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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 674: debated on Monday 23 March 2020

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—

Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme

1. What plans she has to mark the conclusion of the initial five-year term of the vulnerable persons relocation scheme. (901677)

All right hon. and hon. Members will 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

2. What steps her Department has taken to ensure that law and order is upheld during the covid-19 outbreak. (901678)

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.

Custody Suites

3. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that custody suites are accessible to police officers. (901679)

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

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

5. What support her Department is making available to EU citizens who are unable to use the internet to apply for settled status to continue living in the UK. (901681)

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 to 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 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 it is 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

6. What steps her Department is taking to dismantle the operations of county lines drugs gangs. (901682)

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, 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 in 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 are 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 about 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 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

7. What plans she has to review the English language testing requirement for student visas as a result of the closure of overseas language test centres in response to the covid-19 outbreak. (901683)

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 of 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: 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

9. If she will take steps to ensure that people entering the UK are screened for covid-19 symptoms. (901687)

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 advice is propagated to all the other Administrations to which he referred.

Will the Minister and the Home Secretary pass on huge thanks to Home Office staff, 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. When 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.

Crime Hotspots

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

14. What recent steps her Department has taken to protect shop workers and owners from violence and crime. (901692)

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 when 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.

Topical Questions

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 throughout 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 is 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, not just in the Home Office. We are engaging with the Treasury and 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.

T2. In the light of the panic buying, profiteering and rising tensions occurring at some shops across the country, what measures is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that sufficient security and public safety personnel are present to keep such premises open and to maintain the availability of essential goods to all, especially the elderly and vulnerable, and our much-valued NHS workers? (901703)

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 these issues being looked at urgently and could we simply receive a comprehensive update from the Home Office in early course?

T3. One of the things that the current crisis is teaching us is that many people who we considered to be low-skilled are actually pretty crucial to the smooth running of our country—and are, in fact, recognised as key workers. Once we are through this situation, will my right hon. Friend consider reviewing our points-based immigration system to reflect the things that we have learnt during this time? (901704)

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 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.

T4. The fire services are vital for our safety. My right hon. Friend knows that they do far more than running into burning buildings to save people, including with regard to wider public safety and public health measures—even more important now, perhaps, than usual. What conversations has she had with the fire services about what role they might play in supporting our efforts to tackle coronavirus, and will she ensure that they have all the resources they need for this particular crisis and for the future? (901705)

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.

T5. A huge amount of tourists came flooding to my constituency of Brecon and Radnorshire at the weekend. But, as beautiful as it is, Powys simply cannot cope with visitors at the moment. I am urging people to stay away from the area, as visiting puts a huge strain on our already stretched rural resources—not least our police force. What can the Home Office do to ensure that members of Dyfed-Powys police and other forces across the UK are protected as they carry out this vital work? (901706)

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.

T6. In the time of extreme crisis facing this country the vast majority will pull together, and they are doing so in the spirit of community and solidarity. Unfortunately, there are always those who will attempt to exploit or take advantage of vulnerability and weakness. What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that the British people, our streets and our communities remain as safe as ever? (901707)

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 to 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.