“Today’s debate is fundamentally about freedoms” – Jon Ashworth’s full speech

Jon Ashworth

Mr Speaker, as always our thoughts are with those who have lost loved ones to this virus. We praise again the extraordinary efforts of our NHS staff and other dedicated public servants. This unprecedented global health crisis tests each and everyone of them like never before. We are forever in their debt.

Today we are being asked to make decisions of a magnitude I would never have dreamt of only weeks ago. I know no member here came into this place to put powers onto statue that curtail so many basic freedoms our forebears fought so hard for and many today take for granted. But I also know every member here will want to support all means necessary to save lives and protect our communities in the face of this virus.

This is a global health emergency the like of which the world has not seen since Spanish flu. I have said throughout that this virus spreads rapidly, exploits ambivalence and thrives on inequality. The government has, quite correctly, sought to promote social-distancing as a means to reduce person-to-person transmission of the virus.

These measures have been, for the most part, on a purely voluntary basis. But still too many are not following the advice. We have all seen the pictures this weekend of bustling markets, packed tube trains and busy beaches and parks I’m afraid the public health message still isn’t being heard loud and clear.

Everyone who can should be at home, everyone who can must work from home. This house must send a clear message that young people are not invulnerable, they are at risk too. And to be frank Mr Speaker, that includes us. I love and respect this chamber, I relish the cut and thrust of robust debate across these despatch boxes. But if other workplaces can use zoom calls and Skype to make decisions then why can’t we?

We also need more public health messaging from government, we need advertising on TV and every radio station and across social media. We need a leaflet through every door explaining what terms like ‘social distancing’ and ‘shielding’ actually mean.

But is now time to go further too. The case fatality figures continue to climb unabated. We are seeing an exponential growth in line with Italy. For weeks we have highlighted concerns over numbers of ventilators, access to oxygen, critical care bed capacity and ECMO provision. We again call for the government to go further and faster in building up the life saving equipment we need.

Clinicians warn our intensive care beds and high dependency units will soon be at capacity if not overwhelmed. We have already seen a critical incident at one hospital, I have no doubt we will see more. This crisis demands overwhelming resolve.

Other countries across the world have taken further compulsory far reaching measures. In terms of fatalities we are beyond the numbers when Spain and France announced stricter enforcement. We as Her Majesty’s loyal opposition call on the government to move to enforced social distancing and greater social protection as a matter of urgency. If that means forcing people to stay at home then so be it.

We hope the Prime Minister will outline the further necessary steps that will be taken. Suppressing and defeating this virus is about more that so called ‘lock downs’ and enforcement however. We need more testing, contact tracing and isolation to break the chains of transmission as well. The World Health Organisation has famously instructed the world “test, test, test”. We agree.

On this side of the House we have called for testing for the virus to be carried out within our communities on a mass scale starting with NHS and care staff as a priority. We urge the government to rapidly scale up testing and thank all the PHE and NHS lab staff who are working so hard.

Could we not follow for example the Republic of Ireland who currently have 35 community testing facilities in operation with six more planned, with the largest one Croke Park stadium in Dublin providing a drive-through-service that is dealing with testing 1,000 people per day. This approach entirely in keeping with the approach that has been so successful elsewhere, in countries such as South Korea.

Is there a capacity issue with testing? I’m told many labs either haven’t been able to start testing or are testing under-planned capacity because of supply chain issues with the chemicals and kits to do the testing. What is government doing to urgently procure the testing kits we need. Should we be not part of the EU joint procurement for testing kits and indeed other equipment? Can we use testing facilities in Universities and pharmaceutical labs?

Of course, not testing NHS staff puts them and their patients at risk. This weekend we heard a powerful message from doctors shouting out for help, telling us they feel like lambs to the slaughter because of failures in the distribution of protective kit.

I’ve heard of GPs forced to go to DIY stores to make their own PPE, of pharmacists unable to get the appropriate PPE as sick patients walk through their door daily wanting advice. We’ve heard stories of community nurses, health visitors, paramedics left without. The Daily Telegraph report staff at Northwick Park Hospital forced to wear to bin bags.

The health, happiness and lives of our constituents, their loved ones and neighbours depends on our NHS staff now more than ever. We shouldn’t expect our NHS staff to go into battle exposed and not fully protected lacking the armour they desperately need. If more PPE has been delivered, then we welcome that. But it shouldn’t have taken so long.

Our NHS staff deserve every ounce of support we can offer – so can hospital car parking charges for NHS staff be scrapped urgently as well? Those working in critical services more widely – our police, our care workers, our postal workers need the appropriate protecting clothing too. We urge the government to ensure all public servants can access PPE speedily.

For example in the Sunday Times yesterday it was reported that flights continue to arrive at Heathrow from Italy Iran and China, can he explain why those flights are continuing from those hotspots and what protections are being afforded to airline and airport workers and what measure are in place in respect of those passengers on arrival?

And on the tube and trains there is a real worry that services are being reduced too steeply causing our key workers onto crowded carriages putting everyone at risk. What assurances can be given to ensure that there is a sufficiency of public transport services to get our frontline workers safely to their workplace.

Let me turn to some of the specifics of the Bill before making a broader point about protection for human rights and civil liberties. First on the health and social care clauses. The bill makes provisions for retired staff and final year medical and nursing students to re-join the health service for the duration of the pandemic. We understand why and welcome this.

Can the Secretary of State tell the house if final year nursing and medical students will be able to return to learning and complete more supported clinical placements, if needed, once the crisis is over? Can he also outline how these students will be fully supported while working during what will undoubtedly be an incredibly stressful time for new doctors and nurses?

Will students be properly remunerated for their work? What protections will be available for retired staff, many of whom could also be in already vulnerable groups? Mr Speaker, some of the most vulnerable people in the country, who absolutely depend on all us to defend their human rights and civil liberties are those in receipt of adult social care services.

On social care, this Bill makes sweeping changes to the duties which are placed on local authorities. It removes the duty to assess care needs – including on discharge from hospital. So there will be no duty to assess people who might need care or their carers – and no duty to assess some of those with the most severe needs who may be eligible for continuing healthcare.

Can the Secretary of State reassure us that this will not mean that carers, disabled people and older people are left abandoned by the state until after this crisis? Most significantly, it downgrades the level of support which councils are obliged to provide to older and disabled people.

Rather than the current wellbeing measures, councils will now have to provide services where necessary to uphold people’s basic human rights. In short, this means that they will only be entitled to receive social care to keep them alive and uphold their rights to privacy and a family life. Obviously, this is not the vision of social care that we legislated for in 2014, but these are difficult times.

Many older and disabled people – and their families – will be concerned that this will lead to existing care packages being significantly reduced overnight. Local authorities are already struggling to meet statutory needs and increasing levels of workforce absence will only make this harder.

What none of us want to see is the new legal minimum of support become the default. Where local authorities can provide more comprehensive packages of support they should do that. And they should always bear in mind that people who use social care are not simply passive recipients.

There are doctors and nurses who rely on social care, as well as teachers, shop staff, food manufacturers and countless other vital professionals. When councils are reducing care packages, they must be careful not to end up causing yet more difficulties for staff in crucial services.

Our amendments to schedule 11 recognise that there will be difficulties delivering social care over the coming weeks and months. But it should not be possible for local authorities to immediately drop care packages to a lower level. As long as it is reasonably practicable to do so, they should continue to meet people’s care needs. The presumption should always be that services will be disrupted as little as they can be under the circumstances.

Nothing in these amendments would stop a local authority cutting back care hours if they have to. But it would mean that disabled and older people can be reassured that any reductions in their care will be a last resort, rather than their independence being the first sacrifice to be made.

There are particular concerns about people who live alone or are being held in inpatient units and care homes. We have seen visits to these settings stopped as part of the government’s shielding approach and the CQC have halted all inspections of care settings.

We know from incidents like Whorlton Hall that it is too easy for abuse to go unnoticed – something which the current situation could make worse. How will we ensure that some inpatient units and care homes don’t become hotbeds of abuse of human rights over the coming months?

In our new clause related to schedule 11, we are proposing that a relevant body – such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission – be tasked with overseeing the impact that this Bill has on the provision of social care. They would have to report every eight weeks on the operation of these changes, and whether they should be amended. This would provide the oversight which is needed to prevent people’s rights being undermined.

One of the ways that this Bill seeks to free up medical staff is by relaxing requirements under the Mental Health Act. Specifically, it means that only one medical professional will have to agree to someone being sectioned – rather than the two it currently takes.

The scale of this change should not be underestimated. No longer will a decision to section a person have to be taken in consultation by two doctors. There will be no requirement for anyone involved to have prior involvement with the patient. Our medical professionals are going to be under huge pressure over the coming months and mistakes may well be made.

The Bill says that a decision should be taken on the basis of one signature if acquiring a second signature would be impractical or require an unhelpful delay. This seems too vague and potentially open to misreading. Can the Secretary of State tell us what exactly this means, and what safeguards will be put in place to prevent this change being misused?

Our amendments to schedule 7 would mean that this would be narrowed, so that a second signature can only be left off if acquiring it would mean an undesirable delay. If something is impractical it will, by definition, create an undesirable delay. By narrowing the wording in the Bill, we can avoid the potential misuse of powers.

We are also proposing changes to ensure that private mental health hospitals cannot detain someone solely on the single recommendation of one of their employees. This could create a conflict of interest, whereby a doctor comes under pressure to sign a detention authorisation because doing so will provide their employer with income from the NHS. No medical professional should be put under that kind of pressure, and our amendment ensures they cannot be.

The Bill also extends the length of time somebody in hospital can be held waiting to be sectioned – up to five days from three. This may seem like a minor change, but for the individual concerned it could make a significant difference. Can the Secretary of State reassure the House that the intention should still be to adhere to the timetables set out in the Mental Health Act, with the changes we are discussing today only to be used if absolutely necessary?

Many parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities will understand the need for flexibility during this difficult time but they are also extremely nervous that they could see the erosion of the hard-fought-for rights of disabled children and young people, children young people with special educational needs and their families.

The Bill gives the Secretary of State powers to change section 42 of the 2014 Children and Families act from giving children rights in law to requesting public bodies take ‘reasonable endeavours’. We believe this sets a low bar and seek changes to a duty to take ‘all practicable steps’ which would be much firmer. Given we are talking here primarily about educational provision such as specialist tutors and therapy provision such as speech and language therapy, occupational therapy etc, it does not seem that requiring LAs and CCGs to take ‘all practicable steps’ to make that provision would be unreasonable.

Even in terms of ‘pure’ health provision, if the position with coronavirus made it impracticable to arrange this provision then CCGs would be absolved on the duty. The government must reassure families that schedule 16 of the Bill will not be used to weaken the SEND legal framework for any longer than is strictly necessary. The schedule appears to allow for an indefinite series of notices to be made which is understandably causing concern.

Labour’s amendment seeks to establish the requirement to consult with relevant bodies before any notice is made, particularly a second or subsequent notice which modifies section 42 of the Children and Families Act which is the core duty to secure and arrange education and health provision in EHC Plans.

Today’s debate is fundamentally about freedoms. But what freedom is there for those who have faced with making a choice between their health and hardship? Jobs and incomes need to be underpinned with a comprehensive income protection scheme; European-level statutory sick pay for all workers from day one; and increased Universal Credit, with a suspension of sanctions and an end to the 5-week wait.

We welcomed much of the Chancellor’s statement last Friday setting out plans to support the incomes of workers impacted by the Coronavirus outbreak. However there are two significant gaps in the provisions that were offered.

First, as it currently stands, the proposals for income support through the jobs retention scheme does not include the self-employed and freelancers, whose income are now increasingly being seriously affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Will the government today offer assurances to these groups of workers, who don’t have the safety net to safeguard and help them through this time?

We have also welcomed new measures announced by the government to improve access to statutory sick pay for workers. However, this bill doesn’t extend eligibility to all workers, including the just under two million workers who earn less than the threshold to qualify of £118 a week on average.

It doesn’t raise the level of SSP, which at £94.25, is the second lowest in Europe. Even if people qualify for SSP, because it is set at only £94.25 a week, it means they are still likely to struggle to keep on top of even basic household bills.

The only increase on the cards at the moment will be the 1.7% rise in line with inflation to £95.85 from April 6th. Average weekly earnings are currently £512, meaning that the average worker who has to self-isolate for 14 days will see their income fall by over £850 during that time.

Many workers on low pay are also unlikely to have savings to fall back on. According to the latest Family Resources Survey half of households with an income of less than £15,600 a year have no savings at all.

The government’s own consultation on health and work published last July said that there was a danger, even then, that people earning less than the threshold to qualify of £118 a week on average could be working on when unwell and the government believed there was a case to extend eligibility for SSP to them. If it was thought so then, why hasn’t the government acted now to extend eligibility to all workers?

The Bill also gives the government powers to make changes to existing legislation on SSP and the definition of people affected by the first two changes is “an employee whose incapacity for work is related to coronavirus”. Can the Secretary of State clarify whether that includes people who are unable to work because, for instance, their children’s school has closed and they are unable to work from home?

This is of course a difficult time for families, we need parents and carers to be able not just to have the right to ask for emergency leave, but also get it. It is vital that people are able to feed themselves and their children and live without fear of poverty in the best of times; in the current crisis it is vital that people are not left at risk of destitution.

The government announced an increase in Universal Credit and Working Tax Credits on Friday which was welcome but there was no corresponding increase in the level of JSA, ESA or Carer’s Allowance. Will the government therefore end the five-week wait for a first Universal Credit payment through making advances non-repayable for example? And suspend all sanctions and end work search requirements for Universal Credit and the requirement to fill in the online journal during this crisis

Mr Speaker, nobody should have to lose their home because of the virus and its impact and it is welcome that Ministers listened to Labour and committed to an evictions ban for renters. Yet despite promises made by the PM that the government will legislate for this, it is currently not covered in this bill.

8.5 million households rent their home from a private, council or housing association landlord in England. Labour analysis of government statistics shows that six million renting households have no savings at all, and so are particularly vulnerable if they lose their job, or have their hours cut, as a result of coronavirus.

Our threadbare legal and social security safety net offers little protection for renters if they fall on hard times. To give people confidence and reassurance during this difficult time, and to ensure no renter loses their home as a result of coronavirus, rent needs to be suspended for those adversely affected by the impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

Mr Speaker, like many members across the House, Her Majesty’s opposition supports this Bill with very heavy heart. Heavy not just with the shock and grief that this deadly virus has brought , but also, with the very real threats that emergency powers of this nature pose to human rights.

The Bill contains the most draconian powers ever seen in peace-time Britain: Powers to detain and test “potentially infectious” members of the public – including children – in isolation facilities. Powers to shut down gatherings, which could impede the ability to protest against the overall handling of the crisis or against the abuse of these powers themselves.

It needs no explanation and very little imagination to understand the huge potential for abuse that powers like these and others in the Bill – however well-intended and needed – still contain.

These words will chill every liberal and libertarian instinct in each of the great democratic traditions of this House and our nations. They will give shudder to we grandchildren of Hardie and Attlee and to those of Churchill as well.

Which is why I was grateful to the Health Secretary and Solicitor General for discussing these measures with me and the Shadow Attorney General in the rapid preparation stage and for providing at least some of the safeguards that we sought in the legislation.

More from LabourList


We provide our content free, but providing daily Labour news, comment and analysis costs money. Small monthly donations from readers like you keep us going. To those already donating: thank you.

If you can afford it, can you join our supporters giving £10 a month?

And if you’re not already reading the best daily round-up of Labour news, analysis and comment…