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Budget Resolutions

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:44 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Anneliese Dodds Anneliese Dodds Shadow Minister (Treasury) 9:44 pm, 16th March 2020

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—that was slightly unexpected, but I am sure it reflected this wide-ranging and well-subscribed debate. We have heard some excellent maiden speeches. I wish I could praise them more fully, but it was wonderful to hear from the new hon. Members for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham), for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), and for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici). I wish them every success in this place.

As my hon. Friend Christian Matheson said, this was a Budget of two halves—a response both to coronavirus and to longer-term issues—but we needed an emergency Budget even before coronavirus came along. I am afraid I cannot agree with the rosy description the Minister gave of our economy at the start of the debate. Sadly, before the current crisis began, our economy was flatlining. We had three months of 0% growth up to January, we have had the lengthiest squeeze on living standards in this country since Napoleonic times, and we have had the slowest recovery from an economic crisis for 100 years.

We needed an emergency response in this Budget for the long term as well as the short term. I will talk about where there are some questions about the short-term response, but we broadly agree with the direction of travel and will work with the Government on those issues. However, we really need to see the long-term response. I hope we will have more detailed discussions about that, particularly once the present crisis has passed.

There has been much debate in the last few hours about public services. A number of Members talked about the new investment coming in, but a number also mentioned confusion about testing. We got more clarity during the course of the afternoon, but I make this plea to the Government: it is critical to have transparency. It was clear, at least in what I heard from the Health Secretary, that policy has been driven to an extent by the availability of testing. If that had just been made clearer earlier, we would have avoided much unnecessary confusion. We also learned today that the NHS will be required to identify and contact individuals who will need to self-isolate. I know many GP surgeries are doing that already, but we must recognise the hours that that mammoth task will take up.

Surely we also need more detail on international action. We heard the Health Secretary say today that every effort is rightly being made to bring on new ventilator capacity, for example. Can we have more detail about what work is being undertaken with other countries so we do not have an unseemly scramble for resources that are so desperately necessary in our country and others?

There was much discussion, too, about social care. As my hon. Friend Zarah Sultana rightly said, we are in a difficult situation already when it comes to our social care services, with 500,000 fewer people receiving publicly funded care now than back in 2010. We did not have specific information about how social care organisations—not necessarily the small and medium-sized enterprises, which might be covered by other schemes—will be supported. A number of those bodies are already in financial difficulties. How will they be supported? We need that information.

On business support, the Health Secretary said he had his “eyes wide open” to the economic consequences of this crisis. His eyes are wide open, but he needs to take more action, given the dawning realisation of the potential impacts, which were described eloquently by my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi. Many of us share her concerns—including, it appears, Paul Johnson from the IFS, who stated today that the support so far is insufficient. We need answers to questions such as, what will be the role of the British Business Bank? What will be the precise co-ordination between banks? We know the Government are working with them, but what exactly will be done?

Critically, we also need answers about insurance. I was pleased to hear that the Economic Secretary is talking to the insurance industry but, first, we really need to understand when and if the Government will state explicitly that it is necessary to close facilities such as pubs, restaurants and leisure facilities. We know that, lacking footfall, they will practically close, but they will not be covered by insurance. Please—we need more information about that. As Saqib Bhatti said, please can we ensure that this coronavirus is recognised for insurance purposes and push the companies to do that?

Then, of course, there are questions about support for individuals. There is a debate about sick pay tomorrow, when I am sure many Members will mention, as others did today, the need for short-working arrangements. That was mentioned by the right hon. Members for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), my hon. Friend Jack Dromey and John Redwood. He is not a man with whom I am always in perfect agreement, but he was absolutely right to point out the need for those arrangements. Germany is looking at introducing them again, as it did during the financial crisis, and Ireland is already shifting towards a similar position. As my hon. Friend Ruth Cadbury said, we seem to be a bit behind the curve when it comes to the international response in that regard, particularly in comparison with France.

There are also many questions about social security, which is essential in a situation where, as my hon. Friend Jim McMahon said, so many people are a payday away from poverty. We heard many questions about help for the self-employed, which was mentioned by Chris Grayling and my hon. Friend Afzal Khan. Simply saying that people can go on to universal credit or employment and support allowance, with all the issues we know they have, just is not good enough. As my hon. Friend Emma Hardy said, unless we deal with income maintenance now, we will make the economic contraction even sharper than it needs to be.

There was much discussion today about housing. My hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh pointed out the dire impact of overcrowding in trying to deal with this crisis. I understand discussions about mortgages are going on and that there will be guidance on rough sleeping, but we need clarity on exactly what is going to change. Are the Government going to work with courts on evictions, foreclosures and so on?

Questions were raised about support for older people and whether the free TV licence would be provided for over-75s. What exactly is the action on free school meals going to be? It is good that the Government are talking among themselves—the Education Secretary talking to the Health team and so on—about free school meals, but what action will be taken? When will our devolved Governments know exactly which funds will be available? Just always saying, “We’ll get that information later” is not good enough.

The same situation applies to local government. As mentioned so many times, including by my hon. Friend Bambos Charalambous, there is no clarity yet about when public health allocations will become clear. We heard in the debate that local authorities will have even more responsibilities, for example, for burials in some aspects. Their rent will be diminished through the housing revenue account. It was telling that the Secretary of State said that help for charities would need to come from clinical commissioning groups, not local authorities. That perhaps reflects how hollowed our local authorities are, but how will the national volunteer effort, which we heard about again today, be delivered if it is not with the support of local authorities?

The Minister said at the start of the debate that we should be fighting this war while we are planning the peace. Then let us learn the lessons. We need to recognise how our response is being made harder because of changes that have occurred over recent years. My hon. Friend Justin Madders listed the many sad, historic NHS waiting list records we have recently reached. We did not have any reference, in introductory speeches, to the health inequalities data that have come out recently, and we did not have reference to the crises in mental health and other areas. We needed a long-term plan for social care before this crisis. We needed the 100,000 staff we are missing from our NHS before this crisis. We are asking those staff to make extraordinary efforts. They have a sense of grim determination, passion and commitment to do the right thing, but we should never, ever again be asking them to do the right thing with so few resources after 10 years.