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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
28 April 2020
Volume 675

Attorney General

The Attorney General was asked—

Covid-19: Domestic Violence

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What discussions she has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the capacity of the Crown Prosecution Service to investigate the increase in domestic violence cases during the covid-19 outbreak. [901896]

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What discussions she has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on the capacity of the Crown Prosecution Service to investigate the increase in domestic violence cases during the covid-19 outbreak. [901900]

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I call the Attorney General to answer the substantive question tabled by Carolyn Harris. May I welcome the Attorney General to her new role? Congratulations.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I congratulate the shadow Solicitor General, the hon. Member for Lewisham West and Penge (Ellie Reeves), on her appointment, and the shadow Attorney General, Lord Falconer, on his. I look forward to constructive debate with both of them, hopefully in the same room at some point.

There is no doubt whatsoever that this Government take domestic abuse and the pain that it causes extremely seriously, and that is especially the case at this time. The Crown Prosecution Service is wholly committed to ensuring that the perpetrators of this horrendous crime face justice and that victims are supported through what is often a very traumatic process.

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Calls to the national domestic abuse helpline have increased by almost 50%, and 16 deaths of women and children were linked to domestic violence in the first three weeks of lockdown. With the CPS issuing new guidance as a result of the pandemic that advises prosecutors to prioritise the most serious cases, what assurances can the Attorney General provide that domestic abuse cases will fall into that category?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her considerable work on this subject and her courage in speaking out about this matter. I myself represented victims of domestic abuse during my time as a lawyer. I have seen how devastating it can be, and I share her goal in wanting to eliminate this scourge from our society. I am very concerned about the rise in domestic abuse offending during lockdown. This is a difficult time for those who may be living with their abuser. That is why the Government have invested an extra £2 million at the frontline for online services and phone lines so that there is help 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for those victims who need it.

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It is vital that cases of domestic violence are properly prosecuted during this covid-19 crisis. To avoid delays in prosecution, are the Government taking the necessary steps to enable the most serious cases to be heard through virtual court hearings where necessary?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We need to go as far as we possibly can to support vulnerable victims throughout the court process. The CPS is at the forefront of implementing section 28 pre-recorded cross-examination, which aims to allow vulnerable victims to give evidence in advance of trial so that they can have a better experience of the process. I encourage him to look closely at the Domestic Abuse Bill, which contains considerable provisions to protect vulnerable witnesses throughout the court process.

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I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on her new post; I am sure that she will do an excellent job.

With 100 arrests a day for alleged domestic violence in London alone, clearly the problem is getting worse. What action can my right hon. and learned Friend take to ensure that the victims of domestic abuse feel safe to give evidence against the perpetrators? At the moment, they fear reprisals and are not in a safe position.

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This is an important point. A range of protections is available for victims so that they can give evidence in such situations. Prosecutors can apply for special measures, including a screen, or for evidence to be given via video link, so that victims do not need to have contact with their abuser in the trial process.

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It cannot be emphasised enough how important it is that victims of domestic abuse get the support that they need during this very difficult time. Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that this often-hidden scourge, which affects children as well as adults, must be a priority for the Government at all times, as is demonstrated by the commitments in the Domestic Abuse Bill?

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My hon. Friend speaks with authority about child safeguarding, based on his practice as a barrister and his time in government as a Minister. These crimes are abhorrent, and those who commit them must not be let off the hook. Today, the landmark Domestic Abuse Bill returns to the Commons for its Second Reading. I am very proud to have personally supported this landmark legislation that provides support—legal and otherwise—for victims of domestic abuse, including children, so that we as a nation take a step further towards eliminating domestic abuse.

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I congratulate the Attorney General on her appointment; likewise, I look forward to a constructive working relationship with her.

Charities and police forces across the country anticipated a rise in domestic abuse during the lockdown. Indeed, the Met is currently arresting an average of 100 people a day, with charges and cautions up 24%. Devastatingly, domestic abuse killings doubled in the first three weeks of lockdown. Meanwhile, in January, a report by the Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate stated that the domestic abuse case load for both the CPS and police had increased by 88%, against the backdrop of a 25% reduction in funding, therefore stretching prosecutors’ workload and forcing them to make difficult decisions about priorities. I am extremely grateful for what the AG has said, but I urge her to significantly increase funding—

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Order. We have to bring in the Attorney General.

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I am acutely concerned by the rise in domestic abuse offences in lockdown, and I want to make two points. First, the Domestic Abuse Bill, which returns to the Commons today, will involve the allocation of £3.1 million to services supporting children who witness domestic abuse in the house during lockdown. Secondly, I want to take this opportunity to let victims out there—men and women—know that they do not have to suffer in silence. There is support for them if they seek it. Please pick up the phone and dial 999; press 55 if you cannot speak. Use the national domestic abuse helpline. Crucially, please know that if you want to flee your abuser—if you want to leave the home—you will not be breaking coronavirus regulations. You will not be breaking the law if you seek help outside.

Serious Fraud

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What recent progress the CPS has made on increasing prosecution rates for serious fraud. [901899]

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Last year, the Crown Prosecution Service prosecuted over 10,000 defendants where the principal offence was fraud or forgery. It also has a specialist fraud division, which brings together expertise and skills to prosecute complex and serious fraud.

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I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to her role. She will do a tremendous job, and she has an immediate opportunity to right a wrong. It is 10 years since my constituent, Ian Foxley, blew the whistle on corrupt payments at GPT Special Project Management. That has not come to a resolution. Will she now bring it to a resolution and ensure that my constituent and others in the same situation are properly compensated?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his extensive work on that case. He has been indefatigable in seeking a resolution for his constituent—of that there is no doubt. Unfortunately, I cannot comment on the details of the case, because the Serious Fraud Office is undertaking criminal investigations into the affairs of GPT and Saudi Arabia, which have taken some time because of the significant complexity involved. However, I would like to reassure my hon. Friend, because upon my appointment to this job, that case was one of the first matters, if not the first, to cross my desk, so it is a priority for me and I will not rest until we find an appropriate resolution.

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Five thousand suspicious emails were reported to the National Cyber Security Centre just one day after the launch of its Cyber Aware campaign earlier this month, with a huge growth in malicious emails offering fake coronavirus-related services. Can the Attorney General tell me how prepared the CPS is to deal with prosecuting online fraud and scams during the coronavirus emergency?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this point, and I recognise the increased risk posed by scammers and fraudsters at this time of crisis. Sadly, there are those who will seek to exploit the vulnerable at this time. We are leading several initiatives in this area, such as working with the technology industry, to shut down any vulnerabilities that fraudsters might exploit and to ensure that the public have the knowledge so that they can spot scams and stand up to fraudsters.

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I appreciate all the work my right hon. and learned Friend is doing in her new job at this difficult time. Naturally, there is real concern about crime, particularly fraud against the elderly. How is the CPS tackling cases of covid-19-related fraud?

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This is an important issue. Sadly, criminals are looking to take advantage of the vulnerable during this pandemic. It is shameful and disgusting, but sadly it is a fact of life. We recognise the threat posed, and that is why the CPS and the police have published a joint charging protocol that makes it clear that covid-related fraud will be a priority for an immediate charging decision. I am glad that, as a result, we have already seen some successful prosecutions of such offences.

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We all welcome the enormous packages of support that the Treasury has put together for businesses and individuals, but clearly there is the prospect of fraud by people applying to some of those schemes. Has my right hon. and learned Friend had discussions with the Treasury on those matters?

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As the Chancellor of the Exchequer made clear in his announcements, the unprecedented level of support for businesses and those in financial difficulty has sadly raised the risk of fraud on the Exchequer, which is of course fraud on the taxpayer. There will be those who try to play the system, to make false claims and, frankly, to defraud and deceive. The Cabinet Office counter-fraud function is leading the work to minimise the risk, and the CPS has been fully engaged with this vital work.

Covid-19: CPS

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What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the CPS during the covid-19 outbreak. [901901]

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What steps she is taking to ensure the effectiveness of the CPS during the covid-19 outbreak. [901902]

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I would like to put on record my thanks to the whole CPS family and, indeed, the wider justice system for their hard work during this uncertain period. CPS staff are working remotely and, where safe to do so, in person. They are playing a full part in supporting the criminal justice system’s response to the pandemic with the use of more technology, more collaboration and planning for recovery.

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I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend to her post. Further to her answer, will she tell me how the Crown Prosecution Service is working with the courts to manage the impact of covid-19 on its services and particularly to support them in planning for recovery, not least for the administration of justice?

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Justice is non-negotiable, and notwithstanding the crisis we are facing, it is important that justice continues to be done and continues to be seen to be done. There has been very effective work between the CPS and other partners—for example, the judiciary and the Courts Service—to ensure that practical arrangements are put in place so that, as far as possible, our justice system continues to function through the use of technology and the efficient management of resources. The CPS is also working with partners to turn its focus towards recovery, including exploring options for a phased recovery.

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Over recent weeks, we have seen a shameful trend in suspected criminals spitting and coughing at police officers. There have been a number of cases in my constituency of Ipswich, and it is a particularly pernicious form of assault during a covid-19 outbreak. Those responsible must have their day in court, and that day must come quickly so that they can be duly punished and others can be deterred from doing this. What steps is my right hon. and learned Friend taking to ensure that the CPS is right behind our police in prosecuting those responsible for this horrible crime and bringing them to justice quickly?

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My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. Those on the frontline—those in the trenches of this battle—who are risking their own safety in the service of others are the heroes in this crisis and they deserve nothing less than our admiration. That is why assaults on emergency workers will not be tolerated. Those who commit these sickening offences will face the full force of the law. I am glad to have seen—if “glad” is the right word to use—that the CPS has successfully prosecuted several such offences recently.

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What steps are the Government, along with the CPS, taking to ensure that this current crisis does not leave us with an enormous backlog of court cases that could lead to huge costs and delay justice for a long time to come?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. The CPS and others have been working at pace to ensure that justice continues to be served. The Coronavirus Act 2020 enables the use of video and digital technology to facilitate court hearings during this crisis. The CPS is working with the judiciary to manage the listing of cases, so that cases that can be dealt with by way of a guilty plea or by other disposal are prioritised, which will go some way towards reducing the backlog in the system.

Covid-19: Remand on Bail

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What discussions she has had with the Director of Public Prosecutions on CPS management of people remanded on bail during the covid-19 outbreak. [901903]

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[Inaudible]—capacity across the criminal justice system, and our focus is to ensure that the most dangerous offenders are dealt with as a priority. All cases with an approaching trial date, including bail cases, are under review to ensure that serious and time-sensitive cases are prioritised for trial and that any bail conditions remain suitable.

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Given that there was already a backlog of more than 37,400 Crown court cases before the covid-19 outbreak—I am sure that many of those defendants were remanded in custody—what is the CPS doing to ensure that bail hearings for people who perhaps do not need to be remanded in custody can be expedited and that people can be released into the community when it is safe to do so? In that way, we can ease the pressures on the prison estate in terms of dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.

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Clearly, any bail should be for the shortest possible period, because it restricts the ability of an individual to carry out their normal life while they remain innocent until proven guilty. Each case needs to be assessed on the individual facts, including the potential risks posed by a defendant of, for example, further offending or absconding. There are statutory limits underpinning the conditions that can be imposed, and the defendant has a right to apply to the court to vary or remove any conditions of bail. We need to ensure that these cases continue to be dealt with expeditiously, and the CPS is working with the judiciary to consider options for restarting some trials while maintaining social distancing.

Covid-19: Civil Liberties

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What discussions she has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the effect of the covid-19 contact tracing app on civil liberties. [901906]

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Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. It is a pleasure to be here and to see you—virtually or otherwise.

Her Majesty’s Government are actively considering a range of further options for managing the effect of the outbreak of covid-19. A careful assessment of any implications for civil liberties, including the impact on human rights, equality and privacy, will be an important part of these considerations.

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I welcome the Government’s new focus on testing, tracing and containing the coronavirus, and I believe that the NHS contact tracing app has an important role to play. However, does the Attorney General agree that the legal basis for processing personal data by such an app should be set out in legislation and that this should include a measure that ensures the app stores data in a decentralised manner?

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I am very pleased that the hon. Gentlemen is supportive of the contact tracing app. It is very important because everyone will benefit from the app. If enough people with smartphones download it, it will help stop the spread, slow the epidemic, and protect the NHS. I can assure him and others that the app will be for voluntary participation only. There will be no private identifiable information on it. The whole process will be compliant with data protection and there will be an ethical advisory board monitoring it.

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We support the development of the app, which could be central to the lifting of the lockdown.  However, to be effective it would require more than 60% of the population to sign up, and achieving that would require trust from the public. Will the Solicitor General confirm that the legal basis for processing data under the app will be set out in primary legislation? Will he also confirm that any measures will be compliant with the general data protection regulation, both now and after the Brexit transition period?

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I welcome the hon. Lady to her place. Stakeholder engagement in this matter has been crucial, and continues to be. We have been consulting not only the ethics advisory board for the app, which is chaired by Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery, but the Information Commissioner, the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation, the National Data Guardian and many others. Trust is important—it always is—but this app is from NHSX, the tech arm of the NHS, and in this country we trust our NHS with our data. The app is going to be heavily protected and I am confident that it will be very popular.

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The Information Commissioner has said that the

“starting point for contact tracing should be decentralised systems that look to shift processing on to individuals’ devices where possible.”

Why have the Government apparently gone against that advice and reportedly opted for a significant centralised data-gathering system, with all the challenges and risks that that brings?

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The app is being developed with expert assistance from a plethora of different sources. Data on the app will not be held any longer than is absolutely necessary, and civil liberties and the privacy of information are absolutely crucial to the development of the app. We want people to trust it and to use it—it is going to be important to protect the NHS and to save lives—so every single mechanism we have will be utilised to protect the privacy of data.

Pro Bono Work

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What recent steps she has taken to support pro bono work by lawyers. [901897]

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What recent steps she has taken to support pro bono work by lawyers. [901904]

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As one of the Government’s pro bono champions, I am proud to support the valuable work provided by the legal and pro bono sectors. I regularly engage with pro bono stakeholders to engage directly with their work. Covid-19 has affected all frontline services, and the pro bono sector is not unaffected. I applaud the efforts of law clinics and pro bono services to continue to provide advice, where possible, over the phone, by email and digitally.

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The pro bono offer in this country is incredible, and I pay tribute to all those in the legal services market who provide free legal services. Does the Solicitor General agree that we need to do more to promote greater awareness among the public about the legal services that are on offer in this country?

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Yes, absolutely. It is of the utmost importance that members of the public are aware of their rights and responsibilities, as well as the rights of other citizens; this builds confidence and the skills needed to deal with disputes, and ensures that everyone has access to justice. For example, last year 500 schools, 7,500 students and 1,400 legal practitioners supported mock trials in schools. Such work builds on confidence and will support those in the pro bono sphere.

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Many smaller legal firms want to offer free legal support to those who cannot afford it. Agencies, such as the citizens advice bureau in Wrexham, facilitate pro bono opportunities, and solicitors are covered by those agencies’ professional indemnity insurance. Demand exceeds supply and waiting lists are long. Does my right hon. and learned Friend feel we should incentivise smaller legal firms to undertake pro bono work?

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Yes, increasing numbers of lawyers at all levels are already undertaking pro bono work, as my hon. Friend knows, because they recognise the truth—that it makes a real difference to people, communities and those who would otherwise be denied access to justice. I do encourage all firms of any size to take part; it is a commendable gesture. After all, we know that the legal community rallies admirably to support victims in their hour of need. The covid-19 pandemic is no exception, and I want to encourage lawyers to do as much as they can in that regard.

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The Bar Council survey of 145 chambers revealed that 81% cannot survive the next 12 months without additional support. Similarly, many law firms are also struggling to make ends meet. Even before the pandemic, the publicly funded legal sector was already on its knees due to cuts to legal aid under the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, hindering not only pro bono work but access to advice and representation across the piece. Will the Law Officers work together with us, at this time of national crisis, and commit to reversing LASPO?

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The Government continue to prioritise legal aid for the matters that need it most—where people’s life or liberty is at stake, where they are at risk of serious physical harm or where children may be taken into care. Pro bono work is an adjunct to, not a substitute for, legal aid funding. We recognise that as Law Officers. It is correct that coronavirus has had a profound impact on us all and will inevitably have an impact on legal advice, provision and services, as it has on all other services, but guidance has been published by the Legal Aid Agency and the Courts and Tribunals Service, and I recommend people check online for the latest information.

Housing, Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Covid-19: Waste Collection Staff

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What guidance his Department has provided to local authorities on safe working practices for waste collection staff during the covid-19 outbreak. [901973]

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May I begin by sending my thanks to all those working in local government? Their efforts in every village, town and city across the country is making the difference in this national endeavour. Thank you.

Our binmen and women have done a fantastic job, maintaining the vast majority of collections. The Government published advice to councils on how to ensure the safety of refuse collections on 7 April. Today I am announcing that I am asking councils to plan the organised reopening of household waste collection sites. I expect this to happen over the coming weeks, and I will be publishing amended guidance shortly.

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Earlier today we paid tribute to key workers who have lost their lives during the pandemic, and those who take away our rubbish and thereby protect the health of our communities are certainly key workers. The Secretary of State will know that their unions—Unison, the GMB and Unite—have been working with councils and contractors to agree safe working practices and the provision of personal protective equipment. The advice and guidance from his Department is welcome, but what steps is he taking to ensure that this is actually spread out right the way across the country and that best practice is being followed to protect these key workers?

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The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. Our binmen and women have done a great job. We owe them a debt of gratitude, and they deserve to have both the advice that they need and the protective equipment where that is required. Public Health England has published guidance for those working in the sector, recommending that where the 2 metre distance rule cannot be adhered to, staff should make sure that the windows of their vehicles are open for ventilation, and they should wash their hands for 20 seconds or longer before getting in and out of the vehicle, or use hand sanitiser where handwashing is not possible. We will ensure that councils follow up and adhere to that advice so that those key workers are properly protected as they go about their work.

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We now go across to scenic Lancashire with Kate Hollern.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. The new online portal for councils to order PPE has still not gone live. Despite being promised that it would be open three weeks ago, we are now told it is likely to be another three weeks. The first duty of any employer is to keep their staff safe while working. Councils are desperately trying to buy, and are asking for donations of, PPE because their stocks are dangerously low. Can the Secretary of State tell me when the portal will be open, and will he give councils a cast-iron guarantee that they will be given all the PPE they need to keep them safe?

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It is absolutely right that everybody working on the frontline of this crisis has the protective equipment that they deserve. Of course, those working in local government, and particularly those working in care homes, deserve the best possible care. We have been working to ensure that PPE reaches them through our local resilience forums, which my Department is responsible for. That has delivered over 50 million items of PPE in the past three weeks, the vast majority of which—36 million items—have gone to care homes. Of course there is more that we need to do. The online Clipper service is now being piloted in care homes and in general practice, and it will be rolled out, as the Health Secretary has said, in the coming weeks.

Non-ACM Cladding

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What recent steps he has taken to help ensure the removal and replacement of unsafe non-ACM cladding from high-rise residential blocks. [901974]

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At Budget we announced that £1 billion will be provided to fund the removal and the replacement of unsafe non-ACM cladding from high-rise blocks to drive action at pace and protect leaseholders from unfair remediation costs. This is in addition to the £600 million already provided to remove Grenfell-style ACM cladding. As a result of covid-19, remediation work has currently paused on as many as 60% of sites, but I have been working to persuade companies to get back to work, and we are seeing some success. I have brought together Mayors and council leaders to issue a strong co-ordinated message that this important work can and should continue.

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I thank the Secretary of State for his response. He will, though, I know, be conscious of the additional strain that—[Inaudible.]

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I think that unfortunately I am not going to ask the Secretary of State to comment on that.

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As we get close to the third anniversary of Grenfell, when 72 people tragically lost their lives, hundreds of thousands of tenants and leaseholders are still living in unsafe buildings. This is, as the Secretary of State will know, a double whammy for people in the lockdown, trapped in buildings cladded with flammable materials, with some out of work or out of business and having to pay expensive waking watch fees. I understand that the Secretary of State said in a call with the M9 Mayors that he would look into financial support from the Government for the cost of waking watch and other interim fire safety measures. Has that been done, and what was the outcome?

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I am pleased to report that as a result of the call that I convened with Mayors from across the country, we were able to issue a co-ordinated message sending a very clear message to the sector that building safety is of critical importance, that works now need to continue, and that the sites that were closed should now reopen. I hope that colleagues from across the House will join me in that message, because it is important that we deliver it in a co-ordinated, cross-party fashion.

With regard to waking watch, I have asked the noble Lord Greenhalgh, the new Minister with responsibility for building safety, to look into this to see what we can do to reduce the cost of waking watch for members of the public in this position, and to ensure that waking watches, where they are required, can continue despite the lockdown.

Covid-19: Local Authority Funding

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What plans the Government have to provide additional funding to local authorities to replace funds spent on the response to the covid-19 outbreak. [901976]

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At the start of this emergency, I said that we would give councils the resources they need to do the job, and I meant it. We have announced over £3.2 billion of new funding to councils. This is in addition to £20 billion in business rate support and cashflow grant funding; £12 billion in grants for businesses delivered through councils, which have got £6 billion of that out of the door as of last week; £2.6 billion in deferred business rate payments; and £500 million in council tax funds. We will back councils with the financial resources they need as we work together in this national endeavour against coronavirus.

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The Secretary of State told councils to spend what it takes and expect reimbursement—[Inaudible.] From the money that the Secretary of State announced, they received just £59,000 of his initial £1.6 billion—[Inaudible.]

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Apologies to the hon. Gentleman for the fact that we did not hear all his question, but I think I understand the point that he was making, which was twofold. First, whether the Government will stand behind local councils for all the covid-related expenditure, to which the answer is absolutely yes. Those things that we asked of local councils in our national response, we will ensure that they get the resources that they need to do.

Secondly, will we ensure that smaller councils, such as district councils, get a fair share of that money to reflect the important work that they are also doing, for example, on rough sleeping? Yes, absolutely; and am I aware that those councils are concerned about loss of income and need to be given assurances that they can be on a stable and sustainable financial footing? Yes, of course I understand that, and we will take action accordingly.

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May I first echo the Secretary of State’s thanks to everybody working in local government? They are all heroes helping to keep our communities safe. As he is aware, councils are not allowed to go into debt, so if the Government do not keep their promise to fund the full cost of the crisis, councils will be forced to make cuts potentially totalling billions of pounds, which will mean job losses.

Councils say that the additional funding announced so far covers barely a quarter of what is needed; it is not enough. Will he reconfirm the Government’s original promise to fund whatever is necessary in full? If he does not, the frontline heroes we are cheering today will lose their jobs tomorrow.

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I have been working closely with local councils across the country on a cross-party basis and speaking to them almost every day. The message that I have consistently delivered is that we will fund the brilliant work that they are doing to support the country through the crisis. We have seen that already with the £3.2 billion of additional funding that I announced, plus the other support mechanisms. We will keep under review whether further funding is required, and if it is, we will bring it forward, because we want to back this brilliant sector in all that it is doing.

Covid-19: Support for Extremely Vulnerable People

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What steps his Department is taking to enable local authorities to provide (a) food and (b) other support to people who have been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable during the covid-19 outbreak. [901978]

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What steps his Department is taking to enable local authorities to provide (a) food and (b) other support to people who have been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable during the covid-19 outbreak. [901979]

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What steps his Department is taking to enable local authorities to provide (a) food and (b) other support to people who have been identified as clinically extremely vulnerable during the covid-19 outbreak. [901985]

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At the outset of the crisis, we identified more than 1 million people who were classified as extremely vulnerable for specific clinical reasons. As of last week, more than 1.8 million had been contacted by the NHS and the Department for Work and Pensions and asked to shield themselves, with GPs continuing to refer others. For those who do not have family, friends or neighbours to support them, we have delivered more than 600,000 food boxes.

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I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. In my constituency, we have been fortunate to benefit from the excellent work of the voluntary sector and groups such as Bassetlaw Community and Voluntary Service and Bassetlaw Action Centre. Will he join me in recognising the valuable contribution of such groups in supporting local authorities in the fight against covid-19?

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In addition to my hon. Friend, it is my privilege to represent part of the Bassetlaw district, so I am more than happy to join him in thanking those wonderful organisations, which I also know well and which are doing a great job in supporting local communities. In addition to the individuals who are being shielded and who benefit from the national scheme, millions of other people, such as the elderly and vulnerable in communities across the country, are benefiting from the work of charities, faith groups and local councils. I encourage anyone who wants to work with them to go on to the Government’s GoodSAM app and see the opportunities that are available in their local area.

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The supermarkets have clearly got a big job on their hands, but my constituents who are shielding in Wantage and Didcot are finding their approach inconsistent. Some are very responsive, with dedicated telephone lines and email addresses that get people’s issues resolved quickly. Others have fobbed people off with lines that are never answered, and frequently asked questions instead of a tailored response that helps solve people’s problems. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that in his work with DEFRA, he will push the supermarkets to be consistent in their approach and get the shielded the online delivery slots they really need?

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Individuals who are being shielded and who have registered with the Government through our website on gov.uk or through the call centre have their details passed on to national supermarkets, so they should in time be on the supermarkets’ priority access lists. There is a challenge for the supermarkets in having sufficient capacity on those privileged delivery lists, and they are working very hard to increase that. I understand that at the beginning of the crisis, there were typically 2.1 million delivery slots in the entire supermarket sector. That has already increased to 2.6 million, and within a couple of weeks we are told by the supermarkets that it will be close to 3 million. The more they can increase capacity, the easier it will be to broaden out those privileged slots to more members of the public who deserve them.

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Parish councils in South Cambridgeshire have been heavily involved in co-ordinating the volunteer effort and bringing support to vulnerable people, and I commend them for stepping up to the plate and for that vital work, but at the same time many parish councils, including Cottenham and Cambourne, are suffering a loss of income—for example, they can no longer hire out halls—and some are suffering financial distress. My right hon. Friend has talked about the welcome support he is giving to county councils and district councils. Will he tell me what his Department is doing to support parish councils in their time of need?

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I am very grateful to parish councils, their members and their clerks for the vital work they are also doing to support communities. They harness the networks of familiarity and loyalty upon which society is built and have the relationships to support the vulnerable. I can announce today that as we bring forward the allocations for the £1.6 billion of funding, there will be a significant increase in the amount of money paid to district councils. More than 70% of district councils will receive an additional £1 million and in many cases significantly more, and I ask those district councils to work with their parish councils where appropriate to ensure that a fair share of that funding flows through to parish councils, if they are in financial distress.[Official Report, 29 April 2020, Vol. 675, c. 4MC.]

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We now go across to Clive Betts.

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To even more scenic Yorkshire.

The Secretary of State is right to commend councils for the excellent work they are doing, particularly to help the most vulnerable in our communities and to commit the resources necessary to ensure councils have the finances to do that. Yesterday at the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee, both the Local Government Association and the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy said that in the current circumstances it would be wise to postpone the fair funding review and the business rate retention scheme changes, and in 12 months’ time have a much more fundamental review to put local government finances on a sustainable footing for the long term. Will the Secretary of State give serious consideration to those proposals?

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I am grateful for the comments of the Chair of the Select Committee, and I think it is true that capacity in local councils is extremely stretched at this moment in time, so a fundamental reform such as fair funding, which we need to get right in everybody’s interests, would be difficult to take forward in the way that we would all wish it to be at the current time. I will give further thought to that and work with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor before coming back to the House or the sector with a decision.

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We know that coronavirus does not restrict borders or immigration status. Many asylum seekers and failed asylum seekers find themselves not only socially isolating, but in financial destitution. Last month, the Prime Minister said that those people would get the support from the Home Office that they need and deserve. Can I ask the Secretary of State why people are still being told that they have no recourse to public funds? They are being left in complete isolation at the height of a global pandemic.

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We are really proud of the work that local councils have done in England, and there is a similar workstream in Scotland to bring people off the streets and offer them safer accommodation. Today more than 90% of rough sleepers within England are in safer accommodation, such as hotels. A huge amount of work has now to be done, having brought those people in, to care for them and then to work through what the next steps are, so that they can move on to better accommodation and greater support in the future. With respect to no recourse to public funds, the Government’s position and the law have not changed, but councils are able to use their discretion within the law to support those individuals, as they would in the normal way.

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I must explain that Minister Clarke has not been able to get connected and I must thank Minister Chris Pincher for stepping in—I now call him to answer the substantive question tabled by Yvonne Fovargue.

Covid-19: Local Authority Revenue

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What recent assessment he has made of the reduction in local authority revenue as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. [901975]

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What recent estimate he has made of the reduction in local authority revenue as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. [901987]

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What recent estimate he has made of the reduction in local authority revenue as a result of the covid-19 outbreak. [901992]

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I apologise for the absence of the Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke)—I am a small but no less perfectly formed substitute, I hope.

We are working closely with the sector to develop a good understanding of the pressures that local authorities are currently facing. We have announced £3.2 billion of additional funding and measures to support immediate cash-flow concerns. This is a very significant package of support, which responds to the range of pressures that councils have told us they are facing.

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Wigan Council estimates that it will lose £40 million in income this year, while spending on frontline services has absolutely rocketed because of the coronavirus crisis. In addition, the loss of the dividend from Manchester airport will exacerbate that pressure—[Inaudible.]

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I think I got the gist of the hon. Lady’s question. Wigan Council has received £10.5 million of the original £1.6 billion that has been allocated to local authorities, and that funding is unringfenced so they can use it as they see fit. As the House will know, local authorities will be fully compensated for the business rates loss that they have incurred, and we will work with councils over the coming weeks to understand what their particular needs are.

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Yesterday the Local Government Association and CIPFA told the Housing, Communities and Local Government Committee that the Government must support councils who have lost commercial revenue streams because of the coronavirus crisis. Luton Council relies on commercial income gained through its ownership of London Luton airport. This income has dried up overnight. The Government promised to do whatever is necessary to financially support councils, so when will they be introducing funding for councils that have lost considerable commercial income to avoid those councils being forced to cut vital frontline services?

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I am obliged to the hon. Lady for her question. In addition to the announcements I have just made, I can tell her that Luton Council has received £5.4 million of funding from that very significant package that we have put together. We have also deferred £2.6 billion in payments to central Government and we will work with local authorities to understand their particular needs. I point out that the County Councils Network, the Local Government Association and the LGA’s Community Wellbeing Board have all welcomed the Government’s interventions.

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I suspect that the Minister is going to tell me how much Manchester has been given, which is about 12% of what is actually needed. In Manchester, the council is forecasting £125 million in lost income this financial year as a result of coronavirus. That is the money that has kept services going in the face of some of the harshest cuts in the public sector and is allowing the council to lead the response to covid-19. Will the Minister pledge to fully reimburse councils for lost income, so that they can have the certainty they need to carry on their vital work on the frontline?

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I congratulate all local authorities on the hard work that they are undertaking at this critical time. The hon. Gentleman is right: I am going to tell him that his authority has received £18.6 million in the first tranche of funds made available to local authorities, and more will come. In addition to what I have already said, let me reiterate that we are going to work with local authorities to ensure that they get the help they need to see them through this crisis. We have made that commitment—the Chancellor has made that commitment and I reiterate it here at the Dispatch Box.

Covid-19: Local Authority Shortfalls

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What estimate he has made of shortfalls in funding for local authorities as a result of (a) additional expenditure, (b) loss of budgeted income and (c) inability to deliver planned savings during the covid-19 outbreak. [901977]

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The Department is working closely with the sector to ensure that we have a well-rounded understanding of the impacts of covid-19 on its finances and capacity. We have already announced a significant package of additional funding worth over £3.2 billion, alongside introducing several other measures to support immediate cash flow concerns.

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I warmly welcome the steps that the Government have taken to support local government at this time and I put on record my thanks to council workers in Buckinghamshire Council for their professional and dynamic response to covid-19. To reflect a local concern, Buckinghamshire Council came together as a new unitary only on 1 April, and it estimates, from lost income streams and an inability to deliver the savings planned as it put those five councils into one, potential pressure of £22.5 million over three months and £67 million if the crisis extends to a year. Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that the Department is working with all councils to ensure that costs are fully met?

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I echo my hon. Friend’s tribute to Buckinghamshire Council. To date, it has received £10.6 million of additional funding to support its response to covid-19 and it will receive further support from a second tranche of funding, as will other local authorities, for which allocations will be announced imminently. This month, Buckinghamshire will also receive an up-front payment of three months of social care grants, totalling £3.4 million. We are also deferring three months of the council’s payments to Government under the business rate retention scheme between April and June, which is worth £25 million. I hope that is of some help to the council and to my hon. Friend.

Covid-19: Local Authority Support

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What steps he is taking to regularly assess the adequacy of support for local authorities during the covid-19 outbreak. [901982]

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What steps he is taking to regularly assess the adequacy of support for local authorities during the covid-19 outbreak. [901988]

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I express once again my gratitude and admiration and that of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the vital work that councils are doing. We have been in constant contact with councils up and down the country from Cornwall to Cumbria to listen to their concerns. As I have said, more than £3.2 billion demonstrates our very real support for that sector.

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District councils face an acute cash flow problem in the next few months as normal revenue streams have dried up. Although, as the Minister has outlined, there is plenty of financial support available from the Government, has the Department considered, as North East Derbyshire District Council and the District Councils’ Network have suggested, providing more flexibility and innovative approaches to short and medium-term borrowing?

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As with unitary authorities or county councils, I assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to ensuring that councils, including district councils, are supported. My hon. Friend the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government holds regular talks with the District Councils’ Network. Indeed, he had a call with them just yesterday. As I have said, councils will be able to defer £2.6 billion of payments they are due to make to central Government over the next three months. With that support, district councils are ensuring that vulnerable people receive the care that they need and deserve. I am impressed by the work of North East Derbyshire District Council, among others, to pay grants to small businesses.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in again praising the excellent work of Buckinghamshire Council during the covid-19 crisis? As my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith) said, we now have a unitary authority. What financial assurances can my right hon. Friend give Buckinghamshire Council, given the reduction in our income and the increase in our statutory duties associated with covid-19?

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In addition to the points I made to my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Greg Smith), I emphasise that authorities up and down the country, including Buckinghamshire Council, are performing admirably by supporting businesses, charities and the most vulnerable in society. As I set out in my earlier answer, I am happy to say that Buckinghamshire Council received more than £10 million from the first tranche of funding, which was paid on 27 March, and it will receive further support from the second tranche, for which allocations will be announced imminently.

I assure my hon. Friend that we will continue to work with councils such as hers over the coming weeks to ensure that they are managing as the pandemic progresses.

Covid-19: Housing Market

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What plans the Government have to support the recovery of the housing market after the covid-19 outbreak. [901980]

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As Mike Yarwood used to say, “This is me”.

The Government have engaged closely with the housing industry and stand ready to support its recovery. I have spoken to the Home Builders Federation, large developers, small and medium-sized enterprises, niche developers, metal matrix composite manufacturers, housing associations, the private rented sector and the National Residential Landlords Association to identify their challenges. Building on the immediate support that the Chancellor has already provided, we will bring forward measures to support renters and buyers, as well as continuing to drive forward a package of housing reforms to get Britain building again.

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It is vital for delivering our national housebuilding mission and for the wider economy that we get the construction sector back to work as quickly as is safely possible. While it is extremely welcome that some of the UK’s largest construction firms have announced that they will resume work, smaller firms are nervous about returning without a full green light from Government, so what measures is the Minister putting in place to ensure that the construction industry gets all the support it needs to make sound decisions about getting sites reopened?

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I am obliged to my right hon. Friend for that question. He is absolutely right: getting building going again is vital to our economy. Something like 100,000 extra homes adds 1% to our GDP, so work in construction can and should continue where it is safe to do so. We are working with a range of developers and organisations to make sure that they feel it is safe to go back to work, including the big developers that he described but also a range of SMEs that are keen to get that green light. I hope that further developers will follow the work that Taylor Wimpey, Vistry and others have done to get back to work, and we will certainly help them to do so.