Westminster Hall

Monday 14th December 2020

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Monday 14 December 2020
[Graham Stringer in the Chair]

Financial Reward for Government Workers and Key Workers

Monday 14th December 2020

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts

Westminster Hall is an alternative Chamber for MPs to hold debates, named after the adjoining Westminster Hall.

Each debate is chaired by an MP from the Panel of Chairs, rather than the Speaker or Deputy Speaker. A Government Minister will give the final speech, and no votes may be called on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I remind right hon. and hon. Members that there have been some changes to the procedure in Westminster Hall, and that even if Members have attended a Westminster Hall debate before under the new rules, there have been changes to the changed rules. In order to respect social distancing, I ask Members to sit at the seats with ticks against them. There are more people on the call list than seats on the horseshoe, so I will call Members to speak only if they were here at the start of the debate. If Members who have spoken wish to leave, or move to the seats at the back, they can; that is the only way to ensure that other Members can speak, because Members are not allowed to speak from the Public Gallery.

I also ask Members to respect the one-way system by coming in through the one door, and going out through the other, and to sanitise the microphones that are in front of them.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi (Gower) (Lab)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions 306845 and 328754, relating to financial rewards for government workers and keyworkers.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer, and an honour to lead for the Petitions Committee on this debate.

As we come to the end of any year, we all start to reflect on the events of the past 12 months, but 2020 has been such an unprecedented year for everyone. Throughout the year, the extraordinary contributions made by so many, particularly our key workers, have made our lives so much better throughout the pandemic. I put on record again my sincere thanks to all those who have worked hard and have given what was most needed, when we needed it most. Those people have been invaluable. However, it seems that despite warm words, the Government do not appreciate the work that so many have done for us. We clapped for them on our doorsteps, but it turns out that they are not worth paying properly in recognition of their dedication. As we can see from the number of signatures on these two petitions, and indeed the sheer number of petitions on this issue, there is strong feeling across the country on how we should reward people on the frontline.

During the summer, I had a phone call from my friend Mel’s brother, a local refuse collector and union rep. He wanted to tell me at first hand that his team had turned up throughout the pandemic, and continued to not miss a round. I am so proud of them, and so proud of the efforts that people have made to keep our country going. Swansea Council and local authorities across the United Kingdom can be very proud of their workforce and how they have adapted to the challenges they have faced. Although Rob Stewart, the leader of Swansea Council, is looking at different ways to reward staff, his hands are tied financially.

Former colleagues of mine in the teaching profession, in both England and Wales, who have kept schools open for key workers’ children, described to me their immense fatigue, and the pressure they are under. They are moving classrooms, carrying resources, and increasing their planning and preparation, in a job in which they feel deeply responsible for the learning and progression of our future generations. They are also on their knees. When the Welsh Labour Government tried to reward workers in care homes with a £500 bonus earlier in the year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer taxed them on it, with those claiming universal credit suffering a double whammy. These are the poorest paid people in the public sector, and they took those hits again and again—and it looks like the same will happen if the Scottish Government try to give a thank-you payment to their NHS staff.

In response to my friend the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), who I am pleased to see in this debate, the Prime Minister said that he was

“lost in admiration for the efforts of our civil servants, whether in DWP, HMRC or the Treasury. If we think about the furloughing scheme, everybody said it was impossible and far too complicated, and that we would never get that cash into people’s pockets, but they did it within four weeks. That is a fantastic tribute to the work of our civil service, and I thank them from the bottom of my heart.”—[Official Report, 11 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 38.]

Following the Chancellor’s spending review announcement that there will be a pay freeze for all public sector workers, I suspect that civil servants will not be feeling the Prime Minister’s “admiration” so much as the “lost” bit. This further pay freeze comes after public sector workers have already been punished by a decade of pay freezes and increased workload. I know; I was one of them.

I am sure that we will hear from the Minister about the difference between public and private sector pay, but we know that once workforce characteristics such as experience and educational attainment are taken into account, there is close to 0% difference in pay. Undoubtedly, we will hear about the need for fairness for those working in the private sector, and I wholeheartedly agree that they should be treated with fairness, but this is not, and should not be, a race to the bottom. We should be bringing pay in the private sector up to a standard that makes all “work pay”, as the Conservatives are wont to say.

The Minister will probably talk about value for money for taxpayers, but guess what? Public sector workers pay their taxes, too. If the Government do not think that the work that has been done by civil servants—nurses, the police, the fire service, work coaches, Border Force, refuse collectors, workers in the justice system, our armed forces, teachers and, indeed, all those who have faced the biggest challenge and have put themselves on the frontline in fighting this pandemic—is worthy of a pay rise, they should say so. And I will wait for the Government line to be trotted out about the poorest paid being rewarded. If they were being rewarded in any meaningful way, I would welcome that announcement, but as with all these things, the devil is in the detail. A pay rise of £250 for those earning under £24,000 a year is equivalent to just £4.80 a week, and that is before tax, so in terms of take-home pay, it is about enough for some mince pies, 2 pints of milk and some teabags—what a Christmas bonus for them!

Just one look at the civil service campaign “Here For You” shows what a resilient and adaptive workforce we have in our civil servants, including the defence equipment workers who have been overseeing the staffing of the Nightingale hospitals; the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, which has worked to get other key workers their driving test quickly; and those in the Foreign Office who repatriated thousands of British citizens from abroad. We cannot forget this. I personally thank them all, especially the workers in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs who got the furlough scheme up and running, and the Department for Work and Pensions staff—friends of mine—who processed thousands of universal credit claims. Some of them are already on low wages.

Public sector workers are not asking a lot; they just want their contribution to be recognised. They were undoubtedly grateful for our applause earlier this year, but that will not put food on the table, buy new school uniforms, keep the car on the road or enable them to get to work on public transport. Claps do not pay the bills. At the end of the day, we are here to represent them, and just from looking round Westminster Hall today, people can see who really cares about this.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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I intend to start calling the Front-Bench spokespeople in approximately 40 minutes. I think I have 11 speakers, so I will start with a time limit of four minutes. If some people speak for less, that should just about do it, but if there are many interventions, I will have to reduce the time. I call John McDonnell.

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
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Thank you, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who eloquently introduced the debate, and covered most of the ground that most of us want to emphasise.

I want the Minister to realise that getting petitions on this scale reflects a depth of anger among those most affected—civil servants, of course—as well as their families and the whole community. That depth of anger is felt because these are the people who kept this country going for the last nine months. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower said, the Department for Work and Pensions, which is round the corner from me, administered a million more universal credit claims. The Ealing HMRC office, just down the way from my constituency, which the Government are closing, administered all the claims to keep businesses going—the furloughs—so that companies were not bankrupted. Also, there is Heathrow. This morning, I was on the picket lines. Two immigration and border control staff died as a result of covid. Those are the sacrifices that these people have made, so no wonder there is that depth of anger.

That depth of anger is being felt because this comes after 10 years of pay freezes and pay cuts—six years of a 1% pay increase, then pay freezes on top of that. We have an epidemic of in-work poverty, affecting 4 million people. Some 70% of kids in poverty are in families where someone is in work. We are now talking about destitution in our country.

I give this warning to the Government: there is another pandemic coming—a pandemic of debt. Some 18 million people have incurred debts as a result of the pandemic in the last nine months. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation says that we have never seen this scale of debt before. StepChange has said that nearly 600,000 renters are borrowing to keep a roof over their heads. I was startled to learn that 100,000 people attempt suicide associated with debt every year. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation said that 60% of those on universal credit have gone for a loan in the last few months. Why? To keep a roof over their head, and to put food on their children’s plates.

I am fearful of what will hit us next. I, too, do not want to hear claptrap from Ministers about comparisons with private pay. The Library demolished that argument. I find it ironic that the Government privatised public services, and are now complaining about low pay in the private sector. There is a bizarre irony in the argument that Ministers use.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), who was the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, is here with me. The economic illiteracy of this has not escaped us. It is almost as though John Maynard Keynes was never born. What we should not do in a situation like this is cut wages; that would cut demand in the economy. The argument will be that the Government are borrowing a lot. Of course we should borrow in this situation, to ensure that we pay wages to people on low pay, who spend their wages, which increases demand and ensures that we get out of the downturn as rapidly as possible.

My advice to the Minister is straightforward: the Government need to get back round the table with the unions and start negotiating a decent pay rise. Take a lesson from the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who admitted before a Select Committee that having 200 bargaining units in the civil service was wasteful. Get back to one table, and one negotiation on fair pay for those who have given so much in the last nine months, just to keep this country’s head above water.

Peter Dowd Portrait Peter Dowd (Bootle) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer. It seems that we are in a loop with the Government, as far as public sector pay is concerned. In 2008, the Government made another attempt to curtail public sector pay. Three trade unions—the Public and Commercial Services Union, Prospect and the FDA—expressed their dismay at the approach taken by the Government. At the time we said:

“It is high time the Chancellor recognised the human cost of his disastrous pay cap and commit to giving our dedicated civil servants the pay rise they deserve.”

We all remember that the coalition blamed the last Labour Government for not being prepared for the world financial crisis—“Labour’s banking crisis”, as they called it. They said that they had to get the public finances into shape, and public sector workers were the first on the list. They underwent a decade of pay restraint. Members will remember the silly comparison to fixing the roof while the sun shines. Well, the roof has well and truly fallen in—and public sector workers will have to pay for it to be fixed, according to the Government.

Here we are, in the worst crisis the country has faced, which took place on this Government’s watch. They were simply unprepared. Despite the hard work of the public sector, which my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) referred to—it is made up of 5.3 million people, and the public sector pay bill is £190 billion—the Government have decided to pick on them yet again. Every 1% pay rise costs around £1.9 billion gross; after tax and national insurance, is about £1 billion.

Yet again we have an easy target and the same old strategy: set the public sector against the private sector, and set parts of the public sector against other parts of the public sector. It is such a cynical approach. Here is an idea: there are 1,200 tax reliefs, through which we forgo £400 billion, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Have the Government bothered to look at any of them in detail, so that perhaps they can give the public sector the break that it deserves after 10 years of restraint? No. Very little work is being done. They cannot be bothered, because the public sector workers will pick up the bill for the Government’s incompetence.

Let us look at a few examples of how the Government could be a tad more imaginative. Capital gains tax relief for entrepreneurs’ qualifying disposals is £2.7 billion, although it is coming down. Tonnage tax is £100 million —my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) often refers to that. The patent box is £1.2 billion, and research and development relief is £2.2 billion. There are £300 million-worth of fiddles in that. I will stop there, because it gets a little tedious. I have a very long list. The Government talk about incentivising people; they incentivise their mates all right. the Minister will tell us that there have not been any public sector disputes or pay problems. These people need a pay rise.

I rarely bring personal matters to this House, but I will make an exception today. My daughter Jennie would have been 32 years old today. She died in a cycling accident 10 weeks ago. She worked at the Royal Liverpool University Hospital—yes, in the NHS; in the public sector, as does my wife, her mother, and her friends, and as did I. She and her colleagues worked hard. They do work hard. I owe it to all those who work in the public sector to speak out for them today. Without question, they deserve a decent pay rise, full stop. In the light of the covid crisis, it is time for some of those on the tax relief bonus, as it is being called, to take their turn.

Paula Barker Portrait Paula Barker (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship today, Mr Stringer. I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing this important debate.

Before entering Parliament, I spent nearly my entire working life in the public sector. I can assure hon. Members and friends that during my 30-year local government career, morale was never worse than during the past decade. The austerity programme initiated by the coalition Government, coupled with pay restraint amounting to substantial cuts in real-terms pay, brought unsustainable stress to public sector workers and the services that they provide. Average public sector pay is still £900 lower today in real terms than it was in 2010. It was hardly a period of shining progress in the run-up to the biggest public health crisis in our country’s modern history. At the core of that unsustainability was the fact that the public sector was never required to deliver less—quite the opposite. The drive for efficiency, alongside the demand to deliver more with less, severely hamstrung the capacity of the public sector to deliver the changes that were promised. Although my direct experience was in local government, the same is true right across the public sector.

We cannot simply disregard the previous 10 years as though they never happened. They are the historical context for debates such as this one, as we look to the future. Right hon. and hon. Members will know that more than half of all key workers are public sector workers. The race to the bottom has seen Brand Rishi divide up the public sector; apparently, not all are born equal: some are awarded meagre pay increases, while the vast majority are not. There is even new language used; “pause” instead of “freeze” is one example. The public sector is under no illusions. The photo ops on the steps of No. 11 every Thursday evening were exactly that—photo opportunities, and nothing more.

During the summer, the Government went into a spin overdrive, announcing above-inflation pay rises for some of those public sector workers whose rate of pay is recommended by pay review bodies. The Government enacted those recommendations while leaving out those whose pay is not set by pay review bodies, namely local government workers, social care staff and thousands of junior civil servants. Whether workers received a pay uplift a few months ago or not, the entire public sector is now set to be hit again for at least the next 12 months, leaving millions of key workers, who continue to go above and beyond in our hour of greatest need, facing another lost decade. Enough, quite simply, is enough.

I could give many examples, but I will conclude by pointing out that the problems created by more than a decade of pay restraint in the civil service have been compounded by the lack of a coherent pay system, which has led to huge inequalities within and across Departments, with the gender pay gap standing at more than 11%. I ask the Minister two things. When will the civil service move to a national pay structure, to address these inequalities? When will all public sector workers be treated equally and be rightly acknowledged, with a substantial pay increase for the incredible work they do each and every day on the frontline?

Grahame Morris Portrait Grahame Morris (Easington) (Lab)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I thank my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), for opening this important debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee.

In the time I have, I will talk about two particular groups of key public sector workers: prison officers and firefighters. Both are key Government workers. Prison officers in particular deserve our praise, recognition and respect for their bravery—as, indeed, do firefighters—not only during the pandemic but year in, year out. As hon. Members may well know, prison officers are banned from taking industrial action; it is a criminal offence even to suggest that they should, for example, start working to rule. In return for the loss of that most basic human right, the independent Prison Service Pay Review Body was established in 2001 to make recommendations on pay, which the Government agreed to follow in all but the most exceptional circumstances. To encourage people to join and stay in the Prison Service, the independent Prison Service Pay Review Body recommended a significant pay rise for band 3 offices on fair and sustainable contracts, with new, modernised terms, ending the effectively two-tier workforce.

Five months ago, the Government promised to consider that recommendation and to consult the recognised trade union, the Prison Officers Association, on its implementation. However, on Thursday last, the Government rejected the recommendation, claiming it was unaffordable, without having had any discussion with the Prison Officers Association. Prison officers are understandably angry and have accused the Government of nothing less than pay betrayal. I understand that the Prison Officers Association intends to launch legal action against this decision, and I hope it will receive the full backing of all hon. Members in this place today.

The Prison Service is clearly experiencing a crisis in recruitment and retention, especially of band 3 officers, the main operational entry grade into the service. The review body calculates the cost of new recruits leaving after less than two years’ service at around £30 million per annum, a wasteful and inefficient use of public money. That is why the pay review body recommended an immediate £3,000 uplift in pensionable pay, to try to stem the rising tide of resignations. The Government claim that is unaffordable. However, no exceptional circumstances have been cited to justify their decision, as is required. The Government have earmarked around £4 billion for a new generation of private prisons yet claim to have no money to pay prison officers. This is an abuse of power and an insult to people’s intelligence.

The situation is unfair and unsustainable, and our prisons suffer as officers vote with their feet and leave the service, taking with them valuable skills, knowledge and experience at a time when we need it most. The Government must think again, treat our prison officers with the respect they deserve, get round the negotiating table with the POA, and make a fair and sustainable offer.

I also want to mention firefighters. I chaired a meeting of the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group this afternoon. Firefighters had a pay freeze in 2010 and 2011, followed by a 1% public sector pay cap imposed for six years from 2012 to 2017—

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Order. I call Lilian Greenwood.

Lilian Greenwood Portrait Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on her powerful and eloquent opening speech. I am not sure that I will add anything unique to the debate, but some points bear repetition.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the people who have been delivering our public services during the coronavirus pandemic. Some of them are in public-facing roles that simply cannot be done from home, including social care workers, refuse collectors, firefighters and border control staff. They have been working hard, day in, day out. They have exposed themselves and their families to additional risks to help to keep us safe, secure and well.

Others who have been working just as hard are often invisible. They are among the unsung heroes of the crisis. I am thinking of the staff working at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to administer the job retention scheme, or those in the Department for Work and Pensions coping with a huge influx of new universal credit claims. Their work has been just as essential in helping to protect jobs and livelihoods. They were often unprepared and under-resourced to deal with that new sudden demand, but they stepped up. Of course, there are many others. Their reward for that work is to be handed a real-terms pay cut. The Chancellor might try to use softer language, with talk of a pay pause rather than a freeze, but soft language does not pay the bills. Prices are set to rise by 1.4% next year, and many people will be even more shocked when they realise that their council tax bill will go up by 5%. Thousands of public sector workers will be worse off, including every single police officer, every single teacher and 90% of armed forces personnel based in England. As many hon. Members have said, for many of those workers, that is just the latest kick in the teeth, because public sector staff have already endured a decade of cuts in the value of their wages, with many seeing their buying power cut by almost a fifth between 2010 and 2020.

Government Ministers want to pit public sector workers against private sector workers, but it is all smoke and mirrors. Private sector wage growth has fallen behind this year primarily as a result of furlough, having previously run ahead. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, once we adjust for the different profile of public sector workers in terms of experience, education and other factors, there is no difference in hourly pay rates compared with the private sector. The truth is that such divisive language helps no one. We all lose as a result of the proposals. It is noticeable that not a single Back-Bench Conservative MP has dared to turn up and defend them.

In Nottingham, 23% of all employees work in the public sector, which is significantly higher than the average for the east midlands or Britain, although of course there are parts of the country where it is far higher still. When the pay of those workers is cut, they have less to spend in local shops and with local businesses. Freezing their pay harms the local economy and risks the jobs of the private sector workers employed in those shops and businesses. At a time when our local high streets are suffering real damage and small businesses do not know whether they will survive the pandemic, this pay policy delivers a further blow to confidence and risks further weakening a weak recovery.

The Minister should think again. We need action to save jobs, rebuild businesses and get the economy back on its feet. Instead of cutting real wages, the Government should be boosting them, particularly for the lowest paid. That is the right thing to do ethically and economically.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
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Unusually, there have been no interventions and some Members have not turned up, so I will increase the time limit for Back-Bench speakers to five minutes.

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy (City of Durham) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing this important debate. I want to talk about the workers who throughout this pandemic have delivered furlough schemes, processed millions of new claims for universal credit, and kept the courts, ports and airports open and our prisons safe and secure. When we as a nation applaud our key workers, those key workers are often forgotten. Worst of all, they have been abandoned by the Government.

Unfortunately, the words, “civil servant”, still conjure up visions of “Yes Minister” for many people—including, it seems, the Government. Nothing could be further from the reality. The truth is that civil servants have suffered years of real-terms pay cuts. The average civil servant on a salary of £26,000 is now worse off by £2,110 a year compared with 2010. Following the end of national pay bargaining, there are now over 200 sets of pay negotiations in the civil service and related areas. What that means in reality is that there are huge inequalities in the pay of civil servants, with many falling into poverty pay. In HMRC, 12,000 staff—around one in five—are paid at the minimum wage or just above. It is unacceptable to have Government workers forced into poverty.

Then we come to another group of workers who are often overlooked: prison officers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) has just said, they deserve not just our praise but our respect for their courage in the course of their work, year in, year out. Covid has made a dangerous job even worse. In my constituency, we recently heard of an outbreak at HMP Frankland, where more than 200 members of the prison staff were off with covid symptoms or were self-isolating. That puts enormous pressure on the remaining staff, yet just last week the Government rejected a key recommendation from an independent body to raise the salaries of people on the frontline. It is nothing less than a kick in the teeth for hard-working and loyal public servants. As hon. Members have pointed out, prison officers are banned from taking any sort of industrial action. I disagree with such a limiting of their basic rights.

The Prison Service Pay Review Body recommended a significant pay rise for band 3 officers. Without justification or reason, the Government claim that is unaffordable. Of course, we know where this all leads—prison officers will vote with their feet and leave the service they love. We will lose valuable knowledge and experience at a time when we need it most. As experience goes down, violence goes up, leading to more officers leaving and so on. It is a vicious cycle.

Civil servants do thankless work. They do not want applause; they want to be rewarded fairly for the work that they do. The Government should listen to the Public and Commercial Services Union and start to restore the real value of civil servants’ pay with a 10% increase. On prison officer pay, the Government should think again and listen to the Prison Officers Association and the Prison Service Pay Review Body. The demands are not excessive; they are simply about keeping key workers’ heads above water and giving them some decency, respect and fairness. Surely that is the least we can do.

Bambos Charalambous Portrait Bambos Charalambous (Enfield, Southgate) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for her excellent speech when opening the debate. In fact, all the speeches that we have heard so far have been outstanding, and I associate myself with all of them.

I want to begin by thanking the 353 constituents of Enfield, Southgate who have signed the two petitions that have led to today’s Westminster Hall debate. I thank our public sector workers, who have provided such an incredible public service in our hospitals and social care sector, our local councils, our communities, our schools, our courts and prisons across the whole justice sector, and our jobcentres. I also thank all those working in the emergency services in every public sector that I have not had time to mention. These have been incredibly strange circumstances, and if it was not for their stepping up to help, we would have been in a much worse situation.

From speaking to public sector workers, I know that working in the sector is a vocation for many people, and they have a real desire to serve. That is despite a decade of cuts and austerity and the huge pressures that have been placed on people just doing their everyday job. I want to explode the myth that public sector workers are paid far more than private sector workers.  That is simply not true. According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, after years and years of below inflation pay rises and pay freezes, public sector workers earn 3% less than private sector workers. We need to make sure that that is not forgotten. Rather than reward all public sector workers for their hard work, the Government have chosen to divide and rule, and give some public sector workers a pay rise while giving a slap in the face to others. That is clearly unacceptable.

The Government do not realise the huge amount of good will that public sector workers provide in doing their jobs under the most trying circumstances. Before becoming a Member of Parliament, I worked in local government, with some extraordinary people who would often go far beyond the call of duty, just to get the job done. That was after years of cuts, not only in staffing levels that made their work extremely hard but in resources as well.

In my borough of Enfield, I helped volunteers to deliver food parcels at the start of the pandemic. That was arranged and organised by Enfield Council’s amazing staff, who were not just doing their everyday job. They were seconded to do this as an additional job, to make sure that people who were in dire need got the food that they needed. It was an incredible achievement and they showed that they were stepping up to do that. I ask in all honesty, how can the Government justify not giving these public sector workers a pay increase? When the chips were down, our public sector workers did what they had to do to get us through this. It is only right and proper that they get the reward that they deserve, and not an appalling snub from the Government.

Navendu Mishra Portrait Navendu Mishra (Stockport) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I thank my good friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), for securing this important debate at a time when key workers have done so much on the frontline of the covid crisis to keep us all safe and our country moving. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in particular my trade union membership.

As a former retail worker on the shop floor for six years, it is important for me to mention shop workers. Shop workers are key workers. If there is one thing that the pandemic has demonstrated, it is that the shop workers, cleaners and transport workers who are working at the coalface of this crisis are key workers who deserve not only our respect but fair pay, terms and conditions.

We must therefore look again at what support we give them. Recent research by the Trades Union Congress suggests that 3.7 million key workers—that is 38% of all key workers—earn less than £10 per hour. That is not reflective of the service they provide and it is why we must raise the minimum wage to £10 per hour at the very least, as well as put an end to unfair youth rates.

Moving on to the civil service, my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) made the point that the current system of having over 200 sets of pay talks is hugely inefficient. When will the civil service address that poor practice by implementing a coherent pay system that covers all its workers through one set of centralised negotiations? Research by the Public and Commercial Services Union, which has done so much to bring this issue to the fore and whose petition has now received more than 100,000 signatures, revealed that in the past decade, since the Conservatives entered Government in 2010, civil service pay has fallen in value by up to 20%, with the average civil servant now worse off by more than £2,100 every single year.

Not only is that unacceptable, it is a completely unsustainable position for those who are earning less, year on year. Instead of rewarding Government workers and local government staff for continuing to deliver council services during the most challenging circumstances this year, there was a deep sense of injustice that the Chancellor instead used his spending review to announce a public sector pay freeze. The Fire Brigades Union, which represents firefighters who put their lives on the line for us on a daily basis, subsequently criticised the Government for divide and rule tactics, which is understandable, given that the wealthiest corporations have been allowed to cash in on the pandemic without shouldering any of the burden.

There must also be a new deal for retail, distribution and home delivery workers, based around a real living wage as defined by the Living Wage Foundation—not the version this Government have appropriated—and guaranteed hours. As we have seen time and time again during this pandemic, it is imperative that we have meaningful statutory sick pay. The current provision is not fit for purpose and offers little support for those who are sick, having to self-isolate or look after loved ones.

A good route for the Treasury to raise revenue is by ensuring that businesses pay their fair share of tax, by tackling tax avoidance and the use of offshore havens once and for all. For example, over the past 20 years, Amazon paid just £61.7 million in corporation tax, despite its UK sales surging more than 26% to almost £14 billion in the past year alone. We cannot continue down a path on which businesses can afford to pay out millions to shareholders but plead poverty when it comes to paying decent wages to the staff members who create their profits and support our communities. As the Government stall on their support for workers, I urge all workers to join a trade union for the protection and dignity that they deserve.

Kate Osborne Portrait Kate Osborne (Jarrow) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a privilege to serve under your chairship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and the Petitions Committee for this debate. I also thank those of my constituents who contacted me about both public sector and key worker pay, including the 700 Jarrow constituents who put their names to both petitions.

As colleagues have pointed out, we cannot let this argument descend into one about levelling down; there should be fair pay in both the private and the public sectors. We should not let the debate become a tool for the Government to pit private and public sector workers against each other once again. Week after week at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister attacks the Opposition for caring about or focusing on the public sector alone. He recently said that there is a

“deep underlying Labour hatred of the private sector”.—[Official Report, 25 November 2020; Vol. 684, c. 818.]

That is, of course, not the case, but how can public sector workers support private businesses if they cannot afford to buy their products or pay for their services? That simply makes no economic sense.

The pay freeze for public sector workers comes on top of an 11-year pay restraint. Ten years ago, the Government implemented a two-year pay freeze that was followed by a six-year pay cap of 1%. Since, average salary levels in the civil service have fallen in value by comparison with inflation. This point has already been made, but I will reiterate it because I think it is important: that means that the average civil servant on a salary of £26,000 is now worse off by more than £2,000 a year.

Hard-working civil servants in my Jarrow constituency simply cannot afford a further pay freeze and, frankly, they do not deserve it. A great number of the civil servants in my constituency are employed by the Department for Work and Pensions in Newcastle. Many of those who administer benefits are at virtually the same income levels as those receiving them. How is that situation sustainable?

We all recognise the huge economic impact that the pandemic has had, but public servants and key workers across sectors have kept the country running during this difficult time, and they deserve a pay rise, not a real-terms pay cut. Not only is the pay freeze unfair, it also makes no economic sense: research from the New Economics Foundation found that paying all pubic sector workers a real living wage and increasing public sector pay would boost GDP by between £1.1 billion and £2.1 billion, with an increased tax take of between £370 million and £700 million.

There must be no return to the austerity programme implemented in the aftermath of the crash. Ten years of a flatlining economy has exposed the economic illiteracy of austerity, and a significant uplift in pay should be central to the post-pandemic recovery across all sectors of our workforce. Yes, we need to thank public sector and key workers for all that they have done throughout the crisis and beyond, but, Minister, thanking and clapping them on doorsteps is not enough. They simply need a pay rise.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to speak briefly in Westminster Hall. I thank and congratulate my good and hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this important debate, which reflects her long-held commitment to working people.

The people of Newport West work hard, look out for their neighbours and, where they can, help out—they never walk by on the other side. That is why so many of them have been in touch with me in recent weeks and months, urging me to call on Tory Ministers to act quickly. “Act on what?” some might ask. They do not want Ministers just to clap or say nice words; they want real action to show those who are keeping our country going that we really care and that we recognise their contribution in the most difficult of circumstances.

Like so many in this House and across the country, I have heard from constituents who want this place to do what our public sector and key workers have done for us in recent months: to go the extra mile and show that we care. Before my election to this place, I worked in our national health service for more than 30 years. Every day, I saw people working to keep our communities safe and our people alive. The least we can do is give something back.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Gower illustrated, public sector workers have endured a decade of severe cuts in the value of their wages, with many seeing the buying power of their pay packet fall by almost a fifth between 2010 and 2020. At the same time, the private sector has far outstripped the public sector, as private sector pay grew at between 2% and 2.5% per year during the six years of the public sector pay freeze and pay cap.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) stated, the latest Office for National Statistics analysis shows that, contrary to the myths, public sector workers earned 3% less than private sector workers in comparable jobs. These statistics show the importance of standing up for and siding with public sector workers in these tough times. Like other Opposition Members, I will be doing exactly that. It is important that we do that because the Government’s latest pay policy is set to heap further damage on public sector workers, as the forecast inflation rate for 2021 suggests that all public sector staff outside the NHS will see a decline in the value of their wages, whether they receive their £250 payment or not.

While the Government’s pay policy should be opposed unconditionally—I do so with the knowledge that many of my constituents do so, too—there are still answers that Ministers must provide. The rationale for the pay policy announcement was that the pay pause would protect public sector jobs. What measures and funding will the Government put in place to ensure that jobs are not lost and how is that objective being communicated to employers in the public sector? I look forward to the Minister’s explanation in her response.

I know that time is short, but I wanted to speak in this debate to show our key workers that there are some in this place who care. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Gower and many others in pledging to do all I can to stand with them and stand up for them in the opportunities that I have.

Rachael Maskell Portrait Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op)
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I am grateful to be called in this debate. I thank the Petitions Committee for prioritising such an important issue. I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.

We know that the petitioners have worked night and day to keep us safe over the past nine months. Although they have had plenty of claps and slaps on the back, the Chancellor’s statement came as a slap in the face, when so many looked at their pay statements at the end of the month and once again realised that they still could not make the bills pay and the balances match.

As a result, it is right that we debate public sector pay in this place, because Britain does deserve a pay rise. Although I welcome the pay rise for our NHS workers, we still do not have the remit, we do not know how that process will work, we do not know whether it will be capped by the Government and if so, to what extent, and we do not know whether the Government will fully fund it, or expect our cash-strapped NHS trust to dig deeper into the money it does not have.

One thing is for sure: we need to ensure that level of pay across the board. It is not only about our NHS workers. Our care workers, our local government workers, the people who have worked through the night trying to get people on to benefits as fast as possible, our teachers, our firefighters and our police all need that recognition. There are so many more I could mention. Curtailing their pay comes on the back of a decade of injustice in the pay system.

So many of those staff have been subject to reorganisation that has resulted in downbanding and loss of wages. We have also seen significant cuts to pensions and deferred wages for many of these workers. In the Chancellor’s statement we see history repeating itself. For a decade, the Government have not addressed the real economic crisis in our country; they have created another one, shifting the burden on to the lowest paid.

To give the lowest-paid in our country an increase of just 10p an hour is an insult after they have cared for people in their time of need over the last few months—not least those workers in care homes who have put their own lives at risk in order to support our communities. Those workers, who are mainly women and mainly black and ethnic minority, and disabled workers, are the people who are worst hit in our economy, so this is a real pay injustice, discriminating against people who are working.

The Government are always proud to talk about their national living wage, which is only £8.72 an hour. In 2015, the then Chancellor announced that by 2020 we would be on at least £9 an hour. We have not even reached that point. Of course, Labour made it very clear at the last election that we believe that we should start at £10 an hour, recognising that people have to live, survive and pay their bills, as opposed to having such pay restraint.

An increase would not be at huge cost to the Government; they could borrow and invest, which is what will make the difference to our economy. The TUC calculates that just a 2% increase would boost GDP by £1.1 billion to £2.1 billion—money that the Government could really do with at this time—and tax take would increase by up to £7 million. It is therefore not a zero-sum game: not just workers, but the Government gain.

Finally, because time is limited, we need to look again at how pay is arranged in our country. So many workers are not covered by any collective bargaining processes, and are, as a result, at the behest of their employers having additional money at the end of the year to pay them. It is completely unsatisfactory, and it is particularly the low-paid who are not part of collective bargaining arrangements.

I therefore call on the Minister to review what is happening across our pay system, and how it discriminates, to ensure that low-paid workers are not left out of pay deals. That is vital, as they are the people most in need. At a time when our economy needs such investment and our workers need to be acknowledged for all that they have done, I say to the Minister that it is time that British workers had a proper pay rise.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Stringer.

The House of Commons Library tells me that the Glasgow South West constituency has the highest percentage of workers in public sector employment, so it is only fitting that I contribute to the debate. I refer colleagues to the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I chair the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group, I worked 25 years before arriving in this place in the public sector, and I am a proud trade unionist of 20 years’ trade union activity. I would safely argue that the best political education and lifelong learning that one can achieve is through being a trade union activist.

I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for leading the debate. I use the word “debate” advisedly because no one has justified the Government’s position. The history that others have referred to is important. In 2010, there was a two-year pay freeze and then there was a six-year pay cap of 1%. Other Departments maintained that pay cap.

Public sector workers and civil servants have, during the last nine months, performed heroics, and the general public seem to think so too, with more than 100,000 people signing the petitions. The point has been made that the devolved Administrations have provided pay for NHS staff—£500, as a thank-you payment—and frankly we have seen a disgraceful response from the Treasury, which wishes to take tax and national insurance off that payment. I really hope that the Treasury thinks again on that point.

I will confine most of my remarks to the civil service and what it has done over the past nine months, including administering millions of new universal credit claims for the Department for Work and Pensions and processing furlough payments in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, all despite—this has to be emphasised—staff in a number of Departments not being provided with the proper equipment for homeworking during the crisis, including in the Department for Work and Pensions.

Colleagues made the point about the problems of low pay in HMRC. I emphasise again that the median salary in HMRC is the lowest across the civil service. Is that not ironic, given that a key role of HMRC is to chase all these rogues—the Googles, the Vodafones and all these other companies that have not been paying their tax for years—and try to collect that tax? Around one in five staff is paid the minimum wage or just above it, but there is also another issue. It is clear that pay delegation has also led to pay segregation by gender, and that the gender pay gap can only be reduced by increasing the pay of staff in the lowest-paid Departments and agencies.

It is really disappointing that not one Government Back Bencher is here to justify these policies; people watching will wonder why the Government have thrown in the towel in the middle of the debate. However, I can tell hon. Members that PCS members have been sharing emails they have received from Government Back Benchers in reply to their request to not go ahead with this public sector pay freeze. I think the politest term I have heard is “short and sniffy responses”. It seems that the position of many Government Back Benchers is that public sector workers should be thankful for their job security. Tory MPs could perhaps tell that to the 2,000 workers in HMRC facing redundancy at the end of the year and knowing that vacancies within that Department are not being offered to them but are instead being farmed out to agency staff, and God knows the cost to the taxpayer of the more than 100,000 civil servants who have lost their jobs in the past decade due to Tory austerity. The Prime Minister responded to me, as emphasised by the hon. Member for Gower, that he was “lost in admiration” for the work of the civil service during the covid crisis. I can only suggest that a pay freeze is an extraordinary way of showing that.

A public sector pay freeze is both counterproductive and economically illiterate, and it gets to the whole debate on the role of the public sector itself. Research before the pandemic consistently showed that 70p in every pound of public money ends up in the private sector economy, whether via grants, contracts or, indeed, public sector workers’ wages. We really need to end the notion that public sector workers, when they get a pay increase, hide it in a shoe box under the mattress. That is not how it works, I can tell you. When people get more money in their pockets, they spend it, and they spend it in the private sector. If we are serious about helping the private sector and about ensuring that the economic wheels turn, it surely stands to reason that public sector workers, as thanks for all the work they have done over the past nine months, should get a proper pay rise.

I hope that the Minister will tell us what progress is being made in ending the 200-plus bargaining units across Whitehall Departments. I hope that the Government —this political party of small government and efficiency—will tell us how they will enact that particular policy. Workers in Westminster Departments are moving to the Departments of devolved Administrations. Why? Because the devolved Administrations pay better wages.

There can be no return to the austerity programme that flatlined the economy. A public sector pay rise could start the post-pandemic recovery. Investment is required in the civil service to reflect the changed circumstances in which we now find ourselves. I and my SNP colleagues support the demands of the petition because they are morally just and economically sound.

Abena Oppong-Asare Portrait Abena Oppong-Asare (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for securing this important debate. It is important that we continue to support key workers as they have supported us through this difficult time for the whole country. She spoke about a number of things, but I will touch on her point about the Welsh Government trying to reward care homes and the Chancellor trying to tax them. She mentioned value for money for taxpayers. I agree that public sector workers pay their taxes too and deserve to be treated fairly.

I thank all hon. Members who have spoken to support key workers in their constituencies. I am disappointed that not a single Tory Back Bencher has turned up to speak. It is important that we speak for the individuals we seek to represent. The fact that not a single one has turned up speaks volumes.

Several hon. Members have made moving and passionate contributions that have highlighted the strength and passion of key workers across the country. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) talked about the 10-year pay freeze. People are hurting. I echo his point that the Minister should get back to the roundtable with the unions to negotiate a decent pay rise. I hope she takes that forward.

Like many others, my hon. Friends the Members for Bootle (Peter Dowd), for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) and for Newport West (Ruth Jones) talked about how important it is for public sector workers to get a pay rise. My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree (Paula Barker) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) talked about their direct experience of working in local government. My hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate also talked about how he has been delivering food parcels.

My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Wavertree and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) talked about the pressures that civil servants are facing. A recommendation was made to move towards a national infrastructure for the recovery. I am interested to hear what the Minister says on that point. I echo the comments of my hon. Friends the Members for Easington (Grahame Morris) and for City of Durham (Mary Kelly Foy) about treating prison officers with respect. I have three prisons in my constituency and I know the amount of pressure that prison officers are facing.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) rightly pointed out that council tax will go up, which will have an impact on key workers whose salaries have been frozen for some time. How is that sustainable? My hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) talked about the cuts to pensions and how the story is essentially repeating itself. She said that the Government have not really addressed the economic crisis and the 10p an hour increase is an insult. She talked about how pay injustice has affected women, ethnic minorities and disabled people.

Freezing public sector pay was one of the coalition Government’s first actions in 2010. That was followed by a six-year pay cap of 1%. Over the past decade, NHS workers have lost an average of 15% of their wages as their salaries have failed to rise in line with inflation. On Friday, I heard from Royal College of Nursing members about the impact that that was having on them mentally, and the amount of pressure that they are under.

The average civil servant on a salary of £26,000 is now worse off by £2,110 a year. As hon. Members have mentioned, the Chancellor announced in his spending review that the 2.1 million public sector workers who earn less than £24,000 will receive a minimum £250 increase because of inflation. A £250 pay increase will result in a pay cut for any public sector worker earning less than £18,000. Once again, the Government have shown how much they value key workers by hiding a pay cut at the heart of their false promises.

Sam Tarry Portrait Sam Tarry (Ilford South) (Lab)
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Will my hon. Friend give way?

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Order. If the hon. Gentleman had been here at the beginning of the debate, he would have heard me explain that hon. Members can take part only if they are present at the beginning, regardless of whether it is to make an intervention or give a speech.

Abena Oppong-Asare Portrait Abena Oppong-Asare
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Young people in my constituency of Erith and Thamesmead have been submitting portraits of key workers as part of my Christmas card competition. I asked them to write why the key worker they have drawn means so much to them, and one young person said to me:

“I have chosen to draw many different key workers…They have been pushing themselves every day so they can help us. They have put us first and we should be indebted to them.”

Does the Minister agree that we are indebted to key workers, given their hard work and sacrifice during this pandemic?

Freezing pay for public sector workers is not only insulting, but irresponsible. I am curious to know whether the Minister has given due regard to the impacts that the pay freeze will have. Has the Minister read the report by the TUC, which found that public sector pay increases could boost GDP significantly? That has been echoed by a number of Members in the debate. Does the Minister recognise that imposing a real-terms pay cut, when 1.8 million key workers already earn less than the real living wage, risks driving thousands into poverty? Can the Minister explain how she plans to tackle the shortage of over 80,000 NHS and care sector jobs at the same time as freezing public sector pay?

Over 1 million key workers face a real-terms pay cut next year. That includes 125,000 police officers, 500,000 teachers, 300,000 civil service staff and 125,000 armed forces personnel. By failing to reaffirm the Government’s manifesto commitment to ensure that teachers’ starting salaries reach £30,000 by 2022, the Chancellor has made it clear that he has no intention to back our public sector workers. Cutting universal credit, and giving the go-ahead for council tax rises in the middle of a pandemic, is pushing more people into poverty. The Government are making poor spending decisions that threaten to push our economy and public services to breaking point.

I want to conclude by quoting my hon. Friend the Member for Gower. Public sector workers are not asking for a lot. They just want their contributions to be recognised, and claps do not pay the bills.

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I ask the Minister to leave enough time at the end—we have plenty of time—for the proposer of the debate to wind up.

Kemi Badenoch Portrait The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Kemi Badenoch)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Mr Stringer. It is a tradition on occasions such as this to congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing a debate on the issue of the day. Today, however, we should also congratulate the thousands of people who secured the debate by taking the time to express their support for key workers. On hundreds of occasions, Government Ministers have, in public and in private, expressed their gratitude and respect for what our millions of key workers have done, and I would like to do so again.

I would also like to express my condolences to the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd) and his family on the death of his daughter. As a mother of three, I cannot even begin to imagine such as loss. We are divided by politics but united in our passion for public service, and I pay tribute both to him and to her for all her service.

We tend to think of key workers as nurses, teachers and police officers, whose efforts, as ever, have been invaluable. In the context of the pandemic, however, our understanding of who is key has rightly stretched far more widely, which is pertinent for the subject of the debate. Understanding who is key extends to local government, national Government, transport, utilities and communications. Importantly, many of the people on whom we have relied are in the public sector. The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said they are the people who kept the country going, but it is not just the public sector. Food retail workers, train conductors, farmers and lorry drivers—every one of them is a crucial link in the chain and deserves our thanks.

The substance of today’s debate is asking why we choose restraint when it comes to the way in which some of those in the public sector are financially rewarded. Hon. Members will know the answer. Many, in fact, have referenced fiscal policy since 2010. They should all know—if not, I am happy to remind them—that it was the difficult decisions we made during that period that have enabled us to borrow to fund such a significant package of support. Members have repeatedly said today, “We should borrow.” We are borrowing. A year ago, who would have believed that we would have spent £43 billion on people to be furloughed, £13.7 billion on the self-employed, and over £280 billion in total, in the space of eight months, on an unexpected pandemic?

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

No, I am afraid I am not giving way.

I am also happy to remind hon. Members that almost exactly a year ago, after nine years of Conservatives in Government and the very same fiscal policies that hon. Members have criticised today, the public chose to renew their faith and trust in this Government—not just with an increased share of the vote, but with a much increased majority. Since 2010, they had heard these arguments about what we were doing on fiscal policy over and over again, from many colleagues on the Opposition Benches who are not in the House today. We all believe in fair pay, but we disagree on where it is sent. However, I remind hon. Members that the public also want fiscal responsibility.

Good government is about making the right choices. To paraphrase the Chancellor, our health emergency is not yet over, while our economic emergency has only just begun. At a time like this, it is the responsibility—in fact, the duty—of Government to prioritise and target support where it is most needed, in a way that is fair and sustainable, that protects jobs and businesses, and that limits long-term damage to the economy. The hon. Member for Gower referenced many previous responses the Government have given on this topic. She may not like the answer, but the facts have not changed, and I am happy to repeat them here. Fairness has been a guiding principle.

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I am not giving way. I have already said I am not; please stop asking.

As the Chancellor pointed out in his statement on the spending review, in the six months to September, private sector wages fell by nearly 1% compared with last year. Over the same period, public sector wages rose by nearly 4%. Workers in the private sector have lost jobs, been furloughed, and seen their wages cut and their hours reduced, while those in the public sector have not. [Interruption.]

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Thank you, Mr Stringer. For that reason, the Chancellor announced a temporary pause to pay awards for some public sector workers for the year 2021-22. Disappointing though I know this will be, this approach allows us to protect public sector jobs at this time of crisis and ensure fairness between the private and public sectors. Crucially, as I have said, we are targeting our resources at those who need them most. First, taking account of the NHS Pay Review Body’s advice, we are providing a pay rise to over 1 million nurses, doctors and others working in the NHS. Secondly, we are protecting those on lower incomes. The 2.1 million public sector workers who earn below the median wage of £24,000 will be guaranteed a pay rise of at least—and I emphasise “at least”—£250.

In the spending review, we also accepted in full the recommendations of the Low Pay Commission—to increase the national living wage by 2.2% to £8.91 an hour, to extend that rate to those aged 23 and over, and to increase the national minimum wage. According to the commission, those rates will give low-paid workers a real-terms pay rise and protect their standards of living without significant risks to their job prospects. A full-time worker on the national living wage will also see their annual earnings increase by £345 next year. That is a pay rise of over £4,000 compared with 2016, the year in which the policy was first introduced. Taken together, these minimum wage increases will likely benefit around 2 million people and help make real progress towards ending low pay in the UK.

The risk with broader-brush measures, including income tax or national insurance policies—this particular point was not made today, but it is an important one to reiterate—is that it is difficult to define and limit who should benefit. The result could merely be to reward the better paid, at a time when the Government have already been forecast to be borrowing at record peacetime levels.

As a Government, we are committed to keeping taxes low in order that working people, including key workers, are able to keep more of what they earn. In April 2019, the Government increased the personal tax allowance to £12,500, meaning that the personal allowance is up by more than 90% in less than a decade, ensuring that more of the lowest earners do not pay any income tax at all. In April this year, we also increased the national insurance contributions primary threshold and lower profits limit to £9,500—a move that will benefit 31 million people. Add all that together, and changes to income tax and national insurance contributions between 2010-11 and 2020-21 mean that a typical basic rate employee in England, Wales or Northern Ireland is more than £1,600 better off a year.

Mary Kelly Foy Portrait Mary Kelly Foy
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Will the Minister give way, with 15 minutes to go?

Kemi Badenoch Portrait Kemi Badenoch
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will conclude by saying that this Government and all the people of this country are grateful for everything that our key workers in both the public and the private sector have done and continue to do, but in the choices we make, we must chart a way ahead that is fair and sustainable and that gives us the best chance of a strong economic recovery. That is the thinking behind what we have done and it will remain the thinking behind what we do in the challenging months and years ahead, as I believe it should.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

On a point of order, Mr Stringer. If I heard the Minister correctly, it was suggested that there were to be no job losses in the public sector, yet a number of us in the debate mentioned that there were 2,000 redundancies in HMRC. Mr Stringer, can you tell me how the record can be corrected—or has the Minister just cancelled the redundancy notices of 2,000 workers in HMRC?

Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer (in the Chair)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

That is not a point of order; it is a matter of fact and for debate.

Tonia Antoniazzi Portrait Tonia Antoniazzi
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I will, on behalf of the Petitions Committee, thank the Minister for the Government response. However, I am very disappointed, as are many of my colleagues here today, that she was unable to take any interventions from us in what is meant to be a debate. It is really difficult that the Government do not recognise the challenges that key workers face. It is evident that the Government are not hearing what people are saying when one petition has nearly 150,000 signatures and the other just over 100,000. It is striking to all of us that our constituents and many people and key workers across the UK do not recognise what has been said. In fact, I am only in this place because I was a teacher for more than 20 years and, since 2010, the public sector workers’ pay freeze has had a massive impact on so many people’s lives and the quality of their lives.

What is going to happen from 1 January? We do not actually know the impact on our key workers and how many will have to leave or may be unable to fill these jobs. I worry about the future, because I worry about our future generations. Being a key worker or being in the public sector means that you are in a vocation. That is what we have seen through the pandemic: people are in a vocation and they give of their best to help everybody else; it is that vocation that drives them forward. To be in a vocation is an honour, but how do we now tell this to our children, whose education has been hammered, who have not been able to sit exams and who have not been able to secure a future for themselves? Yes, there are plenty of jobs out there in the public sector, but why would they want to take a job in the public sector when this is how they are treated by this Government?

Does the Minister recognise that imposing a real-terms pay cut when 1.8 million key workers already earn less than the living wage risks driving thousands into poverty? That poverty, moving forward, is what I am concerned about. That we have to volunteer at food banks and deliver food hampers to people who just cannot put food on the table, at Christmas and throughout the year, is not good enough. That the Minister did not reaffirm the Government’s manifesto promises is an absolute disgrace.

I could go on and on, but I will not. My colleagues have not had the opportunity to have a proper debate in Westminster Hall, and that is extremely disappointing. I thank you, Mr Stringer, for your chairship, and I thank the petitioners, who tried to get their message across today but who, unfortunately, were not listened to, as we were unable to have a proper debate.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petitions 306845 and 328754, relating to financial rewards for government workers and keyworkers.

Sitting suspended.

Covid-19: Vaccination

Monday 14th December 2020

(3 years, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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[Sir David Amess in the Chair]
Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn (Carshalton and Wallington) (Con)
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I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petition 323442, relating to vaccination for Covid-19.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. The petition is entitled,

“Prevent any restrictions on those who refuse a Covid-19 vaccination”.

To date, more than 307,000 people have signed it, including 641 from my constituency. It states:

“I want the Government to prevent any restrictions being placed on those who refuse to have any potential Covid-19 vaccine. This includes restrictions on travel, social events, such as concerts or sports. No restrictions whatsoever. You cannot force someone to have a vaccination, and should not be able to coerce them into it by way of restrictions. We have to the right to assess the risk ourselves as we have done in the past.”

The Government’s reply states categorically:

“There are currently no plans to place restrictions on those who refuse to have any potential Covid-19 vaccine.”

So there we are. I quite agree that, in a modern liberal democracy, the state cannot and should not force someone to put something into their body, nor should it introduce punitive measures against those who refuse to do so. The Government have confirmed in their reply that they have no such intention, but rather than leaving it at that I will make some remarks. As the petition gives us the opportunity to discuss vaccinations, I will urge people to get the vaccine when their time comes. In doing so, I will offer reassurance about the safety of not just this vaccine but others, which also go through rigorous trials before being distributed to the public. I also want to dispel some of the myths about vaccinations.

We can be proud that a Brit, Edward Jenner, first discovered vaccinations in the form that we know them today. In 1796—a year that none of us was around for, I am sure—Jenner demonstrated that a mild infection with the cowpox virus conferred immunity against the deadly smallpox virus. Cowpox served as the natural vaccine for smallpox until a more modern vaccine emerged in the 19th century, laying the groundwork for the system of vaccinations that we know today. Smallpox remains the only virus that is considered to be eradicated internationally since its eradication was declared in 1980.

Since Jenner’s discovery, vaccines have been developed to offer immunity to a whole range of viruses, such as measles, mumps, rubella, influenza, tetanus, polio, diphtheria, yellow fever, rabies, hepatitis, human papillomavirus, meningitis and so many more. It is easy, therefore, to take vaccines for granted, but I invite colleagues to have a think just for a moment about the impact that vaccines have had on the world. Those illnesses would once have struck dread, fear and anguish into the millions who were diagnosed with them. Yet today our lives are quietly unaffected by those horrors, thanks to the seemingly simple concept of quick action through vaccines.

Of course, when we have to put things into our bodies, we want to know that they are safe, and vaccines have some of the most—if not the most—rigorous safety tests in the world. One of the most common questions I receive from my constituents, which I am sure other hon. Members receive from theirs, is about how we know whether the covid vaccine is safe. Vaccines are not like electrical items such as new iPhones, which go through some initial testing and then into the market. When initial flaws are found, they are then brought out with new additions to address those flaws. Vaccines have to be considered safe from day one.

The standard for testing and monitoring vaccines is higher than for most other medicines, because they are unusual in the medical world in that they are put into the bodies of healthy people, especially healthy children. That means that the acceptable level of risk of harm is much lower than in cancer treatment, for example, for which we accept a certain level of risk, given the illness that we are battling.

According to the Oxford Vaccine Group, the following are just some of the stages that a vaccine has to go through before use: a literature review to look at what has been done before; a theoretical development or innovation, coming up with a new idea or varying an existing one; and laboratory testing and development, involving in vitro testing using individual cells and in vivo testing, which often uses mice. Even at that early stage, when the vaccine is not being tested on humans, it still has to pass rigorous safety tests to demonstrate that it works.

After that stage, it will move on to a phase 1 study: an initial trial of a small group of adult participants, normally up to only 100, carried out to ensure that the vaccine does not have a major safety concern in humans and to work out the most effective dose. We then move on to a phase 2 study: a trial with a larger group of participants, normally several hundred, to check that the vaccine works consistently across various groups of people and to look at whether it starts to generate an immune response. It is also in this stage that we start to find out any potential side-effects.

After that stage, we move on to a phase 3 study: a trial of a much larger group of people—normally several thousand. Those trials gather statistically significant data on the vaccine’s safety and efficacy, which means looking at whether the vaccine generates the level of immunity that would prevent disease, and which provides evidence that the vaccine can actually reduce the number of cases. The phase 3 study also gives us a better chance of understanding side-effects, particularly rarer side-effects that might not have been caught in the phase 2 trials.

After the phase 3 studies, we move into licensing and expert review of all trial data by the UK Government and the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency. At that stage, regulators check that the trials show that the product meets the necessary efficacy and safety levels. They also ensure that, for example, the product’s advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. After the vaccine is disseminated to the public, phase 4 studies start: post-marketing surveillance of the vaccine to monitor the effects after it has been administered to the general population.

That is quite a substantial list of safety tests, but it does not stop there, because the vaccine, and the trials used to test it, must also meet a set of regulations. They include regulations laid down in international conference on harmonisation good clinical practice; the declaration of Helsinki, which is about ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects; the EU clinical trials directive, enshrined in UK law by the Medicines for Human Use (Clinical Trials) Regulations 2004; and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health guidelines for the ethical conduct of medical research involving children.

In addition to that additional layer of safety, for trials in the United Kingdom the vaccine and the trials used in its development must receive individual approval from the MHRA, while the trial itself must be approved by an NHS research ethics committee, a local NHS research and development office, and the Health and Safety Executive. That is quite an extensive list of tests and regulations that a vaccine has to go through before it is considered safe to be used by the wider public.

Vaccines go through rigorous testing, and all information relating to their testing, licensing, side-effects and so on is available for public scrutiny. Vaccines are also constantly monitored after approval. The extensive list of stages a new vaccine must go through raises the question of how the covid-19 vaccine—the Pfizer vaccine currently being rolled out—was approved so quickly. Vaccines can take several years to be approved, so that is a fair question, which we must answer.

To reassure people, there are several answers, and I am sure that the Minister will have further details. The first obvious reason why this particular vaccine has been rolled out so fast is the huge international effort that has gone into finding a vaccine for covid-19, and the funding that has gone along with it. Finding a working vaccine has been the primary, if not sole, job of many of the world’s scientists for much of the past year, and has been backed by funding from various foreign Governments.

Dr June Raine, the chief executive of the MHRA, has explained further how the UK in particular was able to approve the vaccine so quickly. I advise people to look at her article in The Times titled, “How we backed a Covid vaccine before the rest of the West”, in which she spoke of the work that went into getting preparations in place before the vaccine data arrived, meaning that the MHRA was not starting from scratch. That included setting up an independent expert working panel in June, preparing laboratories for batch testing in September, and reviewing rolling data from Pfizer from October. That meant that by 23 November, when the final data submission arrived at the MHRA, good progress had already been made so that it could review the data, consult with the Commission on Human Medicines and approve the vaccine for use once satisfied, with no corners cut and no stone left unturned.

It is only natural to have questions about something that we put into our bodies, so I hope that that offers some peace of mind. People should ask questions, speak to their GP, pharmacist and so on about this or any vaccine, and find out the information that they want to know. Go to those with the knowledge—please do not listen to dangerous internet conspiracy theories.

If people need any proof that the anti-vax movement is driven by anything but concern for public safety, they need look no further than Brian Deer’s excellent book, “The Doctor Who Fooled the World: Andrew Wakefield’s War on Vaccines”, which I had the pleasure of reading before today’s debate. He expertly demonstrates the lies, the bad science, the personal ambition and everything in between that drives this well-funded and well-organised movement, which has ulterior motives to the ones it claims publicly. Because of the anti-vax movement, children are now dying from illnesses that they could easily have been prevented from contracting, such as measles, mumps and rubella, which is an absolute disgrace.

Vaccines are not just safe, but they are a marvel of hundreds of years of medical and scientific research. A seemingly simple concept of an injection, over in a matter of seconds, will prevent people from contracting ailments that would otherwise have caused them life-changing harm or even death. I hope I have managed to demonstrate that vaccines in the UK go through the strongest possible checks for safety before they can be used.

I have heard the calls, as I am sure have other hon. Members, from those who say, “Well, if it is safe, why don’t you have it? Prove to us that you have had it.” As a 28-year-old with no underlying health conditions that make me more susceptible to a respiratory illness, such as coronavirus, I should not be taking the vaccine from someone who needs it, but if that is what it takes to get people to have it, then I will gladly have it. Sign me up, and I will have the vaccine, with as many cameras there as people want. Ultimately, I want people to listen to the debate and take away this message: please, please, please have the vaccine when the time comes and you are asked to come forward. The right, healthy, patriotic and human thing to do is to be vaccinated to protect individuals and those around them.

I was not the only one moved by the words of those who had the vaccine on the first day. They talked about how they had been separated from their loved ones for so long, and were looking forward to seeing people and doing normal things again. Any number of the people who had the vaccine on the first day would have been poignant to reference, but I cannot sum up today’s debate in any better words than those of Mr Kenyon, who was interviewed on the streets of London by the American news organisation CNN:

“There’s no point dying now, when I have lived this long, is there?”

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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It is always a pleasure to speak on any issue in Westminster Hall, Sir David, but my mailbag has been full of points of view about this issue. I agree with some of those points of view, and have questions about others.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) set the scene exceptionally well. The purpose of the debate is to say that those who are convinced to have the vaccine should do that—I am one of them—and that those who have questions should have those questions answered. That is thrust of where the hon. Gentleman was coming from, and it is exactly what I would wish to see being done. I thank him for setting the scene and bringing forward the debate.

As some hon. Members will know, I lost my mother-in-law to covid about seven weeks ago. The effect of the covid-19 outbreak was particularly relevant to my family. At the time my mother-in-law had covid-19, she had underlying issues, so, unfortunately, when covid-19 struck, her time in this world was always going to be difficult. The doctors thought they might be able to do the plasma test with her, but they quickly realised they could not do that, because her kidneys would be unable to take it. Therefore, it was basically palliative care.

It was terribly sad, because she was on a ward on her own in the Ulster Hospital and none of us could go and see her. We all wanted to, but we could not. Her daughter —my wife’s sister—was in the ward across from her in the intensive care unit, with covid-19 as well, at the same time. She could not even go the distance from where the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington is seated to where I am now to see her mum, because it was not allowed. My wife and my father-in-law were self-isolating. My wife’s aunt and uncle both had covid-19 at the same time. My wife’s uncle Frank was on oxygen in the ICU of the Ulster Hospital, as was her sister-in-law. They are all better today.

My 11-year-old granddaughter also had it at about the same time. I can never understand how covid-19 can take this person and not that person. At 11 years of age, my granddaughter is very strong and fit and able to combat it. It did not affect her mummy, daddy or sister, who did not have it, so it is sometimes a bit hard to understand. But when I talk about this disease and the e-petition, I have personal knowledge of how it affects families.

Also, I had two very good friends. Norma McBride, a lady who looked after our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association coffee morning every year, had underlying issues and did not last long. Here is a story. Two sisters, one of whom works in my office, came together for a family reunion in February this year. Betty from my office and Norma both drank from the same bottle of water. Norma took covid and died, and Betty did not. One would think that the chances of getting covid after drinking from the same bottle as one’s sister, who went on to get covid, would be fairly strong. That would have been my opinion, but Betty did not get it. I also lost a good friend, Billy Allen, one of my constituents. He lived most of his life in England but then came back home to Newtownards, and I knew him quite well.

We have had some difficult times, but I am very aware of the need for a vaccine to combat the virus and to give people the best opportunity to win the battle against covid. I am a type 2 diabetic, unlike the hon. Gentleman who introduced the debate. When it comes to handing out the vaccine, I will probably fit into a priority category, but I want to say this: come to me after everybody else in the priority list has had it, because I do not want to be ahead of anybody else. I want it, I know I need it, and I have no doubts about it whatsoever, but I wish to make sure that we follow the order that the Government and the regional Governments have set out, and at some point it will come to me as a type 2 diabetic. I urge everyone to take the covid-19 vaccine and to be safe.

I am not a medical professional so, in preparation for this debate, I have been in contact with several medical professionals, including a GP, a pharmacist and an intensive care doctor. I raised with them issues that have been highlighted to me, such as concerns about women’s fertility, which is an issue when it comes to the Government giving the vaccine to pregnant ladies, for instance. The long-term effects are a concern. The outcome of those discussions have meant that it is likely that I, as a diabetic, will take the vaccine probably between now and the summer, if we go down the priority list of networks.

In the past, vaccines were taken by some because they felt that it was a risk they should take, whereas others were not sure. The eradication of some of the world’s diseases, as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington set out, should be an evidential base for what we should do. Many people, whenever they saw that past vaccines were successful, were convinced that they could take it and not die as a result, so I think there is every merit in making sure that we do that as well, as the hon. Gentleman referred to. It was a salient point and a key issue for this debate.

Queen’s University Belfast and other universities across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland have formed partnerships to investigate and try to find a cure for diabetes, cancer and heart disease, and also for dementia and Alzheimer’s, and for those who have vision problems. If we did not have these pioneering investigations, examinations and medical tests going on across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, we would be unable to find the things that are important for the cures that I believe can happen.

I want to put on the record that I think I should have the vaccine, because I want to have it, and I believe it is right to have it. I thank the Minister—I have said this in the Chamber and now say it here—for all the hard work that he and his team have done. We owe him a debt for his leadership through this difficult time, because things were so uncertain back in February and March, when we did not know the answers, because we were all learning as we went along. What joy it brought me and many others across this great nation when it was announced that a vaccine had been found.

Vaccinations should be strongly encouraged, and I encourage people to take up their flu jab, the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination and others, and to take this covid-19 vaccine when it comes as well. However, it must be a matter of personal choice, and I in no way support punishing those who do not choose to take this vaccine, ever mindful that I want them to take it. I wish that they would, and I hope that we can convince them. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington set the scene in his excellent contribution. It is our job to convince, and I look to the Minister for that purpose. How can we convince others who may be unsure or doubtful as to the best way? The debate centres around the fact that there must be an element of choice, and while the Government have said that vaccination will not be mandated at present, responses such as

“the Government will carefully consider all options to improve vaccination rates, should that be necessary”

may pose a question in the minds of some people about whether they will be made to take it. I do not think that they will be, but I will listen to the arguments.

When I was much younger, as a councillor in a previous life, I had a fairly black-and-white opinion of things. Over the past 30 years of married life, my opinions have changed greatly and I see things in a much wider and more general way than in the past, which I believe allows me to be persuaded by those who have an evidential base and who can persuade me that something is right and that I should do it. That is what I am asking the Government to do. Many people need their concerns addressed and fears dispelled, and I believe this debate is the time to ensure that one option is not enforced vaccination, or a penalty for not being vaccinated, or even a curtailment of activity. Again, it is a point of persuasion. While I am aware that other nations may consider immunity passports alongside vaccination, it is my fervent belief that we must not penalise people who remain unconvinced.

Those who have questions should have them answered. I am awaiting answers to questions I asked of SAGE—asked through the Prime Minister’s office, by the way—regarding constituents’ concerns. That is what we do: we ask questions on behalf of constituents. When I get those answers, as I know I will, I will be happy to pass them on. Many of my acquaintances are happy to take the vaccine, but some wish not to, or they wish to wait—that might be a better way of putting it. Medical professionals and others advise caution, and like much of the coronavirus pandemic, both sides, whatever they may be, should be understood as valid.

I also express my concern over some of those on the internet and social media who promote the opinion—I will be careful how I put this—that the vaccine could be harmful and would be detrimental to health and wellbeing. I gently suggest that we need to listen to the scientists who have the evidence and the knowledge and who can deliver the convincing evidence necessary for people to understand that there should not be a fear. I caution the internet and social media users against the drive that there seems to be to do that.

I understand that there must be a decent uptake for this vaccine to be effective, but I also understand that those who have questions must have the opportunity to discuss it, and that that discussion must be with our medical professionals, many of whom feel ill-informed at this stage to recommend the vaccine. Reliable information and all the necessary evidence must be made public, so that everyone can weigh up the risks and benefits for themselves. That freedom must be the cornerstone of any discussion of the vaccine.

Let me be clear that I will take the vaccine when my time comes. I am not good with needles, but I do take my vaccines—I take the flu jab, and a while ago I had a tetanus injection after cutting my hand. Those are things I had to do. I trust those with whom I have spoken who know more than I do, but I uphold the right of those who are uncertain at this time to hold back. That is freedom.

I have heard the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) talk about freedom many times in a genuine way. I hope that we will not be too far apart in what we say in our speeches. I understand the point that he has made. In this House we must protect our people. I want to protect my constituents. I want to ensure that they are safe. I believe that they need the vaccine in order to be safe, but on behalf of those who have signed the e-petition, I believe we have a job to do. Sir David, I have gone on too long.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Steve Baker (Wycombe) (Con)
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I am delighted to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I thank the 589 Wycombe constituents who signed the petition.

I want to make three points. First, vaccines are a good thing. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington made a passionate case for a vaccine. I only wish to add to it something said by the deputy chief medical officer, Professor Van-Tam:

“If we can get through phase one”—

of the priority list—

“and it is a highly effective vaccine and there is very, very high up take, then we could in theory take out 99% of hospitalisations and deaths related to Covid 19.”

That is his estimate. That is a tremendous thing, which reinforces the case that my hon. Friend made. I am 49 years of age, so I do not think I will be offered the vaccine any time soon, but I will certainly have a safe and effective vaccine when it is my turn, and I encourage others to do so. However, I will not gainsay those people who wish to refuse a medicine.

That brings me to my second point. Whatever we may think of other people’s opinions, we cross an ethical boundary if we compel people to take a medicine. It is clear from what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that there is no question of the Government compelling people to take a vaccine for this disease, and quite right, too. It is worth remembering that although the infection fatality rate for this disease is considerably worse than flu—I understand it is between 0.5% and 1%, and considerably worse for those vulnerable to it—it is not comparable to, for example, the haemorrhagic fevers. We are not talking about a 10% infection fatality rate. I dare say, if we were up at an 80% infection fatality rate, we would all support authoritarian measures without too much of a second thought, because such a serious disease would threaten our civilisation. This disease, dreadful as it is, has an infection fatality rate of about 1% overall, so there can be no question of coercing people directly to take the vaccine.

That brings me to the text of the petition, which states:

“I want the Government to prevent any restrictions being placed on those who refuse to have any potential Covid-19 vaccine.”

That goes a little further. That is not about stopping the Government from compelling people to take it; it is about ensuring that those people who, for whatever reason, do not wish to take the vaccine, do not lose their liberties as a consequence. I understand from people better versed in medical ethics that this is known as implicit coercion.

One can imagine a circumstance in which, for example, an airline chose to say to people, “You may not fly until you have had a vaccine.” A restaurant might say, “You cannot come in until you have had the vaccine.” On and on it would go, until reaching a point where unless people have had the vaccine, they cannot live what most of us would consider a normal life, going to restaurants, shops or whatever it may be. To me, that would be totally unacceptable.

Before moving on to why that would be unacceptable, I have to say that it would also be ineffective. There is a difference between a vaccine stopping someone from getting a disease and being killed by it and a vaccine that stops someone shedding the disease on to others. The harm principle in the philosophy of freedom is about constraining people’s liberties so that they do not harm others. That means there is a profound practical difference between the purpose of a vaccine being to stop people getting sick and the purpose of a vaccine being to stop people shedding the virus. At the moment, a number of businesses that are looking at restricting their customers to those who have been vaccinated have not understood that, actually, we do not yet know whether the vaccine will stop people shedding the disease.

I turn to something that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said in relation to the Pfizer vaccine. When asked how many people will need to be vaccinated before life can return to normal, he said:

“The answer to that is we just do not know. So the trials can tell you if a vaccine is clinically safe and if it’s effective at protecting an individual from the disease. What we can’ know, until we’ve vaccinated a significant proportion of the population, is how much it stops the transmission of the disease.”

That is my first point. I would say to businesses large and small, “Please don’t start seeking to restrict your customers’ ability to come and do business with you because they haven’t had the vaccine.” That is not an effective strategy, and the Secretary of State has explained why.

I want to come to what I think is the moral case. Some people argue that property rights should be so strong that property owners should be allowed to serve whoever they wish, but that is not the approach we take in an enlightened and modern civilised society. I am afraid the argument touches on some very difficult issues. For example, we do not allow people to say that they will not have same-sex couples in their bed and breakfast. We will not allow discrimination against the range of protected characteristics.

I can see that Ministers might face a temptation to say, “Let’s allow the acceleration of the roll-out of the vaccine by turning a blind eye to property owners insisting on people being vaccinated before staying in their bed and breakfast, or whatever it might be.” I can see that some Ministers might argue, on the basis of property rights, that shop owners, hotel owners and so on ought to have the choice—I understand the argument, because I am a classical liberal and I think about property rights—but I have to say to the Minister, who I am sure understands the argument, that we cross a Rubicon if we say that it is possible to discriminate against people on the basis of their health status. That would be a very sad and wrong basis on which to go forward as a country, even though I can understand that in the face of this disease, with all that that implies, there is pressure on Ministers, officials, members of the public and businesses—we all know what the costs are. It would be very easy to make an ethical mistake, which we could regret for a very long time.

For those two reasons—because it is not an effective thing to do, and because it is morally wrong to discriminate against people on the basis of their choice not to take a vaccine—I will stand with the petitioners in asking the Government to prevent any restrictions being placed on people who refuse to have any potential covid-19 vaccine. Of course it is a very serious disease, and of course we should all take the vaccine. I absolutely stand with my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington and the hon. Member for Strangford, who support vaccination. I will not give the least succour to the anti-vaxxers, but I say to the Minister that people have all sorts of strange beliefs in this world. If people do not want to take a vaccine, please let us not turn a blind eye to any kind of discrimination against them.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP)
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I am very pleased to participate in this debate about the covid vaccine, and I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his comprehensive exposition of the matter before us.

We can all agree that it is simply not the case that either the UK Government or the Scottish Government have any plans to mandate the covid vaccine and make it compulsory. Indeed, the Scottish Government—and, I believe, the UK Government—have explicitly said that they will not utilise coercive measures to ensure compliance and increase vaccination rates. Before I go any further, I would like to say—I believe it has already been said—that we are in a very fortunate position to be able even to discuss and debate the roll-out of a vaccine. What a marvel! Six months ago, we would have been delighted to be in this position. Finally, we can see an end to the terrible damage and restrictions that this deadly virus has placed on all our lives. Too often, it has cost lives. Every Government, in the face of a pandemic or any threat to public safety or disease, must have the safety of their people at the forefront. That must be the overriding and principal concern. The public who, on the whole, have been extremely compliant with the restrictions, will overwhelmingly and collectively be breathing a sigh of relief that we now have a vaccine that will help to end —or begin to end—these terrible days. It will not just allow us to resume some kind of normality, but save lives, particularly of older people who are vulnerable to this terrible disease.

I will not be philosophical, because it is my personal view—perhaps I am an eternal optimist—that judging from the high levels of public compliance with the public health measures, which we have all found difficult, the take-up of the vaccine will be very high. Of course, individuals can choose to refuse it, but I honestly believe that the overwhelming majority will have it, just as the overwhelming majority of those eligible take advantage of the flu vaccine, and just as parents ensure that the vaccines to protect their children against rotavirus, diphtheria, hepatitis B, haemophilus influenzae, polio, tetanus and whooping cough are taken up.

Such vaccinations are given to children; in fact, that is the list of vaccinations given to children in the first 16 weeks of their life when they are at their most vulnerable. Without those vaccines, babies would be less safe and less protected from nasty, and potentially fatal, diseases. That is why parents take their children along to the local GP to have those vaccines administered. As always with vaccines, there may be a few uncomfortable side effects for a very small number of children or of any group receiving the vaccine. That is not new. The protection given to children, however, and those who receive vaccines against serious diseases far outweighs any discomfort that may subsequently be felt; and so it is for the very small number likely to have minor discomfort after the administration of the covid vaccine.

Although I appreciate that more tests are required to perfect a covid vaccine for children, because such vaccines are always tested on adults first, between the ages of one and 16 years old, five more vaccines may be administered to children. Older people may be offered several other vaccines from the age of 65 years. There is even a shingles vaccine. When pregnant, women are offered the whooping cough vaccine. Vaccines are entwined and embedded in various stages of our lives, and all of them are perfectly safe. There is a range of vaccines that are a normal part of our lives and which we accept readily, because we know that they are important for our health and wellbeing.

I read that 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated with the covid vaccine before we can return to normality, although I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for Winchester about that. Regardless, I hope that take-up will be higher than 70% by the time the roll-out is complete.

Regarding ongoing restrictions for those who may choose not to take up the vaccine, as far as I am aware, only Qantas airlines has said that it will not carry passengers who cannot prove that they have been vaccinated. We do not know yet if that is a knee-jerk reaction, if Qantas will be a lone voice, or if individual businesses will seek to impose conditions on the public to access their services while the vaccine is rolled out. We shall see, but I honestly doubt that that will happen. It certainly seems unlikely that businesses will be able to legally insist that those whom they employ must be vaccinated.

A word of caution: nobody denies that people have the right to refuse the vaccine, but insurance companies will surely levy higher premiums for life and travel insurance for those who do not take up the vaccine, because they operate on the basis of risk. They make all sorts of decisions about the level of our premiums based on that information, so that is something to consider.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Baker
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My constituency is Wycombe, by the way. I agree with the hon. Lady on this point. If people make a choice about their own person that increases their own personal risk and then ask somebody to insure them for it, it is completely reasonable to charge a higher premium. But I will just say this to her, if I may, on the Qantas point. I agree with her that it is just Qantas so far, but people are afraid out there. Actually, I want the take-up of this vaccine to be as high as possible, so does she agree with me that we in this place, in order to provide leadership on a cross-party basis, need to appeal to business owners and others to be reasonable about what they do?

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson
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Yes, I agree. The reason why I have talked about Qantas is that I do think that it is a knee-jerk reaction. People are afraid. I think that, as the vaccine is rolled out, as there is more information and as they see that more and more people are taking up the vaccine with no ill effects, the concerns that both business and the general public might have will all start to dissipate. Perhaps I am just the eternal optimist, but I genuinely believe that that will happen, because vaccinations are not new.

What I have heard from constituents and what I have read is that the overwhelming majority of people want to stop having to worry about this virus. They want an end to the restrictions that we face as soon as that is safely possible. They want a vaccine to help put this dark time behind us, and they want these things to be delivered as soon as that is possible.

Many have contacted me—I am sure that I am not alone in the Chamber in saying this—to ask whether, in the roll-out of the vaccine, we could include, as a priority, those who are living with a terminal condition, which makes their vulnerability to the virus very concerning. I share the view that those who are living with a terminal condition ought to be prioritised for receiving the vaccine. I throw that in, because it is important at this point, when we are talking about concerns about the vaccine, to say that there are also concerns about groups who feel they may be excluded from being prioritised, which is very important.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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The hon. Lady has outlined a concern on behalf of those who have terminal illnesses. The families want to enjoy that bit of time with their loved one as well. We can never ignore their feelings and input into this, either.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson
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Yes. I would expect and hope that anybody whose immune system was compromised would be prioritised in the roll-out. That is important, because those people have to be able to enjoy whatever time they have.

There is a minority—I believe it is a minority—of people who are concerned about the vaccine’s safety and/or efficacy. As we have heard, there is a job to do in convincing them that the vaccine is safe—that the vaccine is the work of top scientists and experts in the field and is as safe as the vaccinations that they have had and that have been administered, with their consent, to their own children when they were but babes in arms. Yes, we have a vaccine for covid-19 that has been delivered at breath-taking speed in scientific terms. However, that should not be a cause for concern or alarm; it should be a cause of pride. It should be the cause of a great sense of achievement that wonderful scientists and dedicated teams have worked flat-out to deliver this vaccine, and have rigorously tested it by undertaking mass trials with thousands of human volunteers to ensure that the vaccine is safe and effective.

The higher prevalence of covid-19 in the population, compared with other viruses against which vaccines have been developed, has led to a much faster rate of infection in respect of test/control groups, meaning that conclusions about efficiency were faster. In addition, the funding for this vaccine has enabled its rapid development, as there has been no delay due to financial considerations. Add to that the advances in technology to enable the mass manufacturing of huge quantities of the vaccine, alongside a global effort involving almost every scientific research institute, global health organisation and country, bringing together global, state and private power, as opposed to relying on a handful of scientists working for a small number of private companies. If we take all of that into account, we can appreciate how this vaccine has been delivered in record time. That is the message and information that need to be relayed again and again, to allay the fears of those who are concerned about the safety and/or efficacy of the vaccine. However, that may not always be easy, with disinformation and conspiracy theories thriving on the internet. I had no idea there were so many self-styled experts without any medical or scientific expertise expounding their view that the vaccine is not safe, but that is not surprising, given that they are probably the same people who, throughout this entire pandemic, have been perpetuating the myth that the covid-19 virus is some fictional, mythical dark conspiracy. We know that those who expound these bizarre theories are in the minority, but they manage to reach and even convince some people, and they frighten people. As such, the job for every Government and for all of us is to expound the positives of this game-changing vaccine, which will allow us to resume some kind of normality and save lives.

The roll-out of this vaccine is a good-news story: in fact, it is the best news story this year, if not this decade. It is a story that should be told with joy, pride and relief. We all have a duty to tell this story in our own way, and I know the Minister will be very keen to share in the telling of that story. Vaccines have protected us from birth to old age, and have saved countless lives. They are nothing short of a medical and scientific wonder, so I hope and believe that as this vaccine is rolled out, we will all be reminded of that fact, and the overwhelming majority of us will avail ourselves of this vaccine, which could save our lives.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris (Nottingham North) (Lab/Co-op)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship in this debate, Sir David. Over 300,000 people have signed the e-petition that we are debating, which shows the strength of feeling on this matter, and I am very grateful to the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) for his leadership of this debate and for having taken it on on behalf of the Petitions Committee. It was the anniversary of his election to this place a couple of days ago, and he has made a significant impact over that year, although he will forgive me if I do not look back on that date with quite the same level of enthusiasm as he might. However, I thought he made an outstanding case about how detailed the process of a vaccine coming from conception to usage is. I hope those who are listening will have taken that on face-value terms, because it should give us all a lot of comfort.

Similarly, the word that I double-underlined was “marvel”. We should marvel at vaccination, and we should also marvel at the role of Britain in vaccination: whether in 1796, 1996 or 2020, and whether that is brilliant British scientists or enlightened British Governments of all persuasions. The thing I particularly reflect on is Britain’s role in vaccinations around the world, through the Global Vaccine Alliance and through our own bilateral aid arrangements. Hundreds and hundreds of thousands of deaths have been prevented because of our role in the process of vaccinations, and we should take a lot of pride in that. It is a real British success.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon)—we are a bit warmer than we were in this Chamber together last Thursday—made a poignant contribution, with a reminder about loss. We can sometimes get wrapped up in the figures behind all this, but each one of the people whom we have lost this year is a person with a family and a story. His contribution was also very poignant when it came to the vagaries and variances in all of our experiences, as well as the range of vaccines, a point that was also made by the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). I hope that the 300,000 people who signed this e-petition, or those who choose to listen to this debate, will understand this vaccine as part of all vaccines, rather than anything distinct or different. Although it is the story of the day, it fits very much within the suite of things we think collectively are good for people, and it has gone through all the tests that have been described. I hope, again, that is something people will take comfort from.

I was very pleased to see the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) in this debate. As the hon. Member for Strangford said, I always follow his contributions closely. Before becoming the shadow public health Minister, I was an Opposition Whip—I do not know what I had done, but I was an Opposition Whip for some time—and the major upside of that role, if there is one, is that Members get to sit in the Chamber and hear from colleagues of all persuasions—ones whose contributions they might not otherwise look out for. They hear about Southend being a city—I have never been there, and the only thing I think about with Southend, Sir David, is you talking about city status.

The hon. Member for Wycombe made what I think was my favourite speech this year, certainly from the Government Benches, on 30 January—I do not remember the date of everyone’s speeches; I have a good memory, but it is not that good. It was the day before we left the European Union, and the hon. Gentleman made a speech in the general debate on global Britain. I have to say, I thought the scheduling of that debate was difficult, because feelings were very strong and running very high. Some people were in Parliament Square celebrating; others were at home, commiserating. The hon. Member made a very important speech about the need for victors to be gracious and for the vanquished to look forward. I think that everybody could take something from that. I am not sure, 11 months on, whether we are quite there yet, but I hope so, and I think that we all, as leaders, have a role to take on.

Steve Baker Portrait Mr Baker
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I am honoured by the hon. Member’s words, and am very grateful.

Alex Norris Portrait Alex Norris
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I have not finished yet. The hon. Member concluded his speech that day with lots of references to Ronald Reagan, which sent me down a reading rabbit hole that I have not yet finished. I still cannot get the attraction, but the merits of Reagan are perhaps a debate for another day. However, I thought the hon. Member made a very strong case on both the pragmatic and the moral arguments. I will come back to some of the implied coercion points that he made.

I welcome the Minister to his place. This is certainly the first time I have opposed him. We all enjoyed William Shakespeare being one of the first to get the vaccine, but no one made the Stratford connection to him as Minister. I thought that was a missed opportunity. I will make a few points, and hopefully draw him out on a couple of them. We know that many basic freedoms have been curtailed over the last year, and we all want that to end as soon as possible. We know that there is a strong desire for things to get back to normal, but these significant measures and restrictions on freedom are necessary, and we have seen yet another reminder of that today.

Vaccines are the most effective public health intervention, either in relation to coronavirus or health in general, so the progress that has been made should cheer us. It is therefore important that a significant proportion of people take up the vaccination, especially those with the greatest vulnerabilities. The last time we debated the covid-19 vaccine in this place was just over a month ago. It was the day after the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine had achieved success in phase 3 studies. Similarly, since then both the Moderna candidate and the University of Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine have achieved similar success.

That is a remarkable story in terms of time. We saw wonderful pictures of people receiving their first dose last week, and I understand that this week the vaccination programme is being extended to GP surgeries. It has been a whirlwind month, and I commend the Government for what they have achieved. It is no small feat, and I know that the Minister will take my attempts to seek clarity in that spirit. I am not seeking to throw rocks at the success, but we want some answers.

I am particularly keen to know the Minister’s assessment of the take-up required for the programme to be effective. I submitted a written question on that and received a holding answer, but he might indulge me today. If the Government are not keen to be drawn on what the figure is, which I can understand, perhaps he could explain why they do not think sharing it is helpful. In my head, I would have a totaliser. When we are fixing the community centre roof, and we need to raise money, we colour it in every time we receive another hundred pounds, but that might well not be the right approach, and I would be keen to know why.

The vaccine is one thing; a vaccination programme is another. We have rightly been very critical of the big logistical challenges for the Government both in the roll-out of personal protective equipment and the implementation of test and trace. We cannot afford a situation where vaccines complete the set. I recognise that the early signs have been positive, but I wish to pick up on a couple of bits. We have been made aware of some care-home and hospital staff being at risk of missing out due to requirements of the IT system. Have those loopholes been closed yet? Has that been clarified?

Similarly, GPs have raised concerns with us about the new rules being brought in late in the day, so that vaccinations will take twice as long, as patients need to be observed for 15 minutes. Again, that might be on very good public health grounds, but I am keen to know from the Minister what they are. We know that general practice per designated site has to deliver at least 975 vaccinations over a seven-day period. I did not receive a convincing answer when I raised this last month with my opposite number, the Minister for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care, but what is the assessed impact on other GP services and how will we ensure that practices can meet their normal case load? I would be very keen to hear those points addressed.

Turning to the substance of what these 300,000 people have asked us to discuss, at the root it is about vaccine hesitancy. It is very easy to talk about the anti-vax elements. I am glad that colleagues have not majored on that, because to an extent that is a straw man. Multiple hon. Members made contributions about just how thin the basis for those conspiracy theories or anti-vax sentiments are. We could spend all day deconstructing them and never lose the argument, but that concerns only a very small proportion of the British people.

We know from polling, and from our constituency mailbags, that those people are a very small group indeed. There is a much more significant and noticeable chunk of people—though far from a majority—who are vaccine-hesitant, and entirely reasonably. Some might simply not want to have it, as the hon. Member for Wycombe said, and we ought to respect that. Others might not want to do so because of safety concerns—something I have heard from lots of constituents. They want to know that any vaccination, be it for covid-19 or anything else, is safe, so we as political leaders have a really important role in giving constituents the confidence that they seek. That will hopefully come from people observing the debate, and from our public engagements in general.

I know people will be watching this debate. I do not always think that about the debates we have; I suspect my 30-minute Adjournment debates do not pull in the big numbers. My message to people watching is that if they are unconvinced by what we are saying, which is perfectly reasonable, they should ask, ask, ask. If they get a question answered and are still not happy, they should ask the next one. I would certainly say that to my constituents. We will seek to get them information through all the available channels, if that is what it takes for them to feel confident about receiving the vaccine.

I agree with a number of hon. Members that the sentiment of the petition slightly misses where we are at the moment. There is a pretty broad political consensus against compulsion, coercion or inconveniencing people into submission. I know what our position is as the Opposition, but no one studies what the Government say more closely than we do, and I have never detected a desire for mandatory vaccination in what they are saying. We all want to have confidence, and to know that the roll-out has been done through the proper process, rather than in any other way, and like other hon. Members who have spoken, I hope that business will take the same view. The Government might have a role in that, and I would be interested to know the Minister’s reflections on the contribution from the hon. Member for Wycombe. I would say gently to businesses that compulsory vaccination will almost certainly not do what they want it to do. It is therefore important to take some time and have a cool head on this issue.

People’s unwillingness to take the covid-19 vaccine has a knock-on effect on vaccine hesitancy more generally. In fact, this is probably the FA cup final of vaccine hesitancy. Last year, vaccine hesitancy was in the World Health Organisation’s top 10 threats to global health—it was up there with a future pandemic. It is something that we have to address, whether it is related to covid-19 or not. In Denmark in 2013, false claims in a documentary about the human papillomavirus vaccine led to a decline in uptake of around 90% among some cohorts. Similarly, between 2014 and 2017 in Ireland, vocal attacks on the HPV vaccine from the anti-vaccine lobby led to a drop in uptake from 70% to 50%. These things matter.

What we see through those developments, and through our experiences in this country, is that the best method of countering those views is through proactive, positive health-promoting campaigns. I know that is something the Government are doing, and it is very welcome—we will support them in that. It is almost certainly too early to have enough data to be able to talk about the efficiency of such things, but we want the Government to keep pushing hard on this issue. That is what our constituents want us to do—to explain and, as I say, make ourselves available to answer any questions that they have.

We have had an extraordinary year fighting the virus. There is now clearly a path for us to take—a light at the end of the tunnel, or however people want to characterise it. We need to pursue it with the same vigour with which we attacked the previous year. If we do, we might just get out of this thing.

Nadhim Zahawi Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Nadhim Zahawi)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Elliot Colburn) on his leadership of this important debate on e-petition 323442. Over 300,000 people have signed the petition, including 641 in his constituency.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for his very moving speech, and I am deeply saddened by the loss of his mother-in-law and the infection of his wife, other family members and friends. As the shadow Minister rightly pointed out, the hon. Member for Strangford brought home that each and every statistic is a person, with a family and people who love them very much.

I will hopefully address the excellent—as always—speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). I am grateful to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) both for her excellent speech and for her clear confirmation that neither the Scottish Government nor the United Kingdom Government will mandate vaccination at all. I congratulate her chief medical officer, as well as the chief medical officers in Northern Ireland and Wales, who worked together so that we could all start to vaccinate on the same day, last Tuesday. I am grateful, Sir David, for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the Government this evening.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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We in Northern Ireland were first.

Nadhim Zahawi Portrait Nadhim Zahawi
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I hear the hon. Gentleman; Northern Ireland was first by a few minutes.

Last week was a most important week across the United Kingdom, because we began vaccinating people against covid-19, and that, I hope, has started to turn the tide on this virus. The pandemic has forced the Government and our devolved Administrations to take steps that are truly unprecedented in peacetime. They are steps that no democratic Government would wish to take unless they were absolutely necessary. At each point in the pandemic, every decision we have taken has been with the utmost consideration for its impact on our personal freedoms. As hon. Members have brilliantly highlighted this evening, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe rightly reminded us, the petition that we are debating is a matter of great legal and ethical complexity.

Before I address some of those complexities, I will set out the facts. First, there are currently no plans to place restrictions on those who refuse to have a covid vaccination. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington reminded us, we have no plans to introduce so-called vaccine passporting. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe was slightly nervous about that, quite rightly, as when I did my first interview about the issue—with the BBC, I think—I was asked about some of the technological challenges and I may have mis-spoken. I was grateful to The Spectator and TalkRadio, which allowed me to explain myself.

Mandating vaccinations is discriminatory and completely wrong, and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe and others, I urge businesses listening to this debate to not even think about that. I will explain in further detail why that is the wrong thing to do. I put on record my thanks to Professor Karol Sikora, who has many hundreds of thousands of followers, who quoted me and said I eloquently dealt with the issue. We have absolutely no plans for vaccine passporting.

Secondly, cards that were issued after people got their first covid-19 vaccination have been mentioned on social media. Among other details, they contain the date of their second vaccination. That record does not constitute a so-called vaccine passport. It does mean anyone is immune. As we know, the vaccine is given as two injections, 21 days apart. The second dose is the booster dose. I am sure hon. Members will forgive me for repeating the message that patients must return as instructed for their second dose. Without the second dose, the vaccine will not be effective. That is a really important message, and I am grateful to all hon. Members who are repeating that to their constituents.

Thirdly, on completion of both vaccinations, patients will be issued with a vaccine record card, much as they are for other vaccination programmes, so there is nothing different in the way we are dealing with this vaccine. Again, that does not constitute a so-called vaccine passport; nor can it be used as a form of identification. That would be absolutely wrong. Colleagues will appreciate that the careful and accurate recording of vaccination status is an important part of a public health effort. It supports patient safety during probably the largest and most challenging vaccination programme in British history.

Fourthly, in addressing the many who signed the petition, I want to underline one key fact, which we have heard over and over again from hon. Members: vaccines work. It is really important that we send that message from this place. After clean water, they are the single greatest public health tool in the history of mankind. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington reminded us of Edward Jenner. It fills me with great joy that the Jenner Institute was one of the first to stand up and say, “We can do this.” I hope that, after a rigorous study by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine will be in place as soon as approval comes through. Obviously it is up to the regulator to deliver that.

Vaccines, as we have heard, have ended untold suffering for millions, if not billions, of people around the world. When our turn comes and our GP gets in touch, we all have a duty to heed that call. It is how we will be able to protect ourselves and the people around us—our friends and family, the people we love. Months of trials, involving thousands of people, have shown that the vaccines we are using are effective. They work. In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington, they have been tested on between 15,000 and 50,000 people. There were no shortcuts or quick fixes by the MHRA; it has followed exactly the same process as usual. The difference is that instead of waiting for phase 1 to finish before doing phase 2, and then phase 3, the studies were in parallel; hence we were able to develop the vaccines rapidly.

Fifthly, and equally importantly, each covid vaccine will be authorised only, as I have said, once it has met robust standards of effectiveness, safety and quality. As we have heard, vaccines authorised by our independent regulator, the MHRA, will be assessed for clinical safety and effectiveness through a robust review. The vaccine is free to everyone eligible across the UK. There is really no excuse for someone not to take it when their turn comes.

Sixthly, although we know the vaccine protects individuals, we do not yet know its precise impact on onward transmission. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe made that point brilliantly himself, and by quoting the Secretary of State. In answer to the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), we will not know where the point is that he mentioned until we scale up the vaccinations. We will continue to monitor the impact on transmission through the Test and Trace system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe said, we do know that the vaccine protects people, which is the important thing. That is why I encourage everyone to read, read and read again—or to ask, ask and ask again, to quote the hon. Member for Nottingham North.

The full impact on infection rates will not become clear until we get to those large numbers, so we are monitoring that carefully. Hon. Members will understand that without our knowing that, it would be irresponsible for anyone to declare that they are immune. The Qantas question is therefore completely wrong, because it is impossible for anyone to say that. The science does not yet support that conclusion. Even if people are vaccinated, they must continue to follow the rules where they are, and keep taking the common-sense steps that are now so familiar to us—washing our hands, covering our face and making space.

Hon. Members have raised many questions about the World Health Organisation and the required international response. The United Kingdom Government have led the way. We could do even more. Next year, the UK will take up the presidency of the G7, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North mentioned; we will need to deal with anti-vaxxers nationally and internationally. We look forward to working with many nations on that challenge.

I will turn to some of the hon. Gentleman’s other questions. On GPs and the additional 15 minutes, that was the further guidance from the MHRA after two cases in which people with a history of severe allergies had an allergic reaction to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. That is why there was a change to the process. On the roll-out today to primary care networks and the question about caseloads, it is brilliant that GPs have come together with primary care networks. For example, in an area of 50,000 people and five practices, they have come together and agreed that one would lead on the vaccination while the other four continued to support the community and deal with caseloads. On his question about care home staff who continue to be prioritised, I am happy to take that offline with him if he has a particular case or details.

The petition that we have debated is of profound importance. I urge anyone who is considering refusing a covid-19 vaccination to ask and ask again. Not only is the vaccine effective and proven to be clinically safe, but the quicker we are able to vaccinate people, the quicker we can bring forward the date when we can begin to lift the oppressive restrictions that were put in place with a truly heavy heart. I came from a world of entrepreneurialism, of unleashing people’s ingenuity, energy and passion. I did not enter politics to restrict people’s freedoms, which I profoundly believe in. In the meantime, we all have our part to play. We must continue to respect the rules to ensure that the efforts succeed and can be our shared success, so that we can all have a more joyous 2021. If I do my job properly, we will all be back in this Chamber celebrating, I hope, without the restrictions that we have today.

Elliot Colburn Portrait Elliot Colburn
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I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for taking part in this e-petitions debate. The shadow Public Health Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham North (Alex Norris), is right: people are watching. For Members who are interested, Petitions Committee debates attract higher ratings on average than even Prime Minister’s questions, so it is worth taking part.

To reiterate the main points that we have covered in today’s debate, the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson) spoke of the privileged position that we are in today to be talking about a vaccine, and I could not agree more. It is excellent news at the end of an incredibly difficult year. The shadow Public Health Minister spoke about the pride that we should take in the UK’s history and involvement in vaccines, beginning with Edward Jenner in 1796, and going right up to now, with our contribution to Gavi.

I thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for reminding us of the very human cost of the virus. The shadow Minister and the Minister are right: behind every statistic there is a real person and a real family torn apart by the virus. We must remember that as we make decisions on how best to tackle it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) put the case for the petitioners very well indeed. We do not want, and will not see, as the Minister has confirmed, restrictions put in place, certainly not mandated by the UK Government—or indeed the Scottish Government, as the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran has confirmed. I hope that businesses and other organisations are watching and hearing that message. To repeat what we have all said, I urge everyone to get the vaccine when their time comes. They should ask questions if they have concerns, and should listen to the people who have the knowledge. Let us beat this thing and get back to normal.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered e-petition 323442, relating to vaccination for Covid-19.

Sitting adjourned.