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Glenys Thornton speech to House of Lords, 24th March 2020

My Lords, what a strange and frightening time we are living in. Can I congratulate Noble Lords on their speeches and questions today.

As always, our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones to this virus. And also, all of us would praise again the extraordinary efforts of our NHS staff and other dedicated public servants, and indeed shopworkers and farmers included.

We are forever in their debt. My nephew Oliver Carr is a newly qualified doctor at the Royal Free, here in London. I can’t say how proud we are of him, but we are also concerned for his safety – like thousands of families every where whose loved ones work in our NHS.

Today we are being asked to make decisions of a magnitude we would never have dreamt of only weeks ago. None of us came here to put powers onto statute that curtail so many basic freedoms our forebears fought so hard for and that we take for granted.

As my hon Friend Jonathan Ashworth said yesterday: “this virus spreads rapidly, exploits ambivalence and thrives on inequality.”

The statement last night from the PM that social isolation and distancing must be enforced is welcome –and is necessary because too many were not following the advice.

We have all seen the pictures this weekend of bustling markets, packed tube trains and packed beaches and parks – with incredulity and horror. So, I’m afraid the public health message was not heard loud and clear – we now have to see if will.

Everyone who can should be at home, everyone who can must work from home. That includes us my Lords.

There are 6 or 7 speakers today who should not be here with us. They are breaking the government guidelines and now instructions. They endanger themselves, which is really worrying. I know they do have a contribution to make but I do not think this reflects well on this House after the magnificent example set by Lord Speaker himself. Hundreds of our colleagues are not here have been sending messages and advice, for which I am sure we are all grateful.

I happen to think our Parliament must continue to sit as best we can and hold the government to account. Not least because this is almost inevitably a bill which will have its flaws, and which does not adequately cover some very serious areas which we have discussed today. Not least the homeless, the self-employed and renters.

So I feel, the emergency powers, whilst draconian are needed, but that does not mean government cannot be accountable on regular basis. And as the NL the Minister has said, powers should only be in the context of Coronavirus infection.

Turning to the health and social care workforce, we now know unambiguously that nobody can be unaware of the importance of care workers in our community as a result of this pandemic. Social care awareness is there and has to be accepted, and of course properly funded.

The next few months will present a significant level of challenge for the NHS and anyone working in caring professions. There will be increased numbers of people becoming ill and some of these people will require medical treatment in hospital.

The additional patient volumes will place enormous pressure on our health and social care system, in all sectors. There will be pressures from increased staff absence, if staff are unwell or self-isolating with their households. So testing, testing, testing is absolute vital, as is adequate PPE.

I want to just divert slightly from the health and social care workforce. If we’re putting on statute book, as we are, things that might mean you are breaking the law that may involve our police, then what protection are we giving them?

I just want to read out onto the record what a police officer has said in a message I have received:

“We need masks for every officer and prisoner. At least four washable masks for police officers. One to use, one to have in a bag for three days to decontaminate before washing, and two to change during shift. Shower facilities for police officers – there's not enough showers. Gloves!

“Where do we take prisoners who are symptomatic? Where do we take people in a domestic situation? What happens to child contact arrangement orders? Can a person on bail not sign for bail if self-isolating? What's the process for breach of bail?

“What about registered sex offenders? Do they have to tell us if they intend on being at a different address? They have to attend police stations and register where they are. What do they do if they are symptomatic away from home?”

And she goes on. Serving warrants. All the issues that our police have to face on a daily basis. This bill doesn’t address these issues but the government has to.

The Bill includes provisions for regulators to register suitable healthcare professionals, such as nurses, midwives or paramedics, as well as social workers, including those who have recently retired or are on career breaks.

To facilitate the return of skilled and experienced staff, rules that prevent retired NHS professionals from working more than 16 hours per week and effect their pension benefit entitlement we understand have been suspended. We must ensure that the wellbeing of these people is prioritised.

The government will also be registering final year year nursing and medical students who are near the end of their training. The students must be supported and supervised and be properly remunerated. And I absolute back what the NL the Baroness Watkins said about the debt that nurses are facing.

We recognise that it will also be appropriate and necessary for doctors, nurses and other registered health professionals to work outside of their usual scope of practice and specialisms, and that a far wider range of staff than usual will be involved in directly supporting Covid-19 patients with respiratory needs.

The Bill includes indemnity provisions for those undertaking these services.

It is vital that NHS staff working outside of their usual scope of practice are trained how to care for vulnerable patients. So, can the NL the Minister outline what training will be available and what it will entail? How many staff will need to be trained to use ventilators?

We also recognise that health staff will to depart, possibly significantly, from established procedures in order to care for patients in the highly challenging but time-bound circumstances at the peak of an epidemic. Can the NL the Minister advise that guidance will be issued to assist clinical staff to make these calls, and assure the House that they will be kept in constant review?

Can I echo the words of the NL the Lord Adebowale of the importance of social enterprises and it’s based on the role that they have in the delivery of social care in this country. Can I ask the Minister to commit that he and his colleagues will meet with Social Enterprise UK and their colleagues to discuss this matter urgently?

The Bill also includes provisions for drafting in volunteers, but I think that we have to recognise that people with disabilities and chromic conditions often have some of the most complex care needs. It is very unlikely that volunteers will be able to provide the care need. We need reassurances that these people will continue to receive appropriate care from professionals.

The Bill will allow NHS providers to delay undertaking the assessment process for NHS continuing healthcare for individuals being discharged from hospital until after the outbreak has ended. We understand that this will allow hospitals to discharge all in-patients who are clinically fit to leave without delay. Sir Simon Stevens had advised that this could potentially free up to 15,000 acute beds.

However, My Lords, it is important that these measures are only be brought into operation for the shortest possible time at the peak of the outbreak. The increase the burden on social care services was already creaking before the pandemic and means that they will not be able to cope.

We are concerned that the sector will be unable to cope. This is understandably be a great worry for many existing service users, who will know just how dependent they are on social care on a daily basis, moving from client to client, providing the link to the outside work for people who dependent on them – particularly if they are without family and care support.

So can the NL the Minister assure us that, for example, the 15 minute visits will be extended to ensure the care worker can take the effective Covid-19 precautions, as well as being able to see to people’s needs, reassure them and address any problems? What guidance has been issued on this?

And finally, the risk to care and nursing homes with older people living in them cannot be overstated. There is a huge responsibility on managers and staff to keep the virus out. Does the NL the Minister anticipate that care workers may be required to self-isolate with residents in the event of a quarantine or lock-down?

If the pandemic takes hold in a single care home, that could take up most of the ICU beds in an area.

Turning to mental health and the powers to detain and treat patients who need urgent treatment under the Mental Health Act to be exercised using just one doctor’s opinion, rather than two. Can the NL the Minister clarify what the thresholds are for “impracticality” or “unhelpful delay”?

On the issue of the deprivation of liberty, pressure on care homes is already significant.

One of the side effects of this Bill is that it will possibly reduce terminations. And the government really need to address the issue of why two medical signatures will be required when there is such a shortage of medical staff.

All the evidence suggests that domestic violence may increase during this time. And children are particularly vulnerable. What is the government doing to recognise this issue? Are they improving funding for the sector and are they considering the most vulnerable – including ensuring new immediate funding as well as replacing income lost by refuges which have had to close?

On renters, it should go without saying that nobody should have to lose their home because of the virus and its impact. The government themselves have acknowledged that with their action on mortgage holidays and yet, they have failed to protect those in the rented sector.

Despite suggestions otherwise, this Bill fails to legislate for a ban on evictions. I hope the NL the Minister can confirm that the government intends to amend the Bill to this effect or introduce further primary legislation. There is an overwhelming case for action: 20 million people in England rent, 6 million of whom have no savings whatsoever. They are particularly vulnerable if they lose their job or have their hours cut, as a result of this virus.

Last week, Shelter estimated that 50,000 households could face eviction through the courts in the next six months – thereby creating another crisis.

We remain extremely concerned that the three-month pause on evictions will only defer the crisis to the end of the period where many landlords will demand the total rent arrears from tenants who may not have been paid for work during that period.

Turning to the homeless, I think the government needs to address specifically about people with No Recourse to Public Funds.

As NLs will know people experiencing homelessness, particularly those who are rough sleeping, are especially vulnerable in this outbreak. They are three times more likely to experience a chronic health condition including asthma and COPD. Many of the people we work with are unable to access healthcare or housing because of No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF) and benefit restrictions.

This includes people who are appeals rights exhausted, EU and EEA migrants, people with existing visas, those whose status is not regularised, domestic workers and other migrant workers, and victims of trafficking and torture. It is critical that that is resolved. 

Turning to income support, we need income protection for those in precarious employment. Apart from anything else, they can stop packing the Tubes. Many of those travelling at the moment are in very low paid jobs. Like other Noble Lords, we remain concerned that this Bill fails to give many people the financial support they need to get through this crisis. People should not be expected to make a choice between their health and hardship.

Several Noble Lords have correctly talked about support for the self-employed. And the government can also act now to assist millions of people by through the universal credit system by increasing it, suspending sanctions and scrapping the five-week wait for the first payment. We await urgently to hear what the Chancellor will announce.

I think the issue of food is actually very important. There is clearly stockpiling still taking place and people are not being reassured that there is enough food to go around, and the most vulnerable are losing out. I really think the government has to take this very seriously.

Now we understand that the military are being bought in to help with food chain logistics. Can the NL the Minister explain what their role would be? Additionally, in terms of our food supply, we have to get 80,000 seasonal workers needed to pick our fruit and vegetables this summer so need a trained and reliable workforce.

On disabled people, the government’s plans in this Bill will roll back 30 years of progress for Disabled people. Whilst we may tolerate this for a short amount of time, we cannot do so for very long. All of the years that we have fought for disabled peoples’ rights to social care are undermined by this.

I think food banks are suffering from shortages and would like to play tribute to some of our major retailers – The CoOp in particular – are ensuring deliveries are going through the Fair shares scheme.

I saw a message from a manager in Boots complimenting their staff on dealing with a level of abuse which is totally unacceptable – particularly when they run out of Calpol. This will be repeated in our shops and supermarkets, so I want to pay tribute to the staff and managers who have a very hard job, along with shop keepers and farmers.

In conclusion my Lords, as my NF said in his opening remarks on these benches, we will lend our support to the government and to put this legislation on the statute book without delay. But not without comment or scrutiny. This is just the beginning my Lords of the challenges and crisis facing our nation and our democracy.

-ends-

Baroness Glenys Thornton is a Shadow Health Minister and responded to the debate

Coronavirus Bill - Lords Second Reading response

Glenys Thornton speech to House of Lords, 24th March 2020

Charlie Falconer speech to House of Lords, 24th March 2020

May I thank the Minister for his clear description of the Bill, and the openness with which he has treated me and the rest of the Labour team engaged on this Bill. Personal trust is very important in these matters.

May I declare an interest – my youngest son is a doctor in an NHS hospital in London, which is almost exclusively devoted to treating those with Covid-19.

Her Majesty’s loyal opposition supports this Bill. In normal times it would be utterly unacceptable. These are not normal times. As long as the emergency lasts and these powers are necessary, they should be available to the government. 

We also support the extraordinary instructions to be backed by legal enforcement power the Prime Minister announced last night. There evidently needs to be more detail about these measures. 

But there is no doubt there needs to be immediate compliance with the stay home message. Legitimate issues about the limits do not detract from the message the government has given the country. Stay at home unless you have a very good reason for leaving.

Could the NL the Minister provide details of the legal enforcement powers which will be introduced and when? Again, we in the opposition will assist as necessary in ensuring those instructions can be given effect to.

The Bill before us today can be improved to make it more effective in fighting the virus, to give more support to those who are on the front line in the struggle and to provide better economic security for the public.

We recognise that full scrutiny cannot be given to this Bill. The needs are too urgent, and the time is too short. We will focus on the key issues where we think the Bill should be changed, and only put down a few amendments tomorrow.

In those circumstances the right course is to assist in getting the bill on the statute book, with focused amendments to the key issues, but to ensure that it lasts only as long as it is necessary – and to ensure there are regular time restricted limits on its continuation. 

If it needs to continue beyond the sunset clause then the time before sunset should be taken to improve it as inevitably time will reveal it can be improved.

Parliament has a critical role in the weeks and months to come – in legislating, scrutinising the government and providing national leadership. It cannot function as normal. We cannot meet like this, debate like this and do our job like this as the crisis develops. We need urgently to work out remote and different ways of doing our job.

In this national effort, we need to be ensuring the government is moving fast enough, clearly enough and giving the right leadership. We will press hard to achieve that. There needs to be clear messages to the public. They need to be well publicised. And the government need to recognise that doing their best to alleviate the most acute economic anxieties for employed, self-employed and those in the gig economy alike is vital to deliver compliance.

We will press hard to ensure proper security is given, and that the government moves as fast as it should.

We are very conscious that part of what the government must do is to ensure the public complies with its instructions to stop the virus spreading. We in opposition must take especial care not to undermine the chances of those instructions not being acted upon.

We are under no illusions that an epic struggle is currently being waged on all of our behalf by the NHS. Hospitals up and down the country have been reconfigured incredibly fast to fight the Covid-19 virus. Large teaching hospitals have devoted whole floors to the disease.

Smaller district hospitals have effectively reduced their non-Covid 19 workload as much as possible to accommodate the cases, and become largely Covid-19 hospitals. Medical staff have had, in many cases, to re-skill from their normal specialities. They are seeing a frightening influx of patients with the disease, growing every day. The risk to medical staff is significant.

If the patients are hospitalised they will have a serious illness. And they deteriorate often very rapidly and then require to be moved to ITU and ventilation. The demands on the NHS staff are immense. The pressure is huge. 

Ensuring they have access to all the Personal Protection Equipment they need, making sure all staff are trained in the use of PPE, and starting to test all NHS staff to see if they have or have had – when the antibody testing becomes available – are critical measures. It has taken too long to sort out the PPE issues, and the testing of NHS staff has not started. Could the minister give us an update on the testing capacity and how it is to be rolled out.

The debt of gratitude we owe as a country to the NHS staff engaged in the struggle is incalculable. When the history of this appalling period comes to be written they will be the true heroes. The rest of us – parliamentarians, ministers and members of the public must not let them down.

The risk by now is very well known – that the NHS will be overwhelmed by the number of cases. There will not be the staff, the critical care beds, the ventilators to deal with the pandemic. We must do everything to ensure that does not happen.

Could I also recognise and pay a tribute to the work being done in central government to craft our response to this crisis. The pressure on them is immense. We have an excellent civil service, who have worked on as the illness reduces their number.

This is a collective battle. We fight as one nation. The cooperation with the devolved administrations has been close and effective. I pay tribute to the devolved administrations for the incredibly impressive work they have done.

Lord Bethell told us yesterday there are currently 3,700 critical care beds; total usage is currently 2,428, of which 237 are Covid-19 related. And he told us that the government’s ambition is to increase this dramatically to perhaps 30,000 in time for the crisis arriving in full.

Could he update the House the number of critical care beds currently available, what the total usage is, how many are being used for Covid-19 – ie, the increase from yesterday – and the dates on which the increase of 25,000 plus are expected to come on stream?

Turning to the Bill, MNF Baroness Thornton will deal in her speech with the Health and social care work force issues, the reduction of administrative burdens issues, and the financial support issues. There are education issues which MNF Lord Watson will deal with from the backbenches.

I will deal with the other issues.

First of all, the sunset clause. There is understandably huge pressure to get the bill into law so that the government has the necessary powers to tackle the coronavirus pandemic that has claimed so many lives across the world. Given these circumstances, a sunset clause is a necessary and prudent mechanism.

The provision is that there is now a two year sunset clause but a power in the Commons to stop the continuation of the Bill after six months, twelve months, 18 months and two years. And there is provision for debate in both Houses and the power to stop after twelve months.

The six month power is an all or nothing powers. It is inevitable that some of these provisions will work and some of them will not. Could the Minister indicate why there isn’t a provision to stop some of these powers at six months, twelve months and eighteen months as we learn more about how the powers are working? Could the government give consideration to whether they would introduce such a power?

On the provisions containing and delaying the spread of the virus and social distancing, the Bill contains provision to restrict potentially infectious people from being in contact with each other. And the power is in the Bill to prevent them from moving around or detain them.

It also contains powers to prevent events and gatherings, and to close premises and restrict port activities. It does not contain powers to stop people going to work or to stay in their homes, the key measures announced yesterday.

We would be willing to assist in incorporating these powers. Could the government tell the House what its intentions are in relation to those powers?

On immigration, could the NL the Minister indicate what the government is doing to maintain the health and safety of people currently detained in immigration detention centres? Can he confirm that people will not be held in detention centres if they cannot be removed due to airport closures and travel restrictions relating to coronavirus?

Turning to the courts, we broadly agree with increasing the circumstances in which video-link technology can be used. Could the NL the Minister give assurances that they will only be used where it is in the interest of vulnerable defendants, and that those who are digitally excluded and those who are unable to get legal advice are properly protected.

I would be grateful if the NL the Minister could touch upon prisons. What is happening in prisons gives rise to special difficulties. Could he confirm what powers the government has to deal with that, and what is its intention in relation to the exercise of those powers?

The Bill contains measures relating to the management of death. We understand that it may be necessary to relax rules around the registration of deaths and cremations to ease the burden on the NHS, and to deal with the issue. Again, yes we agree to these but only as long as the emergency lasts.

In relation to cremations, the House will be aware, concerns have been raised as to how this could conflict with some religious teachings. Cremation is forbidden in Islam and Judaism and therefore the possibility of forcing a cremation upon the loved ones of those communities would add further anguish and trauma to bereaved families, who themselves may be in self-isolation.

We understand that these provisions are designed to deal with a potential surge in deaths and lack of grave space capacity. What steps will the government take in relation to this, and in particular whether there are plans to consult the deceased persons family, and local faith representative, to find suitable alternatives in such situations?

In terms of supporting the public, the coronavirus outbreak presents specific risks to the homelessness, who are a high-risk group. Rough sleepers, and those living and sleeping in shared spaces such as hostels, night shelters, and day centres are at particular risk as they are unable to self-isolate. Services cannot close down as the people they support are then forced back to the streets, where they are at even greater risk.

What steps is the government taking in relation to the homeless? And in light of the announcement on Friday, that the Welsh Government will make £10m available to Welsh councils to block purchase rooms in hotels, B&Bs and student accommodation to act in addition to existing provisions for the homeless, will the government be doing the same in England?

The public are understandably worried about perceived shortages of essential products, empty shelves and securing online delivery slots.

Supermarkets are doing all the right things, including redeploying existing staff and hiring new team members to ensure swift restocking where supplies exist, and establishing schemes to assist the elderly and key workers. Supply chains are stepping up their efforts to ensure sufficient quantities of essential products are available for sale. Those efforts are appreciated and will continue to be vital in the weeks ahead.

The Bill includes powers to compel food supply chain operators to provide information to inform assessments of any disruption to food supplies. We understand that such information is currently being provided voluntarily, meaning this is intended as a reserve power. We agree with this approach but note that it does not, in itself, do anything to guarantee the availability of food and other items.

What discussions are the government having with supermarkets and supply chains to maintain public confidence?

We will explore all of these issues during the committee stage. We will play our part in supporting the fight against this virus. Sometimes that will involve telling the government they are wrong. Always it will involve giving the country confidence that we in Labour and we in Parliament are working together to provide security and safety for the country who rightly expect the best from us. We are determined to give it.

-ends-

Lord Charlie Falconer of Thoroton opened the debate for Labour as a guest frontbencher

Coronavirus Bill - Lords Second Reading

Charlie Falconer speech to House of Lords, 24th March 2020

Dianne Hayter on the changing tone of the Brexit negotiations

Whilst most media attention is on COVID-19, below the radar – but also of consequence to every citizen - is the small matter of the UK-EU negotiations on our future trade, diplomatic, security and travel relationship after the end of this year.

This near silence is hardly surprising given the government’s virtual secrecy on the issue, as it fails to follow the precedent set by David Davis and Theresa May in reporting to Parliament after each round of talks.

Instead, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has sent a civil servant to bat for Britain – an individual who does not have to answer to the House of Commons nor, in its wake, the Lords. So, after the first round on 5th March, whilst Michel Barnier gave a press conference and answered questions, the UK had to make do with a 200 word written statement.

Luckily, some light has been shone on the talks by the Lords EU Committee which has compared the October 2019 Political Declaration signed by Boris Johnson, the EU’s mandate for the talks, and the government’s 27th February approach to the future agreement.

It is this Committee report, together with the government’s document, that will be debated in the Lords today, along with a call from our benches for ministers to report back regularly, make documents available, and engage with Parliament throughout the negotiations.

Without such on-going dialogue, MPs will face a “take-it-or-leave-it” Treaty at the end of the year, with refusal to ratify meaning a No Deal exit. A position that might yet be what the government advocates, given it has already threatened to do so if the broad outline of an agreement is not clear by June and finalised by September.

Even before the current global health pandemic put a question mark over next week’s round two of the negotiations, this was a challenging timetable – with our government rather unclear on its expectations from a treaty. Its document is certainly light on some crucial elements, including any demand that UK tourists should be able to travel to the EU visa-free, despite other statements referencing this. And while bending over backwards to rule out any role for the European Court of Justice, it contains no plans for dispute resolution should problems later arise.

The document is also deeply worrying in tone – “we’ll only agree to so-and-so if it’s fair and in our interests”. But also, as The Financial Times has observed, because “the longer Boris Johnson holds power, the faster Brexit is evolving into a project more extreme than most people envisaged during the referendum”.

The most problematic issue between the UK and EU is fair competition and the level playing field. This is vital for consumers, for workers (who fear conditions could be cut to reduce costs) and business (who fear trade with our biggest market could be jeopardised if we behave unfairly either by lowering standards or using unfair state aid interventions). 

The government says it wants no tariffs, charges or restrictions, but fails to accept this means shared standards, recognised enforcement and independent checks. EU countries are hardly going to accept our goods tariff free if they are produced to lower standards, or by simply paying workers less.

Examining both the UK and EU opening bids, the Lords Committee stresses the extent to which the two sides have diverged since the October Agreement. It considers this “raises matters of vital national interest” – which Parliament must debate. Peers will do so today, as we await greater insight into the progress of these talks with interest.

Baroness Dianne Hayter is Labour’s Deputy Leader in the House of Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 16th March 2020

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Dianne Hayter on the changing tone of the Brexit negotiations

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