Justin Madders – 2020 Speech on Public Health

Below is the text of the speech made by Justin Madders, the Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Neston, in the House of Commons on 15 June 2015.

Today marks 12 weeks since the country went into lockdown and we saw the biggest peacetime restrictions ever. Over the past 12 weeks, the public have made huge sacrifices. The vast majority of them supported and adhered to the lockdown, and it is right that we take a moment to acknowledge the sacrifices they have made in the interests of public health—the business that faces an uncertain future, the child who has missed out on crucial social and educational opportunities, and the grandparents who just want to give their grandchildren a hug. We know it has been hard, and we thank them for doing their bit.

We also thank those in the NHS and other parts of the public sector, in social care and of course the millions of other people who have made their own contributions in the collective fight against the virus. When we have seen over the weekend images that represent the worst of this country, let us not forget that many, many more have in recent months shown us what the very best of this country can look like.

It is also right to take a moment to remember the more than 41,000 lives that have been lost to the virus, each one a tragic loss. We mourn them all.

We are here today to consider the third iteration of the regulations, just as further relaxations come into force to allow non-essential shops to open for the first time. Those measures are probably the single largest relaxation since lockdown was introduced—but we are not here to debate those changes. In our view, we ought to be, but instead we are here to debate the changes that came into force two weeks ago, on 1 June, and the interventions on the Minister that we have heard demonstrate why there is some anxiety.

Changes should be debated and have democratic consent before they are introduced. I thank the Minister for acknowledging Opposition concern in respect of that, and I understand why urgent action is needed, but it should be perfectly possible for us to debate regulations at short notice. We in the Opposition stand ready to co-operate with whatever is necessary to make that happen.

Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab)

Considering that Government have one job, and one job alone right now, which is keeping us safe and preparing for the days ahead, is it not inexcusable that they are not able to keep Parliament up to date at the same speed as they announce things to the media?

Justin Madders

I will come on to the discourteous way in which the Prime Minister has been announcing these things to press conferences instead of this Chamber.

It is important that this Chamber has a role because these are not minor or consequential changes that can be nodded through without debate. They affect millions of people’s lives, and we know that if we get it wrong, the consequences will be devastating. Debating them weeks after the event, and in some cases when they have been superseded by the next set of regulations, demeans ​parliamentary democracy. Changes such as these should always be accompanied by a statement to Parliament, not just showcased at Downing Street press conferences. We are not merely a rubber-stamping exercise to create the veneer of a democratic process. We should not be debating these measures late, and we should not be debating them without seeing the full extent of the information on which the Government based their decisions. We know that the next review of the regulations must take place on or before 25 June. If that review leads to further relaxations, will the Minister commit today that any regulations introduced off the back of that will be debated here before they are implemented and not retrospectively?

The reviews, which are legally required to happen under the regulations, took place on 16 April, 7 May and 28 May. I ask the Minister: where are they? In a written question, I asked the Secretary of State whether he would publish those reviews. I received a reply last week stating that the Department of Health and Social Care had indicated that it would not be possible to answer the question within the usual time period. Why on earth not? If the Government have conducted these reviews, why are they not in a position to disclose them? I find this absolutely incredible. Here we have the most far-reaching impositions into everyday life in this country, yet we have no idea what the Government’s own reviews of them say. These are reviews that are required under legislation.

Sir Charles Walker

They are far-reaching, and it is a pretty poor reflection on this Chamber that it is empty. It is probably only a third full, even with the social distancing rules in place. Where are our colleagues getting upset about the removal of people’s civil liberties? Neither side here has a great story to tell.

Justin Madders

If these regulations were actually going to be changed as a result of what we said here, we might see a better attendance, but the Government have shown the contempt in which they hold this place by introducing them way after the event. The question is: where are the reviews? What is it that we cannot see in them? This betrays a cavalier attitude to transparency, and it does absolutely nothing to engender confidence that the decisions that are being taken are the right ones.

Peter Kyle

We have to get this on to the record. My right hon. Friends the Members for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) and for Derby South (Margaret Beckett) want to be here engaging in the debate, but they are unable to be here because the virtual Parliament has been closed down for debates such as these, and they have to shield. The Government are telling them not to be here. That is the reason they are not here. Is that not correct?

Justin Madders

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am sure there are many Members who cannot be here for good reasons but who would like to take part in the debate. They are following the Government’s advice, which is to work from home wherever possible. This just shows how confused the approach is sometimes, and it really is an affront to democracy that those Members cannot take part in important debates such as these.

​Mr Harper

For the benefit of the House, I understand that that particular point about participation in legislative debates is currently being considered by the Procedure Committee. I think the Government have indicated that if the Procedure Committee can come up with a sensible way of including colleagues who need to participate remotely in legislative debate, that is something that the Government will look at favourably. I hope that is helpful to the House.

Justin Madders

I thank the former Chief Whip for his intervention. I would certainly welcome that development. I have not heard anything from the current Leader of the House to explain why we can take part remotely in some debates but not in others. I will not take any more interventions, because I know we are up against time.

Turning to the regulations themselves, they include, as the Minister outlined, some relaxations including the reopening of some outdoor retail as well as various outdoor sporting activities. They also make provision for elite athletes in anticipation of the return of professional sport, including the Premier League later this week. I am sure we are all looking forward to that, although anyone who has witnessed the Arsenal back four this season may consider the definition of an elite athlete to be a triumph of hope over reality.

It is not all one way, however, and for the first time, the regulations include a list of venues that must now close. I fail to see any logic, coherence or consistency in respect of the Government’s approach to these venues and, critically, there has been no impact assessment on those venues. The first set of regulations, despite their sweeping nature, had no impact assessment at all. We understand, of course, why that was not possible in the first instance, but we have made it clear that we do not want that to become the norm, because we know that the impact of these regulations will be huge. We are now on the third set of regulations, 12 weeks after the lockdown started, and we have still had no impact assessment. How can the Government continue to issue new laws with such sweeping powers when they cannot tell us what their impact is?

Is there a document the Minister can point us to that sets out the Government’s own assessment of whether they have met the five tests they set themselves for relaxing the lockdown? Certainly, there is concern that the threshold for relaxation has not yet been met. Only yesterday, the World Health Organisation expressed concern that we may be coming out of lockdown too early. According to a recent University of Oxford study on each country’s level of readiness for easing lockdown, we are now fourth from bottom in the entire world.

The questioning comes not just from outside bodies but the Government’s own joint biosecurity centre, which has not reduced the threat level—still level 4—and says very clearly that only when the threat reduces to level 3 can there be any relaxation of restrictions. I implore the Minister to set out exactly why the Government feel they can depart from the opinion of their own joint biosecurity centre.

All these concerns matter not only because of the enormous impact of the regulations but, frankly, because the Government appear to be winging it in respect of ​which regulations they choose to apply. Take the new category of venues to be closed in schedule 2—model villages, zoos, safari parks, aquariums and so on. Clearly, that was an oversight in the original regulations, but we have seen a rapid U-turn on parts of the regulations so that, as I understand it, zoos and safari parks are no longer required to close. How have the Government got themselves into such a mess that we are debating on the Floor of the House regulations that they do not fully support? How can it possibly be consistent with the rule of law for the Government to present us with regulations and say, “Actually, we’re going to pretend that bits of this are not there”? It is an absolute shambles. To preserve the rule of law, it is vital that people do not act outside the law, but how can we expect it to be enforced properly if the Government say that bits of the regulations do not need to be followed? The changes come to us late, without any assessment of their impact, and after some of them have been pulled. That does not inspire confidence that the Government are in control of the situation or following any kind of plan.

As we know, the WHO, the Association of Directors of Public Health and some of the Government’s own scientific advisers have said that the easing of lockdown should not occur until the testing and tracing system is proven to be more robust, but the reality is that the system is in chaos. The Government have not been able to publish the number of people tested each day for more than three weeks now. How can testing and tracing work properly if we do not know how many people are tested each day? A third set of data from the test and trace system shows that it needs a lot more work. Just over 8,000 people were tested, but only two thirds of them were contacted. Missing out a third is not what I would call an effective and robust system.

And what of the app? It seems that the world-leading, game-changing, virus-busting app is not as important as it once was. That is a fate that probably awaits us all in here, but the app has suffered a downgrade before it has even been launched. Last month, the Secretary of State said it would be crucial and that downloading the app would be a public duty. Now we are told that it is not vital; it is more of a cherry on the cake. Which is it? Will the Minister explain how it is safe to open non-essential retail if people who might come across someone who is infected cannot be traced because there is no working app in place?

The Government have been too slow on testing, too slow on social care, too slow on personal protective equipment, and too slow on the lockdown, and now it seems they are too slow on tracing. The Prime Minister promised a world-beating system by 1 June, but that date is long gone. Newspaper reports suggest that we may not get a fully operational system until September. When pressed in debate on the last set of regulations, the Minister could not give us a date when it will be ready.

This matters because the restrictions are being lifted now. The Government must demonstrate that they have got a grip of the testing and tracing strategy in order to restore public confidence in their handling of the pandemic and to ensure that we do not risk another catastrophic spike of infection that will lead to a second lockdown, with all the damage that will bring. The Government have taken the decision to lift the restrictions. It is for ​them to demonstrate that they are listening to the experts and publish the full scientific evidence behind the decisions that have been taken.

We want the Government to succeed and remain committed to working constructively with them, but that is a two-way street. I have now spoken three times on these regulations. On each occasion I have stressed the importance of the Government operating within the rule of law, following due process and providing us with a full evidence base supporting the decisions they take. On each occasion the Government have failed to listen to those concerns. They have failed to demonstrate that they are following the science, they have failed to show that they are assessing the impact of their decisions, and they have failed to show that they grasp the importance of accountability. This Parliament and this country deserve the full picture, so I hope next time we debate these issues we get just that.