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Coronavirus Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:46 pm on 23rd March 2020.

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Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security) 7:46 pm, 23rd March 2020

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 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 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 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.