Nick Thomas-Symonds contributions to the Coronavirus Act 2020


Mon 23rd March 2020 Coronavirus Bill (Commons Chamber)
2nd reading: House of Commons
3 interactions (1,100 words)
Mon 23rd March 2020 Coronavirus Bill (Commons Chamber)
3rd reading: House of Commons
Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
46 interactions (3,534 words)

Coronavirus Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Monday 23rd March 2020

(6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department of Health and Social Care
Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab) - Hansard

It is clear from the words set out in sub-paragraphs 13(1)(a) and (b) in part 3 of schedule 27 that it is desirable for local authorities to consult with religious communities and groups in the event of a deceased person. However, that provision does not say that if a family or person objects to the cremation taking place, the local authority can still go ahead and cremate. I would like the Minister’s assurance that that is correct; or will the Bill be amended during its passage to say very clearly that if a person does not wish to be cremated, then a cremation will not take place?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Hansard

The tone of this debate—sober, serious, determined—reflects the mood of the people. I am conscious that, on a Bill of any importance, I would usually be addressing a packed Chamber. However, I thank those Members who are not here and have stayed away for reasons of social distancing. They are doing the right thing, and they are still standing up for their constituents.

We have heard some powerful speeches from hon. and right hon. Members. I thank my right hon. Friend the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) and my hon. Friends the Members for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), for Newport West (Ruth Jones), for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), for Reading East (Matt Rodda), for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes) and for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for their contributions. I also commend the hon. Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) for his maiden speech. He said that his parents were unable to watch it from the Gallery, but that at least they could watch it on television. I am sure they were very proud, and I wish him well in his time in the House.

This Bill will change our everyday life in profound ways. Freedoms we have enjoyed over generations will be curtailed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth) set out, in this public health emergency the Opposition are supportive of the Bill as a necessity to mobilise resources effectively, but most importantly of all to save life. Our thoughts are with families who have lost loved ones in the global pandemic. At this time of crisis, the public interest requires that we consider extraordinary measures that only a few weeks ago were unthinkable.

We have to ensure, though, that the arrangements are fair and just for everyone. Social distancing and isolation but must be accompanied by guarantees of access to the basic means of living: food, fuel, income and housing. For every sacrifice expected from our people, there must be an equally strong imperative on Government to protect and provide for them. Nobody should have to choose between their own wellbeing and the nation’s public health. Nobody should lose out for doing the right thing. I will set out in more detail in Committee the measures that we suggest to improve what the Chancellor has suggested.

As we ask many people to remain at home, with all the effects that has, let us remember, too, those who do not have a home to stay in and are on our streets, in need of our protection. Let us thank all those who have been working for the good of others in the most difficult of circumstances—our brilliant NHS staff, caring and compassionate; the teachers who, with school closures imminent, continue to do their very best for our children with dignity and determination; all our local government workers, keeping vital services going; and our shop workers, who have kept going, sometimes in difficult circumstances. But words of gratitude are not enough. The Government have to make sure that protective clothing and equipment is available to every single person who needs it, and there must be ventilators, too, for every patient who needs them.

In time of peril, it is right that people look to Government and elected representatives for leadership. It is when Government is at its most powerful that it needs most scrutiny. I am pleased to see the certification on European convention on human rights compliance and the fact that this Bill will be subject to the supervision of our courts, but a two-year sunset clause without regular scrutiny was not enough. I welcome the Government’s concession to move to six-monthly votes, but the general view of the Chamber is that if it could be made clear that any votable motion is amendable, it would make it clear that certain individual elements of the Bill could be switched off as well.

In 1939, the then Government passed emergency legislation to deal with total war, and that required renewing annually. Times have changed now and we are not in a battle with other countries. Rather, we stand together in the values of our common humanity to drive back the coronavirus disease, which threatens us all. The Government’s focus must be on diverting resources to this colossal national effort, but that should not mean that duties to people already in need completely fall away and that hard-won rights over many years are lost forever. New legal minimums of support should not be a default. Care packages should not automatically be cut back to the minimum required, those with special educational needs must have the care they need and those with disabilities must have their rights protected. The Government must make clear its value—in action, not words—for everyone who relies on support.

Life will return to a sense of normality in the not-too-distant future, but we are asking for changes in our way of life. There have of course been negative stories—in the course of this debate, the shadow Transport Secretary has sent me a photo of workers in a canteen in Teesside clearly not respecting social distancing—but alongside those there are also great stories of the very best values of our society. Hearing the famous “You’ll never walk alone” played simultaneously on radio stations across the world summed up where we are. We must not let this period be defined by isolation. I think of the grandparents not seeing their grandchildren as they otherwise would and of the people whose attendance at community events kept them going, but being separate does not mean that people have to be alone. In this age of modern technology, we must use all the means at our disposal to keep talking, to stay together. I say to anyone watching this: if you do nothing else this evening, contact somebody who is on their own to show them that.

The late Aneurin Bevan, who created the national health service, which we will need more than ever in the weeks ahead, wrote:

“Not even the apparently enlightened principle of the ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ can excuse indifference to individual suffering. There is no test for progress other than its impact on the individual.”

There can be no other test for this Bill and the financial measures that go with it than how it protects every single individual person. Let this be a time of togetherness across our United Kingdom, with us all determined to get through this. Let us look out for each other and set an example across the world.

The Paymaster General (Penny Mordaunt) - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 12:09 a.m.

I do not have a lot of time left, so if I cannot address some points now, I will try to address them in the Committee stage. I would like to briefly put on the record, echoing the sentiments that every Member has expressed in this debate, my thanks to our care and health professionals, the police, the military, volunteers and everyone who is working so hard to combat this crisis. I also wish to thank all hon Members who have contributed on Second Reading. The key points are: that the vast majority of powers in the Bill will not be live at Royal Assent; that parts of this Bill and those powers can be switched on and off—they do not stand or fall together; and the powers the Bill creates can be switched on and off as well. That addresses many of the points that have been made by some Members. We are only taking powers that we need. Many Members, including the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), raised points about renters and the self-employed, but the Bill today is about the powers we need to take now and not about every aspect of our response.

I am now going to deal with the shadow Secretary of State’s points. I thank him for his approach to working with the Government on all aspects of this response. What he says on social distancing and the offer of support he has made for further measures is noted, and I thank him for that. He asks about EU joint procurement. Not all member states are part of that procurement system, and we have chosen other routes. He asks about car parking, and I believe there are ongoing discussions with trusts about that and about pay for nurses taking time out of training. They will be paid in accordance with the terms and conditions of those roles.

I want to turn to the issue of social care, which was mentioned by many Members, including the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), and the hon. Members for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), for Newport West (Ruth Jones) and for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes). I fully understand why this is such an issue. Carers, adults in social care, parents of children with learning disabilities and others often feel that they have a fight on their hands at the best of times, and we are heading for what I hope will not be the worst of times. I understand their concerns around that and wish to provide them with reassurance. The purpose of these powers is to protect the most vulnerable when we come under great strain in these systems.

Clause 13 is live on Royal Assent, but clauses 14 and 9 are not. They need further regulations in order to commence. The Minister for Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid Kent (Helen Whately), is doing an amazing job of ensuring that we understand what is going on around the country. If these powers are switched on, we will understand what is happening, taking data from the CQC and from other areas as well. I think I can provide the assurance that hon. Members are seeking on that, and I am happy to do so at length in Committee, if I get the chance.

My right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) mentioned personal protection, as did many other hon. Members. We are working with business, and there has been an incredible response from industry—injection moulders and others—to produce more PPE. The strains in the system are not to do with the volume, but the distribution, but military assistance and other assistance has been stood up to get that to where it needs to be.

I am sure that hon. Members will hear more in the future about testing and the new end-to-end testing scheme that has been put in place, and about mobile phone data. My right hon. Friend mentioned Dr Tedros, and we should all pay tribute to his efforts and those of his team.

The hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood, along with my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey, mentioned the “Transforming Care” aspects. I know that the schemes that my hon. Friend the Minister for Care has put in place, which monitor referrals and other such data, will give us confidence that we can understand what is happening in the system.

The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) emphasised the importance of our working together and that we needed to put economic measures in place. I would say to him that we have to recognise that people who are travelling to other parts of the country might be doing that with the best of intentions. He is right, and we are right, to ask them to follow the chief medical officer’s advice, and that is why we need to be clear about that advice, and about staying at home and the support systems that are around people in their communities—

Coronavirus Bill

(3rd reading: House of Commons)
(Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons)
Nick Thomas-Symonds Excerpts
Monday 23rd March 2020

(6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
HM Treasury
Mr David Davis Portrait Mr Davis - Hansard

I am glad to get my hon. Friend’s support. He has always been assiduous in these matters and he is right on that point. A reasonable person might say, “Well, the logical argument surely is that if all the powers are identical to ones that exist already, what am I complaining about?” That is a reasonable question. The reason is that the Bill loses many of the checks and balances in the preceding emergency legislation.

I was not quite here for the 1984 legislation, but I was for the later ones, and those of us who put these things through the House fought hard and long to get the proper restrictions on Government power and the proper requirements to bring the legislation back to the House so that the House could approve it. The requirements are all in there, including it having to be cleared in seven days, us having to be recalled in five days if we are in recess and it having to be done through secondary legislation, which makes it capable of judicial review. I know that the Government do not like judicial review, but nowhere is it more important than when the Government exercise powers at the expense of citizens and the courts have to step in.

As the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) said, the six-monthly review that the Government have conceded is an important concession, but only if the House can amend or strike out. Anything else puts the House in the position of having to vote for a Bill that might be horrific in one part because the other three parts are essential—not likeable, not pleasant, not beneficial, but essential—for fighting this real threat.

Do not get me wrong: coronavirus is a real threat. I have made these arguments over the years when the House has considered similar legislation relating to terrorism. We are facing 10 to 100 times the death rate in one year than the death rate from terrorism in 10 years. Of course there is a real threat, but we will be put in a position of saying either we take the whole Bill—three-quarters vital and one quarter horrible—or we strike down something that is vital for protecting the public. That is the position that this House has been in over the 30 years—I am looking straight at the Leader of the Opposition now, because he and I were in the same Lobby time and again—when counter-terrorism regulations were put through on a rubber stamp precisely to protect the public. That is why Labour Members—if they will forgive me for giving them advice—should be pressing for an amendable approval at six months.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab) - Hansard

We have already said that.

Mr David Davis Portrait Mr Davis - Hansard

Good, excellent. I am glad Opposition Members are learning. Having an amendable approval at six months makes things completely different, because it means the House can say, “We need to prune this. We need to reduce the size of this legislation.”

Break in Debate

Mr David Davis Portrait Mr Davis - Hansard

I will come to that in a moment.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

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.

Mr David Davis Portrait Mr Davis - Hansard

I am now glad that I teased the hon. Gentleman, because it got something very useful on the record. If I may pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), it is why I tabled amendment 6, which recognises that the Government need these new powers and that parliamentary counsel have created a 320-page Bill in what sounds like a matter of days—in truth, they did it in an astonishingly short amount of time. They have done it at a time, however, when scientific evidence is, to put it mildly, fragile and likely to change. It has changed already in the past two weeks and is likely to change again as different tests, different vaccines and so on become available. Scientific evidence will change. Economic analysis of future outcomes is unbelievably uncertain and the societal effects are completely unknown. The Bill is guaranteed to have flaws, even with the best draftsmen in the world.

Amendment 6 therefore proposes that instead of the sunset being two years, which anyway is too long, it would be one year. We invite the Government to write a new Bill in nine months. If they think the Bill is perfect in nine months, put it back again and we will put it through again, but this time, with three months for the House to consider it. Remember, the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 took a whole year to go through both Houses, so with three months we would have proper democratic approval of the process.

Break in Debate

Mr David Davis Portrait Mr Davis - Hansard

I agree. I think the Government have done a pretty good job so far in the face of unbelievably difficult judgments and decisions. The Americans talk about drinking from a fire hose, which is how every Minister in this Government must feel because of the information and problems arriving on their desk every day.

The right hon. Gentleman is right that there will be changes in the science and in the economics. We will also know, frankly, what worked and what did not work in the previous nine months. If we then allow Parliament three months to scrutinise it, we will get good, solid law that is well supported on both sides of the House. We will have the sort of debate we have had today, which has been one of the better debates I have heard in years because both sides are committed to the same cause.

Finally, I recommend that colleagues read the report on this Bill published at lunchtime today by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of the House of Lords. That expert Committee considers our legislation and makes recommendations to the other House, and it is led by Lord Blencathra—those who have been here a long time may remember him as David Maclean, a tough, no-nonsense Security Minister at the Home Office. The Committee’s analysis is very clear and very straightforward, and it is not a libertarian fantasy. This is the conclusion, the last five lines of a five-page report:

“We anticipate that the House may well wish to press the Minister for an explanation about why the expiry date was not set at one year, thereby enabling the Government to exercise the powers needed in the immediate future while allowing a further bill to be introduced and subject to parliamentary scrutiny in slower time.”

A House of Lords Committee has arrived at exactly the same conclusion on this Bill as my amendment proposes.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 8:23 p.m.

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 have referred to a series of amendments, and I would push the Government on this. Can we look at things such as reasonable practicability? Can we look at disrupting existing care in the most minimal way and try at least to ensure, while recognising the pressures on staff, that reductions in care packages are a last resort? There are many unmet care needs, and people are being looked after in their own home by family members, who visit every day. For a start, that unpaid army of carers deserves deep gratitude from all of us, but what if one of those unpaid carers needs to self-isolate? What will the Government look at to protect people in their own home who will still be in need of care? The Government have to make absolutely clear the value of the measures for those who are older, and for disabled and young people who are in need of support. Many people—not just my constituents but people across the country—including disabled rights groups and, indeed, disabled people have contacted me to say that they are very, very concerned about what they regard as the scaling back of their rights under the Bill. We must protect them as best we can for the duration of the emergency powers, but also make it clear that this temporary hiatus does not represent a rolling back of progress over decades.

Break in Debate

Mr Andrew Mitchell Portrait Mr Mitchell - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 12:07 a.m.

So that I am certain that I have understood the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, is he saying that once the immediate crisis is over anyone who has been sectioned under that regime should immediately be subject to the existing regime?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 12:08 a.m.

Yes, absolutely. In fact, that should apply not just in the mental health sphere. If these are truly temporary measures, that has to apply across a range of measures.

Mr Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab) - Hansard

I accept that there is going to be a lot of pressure on doctors. I understand why the provision has been introduced, so that one doctor can sign documents to commit someone under the Mental Health Act 1983. Would not a better way of doing it be to get one doctor to sign the documents then, within a period of days, have someone else review the case while countersigning the documents?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

My right hon. Friend makes a useful and constructive suggestion. I am in favour of doing all that is reasonably practicable to comply with the existing duty—that is the simple position that the Government should adopt. I do not disagree with my right hon. Friend. He makes a useful suggestion, which is why I also suggest that a single doctor should sign only when absolutely necessary. Even in that case, the point that my right hon. Friend makes is useful. I am sure that the Government understand concern about the proposals, and I hope that the Minister will be able to provide us with reassurance.

Turning to the issue of law and order, I would be grateful if the Minister passed on my gratitude to the Security Minister, who has spoken to me mostly from home, where he is self-isolating, on a number of provisions in clauses 21 and 22 on the appointment of temporary judicial commissioners, changes to urgent warrants under investigative powers, and an additional measure on data retention. I understand that the biometrics commissioner supports that measure, but I hope that he can comment on and deal with those provisions in the next few days.

I also understand that action will be taken to ensure that the temporary judicial commissioners receive the appropriate training, but clearly that will have to be done on a remote basis. It is important that we maintain existing standards as far as possible.

I know that the measure on data retention is an emergency power—of course, we do not want data on people who may wish to do us harm simply to disappear because somebody was not available to carry out the national security determination—but we must say, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) did in relation to the last point, that this can only be a temporary measure. We must return to the existing deadlines as soon as we can.

Courts and tribunals are covered in clauses 51 to 55. Clearly we must look to live links and audio technology, but we must try to secure justice in each and every case. We cannot allow any court user to be in danger of being transmitted the coronavirus. The Lord Chief Justice has said today that there will be no new jury trials, but clearly some jury trials—including some very long-term ones—are still ongoing. Every step must be taken to ensure that social distancing is imposed by the judges in those courts.

Although all Members agree on following advice about self-isolation, in cases of domestic violence self-isolation can create a situation that is favourable to abusers. Therefore, where our courts are functioning, dealing with domestic violence must remain a priority.

Tom Tugendhat Portrait Tom Tugendhat (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con) - Hansard

It is interesting to note that in Spain, where this issue has been considered, the Government are running a scheme where if an individual goes into a pharmacy and asks for a “mask 19”—that is the code Spain has used—they are then referred to a domestic violence unit for assistance. I was wondering whether our Government had thought of a similar idea.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 12:03 a.m.

This debate has been carried out in a constructive spirit and I hope that the Government listen to all suggestions, but this issue is a real concern. If this emergency lasts—which I am afraid it is going to—and people are put in situations where they are close to their abusers, we must still have some sort of safeguards in place, particularly in our courts system.

Our prisons cannot become laboratories for transmission, and neither can our immigration detention centres—a point that I hope the Paymaster General will pass on to the Home Secretary.

The issue of burial has clearly caused great controversy. I know that the Paymaster General is one of the people who have come up with the final version on this matter, and I thank her for the efforts that she has made. This issue is clearly vital for Muslims and those of the Jewish faith. Clearly, they need to be in a position where we respect their rights about burial as far as we possibly can. The wording of Government amendment 52 is now much stronger, and I welcome that, but the Government could also communicate with local authorities as to how they want that measure to be interpreted in the days and weeks ahead.

Naz Shah Portrait Naz Shah (Bradford West) (Lab) - Hansard

Members have said that a 100% guarantee that nobody will be cremated against their wishes would be very welcome. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

Yes, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has been doing on this matter in recent days; it has been most welcome. I am pleased that the Minister has listened to that campaigning work, and I hope that we will be able to get reassurance on that point.

On restricting freedoms—and there are, quite frankly, draconian restrictions of freedom in this Bill including in relation to mass gatherings, the closure of ports and borders, and detention powers over potentially infectious people, which I read as applying to children and adults—the Government must do only what is necessary and proportionate. We must also be wary of restricting the right to protest.

Mr Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker - Hansard

I was trying to avoid doing this, but while the hon. Gentleman has been on his feet, it seems that the Prime Minister has heard the call of the Opposition Front Bench earlier. It is widely reported online that the Prime Minister has announced that people can now only go out to shop for basic necessities; to exercise once a day; for any medical need; to provide care; and to travel to and from, and do, essential work. I think that we are now substantially constrained, and that may help the hon. Gentleman as he makes his speech.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 12:04 a.m.

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.

Mr David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 12:08 a.m.

To carry on in the context of rolling news referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), one thing that we need to provide is good healthcare. The new NICE guidelines have just been published. The new guideline on critical care states that all patients with confirmed covid-19 must be assessed on the basis of “frailty” when healthcare professionals are making decisions about whether to admit a patient in need to critical care. That is being interpreted by a large number of mental health organisations as potentially excluding people with learning disability and so on. Will the hon. Gentleman make the point, on behalf of the Opposition, that we need equality of access to healthcare, as well as equality of access to all the things he has talked about?

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 12:08 a.m.

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 Paymaster General (Penny Mordaunt) - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 12:08 a.m.

The point that has just been made is critical. I give my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) an absolute reassurance: the Government have an advisory committee and ethics committees, but these judgments are made by healthcare professionals, and they make these types of judgments in the course of their work. The period that we are entering is obviously going to be extremely intense, but someone having a learning disability would not be a criterion that they would look at. I know that from the pandemic exercise that my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) mentioned earlier. I have had experience of that and can absolutely assure my right hon. Friend of that point.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 12:09 a.m.

I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab) - Hansard

On that point, I should emphasise that equality of access to healthcare must surely apply to our excellent healthcare workers. Some concerns have been raised with me that healthcare workers are receiving advice from their national health service trusts that is different from that given to ordinary working people, particularly when it comes to isolation when there are symptoms at home. As one person put it to me, the applause and support for healthcare workers is all very well, but they also want to know that their health and wellbeing is considered to be just as important as everybody else’s, if not more so.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

It is just as important, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention.

Government new clause 16 increases the top threshold for the level of assistance that can be given to industry for the purpose of the economic crisis, and I welcome the proposed change. The Government must do what they can to prevent an economic disaster. However, I would also ask that the Government structure financial assistance to ensure that the Government bail-out supports the workforce, the sustainability of the company and the wider national interest. Perhaps the Minister can confirm, now or subsequently, that the Government will attach restrictions in areas such as staff retention, dividend buy-outs, share buy-backs and executive remuneration for any company receiving financial assistance, and whether the Government will seek equity stakes in those companies that receive significant assistance.

There is also the issue of renters, in respect of which the Government have tabled a new clause, and there is real concern about this. It was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) on Second Reading. There is a concern about the Prime Minister and his promises to the country’s 20 million renters to protect them from evictions, because this does not seem to be an evictions ban, which is what the Opposition have argued for, and we understood was promised by the Prime Minister. The legislation does not seem to stop people losing their home as a result of coronavirus; it would just give them some extra time to pack their bags. In a sense, that makes us wonder why the Government are not willing to make a very simple change. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) wrote to Ministers to give them the legislation that would provide the protections, banning evictions and suspending rental payments beyond the crisis. There is already welcome help for homeowners, and I hope the Government will look again at their promises to renters. We do not need this public health emergency to become a crisis of housing and homelessness as well.

As the Government disturb people’s way of life, they must also sustain everyday existence, and people are anxious about sustaining themselves through this difficult time. There are millions of self-employed people not covered in the way they should be by the measures set out by the Chancellor, as a number of colleagues on both sides of the House have raised.

Bill Esterson Portrait Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab) - Hansard

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the challenges faced by the 4.7 million self-employed people, as quoted by the Federation of Small Businesses. I was sent a screenshot of a claim being made by somebody self-employed this afternoon, and it said that there were 33,383 people ahead of them in the queue to use the claim section of the website. I am sure he will agree that that is a very worrying sign of the ability of the system to cope—

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Eleanor Laing) - Hansard

Order. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman is making a very important point, and every Member of Parliament has received similar emails from their constituents to the one that he has just described. I am very concerned that we have only an hour and a bit to go—[Interruption.] No, I make no criticism of the hon. Gentleman: it is very important in emergency legislation that the official Opposition have a full say in what happens at this point of the Bill, but I implore Members to move a little bit faster. If everybody makes short points, we will get all those points in, which we must do.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

I say to my hon. Friend that he is right. One of the issues about making announcements is that people actually have to be able to access what they are being offered.

I have already set out that statutory sick pay is too low at £94.25 a week. Amendments regarding that have been tabled, as well as on people who do not qualify for it, and I urge the Government to look at that again. We must also speak of the businesses laying off workers and not applying for the 80% coverage of wages, which is what they should be doing. There are people who have lost their jobs, and who need help fast. It is a concern that the 80% wages support applies in the April payroll, not the March payroll, and what that will mean is that money will not be available until the end of next month. I appreciate the scale of this and I appreciate that Treasury officials have done a lot of work on it, but as the days pass more and more people are losing their jobs. Every day matters in bringing that help forward.

I have already spoken about renters and mentioned help for homeowners. On businesses, I say to the Government that grants are better than loans. We do not want to build up a stack of debt, and where the Government are relying upon the universal credit system, they must look at the fundamental structural problems in the system and at the five-week waits. Surely we cannot continue with face-to-face assessments in the next few months, with the scale of this crisis.

Mr Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker - Hansard

It’s been changed.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, midnight

I hear what the hon. Member for Wycombe says, but this has to operate on the ground, and we are all hearing various stories of what is happening in the universal credit system. It may well be what the Government intend, but that has to be implemented right across the country.

The Government must stand beside each and every person to get through this. We of course support the principle of doing whatever it takes, but that has to mean whatever it takes for each and every person. Let me say a word about the food supply—this is in clauses 23 to 27—and the power to require information. The Government require a strategic approach to the profiteering and unnecessary stockpiling—all of it. We have to ask people to think of others in what they are doing, but I also say to the Minister that the Government may well need a more strategic approach on that.

Liam Byrne - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 12:01 a.m.

I will be brief. In all emergencies, there is profiteering, and in countries such as the United States, where it has been prevalent for a long time, two thirds of states have legislation in place to stop profiteering. We need it here now because it is hitting the poorest communities hardest now.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 12:03 a.m.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that profiteering is affecting people now. We have heard some examples from across the House and, clearly, that issue needs to be seriously considered.

I turn now to what all this means taken together—I will draw my remarks to a close, Dame Eleanor, because I know that you wish other people to come in. This is an unprecedented change in the relationship between Government and Parliament, and Government and people. First, I say to the Minister that the imperative is to protect everyone and support them in this time of peril. We ask people to make sacrifices and we must support them, too. Secondly, the need for safeguards in this legislation is paramount. I hope that the Minister will look in particular at the suggestion that I made on the six-month review and that being amendable.

We are not seeking to divide the House, but we hope very much that the Government will heed what has been said, and we, of course, reserve the right to pursue these matters further in the other place.

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Eleanor Laing) - Hansard

If everyone takes around three to four minutes, they will all get a chance to come in.

Break in Debate

Penny Mordaunt - Hansard

I will make a little progress; sorry, but I have not had much time.

Consistency of outcome will be achieved by making a range of tools and powers consistent across the UK. That is just one part of the overall solution but a vital part nevertheless. A two-year overall lifespan for this Act has been chosen to ensure that its powers remain available for a reasonable length of time, with the option of provisions in the Act being extended by the relevant national authority. A reasonable worst-case scenario for this outbreak is that it could last for over a year, and therefore some of the provisions in the Bill will need to be in place for up to two years. Equally, the Bill provides a mechanism for early sunsetting, but we cannot guarantee that one year will be enough nor predict which powers will be required for how long.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

Can the Minister confirm that the votes in Parliament on a six-monthly basis that are already in the Act will be on an amendable motion?

Penny Mordaunt - Hansard

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.

Break in Debate

Penny Mordaunt - Hansard
23 Mar 2020, 12:06 a.m.

I am going to make progress, but I thank all Members who have spoken to me over the past few days, in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden, who has also been very helpful to me and Public Health England with regard to additional things we may need to do with funeral services.

The Government have tabled a number of other new clauses and amendments. New clause 16 relates to the industrial development cap. New clause 20 removes existing requirements for local authorities and councils to hold annual meetings. New clause 24 touches on issues that the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones) raised earlier in respect of suspending new evictions from social or private rented accommodation. What I said in my previous remarks about that applies. Amendment 27 will indemnify returning officers for the cancellation of polls. Amendments 79 to 82 relate to the use of video in extradition hearings. Amendments 55 and 56, on trading standards enforcement, relate to the enforcement of provisions on gatherings, events and premises. They widen the scope of those who can be given powers and bring proceedings for offences.

New clause 23 is concerned with biometrics, which are a critical tool used daily in support of our national security. The new clause establishes a time-limited power to enable the Home Secretary to make regulations, after consulting the independent Biometrics Commissioner, to extend the statutory retention deadlines for biometrics already held by the police and for national security reasons by up to six months.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

On the issue of data, I understand that the Biometrics Commissioner will publish his assessment of the Government’s proposal very soon. Does that remain the case?

Penny Mordaunt - Hansard

I will certainly let the hon. Gentleman know. As he will appreciate, I am covering several Departments. I would not want to mislead him, but I will find out the timetable for the commissioner to publish the report.

New schedule 2, on medical practitioners in Wales, will enable any practitioners who are registered by the GMC on a temporary basis to start providing health services immediately to a local health board. This is another example of levelling the law up, in this case to the position in England and Northern Ireland, where that is already in place. There are also amendments regarding the mental health review tribunal arrangements for Wales, again bringing them in line with the situation in England and Scotland, and emergency registration fees for doctors, to enable any professionals to be registered under the emergency powers, with the understanding that once the emergency period has passed, their temporary registration status will come to an end.

I am happy to answer any questions that hon. Members have as the debate goes on. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has outlined, the Bill contains vital measures to support citizens, protect our workforce and achieve our goals in beating this dreadful disease. I thank hon. Members for their constructive comments and their attendance today.

Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds - Hansard

Clearly, the Prime Minister made his announcement in the course of my speech, but just before the Minister winds up, I have a specific query about whether separated and divorced parents who co-parent can still transport their children between homes. Is that essential travel? I appreciate that the Minister might not know that off the top of the head now, but will she undertake to at least provide clarity on that point from the Prime Minister’s announcement?

Penny Mordaunt - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman’s comments will have been heard, and I am sure that point will be clarified, but in all this, whether it is about key workers or new policy of this ilk that has been announced, the objective is to keep as many people at home as possible, including children. That principle would underlie any policy on what is actually essential. The bottom line, as the shadow Secretary of State outlined in his remarks, is that if we stay at home, we will be helping to save lives, protecting the NHS and fighting the virus. I commend this Bill to the House.