Statutory Sick Pay and Protection for Workers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:21 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions) 1:21 pm, 18th March 2020

I thank the Labour party for devoting some of its Opposition time to allow us all to discuss this serious, pertinent, timely and important issue, given the uncertainty facing many of our constituents across the UK.

With your forbearance, Madam Deputy Speaker, I stress at the outset for anybody watching that people should follow the advice of their local health authorities, such as NHS Scotland or Public Health England. Regular updates are coming from the Governments across the isles. I recommend that, as best as possible, employees and employers follow the available guidance.

I commend everyone leading the response to the situation, including NHS staff, other emergency services, local authorities, the voluntary sector and Governments across the isles, who have been working together as best as possible to ensure that the best advice, based on science, and the best support is available at the right time. I particularly praise Professor Jason Leitch, a former dux of Airdrie Academy in my constituency and the Scottish Government’s national clinical director. Alongside the Scottish Health Secretary Jeane Freeman and the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, he has been the model of calm, erudite leadership.

In the spirit of cross-party co-operation that we have seen emerge at Holyrood, I, too, have no desire to be political or criticise where working constructively can bring about better outcomes and engender greater confidence in the response of all Governments to the crisis. When I call for further action, therefore, it is not because I think the UK Government are deliberately holding back. I believe there is a genuine desire across all Governments to do the right thing at the right time.

The concerns that remain in large sections of society regarding the UK Government’s economic response to covid-19 essentially boil down to ensuring that incomes are protected when demand falls in huge sections of the economy. Renters, the self-employed, small business owners and people who are in or out of work just want to know that they will get the financial support they need to survive.

Constituents who are self-employed, such as taxi drivers, driving instructors, childcare providers and many more, have contacted me because they are worried about making sure that they do the right thing at the right time, while providing for their families and employees. My right hon. Friend Ian Blackford and the shadow Health Secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, have led calls for statutory sick pay arrangements to be improved to help workers who contract covid-19 or who have to self-isolate.

Although we welcome the UK Government’s move to make sick pay kick in from day one, and for the cost of sick pay to be met by them for companies with fewer than 250 staff for a period of 14 days, there is still more to do to support workers and businesses. Statutory sick pay is a reserved matter, as is employment law, so those areas are required to be decided upon here.

My right hon. Friend compared statutory sick pay rates in the UK with the rates of our European neighbours. As the House will be aware, that is not currently a favourable comparison for the UK Government. The UK rate is currently £94.25 a week—the second lowest rate when compared with EU nations. Ireland doubled its rate to £266 in response to covid-19, while Germany and Austria both pay £287 a week. At £94.25 a week, the UK Government are presiding over a system of poverty pay for those who are sick. One Tory MP was asked on Twitter whether she could live on £94.25 per week, and she simply responded “Get a life”.

This is really serious. We are asking people, even if they have mild symptoms, to self-isolate for the greater good, to contain and delay the spread of covid-19. We must be sympathetic with constituents who are asking legitimate questions about the advice and support they are getting. Statutory sick pay is an issue that should have been resolved before now, frankly. In response to this situation, the UK Government must act quickly.

At the Work and Pensions Committee hearing this morning, there was consensus among the witnesses that statutory sick pay should be raised. Citizens Advice is asking for it to go up to £180 per week. Scope is asking for it to be the equivalent of the national minimum wage. Others have said that the equivalent of the real living wage would be more appropriate, and Scandinavian countries are making it 100% of wages. The UK Government must act.

Alongside the rate of statutory sick pay, there are other specific areas where we want to see action from the UK Government.