, or existing drugs or treatments that are being used? Concerns have been raised with me that those processes are all being delayed by the traditional randomised controlled trial processes, which may not be appropriate given the emergency we face.
Absolutely. The chief medical officer is personally looking into that issue to make sure that when there is a treatment, we can bring it to bear as soon as is safely possible. There is a challenge with a disease that has, thankfully, a mortality rate as a proportion of the overall population as low as this one, which is that we do not want to do more harm than good. Many of these drugs are safe, because they are licensed for another purpose. It is a question of repurposing them—this is for treatment, rather than vaccine—and that is something we are actively working on. If the right hon. Lady has examples of particular barriers that we need to crunch through I would like to know about them. If she could email me I will take that up with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency.
I want to bring to the attention of the House to the professional indemnity clauses. Where there is no existing professional indemnity agreement in place the Bill provides legal protection for the additional clinical responsibilities that healthcare staff may be required to take on as part of the coronavirus response. I do not want any clinician not to do anything that they can do because that they worry about indemnity and what might happen if it goes wrong. I want everybody in the NHS to do their very best to the top of their qualification, looking after people and keeping them safe.
I commend the Health Secretary on everything that he and his team are doing. To ensure that returning healthcare professionals can do so at the right time, when the disease peaks around Easter, we have to move at pace to put the indemnity that he has cited in place, to ensure that people are physically and mentally fit to do this work and, crucially, to ensure that they are skilled or reskilled to do what we are asking of them. Can he assure the House that those three things are being put in place?
Absolutely—all of that is in hand. My right hon. Friend is quite right to raise it.
I thank the Secretary of State for everything that he is doing. We are all rooting for him to be successful. I am genuinely worried about what is happening in London hospitals, and what it says about the prospects for the rest of the NHS. He is right to try and get staff to return, but we have to be able to keep them when they arrive. I have seen disturbing reports over the weekend of agency staff walking out mid-shift because they do not have the right protective gear, the right sanitising hand gel, and the things that they expect to keep themselves and patients safe. Can he look urgently at this issue, because London is the story that will follow for the rest of the country if we do not get this right?
Yes, this is what I have been spending the weekend on—absolutely; it is incredibly important.
Turning to the second part of the Bill, which is about easing the burden on the frontline and follows from that intervention, that refers not only to the NHS frontline but to the dedicated public servants who guard our streets, who care for our children, and look after communities, in local government—in short, all those who keep the UK running safely and securely. By cutting the amount of paperwork that they have to do, by allowing more remote working, by delaying some activities until the emergency has ended, we can keep essential services going while we get through the pandemic.
Some of the measures are difficult, and not what we would choose to do in normal times. For instance, the Bill will modify temporarily mental health legislation, reducing from two to one the number of doctors’ opinions needed to detain someone under the Mental Health Act 1983 because they pose a risk to themselves or others. In circumstances in which staff numbers are severely affected, the Bill allows for the extension or removal of legal time limits governing the short-term detention of mental health patients. The Bill also allows for an expansion of NHS critical care by allowing for rapid discharge from hospital where a patient is medically fit. NHS trusts will be permitted to delay continuing healthcare assessments, a process that can take weeks, until after the emergency has ended. The people who need this support will still receive NHS funding in the interim.
The Bill contains powers allowing local authorities to prioritise the services they offer, as we discussed earlier in relation to social care, and that prioritisation, while challenging, is vital. The measures would only be activated in circumstances where staff numbers were severely depleted. They do not remove the duty of care to an individual at risk of serious harm or neglect. We do not take any of these measures lightly. I hope that many will not have to be used, but we will do whatever it takes to beat this virus.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. He is being very generous. On frontline care, particularly those working in intensive care units around the country, may I press him again? When will those staff be tested? There are many staff who want to go to work, but are afraid that they may be carrying the virus. For those who are at work, if they are tested and they have the virus, they want to isolate so that they can return as quickly as possible to the frontline. When are they going to be tested?
The answer is as soon as the tests we are buying are available. Expanding testing is absolutely critical to everything we are doing.
This part of the Bill also covers other mission-critical parts of public services, not just the NHS, including schools, borders, justice and national security. The Bill empowers schools, for instance, to respond pragmatically to this situation, including the ability to change teacher ratios, to adapt school meal standards and temporarily to relax provisions for those with special educational needs. The Bill also gives the Home Secretary the power to close and suspend operations at UK ports and airports, powers that will deployed in circumstances only where staff shortages at the Border Force pose a real and significant threat to the UK’s border security. It expands on the availability of video and audio links in court proceedings, so that justice can continue to function without the need for participants to attend in person. To ensure that the Treasury can transact business at all times, the Bill makes it possible for a single Minister or Treasury commissioner to sign instruments or act on behalf of other commissioners.
At a time of unprecedented social disruption, it is also essential to maintain our national security capabilities. The Bill allows temporary judicial commissioners to be appointed at the request of the Investigatory Powers Commissioner and for an increase in the maximum time allowed for an urgent warrant to be reviewed from three to 12 days. That means that vital investigation warrants can continue to be issued, and our security services and police can continue to protect the public.
On the key points of people with mental health problems being signed off by one doctor and a loosening of the regulations relating to children with special needs, what measures can be put in place, by local authorities or others, so that there is a review mechanism on those two very crucial points for vulnerable people?
Clearly, these are issues of the highest sensitivity. It is important that we take those measures in case they are needed in the circumstances where staff numbers available are low, to make sure we can get the support needed as appropriate and make the interventions that are sometimes difficult to make. For instance, it can be, in some circumstances, far worse not to detain somebody under the Mental Health Act where they are a danger to themselves or others. If there is not the availability of a second doctor, because of staff shortages due to the virus, then I think that is appropriate, but the safeguards are an important part of getting this right and an important part of why this is time limited.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way. He is being incredibly generous. Clause 23 talks about food supply chains, which are absolutely crucial. He will have seen that many supermarkets are taking on additional workers to meet demand. Can he provide an answer on this point or get one from the Treasury? I have heard from many people who are thinking of applying for those jobs, perhaps to make up loss of income. If they are covered by the 80% wage subsidy, are they able to take on extra work or will they lose the 80% wage subsidy from their existing job? May we have urgent clarity on that point, because it could be deterring people from taking up those important jobs in our supermarkets and supply chains?
That really is a question for the Treasury. My understanding is that the 80% wage subsidy is for those who are furloughed, as the Chancellor put it, as opposed to those who have moved into other jobs, but the hon. Gentleman will have to ask the Treasury for a more detailed answer.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way and for all the work he is doing—indeed, I thank the House for all the work it is doing—on this essential legislation. With regard to university settings, there seems to be some confusion. I have looked at the Universities UK advice, but some universities do not seem to be following it and are requiring students, notwithstanding the advice the country at large is being given, to attend.
I am surprised to hear that, because we have been very, very clear about universities, alongside schools. It is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary in the first instance, but on public health grounds we made it absolutely clear that we were taking steps to close schools, nurseries, universities and colleges, except for the children of key workers where they absolutely need to be at school, for example where neither parent can look after them. However, all those at university can stay at home on their own and do not need a parent, so I do not think there is any excuse whatever.
Our local authority, the new unitary Buckinghamshire Council, has made the point that workers in leisure centres who are furloughed may need to be redeployed into other areas of council work where they would not normally be employed. That raises a problem. The council really needs to use the furlough scheme to take those workers out of leisure centres and put them into social care—quite a different industry. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to make sure that that is possible?
I do not think a legal change is needed to do that, because to second someone from one job to another is perfectly possible under existing employment law. In fact, the Bill brings in a statutory volunteering scheme, which is essentially a new form of employment through volunteering. That is one way that that could be done, but I would not expect it to be the main way used. If someone is moving to do a different type of job because we need more people doing some things and fewer doing others during this crisis, that sort of secondment can be done entirely normally—unless I have misunderstood my hon. Friend.
My right hon. Friend has slightly misunderstood, and I hope he does not mind me saying so. The point really is that all councils will be haemorrhaging money at this time and they will need that 80% support for those workers whom they would otherwise furlough, so that they can then use them as volunteers. The point is to constrain cost.
I will take that up with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
While we understand that the circumstances are exceptional, there is understandably grave concern about lowering social care standards. We are talking about some of the most vulnerable in our society—the elderly and disabled of all ages. Having the convention on human rights as a back-up could lead to care standards being lowered to a dangerous level, putting those people at risk. Will the Secretary of State outline the thresholds for turning the powers on, and indeed off to ensure that they do not become the new norm?
The threshold is to do with staff shortages. I say gently to the hon. Lady that I understand her concerns, but in fact the purpose of these measures is precisely the opposite: it is to make sure that when there is a shortage of social care workers, those who need social care to live their everyday life get it and can be prioritised ahead of those who have a current legal right to social care under the Care Act 2014 but for whom it is not a matter of life and death. This is absolutely about prioritising the vulnerable. That is the purpose of the legislation, but I understand her concern, and that is why we put the safeguards in place to ensure that the prioritisation works as intended.
I have a general question about the supply of medicine. Paul Howard, a consultant in palliative medicine at our excellent hospice on the Island, says that under patient group direction—that is, group prescriptions—nurses can give out morphine, but due to a quirk in the rules they cannot give similar powerful opiate painkillers. Will the Bill enable nurses to give controlled drugs as part of patient group direction? I ask not only in case medical supplies run short, but specifically because we on the Island rely on ferries, and such a provision would give us slightly more diversity in patient treatment.
I will look into those specific points. There are parts of the Bill that would help to tackle the problem my hon. Friend describes if it is appropriate to do so, but I think it is better if I get some medical advice and then get back to him.
The third part of the Bill contains measures to slow the spread of the virus. As the disease accelerates, our goal is to protect life, to protect the vulnerable and to protect the NHS by flattening the curve and minimising unnecessary social contact. This is a national effort, and everyone has their part to play—self-isolating if someone or anyone in their house has symptoms, working from home wherever possible, avoiding social gatherings and, of course, regularly washing your hands.
The Bill provides for us to go further: it gives us stronger powers to restrict or prohibit events and public gatherings and, where necessary, to shut down premises; and it gives the police and Border Force the power to isolate a person who is or may be infectious. This part of the Bill also allows us to close educational settings or childcare providers, and to postpone for one year elections that were due to take place in England in May. These are not measures anyone would want to take, but they are absolutely necessary in this crisis.
The Secretary of State will be aware that over the weekend thousands of people made their way to holiday areas and rural areas such as mine. Do the powers in schedule 21 allow Ministers to require people, in circumstances where local health boards are under increased pressure, to remain in their primary residences?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, because we have advised against all unnecessary travel and I do not regard going to a holiday home in Wales as a necessary journey. There is a risk of putting extra pressure on the NHS in rural areas from large numbers of people going to second homes, so I entirely understand the concern he has raised. The powers do allow for a constable to take somebody to a place in order to prevent the spread of the infection and make sure that we can police the public health guidance that we have given. We have been absolutely clear in the past few days that if people do not follow this advice, we will not hesitate to act. We acted last week on pubs, clubs and restaurants. We said that people should not go to them, but it was clear that some were still open and so we took the decision to close them down, with enforcement powers for the police and trading standards. This Bill provides those powers more broadly.
I am pleased with what the Secretary of State has said, as this is a significant problem. I received more than 1,000 emails over the weekend from constituents who are petrified about what is going on. The highland area makes up more than 10% of the UK landmass, but we have one acute hospital, in Inverness, and some of these tourist destinations are more than three hours from Inverness. We have been inundated with people who showed no concern for the local population. People are saying that they are now being denied the right to travel to the islands by ferry because we have stopped it and they are going to come to Skye. This is a dangerous situation, where they are imperilling the lives of our constituents. They must go home and they must stay at home, as I am sure the Secretary of State would agree.
Well, what can I say? I am concerned that people are not following the public health advice.
Some holiday companies have been responsible. For example, Sykes Cottages has cancelled a raft of bookings for weeks ahead. However, my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Ms Brown), by phone, has raised the fact that lots of Airbnb bookings are still available in holiday resorts. Surely that is irresponsible. If the companies will not do the responsible thing by limiting access to holiday properties, does the Bill give the Government the power to act? If so, will they act to stop this kind of behaviour?
If it is deemed a risk to public health, the Bill does give the potential power, through secondary legislation, to take action if that is needed.
I mean this in a constructive way, but it does feel as though we are constantly behind the curve; we are always waiting for people not to do what we have asked them to do before we then step in and introduce more strict communications. So I beg him: will he underpin this legislation and everything else the Government are doing with a much bigger, wider, louder and more comprehensive public education campaign, because right now the message clearly is not getting through? Anyone who was looking at the coverage over the weekend of people gathering in Richmond park and elsewhere will know that it is not being heard. We need to be doing an awful lot more to be able to catch up and get ahead of this.
There is the most comprehensive public communications campaign probably in the history of Government peacetime communications—maybe I will send the hon. Lady a poster.
The issue of Brits seeking to isolate in remoter parts of the country is a big issue in Rutland. Over the weekend, I went around the constituency, and I saw pile after pile of cars. I saw caravan parks open and hotels advertising self-isolation holidays and breaks in my constituency. Can the Secretary of State confirm, for the benefit of all in the House, that the current guidance is that people should stay in their own homes and not travel for self-isolation holidays or anything of the sort?
I agree with my hon. Friend.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will take one more intervention, and then I will make some progress.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way; he is being very generous, but these are important issues. On the issue of social distancing, is there something that he feels might happen tomorrow that is not happening today, as far as people’s behaviour is concerned? People are gathering in their thousands on the beautiful landmark of the Wrekin in my constituency. It is right that people should have exercise for their physical and mental health and wellbeing, but social distancing is not being followed by many, whether it be in the Wrekin or Holland Park, Hyde Park, St James’s Park or counties around the country. What behavioural changes does he expect? Is it not the case that we will have lockdown, and would it not be better to have it today rather than next week?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are absolutely clear that we are prepared to take the action that is necessary.
The fourth part of the Bill contains measures for managing the deceased in circumstances where many of those involved in the registration and management of death will themselves be self-isolating. We want to ensure that those taken from us by the virus are treated with the utmost dignity, while protecting public health and respecting the wishes of bereaved families. Among other measures, the Bill will expand the list of people who can register a death to include funeral directors. It will mean that coroners only have to be notified where there is not a medical professional available to sign a death certificate. It will allow death certificates to be emailed instead of physically presented. It will remove the need for a second confirmatory medical certificate in order for a cremation to take place, and it gives local authorities the power to take control of elements of the process if needed. Those powers would only be used if absolutely necessary and on clinical advice, but we plan for the worst, even while we work for the best.
The Secretary of State will know that a new medical examiner system has been introduced in many areas, including Durham. Their role is to look into deaths in hospitals, so they will be inundated if there is a large number of deaths. Is there any provision in the Bill that loosens up their role? Otherwise, they will be overwhelmed by the number of examinations that they will have to do.
I very much hope that they will not be. The medical examiners regime is very successful, and as the right hon. Gentleman says, we are expanding it across the country. We do not deem that necessary, not least because we think that we can expand it if necessary. We do not think that there is a need for statutory change in an area that is improving.
There may be instances where it is impossible to allow for a normal funeral in the way that one is used to. There might have to be mass funerals or, for that matter, instances where just one person is allowed to attend, apart from the celebrant. I wonder whether it might be possible to ensure that in all local authorities, and in particular crematoria, it is possible to film such moments, so that loved ones at least have an opportunity to feel that they are engaged online, if not in person.
I know that the hon. Gentleman speaks from experience of having presided over these events. That is available—increasingly so—and I entirely understand why many people would want that.
The fifth and final part of the Bill includes measures to protect and support people through this crisis. This is not an exhaustive list of everything we plan to do, but the principle is that no one should be punished for doing the right thing and self-isolating if they or someone in their household has symptoms. To make that happen, the Bill will ensure that statutory sick pay is paid from day one, and this will be applied retrospectively from 13 March. Small businesses with fewer than 250 employees will get a full refund for sick pay relating to coronavirus during the course of the emergency. Finally, the Bill will require industry to provide information about food supplies. That all comes alongside our plan for people’s jobs and incomes announced by the Chancellor on Friday.
The Bill allows the four UK Governments to activate these powers when they are needed and to deactivate them when they are no longer needed. We ask for these powers as a whole to protect life. We will relinquish them as soon as the threat to life from coronavirus has passed. This Bill means that we can do the right thing at the right time, guided by the best possible science. That science gets better every day. This disease can isolate us, but it cannot separate us from the ties that bind us together. With patience and resolve, with the painstaking use of data and evidence, and with the whole nation working together as one United Kingdom, we will get through this. I commend the Bill to the House.
May I start by thanking the Secretary of State for his kind words and for the way in which he has continued to keep me updated throughout this process, for the arrangements he has made for us to be briefed by officials and the chief medical officer, for keeping me informed of Government decisions, and for his ongoing engagement on the Bill? I hope that Members across the House understand that when we ask the Secretary of State probing questions, we do so constructively—not to undermine him or to create some false dividing line for the sake of political point scoring. This is a frightening time for our constituents and we all have an interest in ensuring that the Government get this right. We want the Government to succeed in defeating this virus.
I will make a few remarks about where we are with responding to the virus before moving on to some specific comments about the Bill. As always, our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones to the virus. Again, let me put on record our praise for the extraordinary efforts of our NHS staff and other dedicated public servants. This unprecedented global health crisis tests each and every one of them like never before; we are forever in their debt.
Today this House is being asked to make decisions of a magnitude that I simply would never have dreamt of only a few weeks ago. I know that no Member came into this place to put powers like this on to the statute book—powers that curtail so many basic freedoms that our forebears fought so hard for, and that so many people today take for granted. But I also know that every Member here will want to do all they can to support all means necessary to save lives and protect our communities in the face of this virus.
This is a global health emergency the like of which the world has never seen since the Spanish flu outbreak over 100 years ago. Throughout this outbreak, I have said that the virus spreads rapidly, exploits ambivalence and thrives on inequality. The Government have quite correctly sought to promote social distancing as a means of reducing person-to-person transmission of the virus. For the most part, these measures have been on a purely voluntary basis, but I am afraid that too many people are still not following the advice. This weekend we will all have seen the pictures of bustling markets, packed tube trains, and busy beaches and parks. I am afraid that the public health messages are still not being heard loud and clear. Everyone who can be at home should be at home. Everyone who can work from home must do so. This House must also send a clear message to young people—millennials—that they are not invulnerable to the virus; they are at risk too.
To be frank, we in this House need to adjust our behaviour as well. I love and respect this Chamber, and I think Members will agree that I relish the cut and thrust of robust debate across these Dispatch Boxes. But if other workplaces can use Zoom calls, Skype, conference calling and so on to make decisions, why can’t we? I therefore look forward to the reforms that Mr Speaker is looking into.
It would be remiss of me not to thank my hon. Friend and the Secretary of State for the way in which they are both responding to this crisis—even though they are on opposite sides of the House—in the interests of the whole country. The whole House appreciates the way that both of them have conducted themselves throughout this crisis. On the point that he raises, an acquaintance of mine, who is an NHS nurse, asked:
“Why is the public creating more work for us medical staff and exposing us to the risk of dying?”
I thank him for giving those messages so clearly, but does he think that there is more that can be done to communicate more effectively to the public what social distancing means in practice and how people should behave given the scenes that we have seen this weekend?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I did note that the Secretary of State talked about the comprehensive public health advertising campaign. We welcome that campaign, but we encourage the Secretary of State to use his offices to see whether that comprehensive campaign can become even more comprehensive. Can we have more adverts on television and more adverts on radio stations? Can we have a leaflet going through every door, explaining what social distancing means, explaining what shielding means? Before this virus took hold, the words “social distancing” and “shielding” were probably not often used in the Chamber, so if they are not words that we are familiar with, we can bet that our constituents are not entirely familiar with them either.
The shadow Secretary of State will know Telford and Wrekin very well as he has visited them many times in the past 12 months due to flooding and other issues. I am grateful for his visits despite the fact that he is a member of the Opposition. Is he aware that, today, the Labour-led council made a decision, which I support, to close all the public parks, play areas and open spaces that it runs, and that that in turn will put more pressure on the other open spaces that are not currently run by the local authority? May I encourage him to continue to press the Government to move quicker to this lockdown that we all want to avoid, but that will ultimately save lives.
I must tell the hon. Gentleman that my attempts to change the political complexion of Telford and Wrekin have completely failed to date, but I am grateful to him for his comments about the Labour council. I think that this is the nub of the matter. I have a point to put to the Secretary of State while he is still in the Chamber. Sadly, it has just been reported on social media that the case fatality figures are continuing to climb and there is some discussion that we are seeing now an exponential growth in line with Italy. I appreciate that there are different demographic issues in different nations, but, clearly, people are concerned that our death rates are increasing at a rate that suggests that we could be heading to an Italian-style situation. We all know what is happening in Italy. The point is that clinicians are warning us that our intensive care bed capacity and our high-dependency unit capacity, could very quickly be overwhelmed. We have already seen a critical incident at one hospital, and no doubt we will see more in the coming days. This is a crisis and it is a crisis that demands an overwhelming Government response.
It is vital that we have a sense of national unity on this. If it becomes necessary for the Government to impose a lockdown, which I suspect may well happen if people do not change their behaviour, can we rely on the Opposition to support the Government?
The right hon. Gentleman has rather anticipated my point. Looking at the graphs—and I do caveat this with a recognition that different countries have a different demographic profile—we are now beyond the numbers of fatalities that existed in Spain and France when they announced their stricter enforcement measures and their lockdowns. I do not really like the term lockdown, because it means different things in different contexts, but I think that we broadly understand what we are talking about this afternoon. In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s point, we, as Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, do now call on the Government to enforce social distancing and greater social protection as a matter of urgency. I am sorry and disappointed about that, but I am afraid that many people are not adhering to the type of social distancing that we expect.
My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State is absolutely right in what he says, but there are those who are finding it difficult to socially isolate because of the financial circumstances that they find themselves in. There are self-employed taxi drivers, those in the gig economy and others who are sometimes only just getting by in the first place. There needs to be clear financial packages available to put those people on an equal footing so that they can also take up that measure.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and his point has been made repeatedly by my right hon. Friends the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor. The challenge of social isolation will not be boredom and fatigue, as some behavioural scientists have suggested; I think the biggest challenge of social isolation will be personal finances, and so on. That is why our proposed measures on sick pay are so important, and it is why we welcomed some of the measures announced by the Chancellor last week, but we think they need to go further.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and for taking the issue of communication more seriously than the Secretary of State. We need leaflets going house to house, and we need them in different languages so that different communities can hear this.
The hon. Gentleman’s point about a strict lockdown is well made, but I echo what others have said about the importance of guaranteeing economic security to make it much more possible for people to cope with that lockdown, particularly the self-employed who are now struggling so much. Statutory sick pay is not enough for them.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I am proud to represent the great city of Leicester, which is probably the most diverse city in the United Kingdom—every language in the world is spoken there—so I entirely endorse what she says. If we funded local government properly, it would be able to put such measures in place.
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady’s broader point that if we have to ask people to stay at home, or if we have to force them to do so—we would support the Government if they took that action, and I think they do need to take that action—we would also need to provide them with the economic security they rightly deserve.
I thank my hon. Friend for his approach to this issue on a day-to-day basis. I completely support what he says about the need to enforce social distancing, and I know many Members on both sides of the House would do so, too.
I am struck by the contact I have had with friends in Italy and elsewhere who are, frankly, aghast that we have not moved to tougher measures sooner. Anybody looking at the graphs of the situation in Italy would definitely want to avoid it here, so I wholeheartedly support such measures, but they have to come with the economic measures he rightly talks about.
I totally agree.
There is a lot of talk about income, but it is also about expenditure. I have had many complaints from constituents about prices rocketing, particularly for staples, but it is unclear whether that is the fault of the retailers, the cash-and-carry wholesalers or, indeed, the suppliers. The Competition and Markets Authority is looking into it, but I urge the Government to crack down urgently on profiteering from people’s difficulty.
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and we are seeing it in my constituency. I have had complaints from constituents about exploitative profiteering, so I hope the Government will come forward with some proposals to stamp it out. It is an absolute disgrace that it is happening at this time of national crisis.
May I raise, once again, the issue of housing? Social isolation is great, but it is really difficult for people who happen to live with their family in one room in a deeply overcrowded shared house—sharing a kitchen and sharing bathrooms—as so many of my constituents do, particularly when the kids are off school. There needs to be some thought about letting them out in parks and stuff like that, because they do not have gardens.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I represent an inner-city seat, and I appreciate that her seat is on the outskirts of London but, none the less, our seats have similar demographics. I know full well that many, many families are living in cramped, small flats. There are intergenerational families living with elderly mums, elderly grandmothers and so on who have various comorbidities and who need to be shielded.
If we enter a situation in which we force people to stay at home, I hope the Government will look at how to support such families, because it is quite outrageous that, in many parts of the country—especially in London, but also in my constituency—there are flats with families of nine or 10 people sleeping on the floor, and so on, while property developers have flats standing empty. Why cannot we take over some of those empty flats to house some of these very vulnerable families and to help us get through this national crisis?
I commend the hon. Gentleman for the stance he is taking in this debate. The whole House will respect him for it. The series of interventions that he has just taken demonstrates a wider point: the need for the Government, sadly—and I did not think I would ever say this in this House—to get into intrusive levels of planning that we have never seen before, because every time we have a change in the level of ferocity or intensity of our dictating what the state and society should do, we run into a new set of problems, whether that is crowding on tube trains overwhelming our desire for social distancing, or young mothers with children at home finding it very difficult to get to supermarkets and therefore literally running out of food, which is even more fundamental than running out of money. We need to think forward, and I say that because we have seen in Europe—between Germany, Italy and Spain—very similar policy actions but with completely different outcomes. I suspect that it is because of a different approach taken by the German Government and society from that taken by the Italians or the Spanish, and we have to think about that as we go into the next stage.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are asking people, and are probably on the cusp of probably of forcing people, to radically adjust their behaviour in a way in which we have not been used to for more than 70 years. The last time that we asked people to radically adjust their behaviour was in the second world war. We have generations who are not used to this. We are a society who are used to going where we want, buying what we want, doing what we want and socialising when we want, and clearly, for a lot of people, it is not dawning on them that they will have to change the way they behave. That has huge knock-on effects for how public services will be organised, how the criminal justice system will have to work and how food distribution systems are going to work. It is right that we as parliamentarians continue to ask Government Ministers serious questions about that, but we also have to be aware that we have a responsibility to set an example to the country. We have to socially distance ourselves, so I really hope that the good offices of the Speaker, the Leader of the House and everyone who is involved in House business can quickly find a satisfactory set of procedures for us to continue having our discussions and asking Ministers questions, but not setting the example that we are unfortunately setting today. I am not making any personal criticism of any Member, because it is the situation we are in—we have to debate the Bill today—but we are going to have to hold the Government to account on the far-reaching, extensive powers that they are taking.
As always, I am listening with great attention to what the hon. Gentleman has to say. Does he agree that part of the problem is that policy has to be based on behavioural science, but behavioural science is one of the most imprecise of sciences? The difficulty is that it is not like chemistry or physics. It means that we have to have a wider margin of error when designing policy, and what that means, in effect, is erring on the side of caution and safety, which I think is the burden of the direction that he is urging on Ministers. In a sense, it is about getting ahead of the curve by bringing in measures that we would all regret. However, if we are going to base policy on behavioural science—it being fairly inexact and difficult to predict, as we have seen over the weekend—we have to have that margin of error and caution, which I think he is recommending.
The right hon. Gentleman has shrewdly interpreted the stance I am taking. Throughout all this, given the way in which the virus has spread so rapidly, its reproduction rate and the mortality rate, I have always urged the Government to take a precautionary principle approach to every decision that they make. I have been a bit sceptical about some of the behavioural modelling that has been used. Let me give him a quick example. Before the Government banned mass gatherings, we were told by Ministers and officials—I hope that no Minister takes this is a personal criticism; I certainly do not mean it in that way—that there is no point in banning a football match with 70,000 people in the stadium, because the person with the virus is not going to infect the other 70,000 people in the stadium and that if we stop them going to the stadium to watch the match, they would all go to the pub to watch it and infect more people there. I am sure he has heard that example.
I am very proud to represent Leicester City football club, and all the football fans—or a large proportion of them—go to the stadium before the match, and go to the stadium after the match—[Hon. Members: “Pub!”] I beg your pardon, they go to the pub. They go to the pub before the match, and they go after the match—[Interruption.] Some of them do avoid the stadium, actually. I am sure that the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) sees the point I am making. Some of these behavioural models do not always, it would seem, reflect how humans behave. Given that, Ministers and Governments should follow a precautionary principle at all times. That is why Labour is now urging Ministers to come forward with their plans to enforce compulsory social distancing. There are different models in different countries—we have France, Spain and Italy, New Zealand, where they did it overnight, Greece, and Germany, where, other than families, they have banned more than two people from meeting outside the house—but we think that the time has come for the United Kingdom to go down this line. We would encourage the Prime Minister to come forward with plans for how he thinks that this should apply to the UK.
Behaviour is changing, and, unfortunately, some of it is unhelpful. Today, I have had probably one of the most upsetting emails that I have received throughout this time from my local foodbank, which tells me that two of the main supermarkets in the area are refusing to sell it food. The people who get that food from the foodbank have no other means of obtaining food in the midst of this crisis. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government need to speak urgently to the major supermarkets to ensure that foodbanks can secure sufficient supplies for those people who have no other option?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, and I totally agree that that is an absolute disgrace. I hope that the Government will look into that, because although foodbanks should not be necessary in this day and age, we know that they are vital and I hope that the Government can resolve that swiftly.
I was originally answering the point made by the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire so long ago: we would support the Government if they came forward with such proposals, but suppressing and defeating the virus is about more than just so-called lockdowns and enforcement. We need more testing, we need more contact tracing and we need more isolation to break the chains of transmission. The World Health Organisation has famously instructed the world to test, test, test—and we agree. Labour has called for testing for the virus to be carried out in our communities on a mass scale, starting with NHS and care staff as a priority. We urge the Government rapidly to scale up testing and we thank all NHS lab staff and PHE staff who are working so hard.
For example, could the Government consider what is happening in the Republic of Ireland, where there are 35 community testing facilities in operation? They have six more planned, and the largest, in Croke Park stadium in Dublin, provides a drive-through service that tests 1,000 people a day.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend on the need, in particular, to protect all key workers and to therefore make sure that there is testing available for them. Is it not important that at the same time we make sure that path labs have enough resources and capacity to be able to be able, for instance, to do cancer biopsies and get them back to people fast enough, because all those other conditions and diseases that are very time-critical will be just as important?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Path lab and virology labs are under intense pressure, because not only are they being asked to test for covid-19 but they have other testing responsibilities as well, whether that is for HIV, influenza, measles or all the other illnesses that are still circulating and still need to be treated. He makes a very important point.
I hope that Ministers can update us on testing capacity, because looking at the figures it appears that between 21 and 22 March, we did around 5,500 tests, but the previous day we did 8,400 and the day before that about 8,100. I am told that many labs at hospitals have not been able to start testing or are testing at under planned capacity because there are now supply chain issues with the chemicals that are used and the kits to do the testing. If this is the case, could the Government update the House on what they are doing urgently to procure the testing kits we need, and explain why we are not part of the EU joint procurement initiative on testing kits and other equipment?
I emphasise the point I have made in this House before that we really need to be testing our NHS staff. Not testing NHS staff puts them at risk and it puts their patients at risk. This weekend, we heard powerful messages from doctors who were literally shouting out for help and telling us they feel like lambs to the slaughter because of failures in the distribution of protective kit and because they are not able to get access to testing. I have heard of GPs—indeed, GPs have got in touch with me directly telling me this going to DIY stores to make their own PPE kit. It has been reported today that one of the healthcare distribution chains has put out a call to DIY stores asking them to donate or hand over their visors and goggles.
Pharmacists are worried that they cannot get through to CCGs to get appropriate PPE when sick patients are walking through the door daily asking for advice. We have heard stories of community nurses, health visitors and paramedics without PPE. Indeed, The Daily Telegraph reports today about staff at Norwick Park Hospital being forced to wear bin bags because of a lack of PPE.
The health, happiness and lives of our constituents, and of their loved ones and neighbours, depend on our NHS staff now more than ever. We should not expect our NHS staff to go into battle exposed and not fully protected—lacking the armour they desperately need. If more PPE has been delivered in the last 24 hours, as the Secretary of State indicated, then we welcome that, but to be frank, it should not have taken so long. Our NHS staff deserve every ounce of support we can offer, and on that front, will Ministers also consider binning hospital car parking charges for NHS staff at this time of crisis?
Those working in critical services more widely—our police, our careworkers, our postal workers—need appropriate protective clothing too. We urge the Government to ensure that all public services can access the appropriate PPE speedily. For example, in The Sunday Times yesterday, it was reported that flights continue to arrive at Heathrow from Italy, Iran and China. Those flights are obviously coming from hotspots—perhaps Ministers could explain why that is still happening—but what protections are being afforded to airline and airport workers, and what measures are in place for those passengers on arrival? On the tube and on the train, there is real worry that services are being reduced too steeply, causing our key workers to get on to crowded carriages and putting everyone at risk. What assurances can Ministers give us that there is a sufficiency of public transport services to get our frontline workers safely to their workplace?
Let me turn to some of the specifics in the Bill, and first to the health and social care clauses. On the health clauses—the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) raised this with the Secretary of State—the Bill makes provisions for retired staff and final-year medical and nursing students to rejoin or join the health service for the duration of the pandemic. We understand why, and we welcome this. Can Ministers tell the House, either in response to the debate or in Committee, whether final-year nursing and medical students will be able to return to learning and complete more supported clinical placements, if needed, once the crisis is over? Will Ministers also outline how these students will be fully supported while working during what will undoubtedly be an incredibly stressful time for new doctors and nurses? Will students be properly remunerated for their work, and what protections will be available for retired staff, many of whom could also be in a vulnerable group? I put on record our thanks to those retired staff who have returned to the frontline.
Some of the most vulnerable people in the country absolutely depend on all of us here to defend their human rights and civil liberties, and they are the ones in receipt of adult social care services. On social care, this Bill makes sweeping changes to the duties that are placed on local authorities. It removes the duty to assess care needs, including on discharge from hospital, so there will be no duty to assess people who may need care or to assess their carers, and no duty to assess some of those with the most severe needs who may be eligible for continuing healthcare. Can Ministers reassure us that this will not mean that carers, disabled people and older people are left abandoned by the state until after this crisis?
Most significantly, the Bill downgrades the level of support that councils are obliged to provide to older and disabled people. Rather than the current wellbeing measures, councils will now have to provide services where necessary to uphold people’s basic human rights. In short, this means people will only be entitled to receive social care to keep them alive and to uphold their rights to privacy and a family life. Obviously, that is not the vision for social care that we legislated for in 2014, but we all appreciate that these are incredibly difficult times.
Many older and disabled people, and their families, will be concerned that this will lead to existing care packages being significantly reduced overnight. Local authorities are already struggling to meet statutory needs, and increasing levels of workforce absence will only make that harder. None of us wants to see the new legal minimum of support become the default. Where local authorities can provide more comprehensive packages of support, they should, and they should always bear in mind that people who use social care are not simply passive recipients; there are doctors and nurses who rely on social care, as well as teachers, shop staff, food manufacturers and countless other vital professionals. When councils reduce care packages, they must be careful not to end up causing yet more difficulties for staff in crucial services.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, since the courts are likely to be stood down, and in a context where disabled people often use them to ensure that their rights are protected, we are in a doubly difficult situation for disabled people and elderly people?
Absolutely. That is why these particular clauses must be scrutinised so carefully by Members across the House.
We have tabled amendments to schedule 11. We recognise that there will be difficulties delivering social care over the coming weeks and months, but it should not be possible for local authorities to immediately drop care packages to a lower level. As long as it is reasonably practicable to do so, they should continue to meet people’s care needs. The presumption should always be that services will be disrupted as little as they can be under the circumstances. Nothing in our amendments would stop a local authority cutting back care hours if it had to, but they would mean that disabled and older people could be reassured that any reductions in their care will be a last resort, and that their independence will not be the first sacrifice to be made.
There are particular concerns about people who live alone or are being held in in-patient units and care homes. We have seen visits to those settings stopped as part of the Government’s shielding approach, and the CQC has halted all inspections, but we know from incidents such as Whorlton Hall that is too easy for abuse to go unnoticed—something the current situation could make worse. How will we ensure that in-patient units and care homes do not become hotbeds of abuse of human rights over the coming months?
That is precisely why I asked the Secretary of State whether, when we get to the six-month review and renewal of this legislation, we will be able to amend it. If there is oppressive behaviour in one part or another of it while the rest is all very important to the survival of our people, what stance will the Labour party take?
The right hon. Gentleman is right: we cannot just have a take-it-or-leave-it approach to these things. Tonight, the House will give the Government extraordinary powers, like we have never seen before, and it is right that we parliamentarians are given an opportunity, after the appropriate timeframe, to look at how those powers have been used and hold Ministers to account. I agree with the spirit of the point he makes, although I cannot at this stage—I suppose it may emerge later in the debate—give him a commitment one way or the other on a particular amendment. We will see how the discussions proceed throughout the afternoon, but I certainly endorse the spirit of what he says. As I say, these are extraordinary powers that the House will grant the Government this week.
We have tabled a new clause related to schedule 11. We propose that a relevant body, such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, should be tasked with overseeing the Bill’s impact on the provision of social care. That body would have to report every eight weeks on the operation of these changes and whether they should be amended. It would provide the oversight that is needed to prevent people’s rights from being undermined.
One of the ways the Bill seeks to free up medical staff is by relaxing the requirements of the Mental Health Act 1983. Specifically, only one medical professional will have to agree to someone’s being sectioned, rather than the two it currently takes. The scale of that change should not be underestimated. No longer will a decision to section a person have to be taken in consultation by two doctors. There will be no requirement for anyone involved to have had prior involvement with the patient. Medical professionals are going to be under huge pressure in the coming months, and mistakes may well be made.
The Bill says that a decision should be taken on the basis of one signature if requiring a second signature would be
“impractical or would involve undesirable delay.”
That seems to be too vague and potentially open to misreading. I hope Ministers can tell us what exactly that means and what safeguards will be put in place to prevent the change from being misused. Our amendments to schedule 7 would narrow the provision so that a second signature could be left off only if acquiring it would mean an undesirable delay. If something is impractical, it will by definition create an undesirable delay. By narrowing the wording in the Bill, we can avoid the potential misuse of powers.
We propose changes to ensure that private mental health hospitals cannot detain someone solely on the single recommendation of one of their employees. That could create a conflict of interest whereby a doctor comes under pressure to sign a detention authorisation because doing so will provide their employer with income from the NHS. No medical professional should be put under that kind of pressure, and our amendment would ensure that they cannot be. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) seeing to intervene?
The Bill extends to five days from three the length of time for which somebody in hospital can be held waiting to be sectioned. That may seem like a minor change, but for the individual concerned it could make a significant difference. I hope Ministers can reassure the House that the intention should still be to adhere to the timetable set out in the Mental Health Act, with the changes we are discussing to be used only if absolutely necessary.
Let me turn to some of the proposals on education and schooling. Many parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities will understand the need for flexibility during this difficult time, but they are also extremely nervous that they could see the erosion of the hard-fought-for rights of disabled children and young people, children and young people with special educational needs, and their families. The Bill gives the Secretary of State powers to change section 42 of the Children and Families Act 2014: rather than giving children rights in law, it would only request that public bodies take “reasonable endeavours”. That sets a low bar, and we will seek to change that provision to a duty to take all practical steps, which will go much further.
Let me move on to some of the other issues in the Bill. Others have alluded to concerns that the Bill still does not go far enough in providing people with the incomes that they need to self-isolate. We welcome much of the Chancellor’s statement last Friday setting out plans to support the incomes of workers impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. However, there are still some gaps in the provisions that were offered. Currently, the proposal for income support through the job retention scheme does not include the self-employed and freelancers, whose incomes are increasingly being seriously affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Will the Government today offer assurances to those groups of workers, who do not have a safety net to safeguard and help them through this time?
We have welcomed the new Government measures to improve access to statutory sick pay for workers. However, the Bill does not extend eligibility to all workers, including the just under 2 million workers who earn less than the qualifying threshold of £118 a week on average. It does not raise the level of statutory sick pay, which is, at £94.25, already the second lowest rate in Europe. We hope the Government will respond on those issues quickly because, as we have continually said throughout this crisis, people should not be expected to make a choice between their health and hardship.
Nobody should lose their home because of this virus. It is welcome that Ministers have listened to Labour and committed to an evictions ban for renters, but despite the Prime Minister’s promises that the Government would legislate to that effect, no such measures are in the Bill. Some 8.5 million households rent their home from a private, council or housing association landlord in England. Our analysis of Government statistics shows that 6 million renting households have no savings at all and are particularly vulnerable if they lose their job or have their hours cut as a result of coronavirus. To give people confidence and reassurance during this difficult time and to ensure that no renter loses their home as a result of coronavirus, rent needs to be suspended for those adversely affected by the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.
Like many Members across the House, the Opposition support this Bill with a very heavy heart—heavy not just with the shock and grief that this deadly virus has brought, but given the very real threats that emergency powers of this nature pose to human rights. The Bill contains the most draconian powers ever seen in peacetime Britain—powers to detain and test potentially infectious members of the public, including children, in isolation facilities; powers to shut down gatherings, which could impede the ability to protest against the overall handling of the crisis or against the abuse of the powers themselves. It needs no explanation and very little imagination to understand the huge potential for abuse that such powers and others in the Bill, however well intended and needed, still give rise. Those words will chill every liberal and libertarian instinct of Members across this House, which is why we were grateful to the Health Secretary and the Solicitor General for discussing these measures with us and with my shadow Cabinet colleagues in the rapid preparation stage of this Bill.
We have heard many wartime analogies in the press. Many here have talked about Winston Churchill. Of course, Churchill was remembered not only for victory in the war, but for the European convention on human rights at the end of the war. Notwithstanding the anti-Human Rights Act and anti-judicial review grumblings that we have heard in recent times, this Bill comes under the cover of a statement of compatibility under section 19 of the Human Rights Act. Further, the Bill does not attempt to oust the supervisory jurisdiction of the courts. That means that every exercise of Executive power or administrative action under the legislation must and will be measured against human rights and common-law standards. These include necessity, proportionality, rationality, fairness and, crucially, non-discrimination. I thank the Government for that concession on their part and for agreeing, I hope once and for all, that human rights and the rule of law, far from impeding national efforts in time of crisis, should instead guide and inspire them.
It is important that various measures in the Bill, some interfering with liberties and others deregulating standards, may be turned on and off, as and when needed, by the appropriate Administration under our devolution settlement. It is welcome that the Bill contains a two-year sunset clause, but as we have discussed, two years is a very long time in normal days and longer still in the context of this pandemic. That is why we tabled an amendment last week seeking parliamentary votes on the renewal or revocation of these emergency powers at six-monthly intervals. Indeed, many of us would prefer even more frequent reviews, but given the particular challenge even for Parliament of this crisis, I am glad that the Government seem to have moved some way towards the compromise offered by the Opposition in the constitutional interest.
I welcome the spirit in which the hon. Gentleman is making his speech and also his proposal for a review at six months. I certainly support that, but does he agree that we could also sunset the powers in the Bill after one year and that the Government could then bring forward a Bill—there is plenty of time between now and then—that would go through Parliament about this time next year and make whatever changes proved to be necessary between now and then? Doing that—a six-month review and, after a year, a Bill—would not involve us signing off on two years today.
As I understand it, our amendment calls for a review every six months, but the hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, to which I am sure Ministers will respond in Committee, when we get to that point later.
I hope the Government will be able to explain the differences between their amendment and ours, and to reassure the House that there will not be large exceptions to the six-monthly review, especially in England, which has only this House to hold Executive power to account.
We have been scrutinising the Bill on behalf of our constituents. None of us came into politics to put a Bill like this on the statute book, and I for one will never rest until the day comes, hopefully not too far away, when I can come to this House and vote to get to get rid of it. But what we have seen in recent months is concerning, if not frightening, all our constituents, and it is right that we are taking the powers that we are taking today, although we have to continue to hold Government to account. We will overcome this virus, and when we do, serious lessons will have to be learned. The crisis has exposed the vulnerability of a society in which insecure work is rife, deregulation is king and public services are underfunded. When we come out on the other side, as we will, we have to build a society that puts people first.
Order. It has been very important that right hon. and hon. Members have had the opportunity to intervene on the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State, but that has inevitably meant that the opening speeches have been somewhat longer than normal. There is, therefore, immense pressure on time. I would say two things. Those who have intervened a lot might feel that they have made their points and might not want to make a speech. There is also, I would point out, Committee stage, where a lot of issues can be raised. It is very difficult to see how everybody who has put their name down for Second Reading, which has to finish at eight o’clock, can all get in, but I start by urging colleagues to stick to five minutes—obviously that does not include the leader of the SNP. That way we can hopefully get as many people in as possible.
The Health Secretary is not in his place—understandably—but I want to start with a tribute to him. I think I am the only other person in this House who has sat behind his desk, and I can testify that even without a pandemic it takes years off your life. The Health Secretary has made himself exhaustively available. He has worked tirelessly, and no one could have done more or better to prepare the NHS for the crisis we now face. I also want to thank the shadow Secretary of State for the way that he has risen to the challenge of his role. All of us as parliamentarians are proud of the exchanges that we have had this afternoon and on many occasions.
Ordinarily, our role as MPs is to scrutinise every detail of legislation, to understand it and to try to improve it. There are many questions about this legislation, but we are in a national emergency and every day we delay could cost lives. So I support the Bill 100% and I encourage all colleagues to do the same. A week ago, the Government said we were four weeks behind Italy. That then changed to three weeks behind Italy, and today our mortality rates are just two weeks behind Italy. Our hospitals, especially in London, are filling up. We have had a critical incident at one, and others say they are running out of ICU beds. According to the papers, we have one nurse fighting for her life in an intensive care unit. One London hospital has seven doctors with the virus in just that one hospital. Yet still people are going to shops, parks, beaches and holiday homes as if nothing has changed. It may be too late to avoid following Italy, but to have any chance at all of doing so we must move now to lockdown rules that ban non-essential travel. It is time not just to ask people to do social distancing, but to enforce those social distancing rules—not next week, not this week, but right away. I support the call by the shadow Secretary of State to do that, and it is very important we do so as soon as we possibly can.
The Bill can help in two areas. The first is on protective equipment for staff. Last week, Sir Simon Stevens told the Health and Social Care Committee that there were sufficient national supplies of PPE, but there were distribution problems. Since then, I know that the Government have moved heaven and earth to try to resolve those. All hospitals have had deliveries, and I pay tribute to the Health Secretary and everyone in the Department for achieving that, but there is still a lot of concern on the frontline. The main reason for that is because on 6 March Public Health England downgraded the recommendations as to what PPE doctors should use. That appeared to be at odds with World Health Organisation recommendations. I understand that has now been clarified by Professor Keith Willett in a message sent out on Friday that does bring our advice more into line with WHO guidelines.
Most importantly, the advice now makes it clear that doctors should wear goggles if there is any risk of being sprayed, but obviously doctors would feel vastly more secure with more extensive protection, such as full-length gowns and FFP3 masks. Is not the solution just to order manufacturers to make more of that vital equipment—not just a little more, but massively more? If that needs legal powers, the Bill should give the Government those powers to require every factory that is able to devote itself to the production of that life-saving equipment to do so.
Numerous doctors have died across the world, including Dr Li Wenliang, the courageous Chinese doctor who first tried to blow the whistle on this virus. Twenty-three doctors have died in Italy. This weekend, France lost its first doctor. None of us wants that here. Given the total determination of the Health Secretary to protect our frontline staff, would he urgently look into whether we need to manufacture more of the highest-grade equipment?
Does my right hon. Friend share my dismay at my being told just now that masks and PPE that were meant to be delivered to my authority, Wiltshire, tomorrow, will now be delivered on 9 April? I am not sure what the situation is in Surrey, but that seems extraordinary. Does he also agree that it has to be the right PPE—it cannot simply be a paper face mask from B&Q, as we heard earlier? It needs to be appropriate, and people need to know how it works. When they wear it, they are likely to have to work harder, because wearing PPE is not easy or straightforward.
My right hon. Friend knows, as a clinician— and I am concerned—that in our desire to get PPE out we have not understood the vital role that local authorities play in this. Residents in care homes are extremely vulnerable, and their carers need that equipment, so I very much support his concern about that.
The second area where the Bill needs to do more is testing. A week ago today our strategy changed from mitigation to suppression. I strongly support that change in strategy. Suppression strategies are being followed very successfully in South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and China, which appear to have turned back the virus. Here, all our public focus has been on social distancing, but testing and contact tracing to break the chain of transmission are every bit as important, if not more important. Those countries that have turned back the virus rigorously track and test every case and every suspected case, then identify every single person with whom a covid-19 patient has been in contact to take them out of circulation. As a result, those countries have avoided the dramatic measures and some of the economic damage that we have seen in Europe.
South Korea has avoided national lockdown, despite having a worse outbreak than us; Taiwan introduced temperature screening in malls and office buildings, but kept shops and restaurants open—it has had just two deaths. In Singapore, restaurants remain open and schools are reopening, although working from home is discouraged. Again, in Singapore, there have been just two deaths. Ten days ago in this country, we went in the opposite direction, and stopped testing in the community. How can we possibly suppress the virus if we do not know where it is? So far, we have had 281 deaths, tragically. According to the modellers, there is about one death per 1,000 cases, which means that we have just under 300,000 cases in this country. According to the same modellers, the number of cases is doubling every five days, which means that at the end of next week we will have about 1 million cases or more in this country. Unless we radically change direction, we will not know where those 1 million cases are.
The Prime Minister talked about expanding testing from 5,000 to 10,000 to 25,000, which is welcome. He even talked about 250,000 tests a day, which would be more than anywhere in the world—I welcome that ambition, but ambition is not the same as a national plan, and we have not seen a national plan on testing.
The right hon. Gentleman may have seen reports today that some care providers are refusing to take patients being discharged from hospitals because those hospitals are unable to test them before discharge. Quite understandably, care homes are concerned about admitting patients who may be carrying the virus, given the other vulnerable people there. Does he agree that as testing is ramped up, not only health and care professionals but patients being discharged should be a priority?
I am very worried about that. A doctor in my constituency told me of exactly the same problem, and of course, the risk is that hospitals then fill up and do not have the space to treat people who urgently need hospital treatment.
We have an ambition to increase testing to 25,000 tests a day, but at the moment we are still only testing between 5,000 and 8,000 people every day. On Saturday, we tested 5,500, which is no significant increase on a week ago. It is not just South Korea that is testing more than us per head of population—Germany, Australia and Austria are as well. Now is the time for a massive national mobilisation behind testing and contact tracing.
If we have the antibody test, now is the time to become the first country in the world that says, “We are going to test every single citizen.” Now is the time to introduce weekly tests for NHS and social care staff, to reduce the risk of them passing on the virus to their patients. If the Francis Crick Institute in London is doing any research into anything other than covid-19 right now, it should stop—we need it to be designing tests. If the Sanger Institute in Cambridge is still decoding genomes, it should not be—we need it to process covid-19 tests.
And it is not just the science. Contact tracing is manpower-intensive, yet Public Health England has just 280 people devoted to this. We probably need 280 people in every city and county in the country. Every local government official doing planning applications, every civil servant working on non-corona issues and volunteers all should be mobilised in this vital national task.
As we have heard, testing is vital for NHS staff who are desperate to get back to work. Here is one tweet from a midwife called Katie Watkins, who speaks for so many:
“I know this is happening all over but had to call in sick for my clinical shift on labour ward today as my husband spiked a temperature last night. I feel fine and yet cannot go to work... Where are the tests for #NHS staff?? I could be helping but instead sat at home.”
Testing is also vital for the economy. If we are going to have a year of stop-go as we try to protect the NHS if the virus comes back, testing and contact tracing allows an infinitely more targeted approach and way to control the spread of the virus than economic measures that are much more blunderbuss and do much more damage. This Bill could help that by giving the Government powers to require any pharmaceutical company in the country to manufacture tests and any laboratory in the country to process those tests. It could stop the scandal of £375 tests being available to wealthy people in Harley Street when, in a crisis, every spare test should be used by NHS staff to get them back to work.
This Bill could help with something else being done very successfully in South Korea and Taiwan: the use of mobile phone data. In those countries, they look at the mobile phones of covid patients to identify other phones that they have been nearby when that patient was infectious. That has civil liberty implications, but in this national emergency, being able to do that would save lives, so those powers too should be in the Bill.
Finally, please do not take my word for it on testing. Dr Tedros Adhanom, the director general of the World Health Organisation, and virtually every epidemiologist at the World Health Organisation makes the same point: it is not possible to “fight a fire blindfolded”; social distancing measures and hand washing will not alone extinguish the epidemic; and
“our key message is: test, test, test.”
I know that time is short, but I want to touch briefly on two other issues. Some good points have been made about social care this afternoon. The Bill replaces local authorities’ duty to meet care needs with a power to meet care needs, except when it is a breach of human rights. Bluntly, there may be less provision of social care as a result. We understand in this House why that may be necessary, but if it lasts as long as a year, that will mean more pressure, not less pressure, on hospitals. If there was any lesson from my time as Health Secretary, it is that we need to invest in social care as well as in health. We need to ensure that these new measures do not have the unintended consequence of putting yet more pressure on hospitals that are already on the point of falling over.
My final point is on mental health. Under the measures in the Bill, someone can be sectioned not by two doctors, but by one, and that doctor does not have to know the patient. I understand why we have to take these measures, but obviously it causes huge concerns in the mental health community that someone could be locked up on the say-so of a doctor who does not even know them. I want a commitment from the Government that all cases will be reviewed on the basis of the current procedures as soon as this virus is behind us, and certainly within the first three months.
I end my remarks with a tribute to frontline staff, not from me, a politician, but from an eight-year-old constituent of mine called Tamsin. She says:
“I really want thank all the doctors and nurses who are working so hard to look after all the sick people…they are all risking their own lives to try and stop the coronavirus instead of being safe at home. I’m missing my Nana, Gamma and Grampy a lot because they have to be isolated at home but if they get sick they will need the doctors and nurses to help them get better. Doctors and nurses are amazing.”
Tamsin is right. We must not let them down.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt). I do not think he will mind my saying that I cannot think of another time when I have agreed with almost every single word he said. I hope that people listen to his wise words, which come from his experience; there was an awful lot in his speech that was sobering. The way we are conducting this debate and the collegiate style of the contributions from the Secretary of State and the shadow Secretary of State are a testament to the importance of the crisis we are all experiencing. In this national emergency, the desire shared by all our constituents is that we all work together.
I will begin by saying something that is often repeated, but cannot be said enough. On behalf of all who sit on the Scottish National party Benches, I thank all of those who work in our NHS—our doctors, our nurses and all those in support roles around them who day after day make the choice to go into work, literally risking their own health to save the lives of others. At a time when the fragility of human life occupies the thoughts of us all, their example, their care and their limitless compassion are a source of inspiration and comfort to us all. They are nothing short of heroic. In return, they deserve all our thanks, but even more important, they need all our support. Today we would all do well to keep it in mind that the primary purpose of the emergency legislation is to help them—to help those who work in our NHS across all these islands. They need our help to slow the spread of this virus. They need our help to flatten the curve of infection. They need our help to reduce the pressure on their services.
In passing these emergency measures, we have to be fully transparent and open. That means being honest about the uncertainty of the timeline ahead. There are few things we can say for certain, but we know we are only in the foothills of this mountainous challenge. There remains a long way to go. We have to be honest that in fighting this virus, we may only be approaching the end of the beginning. No one knows for sure when this will end, but we do know that NHS and governmental action will not be enough on its own. Everyone has a part to play. We can get through this and overcome it only if we all work together.
On the specifics of the Bill, first, I am pleased to confirm that the Scottish Government have worked constructively with the UK Government on this legislation. It is important to say that, given the context of the last few years. It is no secret that there has been a virtual stand-off in other legislation, but the joint efforts and the extensive co-operation on this Bill highlight the extraordinary public health and economic challenges posed by the virus. Passing this legislation is fundamentally about protecting and saving lives. Politics cannot and will not be allowed to get in the way of that.
The Scottish Government tabled their legislative consent motion, with advice to approve consent, in Holyrood last Thursday. The LCM will now be considered by the Finance and Constitution Committee at Holyrood on Tuesday morning, and will be debated in the chamber on Tuesday afternoon. The urgency of that timeline is, unfortunately, necessary. It is clear, and we accept, that this Bill cannot be scrutinised in the way we would normally wish. The immediacy of the pandemic, and the unprecedented challenges facing Scotland and the rest of the UK, simply does not permit that. The stark reality is that there is simply no time to lose.
There is common cause even between Unionists and nationalists on this issue. The Northern Ireland Assembly will tomorrow give consideration to the legislative consent motion. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that before this legislation is enacted and enforced, the Government must move swiftly to give the self-employed people whom he and I represent the reassurance they need that they will be supported?
I am happy to say that I completely agree. My right hon. Friend and I were in meetings with the Prime Minister last Friday morning, and there was a consensus about the economic measures that had to be taken for those who were in employment—one of the reasons being that we were fearful of the potential risks of unemployment if we did not take those measures. I commend the Government for the actions that were taken and the announcements made last Friday afternoon, but there is unfinished business for the self-employed and the unemployed. Collectively, we need to work together to do what we need to do in order to secure the incomes of those we are asking to take action to protect themselves and the rest of us over the course of the coming months. I hope that the Chancellor will be in a position to meet Opposition leaders over the course of the next few hours, and to come to the House tomorrow to tell us all what we are going to do to ensure that we protect the interests of absolutely all our citizens.
A number of Glasgow taxi drivers live in my constituency and they are self-employed. Over the weekend and last week, many have taken their cars off the road. May I say to the Government, through my right hon. Friend, that time is really running out? We need the Chancellor to come to the Chamber tomorrow to make it crystal clear that support will be given to taxi drivers and lots of other self-employed people, including those in the wedding industry. The measures that have been brought forward so far are very good, but time is literally running out for self-employed people.
I agree. I hope that the Minister might make some reference to this issue when she sums up later. We are respectfully saying to the Government: let us work together to ensure that we can offer the financial security that all our citizens need, whether we are talking about taxi drivers in Glasgow, or the people who provide bed-and-breakfast accommodation and guest houses in my constituency, whom I am asking to shut their doors. It is important that we provide the financial security that they all need.
It is impossible to overstate the scale and seriousness of this health and economic emergency. None of us has witnessed or experienced anything like this before. It is no exaggeration to say that the covid-19 threat is the biggest challenge that we have faced since the second world war. That is the frame of mind that all of us should be in. It is for that reason—the extremity of this time—that we welcome the measures in the Bill. They are the measures that we need to fight this virus. The breadth of measures contained in this legislation reflect the enormity of the challenge across these islands. They also include bespoke provisions for Scotland to reflect our different legal system. For the public looking on today, it is crucial that we explain fully the powers that are being discussed and sought, and the reasons for them. They include additional public health measures to assist with the containment or mitigation of the spread of disease.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Give me some time and I will. The part of the world I live in, the highlands, needs the powers in this Bill if we are to protect our population, and I know that the same goes for the constituencies of many other right hon. and hon. Members, not least the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), whom I know has been outspoken on this in the past few days.
Let me put on the record the challenge we are facing. The Highland Council landmass is 25,656 sq km, and of course that area does not include Argyll, the Northern Isles or the Western Isles. That Highland Council area makes up 32% of the landmass of Scotland and 10.5% of the UK landmass, yet we have one acute hospital, in Inverness. For many, that hospital will be more than three hours’ drive from home. Just think about that. If a hospital in an urban area has an issue with capacity, people can often be transferred to another hospital, but we do not have that opportunity in the highlands, as we have that one hospital. I am asking everyone who is thinking about coming to the highlands to think about that threat to our NHS.
I have been working with the NHS and talking to the police, and on the back of what we have been witnessed over the weekend I would like, with the forbearance of the House, to read out a press release from the chief executive of NHS Highland yesterday. It stated:
“As a community we in the Highlands, Argyll and Bute are friendly, welcoming and hospitable to the thousands of visitors we get all year every year. However, we are currently in a situation that has never been experienced before and for the first time we are making a plea for you to stay away.
We have heard that there are many people using campervans/motorhomes to make their way to the Highlands and Argyll and Bute as a way to self-isolate during this period. Please don’t.
National advice is quite clear that we, as a nation, need to stay at home, self-isolate and stop all non-essential travel. This includes using our area as a safe haven.
We have asked our communities in NHS Highland to do everything they can to stay safe. This includes self-isolating, working from home (where possible), and limiting their contact with the outside world.”
That is a very clear and a very stark message.
This situation is fluid and ever-changing, and I am sure everyone is receiving multiple emails about the changes in their constituencies. My right hon. Friend makes a point about the need to self-isolate. That is an essential part of any infection-control programme, and this is a public health emergency. Constituents have contacted me today to say that their employer, Amazon, is refusing to pay members of staff who have self-isolated unless they can prove that they have had a positive covid-19 test. That is forcing people to make the choice to go into work and not self-isolate. Does he agree that that is reckless behaviour on the part of Amazon?
That is the height of irresponsibility, and Amazon and anybody else who would behave in that way needs to think again. Of course there are companies that are engaging in best practice. I have had a number of complaints from people in the highlands about those who have not been doing the right thing, but let me thank Highland Experience Tours, which has suspended all its activities and sent its drivers home. The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) mentioned Sykes Cottages, and I have to disagree with what he said, because its behaviour has been absolutely reprehensible. Let me read to Members what Sykes Cottages sent to me on Saturday. It said, “Given concerns surrounding the current outbreak, it is understandable that people want to arrange private accommodation in more remote locations to distance themselves from larger towns and cities. The latest Government advice does not prohibit travel in the UK. We are continuing to provide a service for customers.” That is a service to customers to come from the urban areas; it is deliberately creating the circumstances whereby their customers should come to self-isolate in an area where we have limited public health capabilities. That simply is not good enough.
I am delighted to say that, under pressure, the site