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Coronavirus Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:50 pm on 23rd March 2020.

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Photo of Jon Ashworth Jon Ashworth Shadow Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 4:50 pm, 23rd March 2020

The Bill extends to five days from three the length of time for which somebody in hospital can be held waiting to be sectioned. That may seem like a minor change, but for the individual concerned it could make a significant difference. I hope Ministers can reassure the House that the intention should still be to adhere to the timetable set out in the Mental Health Act, with the changes we are discussing to be used only if absolutely necessary.

Let me turn to some of the proposals on education and schooling. Many parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities will understand the need for flexibility during this difficult time, but they are also extremely nervous that they could see the erosion of the hard-fought-for rights of disabled children and young people, children and young people with special educational needs, and their families. The Bill gives the Secretary of State powers to change section 42 of the Children and Families Act 2014: rather than giving children rights in law, it would only request that public bodies take “reasonable endeavours”. That sets a low bar, and we will seek to change that provision to a duty to take all practical steps, which will go much further.

Let me move on to some of the other issues in the Bill. Others have alluded to concerns that the Bill still does not go far enough in providing people with the incomes that they need to self-isolate. We welcome much of the Chancellor’s statement last Friday setting out plans to support the incomes of workers impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. However, there are still some gaps in the provisions that were offered. Currently, the proposal for income support through the job retention scheme does not include the self-employed and freelancers, whose incomes are increasingly being seriously affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Will the Government today offer assurances to those groups of workers, who do not have a safety net to safeguard and help them through this time?

We have welcomed the new Government measures to improve access to statutory sick pay for workers. However, the Bill does not extend eligibility to all workers, including the just under 2 million workers who earn less than the qualifying threshold of £118 a week on average. It does not raise the level of statutory sick pay, which is, at £94.25, already the second lowest rate in Europe. We hope the Government will respond on those issues quickly because, as we have continually said throughout this crisis, people should not be expected to make a choice between their health and hardship.

Nobody should lose their home because of this virus. It is welcome that Ministers have listened to Labour and committed to an evictions ban for renters, but despite the Prime Minister’s promises that the Government would legislate to that effect, no such measures are in the Bill. Some 8.5 million households rent their home from a private, council or housing association landlord in England. Our analysis of Government statistics shows that 6 million renting households have no savings at all and are particularly vulnerable if they lose their job or have their hours cut as a result of coronavirus. To give people confidence and reassurance during this difficult time and to ensure that no renter loses their home as a result of coronavirus, rent needs to be suspended for those adversely affected by the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Like many Members across the House, the Opposition support this Bill with a very heavy heart—heavy not just with the shock and grief that this deadly virus has brought, but given the very real threats that emergency powers of this nature pose to human rights. The Bill contains the most draconian powers ever seen in peacetime Britain—powers to detain and test potentially infectious members of the public, including children, in isolation facilities; powers to shut down gatherings, which could impede the ability to protest against the overall handling of the crisis or against the abuse of the powers themselves. It needs no explanation and very little imagination to understand the huge potential for abuse that such powers and others in the Bill, however well intended and needed, still give rise. Those words will chill every liberal and libertarian instinct of Members across this House, which is why we were grateful to the Health Secretary and the Solicitor General for discussing these measures with us and with my shadow Cabinet colleagues in the rapid preparation stage of this Bill.

We have heard many wartime analogies in the press. Many here have talked about Winston Churchill. Of course, Churchill was remembered not only for victory in the war, but for the European convention on human rights at the end of the war. Notwithstanding the anti-Human Rights Act and anti-judicial review grumblings that we have heard in recent times, this Bill comes under the cover of a statement of compatibility under section 19 of the Human Rights Act. Further, the Bill does not attempt to oust the supervisory jurisdiction of the courts. That means that every exercise of Executive power or administrative action under the legislation must and will be measured against human rights and common-law standards. These include necessity, proportionality, rationality, fairness and, crucially, non-discrimination. I thank the Government for that concession on their part and for agreeing, I hope once and for all, that human rights and the rule of law, far from impeding national efforts in time of crisis, should instead guide and inspire them.

It is important that various measures in the Bill, some interfering with liberties and others deregulating standards, may be turned on and off, as and when needed, by the appropriate Administration under our devolution settlement. It is welcome that the Bill contains a two-year sunset clause, but as we have discussed, two years is a very long time in normal days and longer still in the context of this pandemic. That is why we tabled an amendment last week seeking parliamentary votes on the renewal or revocation of these emergency powers at six-monthly intervals. Indeed, many of us would prefer even more frequent reviews, but given the particular challenge even for Parliament of this crisis, I am glad that the Government seem to have moved some way towards the compromise offered by the Opposition in the constitutional interest.