Covid-19: Business

Tuesday 12th May 2020

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Alok Sharma Portrait The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Alok Sharma) - Hansard
12 May 2020, 12:05 a.m.

I would like to update the House on the Government’s new covid-19-secure workplace guidance. On 23 March, the Government announced lockdown measures and required certain businesses and venues to close. Our message to workers was that if you can work from home, you should work from home, and millions did. At the same time, the Government provided guidance on how those who could not do their work from home could continue to operate as safely as possible in workplaces that were not required to be closed. I want to thank the many workers in distribution centres, supermarkets, transport, construction and manufacturing across the country who have been playing their part in keeping Britain moving. I hope that the whole House recognises the constructive spirit in which employers have worked with their workers to follow this guidance.

The Prime Minister yesterday set out steps to beat the virus and restart the economy, so that we can protect jobs, restore people’s livelihoods and fund the country’s vital public services. To support this, we have published new covid-19-secure guidelines, available to UK employers across eight settings that are allowed to be open, from outdoor environments and construction sites to factories and takeaways. This also includes guidance for shops that we believe may be in a position to begin a phased reopening, at the earliest, from 1 June. The Government have consulted approximately 250 stakeholders in preparing the guidance. It has been developed with input from firms, unions, industry bodies and the devolved Administrations. We have worked with Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive to develop best practice on the safest ways of working across the economy.

As we return to work, the Government want to give employers and workers confidence that their workplaces will be safe for them to return to, because we recognise that this is an anxious time for many. We recognise that workers want to know that their employer has taken every step to ensure a safe workplace, and we recognise that employers who take steps to keep workers safe want to know that they are doing the right thing. I believe that we have reached a consensus in doing that, and I am encouraged that businesses, representative groups, workers and trade unions can get behind this guidance.

The guidance has five key points at its heart. First, people should work from home if they can. Employers should continue to take all reasonable steps to help people work from home. For those who cannot work from home and whose workplace has not been told to close, our message is clear: they should go to work. Staff should speak to their employer about when their workplace will open.

Secondly, social distancing should be maintained in the workplace wherever possible. Employers should redesign workspaces to maintain 2-metre distances between people, stagger start times, create one-way walk-throughs, open more entrances and exits, or change seating layouts in break rooms. Thirdly, where people cannot be 2 metres apart, the transmission risk should be managed. Employers should ensure that every step is taken to reduce the risk when people cannot maintain 2-metre distancing. This can include putting up barriers or screens in shared spaces, creating fixed teams of partnering to minimise the number of people in contact with one another, or keeping the activity time involved as short as possible.

Fourthly, cleaning processes should be reinforced in line with the guidance. Employers should frequently clean work areas and equipment between uses to reduce transmission, provide hand sanitiser and washing stations, and pay attention to high-contact objects like workstations, door handles and keyboards.

Fifthly, a covid-19 risk assessment must be carried out, in consultation with workers or trade unions. In line with the current health and safety law, all employers must carry out a covid-19 risk assessment. They should identify risks that covid-19 creates and use the guidance published to take measures to mitigate these risks. Employers should share the results of their risk assessment with their workforce. A downloadable notice is included in the documents that employers should display in their workplaces to show their employees, customers and other visitors that they have followed the guidance. They should also consider publishing the results on their website, and we expect all employers with over 50 workers to do so.

The aim of this approach is for employers to create a collaborative working environment, building confidence and trust between employers and workers. I think the House will recognise that this is already the case across the UK, because the UK has a proud record as a leader in health and safety in the workplace. Our guidance operates within current health and safety, employment and equalities legislation, which is some of the strongest in the world, and we will continue with this approach. We will work closely with the Health and Safety Executive, which has the resources it needs to meet current demand, but of course we want to ensure that this remains the case during the covid-19 pandemic as people return to work. So the Government are making up to an extra £14 million available for the HSE, equivalent to a 10% increase in its budget. This extra money will provide resource for additional call centre staff, inspectors and equipment if needed. In many cases, this will meet the demands of employers and employees who would like further information on how to ensure that workplaces are safe. For the extremely small minority of businesses that do not follow the rules, the HSE and local authorities will not hesitate in using their powers, including enforcement notices, to secure improvements.

The measures I have set out in respect of social distancing and cleaning are the best ways to manage the risk of transmitting covid-19. Based on the scientific evidence, the use of PPE in the workplace is not recommended by the Government except in clinical settings and a handful of other roles stipulated by Public Health England. Of course, if a worker currently uses PPE to protect against other hazards, such a dust in an industrial setting, they must continue to use it. Workers have the option to use face coverings, which are simple cloth coverings. There are some circumstances in which wearing a face covering may be marginally beneficial as a precautionary measure. The evidence suggests that wearing a face covering does not protect you but may protect others if you are infected but have not developed symptoms. Wearing a face covering is not required by law in the workplace. If workers do choose to wear one, they should follow the workplace guidance on how to use it.

We have been guided by the scientific advice in establishing this position. Today, we provide a framework for how employers can keep workers safe in the workplace. This additional support and clarity, combined with more resource for the HSE, can give employers and workers the confidence they need to return to work safely. As we reopen new sectors of the economy, we will continue our collaborative approach when providing guidance for additional workplaces, meaning that we can provide a clear and safe route back to work for millions. I commend this statement to the House.

Mr Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans) - Hansard

I call Edward Miliband, with a time limit of five minutes.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab) - Hansard
12 May 2020, 12:04 a.m.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and add my thanks to all the workers and businesses that have kept our country going during these past few weeks? I say to him that we do not underestimate the challenges of lifting lockdown in certain parts of the economy. We agree that it is in all our interests for it to happen if it can be done safely, and that there are difficult decisions confronting Government, businesses and workers, who have to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances. I also want to welcome a number of steps forward in the guidance published last night, which he has talked about in his statement. They do represent progress from previous proposals, and I also welcome the tone of his statement.

However, I also say to the Secretary of State that what really matters to workers and businesses in these highly sensitive and difficult matters is proceeding in an orderly and judicious way. The confusion and mixed messages of the past 48 hours have been ill-advised and avoidable. Let me ask him six specific questions. First, on the impact of the Government’s change of emphasis on going back to work in phase 1, Ministers say that the reproduction rate of the disease—the R number—is currently between 0.5 and 0.9. How many extra people does he expect to go back to work as a result of the Government’s change of emphasis? What is the scientific advice about the impact on the R number?

Secondly, we are being told that in our daily lives, outside our places of work, that we must not come within 2 metres of those from other households, for reasons I understand. I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said, but for workplaces the overview document he has published asks for an observance of 2-metre distancing only “wherever possible”. If it is not possible, the only requirement is that employers should “look into” various mitigation measures. I understand that in some workplaces 2-metre distancing may not be possible, but can he explain why there is no requirement for mitigation if social distancing cannot be observed?

Thirdly, on enforcement, the challenge is, as the Secretary of State said, not the vast majority of employers, who want to do the right thing, but the small minority who do not. I welcome £14 million more for the HSE budget, but it is a drop in the ocean compared with the £100 million of cuts over the past decade. Given the challenges of enforcement, will he discuss with the trade unions how their tens of thousands of health and safety reps could player a bigger and, I believe, constructive role in ensuring covid-19 compliance, including in non-unionised work- places?

Fourthly, can the Business Secretary now provide an answer for parents who are being asked to go back to work tomorrow but are not deemed “essential” workers and therefore have nobody to look after their children, because they cannot send them to school or nursery? What are parents in those circumstances supposed to do?

Fifthly, can the Secretary of State clarify the position on the 2.5 million workers who are deemed clinically extremely vulnerable and are advised to shield at home until at least the end of June?

Currently, they have no automatic right to be furloughed and many have felt pressured to keep working. As workplaces reopen, the pressure will become greater. To protect their health and provide clarity, would it not make sense to place an obligation on employers to furlough these individuals if they cannot work from home?

The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said at the press conference last night that the reopening of workplaces was dependent on whether they can be made safe for work. Can the Secretary of State confirm that workplaces that are not safe should not reopen tomorrow and that, by law, workers who have a reasonable belief that they will be in danger do not have to be at work?

Finally, the Secretary of State will know that it is the highest paid workers who will generally carry on being able to work from home and lower paid workers who are being asked to go back to work. We also know from yesterday’s figures from the Office for National Statistics that, among men, construction workers have so far been more than twice as likely to die from covid-19 as the average member of the population. I know the Secretary of State will agree that working people are being asked to go back to work to help us all. Whatever the economic pressures, their health must be protected. They deserve to be safe. That is what the Government must take every action to ensure.

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
12 May 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I also thank him for the very constructive discussions that we have had, particularly last Friday, on a range of issues. He wrote to me yesterday on the issue of safer working and I hope he has received my response. I also want to thank him for the acknowledgement that what we have put out represents progress. I think there is consensus across businesses and trade unions for what we have sought to provide.

The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues, which I will try to address. His first question was about the R number and the numbers of people potentially going back to work. We have been very clear that we want to ensure that people are safe in the workplace and, at the end of the day, that we are saving lives. That is why we produced the guidance, which has been put together with the HSE and Public Health England. We are also very clear that people who can work from home should continue to work from home.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the fact that there was some confusion. The Prime Minister made reference to the manufacturing sector and the construction sector; those sectors are already open. Millions of people are already going to work and their employers are doing everything they can to keep them safe.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about how employees can feel safe in the workplace. We have had this discussion previously. We know for a fact that many employers are already open, and they are working incredibly constructively with their trade unions. When I held my stakeholder calls as part of preparing the guidance, that was abundantly clear.

He talked about enforcement. I am pleased that he welcomes the extra money for the HSE; we need to make sure that we provide support if it is needed. I want to be very clear that the HSE is able to do spot checks and to be proactive. We ultimately want to make sure that if employees feel unsafe in a work environment, they are able to get in touch with the HSE or with their local authority.

He asked about parents and made a very reasonable point about schools. The Prime Minister set out the timetable for that. Again, it is a question of employers and employees working flexibly together. That is already happening in the workplace. I would say to all employers that they should look to see what they can do to support their workers to continue to work from home if that is at all possible.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman raised a point about reopening, whether it is safe to open workplaces, and what to do about workplaces that are not safe. He is absolutely right. People should not have to feel that they are going into an unsafe work environment; frankly, from my experience, that is not what employers want either. We absolutely need our workers to feel safe. If they feel unsafe, they can get in touch with the HSE and with local authorities. I would say to all employers to please do absolutely everything you can, because it is in all our interests that the economy gets going again.

Robbie Moore Portrait Robbie Moore (Keighley) (Con) [V] - Hansard

Across Keighley, we have some fantastic manufacturing, engineering and technology-based businesses, whose employees are doing their utmost to ensure that the new guidance is adhered to. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is crucial, as we move to the next phase of tackling this virus, that the needs of businesses—especially small businesses, which are the beating heart of Keighley—are taken into account? Can he confirm that the recently issued guidance applies to them, so that they are best placed to kick-start productivity and reignite their service offering?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

My hon. Friend is a strong voice for Keighley businesses. Of course this guidance applies to all businesses. The Federation of Small Businesses, which has been part of helping us to prepare the guidance, has welcomed it, particularly for small companies. My hon. Friend should continue the engagement he is doing with businesses, encourage them to look at the guidance and encourage them to get back to work.

Drew Hendry Portrait Drew Hendry (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (SNP) [V] - Hansard
12 May 2020, 12:03 a.m.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Given that the Prime Minister previously attacked what he called the “health and safety fetish” as “madness”, and in 2009 said public warnings were “for the extremely stupid”, the fact that this Government are stressing the need for health and safety must be welcomed. However, it is important to give the utmost clarity.

I know that is what the Secretary of State will like to think he has done, but his advice is addressed to UK employers. Will he acknowledge, in the spirit of clarity, that his advice is for England only? The advice in the other nations of the UK remains to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives. Lives are at stake. We must have complete clarity. Shops in Scotland are not scheduled for phased reopening from 1 June. Will he make that clear? His five-point plan does not apply at this time in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Will he make that clear?

We welcome the measures announced today to transition the furlough scheme, because business and people would be harmed by a cold restart without protection. However, before any reductions in furlough or rates of support start, we first need to fill the gaps for those left behind: those who had a contract or letter of employment by 29 March but whose employers have not logged into Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, those agency workers who are not included, staff whose pay is combined with commission, and the forgotten but vital summer seasonal workers. Will the Secretary of State make the case for those workers, or are they still to be left behind?

Finally, the Secretary of State has made great play—I quote from his statement—of

“Building a consensus and confidence when moving forward”.

Will he take that message back to the Cabinet and the Prime Minister, and extend it to the leaders of the devolved nations? His Government have consistently updated Fleet Street before this House, and even before the First Ministers of the devolved nations.

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his questions and his remarks. First, he talked about the Health and Safety Executive. We are of course providing more support. It is able at this stage to progress with the funding and support it has from the Government, but we have provided an extra £14 million in case it needs it. The UK has a proud record as a world leader on health and safety in the workplace. If he compares our statistics with those in many other countries in Europe, for example, he will see that we have a very good record.

The hon. Gentleman asked who this guidance is for. This guidance is to help all employers in the United Kingdom—employers, employees and the self-employed. I also say to him—[Interruption.] He is shaking his head, but let me come to the point that he wants me to make. In terms of the 250 stakeholders we engaged with, 70% of those businesses operate across the UK. However, in the guidance, we make it very clear that public health is devolved in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and we talk about the guidance being considered alongside local public health and safety requirements and legislation.

My final point is about consensus. We have been driven, throughout this process, through consensus. I have had very good discussions with my counterparts in the devolved nations, and we will continue to do that. The Prime Minister has been doing that, and we will continue to do that as a Government. At the end of the day, we all have to come together to get out of this and get our economy to bounce back.

Andrew Percy Portrait Andrew Percy (Brigg and Goole) (Con) [V] - Hansard

As welcome as this advice is, many workers will not be able to return to work and will remain at home on 80% of their pay. In my right hon. Friend’s role as consumer rights Minister, can he say something about the financial burdens being put on my constituents and on workers across the country by rip-off travel companies that are refusing to refund constituents for their holidays or flights? Be it Hoseasons, Virgin, British Airways, Ryanair or Tui, my constituents are getting ripped off, so will he run a campaign publicly to inform consumers about their rights to refunds?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

My hon. Friend raises an important point. May I first thank him for the great work he is doing in the ambulance service as a community first responder, which I know is making a real difference in his community? He talks about consumer rights. The law is very clear, and it is there to protect consumers. Refunds should be issued within 14 days. However, he also knows that the sectors he is talking about are facing their own challenges. I am continuing to have discussions on this issue with my counterparts in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. He will also know that the Competition and Markets Authority has set up a covid-19 taskforce for consumers seeking refunds, and we continue to have a dialogue with it.

Darren Jones Portrait Darren Jones (Bristol North West) (Lab) [V] - Hansard

I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement. The whole House will know that businesses will want to do the right thing in implementing the covid-19-secure guidelines, but we also know that many businesses, especially SMEs, have struggled to buy the required kit on the open market and that many workers feel under pressure to go to work when they do not feel safe to do so. Can the Secretary of State confirm what support the Government will give to businesses to ensure that they have access to the covid-19-secure codes they need for their workplaces and set out how workers will be supported, perhaps by ACAS, in dealing with potential workplace disputes linked to this issue?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election as Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and I look forward to further interactions in the future. He raises a point about the support available for businesses. The Chancellor spoke earlier, and he set out an extension to the job retention scheme. He has also made available loans and grants, so there is a lot of support out there. On the point about ACAS, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Where employees feel that they have an issue they are not able to resolve, they absolutely should go to ACAS.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con) [V] - Hansard

I am sure we all welcome the reduction in the prevalence of the virus in the general population, but we also know that we are not going to beat this thing in weeks; it will take us months. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on everyone—individuals and businesses alike—to stay alert and to follow the rules, so that we can keep the very important R rate down?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The message is very clear on staying alert. It is about keeping the R rate down. That is the only way in which we can proceed—with baby steps, rather than giant strides—and make sure that we are keeping safe and preserving lives, but at the same time doing all we can to open up the economy further.

Catherine McKinnell Portrait Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab) [V] - Hansard

Aviation is one of the industries worst hit by this crisis, and it will be some time still before those affected are able to return to work. The Government have also announced new quarantine measures, but with no detail about how they are going to work. In the north-east, we rely on Newcastle International airport as key to our regional economic growth, and we need certainty from Government on the way forward. The extension of the job retention scheme to October is welcome, but will the Government work urgently with aviation to plan a way through the quarantine measures and provide further support, such as business rates relief, for this crucial sector?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

The hon. Lady of course raises an important point. First, may I thank her for acknowledging the welcome extension that the Chancellor has set out for the job retention scheme? She will also know that the Government have put in place a range of other measures to support businesses large and small. There is a corporate finance facility and the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme run through the British Business Bank. When it comes to the aviation sector, we are of course continuing to have discussions with it, as we do with other sectors, but I would say to her that the primary intention is to provide a broad set of support that everyone across the economy can get access to.

Steve Brine Portrait Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con) - Hansard

As the Business Secretary will be aware, these are challenging times for commercial landlords, a group that includes many charities. They have increased costs at the moment, which have been compounded by a fall in their fundraising, and at the same time are facing increased challenges with the collection of rent from their commercial tenants. I am not asking my right hon. Friend about the package of support for charities, but what is the Government’s message to commercial landlords who have tenants in receipt of rate relief and various linked grants as a result but who cannot collect rent or even a contribution of the rent due?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the challenges facing commercial and other landlords. I recognise that many landlords are working closely with their tenants and following best practice, and we are closely monitoring the three-month moratorium on rents. As I said, the CLBIL and CBIL schemes are available for landlords, and people are taking advantage of them in some numbers.

Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab) [V] - Hansard

How do the Government intend to ensure that the shielded group of people and their household members do not face an impossible choice between returning to work and breaching public health advice? Will the Secretary of State advise employers to use the job retention scheme for this group when needed?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

Our guidance makes reference to employers having to consider those who are particularly vulnerable and in those sorts of categories—expectant mothers and so on—and we want them to make sure those people are being taken care of and catered for. None of the equalities legislation has changed; at the end of the day, this is guidance, but overlaid by the current regulatory regime in place across the country.

Edward Timpson Portrait Edward Timpson (Eddisbury) (Con) [V] - Hansard

Businesses in Eddisbury planning on reopening will want to get covid-secure as soon as possible but also as safely as possible, too, especially where, as we just heard, they might interact with the most vulnerable. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that when developing this guidance the vulnerable customers and staff who might come into contact with those businesses are fully taken into account?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Yes, the guidance has been prepared with those individuals in mind. As I have said, we obviously require employers to adhere to existing equalities legislation and are also asking in the guidance for employers to monitor the wellbeing of their employees, particularly those who may be working from home, and to take into account the protection of those who may be at higher risk.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab) - Hansard

The discussion around return to work is very welcome, but in areas such as Cambridge with above-average rateable values, many quite small but vital businesses, such as pubs and restaurants, are really struggling just above the £50k threshold. Much loved cafés such as The Copper Kettle and Benets in King’s Parade and businesses such as the innovative Rainbow Rocket climbing centre all face that problem, so could the Secretary of State remind us how that £50k threshold was arrived at and what would have been the costs and benefits of a different threshold? Would he now consider a higher threshold, particularly for areas with above-average rateable values?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

I understand that the hospitality, leisure and retail sectors face a particular challenge right now. The Prime Minister has set out a road map for how we might get to opening them, but we have to keep a tight grip on the R factor. The hon. Gentleman will know that there is a one-year rates holiday for businesses of all sizes in the sectors he is talking about. I hope that businesses will also take advantage of the loan schemes, particularly the Bounce Back scheme.

Dr Luke Evans Portrait Dr Luke Evans (Bosworth) (Con) [V] - Hansard

Coming out of lockdown, it will be critical to encourage the public to support local small and medium-sized businesses, to help to revitalise the economy not only here in Bosworth but across the country. Will the Secretary of State consider a positive advertising campaign to get the public to back their local businesses?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
12 May 2020, 11:30 a.m.

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. As he knows, we are already running digital campaigns across Government at this particularly vital time. Of course I agree that this is an opportunity for us to back local businesses in the heart of our communities.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP) [V] - Hansard

Protecting jobs and businesses is important, but the Chancellor’s announcement on the covid job retention scheme—[Inaudible.]

Mr Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans) - Hansard

Order. I am terribly sorry, Patricia; there seems to be a fault on the audio. We will see if we can correct it and come back to you. In the meantime, I call Maria Miller.

Mrs Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con) [V] - Hansard
12 May 2020, 11:30 a.m.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for all he has done to help to safeguard jobs during the pandemic. May I ask him to look particularly at the problems still facing some pregnant women who have been contacting organisations such as Working Families and Maternity Action? Will he confirm to businesses that all pregnant women are currently classed as vulnerable, and that if they are unable to work as a result they should be suspended on paid leave or furloughed? Will he consider clarifying the guidance, to help those employers who want to do the right thing?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
12 May 2020, 11:30 a.m.

My right hon. Friend is a champion for the rights of women—indeed, of all individuals—and she raises an important point about pregnant women. The Government guidance is clear that pregnant women can be furloughed, provided that they meet normal eligibility requirements. I would go further and say, as it does in the guidance, that expectant mothers are, as always, entitled to suspension on full pay if a suitable rule cannot be found within the workplace.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) [V] - Hansard

The 14-day quarantine will have a real impact on aviation and tourism. It seems that it will be possible for people to fly into the Republic of Ireland, then cross into Northern Ireland and then to the UK mainland. Indeed, they will also be able to fly into France and take the ferry across to the mainland. This underlines the problems that we have. What impact assessment has been carried out in reference to the connectivity between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland in terms of business and tourism and the impact on airports and airlines? Will the 14-day quarantine be temporary?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
12 May 2020, 11:30 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman, who speaks with huge passion for his community and his area, raises an important issue about quarantine. He will understand the reason that we are looking to do this, and more details will be set out in due course, but I would say to him that businesses that previously felt that people had to be physically in the same place for meetings are now finding new ways of conducting business. Indeed, there are millions of people who are continuing to work from home, even during the pandemic.

Jerome Mayhew Portrait Jerome Mayhew (Broadland) (Con) [V] - Hansard
12 May 2020, 11:30 a.m.

Small and medium-sized enterprises working within the construction and home improvement sectors—plumbers, electricians, window fitters—will welcome the guidance that they can undertake work in customers’ houses subject to sensible precautions. Is it my right hon. Friend’s advice that now is the time for our trades to get back to work, to help the economy to bounce back?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

My hon. Friend has made his point crystal clear. He has talked about a set of workers who are the very backbone of the small business community across all our constituencies. He will also know that the Federation of Master Builders has warmly welcomed the guidance. Yes, absolutely, we want people to get back to work, but to get back to work safely.

Mr Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans) - Hansard
12 May 2020, 12:04 a.m.

We are going to try Patricia Gibson one more time.

Patricia Gibson Portrait Patricia Gibson (North Ayrshire and Arran) (SNP) [V] - Hansard

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Protecting jobs and businesses is important, but the Chancellor’s announcement on the jobs retention scheme—[Inaudible.] Although the scheme has been extended to October, the Government’s contribution to the scheme is to be cut. Can the Secretary of State explain why he thinks it is fair that 200,000 workers have been entirely excluded from the scheme just—[Inaudible.]

Mr Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker - Hansard

Secretary of State, were you able to get anything that you could give a response to?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

I was not able to catch much of what the hon. Lady said, but she will know that the Chancellor just set out his statement. I will commit that if she writes to me or the Chancellor we will, I am sure, provide her with some answers.

Mr Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker - Hansard

I am sorry, Patricia, but we did have real audio and video problems there.

Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD) [V] - Hansard

Many businesses in my constituency offering health services, such as dentists and physiotherapists, have been excluded from other forms of Government support yet are offering absolutely vital services that we will need when the shut- down ends. Does the Minister have any specific guidance for businesses such as these?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

I would not say that businesses have been excluded. Indeed, if we look at the range of what is available in terms of loan schemes it covers the smallest businesses right to the very largest. We are seeing significant take-up particularly of the Bounce Back loan scheme. I made an announcement about the top-up to the local business grant fund scheme that we already have—almost £9 billion has gone out. This is a discretionary fund that is being set up to support businesses as well.

Dr James Davies Portrait Dr James Davies (Vale of Clwyd) (Con) [V] - Hansard

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is looking at how certain tourism and leisure facilities might open safely as and when the covid alert level is low in all parts of the UK?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

I know that my hon. Friend is a champion for businesses in his constituency and he will be concerned for them. The Prime Minister has set out a timeline, but, as he has said, we also have to be cautious about how we proceed. We are currently looking at hospitality opening at some point in July, but that is entirely dependent on making sure that we keep the R factor down. In the meantime, as my hon. Friend knows and has heard from the Chancellor, additional support is being provided.

Mohammad Yasin Portrait Mohammad Yasin (Bedford) (Lab) [V] - Hansard

The future of many small businesses in my constituency of Bedford and Kempston hangs in the balance because owners have been unable to access the Government grants as their business rate classification does not qualify them for it. Local authorities have some discretion, but will the Government issue clearer guidance and have a speedier declassification process to ensure that legitimate businesses do not fall through the net and go to the wall?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

We have put in place the sort of measures that we have precisely because we want to support as many businesses as possible. We want people to be ready, and to be retained in the workplace so that when we get past this pandemic we can bounce back. In an earlier answer, I talked about a discretionary fund to support businesses that local authorities will administer. If the hon. Gentleman writes to me, I will be happy to provide further details.

Sara Britcliffe Portrait Sara Britcliffe (Hyndburn) (Con) [V] - Hansard

I know that my right hon. Friend will join me in thanking all businesses in Hyndburn and Haslingden for their work in responding swiftly and efficiently to the lockdown. Many of them have adapted their services to support those who need it. Can he assure me that the businesses and workers in Hyndburn and Haslingden will be both supported and utilised in the recovery process and that their safety will be paramount in the decisions made?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

I thank my hon. Friend for everything she is doing to support businesses in her own constituency of Hyndburn and Haslingden. I have already set out a whole range of measures of support that the Government are providing, and I know that she will welcome what the Chancellor said at the Dispatch Box earlier about further support for the furlough scheme.

Kim Johnson Portrait Kim Johnson (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab) [V] - Hansard

On Sunday, the Prime Minister announced plans for workers to return to work if they were not able to work from home, giving businesses less than 12 hours to put any plans in place. The guidance issued by the Government on Monday places all the obligations on employers—for example, for social distancing and cleaning. Will the Secretary of State check to see whether these guidelines are being followed by employers? The £14 million uplift to the HSE is welcome, but this does not compensate for the £100 million budget cut and the two thirds reduction in staffing over the past decade. Will the Secretary of State commit to put the needs of working people first, properly resource the HSE to increase the number of inspectors, work with unions and not allow businesses to reopen until their safety measures have been approved and verified?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

The hon. Lady raised a number of points. Let me address two of them. She asked about the HSE funding. I am pleased that she welcomes the extra £14 million. Over the years, the HSE has absolutely maintained its regulatory activities. It has invested in updating IT systems and other infrastructure, and has reduced reliance on taxpayer funding through growth in its commercial activities. Absolutely everyone in this House and across the country wants us to keep people safe in the workplace, and every employer I have spoken to wants that to happen. That is why we have produced guidance through a process of consensus, and we will continue to monitor that.

Dean Russell Portrait Dean Russell (Watford) (Con) [V] - Hansard

Across my constituency, we have an incredible business community that is supported by groups such as the Watford chamber of commerce. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that employers build confidence with their workers and customers, and that all businesses should aim to publish their risk assessments online wherever possible to reduce concerns, showcase their transparency and keep workers safe?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

I thank my hon. Friend and the Watford chamber of commerce for everything they are doing to support local businesses. He will know that the British Chambers of Commerce has worked with us and welcomed the guidance. I agree that we should be encouraging all employers to make available the results of their risk assessment, and we have made it very clear that we expect all employers with more than 50 workers to publish the results of their risk assessment on their website.

Mr Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans) - Hansard

We are going to do the last two questions and then we have to move on to the next statement. I apologise to Members who were unable to get in.

Nick Smith Portrait Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab) - Hansard

As secretary to the all-party parliamentary group on beauty, aesthetics and wellbeing, I know that this £6 billion sector is crucial to our economy, with many businesses on our UK high streets. By nature, it is a very hands-on industry, so can the Secretary of State assure me that clear guidelines on PPE will be issued well ahead of these businesses reopening, so as to protect both staff and consumers?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point on behalf of a sector that he is working to represent. We will continue to work collaboratively to come up with further guidance on sectors and industries that are not currently open.

Harriett Baldwin Portrait Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con) - Hansard

I thank the Secretary of State for allowing garden centres to reopen from tomorrow; that is very welcome in West Worcestershire. As he thinks about allowing more of the retail sector to open, is he considering relaxing the rules to allow a levelling up of our high street to the same sort of opening hours as we have on the internet?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

I, too, welcome the fact that garden centres will be open from tomorrow. It will be an opportunity for us to continue to restart our economy. My hon. Friend makes an important point. I will continue to keep the situation under review.