Coronavirus Act 2020 (Review of Temporary Provisions)

– in the House of Commons at 3:23 pm on 30th September 2020.

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Votes in this debate

  • Division number 121
    A majority of MPs voted to retain temporary arrangements connected to the coronavirus pandemic on closing buildings, restricting events and gatherings, suspending evictions, enabling greater use of video and audio technology in courts and restricting the liberty of potentially infectious persons.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 3:23 pm, 30th September 2020

I beg to move,

That the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 should not yet expire.

When we first introduced the Act in March, I said that coronavirus is the most serious public health emergency that the world has faced in a century. Now, six months later, it is still the most serious public health emergency that the world has faced in a century. We have worked hard, overwhelmingly across party lines and sometimes at great pace, and come together to slow the spread of this virus. With the help of this Act, we protected the NHS, we built the Nightingale hospitals, and we welcomed thousands of clinicians back to the frontline. The Act helped people to get more appropriate care, faster; it helped the NHS and social care to harness technology like never before; and it has allowed the Government to deliver unprecedented economic support in troubled times. Although we have made huge strides in expanding testing and huge progress toward a vaccine, with the virus still at large, the Coronavirus Act 2020 and the measures within it remain as important as then.

Our strategy is to suppress the virus while protecting the economy, education and the NHS until a vaccine makes us safe. The Act is still needed to keep people safe. I understand that these are extraordinary measures, but they remain temporary, time-limited and proportionate to the threat that we face. Some of the measures we seek not to renew; some have, thankfully, not been used, but it is imperative that we maintain the ability to use them if needed; and some of the measures have proved critical to our response and are now used to keep people safe every day. To stand down the Act now would leave Britain exposed at a time when we need to be at our strongest.

This virus moves quickly, so we need to have the powers at our disposal to respond quickly. It is deeply important to me that we strike the right balance between acting at pace and proper scrutiny. I believe in the sovereignty of Parliament, I believe that scrutinised decisions are better decisions, and I believe in the wisdom of this House as the cockpit of the nation.

This has been an unprecedented time. This House has had to do many unprecedented things, many of which have been uncomfortable. I have listened to the concerns raised about scrutiny. As you pointed out earlier, Mr Speaker, there have been times when this pandemic has challenged us all and we have not been able to do this as well as we would have liked. I therefore propose that we change the approach to bringing in urgent measures. I am very grateful to all colleagues we have worked with to come forward with a proposal that will allow us to make decisions and implement them fast, yet also ensure that they are scrutinised properly.

Today, I can confirm to the House that for significant national measures with effect in the whole of England or UK-wide, we will consult Parliament; wherever possible, we will hold votes before such regulations come into force. But of course, responding to the virus means that the Government must act with speed when required, and we cannot hold up urgent regulations that are needed to control the virus and save lives. I am sure that no Member of this House would want to limit the Government’s ability to take emergency action in the national interest, as we did in March.

We will continue to involve the House in scrutinising our decisions in the way my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out last week, with regular statements and debates, and the ability for Members to question the Government’s scientific advisers more regularly, gain access to data about their constituencies and join daily calls with my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General. I hope these new arrangements will be welcomed on both sides of the House, and I will continue to listen to colleagues’ concerns, as I have tried my best to do throughout.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

I thank my right hon. Friend for being prepared to listen and for the constructive conversations that we have had over the last couple of weeks. As he said, Members on both sides of the House understand the importance of Ministers having the freedom to act quickly when it is necessary, but we are grateful that he and other members of the Government have understood the importance of proper scrutiny in this place and the benefits that that can bring for better government.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I agree with him on the point about scrutiny. I am very glad that we have been able to find a way to ensure that we can have that scrutiny and that colleagues on both sides of the House can have the opportunity to vote, but in a way that still does not fetter the Government’s need to act fast to keep people safe from this virus.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he has set out and the manner in which he has done it, and I thank him very much indeed. He said earlier that he would not be renewing some of these provisions. May I just invite him to say something about mental health, and also something about schedule 21 relating to potentially infectious persons?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We have been working together to try to find a way through this that works both for the House and for the circumstances. There has been a change in the way that schedule 21 is used, and I believe that has reduced some of the concerns in this area, but we will continue to keep it under review.

I will say something about mental health later in my speech. There are measures on mental health in the Act that have not been used and that we are not seeking to renew. I hope that reassures colleagues that we take a proportionate approach to these measures and that although we want to make sure we have the measures we need, when we do not need them we will set them aside.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I thank the Secretary of State for all he has done. I have spoken to him many times about these issues. I am sure that he, like me, has received lots of emails outlining concerns about the stripping back of health and social care. The Government must ensure that such powers can be used only when absolutely necessary and not to save funding while leaving people without appropriate care. Will the Secretary of State please reassure the House as to how the power will be regulated and reassure us that people’s health and social care rights will be protected?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Yes. The powers in the Act have allowed us not only to ensure that people get the care that they need and that that care is targeted where necessary, but to allow people to get better and faster access to care when they are in hospital and have to leave, by ensuring that a care package is there. In their totality, the measures on care in the Act have without doubt helped us both to protect the NHS and to support social care, and crucially to support the patients who need that care. We will therefore of course take them forward, because of that positive overall effect.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Has the Secretary of State seen the evidence that many disabled people and people who need care have not received the care that they need? If he listens to the organisations that represent disabled people, he will hear that they are extremely worried about schedule 12 in particular and the easements on the duties of local authorities to assess and meet care needs. Is he telling the House that the Government are not renewing that schedule—yes or no?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Yes, we are renewing that schedule, because it is very important for ensuring that we prioritise care for those who need it most. The concerns that the right hon. Gentleman raises now were raised during the passage of the Act, when we had a good discussion on the subject. I believe that the way the Act has worked has, overall, improved access to care for people both in hospital and in our social care system, which has, of course, been an area of great scrutiny throughout the pandemic.

Photo of Steve Brine Steve Brine Conservative, Winchester

I thank the Secretary of State very much for the sensible measures the Government have taken today on the involvement and ongoing consent of this House. There is widespread public concern out there about consent and the measures we are imposing on their lives. Just to be clear for the public, and some sectors of the media, watching this debate: many of the restrictions that we are reluctantly having to place on our constituents’ lives do not come through the Coronavirus Act 2020; they come through many other pieces of legislation, but primarily the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Yes. What I have said relates to measures to do with the pandemic response. As my hon. Friend says, the vast majority of the measures in respect of social distancing restrictions were introduced under 1984 Act; only a minority were introduced under the Coronavirus Act. Nevertheless, the point about scrutiny is an important one no matter what the origin of the statutory instrument. In essence, we have managed to innovate with parliamentary procedure to find a way that we can move both quickly and with the proper scrutiny of Parliament. That is what we have been seeking to do. In these unprecedented circumstances, many innovations have had to be made, not least in Parliament, and this is another one. There were two contrasting needs—the need for proper scrutiny and the need for very speedy action—and I am really pleased that we have been able to find a way through that, I hope, commands the support of the whole House.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

I thank my right hon. Friend and the business managers for the work they have done in reaching this solution, and I hope, Mr Speaker, that you will think that, following your stern words earlier, the Government have listened and come forward with some measures that have responded appropriately.

May I just press the Secretary of State? He said in his remarks that the Government will bring forward votes in advance of the measures coming into force on national measures covering the whole of England or the whole of the UK. Obviously, some of the measures that have come into force so far have been quite significant, covering large parts of the country and millions of people. I accept there is a judgment to be made here; can he say a little more about where the line will be drawn about what is brought to this House in advance?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

In a way my right hon. Friend, who has huge experience in these matters, answers his own question, because of course there is a judgment to be made. We have made a very clear commitment to the process that we will follow, and I hope that over the weeks to come we will demonstrate through our actions and through what we bring forward that we are true to that commitment, which essentially will become a new convention.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, Chair, Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union

Given the number of cases in which schedule 21 has been inappropriately used, can the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House what the definition is of a “potentially infectious” person? How is a police officer meant to know who is potentially infectious, and in the middle of a pandemic does that not include every single one of us, and are not the powers that the police have been given to detain us really quite worrying? Will he undertake to look at this again?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the guidance has been looked at again, and the Crown Prosecution Service has issued new guidance that has rectified the concerns raised at the start. I am satisfied that that new guidance is appropriate and proportionate, and therefore I am satisfied that we should renew schedule 21, because, to answer his point, it is crucial that in circumstances where it is necessary to act to keep people safe we have the powers to do so, but they must be proportionate, and I think that the guidance has answered that.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

If I may, I will make a bit of progress, because otherwise I will take the whole 90 minutes myself.

The central point is that we need to ensure that we strike a balance so that we get the scrutiny right and also meet the need to act fast. The vote tonight is about whether to renew the Coronavirus Act, and I emphatically urge Members on both sides to vote in favour of that Act because of the broad range of powers without which it would simply be impossible to have an effective response to this virus.

First, the Act has helped us boost the health and social care workforce. One of the achievements in this crisis is that we are able to protect the NHS, and one of the reasons we were able to do that was that we were able to support people on the frontline. This Act allowed the emergency registration of health and social care professionals—nurses, midwives, paramedics, social workers —who wanted to return to the national effort. Skilled and experienced staff were able to return to work and add capacity at a time of emergency.

Secondly, this Act does not just support the NHS frontline: the second part of the Act protects all public servants who keep the UK running safely and securely. Over the past few months we have seen huge changes in the way our public services have operated. This Act allows for remote working and for moving meetings online, and it is about acting quickly to prioritise essential activities. The Act supports vital temporary measures that have allowed public services to keep their work going. This includes courts keeping running in a covid-secure way through the use of virtual hearings; up to 65% of hearings each day now involve somebody joining remotely, so it is integral to maintaining the rule of law that we keep these measures in place. The measures have also kept local democracy going by allowing councils to hold their meetings virtually. These are sensible and pragmatic steps that have helped us keep vital institutions operating in the midst of the pandemic.

The Act gives the Home Secretary powers to close and suspend operations at UK ports and airports if there are insufficient staff to maintain border security. This is one of the powers that has not yet been used, and I hope we will never have to use it, but it remains an important tool at our disposal.

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s earlier statement. My constituents are incredibly concerned about the powers given in this Act, but I would argue that this debate is not only about scrutiny and allowing the House to debate and vote; it is also about giving the Secretary of State the credibility to continue the work he is doing. It also exposes the difficult decisions and trade-offs he has to make, balancing the spread of the virus against all the restrictions we have to face, so I welcome the opportunity for further debates—much longer, I hope—and votes, too.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We are absolutely open to further and longer debates—for instance, the debate we had on Monday. Under the Standing Orders of the House, this debate is 90 minutes, and neither the Speaker nor we had the choice over that, but we introduced a full day’s debate on Monday, and there will be many more debates to come.

I turn to a measure that we will not be renewing. I have said that we will keep measures in place only for as long as is necessary, and I can tell the House that in one area we will revoke a power that was part of the original Act. When creating the Act, we included provisions to modify mental health legislation to reduce from two to one the number of doctors’ opinions needed to detain someone under the Mental Health Act 1983 and to extend legal time limits on the detention of mental health patients. These were always powers of last resort, and I was not persuaded, even in the peak, that they were necessary, because our mental health services have shown incredible resilience and ingenuity. I have therefore decided that these powers are no longer required in England and will not remain part of the Act. We will shortly bring forward the necessary secondary legislation to sunset these provisions.

The third part of the Act contains measures to suppress the virus. As a nation, we have succeeded in suppressing the virus once, thanks to so many sacrifices by so many people, but with cases on the rise, we know that more needs to be done, and we need to do it together. Our central strategy of suppressing the virus while protecting the economy, education and the NHS until a vaccine arrives is underpinned by this part of the Act. It gives us stronger powers to restrict or prohibit events and public gatherings, and where necessary to shut down premises. It gives police and immigration officers the power to isolate a person who is or may be infectious, and it allows us to close educational settings or childcare providers. Again, these are not measures that anyone wants to use, but we must keep them in place for the moment, because we need every weapon in our arsenal to fight this virus, and these are a proportionate response.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

As the virus clearly behaves according to how each and every one of us behaves, will the Secretary of State join me in condemning what we saw on the news this morning at Coventry University, where some students were behaving in a shameful way, up close and personal, partying?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

My hon. Friend’s comments are absolutely right. The need for all of us to exercise responsibility in a world where the virus can pass asymptomatically, without anybody knowing that they have it, is sadly a feature of life during the pandemic, which I hope will be over sooner rather than later.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges

I am very grateful for the correspondence that the Secretary of State and I have had on a specific issue relating to local restrictions in Wales, which have quite rightly been imposed by the Welsh Government, that do not allow people to travel outside their county borough area except for a reasonable excuse, which does not include going on holiday. That means that lots of people have lost every single penny on their holiday, because lots of companies have refused to pay out on insurance or change the date of their holidays. They say that Welsh Government rules are just guidance and do not have the full force of law. I hope the Secretary of State can stand at the Dispatch Box now and say very clearly to those companies that they should be reimbursing people because those restrictions have the full force of law. The Welsh Government are of course the legitimate body that makes the rules in terms of the local measures in place in Wales. That is the devolution settlement, as we have discussed many times in the last six months, and people should respect that.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

Of course the companies involved should be making recompense where that is appropriate, and I hope that we can come forward with a resolution to this issue sooner rather than later.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

If I could just make some progress.

The fourth part of the Act contains measures for managing the deceased. This is a devastating virus that has caused pain and suffering for many and, tragically, has taken away many loved ones before their time. We have worked hard to treat them with the utmost dignity, along with protecting public health and respecting the wishes of the families of the bereaved.

The Act expands the list of people who can register a death to include funeral directors, and sets out that coroners only have to be notified when a medical professional is not available to sign a death certificate. It allows death certificates to be emailed, instead of physically presented, removes the need for confirmatory medical certificates in order for a cremation to take place and relieves coroners from the need to hold inquests with a jury in suspected covid-19 deaths. Over the past few months, those powers have eased pressure on coroners, reduced distress to the bereaved and allowed funerals to take place without delay. We therefore propose to keep them.

Finally, the fifth part of the Act includes measures to protect and support people through this crisis. The financial support provided by the Government has proved to be a lifeline for so many. These measures in the Coronavirus Act made that support possible. The Act provides for the furlough scheme, the temporary increase in working tax credits and making statutory sick pay payable from day one. Without the Act, we would not have furlough or the job support scheme. The Act also includes measures to protect both business and residential tenants by delaying when landlords can progress evictions.

I know the burdens that the virus has placed on the livelihoods of so many, and we have worked to give as much protection as possible. I think that the whole House will want to keep these powers in place so that we can continue to help people in future. Without the passage of this motion, the financial support for people that is provided for and legally underpinned in this Act would not be legally possible. I understand that many colleagues may have concerns about individual parts of the Act, but a vote for this Act allows many of the necessary legal powers that have been required, including underpinning the financial support that has kept so many people afloat during the crisis.

Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for giving way. Will he agree, though, that the inconsistent and sometimes nonsensical application of some of the rules is doing damage to some of the businesses that he talks about? In particular, I am thinking of the wedding industry and the many families who have been affected by that. The rule of six surely can apply so that a place that can take many multiples of six could host weddings and give people their special day, and so that it does not kill a vital industry not just in the lakes and the dales, but across the country.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I think we have shown throughout that we are always willing to try to improve the way the rules operate in a way that is safe. At weddings, of course people tend to come together physically. It is a time of celebration of love, and that is in its nature, so we make restrictions with huge regret, but we always keep an open mind on the public health evidence.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central

If the Coronavirus Act were voted down today, would the Minister not have 21 days to bring forward to the House another Act, which the House can then agree?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

The principle of the Coronavirus Act is that it underpins so many of the actions that are necessary. To vote down the Act and not to renew it would lead to an undermining of the actions that we need to take to keep this country safe.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

I have a lot of sympathy with what the Secretary of State is saying, but may I also support what was said by Tim Farron, not only about the wedding industry but about the exhibitions and events industry? Will my right hon. Friend at least bear in mind that good sense from careful people who seek to be covid-sensible and compliant would enable him to exercise some flexibility in the very inflexible rules that currently govern those two important industries, which are flat on their backs?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

We are always happy to look at the evidence on how these things can be done—absolutely. I would be very happy to talk to my right hon. Friend about how we can take this forward.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Conservative, Eddisbury

On the 15-person limit at wedding venues, it would help a lot of those in the industry, which is struggling desperately, if they could see the public health evidence and anything else taken into consideration in coming to that judgment. The difference between them and the rest of the hospitality industry does stand out, and they are going to be in a further desperate state for the next six months.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

I will ask my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary to take up that point. The Business Department is responsible for making sure that the business rules are right, and I know that it looks at them very carefully.

The Coronavirus Act remains as fundamental as it was when introduced to this House six months ago. We will beat the pandemic, but we are not there yet. I urge the House to approve this motion, so that we can keep responding with speed and with strength. As we have heard during the opening of this debate, we are always looking to listen, learn and improve the response as much as possible, but without this Act our response will be harmed very significantly. At a time when this nation is being tested like never before in peacetime, I commend the motion to the House.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Home Secretary 3:51 pm, 30th September 2020

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate, having taken the Bill through its Committee stages back in March.

We come to the House today to debate the renewal of the provisions of the Coronavirus Act, in the gravest of circumstances. Here in the United Kingdom, we have seen over 42,000 deaths, lives altered in ways unimaginable a year ago, and our economy facing one of the worst recessions on record. We accept the challenge that presents, which is why we have recognised that, in a pandemic, any Government need extraordinary powers available, and why, with a heavy heart, facing this highly unsatisfactory situation of an all-or-nothing motion, we will not block its passage.

We have supported the Government when it has been right to do so, and the British people, who have sacrificed so much in the national effort to address this virus, deserve nothing less. But today we say to the Government that things cannot go on as they are. The incredible efforts of the British people have not been matched with competence and grip by the UK Government. Announcements about measures have been made overnight, with no proper notice and no proper power of review, and Government Ministers have appeared on national media with absolutely no idea of what the rules are. The public are being let down on a grand scale.

The Government have had virtually all the resources and brilliance of our remarkable country on demand for over six months. They have been able to call on the UK’s remarkable frontline workers, who have shown incredible skill and bravery through this crisis. Yet we have ended up with one of the highest death rates in the world and on the threshold of one of the deepest recessions.

At the same time, the road ahead is anything but clear. Our testing system is inadequate, at the very moment we need it most, and this is having a devastating impact. Losing control of testing means losing control of the virus. It is that loss of control that makes further restrictions necessary. It is restrictions that are having a devastating effect on families and businesses up and down the country. This dire situation was not inevitable. It is the result of a chronic failure of Government. Today we must take stock of where we are and the urgent need for the Government to get a grip.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are attempting to shift blame on to local councils? The councils quite rightly want restrictions, but what is happening is that they are asking for things but not being given them. There is also no consultation at all on how the restrictions should be implemented locally, which is leaving the councils with the confusion that we have had over the last few—

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

The Secretary of State shakes his head, but in the north-east, that is exactly what has happened. Does my hon. Friend agree that if councils ask for things, there should be a joint approach, rather than just a diktat from Whitehall?

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Home Secretary

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The UK Government need to get a grip and work with the other Governments and local councils around the United Kingdom on an equal basis.

Right at the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation said that we should “test, test, test”, and it was clear that that would be a vital element in regaining any form of normality. The Government had the country’s full resources on hand, and on 20 May the Prime Minister promised a “world-beating” test, track and isolate system by 1 June. I am not asking for a world-beating system; an effective one would do just fine. But shamefully, this has not been achieved all these months later. Is not this the problem with the Prime Minister? He always promises a better tomorrow, but he never delivers today.

Photo of Steven Baker Steven Baker Conservative, Wycombe

I said on Monday that I was actually quite pleased with the app, and I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is pleased with the app and whether he has installed it and switched it on.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Home Secretary

Yes, I have indeed installed the app. It has taken a significant time and a significant amount of wasted money to actually appear, but it has finally appeared and I would encourage all hon. and right hon. Members to download it.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges

I would like to point out to Mr Baker that the app actually works better in Wales, because all the tests can be properly downloaded in Wales, unlike in England. And while my hon. Friend Nick Thomas-Symonds is at it, can he just point out that the so-called concession that the Government have given to Members such as the hon. Member for Wycombe, with whom I agree on many of these issues today, is nothing? It is not worth the paper it is not written on. We would like to see something in writing about what the consultation with the House will really look like.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Home Secretary

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The lesson with promises from this Government is that we always need them in writing, and even then they are not necessarily delivered.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care

He will be able to read it in Hansard in the morning.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Home Secretary

Moving swiftly on.

In England, the number of tests, the availability of tests and the turnaround time simply are not good enough. So dire is the situation that the Prime Minister is arguing with the Health Secretary over whether testing even matters. The Health Secretary has said that

“finding where the people are who test positive is the single most important thing that we must do to stop the spread of the virus”,

and I agree with him. I agree with the Health Secretary. The shame is that the Prime Minister does not appear to, because he has said the complete opposite. The Prime Minister has said:

“Testing and tracing has very little or nothing to do with the spread or the transmission of the disease.”—[Official Report, 22 September 2020;
Vol. 680, c. 822.]

Yet again, the Prime Minister refuses to take responsibility for his own actions and his own failings.

The testing of care home residents and staff is critical to saving lives, yet in England there have been repeated delays to the roll-out of testing, and people have waited days for their results. We are also witnessing chaotic scenes at our universities as students are locked down for the want of testing. The Prime Minister has been talking about a “moonshot”, but it is time he stopped looking up at the sky in vain hope and focused instead on what is happening in the everyday lives of families and businesses up and down the country. The failure to show that grip and strategic leadership has severely hampered the way in which the UK Government work with other Governments, as my right hon. Friend Mr Jones said. Some have not even been properly informed of lockdown plans for their own areas. Let us take yesterday as an example, when we had the chaos of the Prime Minister himself unable to outline what additional restrictions his own Government were implementing for the north-east of England. It is, frankly, an embarrassment, and people deserve better. If the Prime Minister actually bothered to communicate with some of the devolved Governments, he might learn something. In Wales, the tracing system is significantly better. The percentage of contacts that has been reached has been consistently higher than in England, and the Prime Minister ought to follow that best practice.

Let me turn to some of those most at risk in our society. The Health Secretary claimed to have thrown a “protective ring” around care homes in England. If that is what the Government call the shambles they presided over, I would hate to see what they consider a mess to be. Again, the Prime Minister tried to shift the blame, insultingly suggesting that

“too many care homes didn’t really follow the procedures”,

and that was when the Government’s own advice at the start of the pandemic said that people in care homes were “very unlikely” to be infected. The truth is that too many care homes were left high and dry. There was not enough support, insufficient personal protective equipment and a lack of testing. I am sorry to say that some of the most vulnerable paid the price and, sadly, paid the ultimate price. Yet again, care workers, who should be lauded by the Government, were denigrated.

That failure on care homes is particularly relevant as we discuss and debate this legislation and its renewal, because the Act contains provisions that allow for the so-called “easement” of legal safeguards. The Health Secretary said that he thinks those are still necessary, but why are they still necessary? I read carefully the analysis that he published, which did not answer the question. He tried in his speech to make a positive case for it on the basis of prioritisation, but he must realise that that does not deal with the deep concern there is about the situation in our care homes, and he must surely understand that every vulnerable person, throughout this pandemic, must have the standard of care that they need.

We also have significant concerns about the curtailment of the use of GPs to sign death certificates. Again, the Health Secretary said that he wanted to continue with that provision. What assessment has been made about the use of this power? Why does it need to continue? Will he also tell us what its impact has been? Ministers have no excuse for being caught unawares, as they have had months to get to grips with this. We cannot afford for action to protect our care homes and other services to be as slow and chaotic as it was at the start of this pandemic.

On a more positive note, I welcome what the Health Secretary said about the easements under the Mental Health Act; they have not been used and I welcome his assurance that they will not now be used. But what about the easements under the Children and Families Act 2014? He did not mention that Act, and I assume from the silence that they will be continuing. He must bear in mind those with special educational needs and vulnerable children, whose rights should not be rolled back as a consequence of this pandemic. Some of the most vulnerable people have borne the brunt of this virus and this Government’s failings.

We have also seen, across our communities, that the impact has not been evenly felt. Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities have been some of the worst-hit by the virus itself and by the economic fallout, Disabled people and those with underlying health conditions have made up 59% of the covid deaths to date. Despite that, the Government have not done enough work on equality impact assessments on measures or made the necessary evidence available so that we can openly debate and vote to address these deep inequalities. Today, we are faced with an all-or-nothing motion, but let me put the Government on notice that we will not tolerate any discrimination in our society as a consequence of the implementation of these measures. That is why I say to the Government today that they should not be waiting another six months; they should be publishing a monthly review of the impact of this virus on individuals and groups, together with those detailed impact assessments. If the Government continue with the easements under the Care Act 2014, as they say they will, or under the Children and Families Act 2014, they must report regularly to this House about the impact of what they are doing,

Photo of Karin Smyth Karin Smyth Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

I hope my hon. Friend agrees that the way the Secretary of State has approached this matter today is disappointing. Many of us sit on Select Committees and have scrutinised the way in which this Act has come forward, and are willing to spend more time doing that properly. That is our job as legislators. The approach has been most unsatisfactory, so I completely support my hon. Friend when he says that we need it to be better. There are recommendations in many Select Committee reports, and my hon. Friend should press the Secretary of State to take note of them.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Home Secretary

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She saves me from coming to another part of my speech. Quality scrutiny is available across the House on a cross-party basis, and we have had no credible explanation for why this debate is limited to 90 minutes.

The rights that I have referred to, relating to the easements that the Government are pushing forward, protect vulnerable people—those who need care, those with mental illness and children with special educational needs across the country. We cannot simply put their rights to one side.

On rights, there is a real issue with schedule 21. My right hon. Friend Hilary Benn put his finger on it: the power to detain “potentially infectious persons”, which, as far as I can make out, could include virtually anybody. So far, it has been used for 141 prosecutions, each and every one of which was found to be unlawful when it was reviewed. I cannot think of any other piece of legislation in parliamentary history that that could be said about. All the Health Secretary said was that the guidance had changed and he would keep it under review. With a provision like that, he needs to speak to the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary and do so much better. A provision that has resulted in 141 unlawful prosecutions cannot be right.

I say to the Health Secretary that the Government have to be transparent and accountable. They must come back not in six months’ time, as set out in Act, but every month to answer for the use of these powers.

Photo of Joanna Cherry Joanna Cherry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice and Home Affairs), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I agree that 141 unlawful prosecutions—100% unlawful prosecutions —is completely unacceptable. In Scotland, the police have not been using the powers in schedule 21, so we have not had the same problem. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we need fewer widely drawn powers, and that schedule 21 needs to go?

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Home Secretary

The hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right. The problem comes with “potentially infected persons”. It is a very poorly drafted schedule, and that is why we are seeing these consequences. I urge the Health Secretary again to look at it.

As we tighten restrictions and ask for more sacrifices from people, the economic support is being lowered. The Government claim that jobs are unviable, but the reality is that the restrictions made necessary by their failure on testing are causing the problem. The jobs crisis was caused in No. 10 and No. 11 Downing Street. The support offered is inadequate. It cannot be right that it is easier to retain one worker full time than two on a part-time basis. Frankly, the Chancellor is offering a cocktail umbrella for the pouring rain.

I say this to the Government: work with the Opposition in the national interest. Create new targeted support that can replace the job retention scheme and prevent devastating mass unemployment, keep workers safe by protecting workers’ rights, boost sick pay, make workplaces safe and give our NHS and care services the resources they need.

Mr Speaker, you gave a very clear direction earlier about the role of Parliament. Across the Parliament there is, quite rightly, a desire for more parliamentary scrutiny. Six months ago, I raised the issue that the motion is unamendable for precisely that reason. I said to the Paymaster General in that debate that it should be amendable so that we would not be in the position we are in today, but she simply said:

“We do not wish to do that.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2020;
Vol. 674, c. 134.]

Today, we find ourselves with 90 minutes to debate this unprecedented set of powers. There is no credible reason whatever why that could not have been extended. The Government may not wish to face scrutiny, but they need to accept that they will make better laws for everybody if they do accept scrutiny.

I heard what the Health Secretary said about votes, but it was qualified because he said “when possible”. He needs to realise that, with such strong powers on the statute book, the need for accountability is even more acute than it would be in ordinary times, not less. A strong Government would come to Parliament. A strong Government would accept the need for votes. A weak Government would run away from scrutiny and hide their own incompetence, which is precisely what the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister are doing.

The British people are making an incredible contribution to tackling this virus. Our country has huge resources, brilliant scientists, our NHS and our remarkable frontline workers. They have all been at the disposal of this Government, yet six months after this Act was last considered in this House, we find ourselves in a perilous situation, critically undermined by the failures of this Government. I say to the Government: get a grip on test and trace—there is no excuse at all for not having a fully functioning system now—communicate well with the public, because the mixed messaging helps nobody; and act to prevent mass unemployment now, because the British people can no longer afford to pay the price for this lack of strategy and grip. Frankly, they deserve so much better.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee 4:11 pm, 30th September 2020

Mr Speaker, may I begin by thanking you? Although you gave your reasons earlier for not selecting the amendments in my name and that of 80 other colleagues across the House, you also made your expectations of Government crystal clear. No one could doubt your commitment to upholding the Standing Orders of this House, Mr Speaker, and nor have you left any doubt about your resolve in defending parliamentary democracy and the right of this House to scrutinise and hold Ministers to account.

I am also pleased to be able to thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. Throughout my discussions with him, he has accepted the need to find a better approach to scrutiny and parliamentary approval of coronavirus measures. The new procedure that he has committed the Government to follow shows a genuine understanding of what has been wrong in the past and a real promise of transparency and engagement in the future. I believe the outcome we have reached is in the interests of Parliament, in the interests of better government and, most importantly, it gives the British people reassurance that measures that restrict their liberty, interfere with their family life, and very often threaten their livelihoods will not be implemented without important questions being asked and answers given in advance.

Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean

Because it is not clear necessarily outside the House, will my hon. Friend agree that what the Secretary of State has effectively confirmed at the Dispatch Box with just the one change of the word “practicable” to “possible” is exactly what he put forward in his amendment, which we understand, for very good reasons, the Speaker was unable to select.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that intervention, because it is important to say that those of us on both sides of the House who put our names to that amendment were seeking to be eminently reasonable and accept the difficult constraints under which the Government are operating, and it is important that the Government accepted that in those terms. We believe that it was in good faith, and we will, of course, hold the Government to that.

It is also important, following this change of approach signalled by the Secretary of State, that the public—the people whom we represent—will rightly be in a position in the future to judge us, as Members of this House, on the balance that we seek to strike in the protection of their liberty, the safety of the public and their ability to support themselves and their families.

Photo of Andrew Mitchell Andrew Mitchell Conservative, Sutton Coldfield

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who has done an extremely good job, and a great service to our constituents, in the work that he did in respect of his amendment. Will he confirm that the aim of this amendment was not to confront the Government in any way, but to try to ensure that the Government use the wisdom across this House in tackling this very serious problem?

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

I absolutely agree. Those were two wonderful interventions from former Chief Whips; I wonder whether there are any more in the House. That is precisely the point: it is our belief that this House can work with the Government, and that our collective knowledge and the difficult questions we will ask will improve the quality of the Government’s actions and governance.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

The hon. Gentleman is an expert on procedure, and he will soon get to grips with it. It is the made affirmative procedure, which entails the setting of a commencement date in the future for measures, which will allow for a debate and vote to take place in advance of commencement. The House will therefore have that crucial ability to refuse consent.

Photo of Graham Brady Graham Brady Chair, Conservative Party 1922 Committee

These things will be brought forward. We have had the assurance, and we will hold the Government to it. The hon. Gentleman will see it very soon.

I will close by thanking those Members across the House who, by supporting my amendment publicly or privately, have helped to achieve what I believe will be an important step forward for all of us.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford SNP Westminster Leader 4:15 pm, 30th September 2020

I regret the fact that this is only a 90-minute debate. The Government should have ensured that a more appropriate amount of time was given. In that context, I will not do what I normally do; I apologise to Members, but because of time, I will not be taking interventions. [Hon. Members: “Hooray!] That is utterly pathetic.

In preparing my contribution for the debate, I revisited the remarks that I made when this legislation was introduced in March. It seems a long while ago, but it is worth remembering the shock of the initial wave and the speed with which all our lives were changed. As we all know, that sudden shift in our collective lives was accompanied by the tragedy of losing too many of our citizens far too soon. Talk of a new normal has set in fast since the virus first took its grip, but at times, it is important to reflect on the scale of the sacrifice and the adjustment that all of us have been asked to make necessarily because of the pandemic. Even back in March, on the eve of lockdown, it was clear that the fight against this virus would not be temporary and would not be short. We knew then that we were only in the foothills of what is a mountainous challenge. Back then, just as now, there remained a long way to go.

Setting out that context is crucial as we reconsider the powers in the Act. Many things have changed since March. A new normal has evolved. Society and people have adapted and shown remarkable resilience. We should be grateful that, in the main, the public have followed Government guidance throughout these islands. For all the sacrifices that folk have made, they should have our thanks and appreciation. Sadly, one thing remains very much the same since March: the virus remains in our midst, and it remains as deadly as ever. It is worth noting that we are considering these measures in the week that humanity has reached a terrible milestone: 1 million covid-related deaths worldwide, and that is only those officially defined as covid-related deaths.

The emergency and the extensive powers in this legislation have naturally and rightly raised questions and concerns. The nature and the imposition of measures that significantly alter individual liberties deserve full and frank scrutiny no matter the context. In that regard, it is really unhelpful that we have been given only a 90-minute debate today. My party has always made clear our serious concerns about the lack of scrutiny of the powers in the UK Government’s Coronavirus Act. That is why, on the Bill’s Second Reading, we raised our concerns alongside others in this place. The UK Government need to listen to those concerns, voiced long before Tory Back Benchers started having trouble with the Government’s moves.

These six-monthly reviews cannot be a rubber-stamping exercise. They must have the teeth to provide meaningful scrutiny, to protect human rights and to promote public health. It is vital that this elected House has its say on these measures, which impact all our constituents. That is the proper way to maintain trust, in order that we can have stronger regulations in place to tackle the biggest health emergency that any of us have seen in our lifetimes.

We fully acknowledge and appreciate that all elements of this Government and every Government are under huge pressures as a result of the pandemic. This deadly virus presents unparalleled challenges to all of us entrusted with governmental powers, but that is all the more reason why these decisions need the insight of scrutiny and the legitimacy of parliamentary oversight. No one, at least no one on the Opposition side of the House, is calling for the scrutiny to hamstring the UK Government on essential public health measures, but it is right that the House is afforded the democratic means to have its say.

The recognition of such a need and the steps to address it were taken early on in the Scottish Parliament. The Coronavirus (Scotland) Act 2020 contains a range of measures to ensure scrutiny of decisions made by the Scottish Government. Scottish Ministers have responsibility under section 15 of that Act to publish two-monthly reports for the Scottish Parliament on the use of emergency powers. There is a recent requirement of the Scottish Parliament to consider regulations to extend the expiry date of part 1 of both that Act and the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Act 2020 from 30 September to 31 March 2021. Scottish Ministers also have a duty to report on all Scottish statutory instruments made for a reason relating to coronavirus. As part of debating this motion today, we are calling on the UK Government to consider how similar scrutiny and accountability processes can be introduced in this House.

It is right to reflect on the principles of democratic accountability and transparency, but today it is equally important that we collectively remind ourselves of the principles of protecting our people for however long this pandemic inflicts itself upon us. We must stick rigidly to the principles that we all set out to uphold when this virus became a reality in our everyday lives—protecting our NHS, protecting livelihoods and, most importantly, saving lives. The health regulations under this Act and their impact on the economy cannot be separated, and we have all seen that each has a fundamental effect on the other.

It is crucial that we press the Government on these issues today. Back in March, the UK Government promised the public that, no matter how severe the economic effect, no one would be left behind. Only six months later, this UK Government are now completely failing to uphold the principle of supporting livelihoods and jobs. It is now the shameful policy of this Tory Government that, just as health restrictions are strengthened, they are weakening economic support. They cannot claim to save lives and protect people by imposing additional public health measures on people, while at the same time allowing unemployment and deprivation to soar.

This week, expert after expert has been queuing up to warn that the Chancellor’s significantly less generous replacement for the furlough scheme will not prevent mass redundancies. The Resolution Foundation warned that it will

“not significantly reduce the rise of unemployment”.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies warned:

“It is clear that many jobs will be lost over the coming months”.

The Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed described it as “woefully inadequate”, and the Scottish Tourism Alliance warned:

“The reality we must all face now is that within the coming days and weeks, businesses owners will lose their livelihoods, thousands will lose their income and the effects on the economy and people’s lives will be nothing short of devastating.”

That is the reality.

It is a disgrace that millions of families now face a bitter winter of rising unemployment and squeezed living standards. This is all the direct result of the Tory Government’s reckless decision to scrap the furlough scheme and impose an extreme Brexit during a second wave of coronavirus.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford SNP Westminster Leader

I can see the Secretary of State frowning, but, Secretary of State, that is the reality. People are going to lose their jobs and their livelihoods, and this Government are not prepared to do what they promised— to get their arms around those who were going to be affected.

The Tories have made a deliberate choice—a political choice—to let unemployment soar, just like Thatcher did in the early 1980s. Just like back then, the scars of that economic inequality will ruin and last a generation. Either the Tories have not learned from the devastation of the Thatcher years, or they simply do not care. It appears they are willing to inflict the Thatcher years all over again.

Photo of Ian Blackford Ian Blackford SNP Westminster Leader

The right hon. Gentleman should reflect on the damage that the 1980s did to communities. I used to live in Lanarkshire, where the steel and coal industries were devastated, and many of those communities have never recovered from the devastation that was visited upon them by Thatcher and her Government at that time.

This Tory Government are repeating the failures of the 1980s and they simply do not care. They do not care about what is going to happen to people and businesses as a result of the measures that have been put in place.

The Government’s renewal of these health regulations today while failing to renew economic support simply is not acceptable. If the Tories continue with this policy, many good businesses will be forced to close or reduce their activity, through no fault of their own. Millions will face the dole. We already know that 61,000 Scottish employees face the risk of unemployment, given the Tories’ removal of the furlough scheme. For many looking on, it is the same old story from the Tories. Yet again, Westminster is proving that it cannot be trusted to act in Scotland’s interests. The Government are withdrawing support for jobs, blocking the devolution of financial powers and threatening to impose a low-deal or no-deal extreme Brexit in the midst of a pandemic. If the Government and the Chancellor are to abide by the promises that they made in March when the Act was passed, they need to think again. They need to reinstate a full job protection scheme and devolve the powers that Scotland needs to protect our economy. Only then can we collectively get on with the job of protecting public health while also protecting jobs and livelihoods.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Chair, Health and Social Care Committee, Chair, Health and Social Care Committee 4:25 pm, 30th September 2020

I will support the Government today because, although I fully understand the concerns about parliamentary scrutiny eloquently expressed by my hon. Friend Sir Graham Brady, the biggest threat that we face as a country is not the erosion of liberty but the explosion of the virus. We now know, as we go forward into a second wave, that for every death directly caused by covid there is at least one death indirectly caused by the disruption to cancer services, the interruption of emergency care and people being discharged early from hospital.

I wish to ask the Government about measures that could reduce such indirect deaths, particularly the introduction of the routine weekly testing of NHS staff, which we have discussed many times in the House—I see the shadow Secretary of State, Jonathan Ashworth smiling. In fairness to the Government, they have moved on this issue. In July, Chris Whitty told the Health and Social Care Committee that he supported the routine testing of asymptomatic NHS staff in hotspots. I would like there to be such testing everywhere, including in my constituency, where recently we seem to have seen live cases trebling, but even in the hotspots it is not currently happening with any consistency. That is a worry, because up to a fifth of staff in hospitals got the virus during the first wave and up to 11% of deaths of coronavirus patients were caused by patients having caught the virus in their own hospital. That is the context.

I recognise that some hospitals are trying to do routine testing, but it is very difficult for them to do it on a weekly basis when they cannot access pillar 2 testing, so will the Secretary of State ask all hospitals to make weekly testing happen, under their own steam if they can, or with the support of NHS Test and Trace supplying the reagents, or using pooled testing?

Photo of Nusrat Ghani Nusrat Ghani Conservative, Wealden

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when we talk about NHS staff and testing, we need to focus on the most vulnerable—those BAME NHS workers who are dying at a much faster rate? We need data and they need support.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt Chair, Health and Social Care Committee, Chair, Health and Social Care Committee

My hon. Friend has done a lot of campaigning to highlight that issue, as have Select Committee members from all parties. The Select Committee will publish a report tomorrow that considers that very issue and will be coming back to it.

The Government’s own figures show that at least a thousand additional cancer patients died because of the interruption caused by the pandemic. As we go into a second wave, it does not have to be the same again. The Government have rightly introduced weekly testing for people in care homes; the arguments are exactly the same for our hospitals. Patients need to know that their NHS hospital is safe and NHS staff need to know that they are not infecting their own patients. As we go into this very difficult period, please, will the Government act and make this happen?

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham 4:29 pm, 30th September 2020

The lack of scrutiny throughout this pandemic has led to sloppy decision making on the part of the Government. That is demonstrated in the U-turn after U-turn that we have seen. We have another example today at the Dispatch Box from the Secretary of State, who seems to have scrabbled together a deal with his Back Benchers.

My hon. Friend John Cryer is the second signatory to the amendment tabled by Sir Graham Brady and has lobbied many Labour Members to put our names to it, to put pressure on the Government. Did the Secretary of State consult my hon. Friend or any other Labour Member? Does this deal that he has got together have support across the House? Who did he consult? Will this House have the opportunity to stop Government decisions that it does not agree with before they are implemented?

We have seen the Government making decisions and implementing them, and then we in this House—maybe, if there is a statement—are given an opportunity to ask questions after the event. That has just not been good enough. We need to be able to influence what is taking place before the Government act, because lack of accountability enables them to make up the rules as they go along. They make snap announcements; then they need not worry about the implications because they can make another announcement and move on, and tomorrow’s headlines will cover their tracks.

It is small wonder the Prime Minister does not know whether he can come and go, with how many people, or whether it is indoors or outdoors. But one “gotcha” moment for the Prime Minister is not the issue. We are seeing a pattern. Throughout September, the Government have been unable to answer questions on testing of domiciliary care workers. The BMJ, back in April or May, concluded in a report that as many deaths were taking place among people who were receiving domiciliary care as were taking place in care homes, yet we never hear anything from the Government on this issue. Then there is the lack of involvement in local authorities in track and trace, where local knowledge could be used to track and deal with people who need to be isolated. These are issues that we could have raised in this House had we had the proper opportunity to scrutinise the Government. It is time the Government listened.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons) 4:32 pm, 30th September 2020

Yesterday, as Chair of the Liaison Committee, I signed a letter to the Prime Minister to focus the scrutiny of the various Select Committees on two issues: one was the need to galvanise test and trace, and the other was the need to improve the scrutiny of coronavirus measures that we are discussing today. The latter point reinforces the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend Sir Graham Brady. I am grateful to the Government for at least making some gestures in the direction of better scrutiny. The Government have nothing to fear from scrutiny. Good scrutiny improves government, as my hon. Friend said.

I wish to make only one other point, apart from the role that the Liaison Committee can play in improving scrutiny. The Government have made something of a rod for their own back by heaping a certain amount of derision and contempt on what Parliament is for, what we can do and what we can contribute to this. I do not suggest for a moment that that comes from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, or even from the Prime Minister, but there are some people around the Prime Minister who do not seem to value what Parliament has to offer, and, indeed, what Parliament’s function should actually be. I do not believe at all that this is a Cromwellian Government who want to abolish Parliament, but there should be some lessons learned from this in that there is a fundamental principle in our politics that the Government cannot govern without the consent of the House of Commons.

I would go further, on a slightly more party political point. The Prime Minister cannot lead his parliamentary party unless he has its consent, and therefore will find the act of governing very much more difficult and complicated if the consent of the party in office, among Members of Parliament, is not gathered together and led. I think the Prime Minister has gone to some lengths to bring back some consultation with the parliamentary party in recent weeks, but let there be some lessons learnt from the previous attitude that seemed to be coming from the team around the Prime Minister.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit) 4:35 pm, 30th September 2020

In the face of pictures from hospitals in Italy and reports from China of the number of people who were dying from this disease, this House gave the Government untrammelled power in this Act to take action to protect the public; but I have to say, Minister, that that power has been used in a way that has frustrated many people across the country. Their ability to work, to socialise, to go to school and to travel has been affected. Often the measures taken have been seen as illogical, inconsistent, contradictory and unnecessarily damaging.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Very quickly, one of the issues that has come to my attention—the number of emails has been enormous—is to do with the enforcement of vaccines on those people who do not wish to have them. I personally would take such a vaccine, but others will not. Does my hon. Friend agree that when it comes to vaccines, it should be by choice only?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

Well, of course, that is an issue that the Government will have to address in the future, if ever a vaccine is found.

The important thing is the frustration that many in the public are experiencing at present. It might not have been totally wiped out, but I believe there certainly would have been far more scrutiny if this House had not just had the ability to listen to statements or ask questions, but had actually had the real sanction that if the Minister did not make a consistent and competent case for the measures that he was introducing, they could be voted down. That is why the demand that there be effective scrutiny by this House is important.

We have listened to what the Minister has said, but I am not convinced that we will see that effective scrutiny; because if I heard him right, first, it would only be for matters that are significant. Now, who will make the judgment on whether the issue is significant? I can tell the Minister that, if I own a business and it is decided that it could be closed down, that is significant; yet we do not know who will make that final decision.

The scrutiny will only be for issues that are national. Sixteen million people are currently affected by a range of local decisions and local restrictions. That, to me, is as bad—half the nation, half the country, is affected—yet according to the Minister’s definition today that would not be covered because it would not be a national decision. And, of course, scrutiny will happen where possible. I suppose if the Government wished to escape scrutiny they could always say, “But this has suddenly emerged,” even though the data could have been collected days and days before. So who will decide whether it is possible to have the time to do this?

Photo of Craig Mackinlay Craig Mackinlay Conservative, South Thanet

As ever, my right hon. Friend makes the most powerful points. Does he agree that perhaps a special committee to decide what is significant—do lots of locals make a national?—would be a good way forward, so that we can decide what should be debated in this House and what can be left properly to Ministers to decide on a regular and rapid basis?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Brexit)

It certainly should not be left to those who have wanted to rush through decisions and those who in the past have wanted to escape scrutiny because the decisions have been illogical and inconsistent, and people cannot understand them, and even some of those who have made the decisions do not understand them and sometimes have a different interpretation.

This is not just about MPs having a sense of their own importance. This is important if the measures are to have acceptance among the public, because with that kind of scrutiny, with a final vote, at least if we were not convinced that the measures were necessary, if we were not convinced that they would not have disproportionately damaging effects, if we were not convinced that they would actually work, if we were not convinced that the public would understand them, we would have the right to say, “Minister, you cannot proceed with them,” and have the opportunity to vote them down. I do not think we have had a convincing assurance from the Secretary of State today about when we would have that kind of role, and if we do not have that kind of role, I do not think that we should support the continuation of these kinds of measures.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire 4:40 pm, 30th September 2020

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care for his concession today to greater scrutiny in this place. All Front Benchers have been working flat out at an incredibly difficult time since March, and I have supported all the measures that we have taken so far, but the fact is that we are no longer in that first flurry of panic; we know much more now than we did then.

I gently say to the business managers that I wish they had given more time for this discussion. I totally sympathise with you, Mr Speaker; I love this place, and annoying as many of my beloved honourable colleagues right across the House are, nevertheless we have already heard, just in this short debate, some things that we all have in common. There is no monopoly on good ideas.

The one thing that I came here wanting to say, which I have heard hon. Members from every single party say in their own words, was “events and weddings”. I just want to give an example. My constituent Jerry Stephenson runs an events business in South Northamptonshire specialising in hosting weddings. Since March, it has held two small weddings with up to 30 people; everyone else postponed until next year. Since we went back to 15, they have all been cancelled and postponed. The Government need to answer the question: what is different between a wedding and a funeral? My constituents have a right to know the answer.

In this House, we can bring forward suggestions about how to make things easier and more logical for our constituents. Importantly, when we bring questions forward and get answers, we can stand up and be counted, and tell our constituents, “I know why this is happening, and it is justifiable and in the best interests of the nation.” There just is not a monopoly on good ideas, no matter how hard the Government are working—and they are working very hard.

Finally, I want to raise the fact that it is so frustrating for all of us in this place because so few of us can be in the Chamber. We have to ballot for every single question we put in for. As individuals, we get very few opportunities to speak or intervene, so it is more important than ever that the Government and the business managers enable us to contribute to these incredibly important debates. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for listening, but I urge him to listen as much as possible not to the party political points but to the real wisdom and questions of our constituents.

Photo of Edward Davey Edward Davey Leader of the Liberal Democrats 4:42 pm, 30th September 2020

I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I am a patron of the Disability Law Service.

This pandemic is taking an enormous toll on people across our country. The pandemic is hitting everybody. That is why Liberal Democrats have worked constructively with Ministers, backing every measure to keep people safe, from lockdowns to face coverings. In March, when the Coronavirus Bill was rushed through, we were willing to take Ministers at their word that the Bill was essential, despite reservations about its impact on people’s wellbeing, freedoms and rights, but with the benefit of six months’ experience of the Act, we must today oppose its renewal.

As I raised on Second Reading in March and with the Prime Minister two weeks ago, this legislation undermines the rights to care of disabled people, the rights to care of some of society’s most vulnerable people and the rights to care of children with special needs and disabilities. That is wrong, and it breaks international law. We know that the Conservative party does not care about breaking international law. The fact that the Act breaches our legal obligations under the United Nations convention on the rights of persons with disabilities may not matter to Conservative Members, but it should. How a country treats its most vulnerable people in an emergency is one of the most critical tests of its character.

I am pleased, but not surprised, that polling shows the true character of the British people. Two thirds of the public believe that the Act’s social care reductions are unacceptable. Liberal Democrats agree, as do more than 150 organisations campaigning for the rights of disabled people that have called for those sections of the Act to be withdrawn. It is no good Ministers saying that these powers have rarely been used. The experience of disabled people during the pandemic should shame this Government. Inclusion London published a report, “Abandoned, forgotten and ignored—the impact of Covid-19 on Disabled people”. It has horrifying reports from disabled people across the country about cuts to their care packages, food shopping not done, personal washing not done and vital care at home not done. Speaking as the father of a disabled child, huge numbers of parents of disabled children have been hit. A survey by the Disabled Children’s Partnership showed that for 76% of families with disabled children, vital care and support previously relied on had been stopped altogether. This House should speak up for those families, for those carers, for disabled people and vote against this measure tonight.

Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee 4:45 pm, 30th September 2020

I first thank the Secretary of State for everything he has done to get us to this stage tonight, but 90 minutes to debate the renewal of an Act that has fundamentally changed the nature of the relationship between the state and citizens is not good enough. If this is the portent of the promises to come, it is not good enough. I need, at some stage, more than three minutes to discuss the fundamental hardships that are going on in my constituency—the jobs that are being lost, the opportunities that are being lost, the young people struggling to find work, to get back to university and to come back from university. Ninety minutes is an utter, utter disgrace. It is actually disrespectful to this House and it is disrespectful to colleagues.

I am sorry, Secretary of State, if I sound—actually, I am not sorry that I am angry, because a lot of people in this place are angry. We want to see this virus beaten, of course we do, but it would be nice—just nice—if this House were shown some respect.

Photo of Rebecca Long-Bailey Rebecca Long-Bailey Labour, Salford and Eccles 4:46 pm, 30th September 2020

I have listened to the Secretary of State’s comments and the revocations that he has set out have been welcome, but they are cosmetic and they certainly do not go anywhere near restoring the safeguards that those suffering from mental health problems, disabled people and those in need of care deserve. As for his promise for parliamentary scrutiny, frankly, it is nothing more than a gentlemen’s agreement.

The Act in its current form allows clumsy and asymmetric authoritarianism. Powers to restrict mass gatherings might well have been necessary, but broad police powers under schedule 21 to detain potentially infectious people have led to unlawful prosecutions 100% of the time. Where were the extra powers—the resources to inspect or restrict unsafe workplaces or to requisition private lab space, healthcare or other facilities for mass testing? Where were the powers to take charge of food supply in the event of future lockdowns to avoid further panic buying and ensure that shielding and vulnerable people receive the food that they deserve?

The Government demand that their citizens give up their liberties and livelihoods in the pandemic, yet they do not stand beside them. The Secretary of State’s comments today certainly do not deal with the issues that many of our constituencies face, and some of us begin to worry that the Government’s confused and often contradictory public messaging is not mere incompetence, but a studied chaos, designed to blame ordinary people instead of taking democratic political responsibility for some of the worst pandemic management in the world. The Government are at real risk of squandering public sentiment and public good will, and, at the very least, they must set out to revoke the most insidious parts of this Act tonight.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock Secretary of State for Health and Social Care 4:48 pm, 30th September 2020

I thank colleagues on both sides of the House for their contributions to this debate, and I would like to reinforce once again that we will keep listening to and working with the House and put in place, in good faith, the procedures that I outlined earlier and that were welcomed by my hon. Friend Sir Graham Brady and others.

To respond to some of the points of substance, I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt, the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, that control of the virus will lead to better and more life-saving cancer care. Sometimes it has been reported and discussed as if controlling the virus hinders cancer care.  On the contrary, controlling the virus helps us to deliver better cancer care. He was quite right about that. We will continue to expand testing capacity, which came up from a number of quarters.

I agree with what my hon. Friend Sir Bernard Jenkin said in support of the Government’s strategy. I welcome his comments on the changes we are proposing today to how Parliament operates.

I listened with care to Sammy Wilson. I urge him to support the Coronavirus Act this evening, not least because he knows, from the commitments I have given, that there will be further chances for both scrutiny and votes on measures in future thanks to the discussions we have had today.

I am grateful for the comments from my right hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom. I commit to her to listen as much as possible to the views she expresses and to work with her.

Finally, I want to reassure those who might have been concerned by the comments made by the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Ed Davey. Under the Coronavirus Act, local authorities are required to follow the European convention on human rights, so the point he made about international law is wrong. The Coronavirus Act delivers a stronger package, in a pandemic, for the support of those who need care.

I put forward to the House the need to vote to approve this motion to put ourselves in the strongest possible position to defeat the virus, and to keep protecting lives and livelihoods and the things that we love. I commend the motion to the House.

Question put.

Division number 121 Coronavirus Act 2020 (Review of Temporary Provisions)

A majority of MPs voted to retain temporary arrangements connected to the coronavirus pandemic on closing buildings, restricting events and gatherings, suspending evictions, enabling greater use of video and audio technology in courts and restricting the liberty of potentially infectious persons.

Aye: 330 MPs

No: 24 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Absent: 292 MPs

Absents: A-Z by last name

The House divided: Ayes 330, Noes 24.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved,

That the temporary provisions of the Coronavirus Act 2020 should not yet expire.

The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Speaker of the House of Commons, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission

I will now announce the results of the deferred Divisions. On the motion relating to the draft Immigration (Health Charge) (Amendment) Order 2020, the Ayes were 348 and the Noes 250, so the Ayes have it. On the motion relating to the draft Restriction of Public Sector Exit Payments Regulations 2020, the Ayes were 347 and the Noes were 249, so the Ayes have it.

[The Division lists are published at the end of today’s debates.]

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the sitting for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—