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This is not the speech I expected to give when we heard the Budget, but events have overtaken us. Although I am sure that our country will survive, I am concerned that without more urgent action from the Government, the state that it is in when we have overcome the virus might make it a place where none of us wish to be.
The Government need to clearly understand that there will be a price. They will pay, but the choice is how they will pay. Will they pay upfront and enable people, including the self-employed, to have the statutory sick pay they need? Will they look at universal basic income? Will they ensure that everybody has enough money to live? Will they pay to support all local businesses adequately—small, medium and large—to stop our economy collapsing? Or, alternatively, will they pay at the end, when the economy has collapsed and our country is on its knees, so that when we recover from the virus we cannot get back on our feet? There will be a price and a payment to be made. The Government should consider making that payment now to support our economy and individuals, rather than paying the price at the end.
We need to think about the long term. If we are to adjust to life under coronavirus, we need to look at many different things, such as providing free internet for people in this country, especially the children who are expected to do their school work at home—how can they do that if they do not have equipment to work on or access to free wi-fi? We need to look at feeding children through free school meals programmes. We need to look at giving mental health support to adults who are self-isolating for three or four months. The Government could run a national advertising campaign on TV and radio to signpost adults to the mental health support that is out there. A Facebook coronavirus support group that has gained nearly 5,000 members in just a few hours asks whether the Government could introduce restrictions on the number of items that people buy from supermarkets. We should stop bulk-buying, introduce fairness for everybody and make things equal. We should give the vulnerable and elderly time to shop on their own at the beginning of the day.
There are many people who want to support the community, and that is to be championed; it is something that each and every one of us can feel proud of. However, I sound a slight note of caution. It would be very useful if the Government looked at introducing urgent Disclosure and Barring Service checks on volunteers, so that we can safeguard our most vulnerable people. There could be a way of co-ordinating national volunteers and introducing a very light check on some of these people—for example, those offering to collect money from the elderly and do their shopping.
The Government could also look at supporting and propping up charities such as Samaritans, to make sure that people have the support that they need. We could use Government resources to advertise those charities to everybody in the community through a national campaign.
There should be emergency food supplies for food banks. The food banks have run out of money. Where do people go when they have no food? The food bank. Where do they go when the food bank has no food? Nowhere. The Government could look at providing emergency food parcels to the food banks, so that the homeless on our streets are not just left there to die with nothing. At the moment, the cupboards are well and truly empty.
The self-employed need a lot more support. A taxi driver said to me, “Where am I going to get my business from if everybody’s at home, and no one is going to the pubs or restaurants? What happens to me?” A driving instructor also contacted me. No one will be leaving the house; they will not be looking to him for lessons. Where is the support for those people? They have worked all their life, and may indeed have voted Conservative at the last election. They are looking to the Government and feeling let down. They have been told all along, “Work hard and try hard, and you will do well.” Now their business is being ripped out from beneath them by a Government who are not listening to their cries for support.
What is our purpose in being here? I see mine as being to leave the world in a better state than it was when I arrived here. This is a once-in-a-generation test, and we are being judged—as a country, as individuals, and as a Parliament. I urge the Government to make the right choices, because our country is counting on us, and we cannot fail it.