Caroline Nokes – 2020 Speech on the Coronavirus Bill

Below is the text of the speech made by Caroline Nokes, the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North, in the House of Commons on 23 March 2020.

There have been some fantastic speeches this evening so far, including from my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Robert Largan) who made a stunning maiden speech, but I wish to go back to the words of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State when he said that the virus impacts most the weak and vulnerable. He is of course right.

I support the measures in the Bill. They are extraordinary measures that can only be used in extraordinary times, but that is exactly what we are facing. Tonight I wish to speak for the weak and the vulnerable, as hon. Members might expect from the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. I have real concerns about how equalities might be impacted and about how those people with protected characteristics for whom we speak might be affected. I draw particular attention to the elderly, who we know are the most impacted by this disease, and their need for care that is appropriate in their own homes at the right time. I speak for the disabled, who of course have the biggest challenges and who desperately need assistance. I appreciate why we have the powers in the Bill, but they must be used proportionately and reasonably.

I also speak for those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds, and, of course, the Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), has done some phenomenal work with faith communities, making sure that funerals can be held appropriately for religions. But I would like to point out that it is in the gig economy where we are most likely to find people from a BAME background working: they are also most likely to be young people. They are also most likely to be self-employed, on zero hours or sole traders, and we must be particularly cognisant of the impact the virus will have on those people who we will want—when this horror is over—to be able to bounce back to be the entrepreneurs who will enable our economy to recover from this difficult period.

I will also, of course, mention women. We know that caring responsibilities fall most heavily on their shoulders. We also know that in areas such as childminding, childminders are not only doing the caring, but of course are providing the support that enables women to go out to work, whether it be in our essential professions at the moment or in all parts of the economy. We must provide support to the childminding sector as well as the early years sector, because when the virus is quashed and we are in a position to rebuild the economy, we will need childminders to enable that 50% of the workforce to go back to work. We have done great work over the past few years in making sure that there are more women in employment, but we have to make sure that it is possible for them when this is over to be able to—

​Steve Brine

That is exactly the point: so many of the early years sector and childminders are self-employed. That is another reason to repeat the point that so many have made today about why we need something for that part of the economy.

Caroline Nokes

My hon. Friend is right, so I have managed to fit in the childminding sector and the self-employed in one hit.

I want also to speak about volunteering and the clarity that is needed. There is a great company in my constituency that runs Kimbridge Barn. That is shut, of course, but the company wants to enable its staff to volunteer, whether in the health service or the care sector, or as delivery drivers—it has many vehicles—but it wants clarity as to whether the 80% of salaries that HMRC will underwrite will be applicable if people are effectively outworking in a voluntary capacity.

I also draw attention to the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt) about whether local government officers should be considering planning applications at the current time. I would also ask whether they should be implementing or imposing parking fines. Those are all areas of regulation that are undertaken by local authorities that are far from an imperative at the current time.

I would like to pay tribute in the voluntary sector to both Southampton Voluntary Services and Unity in Test Valley, who have done some brilliant work pulling together volunteer bureaux and making sure that people in the shielded group will have the support from people in the community who can help deliver medicines and essential shopping.

There is much in the Bill that in ordinary times we would not consider, but I end with one final plea about parliamentary scrutiny. There is as yet no mechanism or ability under Standing Orders for Select Committees such as the Women and Equalities Committee—which has much to scrutinise in the Bill—to meet remotely by video link, by Zoom, by Skype for Business or through any other mechanism. I understand that the Leader of the House will make a statement at some point. I very much hope that he will make sure that, at the very least, the Select Committee structures can work at this time to ensure that measures such as this are held to proper scrutiny, so that we understand how they are impacting on the most vulnerable.