We have to reflect on the fact that, even not at times of crisis, UK statutory sick pay rate is considerably lower than that of other European nations. A permanent change is required, but a temporary measure which might go beyond that permanent increase is required to deal with covid-19, so the answer is both, if that makes sense.
The Government must extend the policy further to ensure that sick pay is set at an hourly rate and available for everyone for 52 weeks instead of 28. Current rules on statutory sick pay are not flexible enough to meet real-life needs and fall far short of meeting a dignified standard of living, even with this new change. Disability groups have been especially vocal in calling for an overhaul of the sick pay system. Their concerns must be factored into the UK Government’s response to the sick pay consultation.
The UK Government should accept the TUC’s recommendations on sick pay for all. Those include abolishing the lower earnings limit, which would extend coverage to almost 2 million additional workers; permanently removing the waiting period for sick pay; increasing the weekly level of sick pay from £94 to the equivalent of a week’s pay at the real living wage; permanently agreeing that the legal requirement on fit notes after seven days of absence be extended to 14 days, with employers accepting self-certification for anything less than that; and permanently providing funds to ensure that employers can afford to pay sick pay.
The UK Government must do all they can to support businesses, to ensure that jobs are kept for the duration of this crisis. I would like to see the UK Government provide much greater grants, rather than loans, to help all businesses stay afloat, and attach conditions about ensuring that jobs are protected. We have seen that type of initiative in Denmark, and I hope the UK will follow.
Clearly, we all hope that these issues are temporary. The UK Government must do all they can to ensure that the attachment between employer and employee is not detached. That is important for workers, employers and the wider economy. Yesterday, Robert Chote, the chair of the Office for Budget Responsibility, urged the UK Government not to be “squeamish” about spending whatever it takes to prevent mass foreclosures, bankruptcies and millions of job losses as the UK effectively goes into lockdown. He said:
“When the fire is large enough you just spray the water and worry about it later.”
I turn to measures to support people who are self-employed and other business owners. The UK Government must do more. I echo the calls from my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss last night. We must protect the incomes of people who are self-employed and do so quickly, to give them confidence. She was also right to raise issues around maternity leave, parental leave and support for people with no recourse to public funds; they are extremely vulnerable at the best of times, but right now they must be supported. The UK Government must give information to the devolved Governments as quickly as possible, and encourage much greater information sharing to allow all Governments to act swiftly and appropriately. At Prime Minister’s questions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber raised the prospect of some form of minimum income guarantee, such as a universal basic income. The Prime Minister appeared to accept the general premise, but time is now of the essence. Can the Minister give an idea of when he expects some form of announcement on people receiving financial support?
The UK Government should consider whether they will extend the normal deadlines for people to provide the necessary information to support social security applications, while paying people much more quickly as the demand is likely to be much greater. There is clearly a need to go further on social security. Ministers have heard me discuss the various issues that there are routinely with universal credit. The changes I want to universal credit, although they would undoubtedly help in this crisis, may not be practically achievable in a useful timescale—I am talking about scrapping the five-week wait, the two-child cap and increasing work allowances.
Instead, for the duration of this crisis, the UK Government need to ensure that those who are in or out of employment, those who are employed or self-employed, are paid an amount that allows them to get through. Universal credit advances, for instance, should now come in the form of a grant, not a loan. The Government should also look at urgently suspending the tax credit income disregard for reductions in earnings, at least for the 2020-21 financial year, to ensure that, where earnings fall, household tax credits entitlement takes account of that loss.
We now know that schools in Scotland and Wales are to close at the end of this week. That puts huge pressure on families who rely on free school meals, so I urge the UK Government to look at this area, as pressures are going to be on those families for the duration of the school closures.