House of Commons
Monday 14 December 2020
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Police Officer Numbers
The Government have a clear commitment to recruit 20,000 police officers by March 2023. Thanks to the strong commitment we have had from all forces across England and Wales, we have made a fantastic start, with almost 6,000 additional officers recruited by the end of September. As the party of law and order, we are well on track to increasing police officer numbers across all forces.
I welcome the increase in police numbers across the country; it is great news, honouring and delivering on our manifesto commitment. I have been informed that Avon and Somerset seems to be lagging behind a bit on the uplift of police numbers. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that that is not the case?
I can assure my hon. Friend that Avon and Somerset has all the resources needed to recruit the number of police officers that it needs. We have asked it to recruit 137; it has actually recruited 130, and of course we have funded it with up to £326 million. On top of that, I would urge the police force and my hon. Friend to keep on banging the drum—we are the party of law and order—and to get out there and recruit the remaining police officers that it needs.
I am grateful that the Government have provided Kent with an additional 184 police officers, but will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Kent’s excellent police and crime commissioner, Matthew Scott, who, in his four years in office, has recruited 450 officers over and above the Government-funded number? That means we now have 3,847 officers in Kent, which is the highest number on record.
I absolutely commend the police and crime commissioner for Kent, Matthew Scott, but I also thank and pay tribute to the chief constable. This is a joint effort. Having been out in Kent a few weeks ago on a police raid, I have seen at first hand the new recruits and the absolute determination that the force has not just in recruitment but in dealing with some of the most appalling crimes that we see.
I am delighted that London will also receive an uplift in the number of police officers on our streets. With the continued incidence of catalytic converter theft, vehicle-related crime, antisocial behaviour and burglaries in Carshalton and Wallington, can my right hon. Friend assure me that the London Borough of Sutton will receive its fair share of these new officers?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to bang the drum for the London Borough of Sutton. Of course, he will know that the Metropolitan police has been allocated an additional 1,369 new officers. Its funding has increased as well, by £193 million. I must emphasise that that is money for the frontline—for police officers to deal with the crimes that my hon. Friend highlights, along with a lot of the serious violent crime we see across London.
The Government’s police officer uplift is of course welcome, but it must surely be only the starting point for what is needed to repair the damage to policing by Conservative Governments. New figures revealed in The Sun on Sunday show that there is now only one police community support officer for every 6,475 people in England and Wales, compared with one PCSO per 3,292 people in 2010. While the population has grown and violent crime has risen by 150%, the Government have cut nearly half of our neighbourhood PCSOs, and on top of that we have lost over 12,000 police staff roles. The Prime Minister said last year that
“the most important thing politicians can do is back the police,”
yet he has zero plans to replace the PCSOs or police staff that have been ripped away. When will this Government live up to their promise so that our police officers can get a grip on crime?
It is important for this House and the British public to know that this Government have put record levels of funding into the police, and that this Government, this Prime Minister and this Home Secretary absolutely, unequivocally back the police. The hon. Lady asks about the recruitment of PCSOs. Obviously, that links to the powers and the duties that they have, but she will also know that that is a decision for chief constables and police and crime commissioners, so across London, for example, where there might be an issue with PCSOs, it is for her, as a London MP, to raise this with the Labour Mayor of London. These are operational decisions, but I maintain that this Government back the police. Our funding settlement illustrates that day in, day out, as does the recruitment programme, with almost 6,000 new police officers recruited to the frontline.
Covid-19: Public Order
Our police forces face unprecedented challenges and have the critical role of maintaining public order. They will continue to engage, explain and encourage people to follow the rules, but will enforce where necessary. We have provided £30 million extra surge funding to support additional enforcement and we continue to work closely with our policing partners to ensure they have the necessary powers.
There are widespread reports in West Yorkshire of people breaking restrictions when in gyms. This is incredibly frustrating for pubs that are forced to close, with many on the brink of extinction. Can my hon. Friend reassure those pubs, which are watching from the sidelines, that the same robust approach will be applied in all settings?
I know my hon. Friend has a background as a former publican and that his local pubs are very dear to his heart as a key plank of his local communities. We have done everything possible economically to try to support them, but he is quite right that we should, where at all possible, try to maintain a level playing field in terms of enforcement. He will know that the responsibility for enforcement indoors largely falls to local authorities, environmental health and trading standards, but his question today is a good reminder to everybody involved in enforcement that it must not only be fair, but be seen to be fair.
Has the Minister seen some of the quite shocking footage of the policing of demonstrations that is available online, and is he aware that the police have been visiting restaurants and demanding people’s names and addresses? What is happening to our country?
I know my right hon. Friend is not given to hyperbole and that he has expressed his concern about the enforcement regime around the regulations over some weeks now. The enforcement from place to place is obviously an operational matter for the chief constable in that particular locality, but we are trying, where at all possible and in close conjunction with the National Police Chiefs Council, to maintain a sense of fairness and proportionality, using the “Four Es” where we can. I would just point him to the very small number of enforcement notices that have been handed out against the vast population of the United Kingdom—only in the tens of thousands against a population of 65 million—which shows that encouraging the British people to follow the regulations is largely working.
UK Immigration System: Devolved Administrations
The new immigration system will deliver a vision of success for the whole of our United Kingdom, as outlined to Members of the Scottish Parliament on Thursday. The key new routes under the points-based system, including the flagship skilled worker route, are already open for applications. The Home Office regularly engages the devolved Administrations, Parliament and Assembly as we take this work forward.
Ending free movement will have a profound negative impact on Scotland’s public services, not least NHS Scotland. Previously, the Home Office team met quarterly with Scotland’s migration Minister, but the last meeting took place in July 2019. Since the Minister took up his post, there have been no further meetings. Why is he repeatedly refusing to have those meetings?
From the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I can only conclude that he missed my appearance before the Scottish Parliament’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee on Thursday. Perhaps he might find the video online. During the session I outlined several meetings I would be delighted to have with Scottish Cabinet Secretaries and the kettle is on if they want to take me up on the offer.
I find that a fascinating reply, Mr Speaker, because it does not really accord with my understanding of what happened at the meeting to which the Minister refers. The UK Government’s immigration policies threaten to plunge Scotland’s working-age population into decline, to cause serious staffing shortages in key industries such as the farming industry, and to inflict lasting damage on our public services. The Minister has appeared to dismiss these serious concerns and has point blank refused to meet the Scottish Government Minister with responsibility for migration since he came into office under this Prime Minister. Did I correctly understand his previous comment as saying that that position has changed? If so, when is he planning to meet the Scottish Government’s migration Minister?
It is unfortunate that the hon. and learned Member appears also to have missed the session, but again, I believe there is a video online—she might find it fascinating—with me giving examples of Scottish Ministers I was prepared to meet to discuss a range of issues. I also gave MSPs examples of how Scotland’s needs are directly shaping the future immigration system for the whole of our UK, including the change to the permit-free festival system directly driven by the needs of Edinburgh international festival. But I suspect the actual focus of this question is, as always from the SNP, pushing separatism, not success for Scotland.
The Minister would do well to appreciate that the SNP represents the majority of voters in Scotland. At the meeting last week that he is referring to, my understanding, from speaking to colleagues, is that he said he would not be meeting what he described as the SNP’s “migration spokesperson”, so can he now put this on the record? Will he meet my colleague and friend, the democratically elected SNP Government’s spokesperson for migration? Will he meet him, as he has refused to do since last summer—yes or no? It is a very simple question; I want a clear yes or no answer.
I regularly meet the SNP spokesperson in this place on migration matters for constructive discussions. This Government are going to focus on building a future migration system focused on ensuring that the world’s talent sees Scotland at the heart of our United Kingdom as its natural home. The SNP sees it as an opportunity to ensure that the Scottish Government can always seek to recruit care workers at the legal minimum wage and as a chance to fulfil their ambition to rebuild Hadrian’s Wall and get England to pay for it.
We are surging police capacity in the forces most affected by violent crime. We have just consulted on serious violence reduction orders, which would make it easier for the police to stop and search individuals previously convicted of knife crime. We are also investing millions in early intervention to stop young people being drawn into violence in the first place.
In Warwickshire, knife crime has risen by 300% since 2014. Just this year, on 15 January in Leamington Spa, we had one murder and one attempted murder—both stabbings. On 28 May, we had one murder—a stabbing. On 12 November, we had a stabbing, with serious injuries. The Government claim that we have as many officers as we did in 2010. We do not. We are about to lose 125 posts in Warwickshire—police, intelligence officers—so does the Minister understand why the public no longer trust the Government with law and order?
The hon. Gentleman is rightly concerned about knife crime in his constituency, as am I. While he again seeks to make a connection between police numbers and the level of crime—an argument that was made endlessly before the election—I point out, as somebody who paid a leading role in the battle against the last surge in knife crime, between 2008 and 2012, when police officer numbers were at an all-time high, particularly in London, that the connection is not direct. However, there is much more that we can and will do on knife crime. Although absent the covid effect on crime, we are seeing some signs of a turn in the current surge in knife crime, there is still much more to do in his constituency, as there is across the country.
I acknowledge the work that the Minister did while he was working for the Mayor of London to tackle knife crime, reducing numbers, but also in the last year, with a welcome reduction of 19% in knife crime offences. Of course there is more to do. Every life lost is a life wasted and a family ruined, and we must do more. I was very supportive of the introduction of knife crime prevention orders, and I would be grateful if the Minister could tell me how many orders have been issued since the trials were rolled out this spring.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his concern about this issue, which affects his constituency as it does many others, and he is right to raise it. Unfortunately, the introduction of knife crime prevention orders, which were scheduled to come in in London, has not yet happened, largely because of the impact of the covid pandemic and the absorption of capacity. However, there has been very significant activity on this issue, not least three weeks ago with a national week of intensification of Operation Sceptre, the anti-knife crime operation, which saw 2,005 arrests and well over 10,000 knives taken off the streets in the space of one week. That is an indication of the scale of the problem to which we are addressing ourselves with some urgency.,
Asylum System Reform
As the Home Secretary has already announced, we will embark next year on one of the biggest ever reforms of our asylum system. The system is in need of fundamental reform in which the principles will be firmness and fairness—fair in that we will rapidly grant claims that are meritorious, but firm in the sense that, where claims do not have merit, we will rapidly refuse them and ensure that people cannot have endlessly repeated bites of the cherry, which sadly is the case at the moment.
We are all rightly proud of the UK’s history as a safe haven for the persecuted, but can my hon. Friend outline what steps his Department is taking to ensure that claims of asylum from unsafe countries are being prioritised over those from inherently safe countries such as France?
My hon. Friend is right to raise this issue. The United Kingdom’s resettlement scheme aims to take people directly from dangerous conflict zones, such as those around Syria, into the United Kingdom. We have run the biggest resettlement scheme of any country in Europe over the last five years. In terms of preventing claims from safe countries, he will be aware that we introduced some inadmissibility rules a few days ago, and we are working with our French colleagues to prevent these very dangerous small boat crossings from France to the UK. Thanks to that work, I am pleased to be able to report to the House that over the last three months since September, the number of small boat crossings per calm-weather day has come down by over 60%. That is testament to the great work being done by UK officers and by our colleagues in France as well.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. Where an asylum claim has been rejected, it is only right and fair that the person whose claim has been rejected should leave quickly. Sadly, that is not always the case. In fact, we are currently accommodating some thousands of failed asylum seekers at public expense, but it is right that they should leave when their asylum claim has been rejected. One of the problems is that repeated appeals and last-minute claims can go on almost without limit and we intend to legislate in the first half of next year to ensure that that breakdown in process—that breakdown in the system—no longer happens.
The failure to manage the backlog of asylum claims has led to the Minister planning open prison-style camps in temporary accommodation in unsuitable locations, remote from healthcare services. Can he explain to the residents of Barton Stacey how the changes laid to the immigration rules last week are going to help? Does he not run the risk of establishing a separate tier of asylum seekers who cannot have their claims processed but cannot be returned to any European Union country because no agreement exists to enable that to happen? And does that mean that they will be permanently stuck in limbo?
The large numbers being accommodated are to some degree a consequence of covid because, as my right hon. Friend will know, we have been running significantly lower levels of move-ons for people whose asylum claims have been decided. For example, no negative cessations are happening at all at the moment, and that has led to a significant increase in the number of people being accommodated. As we move out of coronavirus next year, we hope to get those numbers rapidly back down again.
In relation to my right hon. Friend’s question about the immigration rules, they are laying the foundations for our post-transition period system. As she knows, we are currently in the Dublin system, which provides for people who have claimed asylum elsewhere to be returned to those countries, including France, Germany and Spain. It is our intention to open discussions with those countries as soon as we are able to do so, in order to bring into force similar measures after the transition period ends.
My hon. Friend will be aware that approximately 60,000 people are currently stuck in our asylum system. Does he agree with me and my constituents in Newcastle-under-Lyme that we must get this reform through, not only to treat those people fairly but to treat the taxpayer fairly? We should not be picking up the tab for a bloated and broken system.
My hon. Friend puts it perfectly. It is unfair on the taxpayer to have people whose claims have been rejected still subsisting in accommodation, and it is unfair on people with meritorious claims, whose claims take longer to hear because the system is not operating in the way it should. We certainly will be reforming it to address the issues he is rightly raising, and he can look forward to supporting legislation in this House in the first half of next year to do exactly that.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. As I said, we will be introducing legislation in the first half of next year. It will aim to be fair to people with meritorious claims, to make sure that their claims are decided quickly and they are properly looked after. For people who have no valid claim or who seek to bring repeated, vexatious claims, often at the last minute, in order to frustrate removal, we will be shutting down those avenues, which are being abused. This is to make sure the system works fairly for those who need protection, but prevents abuse.
County Lines Drugs Networks
We are determined to dismantle county lines, which is why we are investing £25 million over two years to surge our law enforcement response to these ruthless criminal gangs. This includes investment in the national county lines co-ordination centre, targeted operational activity in three major exporting police force areas, and increased disruption on the road and rail network.
With schools often having to send children home this year, very vulnerable young people have been preyed upon by these terrible gangs. Will my right hon. Friend welcome the decision of West Mercia’s police and crime commissioner, John Campion, to commission the Children’s Society to provide extra help and diversionary activities for these young people?
My hon. Friend rightly recognises that these gangs particularly prey on and target vulnerable children when they are outside the school environment, often those who have, sadly, fallen out of school and cease to attend. So initiatives such as the one she outlines sound absolutely on the money in terms of the type of work we need at a granular level in constituencies across the country. Having worked with the Children’s Society as a Back Bencher, I know what enormous value and experience it can bring to these efforts, and I applaud the efforts of her local PCC to do this.
End of Transition Period: National Security)
The safety and security of our citizens remains our priority. We are working closely with operational partners to ensure we are ready for a range of scenarios at the end of the transition period. We will continue to co-operate with European and international partners to tackle shared security threats.
The deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police has pointed out that losing access to EU databases such as the Schengen information system will move the average time for securing a criminal conviction from six days to 60 days, describing this as a “capability gap” and as having a “massive impact”. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, what emergency contingency plans does the Department have in place until—possibly—replacements for the existing cross-border arrangements are agreed?
National security remains our absolute priority. This country is a safe country and will remain so after the end of the transition period. The hon. Lady asks what alternative arrangements are in place. Obviously, we continue the negotiations and await their outcome, but we are prepared for a range of scenarios. In the event that it is not possible to reach an agreement, the UK has well developed and well rehearsed plans in place. They involve transitioning co-operation with EU member states to alternative, non-EU arrangements by the end of the transition period. These are tried and tested mechanisms, which the UK already uses with so many other countries.
The Minister recently wrote to me that, in the event of no deal on policing and security co-operation, the UK would fall back on non-EU arrangements. Does he agree with the former National Security Adviser’s comments this weekend that these fallbacks are all “slower and more clunky” and that they would leave us all less safe? Moreover, when the current head of UK Counter Terrorism Policing said that we need an agreement that retains or improves levels of co-operation, can the Minister promise the police, the Security Service and, most importantly, the British public that this Government will deliver precisely that?
I have already said that this country will remain one of the safest places in the world. It is worth underlining to the hon. Gentleman that the UK will continue to be a global leader on national security; we are now and we will remain so in the future. I hope that, equally, he will note the level of preparedness and the hard work by our police and all our other agencies to ensure that we are well prepared for the end of the transition period to give that assurance to the public over their safety and security and welfare and wellbeing, which absolutely remain a priority for this Government.
Shopworkers: Protection from Assault
Mr Speaker, before I answer the question, may I apologise to you and to the House for having used the word “granular” in my previous answer? If it is not unparliamentary language, then it ought to be.
The Government’s response to the call for evidence on violence and abuse towards shopworkers was published in July. We are working with retailers on a programme of work to drive down this crime. We are developing communications materials to give the message that abuse is not tolerated, encouraging retailers to report these crimes and provide better support to victims.
Like many colleagues, I support USDAW’s Freedom from Fear Campaign and recently visited and met staff at my local Co-op. I was astonished to hear that, across its 12 stores in Cambridge, some 3,000 incidents have been reported already this year. That is an incident in every store every day, so how much worse does it have to get before the police take this more seriously and the Government take some action?
I join the hon. Gentleman in being appalled at the level of abuse and, indeed, violence that shopworkers often face. We are doing a huge amount to try to deal with it. Along with the retail crime steering group, we are working closely with police forces to press down on this particular issue. I have written to all chief constables in recent months outlining the need to ensure that every crime that takes place in a shop is investigated as much as it possibly can be. Interestingly, just last week, I met the head of security at the Co-op to talk about the work that it is doing with a company called Facewatch, which is using facial recognition technology to alert staff to repeat offenders who are entering the store, allowing them to intervene before the interaction is likely to become violent and abusive.
In a recent survey of its members, the shopworkers’ trade union USDAW found that 85% had been verbally abused, 57% had been threatened and 9% had been assaulted this year. Given those shocking statistics and noting the unsung role that these retail staff have played in ensuring that shops remain open during the pandemic, does the Minister agree that they need greater protection, and does he support the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), which seeks to create new offences for assaults on retail workers?
I do agree with the hon. Gentleman that shopworkers deserve all the protection that we can afford to them in the conduct of their duty, which has never been more crucial than during the recent pandemic and the lockdown where we saw the critical part that they play in making sure that the nation is fed. Having said that, we do not yet see the case for a specific offence of assault on a shopworker, notwithstanding the fact that conviction for an assault on those performing a public service—a category that such workers would fall into—is already an aggravating factor in sentencing. The Sentencing Council is, I gather, shortly to begin its work in reviewing the sentencing of assault. I urge the hon. Gentleman, with whom I have discussed these matters many times, to put his evidence into that consultation, as will the Government, to ensure that those who assault people working in a retail environment receive a commensurately serious offence such that others will be deterred from doing the same.
Covid-19: Domestic Abuse
Throughout the covid-19 pandemic, we have provided unprecedented additional funding to domestic abuse service providers to bolster their capacity to meet the demand for support. We announced further funding last month and relaunched the #YouAreNotAlone campaign to ensure that victims of abuse and those worried about them know how to access help and advice. In addition, the police continue to target perpetrators of abuse proactively because there is no excuse for abuse.
We know that domestic abuse helplines have seen a significant increase in calls for help this year, especially during lockdowns, but we also know that there are many people who have struggled to access domestic abuse support, even before the pandemic. Hearing from local campaigners such as Dr Nazia Khanum in Luton, it seems that people just are not getting the support needed because of additional barriers such as finances, language, culture and having no recourse to public funds. What are the Government doing to ensure that domestic abuse support gets to those who are hardest to reach?
The hon. Lady will of course be aware of the groundbreaking Domestic Abuse Bill, which has passed its scrutiny in the House of Commons and awaits its scrutiny in the House of Lords. As part of that Bill, we have an extensive programme of work—not just in the Bill itself, but outside the Bill—to help support victims. She will know, I hope, that not only have we commissioned the designate domestic abuse commissioner to map the services that are available in the community, but that we are in the process of launching our support for migrant victims scheme, which is a pilot scheme to support victims of domestic abuse who have no recourse to public funds.
The Minister was wise to make extra funding available in the light of the impact of covid on domestic abuse and sexual violence. However, that money has to be spent, through police and crime commissioners’ offices, by support services by March. The support services that I have talked to have said that that is simply not enough time to spend it efficiently and effectively. Will the Minister commit herself today to giving them another year to spend that same money?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising a constructive point. I hope that he knows that we were very keen through the pandemic to help at a local, regional and national level. Indeed, I was very careful to ensure that police and crime commissioners, who are responsible for distributing the local level of funding, do so not just to the services that are commissioned, but also to non-commissioned services, because there is a wealth of expertise across the country. On the point about funding, I will of course take that away. It is something that I have been discussing with charities and I know their concerns; we are dealing with that issue during the spending review allocation process.
Reducing the Risk supports victims of domestic abuse in my constituency and across Oxfordshire, and it was grateful to receive some of the funding that my hon. Friend refers to and which has helped it to support 50% more people. One of the things it focuses on is prevention. Does my hon. Friend agree that although we have to deal with the cases that we have seen spike during this year, we must not lose sight of the importance of prevention so that they do not get to that stage in the first place?
I very much recognise that. Indeed, part of the programme of work that sits within the Bill and outside the Bill is about tackling those who perpetrate domestic abuse. We need to stop these cycles of abuse; sadly, in some cases, perpetrators go from relationship to relationship, abusing and hurting people in their wake. One of the things that I am very interested in—I know that this is also an interest of my hon. Friend—is looking at what more we can do to understand the work of academics, particularly in interesting areas such as the use of artificial intelligence, to see whether we can do better by way of risk assessing domestic abuse perpetrators and the terrible impacts that they can have on their victims.
Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker.
The Office for National Statistics and Women’s Aid data last week revealed that 4,823 victims of domestic abuse were not given refuge in 2018-19 because of a lack of space. That is an increase of 1,200 victims left without a safe place compared with the previous year. The Government may cite the temporary increase in beds hard won by campaigners over the covid-19 crisis, but both the Minister and I know that support services should be for life, not just for covid. I have tried and failed to get refuge beds for victims over the last few weeks. I simply ask the Minister if she is proud of a record of a rising number of victims turned away from life-saving support? Can she guarantee that this figure will fall next year, or will it rise to 5,000 or maybe 6,000 victims turned away?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her support on the Bill, because, as she knows, the introduction of part 4 of the Bill puts particular duties on tier 1 local authorities to provide support services as part of their package of care towards people who are having to live in safe accommodation and refuge spaces. However, we also need to focus not just on refuge spaces. Although those are absolutely critical, as part of our work in the future I very much want us to focus on trying, where safe, to keep victims and children in their homes, with perpetrators being required to leave their home addresses. It is simply unacceptable that someone who has suffered trauma for years and years feels, in moments of crisis, that they must be the ones to leave their home, their family, their friends, their GPs and their schools while the perpetrator gets to stay in the home address. That is wrong. Wherever it is safe and possible to do so, we want to change that culture.
County Lines: Safeguarding
We are determined to tackle the harm caused by county lines exploitation. In addition to the establishment of violence reduction units, the extensive operations conducted by British Transport Police on transport networks and other targeted policing across the country, this year we have significantly increased our investment in one-to-one specialist support for county lines victims and their families to help them to leave the clutches of these criminal gangs. We are also funding the helpline Safecall run by the Missing People charity, which provides specialist advice and support to young people, parents and professionals who are worried about a young person who may be in trouble and being exploited.
In my constituency there is one estate where it is believed that at least 20 county lines are being run. We have had a spate of killings this year, including two teenagers, one of whom died only a few weeks ago. Does the Minister think that the loss of over a third of our police services and 80% of our youth services, and the halving of our early intervention services, have helped or hindered in dealing with county lines?
We should be clear that the fault for the terrible facts that the hon. Lady describes in an estate in her constituency lies in the hands of the criminal gangs who are exploiting our children and peddling drugs. It is that demand for those illegal substances that is driving this market force of county line gangs across the country. She will, I am sure, be delighted about the recruitment of extra officers to the Met. She will also, I am sure, be pleased about the targeted investment that we are putting into one-to-one specialist support for children and young people, including in London. But the message is clear: it is criminal gangs who are responsible for this and we need to work together to drive them out.
Children in my constituency are also getting unwittingly or unwillingly ensnared by gangs and exploited by them, not only into county lines but other criminal activity. That has a huge impact on them and on their families. In response to this trend, groups such as Action Isleworth Mothers in my constituency have been set up by parents to support other parents and their children who are at risk. What additional support and funding will the Government provide to grassroots groups such as AIM?
I really welcome the sort of intervention that the hon. Lady describes. I am very conscious of the impact that county lines exploitation and, as she says, other types of criminal exploitation have not just on the young people themselves but on their families and their wider neighbourhoods. In terms of the organisation she mentions, I am very happy to meet her to learn more about it. I remind her of the youth endowment fund, which is a fund of £200 million that we have set out over a 10-year period in order to research programmes that work and are evaluated to have really good development and really good conclusions so that we can share that best practice with other local authorities and charities across the country.
In a recent report, the Children’s Commissioner highlighted the risk that young people in care were put in when they go into unregulated and mostly unsupported accommodation, and called for a ban on that. One of the things that they are at risk of is being preyed upon and drawn into county lines activity. Will the Minister speak to her colleagues in the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to see whether they can support my Bill which aims to outlaw this?
I hope the hon. Lady would be content to know that those discussions are already taking place. I take the vulnerabilities of children living in care very seriously indeed. One of the funds, the Trusted Relationships fund, which she may be aware of, is precisely to help children who have perhaps been let down by every adult they have come across in their lives, and I have seen at first hand some of the incredible work that the youth workers are able to do with individuals through that fund. I am certainly happy to meet her and to discuss her Bill with my colleagues.
The Windrush generation helped build the Britain we know and love today. The Windrush compensation scheme is a key part of our efforts to right the wrongs they endured. Today I am announcing substantial changes to the compensation scheme, so that those eligible will receive more compensation and more quickly. I am increasing the minimum payments for the impact on life to £10,000, with payments starting this week. I am raising the bar for the amount someone can claim for the impact on their life to £100,000, with exceptional cases able to receive more. The changes under the terms of the scheme will apply retrospectively and together will make a real difference to people’s lives. I have always promised to listen and act to ensure that the victims of Windrush have received the maximum amount of compensation they deserve, and it is my mission to correct the wrongs of the past. I will continue to work with the Windrush working group to do exactly that.
At this time of year, there is only one person we want sneaking into our houses, and he wears a red suit, so perhaps the Home Secretary will join me in congratulating Thames Valley police on their recent week-long anti-burglary operation, which resulted in 88 arrests, meaning that Father Christmas has a longer naughty list, but the homes of Milton Keynes and the rest of the Thames valley are safer this festive season.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. He will know the strength of support I have for Thames Valley police force in particular and the exceptional work they have done and do. I commend them for their work, particularly on burglary. I want to wish everybody a happy Christmas, and a safe and secure Christmas to all members of the public.
I open by thanking the many neighbourhood police officers who did so much work last month visiting schools in support of the vital message of Anti-Bullying Week. I am sure all Members of the House would agree with that message and with teaching the importance of upholding those values, yet we have a Home Secretary in office who has been found to have broken the ministerial code by bullying. What signal does the Home Secretary think that sends to victims of bullying all around the country as to whether they should come forward?
The truth is that the whole episode shows a Government who have lost sight of their moral compass. The Prime Minister’s former distinguished adviser on ethics, Sir Alex Allan, found that the Home Secretary had breached the ministerial code for the second time, yet he is the one who loses his job. It sends the most terrible signal to victims in workplaces and schools around the country. Let us be clear: this has happened in the context of chronic failure, with violent crime rocketing across the country, conviction rates at record lows and domestic abuse charities struggling to keep their doors open. It has taken two and a half years for the Government to consider any meaningful action on the offensive mess that is the Windrush compensation scheme. Is not the truth under this Government that it is one rule for the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and their friends, and another for everybody else?
The hon. Gentleman can carry on with his belittling personal attacks, which will actually make me more determined than ever to deliver on the issues that I am focused on and the people’s priorities—the people’s priorities that got this Government elected a year ago: to deliver 20,000 more police officers and to deliver on the immigration changes that his party still implacably opposes.
Let us not forget about the victims of the Windrush compensation scheme. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the scandal of Windrush dates back many decades, under many other Governments. It is this Government who are fixing the wrongs of the Windrush issue but also delivering in terms of compensation to the victims and ensuring that more victims of that scheme come forward. As he heard in my opening remarks, I will continue to pursue that. We will learn the lessons of the past, and at the same time we will continue to work with everybody across the Windrush taskforce to ensure that the wrongs of the past are righted.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Once upon a time, the Labour party claimed that it was tough on crime and the causes of crime, but, quite frankly, this is quite disgraceful. I am sure that his postbag has mirrored mine over recent weeks. The British public are shocked and appalled that the Labour party now stands up for the murderers, the rapists and the sex offenders and is not doing the right thing when it comes to ensuring that foreign national offenders are removed from our country. The Conservative party is the party of law and order, and we will continue to do the right thing and keep the British public safe. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) finds that funny and has to laugh at that.
I welcome the Windrush announcement; we look forward to seeing the detail. Last week, the National Audit Office report said that the Home Office plans to remove all SIS II—second generation Schengen information system—data from the Warnings Index, Semaphore and Border Crossing systems on 31 December. Can the Home Secretary confirm that that means the Government will be removing or deleting from our border systems the details of more than 40,000 criminals and suspects wanted abroad?
The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee highlights the issue of the ability to share data with our international partners. Obviously, our Interpol relationship predates our SIS II access, and that will provide us with the means to communicate with all our international partners quickly and securely. All incoming Interpol circulations—notices and diffusions, as they are called—are uploaded to UK border and policing systems to ensure our security.
My hon. Friend is right: the Immigration Minister did have meetings. He will understand that the Government are rightly looking at and reviewing the needs of the agricultural sector and the seasonal agricultural workers pilot, which he and many other colleagues have made representations on. The Immigration Minister and I are working across Government to meet those needs while getting the balance right for future employment opportunities for British workers in our country.
It is absolutely right that we have made changes to our immigration rules. I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that when it comes to illegal migration and the issues that we face, too many people are putting their lives at risk by crossing the channel in unseaworthy vessels—and they are putting not only their lives at risk but the lives of Border Force officers as well. We are determined to make that route unviable, and these rule changes are part of that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise his concerns. He has raised the issue of crime and the implications of disorder for his local community, and he is right. I can confirm that his police force has recruited 72 additional police officers, and of course that number is going to go up and up in line with our commitment to recruit 20,000 more police officers.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to and highlight the devastating impact of drugs such as Monkey Dust. I have visited his constituents in the past and we discussed these issues. The Government absolutely recognise the corrosive harm that these drugs do. Of course, there are penalties for supplying these drugs—penalties of up to 14 years in prison and unlimited fines. At this moment, we are keeping drug classification under review, and of course we do that taking into account all the harms and the impact of these drugs on individuals and our communities.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for highlighting that investment. She makes a point about the timeframe in which the money was granted by the Treasury, but this is a programme of work that we are taking forward throughout the next few years. She will understand that there are spending review allocation decisions to be made at the moment, but we are clear that we want to continue tackling this abusive behaviour.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—this programme is incredible late on delivery and well over budget. In fact, this House has given this programme a great deal of scrutiny, and rightly so. There is no apology for that; the failings are on the record. We are now working at pace, clearly, to deliver on this. It is a really important programme. The Policing Minister and others are working with police forces now to get this plan implemented. We want this to work, and, as my hon. Friend has highlighted, I am afraid that too much time has passed and too much money has been lost and wasted. This is a classic example of procurement and big projects not working. We have got to fix this and sort this out.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to those individuals who have served our country. I think it is important that the hon. Gentleman knows and the House is aware of the fact that I am currently working with the Secretary of State for Defence on these very cases; we are both looking at this. There will be future announcements coming forward. However, I am well aware of these individual cases—how these individuals have been treated, and the cases and the representations they are making right now—and, quite frankly, we want to correct this.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. He mentioned Windrush and the Department’s inefficiencies of the past, and there are a couple of points that I want to make. Windrush was a stain—let us face it—on the Department and the Government, and we are now working through that; we want to right the wrongs. I hear what the right hon. Gentleman is saying. Do not forget that Wendy Williams’s report basically pointed to the ignorance and thoughtlessness about race and the history of the Windrush generation in the Department, but he refers to something much wider—he has raised this point with me numerous times—which is that we must not treat people like cases. That is a fundamental change that I am trying to bring to the Department. It is taking time, and there is no quick fix. I give him every single assurance that I will continue to work night and day to change our systems and make sure we put people first.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Of course, the long-term answer is to work with the industry, as we are doing, to design out many of those problems and issues. That is about the changing nature of vehicles. The fact of the matter is, as we have already heard from colleagues, that the theft of vehicles or catalytic converters is damaging and blights people’s lives. That is why we are resourcing the police and supporting them in every effort to go after the criminals behind this.
There is great concern in the far south-west that daffodil growers will not be able to access the workforce they need to pick this year’s crop. The peak of the season is literally days away. We welcome the successful pilot of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme, but there is concern that it will not be in place quickly enough or that it will not provide enough staff for flower pickers this winter. Will the Minister update the House on when the scheme will be fully rolled out, and will he ensure that our flower pickers get the staff they need?
I recognise the importance of the issue. We are looking to continue the seasonal workers pilot into 2021. As the Home Secretary said a few moments ago, we will confirm the numbers shortly, but it is worth remembering that the restrictions on international travel may well affect the number who actually travel, as they did this year.
Highly talented students are often attracted to our universities in the hope that their degree leads to enhanced employability in the UK, yet competitor countries such as Canada and Australia offer longer, and therefore more attractive, post-graduation work visas. Will the Government help our universities to remain competitive by further extending the post-study work visa to three or four years for undergraduate and masters students?
The hon. Lady has rightly highlighted how incredible, fantastic and outstanding our universities are in this country. We are in a global competition when it comes to international talent, and the Government fully recognise that. That is why we now have the two-year post-study visa route. Of course, all our policies remain under review. There are routes that went live in October under the new points-based system, and we will continue to look at them and how they develop. Let me be clear that we want the brightest and best coming to this country, and our immigration system is enabling that.
As the Home Secretary knows, Newport West is a diverse and multicultural part of south Wales. My constituent and I want to know what plans she and her colleagues across Government have to convene engagement events with at-risk communities? Those are the very people we need to be involved in putting together a fully costed plan to tackle hate crime online and in person once and for all.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the issue of online crime, online abuse and hate crime. Frankly, appalling and personal attacks are now prevalent across society. Associated with that, we have a wide range of engagement taking place, not just with our Department but with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. That is in line with our review of online harms, and there will be future announcements about that. As the hon. Lady is well aware, legislation is coming.
The rail to refuge scheme run by the train operators is highly successful in supporting victims of domestic abuse and their children, but it will expire in March 2021. Will the Government please look at reviewing the scheme to ensure that they protect all victims?
This is a really interesting scheme. As the hon. Lady knows, it was launched in March and, since then, on average four people a day have used it. I understand that early in 2021 the Department for Transport will review its continuation beyond March. I hope that, as with all our departmental questions, the message to victims of domestic abuse is clear: in the pandemic they can still leave their homes if they need to seek help.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on coronavirus. We are nearing the end of such a tough year where the British people have united and had to make so many sacrifices for the common good. I know the whole House and the whole country have been cheered by the progress we have seen in the last few weeks, which means we can now roll out the vaccine programme that will ultimately set us free.
I can tell the House that, today, the NHS has begun vaccinations through GPs in England and in care homes in Scotland. Day by day, we are giving hope to more people and making this country safer. It is life-saving work. However, it will take time for its benefits to be felt far and wide, so we must persevere because the virus remains as dangerous as it has always been.
Average daily hospital admissions are up 13% and the latest figures show that average daily cases have risen by 14% in the last week. As before, the rise and spread is not even across the country. We are seeing a sharp rise in south Wales, in London and in parts of the east and south-east of England. This is a trend that we are also seeing in other parts of Europe, in countries such as Sweden, where nearly all the intensive care beds in Stockholm are currently in use; in Germany, where they had to announce tougher new restrictions over the weekend; and in the Netherlands, which today has announced further measures. Until we can vaccinate enough vulnerable people and ensure that they get the second dose so that they are protected, we must act to suppress this virus.
Our strategy throughout, as set out in the winter plan, has been to suppress the virus while protecting the economy, education and the NHS until the vaccine can make us safe. Today, I would like to update the House on the latest steps we are taking in this mission. First, I want to update the House on a new development in the virus itself. Over the past few days, thanks to our world-class genomic capability in the UK, we have identified a new variant of coronavirus, which may be associated with the faster spread in the south-east of England. Initial analysis suggests that this variant is growing faster than the existing variants. We have identified over 1,000 cases with this variant, predominantly in the south of England, although cases have been identified in nearly 60 different local authority areas and numbers are increasing rapidly. Similar variants have been identified in other countries over the past few months.
We have notified the World Health Organisation about this new variant, and Public Health England is working hard to continue its expert analysis at Porton Down. I must stress this point: there is currently nothing to suggest that this variant is more likely to cause serious disease, and the latest clinical advice is that it is highly unlikely that the mutation would fail to respond to a vaccine, but it shows that we have to be vigilant and follow the rules, and that everyone needs to take personal responsibility not to spread this virus.
The first formal review of tiering decisions is taking place this Wednesday, two weeks after the new rules came into force. However, I need to tell the House that over the last week we have seen very sharp exponential rises in the virus across London, Kent, parts of Essex and Hertfordshire. We do not know the extent to which that is because of the new variant, but no matter its cause, we have to take swift and decisive action. Doing so is, unfortunately, absolutely essential to control this deadly disease while the vaccine is rolled out. In some parts of these areas the doubling time is around every seven days. This is no longer just about rising rates among school-age children, but about rising rates in all age groups, including the over-60s.
We know from painful experience that more cases lead to more hospitalisations and, sadly, the loss of more of our loved ones. Hospitals across the capital, Essex and Kent are already under pressure. We know that the doubling of cases will be mirrored in hospital admissions, and it only takes a few doublings for the NHS to be overwhelmed. Our NHS is straining every sinew to cope with the pressures, as it always does, but if cases continue to double, even it will be overwhelmed.
We must act now to shift the curve, because when the virus is growing exponentially, there is not a moment to spare. We are, therefore, acting ahead of the formal review date. I am very grateful to colleagues at Public Health England, NHS Test and Trace and the Joint Biosecurity Centre, whose surveillance of this virus means that we can act very rapidly when a problem arises. We have therefore decided to move Greater London, the south and west of Essex—that includes Basildon, Brentwood, Harlow, Epping Forest, Castle Point, Rochford, Maldon, Braintree and Chelmsford, along with Thurrock and Southend-on-Sea Borough Councils—and the south of Hertfordshire, which means Broxbourne, Hertsmere, Watford and the Three Rivers local authority, into tier three, the very high alert level.
That means that people can only see friends and family whom they do not live with, or with whom they are not in a support bubble, in outdoor public places and, of course, in line with the rule of six. Hospitality settings must close except for takeaway and delivery, and people should avoid travelling outside their area and reduce the number of journeys they make wherever possible. I know that this is difficult news. I know that it will mean that plans are disrupted, and that for businesses affected it will be a significant blow. This action is absolutely essential not just to keep people safe, but because we have seen that early action can help to prevent more damaging and longer-lasting problems later.
These restrictions will come into force at midnight on Wednesday morning, because when the virus moves quickly we must move quickly too. We must take actions that are not necessarily easy but that are effective. We will continue to stand with those who are most impacted, through our furlough scheme and support for the self-employed. We have already begun to surge mobile testing into these parts of London, Essex and Kent, and we are extending community testing too.
In addition, I can tell the House that this weekend, as part of our expansion of community testing, we are extending it to 67 local authorities across England. Further, today we will be publishing a guide for colleagues to promote, support and champion local community testing and contact tracing. We will be using millions of newly invented tests to reduce the rate of infection in areas where infection is highest and to help them move down through the tiers and closer to normal life.
Thanks to the forces of science, help is on its way. While we know now that that day will come, this is not over yet. While we deploy the fruits of scientific endeavour to keep the country safe, we must do what it takes to protect our loved ones and our NHS now. I know that these steps are hard, but we must not waver as we enter the final stretch, so that when we look back on this time of crisis, we can all say that we played our part. I commend the statement to the House.
As always, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
This is a virus that, without adequate restrictions in place, spreads with ferocity. Case rates are increasing again, hospital admissions are climbing and the R is edging up. Last week, the England-wide rate was 159 per 100,000; now it is 188 per 100,000. That is a 20% increase. Across London cases have increased by 30% and across the east of England by 36%, so none of us is surprised at the action the Secretary of State is taking today. Indeed, he was warned that tier 2 would not be enough to contain the spread of the virus in many places. Indeed, it looks like in some areas, such as Kent, tier 3 is not enough to contain the spread either.
Elsewhere in the country, tier 3 does appear to be forcing the virus to flatline. Indeed, in the north-west it is trending down. However, overall the increasing areas are rising faster than the decreasing areas are falling. As things stand, we are heading into the Christmas easing with diminishing headroom. The buffer zone that the tiers were supposed to provide is getting much thinner.
What is the Secretary of State’s plan to keep people safe through Christmas and avoid huge pressures on the NHS in January? What is his plan to support an exhausted, underfunded, understaffed NHS through January to deliver the care patients will need? Is he confident that our NHS will not be so overwhelmed in January that it impacts on the vaccination programme?
Our response to covid throughout could have been stronger had contact tracing been more effective. In boroughs such as Islington, only 65% of people have been traced by the national system. In Tower Hamlets the figure is only 60% and in Barking it is only 61%, yet Test and Trace is costing £22 billion—more than the policing and fire service budgets combined. According to the National Audit Office, up to September only £785 million was allocated to local council public health teams. Meanwhile, Serco has subcontracted to 21 other firms, offering little training to staff, with some people in call centres sitting alongside others making sales calls for gambling websites. Surely it is time to scrap Serco and put all public health teams in the lead in the retrospective cluster-busting contract tracing we need.
The Secretary of State has promised more testing for tier 3 areas. What about the tier 2 areas? On the lateral flow tests he is rolling out, he will know that some care home providers are refusing to use them because of concerns about their accuracy. Is he satisfied that these tests are accurate enough for this purpose and safe? If they cannot be used for care homes, how quickly can care home residents’ relatives make use of polymerase chain reaction tests?
The Secretary of State often praises Liverpool, but is not the biggest lesson to draw from Liverpool that people still struggle to isolate if they do not have the financial means to do so? The eligibility criteria for the £500 payment is still too tightly drawn. People need decent sick pay. People in some circumstances need alternative accommodation. People need help with their shopping and medicines. Surely some of the £22 billion spent on Test and Trace could be reallocated to offer people adequate isolation support.
On the variant that has been identified, our constituents will naturally be concerned.
Will the Secretary of State undertake to keep the House updated throughout? I am grateful for the briefings he has arranged for myself and others with the chief medical officer, but if this variation means the virus is more easily transmissible, fixing contact tracing and isolation becomes even more fiercely urgent.
Finally, today I spoke to Fred Banning. Fred is just 38, has two children under 10 and has terminal cancer. He asks that those with terminal illness are given quicker access to the vaccine, so he can in the words that he said to me this morning “make the most of the time he has left with his family.” I understand that these are clinical decisions, but can the Secretary of State through his offices look into access to the vaccine for those with terminal illness and see what can be done for people such as Fred and many others in this situation?
I am glad to say that across large parts of the country there is very good evidence that tier 3 restrictions are working and the rates are coming down, but we need to be vigilant and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, overall rates are no longer coming down, hence we are having to take further action.
The hon. Gentleman talked in particular about the lessons from Liverpool; the primary lesson from Liverpool is that when everybody pulls together and everybody makes the sacrifices that are necessary for their whole community, we can really get this thing under control. I am grateful to colleagues across London and Essex and Hertfordshire, to whom I have been talking today, who are committed to working to ensure that we get the public health messages out first and foremost, and to the Mayor and the Conservative candidate for Mayor, who are both committed to working on behalf of the capital and, of course, those parts of Essex and Kent and Hertfordshire that are affected, because the single best thing that we can all do is speak with one voice about what is needed to get this virus under control.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Christmas, and my recommendation to people is to be cautious and careful. He asked about NHS funding and staffing; of course we have the strongest funding in history for the NHS, and I am delighted to say that we have more nurses in the NHS than ever before—14,000 more nurses than this time last year. I pay tribute to each and every one of them.
The hon. Gentleman asked about contact tracing and no doubt he will have seen the figures published on Thursday, which show that contact tracing now reaches over 80% of contacts. I pay tribute to the team, both local and national, who are ensuring that we can get to more than four fifths of people whom we need to reach, and that has been rapidly improving.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about Fred, the gentleman with terminal cancer whom he spoke to this morning. Those with terminal cancer are, of course, clinically vulnerable by the nature of that awful disease, and we will ensure that those who are clinically vulnerable get access to the vaccine when clinically appropriate. I am very happy to take up the individual case he raises and ensure that Fred gets a fair deal.
All in all, I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for the measures we have outlined today and of course for the vaccine programme, which is rolling out across the country right now.
These are incredibly difficult decisions, but I wholly support them, because the evidence from all over the world is that acting early and decisively is the best way to save both lives and jobs. It would be perverse in the extreme if we were to take our foot off the pedal so close to rolling out the vaccine.
However, may I first ask the Secretary of State about the new strain? He said that it is highly unlikely that the vaccine will not work with a new strain. When will we know for sure? Are any trials going on? Will he get more up-to-date scientific information anytime soon?
Secondly, may I ask the Secretary of State for clarity? With just 11 days before Christmas, lots of people will be thinking about Christmas shopping. From Wednesday, will it be against the regulations for those living outside London to go to Oxford Street to do their Christmas shopping? Will that also be against the regulations for those living inside London? Is the only way legally to do Christmas shopping now to go online?
First, on my right hon. Friend’s question about the new variant, it is being assessed in Porton Down right now. As I said in my statement, the medical advice that we have is that it is highly unlikely that this new variant will impinge on the impact of the vaccine, but we will know that in the coming days and weeks as the new strand is cultured at Porton Down and then, of course, tests are conducted on it.
My right hon. Friend’s question about Christmas shopping is important. It is recommended that people should minimise travel, unless it is necessary, in a tier 3 area, and should minimise travel, unless it is necessary, to a tier 3 area. We have taken this action to try to protect people and to try to slow the spread of this virus, and that is absolutely the right thing to do.
Many public health experts have questioned the use of Innova lateral flow tests for mass community testing, especially as the manufacturer does not recommend them for detecting coronavirus in people who are asymptomatic. The Secretary of State must be aware of the paper from the University of Liverpool, based on his own Department’s quality assurance programme, which has raised serious concerns about their accuracy when used in the community testing project in Liverpool. A comparison of lateral flow tests with PCR tests in over 3,000 people revealed a sensitivity of just 48%, meaning that more than half of those with the virus would be falsely reassured that they were negative. The test even missed 30% of those with a high viral load—those most likely to be infectious.
I understand the wish to use quick tests for case finding, but surely the Secretary of State should now delay rolling them out to 67 other local authorities and should not proceed with plans to spend £43 billion for a test that is so inaccurate. Would it not be better to focus funding on easier and quicker access to PCR tests? With more than half of all positive cases being missed, does he accept that despite the proposal by Baroness Harding, these tests cannot be used to release people who are contacts from isolation? On the basis of that study, the Liverpool health protection board has abandoned plans to use lateral flow tests to check visitors to care homes, so will the Secretary of State be recommending that local authorities and providers should return to PCR testing for care home staff and family visitors to reduce the risk to the most vulnerable residents?
I think that this argument against testing is wrong. I think that we should test, test, test, and that is what this Government are doing. We are working very closely with the Government in Scotland, from the same party that the hon. Lady represents, to make sure that we use testing as widely as possible to find people who have this virus. Yes, of course different tests have different characteristics. The lateral flow tests find around 70% of those who are infectious. That means that if we test people who would not otherwise have been tested, we find the positive cases, we can get them to isolate and we can break the chains of transmission. I strongly urge the hon. Lady to go back, to study the details and to back the testing programme that we have in this country.
I fully recognise my right hon. Friend’s serious dilemmas—it is not an enviable position—but the application of tier 3 to London raises some questions. I have had long conversations in my borough with public health and the hospitals, and they maintain that the infection rate is now almost exclusively among secondary schoolchildren, who pass it on to their parents—those two least at-risk groups—so the hospitals are not overcrowded, with spare beds in the intensive care units and a very low level of covid patients in the hospitals.
Tier 3 will hammer down on the one area that does control what happens, which is hospitality. The key here, surely, is that doing that will cause people to shift back to their homes, and it is that area that we would worry about, with off-licences selling alcohol late in the evening. Will my right hon. Friend try to seek some kind of flexibility so that these measures target better the real risk and do not just hammer those who have been doing the right thing?
We are always open to finding new ways to protect the economy as much as possible and bring the virus under control. I share my right hon. Friend’s desire to get it under control and to keep it under control until a vaccine can make us safe, but unfortunately this is no longer just a problem among school-age children in Waltham Forest and north-east London, which it has been until the last week’s data. The case rate among the over-60s in Waltham Forest is now over 250 and we are seeing that rising over the last week. We are also seeing rising admissions to hospital.
I have a huge amount of sympathy for everybody affected by these decisions in Waltham Forest, but it is absolutely essential to get this under control now to protect the NHS from being overwhelmed in the future. We must break the inexorable link from cases now to hospitalisations in the future—and, sadly, deaths—by using the vaccine and by testing. Until we can have the vaccine fully rolled out and people inoculated by having their second dose, and until enough vulnerable people have had that second dose and have therefore become inoculated, unfortunately measures like this are necessary.
The Health Secretary is fully aware that hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost during the pandemic, which continues to hit our economy. That means a vast number of families and individuals are diving into hardship. Having no heating and no hot water is what many residents across our country will face this Christmas, as they visit food banks. What discussions has he had with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions with regard to reducing the rising level of poverty?
We are trying to support the economy as much as possible throughout all these difficult decisions. The extraordinary levels of financial support are a part of that, including the furlough scheme, which has now been extended to the end of March. I, of course, talk to my right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary regularly to make sure we take the action that is necessary in a way that supports people as much as possible.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, albeit that it contains a lot of very grim news about the virus itself and its effect on many areas. It will be greeted with considerable relief in Harwich, Clacton, Colchester and Uttlesford, where the virus rates are much lower and we will stay in tier 2. Is the message now not that we stay in tier 2 or go down a tier much more by our own efforts—by the efforts of local authorities, with the support of NHS Test and Trace—to make sure we support those who have to isolate and track down and trace those who are spreading the virus? By doing that, and by compliance and forbearance, we can reduce the spread of the virus and help to defeat it so we can get down the tiers.
Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Trying to keep the virus under control is in the hands of local authorities and local communities. I would say to everybody in Harwich, and people across the south-east and east of England who have not gone into tier 3 today, that we all still need to work together, be vigilant and effectively do everything we can to stop the spread of the disease, because so many people are asymptomatic—about a third—and never have any symptoms but can nevertheless spread the disease. I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for the work he has done in giving me ideas to support colleagues to help in that effort. The links between the national system and local authorities are getting stronger all the time, and I want colleagues to be able to play our part—especially as, through our campaigning, we know our communities well—by getting into communities to spread the message that if we all stick by the rules and we get the testing and contact tracing in, we will be able to keep this under control.
With cases in Devon down to 71 per 100,000 and falling, and covid hospital admissions also falling, will the only reason that Devon does not go into tier 1 this week be because of the shortage of staff and hospital capacity after 10 years of Conservative Government cuts?
No. First, there is a record number of NHS staff, thanks to this Conservative Government. There is a record number of nurses—we have 14,000 more nurses. What I say to people in Devon, which is currently in tier 2, but with low rates, is do not take it for granted. Let us all work together and try to get Devon into tier 1. In Exeter, those rates have come down really sharply in the last few weeks. Let us keep working at it, and let us keep those public health messages going in relation to not only coronavirus, but the importance of eating fruit.
We all know where to go now if we run out of fruit.
My children are desperate to see their grandparents this Christmas, as is the case for many families up and down the country, but in view of these alarming numbers, what we are seeing in the US following Thanksgiving and the constant chopping and changing of rules, which leads to lower compliance and more confusion, although I appreciate that the Secretary of State does not want to be the Grinch, should he be reconsidering the Christmas measures that are in place? Do we risk unnecessary additional deaths in the new year, just as we have light at the end of the tunnel with the vaccine?
I would recommend people to exercise caution over Christmas, especially with respect to seeing elderly relatives, who, of course, people are yearning to see. I understand that, but I think it is important that people not only abide by the rules, but take personal responsibility in case they have coronavirus and might be passing it on, but do not have any symptoms and do not know about it.
My right hon. Friend will know that I have supported all the measures that have been put in place, and I have put my faith in the Government and the scientists and medical officers. However, I have real worries about Harlow in Essex being put into tier 3, as local hospitality businesses are really struggling and on their knees. I would be grateful if he could explain how further restrictions will curb the disease, given that cases increased in Harlow during the second national lockdown. I understand that the virus has recently stabilised in Harlow and that there has been no rate of increase in the over-60s in the last week. Further to this, the overall increase in cases in Harlow is 12% against a regional average of 40%, so I ask him to consider keeping Harlow in tier 2.
Unfortunately, cases are rising in Harlow and in the districts of Essex and Hertfordshire nearby, so we do have to take the action that we are. What I say to my right hon. Friend, who is an incredible champion of Harlow and his local community, is let us work together to get this down, let us work together to get this done and let us work together to try to get Harlow back into tier 2 as soon as possible, not just to save lives and protect the NHS in Harlow, but to give people their livelihoods back.
I thank the Secretary of State for his update to us on what is happening with covid. As a type 2 diabetic, I will take my vaccine when the time comes for me to take it. We will make sure that others get it before I do, but will the Secretary of State outline the response from the medical community about the reactions to the vaccination and the safety of the drugs for those who feel, in some cases, that it has been rushed through?
On the contrary, all the safety checks that are necessary have been carried out and we continue to monitor the roll-out of the vaccine throughout the UK. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency has done a terrific job on that and continues to do so. For instance, my team and the MHRA were having an update assessment on Saturday morning to check the progress of the first week’s roll-out, and I am delighted to say that we are able to keep doing that. I say to the hon. Gentleman and everybody else who wants to see the impact of the vaccine: look at the faces of those who have had their first dose, and how pleased they are to have it and to be able to get that step closer to protection from this awful disease.
I note that Essex and Hertfordshire have been split into two—partly tier 2, partly tier 3. However, Greater London has been treated as one. In central London, our cases are significantly below the national average and, whether this House likes it or not, central London is the powerhouse of our national economy. Will my right hon. Friend tell me why London has been treated differently from Essex and Hertfordshire?
As you know, Mr Speaker, we look in great detail and at a granular level at the geographies that these restrictions have to cover. Unfortunately, central London’s case rates are rising, and we know that if an area is surrounded by other areas where there are significant increases then those high rates tend to move into that area if it is left out of a set of restrictions. I understand, of course, the impact on the economy, but the very clear public health advice was that London should move together because all areas of London are seeing an increase in rates and we need to stop that.
The Health Secretary seemed to answer rather dogmatically the question of the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) about lateral flow tests. May I say to him that it does seem reasonable that, as a diagnostic for people to self-isolate, the test has validity, but with its very high number of false negatives, is he seriously recommending that this is the first line of defence for people going into our care homes? If he is, it is a very dangerous proposition on his part.
It is important that we use the right tests in the right circumstances but with the right other conditions. So for instance, there is clear visitor guidance of which testing is one part, but personal protective equipment is another critical part. The nuanced question of the hon. Gentleman is entirely reasonable, but the thing that I find frustrating is the idea that we should discourage people from coming forward for asymptomatic testing when the task is to find as many people as possible who have the virus to get them to isolate. Yes, we should ensure that visiting care homes is done as safely as possible—there are health upsides to visiting as well as the challenges posed by the virus—but in terms of asymptomatic testing, I encourage people, where tests are available, to come forward, because that is how we find where this virus is and help to isolate it.
I thank the Secretary of State for the roll-out of lateral flow tests across Derbyshire. When he does his reassessment on Wednesday, will he be willing to look at more localised geography, perhaps based around hospital catchment areas, and divide the county of Derbyshire between north and south, rather than use the whole county, which is not a very functional geography on the ground?
We are happy to look at the human geographies, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister put it, which is precisely why we have taken the decision today to take parts of Essex and parts of Hertfordshire into tier 3. We also look at the travelling patterns to see where the likelihood of the spread is greatest, and we set out the data on which we take the decision, so I think the answer to my hon. Friend is yes.
Contact tracing in Scotland has led the public health professionals to achieve contact rates of up to 95%. Down here, as we know, the job is handed out to privatised companies such as Serco. Serco has a £400 million contract, which it has subcontracted out to 21 further companies. What assurances does the Minister have that there is sufficient co-ordination across these 21 companies and Serco and that everything is under control, rather than adding further layers of complexity?
The good news is that the contact tracing across England is increasing in capacity. It is getting faster and it is finding more and more contacts. The comparison of apples and pears that continues to come from those on the SNP Front Bench does not take into account the fact that if we contact trace in a care home, the contact tracing is much easier, and that if we include that contact tracing in the data, we get different answers. This obsession with “public sector good, private sector bad” has been going on for months and it is just as wrong now as it was six months ago.
Today’s news is deeply sombre, so I ask my right hon. Friend to join me in urging residents of Rutland and Melton to be vigilant because we are also seeing cases rising locally, even in our villages. We have to get rates under control if we are to be decoupled from Leicester city, remain at most in tier 2 in Rutland, and protect ourselves from this new variant. Will he join me in thanking those who are working so hard locally to ready our vaccine hubs in Oakham and Melton for once the vaccine is ready for delivery outside of hospitals?
Yes, of course; absolutely. I am delighted that we are now vaccinating from over 100 different community settings, as well as 70 hospitals across the UK. It is a tribute to the whole vaccine roll-out team, who have done a magnificent job over the last—I was going to say over the last week that the vaccine has been rolling out, but it has been weeks and weeks in the planning before then. I would say to residents in Melton and Rutland that we will look at Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland separately when we make the decision on tiering on Wednesday. Those in Rutland who are in tier 2 still need to work at it and do their bit to try to keep Rutland in tier 2, and, of course, hopefully get to tier 1. It is so important that everybody does their bit.
The Secretary of State has rightly set out the very stark picture today—not only of the variant, but of the growing pressures, including the pressures that are likely to be placed on our NHS at this critical time. Will he therefore agree, particularly given the crucial supply chains for the vaccine, for PPE and for the 40 million packages of medicine that go back and forth between ourselves and the EU every month, that the talks must continue and we must not end up in a no-deal outcome, which would be absolutely devastating at the most critical time for our NHS and our country?
I am obviously very disappointed by the news that London is going into tier 3, but, having seen the data and spoken to Public Health England in London and to the hospitals in my constituency, I am fully aware of the threat that this awful virus continues to present to us all. Hospitality in particular has done so much to become covid-secure, but, sadly, we are where we are. I think of our hospitals and the amazing job that our NHS staff are doing day in, day out, night in, night out. The acute hospital trusts in my constituency are handling covid cases from across London, and one of the major concerns that they have raised with me is the length of time for which staff must isolate after a positive covid contact. I understand that lateral flow testing in hospitals allows staff to return to work safely after five days, rather than 14. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the roll-out of lateral flow tests will be prioritised in hospitals where cases are increasing?
The short answer is yes. We are rolling out lateral flow testing to find asymptomatic cases in hospitals right across England. We are always looking for ways to reduce the burden of isolation needed for positive contacts. May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s leadership? These are difficult decisions and it is difficult to explain to people why these measures are necessary given the impact that they have, but she is quite right to do so. Her analysis is that the best way of London coming through this is by presenting a united front, and all of us working together to get the case rates down; that is how we will best get through this together.
Christmas is often the busiest period for many businesses, particularly in sectors such as retail and hospitality. The uncertainty created by tiering arrangements chopping and changing at days’ notice has made trading incredibly difficult, even for those places currently allowed to stay open. What support will be provided to businesses affected by the tier system in the months ahead to ensure that any closures mandated by the Secretary of State’s Department over this vital trading period do not leave their doors closed permanently?
We are delighted to have the first vaccinations rolling out in Furness this week, but we know that information is key to understanding and tackling this virus. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend consider adding data to the Government’s coronavirus website on the number of people, by cohort, who have been vaccinated and on the number of people who have been infected by this new variant of the virus?
Of course, we will be publishing data on the number of vaccinations done—that is important. Meanwhile, let us all keep getting out there to make the case that the best way to keep you, your loved ones and your community safe is by getting vaccinated when the NHS calls.
Self-isolation is crucial to breaking chains of transmission, but too many people cannot afford to self-isolate when asked to do so, because of the loss of earnings it will mean. In Salford, only 389 out of 1,760 applications for self-isolation payments have been successful to date, meaning that many people are not getting the support they need. Will the Secretary of State now agree to provide everyone who has to self-isolate with the financial support that guarantees they will not be worse off because they have done the right thing?
I thank my right hon. Friend very much for his statement, and I fully understand the difficulties he faces. He will know that I am the Member for West Dorset, a rural seat whose western part is 55 miles away from the commercial centre of Bournemouth, which is the driving force of our tiering in rural Dorset. We have consistently maintained low numbers of cases, and on Friday we had just one person with covid in our county hospital. Although I understand full well that my right hon. Friend has had to consider increasing the tier in different places in the UK today, will he, for Wednesday, consider reductions to tier 1 in areas where that is appropriate, as I believe it is in Dorset?
I will look at this extremely closely after my hon. Friend’s entreaty. I have been noticing that in both West Dorset and Bournemouth the number of cases has been coming down. I say to everybody: stick at it, stick at the rules and do everything you can to reduce the number of transmissions. That is the most likely way of getting into tier 1.
It is 12 months since the World Health Organisation told us that this was a pandemic, yet multiple schools in Southwark that have had covid cases have still never had any contact from the Government’s tracing system, including one college that has had 20 cases since September. In the face of this new, faster-spreading variant, will the Secretary of State finally fix contact tracing? Or will he continue to leave teachers picking up the pieces and having to work weekends, and the public picking up the bill while Ministers’ mates pick up the multimillion-pound contracts, which continue, as today shows, to let us down?
If the hon. Gentleman has an individual case of a school in that situation and he could let me know, we will sort that out, because in general the links between local directors of public health and the schools to tackle these sorts of problems are pretty good.
I know the whole House was thrilled at those wonderful images last week of people receiving their vaccines, including at the Royal Stoke University Hospital. Like other hospitals across the country, it has been gearing up for that really emotional moment for months. Like the NHS in general, it has a lot of experience of delivering these vaccine programmes, so will my right hon. Friend assure me that we will roll out this vaccine, and any others that get approved, as quickly as possible and as quickly as manufacturing allows?
Yes, that is absolutely the goal. I pay tribute to everybody at the Royal Stoke, and it was wonderful to see some of the examples of those who have been vaccinated. Stoke has been having a rough time of it of late and we need to make sure not only that we get the virus under control, but that that vaccine is rolled out, not just in the city centre, but in communities right across Stoke and Staffordshire.
The Secretary of State will know that I have warmed to his performance over the months of this pandemic, and I think he is doing a pretty good job. I think it was the Prime Minister who pushed him into the relaxation around Christmas, so may I warn him that my local hospitals in Huddersfield and Halifax are preparing for an awful surge after Christmas, just at the very wrong time, in January and February, when we do not want that kind of pressure? Will he think again and persuade the Prime Minister to think again about any relaxation of the rules over Christmas, in order to save lives?
I have always warmly appreciated the energy with which the Secretary of State has successfully prevented our hospitals from being overwhelmed, and I have also backed this amazing vaccine that has now been rolled out. May I ask the Secretary of State about capacity in hospitals? I understand that social distancing requires there to be fewer beds in hospitals at the moment, but will hospitals be able to add more capacity as the vaccine roll-out is completed?
I certainly hope so; that is one of the things that we are talking about with the NHS. For now, that is not possible. We of course have extra emergency capacity in the Nightingales, and the testing regime has allowed the NHS to restore many of its services, so that in places such as Worcestershire it is able to carry on with almost all the necessary activity, including the electives and the cancer work, even through this second peak. I pay tribute to the NHS in Worcestershire for the work that it has done, with the support of the testing regime, and I really hope that the vaccine allows that to improve again, once we have got enough of the people who are most vulnerable to this disease vaccinated.
The Nottingham Post website is reporting today that 72 areas in tier 2 now have a higher covid rate than tier 3 Nottingham. Since we came out of the national lockdown and went into tier 3, our situation has improved on all five indicators, but we still do not know whether the improvement is enough to allow us to move down a tier later this week. Will the Secretary of State spell out the thresholds that will be used, and will he commit to publishing the rationale for his decision making?
My Colne Valley constituents now follow the local data really closely, and they can see that covid rates are thankfully plummeting in Kirklees, thanks to the local action we have been taking. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he will be using this local data at a granular level later this week to decide whether my area can come out of tier 3 restrictions?
A recent report has concluded that some of the poorer countries might not get access to vaccines until 2024. If the ongoing roll-out in the western countries is successful and normality starts to return by spring, will the Secretary of State give a commitment that he will resist calls to declare the pandemic over, and accept that a global challenge will remain until all countries have widespread vaccination programmes in place?
Since the recent national lockdown began, the infection rate in Leeds has fallen from over 400 cases per 100,000 to less than 140 today, and the number of covid patients in hospital has declined by 45% in the past month alone. The Secretary of State will be aware that the city has on balance recommended that Leeds should move from tier 3 to tier 2, because businesses have been terribly affected. I realise that he cannot give an answer today, but does he accept, having assured areas that where they are placed in the tier system will depend on the efforts they make to get the numbers down—Leeds has done a great job—that the credibility of that statement needs to be reflected in decisions about where the areas are put when they show a dramatic reduction?
The Minister for Care has today indicated that there are 12,500 retired GPs and nurses seeking to help with the roll-out of the vaccination programme. My constituent David is one of them. He is 67 years old, fit and well and keen to do his bit, but the system that he has to log on to in order to apply keeps timing him out. I know that my right hon. Friend is an absolute whizz with apps. Please can he make sure that this one works for people like David?
I am thrilled at the number of former clinicians who have come back to support this. In fact, I met some of them when I went to Milton Keynes to see the vaccine being injected. I will look into the little whizzing box that is preventing my right hon. Friend’s constituent from applying.
As the Secretary of State knows, I asked back in April to have mass testing in Halton—better late than never. I decided to go down to the new mass testing centre at Ditton Community Centre in Widnes in my constituency this morning and have a test, which I am pleased to say was negative. It took 10 minutes, and I had the result back in 30 minutes. When does the Secretary of State expect the vulnerable and elderly to have had their second dose of the vaccine?
There has to be a 21-day window from the first vaccine dose to the second. We are aiming to send out invitations so that people can come as close to that 21-day marker as possible. Clinically, the 21 days is a minimum not a maximum, but the goal is clearly on or as close to the 21st day as possible.
As my right hon. Friend is aware, my constituency is in tier 3, and although there has been a considerable drop in the infection rate, people are still concerned about the roll-out of the vaccine. Can he give an update and an assurance that my constituency will feature in the roll-out in coming weeks?
The Secretary of State is right that, at this critical moment, we must think about the NHS staff we were applauding on the streets so recently, and we clearly must do everything possible to protect people from the spread of the virus. May I press him to say how the advice for the Christmas period could be strengthened by the Government to minimise transmission? Does he recognise the need for better financial support for the sectors most affected by the measures that we need, such as hospitality, and particularly for those who have fallen through the gaps in the Chancellor’s schemes?
The tiering system has worked incredibly well in Ashfield and Eastwood, as rates are down due to the hard work and suffering of my constituents. Could my right hon. Friend reassure me that our hard work, dedication and willingness to do the right thing will be taken into account when deciding what tier we will be in at the end of the week?
It is extremely concerning that more than 1,000 cases of the new variant have been identified in the south-east, but I understand that the vaccine still works. Data published by the ONS today shows that the mortality rate will fall by 84% when all over-70s are vaccinated. Could my right hon. Friend tell the House when he thinks that will be and what it will mean for the tiering system?
Believe me, I would love to be able to answer that question. We do not know, because it depends on the speed of manufacture of the vaccines and the approval or not of the Oxford vaccine by the MHRA. But the essence of the way that my hon. Friend asks the question is exactly how we are thinking about it in Government.
I echo the request from my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Chris Loder) for Dorset and indeed Bournemouth to be considered to be moved to tier 1. The stats support this, and the hospitality industry would be most grateful. While 2020 has been the most testing of years, 2021 should be different because of the vaccine. My concern is that letting down our guard for five days during Christmas could be very dangerous indeed. Will the Secretary of State review those conditions, which were put together some time ago, and come back to the House to present an updated version so that we do not begin the new year with a third wave?
I take my right hon. Friend’s views on this very seriously. I would say to everybody in Bournemouth and across the country that the best way they can help their area to go into a lower tier is by exercising personal restraint—not seeing the rules as something to push against but rather acting well within them as much as possible to ensure that this virus does not spread.
The Secretary of State talks a lot about testing and tracing but far less about isolating. The shadow Secretary of State made important points that I do not think the Secretary of State addressed. In my city, a couple of weeks ago, only 14 people had received the £500 payment. The reasons why people are not isolating are complicated, but what has gone wrong with the system? It really is not working, is it?
Stoke-on-Trent has now seen our case rate drop to below 300 per 100,000 and boasts one of the highest testing rates in the west midlands. The additional lateral flow tests from the Government, added to the impressive work by Stoke-on-Trent City Council, mean that we can now test up to 25,000 people per week. Does my right hon. Friend agree that community testing will be hugely important in helping areas like Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke, and can he confirm when mass vaccination sites in the city will appear?
Yes. Stoke-on-Trent has had a tough time recently, but the work by Stoke-on-Trent City Council and the community testing that is going on in Stoke-on-Trent is very impressive. All of us, as MPs, can lean into that and help to support the councils, the military and others in delivering testing in our communities. We have set out details of how we can all do that today so that every single one of us can play our part.
Can I return to the vaccination of those with terminal illnesses? The wife of one of my constituents, aged 70, who has stage 4 bowel cancer and is receiving palliative care, contacted me at the weekend. If his only priority is being 70 and extremely vulnerable, he is in the fourth cohort for vaccination. The terminally ill should be in the first group. Will the Secretary of State make that change, and will he give a timescale for each of the nine priority groups for receiving the vaccine?
The hon. Member asks a very sensitive and reasonable question. Of course it is right that we should follow the clinical guidance in terms of the order of priority, and that does include those who are clinically extremely vulnerable to this disease. On the timescales, I am afraid that the answer is the same to him as to my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Laura Farris), which is that we do not know because it depends on the speed at which the manufacturers can produce the vaccine.
Last week I was absolutely delighted to see the vaccine rolling out across Brecon and Radnorshire. I am hugely grateful to the Vaccine Taskforce and the thousands of volunteers who have bravely stepped forward to take part in the trials, including—I must declare an interest—my dad. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the vaccine has undergone months of rigorous trials, and that work continues to ensure that other vaccines can be rolled out as quickly, but most importantly as safely, as possible?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend puts it exactly right. We are working very closely with the Welsh NHS to deliver the vaccine right across Wales. I pay tribute to her father, who continues to play a leadership role in his community by stepping forward for one of the trials.