The hon. Lady raises an important issue. We have seen, sadly, that through the pandemic, because of various inequalities up and down the country, some people have suffered a lot more than others. It is an important point, and we need to do more—we all collectively need to learn from this. I give her the assurance that I know that Public Health England and the chief medical officer are looking into it and will report to Ministers shortly.
I can tell my hon. Friend that the guidance is really asking people to use their common sense. If there are many other people around them, particularly if those people might be more vulnerable—older people, let us say, or groups who for some reason may be unvaccinated—we are really just saying, “Use your common sense.” I think that everyone in Britain will do just that. In private settings, it will be up to private businesses—shops, for example—to decide what they wish to do.
First, my hon. Friend will know that, in terms of 19 July and the restrictions that will be removed, we are focusing on domestic restrictions. He knows that, separately, we also take very seriously the border controls, the border restrictions and the so-called traffic light system. In terms of making any further decision on that, he will know that it is kept under constant review on a very regular basis, and it is something that I intend to sit down and discuss with my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary as soon as I can.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that important point, Transmission in Bolton is clearly on the way down. That demonstrates the actions taken and the effect of the particular variant of concern, which had more impact in Bolton than almost anywhere else in the country. It should give reassurance to the country that we can cope without a further extension of measures that are having such an impact on so many people. For example, the waiting list of 5 million for hospital treatment would be far longer if people had better access to GPs to get those referrals.
The G7 is suggesting a global vaccine programme. Would we have to wait until that has been delivered, because until everyone is safe, no one is safe? When the Prime Minister refers to a terminus, I fear that he does not mean the end, but that he is thinking more of a bus terminus where we end one journey to start another—and that there will be another vehicle to impose another lockdown extension.
It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman). Like him, I have followed a journey of sometimes voting with the Government on these restrictions and sometimes voting against. It is unusual to be able to say that I agree with the previous speaker, because the previous speaker is nearly always from the Opposition, but, of the 51 speakers in this debate, only five are Labour Back Benchers. This is one of our most important debates. It is about the freedom and liberty of the British people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I direct Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I congratulate the hon. Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) on securing this important debate.
The circumstances of the Winterbourne View scandal have already been described, so I do not want to repeat that history, but I share others’ shock and outrage at the way in which some of the most vulnerable patients in our healthcare system have been treated in assessment and treatment units. Those attitudes and that kind of abuse should be historical; the shameful thing is that they are still with us a decade later. Ten years after the NHS should have changed for good, new scandals keep emerging.
Across the system, the levels of physical and chemical restraint remain disturbingly high. The CQC report is the latest to recommend change, and the Government’s response is needed urgently. Although there has been a welcome emphasis on moving patients into other settings, we know that there are more than 2,000 people with a learning disability or autism in assessment and treatment units right now, and about 200 of them are children.
Progress has been slow. Admissions are not falling, and those patients are still staying in ATUs for an average of five and a half years. We have yet to build enough support in the community. The building the right support programme is a catalogue of missed targets, and I hope the Minister can tell us why. We should have done more, and we should have more confidence in the targets set by NHS England’s long-term plan.
The record to date is not encouraging. Until the cross-governmental action plan is published, as promised, scepticism will prevail. We have heard why families are worried. There are two aspects of current care that particularly trouble me. The first is the widespread use of anti-psychotic medication. Drugged-up patients are no doubt easier to manage, but it can take years to wean them off those drugs, and even then the consequences continue.
The second aspect, which can be read about in The Daily Telegraph today, is “do not resuscitate” notices. I put that matter to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care at the Select Committee meeting today. What we are really talking about here is a culture—a culture in which the needs of those with learning difficulties or autistic people are sometimes treated as not important. As many hon. Members have said, these people are able to live fulfilled lives. They are human beings, with plenty to live for. It is hard to accept the idea that a “do not resuscitate” notice could be placed on the record of Sonia Deleon, who very sadly died. When they looked at why she would not be resuscitated, it simply said the words “learning disabilities”. That is unacceptable.
Our pride in the NHS should not blind us to its failings. It has systematically failed people with learning difficulties and autistic people. Their trauma is real. The damage is lasting. I have confidence that we now have a Government who are going to take their commitments on social care seriously and, as many Members have said, that includes those in the working-age population and not just those who are old. This action must finally happen.
I thank the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) for acknowledging Dame Cheryl Gillan and all the work she did in the world of autism. I know we all share that view.
I will now call the Front-Bench speakers, mindful that we do want to hear from Barbara Keeley at the end to close the debate.
There is quite a lot that needs sorting in that. The first thing I would say is that the hon. Lady complains that I acted on Portugal when we saw the data, yet she complains that I did not act on India before we had the data. She cannot have it both ways. She asked me to follow data not dates, but then asked me to prejudge the data by making a decision about 21 June right now. I am a bit confused about that one, too, because I notice that the Scottish Government have themselves been reopening. That is a perfectly reasonable decision for the Scottish Government, but it is a bit rich then for the SNP spokesman to come to this House and have a go at us for deciding to look at the data over the next week, rather than prejudging that decision. It is quite hard to listen and not respond to explain what is actually going on.
The third point I will make is on international vaccination. Absolutely this country has stepped up to the plate. Of the 2 billion doses delivered around the world, half a billion have been the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, which was developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford, with UK taxpayers’ money. It is, as I put it in my statement, a gift to the world. Of course we do not rule out donating excess doses as and when we have them, but only when we have excess doses, and I am sure the hon. Lady will accept that position is agreed not only by the UK Government, but by the devolved Administrations, because we all want to make sure that the people whom we serve get the chance to be vaccinated as soon as possible. That is our approach.
Finally, when it comes to intellectual property, we support intellectual property rights in this country. We could not get drugs to market in the way we manage to without support for intellectual property, because it is often necessary to put billions of pounds into research in order to get the returns over the medium term. What we did, more than a year ago, was agree with Oxford and AstraZeneca that there would be no charge for the intellectual property rights on this vaccine right around the world, and I am delighted that others are starting to take the same approach. Last month, Pfizer announced that in low and lower middle-income countries, it will not charge intellectual property, but we have been on this for more than a year now, so it is a bit rich to hear a lecture from north of the border.
My hon. Friend rightly asks these important questions about the decisions we had to take on Portugal. The truth is that we acted, yes, on the scientific advice: the advice of the joint biosecurity centre, based on the best information we had about this new variant—so-called delta AW, because it is a variant on the delta variant itself. We took that advice.
Restoring international travel in the medium term is an incredibly important goal that we need to work to. It is going to be challenging and hard because of the risk of new variants, and variants popping up in places such as Portugal that otherwise have a relatively low case rate. But the biggest challenge and the reason this is so difficult is that a variant that undermines the vaccine effort would undermine the return to domestic freedom, and that must be protected at all costs.
Thankfully, the delta variant itself, after two doses, gets effectively the same coverage as the old alpha variant or indeed the original variant, so the fact that that is now dominant in the UK does not put our strategy at risk. It makes it more of a challenge of getting from here to there, but that is a challenge for the decision this week and how we handle things in the short term; it does not put the strategy at risk. A variant that undermined the vaccine fundamentally would put us in a much more difficult place as a country, and that is why we are being as cautious as we are.
It is a great pleasure to speak under your leadership, Ms Fovargue. I thank all the people who signed the petition.
I want to speak briefly on two important points. First, my constituents rely on Heathrow airport for jobs and the energy that it brings to the local economy, as do many people in the areas around my constituency. The past 15 months have been extremely difficult for them, and the recovery needs to be meaningful and consistent to save businesses and livelihoods. Local employers need the certainty that a safe return to international travel brings, and they need Government support for investment.
A dedicated red list arrivals facility will make travelling safer and increase confidence that the UK’s only hub airport is supported as a safe travel route. Government commitments to make that logistically and financially viable are needed, and an answer sooner rather than later would ensure that safe travel for millions of people this summer was possible. I have raised in the House the need for Border Force properly to staff entry points, and we can rebuild trust and keep people safe by employing sufficient staff. Infrastructure on the ground should not be a second thought; it needs to be central to our planning.
My second point is about where we support recovery. I want investment in recovery to be made in places that embody our values. We should not be supporting a return to normal, but building back better. Eco-tourism is not exclusively branding; it supports the communities where it takes place. It is not just the preserve of the wealthy; it can save environments, communities and species from extinction.
In supporting protection efforts around the world, good eco-tourism is about preservation and conservation. It is also about animal welfare, and I am proud to have been a parliamentary supporter of Save The Asian Elephants for many years. Its work has done more than any other to shine a light on unethical tourism, and the organisation’s latest petition reached over 1 million signatures last week. I urge all hon. Members present to sign it. Unfortunately, despite our work with STAE, we have not yet been successful in convincing ABTA—The Travel Association to dissociate itself totally from cruel and unethical elephant venues. I hope that when we think about the steps that we are taking to enable holidays and to open up international travel, we put our morals and beliefs at the heart of any strategy.
The anti-vaxxers have not had a very good time of it recently, and I am absolutely delighted that take-up is as high as it is. One of the reasons we have been able to take on the anti-vaxxers so effectively is that we have not danced to their tune. Instead, Members right across the House—I am looking around now and I see people in all parts of the House who have played their part in this—have put across the positive, science-based, objective, enlightenment values, if you like, of why the vaccine is the right thing. We as a House, as leaders of our national debate, have done that with one voice, based on the scientific advice. We have done it across the four nations of the United Kingdom with one voice. We have done it with scientists, with clinicians, with religious leaders—with all those who have a strong voice in this debate. Telling the positive story is the vital thing that we can do. Of course there may be those who do otherwise, but that is not for us—it is for us to tell the positive story.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for playing his part in that by celebrating having his second jab. I am thrilled that he will have, in just a couple of weeks’ time, the maximum protection that one can get. He is helping not only himself and his loved ones, but all of us together to get through this.
The red, amber and green lists reflect the risks that there are in other places around the world. The amber list means that people need to quarantine at home, the red list means that they need to quarantine in a hotel, and the green list means that we think it is safe to travel. My hon. Friend should get his passport out—he can get on a plane to Portugal or one of the other countries. The system allows for some careful foreign travel. However, my first duty is to protect the lives of people here in the UK, and the best way to do that right now is to make sure that we are cautious on international travel to protect the opening up here at home.
I want to praise the hon. Lady for the leadership she is showing locally in driving up those vaccination rates. The fewer people who are left unprotected by the jab, the safer we will all be, both individually and in communities in London and across the country. My hon. Friend the Minister for Covid Vaccine Deployment is leading the efforts in this space, and I will make sure he gets in contact so that we can work together to reassure everybody that the vaccine is the right thing for you and the right thing for your community.
On the first point—the point of clarity—my hon. Friend has stated the position exactly correctly. On the second, we want of course to be able to exit from these arrangements into a system of safe international travel as soon as practicable and as soon as is safe, and Professor Van-Tam last night set out some of the details that we need to see in the effectiveness of the current vaccines on the variants of concern in order to have that assurance. If that is not forthcoming, we will need to vaccinate with a further booster jab in the autumn, on which we are working with the vaccine industry.
These are the uncertainties within which we are operating. Hence, for now, my judgment is that the package that we have announced today is the right one.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), a fellow Select Committee Chair, although I take a very different view from him, based on the evidence that the Home Affairs Committee has heard. This debate is urgent. We need to protect the vaccine programme from new variants, such as those from South Africa and Brazil. Ministers have rightly said that border measures are needed to stop the spread of those new variants, but with news today of the increase in the number of new South African variant cases in the UK, it is clear to us that those measures are not working. The Government have not done enough and we have not learned sufficient lessons from abroad and from the first wave. I urge Ministers to do more.
For a month after the South African variant was found, the only focus was on direct flights, even though our Committee report showed that direct flights were not an issue in the first wave—only 0.1% of cases came from China, but 62% came from France or Spain where there were no restrictions in place. Even now, people returning from high-risk countries are not tested on arrival, still do not have quarantine hotels to go to, and can still go straight onto the tube or train at Heathrow. The promised new plans from the Government still have big holes. The majority of travellers will not be covered by quarantine hotels and, again, they will not be tested on arrival, even though they could have been on long and crowded journeys since their last test several days ago. All the additional police checks in the world will not make a difference if, when the police find that there is nobody home, no further enforcement action is taken.
The UK got things badly wrong the first time round: barely any quarantine; no testing; and all restrictions inexplicably lifted on 13 March so thousands of covid cases were brought back into the country, accelerating the pace and scale of the pandemic. The countries that have controlled covid best—New Zealand, South Korea, Australia, Singapore, and Taiwan—are those that took early firm action at the borders to try to stop any covid cases at all. They are global trading nations, but they took early action and, as a result, kept schools, businesses and communities open and saved so many lives.
There are two ways that the Government could be learning from those countries now: extend quarantine hotels to cover far more travellers, as New Zealand and Australia did, or follow the South Korean approach, which combines additional testing on arrival with a mix of quarantine hotels and designated quarantine transport, much stronger checks on home quarantine, and no trips on public transport. South Korea has lost 1,400 people to covid; we have lost 100,000. If we had our time again in the first wave and had the chance to take much stronger border action to save lives and keep our communities open, we would have done so in a shot, so please let us learn those lessons now as we deal with the new variant.
We are in the midst of one of the toughest periods of this pandemic. Yesterday saw 1,820 deaths, which is the highest toll since the crisis began. As we endure these dark days and the restrictions that we must all follow to save lives, we know that we have a way out, which is our vaccination programme. Thanks to the hard work of so many people, we now have an immense infrastructure in place, which day by day is protecting the most vulnerable and giving hope to us all.
I am glad to report to the House that we have now given more than 5 million doses of the vaccine across the UK to 4.6 million people. We are making good progress towards our goal of offering everyone in priority groups 1 to 4 their first dose by 15 February. That is a huge feat, and one in which we can all take pride. We are vaccinating at a greater daily rate than anywhere in Europe—twice the rate of France, Spain or Germany.
The first 5 million doses are only the beginning. We are opening more sites all the time in cathedrals, food courts, stadiums, conference centres, GP surgeries and many, many other places. Today, a cinema in Aylesbury, a mosque in Birmingham and a cricket club in Manchester have all come on board as part of 65 pharmacy-led sites across England that are joining our vaccination programme this week. That ongoing expansion will help us protect even more of the most vulnerable even quicker. From today, we will also publish more localised, granular data, broken down by NHS sustainability and transformation partnership area, as well as by region, so that the public have the best possible information about all this work.
This virus is a lethal threat to us all. As we respond through this huge endeavour, let us all take comfort in the fact that we are giving 200 vaccinations every minute. In the meantime, everyone must follow the rules to protect the NHS and save lives. We can do that safe in the knowledge that the tide will turn and that, with science, we will prevail.
I am going to vote for this legislation; it is sadly necessary, as today’s awful covid figures demonstrate. I want to speak briefly about how we help people get through the difficult period ahead as we vote today to lock down the country. If we are going to affect so many lives and livelihoods, and if we are going to ask our citizens to help the nation by doing the right thing and making sacrifices, then we as a nation have to do the right thing by them. We need to provide the support that people need to enable us all to work together to get through this.
In the short time available, I will mention three specific areas where we need to do more. The first is businesses, especially small businesses and the hospitality sector. Business rates relief and additional grants are welcome, but for many businesses, their premises costs are the biggest burden. They still have to pay rent, and for many it is unrealistic to think that they can keep building up debt without some additional support. I urge the Government to consider a scheme of shared rental burden, where the renter and the landlord, as well as the Government and the bank or mortgage lender, all take part of the responsibility. The country bailed out the banks during the financial crisis; they should step up and be part of the solution now. There are models elsewhere, such as Australia, that we can look at as a basis for that.
Secondly, as I said to the Prime Minister today, so many people still are not being helped by the self-employment income support scheme. We have now had nine months to come up with a plan to support those workers—people who have worked hard, paid their taxes and now are not getting a fair deal. There are potential solutions out there, and I urge Ministers once again to look at the proposals from the Federation of Small Businesses, among others, to find creative ways to help people who are really struggling.
Many of my constituents are self-employed, and many Mancunians work in our world-leading creative industries. Our festival industry alone is worth £1.7 billion to the UK economy and supports 85,000 jobs. Festival organisers are struggling to get insurance, and they are asking for a Government-backed insurance scheme to enable festivals to be planned with confidence. If we do not help out, many will be cancelled in the ongoing uncertainty, and we will miss out not just on an important cultural part of our summer but on the economic benefit that helps communities and supply chains across the nation, so please; I hope the Government will look positively on that.
Finally, our councils have been at the forefront of this crisis, supporting people and co-ordinating services. The Government said that they would give our councils everything they needed to do that, but the overall impact of covid-19 in Greater Manchester is £802 million this year alone and Government funding for the pressures is £404 million, leaving a gap of £398 million. As a result, Manchester City Council faces cuts in the region of £50 million this year. That is not sustainable, so I ask the Government to fulfil their promises and give our local authorities the support they need to help us all get through this.
This new lockdown is a position that none of us wanted to be in, and I begin by paying tribute to all our key workers.
Although there is a light at the end of the tunnel, in the form of the vaccine, this Government’s inability to react quickly and with clear leadership has meant that people have lost their lives and their livelihoods. The Conservative former Chancellor, George Osborne, was right when he wrote yesterday, “In hoping for the best, we have failed to prepare for the worst.” The Government must not waste the time given to them in this third lockdown. The vaccine programme must be delivered with the speed and efficiency that people have been promised, alongside an effective Test and Trace system.
The economic impact of the crisis has been catastrophic. In Barnsley East, over 3,500 people are now recorded as being on universal credit, unemployment has risen, and the local food bank has seen demand increase by 300%. This is unacceptable and avoidable. Statutory sick pay in this country is completely inadequate. The UK falls behind the standards set by some of our European neighbours. A higher earner whose wage is cut due to sickness is more likely to be able to absorb the financial blow. Statutory sick pay is currently set at a flat rate of £95.85 a week. How is someone on the minimum wage or a lower income supposed to cope with such a reduction? They cannot choose to pay less of their rent, mortgage or bills.
The UK is one of the very few European countries that still pays sick pay in this way. I acknowledge that the Government introduced a one-off payment for people on low incomes who are isolating, but there is a lot of evidence to show that it is not working and that too many people are falling through the gaps. Take for example the man in Barnsley who, when asked if he would isolate if he was contacted by Test and Trace, said, “No, probably not.” When asked why, he explained, “If I don’t work, my family don’t eat.” People want to do the right thing, but simply cannot afford to. Proper statutory sick pay would make it much easier for people to take a test and isolate, which is crucial to stopping the spread of this deadly virus.
The right hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. We have been very clear with the roll-out of the vaccine on the pace at which we can start it—in fact, we started it ahead of when we committed to—and the uncertainties over the timing of the roll-out, as he will have seen from my answer to the previous but one question. When it comes to the care home roll-out, I have been absolutely clear that we aim to have it started in England before Christmas, and I am delighted it has been able to be started in Scotland today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I offer sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) for securing this vital debate.
It is clear that many MPs have been contacted by worried—often terrified—constituents whose parents, children, relatives or friends are in care homes. I for one have felt utterly heartbroken listening to some of them describing the fear and isolation that they know their loved ones are experiencing, and I, too, have an example—one of many. The mother of my constituent Steph is in a care home. Steph is one of five children and for a long time they have each spent hours on end with their mother. They lovingly held her hands, combed her hair, remembered stories together and reminisced about the past. They were not just visiting their mum; they were providing essential care.
Eight months on from the arrival of coronavirus, Steph still cannot touch her mum. People like her all over the country cannot hug their mothers or fathers, children, siblings or friends. They still cannot hold their hands to comfort or reassure them. All that they can do is watch their often rapid decline, for just half an hour at a time, from a distance—perhaps from a structure in a garden, or sometimes through a closed window, or maybe a screen if they are lucky. Like Steph’s mum those vulnerable people are struggling to understand why their children and families cannot be with them. An entire lifetime of love and closeness is ripped away from them and torn apart. For every person affected, every single passing day is a precious day lost.
Now, as winter approaches and, predictably, we are in the second wave, there are still no guidelines in place to protect loved ones from dying not only in loneliness and isolation, but from it. The Government like to talk up their ambition in many other areas. We have all heard of Operation Moonshot, Nightingale hospitals and world-beating apps, but there has been barely a whisper about allowing family carers to be with their loved ones. The announcement of a trial period was welcome, but for many people it created an even greater desperation, because they could not see any end in sight for the enforced separation.
Last week I co-ordinated a group of 40 MPs from across the House who wrote to the Secretary of State with a real plan. It would allow a designated family or friend carer to have the same key worker status as someone paid to work in a care home. They would have the same access to tests and PPE, and the same access to their loved ones. A number of groups have been calling for various measures of that kind for some time. They include the National Care Forum, Age UK, One Dementia Voice and the British Association of Social Workers. We are pleased to give them and the people they represent our full backing and a strong voice today.
I want to be clear: care workers have been magnificent throughout the pandemic, but the care that our families give is no less important for health and wellbeing. The cruel 30-minute time limit on visits must be scrapped, and care homes must have protection from legal action if covid is introduced to a home by a designated visitor. Those are the same protections that have been agreed for the NHS. Time is running out. With every day that passes, isolation, loneliness and deterioration grow for many of the most vulnerable in society, and friends and family carers experience more anguish. They pass another day of separation from their loved ones as they slip away faster, and more painfully, than they should.
It is often said that the true test of a country is how it treats its most vulnerable. For as long as the Government hold out and do not implement the plan I have described, they are failing that test, and failing the thousands of families who experience anguish every single precious day.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms McVey. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Joy Morrissey) for securing this important debate.
One of the harshest features of the restrictions that we introduced many months ago to stop the spread of covid has been for our constituents not to be able to visit their loved ones in care homes. I have received—as I am sure has every colleague in this place—many letters expressing the real frustration and angst that they feel because of the restrictions that we have introduced. The updated guidance released last week is welcome, and it attempts to address some of the concerns, but we need to bring an element of humanity and empathy to the guidance. I know that many in this room, and our constituents, will feel that something has gone wrong over the last few months.
I want to talk briefly about a family in my constituency whose situation is very similar to those already raised by other Members. There is a young man whose family live in my Warrington South constituency, but his care home is in Greater Manchester. While we did not have any restrictions in Warrington, he was existing under restrictions in Greater Manchester, and different approaches were being taken. I tried many, many times to speak to the director of public health in Greater Manchester about the issues facing this family. I must say, it was a real nightmare to communicate across different county boundaries and to try to have a one-to-one conversation with someone from the care home and with the people regulating that care home.
The young man did not get to see his parents for about five months in total. That is simply wrong. Not only did the young man not get to see his mum and dad, but mum and dad did not get to see their son. I can only imagine how awful it would be, as a dad, not to see my son for that length of time. I think we do need to think again about the way we have interpreted some of these rules.
I want to recognise—we cannot forget it—how badly the first wave hit care homes. Therefore, everything I have just said is tempered against the fact that far too many elderly residents passed away as a result of covid-19. Some of the most awful conversations I have had in the past 12 months were with family members—daughters, sons, wives and husbands—who had lost a loved one in a care home.
At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, there were around 66,000 deaths of care home residents, and around 19,500 were covid-related. That means around 30% of all deaths in care homes were related to covid-19. Therefore, it is no surprise that we have had to put measures into place to try to protect residents in care homes, but they are not prisons; they are care homes—the clue is in the word “care”. Care is not just about protecting someone from a virus, but about ensuring that their mental health is maintained.
At the same time, we all know that being able to offer more visits will help everyone’s mental health and wellbeing. That is why we need to look further than the visits that are being carried out today. We need to be able to define the importance of the therapeutic impact that visits can have or, equally, how the suspension of visiting can damage the mental health of individuals and their families.
Dementia or Alzheimer’s disease was the most common pre-existing condition found among those people who sadly died as a result of covid-19 within care homes—around 50% of all deaths. For people who suffer with dementia, a lack of social contact not only is bad for their mental health, but has a significant impact on the progression of that dementia. This is a real priority for those who care for people suffering with dementia. Family and friends must play a significant role in the care of those people. Interpreting their needs and providing that personal care is incredibly important, but also very challenging in very difficult circumstances.
I welcome the announcement of a pilot scheme to enable informal carers to be given key worker status, and I am looking forward to the Minister giving us more details on that. The introduction of the lateral flow rapid tests for Warrington—10,000 being given to Warrington this week—is very welcome. I am encouraging the director of public health in Warrington to make sure that she is in touch with care homes, to ensure that those family members who need to get into care homes can get those frequent tests.
I will finish with a brief mention of a constituent who wrote to me earlier this week—a gentleman who, I think it is fair to say, is in his mature stage of life—to say that he had purchased a piece of technology and had installed it in a window in his wife’s care home. He told me that it was similar to the system used in a post office, with a microphone and a speaker, and it made a world of difference to him and his wife. He could now do a visit in complete safety, with no risk whatsoever. The window remains sealed, but he does not have to shout or practise sign language. He has been able to share his ideas with other people in the care home, and other visitors and relatives have taken on board his ideas and introduced them in other care homes.
I finish by paying tribute, and recording my thanks, to those who work in care homes in Warrington South. They have done an incredible job over the last 12 months. I also thank the members of the social care team in Warrington who look after elderly residents in their own homes by going into a home every day to ensure that they are well cared for.
There are many issues that we need to tackle for families and people in care, and I hope the Minister can take back to the Department some of the things that we have talked about today, so that it can come forward with some more ideas.
Yes, that is a very important point. Taking into account all local considerations, and working with the local director of public health and political leadership, is important to get exactly that sort of consideration into the decisions.
I would like to set out, as the Prime Minister did yesterday, the details of where we have reached with the Liverpool city region. Liverpool will move on to level 3 tomorrow. As well as the baseline measures—that is, as well as closing pubs and bars—gyms, leisure centres, betting shops, adult gaming centres and casinos will also close. I thank all the local authorities that have been working with us to keep the virus under control, but there is more work to do.
The regulations under consideration today include measures on the obligations for businesses. Statutory instrument 1005 makes it a legal requirement for a range of premises to collect, retain and, where relevant, disclose contact details as part of NHS Test and Trace. Statutory instrument 1008 allows for fixed penalty notices to be given for breaches of covid-secure business guidance in various settings, primarily hospitality. These are amended by SI 1046, which adds the need for a range of premises to display information about the need to wear face coverings.
SI 1029 increases the fines for those flouting targeted action to close specific public places that are a threat to public health. Although SI 1029 was intended to deliver the 10 pm closing time when laid, the elements relating to the 10 pm closing time are superseded by the local alert level system. The powers in SI 1029 are therefore revoked. In practice, the effect of SI 1029 is to deliver enforcement against individual places that have been flouting the rules, which is the one of the top demands of councils in their fight against coronavirus. I know that most people and most businesses have been doing their bit. These changes are there to ensure that the vast majority of responsible businesses are not undermined by others that are not following the rules.
Yes, I believe that they do, and I will give three reasons why I think these measures are the right ones. The first is that we already now have evidence from accident and emergency departments that we have seen a reduction in alcohol-related admissions late at night, after the 10 pm curfew. That is important in its own right, but it is also a proxy, a measure of how much people are drinking late at night. Therefore, it is evidence that there is less mixing and less drinking late at night.
The second is that, while people may be coming out and mixing after 10 pm, they are doing so largely outside, when they would otherwise be mixing inside the premises; it is just easier to photograph outside.
The final point, though, and the appeal I make to the House on this, is as follows: since, sadly, in order to control this virus, we need to reduce the amount of social contact, and since we are trying to protect, as much as is possible, education and work, that essentially leaves socialising as the other part of life—of activity—where people transmit the virus. It is therefore understandable that Governments around the world and around this United Kingdom, Governments of all different stripes and political persuasions, have all come to broadly the same conclusion that it is necessary to restrict socialising, because that way we reduce the transmission with the least damage to education and the economy. While there is both direct and proximate evidence for the positive impact of this measure, there is also the strategic point that, if we wanted to control the virus and we were not to do this, we would have to do something else, and as a matter of policy choice we want to protect education and protect work.
I will now come to my concluding remarks. We know only too well the damage this lethal virus can inflict, the strain it can put on our NHS and the way it can upend our closest relationships and our freedom to do the things we love. I know that we are asking a lot of the British people, but we also know that together we can shift this curve, and we are now called upon to do it once more. The measures before the House today will help in that fight, and I commend the regulations to the House.
It is hard to follow such optimism. I would begin by saying that the Government have lost control of the coronavirus, but that would not be entirely accurate, because at every step of this crisis, from a nonsensical herd immunity strategy to the initial lockdown delay, equipment shortages, care home neglect, contradictory messaging, a privatised testing crisis and much more, the Government have failed to adequately protect our communities.
My constituency of Leicester East has been in lockdown, or under significant restrictive measures, whether we call it tier 3, as it was then, or tier 2, as it is now, for over 100 days—to be precise, 106—at great cost to livelihoods, our businesses, our collective wellbeing and our mental and physical health. The Government are failing on lives and livelihoods. I therefore do not believe that they have ever had this virus under control, and I fear that the measures introduced this week will not be enough.
This catastrophe was not inevitable. Across the world, countries from New Zealand to China are returning to normality. I hope that you will forgive me, Mr Deputy Speaker, for saying that no city has borne a greater brunt of the Government’s failed approach than Leicester. Sadly, the Government have wasted the sacrifices of the British people, as we are now in a similar position to where we were in March. They spent £12 billion on a failed test and trace programme, which prioritises the enrichment of private corporations over the protection of our communities.
Rather than trust local health experts and the public sector, the Government have outsourced responsibility to corporate giants, which have consistently failed, with unacceptable contract rates as low as 50% or lower. My home city of Leicester is a prime example of the contrasting success of an underfunded local public health-led trace system. The success rate for our contact system is over 85%. The wasteful experiment of the private sector in our test and trace system must end.
It should be simple: if someone is contacted by NHS Test and Trace they must be provided with the material means to isolate. It does not matter what rules are set if no one in government is taking these matters seriously and if they are interpreting the rules to suit their own interests. The Government are not even following the advice of their own scientists, who make it clear what needs to be done to put the health of the nation first and protect lives.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman).
We hear from Minister after Minister the mantra that we should follow the science or the medical advice to tackle the spread of covid-19. It seems common sense, really. We now have the highest excess death rate in Europe, and the worst recession in the G7. That is not an act of God; it is because of serial incompetence by the Government. I do not want the Government to be in that place. Opposition Members sincerely do not want the Government to be in that place. We all have loved ones and constituents with families and caring responsibilities, and this is a matter of life and death.
Yet it was revealed today in the media that SAGE gave advice about a reset—a short period of time; it could have been over the school holidays—and that advice was not followed. Now we have more of the same—the whack-a-mole strategy that the Prime Minister referred to. The only problem is, certainly in parts of my constituency, that the mole hills are appearing rapidly by the day. One part of the constituency—Halton—is now in tier 3. We can have arguments about that, when we compare Halton with other places across the region. The other part of my constituency is in tier 2, just to complicate matters slightly when we communicate messages to residents.
Just an hour or an hour and a half ago, we saw the national figure for deaths—145 people have lost their life today. It is very serious in my constituency when we look at hospital admissions and people in ICU. It is a big issue and a big problem, which requires an approach based on evidence. That evidence states clearly and it has consistently been argued for six months, certainly by local leaders, that local authorities should be resourced up and down the land. The Government should link public health professionals with a national system to create an effective test, track and isolate system. That is the major problem here. The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle is right that we need a vaccine and we are probably going to have to live with this virus for some time. We need effective systems in place.
Follow the evidence. Look at hospitality, look at the pub trade, look at restaurants. We have all seen the evidence presented by the Government—
It is a strange place to be when I find myself in agreement today with so many Members on the Government side of the Chamber.
I feel it is important for me, on behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues, to emphasise two points that have been raised already. They are on the importance of evidence-based policy making, and on promoting and protecting the wellbeing and mental health of children.
Like many others, I have struggled to find the evidence for the rule of six. It has been reported that SAGE has recommended it, and from the start of the pandemic the Liberal Democrats have always said that we will follow the science. However, in order to build trust and to secure buy-in and compliance from the public, it is important to show your workings, so, as the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) said, we need to know about the trade-offs involved. Why six? Why not seven? Why not eight? No SAGE minutes on the covid-19 response have been published since 30 September—at least I could not find any—and the published minutes do not include discussion about the rule of six, which was introduced on 9 September. Was there a subsequent meeting of SAGE on covid-19 measures between 3 and 9 September? Will the Government publish the minutes and show the workings behind the rule of six? We have yet to see that clear, robust scientific evidence in support of this decision, particularly around the decision to include children under 12.
As we have heard, in Wales and Scotland children have been exempted. The Minister has said previously that children have been included in England for simplicity’s sake. To reiterate a point that was made earlier, does she think that people in Scotland and Wales are able to follow a slightly more complex message, as opposed to people in England, who need a simpler message about children?
Although the pandemic has had a terrible impact on the entire population, children and young people have too often been overlooked, as we saw in the decision to reopen pubs, restaurants and non-essential shops before schools. Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner, has said:
“Children have fewer health risks from Covid-19 and yet they have suffered disproportionately from the nation’s efforts to contain the virus.”
I appreciate that we are learning all the time and that there is limited research available, but recent research in the Netherlands from the RIVM—the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment—has found:
“The novel coronavirus is mainly spread between adults and from adult family members to children. The spread of COVID-19 among children or from children to adults is less common. In general, the younger the children, the less significant the role they play in spreading the virus.”
If children were such a major part of the problem in terms of transmission, we would be hearing about far greater numbers of bubbles being sent home from school. I could not find data on that point, but I know from my constituency that very few bubbles have been sent home. Indeed, last week, in primary schools across the Richmond borough, there was a 93% attendance rate among primary school children. That suggests to me that children under 12 are playing a very minor role in transmission.
As has been said, the rule of six discriminates against large families and households, where a family of six or more cannot meet a relative or friend but a family of three, four or five can. That impacts on the grandparents more than the parents, as in larger families they are unable to see their grandchildren. We should also consider the fact that larger families with four or more children may fear being out in public, in case people think they are being rule-breakers.
In terms of children’s mental health and well-being, the importance to children of being able to socialise, interact and play outside the school setting with other children is crucial. A Barnardo’s poll of 4,000 children aged eight to 24 found that 68% said that not seeing their friends was the most difficult thing about the pandemic.
I appreciate that the Government have conceded the point on informal childcare, by exempting informal childcare from the rule of six, and I welcome that move, but I see no reason why two families with two children under 12 should not meet up in a playground. I declare an interest, as I have a two-year-old and a six-year old.
I very much hope that the Minister will give us a better explanation than “simplicity” in her concluding remarks. If it is about clarity of message, the constant chopping and changing of the guidance, the hugely complex rules in different parts of the country, and politicians and advisers wilfully breaking them, are the reasons why messages have been undermined. We should not make up for poor communication and those errors on the backs of our children.
Frankly, we would not have to consider blunt measures at all if we had a functioning system to test, trace and isolate every case of the virus to keep people safe. Furthermore, we should backward-trace every outbreak to ensure that super-spreader events are cracked down on so that we can take a much more tailored and targeted approach until we have a vaccine.
I, too, am deeply concerned that the evidence for the rule of six is not extensive enough to demonstrate that it does more good than harm. I will wait to hear what the Minister says, and we will hopefully hear in days to come more of the evidence behind this rule. However, for all the reasons set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman) and others, there is deep concern about undermining consent for the process.
In a sense, this is a mobile lockdown for families who may well be able to leave their home and do various things but cannot mingle. I am very concerned—not least because of the growing presence in my inbox, in my phone surgeries and at the one or two physical surgeries that I have started again—about the serious growth in the volume of mental health-related cases, and specifically among younger people. They are heartbreaking individually and deeply alarming when we see the volume of them collected together. That is why we need to be very careful in understanding the complexities of human relationships and how important they are to our sense of wellbeing.
Yes, I think it is important that we expand the NHS labs, and that we work across the whole of the UK to get the testing capacity needed. For instance, in Scotland, when there was a surge in demand for tests last month, we diverted more of the UK’s capacity to support people in Scotland, and we currently deliver more tests per head of population in Scotland than in the UK as a whole. In the tone of the hon. Lady’s question, it is absolutely necessary to work together, across party lines, between the Scottish devolved Government and the UK Government, to make sure that we get the support to the people of Scotland as to every other part of this country.
Of course, I do worry first and foremost about the health of the nation, and we need a rule that is super-simple. Children do transmit this virus, and we have made the decision to keep the rule as simple as possible considering all those risks. I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from. We take a different approach in different areas according to the extent of cases locally, and that is an important tool in our armoury.
We have put an unprecedented amount of funding into social care during the crisis. There is the important challenge of ensuring that that reaches the frontline through local councils. We have also increased, through the increase in the living wage, the pay of the lowest paid across society and in social care. I am proud to have supported that.
Yes, absolutely. My hon. Friend texted me about that last week. I should have fixed it by now, then I would not have had the question. It absolutely needs to be sorted. We are working on it. We rolled out the testing centres at an unbelievable pace during April, so I hope he will forgive me and allow me to take a couple more days to fix the problem.
I start by sharing my huge gratitude to all the key workers in East Renfrewshire, who are doing such important work, and to the brilliant volunteers supporting our local community at this difficult time. I also pass on my condolences to those in East Renfrewshire who have lost loved ones.
For the UK Government to be described as “reckless” by the British Safety Council in the midst of a pandemic should make even this Prime Minister pause. It was a disappointment that he did not share his planning or consult—not just with the devolved Administrations, but with local authorities, trade unions, employer representatives, and even, reportedly, his own Cabinet. Having set his announcement for Sunday to allow people to get going with the measures on Monday, it emerged that no preparation had been done with regard to transport, childcare and many other issues. Confusion reigned, even among the Ministers set out to do the morning media rounds. Most announcements applied only to England—although you would struggle to tell—but many in the Prime Minister’s party are demanding that all four nations march towards the cliff edge in lockstep. The response from Scotland is firm: no chance.
Is it really time to stop protecting the NHS? If not, why is that disappearing from the heart of the campaign in England? And why was the “Stay Alert” slogan launched with green imagery? It is not difficult to see the signal that that is designed to send. As the Prime Minister prevaricates and blusters, it is clear that he is trying to nudge the population into an ill-considered move. Telling people to deal with the pandemic by staying alert is an abrogation of responsibility. A crisis of this magnitude demands leadership; thank goodness for Nicola Sturgeon and her fellow First Ministers.
But there is no going back to the same old, same old—even if we wanted to. The Prime Minister’s enthusiastic but vague encouragement for people in England to hop in their cars and get back to work is neither sensible nor realistic. It displays a lack of connection to the reality of people’s lives, never mind their working lives. The Prime Minister needs to remedy that as a matter of urgency if he has any interest in workers’ safety and wellbeing.
I applaud the UK Government for bringing in the furlough scheme but, as ever, the devil is in the less publicised detail. There will be disquiet at the impact on jobs of the employer contribution that the Chancellor announced today that he is looking for. I and other colleagues have been calling for flexibility in furloughing, and the Chancellor said today that there can be flexibility from August; we need to see partial furloughing before that. The Scottish Chamber of Commerce asks that flexibility takes account of a company’s ability to contribute, which will differ depending on location and sector. I hope that the Chancellor will take that on board.
Despite the recognition of the vulnerability of pregnant women at the start of this crisis, it took until yesterday for half a sentence of guidance to be produced. Women have had to take sick leave or annual leave because the UK Government failed to listen when the issue was highlighted to them. If we are to achieve an orderly end to lockdown when the time is right, listening will be vital, and fair, safe, flexible work will be key. The Government should focus on not only sustaining jobs but enhancing fairness and employment rights as we look ahead. They must properly examine how a universal basic income could underpin a sustainable and fair recovery, which will be so important in the months and years ahead.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to take part in this general debate on covid-19 and to be a voice for the people of Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill in these unprecedented times. This pandemic has presented completely new challenges for us all, demanding responses that have no precedent, but this is by no means an excuse for the response of this UK Government.
This is not the first time that these nations have been faced with a crisis. Indeed, just last week, images of world war two were again broadcast into our homes. It was a time when our nations fought bravely together and when strong leadership provided the ultimate protection against our enemy threats. Today, we face a new fight and a new enemy, but there is no protection in the leadership of this Prime Minister. Where we looked for leadership, calmness, and direction, we found stand-ins, mixed messages and confusion. Covid-19 is no more a natural disaster than a famine; both are highly politicised events. We can waste time blaming the outbreak of disease on global agribusiness, but it would be an insult to the intelligence of the people of these nations if we do not recognise that the true failure in preparation lies at the very heart of the UK Government. For years, this Government have tried to fool us into thinking that their austerity-driven attack on our vital public services has been a societal necessity. Yet the current crisis has magnified the absurdities of these complacent assumptions. Will they now admit that austerity has always been an entirely political decision from which we are all now suffering: hence, the failure to implement immediate isolation and contact tracing for all those entering our borders; hence, the fatal delay in implementing lockdown; hence, the vast shortages of PPE in our hospitals and care homes; hence, the failure to meet revised testing target after revised testing target; and hence, the thousands upon thousands of lonely, untimely deaths that could and should have been prevented.
Despite those vast failings, a vague optimism has been added to proceedings: a vague optimism that people can go back to work but only if their work is open; a vague optimism that we can travel as far as we desire for exercise, but as long as public transport is not involved; and a vague optimism that we can meet with another outwith our household, but only if we do not plan to meet up with them beforehand. This vague optimism has become the epitome of the UK Government’s message. It is a strange pretence that everything is suddenly normalised: that witnessing the news of hundreds of deaths on our TV screens every evening is just to be accepted and that we can continue with life as we did in the past. A de facto muddling-through has emerged in this UK Government, one that is concentrating on maximising market power rather than on prioritising public health. It is quite disgraceful.
My constituents, like many others up and down these countries, are bearing the brunt of this confusion. No one should be forced to risk their health or the health of their loved ones in order to maintain their employment, and yet that is the very dilemma that my constituents are facing after this Prime Minister, on Sunday night, chose, as he always does, to prioritise one-nation Conservatism over a four-nation approach.
Let me finish by saying this, Madam Deputy Speaker: our death toll is nothing short of catastrophic. Our daily counts have far surpassed that of our neighbouring countries and somehow there is a determination to cloak this in the illusion of a Great Britain; a mythology built on inflated pride and lowered expectations. It is not this Government who are great—far from it—but the people of these nations who make it so. It is the health and social care workers, our security officers, our emergency responders, our till operators, our delivery drivers, and our teachers. It is to them that I give my thanks and appreciation. Those people are the backbone of our society and only when this UK Government begin to prioritise human life over economic prosperity will this country have something to be optimistic about.
That really is a question for the Treasury. My understanding is that the 80% wage subsidy is for those who are furloughed, as the Chancellor put it, as opposed to those who have moved into other jobs, but the hon. Gentleman will have to ask the Treasury for a more detailed answer.
I am surprised to hear that, because we have been very, very clear about universities, alongside schools. It is, of course, a matter for my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary in the first instance, but on public health grounds we made it absolutely clear that we were taking steps to close schools, nurseries, universities and colleges, except for the children of key workers where they absolutely need to be at school, for example where neither parent can look after them. However, all those at university can stay at home on their own and do not need a parent, so I do not think there is any excuse whatever.
The honest truth is that that decision was made in the 2015-17 Parliament, and it was a decision the Government made at the time. I think that we need to take action to solve this problem, and that is what we are planning to do. The third part of the plan—[Interruption.] Well, I am halfway through explaining the plan.
The third part of the plan is to seek a solution that brings dignity and security to all those who need social care, with a system in which nobody needing care is forced to sell their home to pay for it. Such a solution would go against one of the most basic human impulses, which is the drive to provide for one’s family. We want to encourage people to save and we want to reward them for the fruits of their endeavours. As we said in our manifesto, we want to guarantee that
“nobody needing care should be forced to sell their home to pay for it.”
We are determined to tackle this challenge in this Parliament, and to bring forward these reforms.
Fixing the funding, as my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) said, is only half of the equation, and the other half needs attention, too. We should be helping more people to live at home for longer; finding a cure for dementia, because we refuse to accept that dementia is an inevitable part of ageing; and harnessing technology to improve care. The stereotype of social care as a kind of digital backwater is increasingly out of date; there are many examples of brilliant social care organisations, public and private, using wearables and new technology to support the round-the-clock care that they give. We should also be breaking down the silos between health and social care. We will always support our carers, both paid and unpaid alike.
That is the sort of contribution I think we need in this debate. We should not be saying, “We have one answer, and we won’t engage on anything else”, but saying, “Here is an interesting answer, and let’s solve it.” We are committed to solving it in this Parliament. We will not duck the difficult decisions, we will take the action that is needed and we will secure the future of social care in this country. As we are increasingly an older society, let us also be a wiser society, and commit to fixing this problem once and for all.
It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green). I found myself agreeing with many of the priorities that he set out; that gives us some hope about cross-party consensus.
I wish to talk about three things: first, the proposal by Derbyshire County Council to close the Spinney care home in Brimington in my constituency and six other homes throughout Derbyshire; secondly, the wider implications of Government funding decisions over the past 10 years; and finally, the role of carers and the impact of councils’ use of private sector agencies to reduce council budgets on the quality of care provided.
First, the Spinney is a care home built in 1974 and run by Derbyshire County Council. Up until the Conservatives took over in 2017, it had been rated good by the CQC and was full; since 2017, the council has stopped taking new residents, and gradually numbers have fallen as residents have passed away. All the residents and their families to whom I have spoken speak warmly of the quality and culture of care provided by the Spinney and oppose the council’s call for closure. In the past two years, five of the rooms in the Spinney have been fitted with en suite bathrooms—the lack of en suite facilities being one of the reasons given for the closure—but none of those rooms has been used. Now, Derbyshire County Council says it will close the home and allow the residents to live more independently.
The comments from residents make it clear what they feel. One said:
“I have no relations, no family, the carers and staff are my family…I want to live the rest of my days here it has all come crashing down around me”.
“People will not get more than 10 minutes three times a day”
if they leave and go independent. They went on to say that
“this doesn’t stop people roaming the streets and the police having to bring them back.”
A family member said:
“My mum lived independently till she was 96 years of age. We all rallied round to look after her, but she was only safe once she was here at the Spinney.”
There are many, many more stories.
I note that the county council had a £5.7 million underspend last year in its social care budget, so I roundly condemn it for its decision, and I hope that it listens to reason when the consultation finishes and that it agrees to improve the Spinney rather than to let it close.
More broadly, we all know that the money available to councils for social care has been savagely cut during the nine years of austerity. Indeed, at the very time when our ageing population were demanding an increase in care spending, the Government were cutting £5 billion from council budgets for care. The money that the Prime Minister has promised, welcome as it is, is simply one step back up the mountain.
The failure to provide care for some of our most vulnerable citizens is not just morally repugnant and does not just shame us as a society, it is also economically illiterate. Failure to care for people in residential or domestic settings and leaving them to fend for themselves means that they end up in A&E. It means that they end up being treated more expensively in our hospital system. The 148 people who were left in hospital beds in Derbyshire because there was no care package available for them were costing us more than they should have done as a result of cost savings. Cuts in care are not only barbaric, but economically crazy too.
There is no way that a Government who have reduced council spending by 50% in real terms over 10 years can be anything but complicit in the care crisis that faces us, but providing ring-fenced money for care alone will not be the step required to make this right. There must be a whole-system approach that addresses the many causes of the crisis in care. Those causes include the inadequate number of GP appointments available, particularly in more deprived areas; the crisis in the recruitment of GPs, nurses and carers; and the casual and unprofessional way that carers are recruited, trained and employed, which means that workers at McDonald’s are given greater job security and better rates of pay than someone who plays a crucial role in the health of the most vulnerable citizens in our society. There is also the crisis in A&E, which sweeps up the greater share of the NHS budget. That crisis is then exacerbated by people taking up hospital beds when they could be at home receiving care, and so the vicious cycle continues.
Finally, I would like to touch on the issue of how carers are employed. Council budgets are a part of this equation, but, in truth, councils were outsourcing these services long before council budgets were shrunk. It should never be said that people who provide care on behalf of private companies—or, in many cases, those companies themselves—have any less capacity to care or any less empathy for their customers than people who do it in the public sector. However, many councils are signing tenders that can only lead to the provision of inadequate care.
Hillcare Group, a nursing care home provider in my constituency, wrote to me recently to say that the funding provided by Derbyshire County Council was £150 per resident per week less than in other local authority areas, and that ends up having an impact on the care that is provided. I have an idea: when councils set tenders, they should be setting a rate of pay at the time they use private companies. The reason for using private companies is not just about saving budget, but about that company providing care in a better way. It is not just a way of undercutting the wages of unionised council staff. If rates of pay across the sector were set by the councils, we would not find council contracts being provided by private companies in such an inadequate way.
This is a multifaceted and real problem. Residents and families of the Spinney are just the latest victims of our failure to take this matter seriously. I hope that it will be solved, because our older people desperately need it to be.
I do not recall that I ever said that, but there is a key point in what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Our recollection is that it was not the Labour party that labelled the Conservatives’ proposal the dementia tax. I think it was actually one of the national charities and the phrase then got taken up by the media, so I ask the hon. Member not to pin that one on us. It is important that we establish cross-party talks, but the people he should be addressing his comments to are on his own Front Bench. Ministers have had since October to follow up on the point I raised with the Secretary of State about cross-party talks, but they have done nothing. We keep hearing about cross-party talks, but they are not happening because the Government are not doing anything about it.
We cannot overstate the scale of the social care crisis in this country. The Government continue to kick the proverbial can down the road, with the Green Paper promised in March 2017 still not having materialised, and much of the public conversation focuses simply on the issue of funding. Clearly, I do not wish to diminish the urgency of the need for greater funding, but without fixing all that is structurally broken in social care, any increase in funding will not necessarily flow through to care quality or care workers’ wages, where it is desperately needed.
First and foremost, we must look at the skills and professionalisation agenda in social care. I urge all colleagues across the House to read the report from the last Parliament by the all-party parliamentary group on social care co-chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) and the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan). It made some very important recommendations in this area, particularly about registration and the lack of qualifications that are transportable across the health and social care sectors. Addressing this will, in turn, create an upward pressure on wages, and give people more pathways to development and progression so as to make a career in care more viable, reducing the turnover in the sector. The pay differential between a new care worker and someone with years of experience is only about 17p per hour. This cannot continue.
We must urgently look at the issue of the fragmented provider landscape and outsourcing, which is one of the key drivers of low pay in the sector. Only yesterday I was forced to write to a local provider about its proposals to reduce the terms and conditions of former council workers outsourced to the company. Private firm Catalyst Choices, which has been providing care services for Warrington Borough Council since 2015, is proposing cuts including, but not limited to, a reduction in weekend enhancements, overtime pay and sick pay. I do not want to single out this provider because I understand that this problem is replicated up and down the country owing to chronic underfunding by cash-starved local authorities. However, it is forcing people out of the sector. In my constituency, every time the Trafford Centre advertises for temporary workers, we see a knock-on effect in local care. When Amazon opened a distribution centre in Warrington, that triggered a crisis of care provision locally. What does it say about how we value our care workforce that a company with a reputation for poor pay and exploitative work practices is considered preferable to remaining in social care?
This workforce crisis in care is evidently having a really detrimental impact on the provision of care, as we cannot get quality care on the cheap. Shortages of care workers locally mean that too many elderly people in the villages of my constituency are having to stay in hospital because they cannot get a care package to support them back in their homes.
While we must develop an effective workforce strategy for our care workforce, working with care providers and the TUC on a real sectoral plan, we must also ensure that the challenges faced by our unpaid carers are properly recognised. We have 6.5 million unpaid carers in our country. Despite the additional costs of caring, the lack of practical support means that carers often contribute their own money to care for their loved ones. Despite the significant costs and the value of care that they provide, the main benefit for people caring—carer’s allowance—is the lowest of its kind, at £66.15 per week. It is not nearly enough.
Until we start to properly recognise and reward care work, whether it is formal or informal, paid or unpaid, we will never have a system that provides the quality of care that everyone deserves. This Government can no longer dither and delay on one of the biggest crises we face as a society, and the problem grows more severe with each passing day as the issues that I have outlined go unaddressed. Before coming into Parliament, I worked for a trade union and used to speak to careworkers, who told me that they were frightened to retire, because they know what is waiting for them when they need care. That is a sobering thought on a future that we need real action now to avoid.