Coronavirus Bill Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Coronavirus Bill

Penny Mordaunt Excerpts
Committee stage & 3rd reading & 3rd reading: House of Commons & Committee: 1st sitting & Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
Monday 23rd March 2020

(4 years, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Coronavirus Act 2020 View all Coronavirus Act 2020 Debates Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 23 March 2020 - (23 Mar 2020)
Nick Thomas-Symonds Portrait Nick Thomas-Symonds
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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.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait The Paymaster General (Penny Mordaunt)
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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
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I am grateful to the Minister for that intervention.

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Penny Mordaunt Portrait The Paymaster General (Penny Mordaunt)
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I will attempt to answer the points that I did not answer during Second Reading.

The Bill has been introduced to support public bodies and wider society in responding to a serious emergency. The Bill is required as part of a concerted effort across the whole of the UK to tackle the outbreak. The intention is to get to a position whereby the right people—public agencies in all four countries—take the right action, as set out in the UK coronavirus action plan, at the right time, as a result of decisions taken by the four UK Governments, usually under the auspices of Cobra, using the same powers, at the same time, in the same way.

The action plan sets out the options that can be taken as part of that response. This Bill ensures that the agencies and services involved—schools, hospitals and the police—have the tools and powers they need. They are our front line in our fight against this disease, and they have the right to expect our support for the action they need to take. The Bill provides the possibility for that for the duration of the emergency.

Turning to a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Adam Afriyie), we cannot use the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 to do this. If we have time to bring forward legislation, it is proper that we do that, and anything we did under the powers of the 2004 Act would apply for only 30 days. He should have the reassurances he asked for earlier on other rules that we follow, such as on the military aid to civil authorities protocol.

Adam Afriyie Portrait Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con)
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It seems to me that the whole purpose of the 30-day provision in the Civil Contingencies Act was for the Executive to be accountable to Parliament. For example, those checks and balances would be needed in a scenario where—I am not suggesting this in any way, shape or form—the Government say that nobody can travel, and Parliament is therefore unable to reconvene. I simply point that out, but I do not intend to divide the Committee.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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My hon. Friend has made my point for me. That is why we need this particular course of action, as opposed to relying on the Civil Contingencies Act.

I turn to the six-month review. I want to reiterate how these decisions will be made in an incredibly dynamic situation. Apart from a few parts of the Bill, these powers are not live at Royal Assent. They will be called upon or drawn down by the appropriate Government in the four nations—it is obviously appropriate that some of these decisions should be for the devolved nations—and they could be applied to very local areas, depending on what is happening in that particular situation.

We are therefore ensuring that the support that people need is there, with regular reports and debates in Parliament, to ensure proportionate accountability that does not itself make the management of this outbreak harder than it already is. These mechanisms currently include Ministers reporting to Parliament every two months on how we have used these powers. There will also be a debate after 12 months and a meaningful vote on renewal after 24.

We have also listened to people’s concerns about the need for periodic reviews of these powers. The Government have therefore tabled an amendment to the Bill that will enable the House of Commons to take a view every six months on whether the provisions of the Act need to be reviewed. That will be done within seven days of each six-month period if Parliament is sitting. If the House declines to renew these temporary provisions, the Government will ensure that they expire.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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Will the Minister give way?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I will make a little progress, because there is quite a lot that I have not managed to say at the Dispatch Box yet.

We will therefore be able to carry out the will of Parliament quickly and efficiently, and this mechanism gives the House of Commons the final say on how the powers in this Act are to be used. I note the pragmatic suggestions of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), but I do not think that anything he says about future legislation or measures that we wish to bring in, or indeed the House being able to express a view, is negated by the way we have set this out. Each of the four countries of the UK has its own set of laws, and these tools and powers differ to varying degrees in each area.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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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
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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 Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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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.

David Davis Portrait Mr David Davis
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Let me give the Minister a straightforward, practical example. One element of the Bill allows the delay of the oversight of the Investigatory Powers Act 2016. That is the case because we have 15 commissioners, only one of whom is younger than 70—that is the reasoning behind it. Were the Government to do something sensible, such as appoint 15 deputy commissioners, all under 70, this would no longer be required. But we have seen the Government before resisting attempts to improve accountability, and we know that that they may want to keep it in, whereas we may want to take it out. This is a precise example, so why can we not do that?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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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.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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Will the Minister give way?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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May I just finish this point? The scrutiny process created by the amendment does not have an equivalent effect in relation to the devolved powers. This is consistent with the devolution settlements. Once these powers have been legislated for in this Bill and are exercisable by the devolved Administrations, the UK Parliament has no further role in relation to them. It is, rather, for the devolved Administrations to scrutinise the activities of their Ministers. For instance, on Thursday 19 March, Mike Russell, the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs, made a commitment to the Scottish Parliament that the Scottish Government would institute appropriate reporting on how and when they used these powers in the Bill.

If the House will allow me, I should like to turn to the amendments and set out the Government’s reasoning. I sympathise with the intentions of the amendment tabled by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). Although we agree with them in principle, there are a number of technical reasons why I believe the amendment we have brought forward is to be preferred.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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Will the Minister give way?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I will, but I am just going briefly to go through the amendments—[Interruption.] I know, but hon. Members have tabled amendments and I wish to tell them why we have not accepted them. [Interruption.]

Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. We are getting through this and we are not having interruptions from Members who are sitting down.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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Thank you, Dame Eleanor. The first such reason is that in the event that Parliament is not sitting, we think that the made affirmative procedure would impede our ability to manage efficiently the use of these powers. It may be difficult to make an Order in Council during a pandemic. It may be difficult safely to convene the necessary Privy Council meeting. A made affirmative instrument can be made more, and ensures that there is a vote on the extension of the Act when Parliament returns. Secondly, it is not clear from the proposed amendment whether the Act can be extended more than once. It is the unfortunate situation that with this pandemic possibly lasting longer than a year it is essential that we have the flexibility to keep the important measures in this Bill in force for longer than a year where they are needed.

I am aware of the real policy concerns behind the amendment tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden. I should also point out that without clause 76 we would have no mechanism for extending the life of the Bill, should that be needed, other than by making further primary legislation, so we could be left without vital measures for protecting public health and supporting essential public services while in the middle of the outbreak. Similarly, without clause 76 we would have no simple means of sunsetting the legislation at an earlier date if it proves to be no longer necessary.

Finally, colleagues will wish to note that the amendment would impact on the devolved Administrations without their consent.

Chris Bryant Portrait Chris Bryant
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I have to say to the Minister that she is worrying me more and more with every sentence, because it sounds as if the Government are intending to drive this through for two years, come hell or high water, and to keep all the powers in place for that time. I thought that what they had announced earlier this afternoon was a concession, which was that in six months’ time the House would be able to strike down some of the individual measures if it wished to do so. She no longer seems to be saying that.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I do not think that the hon. Gentleman understood what I set out at the start. This is how these powers will be activated. Some of them will be for the UK Government with regard to England, but it is absolutely right that it is the devolved nations that will switch the powers on, and it could be in very localised areas. Those decisions will be taken in response to a very dynamic situation, probably in COBRA. Having sat around that table, and knowing some of the decisions that may be coming down the line, I think that is appropriate.

Let me turn to some of the issues raised by the hon. Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds). I touched on social care in my earlier remarks. He is absolutely right that we must have those measures in place, and I hope that what I said about my hon. Friend the Minister for Care has gone some way towards addressing that. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about domestic violence, and we must be alert to the potential for an increase in demand for those services.

I thank the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for tabling new clause 1, and the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for supporting it. As my hon. Friend set out, the purpose of the new clause is to make provision for the postponement of the dissolution of the General Synod of the Church of England. The dissolution is to take place in July and will be followed by an election of the new General Synod over the summer. We support the new clause, which is consistent with the approach that the Government have taken to other elections.

Let me turn to other Government amendments, particularly on cremation, which many hon. Members have raised. For their engagement, I want to thank in particular the hon. Members for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) and for Bradford East (Imran Hussain), and my hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Paul Bristow), for Dudley North (Marco Longhi), for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton), for Wycombe (Mr Baker), for Wealden (Ms Ghani) and for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti).

The policy that has been developed on dealing with excess deaths has involved all faith groups from the start. The purpose of the provisions is to ensure that people’s choices can be adhered to, that the dignity of the deceased is respected and that support services for families are in place, even in times of great stress. There should be no public health reason or capacity reason why someone who wished to be buried would be cremated. I hope that is very clear. I can give the House that reassurance. We have included further measures in the Bill. Local authority leaders will also want to reassure their communities in the coming days—clearly, it is local authority chief executives who will use these powers, if they are ever used. I also want to put on the record my thanks to Councillor Sharon Thompson of Birmingham City Council.

Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab)
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The provision states that it is desirable for a local authority or public authority to seek the wishes of the deceased person’s family or a place of worship if there is no next of kin. Saying that it is desirable to take their views into consideration does not mean that those views will apply if a local authority or public authority decides that a cremation is going to take place, under the legislation as it stands. The Government could make an amendment to clearly specify that if somebody does not wish to be cremated, they will not be cremated. That is missing from the Bill at the moment.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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We have brought forward an amendment that gives those guarantees with regard to someone’s beliefs, religion or wishes. In addition, I stress that it has never been the case—there has never been any doubt about this—that somebody who wished to be buried would have to be cremated. There is no public health reason or capacity reason why that should be the case. We have worked from the off with all faiths to produce the guidelines, and the amendment was produced through consultation. I see no circumstance—and it certainly would not relate to these powers—in which somebody would be cremated against their wishes. I do not think I can give any more guarantees than that. That is absolutely not the intent of the policy and it is certainly not anything to do with the practice.

Yasmin Qureshi Portrait Yasmin Qureshi
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Will the Minister give way?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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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
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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 Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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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
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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 Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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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.

Naz Shah Portrait Naz Shah
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I would like first on this occasion to pay my respects and put on record my thanks to our brave NHS staff, our key workers and everyone in our nation playing their part in combating the covid-19 outbreak, and also my advance thanks to the police, who have been given extra responsibilities by the Prime Minister this evening to police people’s social distance when they go out.

I will not be moving my amendment, but instead thank the Government for their amendment, which actually strengthened my proposal. However, it is still important to say a few words about that. I have been truly heartened by the cross-party support that I have received in this process from every part of this House. It really does demonstrate how, at times of crisis, democracy can work and can respond positively to the concerns out there in the community. I would like to say thank you for that spirit of unity.

This truly is a difficult time for everyone in our nation. They are not normal times with today’s emergency Bill. We know how life as we know it will have to change, and the origins of this Bill have caused huge distress to religious communities, especially those of Muslim and Jewish background. Death is a sensitive time for everyone, and losing a loved one is difficult for us all. We all want dignity in death for our loved ones, and the idea that, in extreme circumstances, when capacity issues arise, the deceased would have to be cremated was something hard to bear, especially for those from the Muslim and Jewish faiths, which strongly oppose cremation. I further thank the Minister for clarifying in the assurance and the guarantees that she has just given that nobody will be cremated against their wishes.

The aim of my amendment was to give, in such difficult circumstances where capacity issues arise for local authorities, further legal protection and to ensure that the next of kin and the relevant faith institutions were consulted, in order to provide added support and protect the deceased from being cremated. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford South (Sam Tarry) and for Bedford (Mohammad Yasin) and the hon. Members for Wycombe (Mr Baker), for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan) and for Bury South (Christian Wakeford) for co-sponsoring my amendment, and the more than 110 cross-party MPs who formally showed their support. I also thank the all-party group on British Muslims for its tireless work behind the scenes, as well as community organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain, the Mosques and Imams National Advisory Board, Wifaqul Ulama, the British Board of Scholars and Imams, and the Board of Deputies of British Jews.

I thank individuals such as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), who could not be here tonight; Qari Asim MBE, the adviser to the Government; Mohammed Shafiq of the Ramadhan Foundation, Vakas Hussain, and all those individuals and organisations who played a huge role silently in the background, influencing and putting in tremendous effort to work through this process. I have never done a campaign like it in 24 hours. I must also put on the record my thanks to Joseph Hayat of British Muslim TV for doing the one-minute video, which was absolutely amazing.

--- Later in debate ---
Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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I shall speak to new clause 6, which I tabled to enable quicker action to support Island and isolated communities. I intend to talk briefly about the new clause and to ask some questions of those on the Front Bench.

The Isle of Wight is dependent on three private ferry firms. If staff from one or more of those firms go ill with covid-19 and we have an outbreak, there will be serious consequences for the Island. Competition law currently prevents the firms from talking. That is still the case, despite eight days of efforts to get it moved. In basic terms, the new clause would allow the relevant Secretary of State or devolved Administration to issue directions to allow ferry firms to talk to one other, potentially to plan and implement joint services for the purpose of resilience—for the provision of food, medicine and other essential goods, and of passenger transportation.

Although we are an island, we need to stay open because we need food going out and coming in, we need key workers to go backwards and forwards, and we need people to continue to receive life-saving medical treatment in Southampton and Portsmouth. If the ferry firms fall over, we cannot do that. They are a true lifeline. I think people do not realise that an island separated from a land mass without a fixed link needs ferries.

The Department for Transport understands the lifeline nature of our services and is doing a good job. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has not yet acted on that. I understand that officials are working up a statutory instrument, and apparently there is a letter coming from the Secretary of State at some point. The Competition and Markets Authority says it will not take action, but as of this evening the firms—I am being texted by my ferry firms as we speak—still are not willing to talk because, for compliance purposes, they need a letter from a Government Minister and a Secretary of State.

Critically, I want Ministers to understand that I do not blame the Government. I know how stressed they are across the provision. This new clause is designed to be helpful because a Government diktat—a fiat—means that the Government will allow the ferry firms to talk to each other, avoiding much of the bureaucracy there seems to be at the moment, by getting a statutory instrument in place.

I would be delighted if the Government accepted new clause 6 in its entirety—I thank the Public Bill Office very much for its work. If they are not going to accept it, will a Minister reassure me this evening that a Secretary of State will write a letter with the assurances that I need? Can somebody also give me the assurance that the delegated legislation will be laid before Parliament?

Can somebody reassure me on medical supplies? For example, a consultant at a hospice contacted me today to say, “If we run out of morphine on the Island, can we give out other opiates?” Because of a glitch in the system, nurses can give out morphine, but they cannot give out other opiates.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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Can I just answer that point, because my hon. Friend made it on Second Reading, and I have checked the issue? The Department of Health and NHS England are looking at precisely the issue of being able to authorise healthcare professionals to administer other opiates. I can also assure my hon. Friend that he will shortly get a letter from the relevant Secretary of State with regard to the Isle of Wight ferry issue. I do not know its contents—I am not briefed on that—but his lobbying has worked.

Eleanor Laing Portrait The Chairman of Ways and Means (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Before I call Jeffrey Donaldson, I should say that we really have to be quick now. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will do three minutes.