House of Commons
Tuesday 26 January 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
VAT Retail Export Scheme
During the consultation on duty free and tax-free goods carried by passengers in 2020, the Government engaged extensively with various stakeholders and carefully considered 73 consultation responses. I have continued to meet stakeholders, including retail and aviation representatives, following our announcement.
Given the deep trouble within retail and aviation, with Debenhams one of many chains disappearing from high streets with the loss of tens of thousands of jobs and, as the Minister will be aware with Stansted and its importance for employment in her constituency, aviation by and large grounded, does she not accept it was a mistake to scrap the VAT retail export scheme and the extra-statutory concessions, both of which brought much needed revenue to the retail sector at airports, which is now lost from the economy, possibly for good?
We do not accept that. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility set out its assessment of the fiscal impact of the withdrawal of the VAT RES scheme, factoring in a higher than usual elasticity to account for spending on luxury goods. Its estimate is that this will result in a significant Exchequer saving of about £400 million per year. On airports, we recognise the challenges the aviation sector is facing as it recovers from the impacts of covid-19. We have supported the sector throughout the pandemic and continue to do so. This includes the recently announced airport and ground operator support scheme, which will provide eligible firms with support of up to £8 million per claimant.
Financial Support Schemes: Equitable Access
Since their introduction, the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme have been available to those unable to go to work because of caring responsibilities arising from covid-19, such as caring for a home schooling child or caring for a vulnerable individual. Those who are unable to work from home and have been told to shield have also been eligible for these support schemes, as well as for statutory sick pay and employment and support allowance.
The Chancellor has let the financial burden of covid-19 fall on women. They have undertaken twice as much home schooling as men. One in five have had to cut their hours. Some 78% of working mothers have not been offered furlough and 71% of those who asked for it have been refused. Will the Chancellor recognise that once again women have disproportionately paid the price of the inequality in his policies? Will he undertake an immediate equality impact assessment and set out in his Budget how he will offer redress for these widening gendered inequalities?
The truth is that this pandemic has had a desperately difficult effect for the whole of the UK economy, and for families and people across our country and regions. It is appropriate to recognise the totality of the difficulty we find ourselves in. It is true that many women have found themselves in the position of either caring for home schooling or vulnerable individuals. They are supported and protected through the schemes we have put in place. Of course, over and above those schemes, we have also put in place significant amounts of support for remote education, laptops and councils to help vulnerable individuals.
Earlier this month, the shadow Chancellor successfully called on the Chancellor to make it clear that working parents and others can be furloughed owing to childcare responsibilities. Most employers will want to do the right thing, but where an employer is refusing to follow the guidance and offer a parent furlough for childcare reasons, can the Minister tell me who the parent should report that to and what action will be taken?
As the hon. Member will know, furlough is an arrangement reached between companies and their employees. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Government do not have direct involvement in that. What they say is that where an agreement can be reached between the two sides we will support them, as laid out in one of the most generous schemes available in any country around the world. As I said, that is just one part of a much wider panoply of support for people at risk through the pandemic.
Wholesale Food Service Sector
Throughout the covid crisis, the Government have sought to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods, and support businesses and public services across the UK. We recognise that food and drink wholesalers have been severely impacted by the necessary action we have taken to control the virus, but those businesses have been eligible for a number of our economic support schemes, including the job retention scheme, VAT deferral and bounce back loans.
Food service wholesalers have again seen their trade drop by 95% with hospitality businesses closing, yet they continue to supply our hospitals, schools, care homes and prisons at a financial loss. Many now are on the brink of collapse. What more are the Government going to do to help the industry, which is suffering a double whammy of lost stock and ongoing fixed costs?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and, indeed, I met representatives of the sector in my constituency a few weeks ago. The Treasury is in regular discussion with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and they are assessing the systemic risks to the food supply chain of the fulfilment of those public sector contracts to schools, hospitals and prisons. We keep these matters under close review, but at the moment there is no threat to those supply chains and, as I referenced, the options that are available to those firms continue to be available.
Disused Coal Tips: Safety
Treasury Ministers regularly speak to their ministerial colleagues on all matters of public spending. Remediation of coal sites is a devolved policy and responsibility lies with the devolved Administration through their Barnett funding.
Well, that was a depressing start, because the truth is that 40% of all the disused coal tips in the whole United Kingdom are in Wales, which is much higher than the Barnett formula would normally allow for. Ninety per cent. of all the disused coal tips in England and Wales are in the poorest communities, so if the Government really stick to this policy of “It’s down to the local authority, which has to find the funding for this”, they are going to see the poorest communities in Britain pay for the legacy of an industry that made this country rich. I urge the Minister, please, to think again about how we can make sure that communities are safe and that the money and the funding are there to make sure that the coal slides, which are likely to come more frequently, do not provide long-term financial and economic problems for those communities.
I am a little surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s response because the last time that he raised this issue at Treasury questions, the UK Government responded extremely constructively, with £31 million of financial support, including £22 million to address the flooding of coal sites and £9 million for coal tip repairs, which I thought he might at least have welcomed. Notwithstanding that, at the request of the Welsh Government, the Coal Authority is supporting work to undertake a safety review of all the small tips in Wales, regardless of ownership, but he should also recognise that it is a devolved matter.
Sport and Wellbeing: Covid-19 Recovery Strategy
Sport and wellbeing is of major importance to this Government as we manage the effects of the pandemic. That is why we announced the £300 million sport winter survival package to protect major spectator sports, why we have supported clubs through covid business support schemes, such as the furlough scheme, and why we have introduced the £100 million national leisure recovery fund to support publicly owned leisure facilities through this crisis.
The Chief Secretary shares my passion and enthusiasm for sport, and I know that he appreciates the consequences of good physical and mental health on the wellbeing of individuals, but he may also be aware that poor physical health and wellbeing cost the Treasury tens of billions of pounds per annum. Given that covid-19 has had a negative impact on both, does he agree that our recovery strategy should put sport, physical activity and wellbeing at its heart, and will he consider the merits of a wellbeing budget that looks at shifting the focus away from GDP as the only measure of economic growth?
I agree with my hon. Friend that sport and wellbeing should be at the heart of our recovery plans and pay tribute to the work that she has done not just on football but on sport and loneliness in championing these issues. There are lessons from other countries that we can look at as well. One of the areas that I am very keen to work with her on are the opportunities around social prescribing, where the role of sport and wellbeing—in terms of how we treat people with regard to mental health and recovery from covid—has a lot to offer, and I know that she will continue to champion that.
Living Standards in Scotland: UK Fiscal Policy
I have frequent discussions with the Scottish Government’s Finance Minister, and may I take this opportunity to add my congratulations on the announcement yesterday of her engagement?
I think every Member will join me in congratulating Scotland’s Finance Minister, Kate Forbes, on her happy news. A decade of UK austerity delivered unprecedented declines in living standards and incomes, especially to those already struggling. Now even the OECD says that making cuts instead of investment after the financial crisis was the wrong approach. With the Scottish Budget set for Thursday, will the Minister confirm that this time the UK Government will invest to stimulate economic recovery, or will more Tory cuts put Scotland’s recovery at risk?
It is a little odd, in a year when Scotland has received £44 billion through the Barnett formula, to be talking of cuts. The hon. Gentleman refers to the Scottish Budget, and he will be aware that there are opportunities with the powers that the Scottish Government have, whether that is to exercise their flexibilities on elements of universal credit, to top up benefits and create new ones, or to introduce new tax powers. The Scottish Parliament has powers, and we wait to see how the Scottish Government use them.
In asking the public to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives, there must be an understanding that in doing so consumers are running up higher electricity and gas bills. Does the Minister understand that 2.1 million people are behind in their energy bills at the moment, and that one way to help them would be to reduce VAT temporarily on home energy bills?
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point; there are household costs. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, through the package of measures, has supported the incomes of the poorest. The distributional analysis from the Treasury shows that the poorest working households have benefited most from the measures introduced by my right hon. Friend. The best way of supporting those families is through schemes that the UK, through its broad shoulders, is able to offer, such as the furlough scheme and the self-employed income support scheme, which have supported so many jobs across Scotland.
The Chancellor’s chaotic stop-start approach to furlough last autumn undoubtedly cost jobs. Failing to continue the £20 universal credit uplift and extend it to legacy benefits is set to plunge struggling families into hardship, and now the Conservatives are signalling tax rises and a return to austerity. To what extent does the Minister believe that that approach has contributed to 20 consecutive polls in favour of Scottish independence?
It continued throughout; that is just a statement of fact. In terms of the wider package, I would refer the hon. Lady to the fact that the UK Government have provided £280 billion-worth of support and that bodies such as the International Monetary Fund have said that the UK’s economic response has been one of the best examples of co-ordinated action globally. We are able to do that because we are working as one United Kingdom acting together and using the broad shoulders of the UK.
Support for Businesses: Covid-19
The Government recognise the significant impact of coronavirus on businesses across every region and nation of the United Kingdom, and that is why we have put in place an unprecedented series of measures to provide support, whether that is through the coronavirus job retention scheme, tax cuts, tax deferrals, Government-backed loans or cash grants.
Business support that was originally designed for three months is now wholly inadequate for 12 or 18 months. Business debts and deferrals are mounting and now have to start being repaid, and the holidays are coming to an end, all at one big danger point in April. Cash grants are worth less and many still do not qualify for them. While the Chancellor might pat himself on the back, reports out this week show that nearly 250,000 businesses are likely to go bust this year, taking many jobs with them. Does he recognise that he cannot pull the plug all in one go in April, given that many businesses will not even have reopened at that point, and that with the effects of the vaccine around the corner, it makes no economic sense to allow businesses to go bust at this critical point, having supported them for so long?
No one, least of all me, is patting themselves on the back while hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs and many businesses are seeing extreme dislocation as a result of what is happening in our economy. I have put in place a series of measures, but I have always said that we cannot protect or save every job and every business. The hon. Lady makes a fair point, which is why we have said that we will review all our economic measures to support people through coronavirus at the upcoming Budget, in the first week of March.
Many female business owners have found themselves working full-time jobs at home while bearing full-time responsibility for childcare and home schooling, all at the same time. May I thank my right hon. Friend for all the steps he is taking to alleviate the difficulties experienced by mothers who just want to work and contribute to the economy with their children safely back in school?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we owe mums everywhere an enormous debt of thanks for doing the enormously difficult job of juggling childcare and work at this tricky time. I know she will join me in being happy that early years settings have been open for a while, but she is right to say that the only way to sustainably solve this challenge is safely to reopen our schools as quickly as we can.
I have long believed that there was a compelling case for reducing VAT for the hospitality sector, and the pandemic-inspired cut helped to save the season between lockdowns. May I ask that my right hon. Friend, when he is looking at his Budget, considers making the cut permanent, to power the recovery across the UK, including in my destination town of Eastbourne, where one in four jobs depends on tourism?
My hon. Friend is rightly a champion for her local tourism and hospitality businesses, and she is not alone; across the country, hundreds of thousands of these businesses employ 2 million people. Those businesses are particularly vital in constituencies such as hers, which is why we reduced the rate of VAT—it runs all the way through to the end of March. She will know that we have an upcoming Budget, where we plan to review all our measures of support.
As you know, Mr Speaker, many of our manufacturers here in Lancashire have worked through the pandemic. Will my right hon. Friend congratulate businesses such as J & J Ormerod plc, James Killelea and Co Ltd, WEC Group and Perspex, who not only have worked through the pandemic, but show that high-value manufacturing and the real economy need to be things the Chancellor fosters and supports in his forthcoming Budget?
I am very happy to join my right hon. Friend in congratulating the businesses he mentioned. We know that many manufacturers, especially those in his area, have worked very hard, particularly with regard to ventilators and personal protective equipment at a time of this country’s need. He is right to say that that should play a part in our recovery. One initiative I would point to, which I believe will be in and around his area, is the Made Smarter partnership between Government and high-value manufacturing, which seeks to foster innovation, digital adoption and the latest and greatest management processes. It seems to be working very well and I look forward to learning more about that initiative.
Cheadle businesses that faced fines for failing to submit self-assessment returns by the end of this month will be relieved by yesterday’s announcement of an extension until the end of February, as that will remove a great deal of worry and anxiety from business owners who are already under great pressure. With the original deadline only a week away, what steps will the Department take to ensure that all businesses are aware of these changes?
As an accountant herself, my hon. Friend knows all too well the fantastic job that these people are doing, under enormous strain, at this current time. I know that, as she said, she warmly welcomes the announcement yesterday by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to waive penalties until the end of February for late filers. She is right to say that we must make sure that everyone is aware of this, and we are doing everything we can, on all our channels of communication, to get this news to businesses. I ask other colleagues across this House to do exactly the same in their constituencies.
There is a looming bloodbath for many businesses at the end of March, when the moratorium on commercial landlords taking action against tenants in arrears comes to an end. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that acute danger? What action might he consider taking to avoid it?
My right hon. Friend knows that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is engaged with that issue and has worked with the industry to put in place various codes of practice to encourage good and constructive dialogue between landlords and tenants throughout a difficult situation. There are promising signs that that is happening.
Self-employment Income Support Scheme
The self-employment income support scheme is one of the most generous in the world and has received claims from almost 2.7 million people so far, totalling more than £18.5 billion. The amount of the scheme grant is determined based on the applicant’s average profits from self-employment in the previous three tax years, as reported through their tax returns. By calculating the grant on an average of three years of profits, the scheme supports people who saw a dip in profits for any reason, including pregnancy.
The Chancellor likes to claim that the UK offers one of the most generous support schemes for self-employed people in the world, but self-employed women who have taken maternity leave in the past few years are not supported generously at all—in fact, they have received a lot less financial support than their peers who have not taken maternity leave. The charity Pregnant Then Screwed reported that around 75,000 self-employed women have been subject to— [Inaudible.]
If I may just say, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. We are not talking about a claim that is not validated by third parties; it is understood internationally that the scheme is one of the most generous in the world. He will be aware that the issue is subject to legal challenge, which limits what I can say, but I can tell him that the Government are well aware that some self-employed people found that their eligibility for the scheme was affected if they had taken time out of their trade in 2018-19, which is why, in June last year, the scheme’s eligibility criteria were revised to ensure that people in that situation were able to claim self-employment income support.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, the UK Government have consistently failed to prioritise support for women on maternity leave. Despite the issue being raised by me and a host of others repeatedly in this House, the UK Government were taken to judicial review last week by Joeli Brearley and the tireless campaigners at Pregnant Then Screwed. Do the UK Government now accept that it is not a sabbatical, sick leave or a holiday—it is maternity leave? Will they end their discrimination against 75,000 self-employed mothers?
I am not sure whether the sound system was working but, as the hon. Lady will know from my previous remarks, the issue is subject to legal challenge so I cannot discuss it. I will say, though, that I met maternity groups as part of the excluded in early December, and we have taken steps to remedy the situation, where we have been able to do so, in relation to those who took time out in the year 2018-19.
Environmentally Sustainable Economic Growth
The Government are clear that we will drive growth by investing in infrastructure, innovation and skills. In doing so, we will build back better and greener as we recover from the economic impact of coronavirus, starting, of course, with the Prime Minister’s green 10-point plan.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right—our 10-point plan can create hundreds of thousands of jobs up and down the country. He is also right that we can lead the world in this journey. We have been one of the fastest countries to decarbonise over the past few years and are one of the leading countries not only in phasing out coal and internal combustion engine vehicles but in offshore wind and carbon capture and storage. Where Britain goes, hopefully the world can follow.
This year, the UK Government have a chance to show global leadership on the climate emergency
as the host of the UN climate change conference in Glasgow. Green gilts will be a vital part of the transition to a clean economy. Last year, the Chancellor promised to launch the first ones this year. Will he tell us when and why not yet?
We are doing the technical work required to make sure that the launch of our green gilts is successful. I hope to provide an update at the Budget, but the hon. Lady can rest assured that we are working very hard at it. As I said, this will be the first step in building out a green curve. By doing that and making sure that the curve has fidelity in terms of confidence in where the money is going, we can unlock investment for the private sector across the economy. I know that she will join me in welcoming that progress.
Self-employment Income Support Scheme.
The self-employment income support scheme was designed to target support at those who most need it while protecting the taxpayer against error, fraud and abuse. The Government recognise that some of the rules and criteria that have been vital to ensuring that the scheme worked for the vast majority have meant that, in some cases, people were not able to qualify. This is one reason why the Government put in place a much wider £280 billion support package, including increased levels of universal credit, bounce back loans, tax, deferrals, rental support, mortgage holidays, self-isolation support payments and other business support grants.
It is understandable that, as support schemes were constructed at short notice, there would be gaps in them. It is less understandable why, a year later, those gaps have not been better closed. Many of my constituents are among the millions who have been excluded from support schemes so far, so, as we approach that anniversary, what message does the Minister have for them?
The message would be that the Treasury is doing everything it can to protect jobs, families and livelihoods in the face of the worst pandemic crisis that we have experienced in recorded history. It is important to say that, in the case of this scheme, we have spent considerable time engaging with groups that have brought forward potential ways of addressing some of the gaps in support that may exist. As I mentioned, we have had meetings in December and evaluated suggestions all the way through last year, including a concrete suggestion in relation to the directors income support scheme, so we are heavily leaning into this issue.
I want to raise the case of my constituent, Teresa McGeough, who is a newly self-employed special educational needs expert. She has not been eligible for any financial assistance during the pandemic. Does the Minister think that the Government are doing enough to help people such as Theresa and others?
As I have said, the Government are doing everything they can and have been working round the clock for a year to address the full needs of the country across all the different aspect of our economy and society, including through support for the self-employed.
The self-employment income support scheme’s third grant closes this Friday. The crisis has not ended, but the Chancellor has not provided many details on the future of the scheme. Will the Minister explain why he thinks it is right that employees can be furloughed until 30 April but self-employed people have no clarity about the future of support beyond the end of this week?
Financial Services: Equivalence Recognition
Equivalence is an autonomous technical process that each side is undertaking separately. Officials have had a number of meetings with their counterparts in the Commission over the past 12 months to discuss each other’s processes, and we remain open and committed to continuing dialogue with the EU about its intentions for equivalence.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, it would be disappointing if the EU could not follow the UK’s offer on equivalence, given the relative starting positions. Will my hon. Friend comment on the Government’s ambitions with regard to mutual recognition of professional qualifications? What are those ambitions and does he hope that they will be achieved by the signing of the memorandum in March?
My hon. Friend has a lot of expertise in this area. He will know that, alongside the trade and co-operation agreement, we had a joint declaration to establish a structured regulatory co-operation for financial services and to discuss a whole range of matters around equivalence determinations going forward. The memorandum of understanding will be agreed in discussions between the EU and UK by March 2021. That will establish a framework for that co-operation. It would not be appropriate for me to give a running commentary on that, but the plans will come to fruition over the coming weeks.
The Brexit deal was, in effect, a no-deal outcome for financial services. Already some trade has moved, and there is big uncertainty hanging over access to European markets for this vital UK sector. Can the Minister confirm that it is in fact a Government negotiating aim to secure equivalence recognition for UK financial services in the memorandum of understanding being discussed between now and the end of March?
To clarify for the right hon. Gentleman, the equivalence granting process is an autonomous, separate process from the MOU discussion. The MOU is about a framework to evaluate the future direction of financial services across the EU and UK. I remain very ambitious for the financial services sector. The Chancellor and I are continuing to have a dialogue—with roundtables with representatives of the sector this week and next week, as well as one-to-one meetings—to ensure that we listen to the sector, and respond appropriately and ambitiously for the future.
UK-EU Trade and Co-operation Agreement: Regional Effect
We have secured an unprecedented free trade agreement with the European Union—the first free trade agreement that the EU has ever reached based on zero tariffs and zero quotas. Across sectors and regions, it is a good deal that will protect jobs and investment.
The assessment conducted by the Treasury in 2018 concluded that there would be significant regional variation in the impact of any Brexit deal. We are certainly seeing that, with fishing fleets grounded, manufacturers hit with extra costs, and the Department for International Trade apparently advising businesses to move parts of their operation to the EU to avoid problems. It is clear that there will be a significant regional impact. Does the Chancellor agree that he needs to redress that regional damage from the Brexit deal? Alternatively, does he agree with the new Business Secretary’s comments in “Britannia Unchained” that regional division is an “irrelevant” debate?
No one can doubt the Government’s commitment to uniting and levelling up across our United Kingdom, with an unprecedented infrastructure investment programme. Notably in the spending review, we announced something called the levelling-up fund, which will fund the infrastructure of everyday life in communities up and down the country, on top of our once-in-a-generation increase in infrastructure investment in road, rail and broadband that will benefit equally all parts of our United Kingdom.
Air Passenger Duty
The consultation on aviation tax reform has been delayed in recognition of the unprecedented circumstances that the aviation industry is currently facing. However, I will update hon. Members on the timing of the consultation in due course.
The United Kingdom charges the highest air passenger duty of any country in the developed world. Now that we have left the EU, domestic air passenger duty is something that we can alter. As we seek to recover from the covid-19 pandemic and take the advantages of a global Britain, can we have an early review of this tax, which is a pressure on our industry?
The Government recognise the important role that the aviation sector plays in the UK economy. The sector can draw on the wide range of support measures available, including the recently announced airport and ground operations support scheme, which will provide eligible firms with support of up to £8 million per claimant. However, I reassure my hon. Friend that we remain committed to delivering the consultation, and will look to proceed once the challenging circumstances that the sector is currently facing have eased.
NHS Funding: Wales
As healthcare is devolved, it is for the Welsh Government to ensure that the NHS in Wales has enough funding, using the over £20 billion of funding they receive from the UK Government through the Barnett formula.
The covid-19 vaccination programme in Wales is unfortunately lagging behind England, but despite that, the Welsh First Minister has announced that he intends to slow the release of vaccine to avoid, as he puts it, vaccinators
“standing around with nothing to do”.
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that there are no financial constraints that he is aware of that would justify this perverse and irrational policy decision or prevent the Welsh Government from deploying the vaccine as quickly in Wales as in any part of the country?
I am happy to confirm to my right hon. Friend that there are not financial constraints. The UK Government have guaranteed that the Welsh Government will receive at least £5.2 billion in additional resource to deliver their coronavirus response, including the vaccine deployment activities.
Covid-19: Regional Economic Disparities
The Government recognise the significant impact of covid-19 on every region and nation of the UK. I can assure hon. Members across the House that levelling up remains a key priority for the Government. That is why the spending review also announced longer-term measures to support every region and nation, including a new £4 billion levelling-up fund to invest in local infrastructure priorities.
It is good to hear that the Government are still committed to levelling up, but all the academic studies that have been done have shown that covid has disproportionately affected the regional economies, with Greater Manchester the third most badly affected region in the country. Those regions need more support, but Transport for the North and Northern Powerhouse Rail are being cut; is that not going in exactly the opposite direction?
I would dispute the hon. Gentleman’s claims. We have taken unprecedented steps to support people and businesses around the country. We have supported 19,100 jobs in his constituency through the coronavirus job retention scheme. Greater Manchester Combined Authority has been allocated £54.2 million from the Getting Building fund for a wide-ranging package of projects. We have also provided over £170 million for the Greater Manchester-Preston city region and Liverpool city region to improve public transport. We have also supported the regeneration of 33 towns in the north-west through the towns fund. There is a lot that is happening on levelling up. If he would like me to write to him to explain everything that we have done in his region, I am happy to do so.
Government Financial Support: Low to Moderate Incomes
The impact of tax and welfare policy is best analysed at the whole-household level. As the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said, because most people live in households with others and we do not know how incomes are shared, it is very hard to look at effects separately for many men and women. That is why the Government support has been targeted at the most vulnerable. Our distributional analysis published last year shows that the Government’s covid-19 financial support protected the poorest households’ incomes the most as a proportion of their income.
The pandemic has been a difficult time for pregnant women in work, and one in four have faced discrimination, including being unlawfully singled out for redundancy—a problem not confined to the pandemic. Will my hon. Friend look again at how other countries tackle this problem and consider adopting Germany’s approach of protecting pregnant women from redundancy, which would also give families much-needed financial stability at what can be a very challenging time?
We are aware of the difficulties that families are experiencing during the pandemic and we have put many measures in place to look at this, but if my right hon. Friend has examples of specific schemes happening across the world that she would like me to look at, I am happy to do so within my other role as Minister for Equalities.
Covid-19: Support for Local Authorities
The Government have committed more than £10 billion to support local authorities in dealing with covid in this financial year and the next, including an unprecedented guarantee to compensate them for their income losses as a result of the pandemic.
I welcome the considerable support that has already been given to local councils during the pandemic. However, I recently had discussions with leaders of North Warwickshire Borough Council, which is an incredibly well-run council, and they are still finding a shortfall of about half a million pounds against an annual budget of £10 million, due to a mix of lost revenue and providing additional services to residents, such as extra home waste collection services. What more can be done to ensure that we give councils the full backing they need to continue providing services?
North Warwickshire has received more than £1 million to meet its expenditure pressures this year, exceeding the expenditure pressures that it has reported to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. I urge my hon. Friend to express any further concerns to MHCLG at the earliest opportunity. As he recognises, a comprehensive package of support has already been provided, and that support continues.
Throughout this crisis, our overriding economic priority has been to support people’s jobs and businesses through a range of measures worth more than £280 billion, including the furlough scheme, tax cuts, tax deferrals, loans and grants. There will be a Budget on 3 March, when we will set out the next steps in our economic response to coronavirus.
Last week the Chancellor received a detailed and costed policy proposal for a targeted income grant scheme, written by Rebecca Seeley Harris and supported by the gaps in support all-party parliamentary group. That scheme would be a vital first step in giving meaningful financial support to many of the millions who have been locked out of the current schemes and who are desperate, after nearly a year of the covid pandemic. Can the Chancellor tell us today whether he plans to progress with that proposal, or does he have another scheme in mind for the millions in need of support?
My hon. Friend is right about needing the private sector to drive growth and create jobs. I am pleased to tell him that the Prime Minister and I chaired the first meeting of the Build Back Better Business Council, where we outlined our plans to invest in infrastructure, innovation and skills alongside businesses. We have also established a new Office for Investment, led by Lord Grimstone, which is charged with securing high-value investment opportunities, and I look forward to hearing from him ideas that we can productively take forward.
In recent days, the Treasury has been at loggerheads with the Department for Work and Pensions, insisting on taking £20 a week from the pockets of 6 million families. It has also been at loggerheads with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, by claiming that financial hardship is not inhibiting self-isolation. Why is the Treasury putting our economic and health recovery at risk in this way?
The hon. Lady should not believe everything she reads in the newspapers. The Treasury and this Government have put in place a comprehensive and generous set of support to help people get through this crisis, and the results show that we have protected those on the lowest incomes the most.
I was actually following the words of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and of SAGE, but I appreciate the Chancellor’s response. The kickstart scheme was much heralded, but yesterday we learned that it appears to be missing out around 99 of every 100 young jobseekers. What does the Chancellor say to them today?
I am not entirely sure I know the figures that the hon. Lady is referring to. What I can say is that, since this scheme was announced at the beginning of July and opened for applications in September, it has created over 120,000 jobs for young people. That is, I think, an extraordinary achievement. I pay tribute to the team at the DWP for doing that. I am grateful to the thousands of businesses that are taking part in the scheme. They are working with us to provide hope and opportunity to a generation of young people so that they are not scarred by coronavirus, but can look forward to a brighter future.
My hon. Friend will I hope appreciate that the various things he just mentioned total about, I think, £20 billion or £30 billion, so he will understand it is reasonable that we consider all these things in the round at Budget, when we will set out the next stage in our economic response to coronavirus.
The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that HMRC will forgo around £800 million in customs income and VAT over the next year. Some is deferred, but much is forgone. Will the Chancellor tell us what he is doing to make sure that that number shrinks and that revenue comes in at a time when the Exchequer needs it really very badly?
I will have to go and check the exact figures, if the hon. Lady will forgive me for not knowing the specific paragraph that she refers to. In general HMRC is providing easements over the next few months as we transition to a new set of trading relationships, but she can rest assured that we are always mindful of the impact on revenue and intend fully—very much so—to have a robust set of mechanisms in place. As she will know, there is a phased response for getting to that point between now and July, and hopefully we can work with her to make sure that that path is as seamless as possible.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, which tempts me into indiscretion. He may be aware of this, but HMRC publishes annual estimates to illustrate the impact of changes in tax rates in a document sexily entitled “Direct effects of illustrative tax changes”. It is worth saying, however, that these estimates are themselves uncertain, because of different levels of behavioural response to tax changes, the potential for wider macroeconomic impacts and, of course, the interaction with other measures.
It is absolutely right that businesses get the funds as quickly as possible. What I would say is that central Government have disbursed that funding to local councils across the country, so it is actually for businesses to take up with their local authority why they have not received the money. There are two sets of grants: there are of course our monthly grants, which have been going for a while now, and the one-off payments of up to £9,000 that we announced earlier this year. But the hon. Gentleman is right to urge urgency. I know my colleagues in the Business Department are doing exactly that with local councils, but ultimately the responsibility will lie with individual councils.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a doughty champion for his region and he should know that we remain focused on the commitment we made at Budget 2020 to have 750 roles across the economic campus by the end of the Parliament. The Treasury is still considering a range of location options for the new campus. We want to ensure that the chosen location supports our wider levelling up agenda, but we will certainly take his comments and representations into account.
The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the commitment the Government have made to infrastructure, including in the forthcoming integration infrastructure plan, but the levelling up is not just about rail, as the Chancellor said; it is also about the £4 billion levelling up fund and, most importantly, about the review of the Green Book. As Lord O’Neill and others have commented, that ensures that a whole range of projects better address the levelling up alongside the significant investment in rail and other transport infrastructure.
The Government understand that this is a very challenging time for the UK hospitality sector, and we are constantly reviewing the package of covid-19 support. In order to ensure that decisions are made to meet these challenges, we will outline plans for 2021-22 business rates relief early this year, but my hon. Friend should let her constituents know that for existing tax liabilities the VAT deferral new payments scheme will allow businesses with deferred VAT to spread their payments over up to 11 equal payments to 31 March 2022 interest-free.
I am happy to look at the specific question the hon. Lady raises, but she will know that in the last Budget we introduced a manifesto commitment to bring in neonatal leave, which was warmly welcomed and many had campaigned for, and I know will make a difference to families up and down the country.
My hon. Friend raises a point mentioned by several Members about the difficulties businesses in the hospitality sector and their supply chain have faced during the pandemic. He can tell his constituents that £1.6 billion is being made available for local authorities to support businesses that are ineligible for closed business grants but that may still be impacted by restrictions, and local authorities have discretion to determine how much funding to provide to businesses and the flexibility to target local businesses that are important to their local economies, which could include businesses in the supply chains for retail, hospitality and leisure.
The hon. Gentleman can write to me with the specific issue he has with the guidance, but in general the grants have been functioning, I think, very well and local authorities are getting them out to businesses. They also have access to discretionary funding. As the name suggests, although there are broad guidelines, ultimately that funding is to be at the discretion of individual local authorities.
As my hon. Friend says, and I thank him for it, the temporary reduced rate of VAT was introduced to support the cash flow and the viability of over 150,000 businesses and to protect 2.4 million jobs in the hospitality and tourism sectors. It was extended in September and extended again, and will now run until 31 March of this year. But the relief comes at a significant cost, and while the Government keep taxes under review, we have no current plans to extend it further. I remind my hon. Friend that there are many other aspects of our financial support that may be of assistance to his constituents.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Across the pandemic, the Government have created a number of innovative responses, like Eat out to Help Out. We will continue to examine very carefully what package of measures we need to intervene with, and the Chancellor has indicated that he will be coming forward at the Budget with an update to the House on that package in due course.
Given the current imperative to forge new trade deals worldwide, and also to make the new EU trade deal work, what incentives are being considered by the Treasury to both attract new companies to the UK and retain those that are already here?
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out a moment ago, the Office for Investment, led by Lord Grimstone, is focused on exactly that issue, working in tandem with the Build Back Better Business Council, which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor chair.
UK Border: Covid Protections
From January 2020, the Government have had a comprehensive strategy for public health measures at the border. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office swiftly discouraged all but essential travel to China and announced that anybody entering the UK from Wuhan should self-isolate for 14 days.
In February, advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies recommended that those from Thailand, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia and Macau, and those who were symptomatic, should also self-isolate, and regulations were introduced to allow officers to detain and direct individuals. In March, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office advised against all non-essential travel, initially for 30 days. On 23 March, the Prime Minister advised that everyone should stay at home and travel only for essential purposes.
A raft of measures followed in May, including 14 days’ self-isolation, passenger locator forms and fines for those who failed to comply with those mandatory conditions. In July, the Government announced the introduction of the international travel corridors. The countries on those travel corridor lists were kept under constant review and removed as the risk of importing covid-19 increased.
However, as the safeguarding of the vaccine roll-out has become the Government’s priority, we have introduced stricter controls. In December, following the identification of the new variant of the virus, we introduced a travel ban on arrivals from South Africa, later extending to a ban on South America and Portugal. We suspended travel corridors and required all passengers to show proof of a negative coronavirus test before they embark on their journey to the UK. Anyone arriving must also self-isolate for 10 days.
Those new measures are being robustly enforced to keep the public safe. Passengers must continue to fill in a passenger locator form, and those who fail to comply face a £500 fine. Carriers are under a legal obligation to check that each passenger has proof of a negative test, and are liable for a fine of £2,000 for not complying. To date, Border Force has checked an estimated 3.7 million passenger locator forms, issued more than 2,300 fixed penalty notices and referred more than 22,000 cases to the police.
The UK has a world-leading vaccination programme that should all be proud of. It is therefore right that the Government continue to do everything we can to protect the roll-out of the vaccine from new strains of the virus. We keep all measures under review and will not hesitate to take further action to protect the public.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and to the Home Secretary for her response. It is good to see her in her place, and I hope we will see her there again to answer questions about how 400,000 police records were deleted and give us the promised update on that matter.
The efforts of the British people and the hopes of the vaccine are being undermined by the Government’s inability to secure our borders against covid. Conservative incompetence is putting our country at risk. Labour is calling for a comprehensive hotel quarantine system, with protections to secure us against new strains. It cannot be restricted to only a handful of countries, leaving gaping holes in our defences against different strains of the virus emerging around the world. The Government must also announce a sector support package for aviation.
The Government’s proposals being briefed to the press are half-baked and will be ineffective. As ever, it is too little, too late. From the start of the pandemic, the Government’s handling of measures at the border has been chaotic. There has not been a comprehensive strategy as the Home Secretary suggested. Indeed, from January last year to 23 March, only 273 people were formally quarantined. I wrote to the Home Secretary in April and asked her to learn the lessons of that, but still by May the UK was an international outlier, with virtually no travel controls.
When formal quarantining was introduced in June, the policy was so badly handled that it was ineffective. It is not being properly enforced, and the Government’s own figures show that only 3% of people are being successfully contacted to ensure that they are observing the quarantine. Even the introduction of mandatory testing was delayed because the Government could not get the structures in place.
On the briefed plans for hotel quarantine, can the Home Secretary confirm when formal plans will be introduced? Will they be comprehensive or limited to a few countries? If they are limited, how will that be acceptable when the quarantining system is in such disarray? Put simply, what confidence can the public have in the Government on this issue if Ministers are not prepared to learn from their own mistakes?
Let me begin by saying that I welcome the hon. Gentleman giving us a chance to discuss these measures. He has also mentioned the police national computer, about which we will provide an update in due course; I can give him that reassurance.
There has been a comprehensive strategy across Government, and it dates back to 27 January last year. The hon. Gentleman will be fully aware and sighted of that. It started with travel advice from the FCO, followed by guidance from SAGE from 10 February last year. New statutory instruments, including regulations, were introduced, and there were new powers for the medical profession and the police to detain individuals carrying symptoms of coronavirus. Guidance was issued to airports in February last year around how to handle coronavirus, and there was a flurry of travel advice. That was supported by self-isolation measures and, in March, the Coronavirus Act 2020. There was a parcel of mandatory quarantine, passenger locator forms, shutting the border with Denmark when the new strain was identified, test and release, banning flights from South Africa, pre-travel tests and carrier liability.
This is a comprehensive approach and strategy. It is important to note that throughout, when it comes to coronavirus and measures at the border that involve other Departments, the measures set out have naturally come with logistical and operational challenges. I take this opportunity to thank our operational partners—our airports, in particular, and Border Force, which has been on the frontline day in and day out, checking passengers. I mentioned earlier the number of checks, and Border Force is now checking 100% of passengers arriving in the UK. We have the isolation assurance service, which is increasing the number of checks to 5,000 a day. The National Police Chiefs’ Council is already surging capacity to provide those checks.
The hon. Gentleman has referred to newspaper reports and speculation. It would be wrong of me to speculate about any measures that are not in place right now, as policy is being developed. He spoke about quarantining, and he claims that the Labour party has been calling for tougher restrictions. If I may say so, his party should reflect on its position. In August last year, the hon. Gentleman himself called quarantine “a blunt tool”. In July, the shadow Transport Secretary, the hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Jim McMahon), said that quarantine measures should be “lessened”. In June last year, the Leader of the Opposition also said that the system was “a blunt instrument”.
Measures are always under review, and it is right that the Government review all measures. As I have said, we have a world-leading vaccination programme. We are proud of that programme, and the Government will do everything that they can to protect that vaccine from new strains of the virus.
I commend my right hon. Friend for her unwavering commitment to keeping our borders secure. In that context, she will know that in Kent we of course support that, but we also support the free flow of legitimate haulage traffic across the channel not just for the sake of the national economy but to keep our local roads flowing freely as well. Can she assure me that any new measures will not impede the flow of freight traffic through the tunnel and across the channel?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I thank him, as a Kent MP, for the work he has been doing, particularly on flow and hauliers. We absolutely have throughout the last 12 months—through difficulties as well, if we recall back in December—protected the flow of freight and critical supplies. That will continue.
It is simply not accurate to say that there has been a comprehensive strategy in place since January 2020, and it is really quite extraordinary that a Home Secretary previously so obsessed with stopping people from entering the country and deporting those already here should have taken so long to properly address covid protections at the UK border.
As the Home Secretary knows, in April and May last year I wrote to her asking for comprehensive health protections at the border, and I referred to the measures that had been introduced in other countries in Europe and across the world. Last week, the Home Secretary admitted that we should have closed our borders earlier, so why did she fail to take precautions that she knew were needed? What stopped her? Was it her Cabinet colleagues? If so, why did she not resign and speak out, given the risk of increased transmission from people entering the country?
Finally, it is good that four-nations discussions are now taking place, but it is the Home Office that collects and holds passenger data, and the UK Border Force, as the Home Secretary explained, reports to the Home Office, a UK Government Department. Can she confirm that all proper co-operation will be afforded to the devolved Governments going forward?
I think it is fair to say that the hon. and learned Lady and I will disagree on a number of things, including her opening remarks on the Government’s strategy. I have already outlined them, so I do not need to run through the range of measures that have been undertaken, but I would just like to reflect on a point she made about co-operation across the four nations. She will be very well aware that co-operation has taken place from the outset through the introduction of travel corridors and through the work of the UK Border Force across the United Kingdom. If I may say so, it does that incredibly well at our ports and airports across the UK. In fact, earlier last year I visited many of our Border Force officers in Scotland, both at Edinburgh and Glasgow. The co-operation is incredibly strong. The dialogue always continues and does exist. That will continue as, potentially, measures may change, as they have done throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement on the work being done by our Border Force. Does she agree that while our efforts to contain the original coronavirus strain were working, because of the increased transmissibility of the new strains it is right that we re-evaluate the work being done at our borders?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Throughout the pandemic, we should all reflect on the way in which it has changed all our lives, but also on how it has touched our lives in many, many ways, and sad ways. All our measures have been under review, and that will continue at the border and with regard to the vaccine roll-out, as my hon. Friend points out.
The Home Secretary lifted all the self-isolation rules for travellers on 13 March last year. In the following 10 days, up to 10,000 people with covid arrived in the UK, making the pandemic worse. Lessons must be learnt this time. Further delays in strengthening quarantine and testing are a serious problem. Can she tell me why we saw crowded scenes at Heathrow on Friday at the UK border—the very opposite of quarantine? Is it true that for months people have been waiting for hours in those queues in unsafe circumstances? Is it true that the Border Force lifted some of the checks that she just said were being applied to 100% of passengers, because those queues were unsafe?
The Chair of the Home Affairs Committee will be aware, with regard to her comments about last year, that the advice from Government was to stay at home, and clearly the point of that was not to travel. She asked, rightly, about the scenes at Heathrow airport at the weekend, and the fact is that those queues materialised because of the compliance checks that Border Force had put in place. I would like to thank Heathrow airport, because, as she will also be aware, we—colleagues in Border Force—work with the airport operators on social distancing measures at the airport. That is a joint piece of work that takes place, and all airports take responsibility for their work and how they manage their flows. Border Force, in particular, is there to enforce the checks, as it does now, achieving 100% coverage. It is also now working with London Heathrow airport’s assistant organisation—its contractors—HAL, which is also working as a triage function to make sure that people are being checked. I think the British public and the travelling public would just like that reassurance and that welcome news that checks are in place. If that means queues, obviously, we are working with airport operators in terms of how they are supported and triaged as arrivals come into the airport.
Given the nature of the new variant and the unique challenges that it has presented, I am pleased that new measures have been introduced, such as covid testing at the border, to help keep people safe as we continue our excellent efforts in the vaccination roll-out. Does my right hon. Friend agree that of course it is right that border measures are kept under constant review as we battle this fast-changing virus, and that it is much easier to be in Opposition making loud and sometimes conflicting suggestions with the benefit of hindsight?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. Again, it is worth reflecting on the fact that we are in a global health pandemic and all measures must always be under review. She made the point as well about Opposition parties and the flip-flopping. At the end of the day, the Government have to make difficult decisions and choices, working with operational partners, and that is exactly what we have done from day one throughout this pandemic.
Hundreds of asylum seekers are being housed in decommissioned Army barracks in Kent and Wales. Locked in, residents of the Napier barracks camp in Kent are forced to sleep in dormitories of 28 people. Social distancing and self-isolation are therefore impossible. One hundred people in the camp—that is, one in four—have tested positive for covid. One in 20 are on suicide watch. These are disgraceful, inhumane conditions, and the Home Office has now belatedly said that it will move those with covid out of the Napier camp. Will the Home Secretary now respect the rights and dignity of these people, close these camps and provide good, safe and liveable housing instead?
It is important for the hon. Member to understand that the accommodation facilities that we are using are military bases that are of a very high standard—so much so that they were housing and accommodating our service personnel, men and women, prior to the base being made available to asylum seekers. The reason the base was made available is that in line with Public Health England guidelines, because of coronavirus, we need space for social distancing, which has been absolutely in place. These accommodation sites are in line with PHE guidance—we have always checked guidance and worked with PHE throughout coronavirus when it comes to accommodation. [Interruption.] I can see the hon. Lady shaking her head—perhaps she would like to listen to the facts and not some of the jaded views that she may hold herself. Alongside that, the reason we have removed a number of asylum seekers over the weekend is actually to protect others from catching coronavirus. That is absolutely the right thing to do, because public health and public safety are important, and that, of course, is in line with PHE guidance.
I also pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for the work that she is doing to secure our borders. Given the current situation with a new, more transmissible virus, can I ask whether she agrees that we need to look again at our rules and guidance with regard to borders to make sure that we are limiting the amount of virus that comes through them?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely correct. We have an amazing vaccine programme. As we all know, the world is speaking about our vaccine roll-out programme, and we should be very proud about that. None the less, until the roll-out is advancing in the way that we would like it to, we need to take measures, and, as the House has heard me say several times now, all measures that we take throughout this pandemic are under review.
Measures of this sort have been a feature of all the systems that have been most effective in tackling coronavirus around the world, so the question that most people will want to hear answered today is, why did it take so long to get here? Will the Home Secretary do a bit to bolster public confidence in her decision making by publishing the evidence on which she has based the day’s decision, as well as the evidence that she has relied on to make different decisions hitherto?
Throughout the pandemic, all decisions have been made by looking at scientific advice, and the right hon. Gentleman will be well aware of that, and it is no different when it comes to protective measures at the border. He heard me speak about shutting the border when the mutant strain from Denmark was prevalent, and taking action around flights from South Africa and other countries, which was absolutely right. That was based on scientific advice, much of which has also been put out in the public domain.
I recognise that the Home Secretary cannot talk about measures that are being discussed at the moment, but I hope that she can assure the House that, if decisions are taken today, as we expect, a Minister will be appearing at the Dispatch Box tomorrow to update the House on those measures. May I just ask her this: given that the chief scientific adviser has said that coronavirus will be with us “forever”, are the measures that are being contemplated expected to be permanent to deal with that permanent risk of a mutating variant of the virus that the vaccine cannot deal with, or temporary?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his important question. First, all announcements were made both in the conventional way and to the House, as Mr Speaker would expect. Secondly, as my right hon. Friend will understand, measures are always under review. Decisions will be taken through the consultative process within Government based on evidence, based on discussions and based on a number of facts. The virus, of course, is changing, although it is still with us. The vaccine roll-out is a new element, a new consideration, in terms of the nature of the measures that are being taken. It is fair to say that there has been a layered approach with these measures. As we have seen, there has been escalation and de-escalation. Right now, we have escalated the measures through the banning of the travel corridors, so these measures will be under review. Naturally, as the roll-out progresses, new strains may or may not materialise internationally. We will obviously have to take everything into consideration when it comes to permanency or the timetabling of the application of certain measures.
I thank the Secretary of State for her answers today to the urgent question. She will be aware of the substantial concerns that exist around the Northern Ireland border with the Republic of Ireland as pertains to covid travel. Further to the announcement from the Republic of Ireland, can the Secretary of State confirm what, if any, contact has been made to ascertain the current situation and to share information regarding passengers’ travel to the Republic of Ireland and, potentially, to Northern Ireland, which should not have been withheld at any stage? Furthermore, what steps will be taken to save lives by being sensible about our shared border?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point. First of all, the advice is not to travel. It is to stay at home for the very reason that he has given: we are in a pandemic and we need to protect public health. He has highlighted some of the things that are taking place right now. Secondly, it is important for me to emphasise that this is a joint effort. Collaboration takes place in relation to the common travel area, the sharing of information and the sharing of data around passengers and flows. That has always been the case, and that will continue. None the less, I still emphasise that there is no need for individuals to travel. When it comes to the CTA and to the areas to which the hon. Gentleman is referring, we are also thinking predominantly about the movement of goods and hauliers, and, of course, there are checks in place for those particular examples.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Of course, we are speaking about current measures that are in place right now and have been put in place by the Government. My right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is working constantly with airports across the country in constructive dialogue in terms of the measures, the impact on flow and changes in flow. Again I would like to emphasise, recognising that these are difficult times of course, that people should really not be travelling unless there are exceptional circumstances.
I also wrote to the Home Secretary in April on covid border measures, and the reply on her behalf from her Home Office colleague, Baroness Williams, said that
“we have brought in the right measures at the right time”,
but we now know that the Home Secretary did not believe that, because she recently said publicly that she had wanted the borders closed. Is it not the case that it is not only my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) who believes that these new measures are too late, but that by her own admission she believes that herself?
I have already outlined the comprehensive package of measures that we brought in from January last year. It is all very well to talk with hindsight about measures in the past, but there were many discussions that took place. Alongside that, the measures are clear on testing, on test to release, and now on banning various flights and on carrier liabilities. These measures are in place and they will continue to be in place, but as I have said, as evidence changes, the situation changes. The measures are under review and changes will be announced in due course.
As an island nation, there is absolutely no reason why we could not follow the lead of countries such as New Zealand, which had strict border measures in place from the start of the pandemic and where normal life has been able to resume. That is something that we are all watching with envy from lockdown 3. As we approach a year since the first covid case in the UK, can the Home Secretary tell the House why it has taken her so long to put in an effective strategy to stop covid—particularly the new strains of covid—entering the country, and what steps will be taken to prevent travellers from circumventing travel restrictions by flying through countries with no restrictions?
I am intrigued by this new hindsight that everybody seems to have adopted rather quickly, when I have already outlined the position of the Opposition earlier in my remarks. The hon. Lady has heard my comments around the comprehensive approach, the list of measures that have been put in place, and the people that we have worked with in Government and out of Government in terms of operational partners. We have a comprehensive strategy that has been in place since January last year, but as I have said repeatedly, the measures will be under review as they have been throughout the entire pandemic, including health measures at the border.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on what she has been doing. Will she strengthen the law against people trafficking, which remains a worrying danger? Can she also ensure that the necessary travel controls do not stop essential work travel?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. First, on people trafficking, he has been assiduous on this and he has heard me speak a number of times about the measures that we are bringing forward in terms of legislation and plans around tackling people trafficking and smugglers. We have some good reports on the criminal penalties and sanctions that have been levelled against individuals. Secondly, he is absolutely right about the fines that we are putting in place and the exemptions that are required in key areas such as goods, in particular, coming into the country.
Pacific countries that controlled their borders have suffered less economic harm from covid. With evidence growing that the South African and other variants are resistant to antibodies, which could undermine the vaccine programme, when will the Government introduce this more rigorous quarantine, and how will they support the aviation sector through 2021, when these measures are likely to be needed?
I refer the hon. Lady to my statement and the comments I have made about measures being under review and announcements being forthcoming. It is not for me to give a timetable for what is taking place, because obviously there is a lot of work that takes place day in, day out across Government around border measures and the overall approach with regard to coronavirus.
I welcome these proposed measures; clearly, at times of highest risk, we need the strongest measures. Will the Secretary of State agree to be transparent and publish the criteria that the Government will use for deciding which measures will be in place at what time between quarantine, self-isolation and travel corridors being allowed?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. I do not want to speculate about new measures; he will bear with me, as he has heard me say this a number of times. There are processes around making decisions, and clearly, when changes come forward, the Government will announce the details in due course.
It is not hindsight. The Home Secretary knows that the Home Affairs Committee, on which I sit, took evidence from New Zealand and Singapore last year about what they were doing to successfully apply effective covid controls at the border. Ten months on, it feels that the Home Secretary is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted. I simply ask her this: why did our measures not work? Did they not go far enough, and does she take any responsibility for that?
As a member of the Select Committee, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that in April last year, we discussed at the Select Committee health measures at the border and the work of the Government. In terms of the effectiveness of the measures, he will be very familiar with all the measures—the statutory instruments, the regulations and the directions to airports, Border Force and the ports. As I and other members of the Government have said throughout, and particularly today, all measures are under review, and that is the right thing to do.
The Home Secretary will be aware that the aviation sector has been one of the most adversely affected by the pandemic. While it is right that the Government take all appropriate steps to protect public health, she will also be aware that any further restrictions will have a damaging impact on the sector. Can she reassure me that if any new restrictions on travel are brought in, they will only be in place for as long as necessary? Will the Government work with airports and airlines to find ways to safely allow flights to recommence as soon as possible?
Let me give hon. Friend reassurance about the way in which the Government across the board have worked with the aviation sector. He is right about the impact that coronavirus has had on global travel, airlines and the people who work in the sector. Government will continue to work with stakeholders and partners in the sector. They are our operational partners. We work with them every single day at our key airports and our ports, and that will continue.
I understand that the Home Secretary does not want to comment on any measures that are still to be confirmed, but if people are required to self-isolate on entering the UK, will the Government consider putting support in place to help those who cannot afford to finance their own quarantine but may be travelling due to, for example, a family emergency or bereavement?
I am sure my right hon. Friend would agree that returning British citizens need certainty about what to expect at the border. Can she assure me that advance information to travellers will be as explicit as possible, so that nobody can turn up at the airport claiming that they did not know which test to get or when and what documentation they would need to prove it?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question, and she is absolutely right of course. The role of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department for Transport throughout this pandemic has been very clear in terms of advice, and that will continue.
Will the Home Secretary indicate whether she thinks it is appropriate that the isolation assurance service has been checking just three out of 100 people on quarantine compliance? Surely she realises that that is totally unsatisfactory and falls far short of what is required to keep our country safe.
First, I pay tribute to our colleagues who are working on checks. The isolation assurance service has, throughout, increased its checks, and those numbers are wrong. It is right and vital to point out that the collaboration that takes place with not only the IAS and Border Force, but the police and others is right and vital—and it is working. As an organisation, the IAS has been stepping up the checks it has been undertaking.
As the MP for Redcar and Cleveland, I represent many of Teesside’s offshore oil and gas workers. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that if any additional border restrictions are put in place, that important part of our economy will not be negatively affected?
My hon. Friend is, rightly, a strong advocate for his constituency and this important sector in his constituency. There have been certain limited and restricted exemptions, but I repeat that if he bears with us on this and has patience, he will find that announcements will come in due course. He is, however, right to highlight his constituency interest.
As is the case in relation to any covid restriction, what businesses, operators and the public want and need is clarity, certainty and notice. So if the Government are going down the route of border closures, and I note what the Secretary of State has said already, will she provide an indication as to how long any restrictions are likely to last and provide reassurance that the Government will give support if this means no 2021 season for inbound tourism operators and their supply chains?
It is important at this stage to reflect upon the amount of support that the Government have put in to businesses throughout this pandemic. Of course the hon. Lady is right on certainty for businesses and others with regard to coronavirus restrictions. Nothing has changed on that, and of course we will work with all sectors, as we have done throughout this pandemic, when it comes to not only support, but giving them information up front.
Will my right hon. Friend please confirm that people should not be travelling in and out of the country unless absolutely necessary? Will she assure me that airports are fully aware that they too have a moral duty to ensure that social distancing is in place?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right: we are in a global health pandemic. The daily numbers that we see of people being hospitalised and the impacts of covid are a sobering reminder of all of this. I wish to make a couple of points. Of course passengers are checked at the airports—we have just discussed that today. All airports across the UK are operational partners, and they have a responsibility to comply with those social distancing and covid-compliant measures. We will continue to work with them and support them to do so. As ever, my message again is: people should not be travelling; we are in global health pandemic.
The Home Secretary will be aware that the Scottish Government cannot unilaterally close the border in Scotland to international arrivals. May I therefore ask: in the event that further restrictions on international arrivals are imposed, will she commit to offering the full resources of the UK Border Force, including funding, if required, to ensure that Scotland is able to operate effectively as part of a four-nations approach?
The hon. Gentleman has made the case for a stronger United Kingdom and for the Union working together, which is absolutely right, and we have been doing that, with Border Force in particular. I pay tribute to my Border Force colleagues across the country for the very strong work they are doing, in Scotland, Wales and across the UK, because they have been on the frontline every day.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will know that in Britain post Brexit we are clear in terms of the powers and decisions that we are able to undertake. That is, of course, effectively what the Government are now doing, and my hon. Friend has highlighted some clear areas where that change has now happened.
The first covid case in Wales was recorded on 28 February last year, yet almost a year later the UK Government remain reluctant to follow the science wholeheartedly in relation to the health risks implicit in international travel. While today’s answer is insufficient, the Government’s measures will also be difficult to sustain in the long term. Given that health is devolved, what plans are in place for the UK Government and the Welsh Government to work together on a long-term plan to ensure that international travel is not again a threat to public health?
If I may I will take the right hon. Lady back to January last year. She just mentioned travel measures, but travel measures were brought in in January last year. I am not going to run through again the various measures that have been undertaken. If I may say so, when it comes to the devolved nations, there is support and work in place, and calls take place on a near daily basis. It is absolutely right that we take a united approach to dealing with measures and restrictions, but also to tackling coronavirus. I absolutely urge Ministers across the four nations: if they have any particular issues in respect of joining up, speaking with one voice and being much more united, the Government’s door is well and truly open because that is exactly what we have been trying to do over the past 12 months.
I commend the Home Secretary for all the work that she and her Department are doing to keep our borders and people safe during this period. More than anything else, aerospace workers in Burnley need planes to be back in the air, so will the Home Secretary assure me that her Department is looking at what measures might be needed on the border in the long term to allow travel to resume in a safe and secure way?
I commend my hon. Friend for speaking about the aerospace sector and the innovation that takes place within it. Of course, across Government we recognise that coronavirus has been very challenging for the aviation sector, so those discussions will always take place and have taken place, and support will continue to be part of that wider discussion. The Government are committed to that.
On the day that Office for National Statistics figures show that the UK now has the highest number of covid deaths per million population in the world, and given that currently the isolation assurance service does not check the vast majority of those required to isolate, how can the Home Secretary assure us that enforcement of these new rules will be adequate, and that they will not be more honoured in the breach than the observance?
The hon. Lady has made a very important point. The number of deaths from coronavirus has reached 100,000. Every death is an absolute tragedy. I think that puts this discussion today into some context—a great deal of context, in fact—regarding not only measures but the fact that we are working night and day to reduce the spread of coronavirus. I have highlighted the checks done by the isolation assurance service, but it is not just about that service. It may reassure the hon. Lady to hear that Border Force is now fulfilling 100% of compliance checks, working with airport staff on triaging to bring in those checks and with airports and ports on queues and managing the flows coming in. Those are important measures, but it does come back to the need for compliance, which is why, again, I urge everyone who should not be travelling to please stay at home.
Given the huge efforts that everyone has made, which have now got infection rates back under control, and given the rise of new covid strains in a number of countries around the world, does my right hon. Friend agree that we cannot risk importing further new strains of the virus into the UK, which would undermine all that work?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have spoken already about our incredible vaccine—our world-leading vaccine—which we are proud of. Our work and focus since the development of the vaccine have been about protecting that vaccine from new strains, hence the measures that we brought in in December—the pre-travel tests and the carrier liability for pre-travel tests as well. Those are important measures, and they are clearly linked to the vaccine, but also to stopping the spread of coronavirus.
The Home Affairs Committee and the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus—in our report following our inquiry last year—recommended tighter border restrictions to suppress the virus, reflecting the success of countries that followed a SARS/MERS pandemic model, rather than a flu pandemic model. It just is not credible for the Home Secretary to say that there were adequate protections at our borders. Given this, why have the Government been so slow to protect the country’s public health and the economy via its borders?
I am naturally going to disagree with the hon. Lady, and do so respectfully. As I have already said and as she will recall, last year at the Select Committee we had a lengthy discussion around coronavirus measures at the border and the number of people coming into the country, and I have highlighted the measures that are in place. These are stringent and strong measures, which have been put in place in a layered approach throughout the pandemic. When the situation has changed, when the evidence has changed, and when new strains have materialised and developed, the Government have taken the right action at the right time.
Many residents in Hyndburn and Haslingden have raised concerns about people entering our country and not following the isolation guidance when they arrive. Will the Home Secretary please reassure my residents that more stringent measures will be in place, if necessary, to control the virus?
I reassure my hon. Friend and her constituents about the isolation assurance service. As I have said, that service is working with Border Force and the police around absolutely following through on compliance checks. The IAS is linked with Public Health England, so it clearly takes the lead on that. My hon. Friend’s constituents should be reassured by the checks that we have in place, which are very clear; Border Force and others are working together to ensure that they are working.
The Home Secretary said last week that she was an advocate of closing the borders last March. Given that she chose not to answer my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) on this matter, could I ask again—why did she not make stronger public representations at the time? Or was she silenced within her own Department?