Coronavirus Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
David DavisMain Page: David Davis (Conservative - Haltemprice and Howden)
Department Debates - View all David Davis's debates with the Department of Health and Social Care
Legislation Debates - View all David Davis's contributions to the Coronavirus Act 2020
We have other ways to enforce that with care homes, not least contractually through local authorities. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern; people in care homes need to be protected, and many of them shielded, from the virus, because many of the most vulnerable people are in care homes. I will take away the point and look at whether more needs to be done, but we do have other powers available to deliver on what he and I—I think—agree is needed.
As discussed with the Opposition, we are proposing a six-month debate and vote on the continuation of the Bill, and before that debate we will provide evidence and advice from the chief medical officer to inform the debate. There is also a reporting mechanism for a report every eight weeks on the use of the powers in the Bill.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I represent an inner-city seat, and I appreciate that her seat is on the outskirts of London but, none the less, our seats have similar demographics. I know full well that many, many families are living in cramped, small flats. There are intergenerational families living with elderly mums, elderly grandmothers and so on who have various comorbidities and who need to be shielded.
If we enter a situation in which we force people to stay at home, I hope the Government will look at how to support such families, because it is quite outrageous that, in many parts of the country—especially in London, but also in my constituency—there are flats with families of nine or 10 people sleeping on the floor, and so on, while property developers have flats standing empty. Why cannot we take over some of those empty flats to house some of these very vulnerable families and to help us get through this national crisis?
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We are asking people, and are probably on the cusp of probably of forcing people, to radically adjust their behaviour in a way in which we have not been used to for more than 70 years. The last time that we asked people to radically adjust their behaviour was in the second world war. We have generations who are not used to this. We are a society who are used to going where we want, buying what we want, doing what we want and socialising when we want, and clearly, for a lot of people, it is not dawning on them that they will have to change the way they behave. That has huge knock-on effects for how public services will be organised, how the criminal justice system will have to work and how food distribution systems are going to work. It is right that we as parliamentarians continue to ask Government Ministers serious questions about that, but we also have to be aware that we have a responsibility to set an example to the country. We have to socially distance ourselves, so I really hope that the good offices of the Speaker, the Leader of the House and everyone who is involved in House business can quickly find a satisfactory set of procedures for us to continue having our discussions and asking Ministers questions, but not setting the example that we are unfortunately setting today. I am not making any personal criticism of any Member, because it is the situation we are in—we have to debate the Bill today—but we are going to have to hold the Government to account on the far-reaching, extensive powers that they are taking.
Absolutely. That is why these particular clauses must be scrutinised so carefully by Members across the House.
We have tabled amendments to schedule 11. We recognise that there will be difficulties delivering social care over the coming weeks and months, but it should not be possible for local authorities to immediately drop care packages to a lower level. As long as it is reasonably practicable to do so, they should continue to meet people’s care needs. The presumption should always be that services will be disrupted as little as they can be under the circumstances. Nothing in our amendments would stop a local authority cutting back care hours if it had to, but they would mean that disabled and older people could be reassured that any reductions in their care will be a last resort, and that their independence will not be the first sacrifice to be made.
There are particular concerns about people who live alone or are being held in in-patient units and care homes. We have seen visits to those settings stopped as part of the Government’s shielding approach, and the CQC has halted all inspections, but we know from incidents such as Whorlton Hall that is too easy for abuse to go unnoticed—something the current situation could make worse. How will we ensure that in-patient units and care homes do not become hotbeds of abuse of human rights over the coming months?
The right hon. Gentleman is right: we cannot just have a take-it-or-leave-it approach to these things. Tonight, the House will give the Government extraordinary powers, like we have never seen before, and it is right that we parliamentarians are given an opportunity, after the appropriate timeframe, to look at how those powers have been used and hold Ministers to account. I agree with the spirit of the point he makes, although I cannot at this stage—I suppose it may emerge later in the debate—give him a commitment one way or the other on a particular amendment. We will see how the discussions proceed throughout the afternoon, but I certainly endorse the spirit of what he says. As I say, these are extraordinary powers that the House will grant the Government this week.
We have tabled a new clause related to schedule 11. We propose that a relevant body, such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission, should be tasked with overseeing the Bill’s impact on the provision of social care. That body would have to report every eight weeks on the operation of these changes and whether they should be amended. It would provide the oversight that is needed to prevent people’s rights from being undermined.
One of the ways the Bill seeks to free up medical staff is by relaxing the requirements of the Mental Health Act 1983. Specifically, only one medical professional will have to agree to someone’s being sectioned, rather than the two it currently takes. The scale of that change should not be underestimated. No longer will a decision to section a person have to be taken in consultation by two doctors. There will be no requirement for anyone involved to have had prior involvement with the patient. Medical professionals are going to be under huge pressure in the coming months, and mistakes may well be made.
The Bill says that a decision should be taken on the basis of one signature if requiring a second signature would be
“impractical or would involve undesirable delay.”
That seems to be too vague and potentially open to misreading. I hope Ministers can tell us what exactly that means and what safeguards will be put in place to prevent the change from being misused. Our amendments to schedule 7 would narrow the provision so that a second signature could be left off only if acquiring it would mean an undesirable delay. If something is impractical, it will by definition create an undesirable delay. By narrowing the wording in the Bill, we can avoid the potential misuse of powers.
We propose changes to ensure that private mental health hospitals cannot detain someone solely on the single recommendation of one of their employees. That could create a conflict of interest whereby a doctor comes under pressure to sign a detention authorisation because doing so will provide their employer with income from the NHS. No medical professional should be put under that kind of pressure, and our amendment would ensure that they cannot be. [Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland) seeing to intervene?
That is the height of irresponsibility, and Amazon and anybody else who would behave in that way needs to think again. Of course there are companies that are engaging in best practice. I have had a number of complaints from people in the highlands about those who have not been doing the right thing, but let me thank Highland Experience Tours, which has suspended all its activities and sent its drivers home. The hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) mentioned Sykes Cottages, and I have to disagree with what he said, because its behaviour has been absolutely reprehensible. Let me read to Members what Sykes Cottages sent to me on Saturday. It said, “Given concerns surrounding the current outbreak, it is understandable that people want to arrange private accommodation in more remote locations to distance themselves from larger towns and cities. The latest Government advice does not prohibit travel in the UK. We are continuing to provide a service for customers.” That is a service to customers to come from the urban areas; it is deliberately creating the circumstances whereby their customers should come to self-isolate in an area where we have limited public health capabilities. That simply is not good enough.
I am delighted to say that, under pressure, the site has now relented and is stopping new bookings in the highlands and islands over the next few weeks, but it has sent a considerable number of people up to the highlands who are there today. The site should be delivering immediate advice to all those guests that they should return home to their place of origin.
I give the same message to those with holiday homes and second homes in the highlands: “Do not come to the highlands. Do not put additional pressure on our public services. We will welcome tourists back to the highlands once this emergency is over, but do not threaten the health of our constituents.” In my district, like in many rural areas, 35% of the population is aged over 65. We have to think about the needs of those living in such areas.
In addition to the sites I have mentioned, Cottages.com is refusing to allow cottage owners to cancel bookings without a penalty, which is simply not good enough. As this is now in the public domain, I hope all these providers will now think about their responsibilities.
As I have mentioned, some providers are behaving more responsibly. HomeAway has guidance on its booking site for giving refunds to those who cancel, but I will read one last email from somebody living in the Lake district:
“My family and I were due to take up a holiday home rental from the 28th March. We will stay away and remain in the Lake District where we live.
However you might be interested to learn that the owner of this holiday home, let through HomeAway, is refusing (at present) to cancel my booking, refund my payment of £957 or move my reservation to next year. He maintains that Skye is an ideal place to self-isolate…and as the home is available he is refusing to refund the total of my booking fee.”
[Interruption.] I can hear an hon. Member shout, “Shocking.” Skye, or anywhere else in the west highlands, is no place for anyone to self-isolate, and I hope this cottage owner, and others who are behaving in such a reprehensible manner, changes their ways.
Of course, it is not just those who are providing accommodation. Everyone knows about the Harry Potter films and the attractions of the rail line from Fort William to Mallaig. The steam trains, which operate on a regular basis, are due to start on 6 April. What on earth is the Jacobite steam train company thinking? These train trips, along with every other visitor attraction in the west highlands, must close, and they must close today.
This is my message to anyone thinking of coming to the highlands: “You will be made welcome when this is over but, for the time being, stay at home. If you are in the highlands now, please go home. The Scottish Government have already announced that ferry traffic will be prohibited for those on non-essential journeys, but you have the ability to return home today. Please do so.”
This Bill includes badly needed powers to allow more health and social care workers to join the workforce. That includes removing barriers to allow recently retired NHS staff and social workers to return to work, as well as bringing back those on a career break and bringing in social work students to become temporary social workers. It has to be said that the number of doctors, nurses and carers already seeking to re-register to help in this emergency has been one of the most uplifting stories of this crisis. The Bill allows that process to become much easier. Its provisions also allow for the relaxation of regulatory requirements within existing legislation to ease the burden on staff who are on the frontline of our response.
The next few weeks and months need simply to be about saving as many lives as possible. Try as we might to save these lives, unfortunately the truth is that this virus will inevitably end up with many of our people dying before their time. That terrible reality is why it is right that this legislation includes special arrangements and provisions to manage an increase in the number of deceased persons with respect and dignity.
Finally, something my party has raised repeatedly since the early stage of this crisis is the economic interventions required to help our people though this emergency period. I note that the legislation includes provisions to support the economy, including on statutory sick pay, that are aimed at lessening the impact of covid-19 on small businesses. While we have welcomed many of the measures brought forward by the Chancellor, we have put it on record that more needs to be done. The self-employed and the unemployed, whom we talked about earlier, need to be considered. They are under pressure and they need to know that we have got their backs. They need the security of a guaranteed income. We now have an opportunity to overhaul and fix the universal credit system—ending the delays, uprating the level of support and scrapping the bedroom tax. If we are to fight this virus together, we must ensure that everyone is supported equally and that no one—no one—is left behind.
The emergency and extensive powers in this legislation have rightly raised questions and concerns, many of which we have heard this afternoon. The imposition of measures that will significantly alter individual liberties deserves full and frank scrutiny, no matter the context. We know that the Bill sunsets after two years. However, there are serious concerns over the two-year period and the scrutiny of this measure. I know that aspects of the Bill and amendments to it will be discussed at later stages. I hope that the Government will look carefully at the safeguards of regular reporting, review and renewal if it is required.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that that would be a very good way forward. It is important that we enact the Bill, but the House must have oversight of it in the period ahead. I commend him for his approach.
The Scottish Government have pledged to have appropriate reporting on how and when they will use the powers in the Bill. They will embed such reporting and renewal in law. They have stressed that the creation of these additional powers does not mean we will automatically be required to use them. I hope the UK Government follow that lead and give assurances in the remaining stages this evening.
The emergency powers and the extent of the legislation demonstrate what all of us are faced with. This is not a normal time. Unfortunately, the truth is that none of us will live normally for some time to come. As the First Minister has said, if individuals are continuing to live normally, they need to ask themselves if they are following all the scientific advice. The sheer speed of the spread of this deadly virus has shocked us all. It has naturally made us reflect on the way we live and the vulnerability to which we are all exposed. Equally, it has demonstrated our dependence on one another. We live in an ever smaller world and the major challenges we all face are the same; we can only face them together.
The provisions in this legislation are about saving as many lives as possible during the biggest health emergency this planet has faced in 100 years. If we do not take immediate and unprecedented actions, we will be responsible for putting people at risk. If we act fast, we know that we can save thousands of lives. It is as simple and as clear as that. Never has a more important responsibility been placed upon all of us. Saving these lives must be our sole focus.
Coronavirus Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
David DavisMain Page: David Davis (Conservative - Haltemprice and Howden)
Department Debates - View all David Davis's debates with the HM Treasury
Legislation Debates - View all David Davis's contributions to the Coronavirus Act 2020
I rise merely to refer to the issue of the timing and the length of the Bill. As Members will know, the Minister said in the previous debate that the Government were tabling a new clause that would allow the Bill to be on the statute book for two years but with an opportunity after six months to vote on whether the temporary measures in it should remain. I urge the Minister to look carefully at that new clause, because I think it is defective. New clause 19 states clearly:
“‘relevant temporary provision’” means any provision of this Act—
(a) which is not listed in section (2) (provisions not subject to expiry)”
I cannot find that section anywhere, so I do not think that the new clause works in law. I may be completely wrong—I may have missed something—and if so, I hope the Minister can enlighten me. I do not think there is any conspiracy here; it may just be that something has been missed.
Like the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), my anxiety from the start has been that two years is a long time to have such draconian measures on the statute book and that to have them on the statute book without a moment when the House, rather than Ministers, can decide to switch individual measures on or off is quite problematic. The Government have already used the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to table statutory instruments to close pubs, restaurants, casino, spas, gyms and so on. That secondary legislation still has to go through the House under the 1984 Act, and the Commons and the Lords have to vote in favour of it within 28 days of it being tabled.
Likewise, if the Government had gone down the route of the Civil Contingencies Act 2004, they would have needed to come back to Parliament every 30 days for each of the individual powers that they presented under that Act, and if the House chose not to allow those powers to remain, the Government would not be able to continue using them. In addition, the 2004 Act makes it clear that if Parliament is adjourned for more than four days, or even if it is prorogued, the Speaker and the monarch have to summon Parliament.
I agree, and I do not understand why the Government have gone in this direction. I have been told in several private meetings that it is because they believe that the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 can only be used when they do not know that something is coming down the line, but I think the definition of an “emergency” in section 19 of the 2004 Act would allow for every single thing that we are considering.
I tabled an amendment, and I must apologise to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), because it is entirely my fault that, by accident, his name ended up on my amendment. I am terribly sorry. If the Government Whips want to beat anybody up, they should beat me up. There is a serious point here, which is that if the Government are going to take draconian powers and give themselves the power to switch them on and off, that should come back to Parliament more frequently even than is allowed for in the Government’s amendment.
Personally, I would prefer the time period to be shorter. I would prefer Government Ministers not to be switching powers on and off, because that will lead to them being more queried by the nation at large. I prefer something more like a three-month period when they have these powers, with regular review by the House, but I am not going to die in a ditch. There are no ditches here. I laud the Government for the movement that they have made, but they may still need to move some way further. It may be that they need to amend their own amendment when it goes to the House of Lords.
Further to my right hon. Friend’s point, when the pandemic influenza Bill was drafted—I spoke about it on Second Reading—it was agreed that if specific circumstances at the time meant the freestanding Bill, on which the Coronavirus Bill is based, was not able to be brought forward to the House, clauses could very easily be converted into regulations under part 2 of the Civil Contingencies Act. I remember those discussions very clearly from being in office at the time. My right hon. Friend has a point.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I confirm that I said in the Second Reading wind-up—I confirm it again—that with the six-monthly votes at six, 12 and 18 months, which are already in the Government amendment, it would be helpful if the Government confirmed that those votable motions are also amendable. If they are amendable, it covers the point being made by the right hon. Gentleman that part of the legislation could then be switched off, but not all of it.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. There will, of course, be many things that we learn, not just things we need to take out of the Bill but critical measures that we need to put in, so flexible legislation will be essential as we go through the emergency and learn things.
I rise to speak, ostensibly, to amendments 2 to 4 and new clause 4, in my name and in the names of my hon. and right hon. Friends.
This is certainly no criticism of the Public Bill Office, which has worked extraordinarily well under huge pressure, nor of Ministers or, indeed, of officials working under tremendous pressure, but in the past hour and a half, as the Opposition spokesperson, I have been presented with 60 pages covering 61 Government amendments, and there are also 27 Opposition amendments. It is clear that I will not be able to cover every single item in my remarks, but I will try to refer—[Interruption.] Not this early in the evening, but who knows? I will try to cover the amendments thematically, referring to them when it would be helpful to the House.
Amendments 2 to 4 relate to the Bill’s emergency powers, which I will deal with first because the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) mentioned them and I want to make our position absolutely clear. New clause 4 would place a duty on the Government to support the basic means of living—food, water, clothing, income and housing—by employing all available statutory and prerogative powers.
Those two themes may be separate on the amendment paper, but they go hand in hand. The public health emergency and the restrictions on freedom must be accompanied by the strongest possible financial measures to ensure people still have the means to get by. I make it clear that I do not intend to divide the House on any of these amendments this evening, but I hope the Government will listen to my points.
The second world war emergency legislation required renewal every year, and the emergency coronavirus legislation in Ireland is subject to six-monthly renewal. We need safeguards. Often, the issue with this type of legislation, which is understandably done in haste, is not so much the intended consequences as the unintended consequences. That is important because there are vulnerable people across our society whose lives are going to change and who will need protection.
The Bill is subject to the European convention on human rights and does not exclude judicial review; there is no ouster clause in it. These are very important safeguards, and we need more. I welcome the Government’s concession on six-monthly review. I have listened carefully to a number of speeches, and I, like many others, would like it to have been even more frequent, but I accept that that is a reasonable compromise. There are some issues on which I would like reassurance from the Minister, though. First, it is clear that that is subject to a vote in both Houses, but the point made by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden is crucial: if it is simply an unamendable motion, the House is left with the choice of take it or leave it on everything. It could be that we think four fifths of the Bill is achieving its intended purpose and one fifth is not, but we would have to keep everything operational. If the Minister can confirm that the motion will be amendable, so we can make clear which bits we want to switch off, that would make a significant difference. Even if she gave that as a verbal assurance, it would be a step forward that might increase the degree of consensus across the House. I am not saying that everyone would be satisfied, but it would help us to move forward on the basis of consensus.
As I read the Government amendment, there is a carve-out in relation to devolved matters. Will the Minister make the position clear? If this House switched off powers, would they be automatically switched off for the devolved institutions; or if a power was switched on by the devolved institutions, would they then have the power to switch it off when they saw fit? In those parts of England without formal regional devolution, would it be it switched off automatically for those areas?
More widely, we have to ensure that the measures are temporary and that hard-won rights are not lost forever. In that respect, I want to focus on a number of groups in our society. First, amendments 68 to 71 deal with children with special educational needs and disabilities. I would like more reassurance from the Government. The Bill clearly removes disabled people’s rights to social care and support, and the duty to meet children’s educational requirements is changed to a reasonable endeavours duty. Many hon. and right hon. Members will have received expressions of concern about that. I thank the all-party group on this for raising it over the weekend.
Of course there is a need for flexibility. There will be a need to redeploy staff, and we all understand that, but reassurance is necessary. If we are removing the rights in the Children and Families Act 2014, for example, could consideration be given to the proposal in the amendments to change “reasonable endeavours” to “all practical steps” to ensure that our duty to some of our most vulnerable and youngest people is met?
There is also deep concern in the care sector, to which amendments 57 to 63 and new clause 29 apply. Most statutory duties relating to social care are being suspended under schedule 11. Local authorities will only have to provide services deemed necessary to prevent breaches of people’s human rights. That is clearly not the vision of social care that anyone in this House had in mind when the Care Act 2014 was passed. Of course, the Bill does not prevent local authorities from providing higher levels of care, but there is no longer any duty to carry out assessments or involve user input in care delivery, and local authorities will no longer have to assess the needs of carers. Those are sweeping changes that may reduce the level of support. Will the Government make it clear that they still expect care to be provided to the highest level possible in the circumstances, and that some sort of green light to cut back to the minimum is not provided for in the Bill? There are wider impacts. There are doctors, nurses, NHS staff and key workers who rely on social care for their family members. That new legal minimum level of support cannot become a default. We cannot have care packages automatically cut back to the minimum, and care levels should never be reduced too far or too fast.
I am always grateful for updates on the rolling news, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. This must be a rare example of a shadow Minister having called for something at the start of a debate and its having appeared before we have finished the debate. The Prime Minister is responsive on that if nothing else.
Even in this situation, proportionality and necessity still apply. It is clear that powers to detain potentially infectious people, including children in isolation facilities, will have to be implemented in a sensitive way. It is necessary to postpone elections, as set out in clause 57, but we still have to do all we can to maintain our democracy. I welcomed the Speaker’s statement setting out any moves we can make to vote in a different way and to operate in a far more digital and remote way than has been the case in the past.
Let me turn to new clause 4 and the issues it raises. Quite simply, if we are to ask people to sacrifice their freedom by staying at home and subjecting themselves to the measures set out by the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), their basic means of living must be catered for as well. There are some specific measures in the Bill, but I commend to the Minister amendments 74 to 78, on lowering the threshold for eligibility for statutory sick pay, and new clauses 32 to 34, on the extension of statutory sick pay to the self-employed and its uprating.
Before I move on to some of the other economic measures, particularly in the Government’s new amendment, let me refer to new clause 35. A number of right hon. and hon. Members from all parties have raised the issue of access to personal protective equipment. New clause 35 sets out the importance of that to the Opposition by defining it as part of the Minister’s role to make sure that that equipment is provided to everybody who needs it. That is the imperative that the Opposition put on that, and I hope the Government will do all they can to ensure that not one person in this country does not have the personal protective equipment that they need to keep us all safe.
I certainly would not disagree with the right hon. Gentleman on equality of access to healthcare—he is absolutely right about that. I am getting worried about how many points I have agreed with him on in this debate, but I certainly agree with him on that.
The hon. Gentleman might wish to say that some of the provisions cannot be applied. We do not wish to do that. The whole purpose of the Bill is that the bulk of the powers—apart from ones that are live at Royal Assent—are at the direction of either the devolved nations or the UK Government, to respond to a very dynamic situation. We do not wish to call on these powers. We only wish to use them in extreme cases. There are several that we think we will never use, particularly on food supply and so forth, but we need to allow that flexibility in what will be an incredibly unpredictable situation. The safeguards we have put in place will allow us to have that flexibility.
In his earlier remarks, my right hon. Friend was talking about things that we might wish to do in a year’s time and so forth. I do not think any of those things are being ruled out, but we think that extensive work has been done on this Bill, which is looking only at powers we know need to be enshrined in primary legislation, not at other issues, many of which have been raised by colleagues. I do not think those very practical options are removed from us by supporting this Bill today.
I also wish to emphasise another point, because in this Bill the Government are legislating for areas of devolved competence. I should highlight that the devolved Administrations could have legislated to create their own powers through their own primary legislation. However, they have agreed, given the urgency of the situation, that the UK Government should do it on their behalf. This Bill consequently engages the legislative consent motion process for all the devolved legislatures. The amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care requires the continued operation of certain key powers contained in the Bill to be reviewed every six months. Unless the UK Parliament consents to their continued operation, UK Ministers would be under an obligation to switch off the relevant powers by way of regulation.