Statutory Sick Pay and Protection for Workers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:03 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Labour, Ilford North 2:03 pm, 18th March 2020

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), the Chair of the Select Committee, and I want to build on some of the points they made both about the practical challenges people face in the midst of this pandemic and about some of the fundamental questions posed to each of us as members of a society that has left far too many people far too dangerously exposed, not just in the face of this pandemic but in everyday life—a plight that has gone unanswered for far too long.

I want to begin by paying tribute particularly to the workers in the NHS who are putting themselves in harm’s way as they treat people in the midst of this pandemic, and I absolutely echo what my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West said: it is crucial that NHS workers have access to the right kit to do the job and that, where there is any concern about the diagnosis of those NHS workers or their family members, they are considered priority cases for testing. Frankly, the Government’s claim to be among the best in the world at testing tells us only that the rest of the world has much more to do, because we are hearing of far too many cases where people who need to be tested are not receiving that test.

The crisis we face is not just a public health crisis; it threatens to be an economic one. The supply and demand-side shocks it will pose will be both simultaneous and severe, so it requires co-ordinated action on the part of Government and industry on a scale that we have not seen since the second world war. A wartime mobilisation is going to be required for this peacetime crisis. Many families, as they gather around the kitchen table this afternoon and this evening to consider what a loss of earnings or perhaps a loss of employment would mean for them and their families, are staring at the hard reality of a social insecurity system that has left far too many people grappling with poverty and insecurity, and ongoing crises as a result, for far too long. No one can or should be expected to live on SSP of £94.25 a week. No one should be expected to live on universal credit, which in some cases can be even less generous—if that is the right word—than SSP. So I echo the calls this afternoon for increases to SSP and UC to ensure that our social security system provides just that—social security, not just in the worst of times, but in the best of times for our country.

Ministers should ask, but so should people in our communities, how the political choices of successive Governments and the political demands of sections of the electorate ever allowed a position in which we allow people who have fallen on hard times to fall into harder times still because of the social insecurity system, which pushes people further into poverty, mental ill health and family crises, which make it harder, not easier, to escape from this. I suspect I am one of a minority of people in this House who know what it is like to grow up in a household that is reliant on the social security system; what it is like when there are more days left to the end of the month than there is money; what it is like when people have to beg, borrow and steal to put food in the fridge; what it is like when the electricity meter has run out and so has the emergency; and what it is like to feel a victim of the state, rather than supported by the state. We should resolve, in the midst of this crisis, that once it is over, never again are we going to allow our social security system to fail people in the way that it did before this crisis and that it threatens to do within this crisis.

Yesterday, the Chancellor set out a series of measures to help businesses and to try to get the economy through this. I welcome those measures, but we have to learn from past mistakes. It is not enough to bail out businesses, although that is important; we also have to bail out people. As we build the economic recovery, we have to ensure that the quantitative easing that helps provide liquidity to our economy to help things keep going as best they can in difficult times is also a quantitative easing for the people. By all means, let us call for an increase in SSP, UC and disability benefits, to make sure that people can live with dignity and have a good quality of life if they are unable to work. All those things are important, but instead of quibbling about piecemeal measures, with a bit of mortgage relief here and a bit of rental support there, why do we not just provide every household in this country with the security to know that the Government will provide protection for people’s incomes, so that they can continue to make sensible choices for their families, so that they know that when the end of the month comes and the mortgage or the rent is due they can pay it, and so that they know that when the bills are due and when they have to do their shop, they will be able to pay for this?

I have always been a sceptic about the principle of universal basic income, because I fundamentally believe in an economy and a social security system that redistributes wealth from those who have it to those who need it most. I am also cynical about it because although there are many principled and decent-minded champions of universal basic income on the left of politics, the left should regard the principle with suspicion when some of its leading champions have been right-wing economists, such as the father of free market economics, Adam Smith. There is a right-wing vision of universal basic income that is about dismantling the state and that says, “If we provide everyone with the income, we don’t need to provide the services centrally because people can pay for them.” That is one reason, I suspect, why the Trump Administration have not needed much persuasion to provide a form of basic income.

But although we should regard the principle with suspicion as an ongoing solution to how we provide social security for people, there is now a strong case for a form of basic income to see us through this crisis. It could be a universal payment made available to everyone, where the tax system is used to recoup the money from those who genuinely do not need it. It could be a form of basic income, where those who need it simply apply for it and then receive it. It could be a form of income protection, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West described, which is already working well in Scandinavia. But one way or another, we have to make sure that families have incomes to see themselves through this crisis, because as we have already heard, the majority of people in this country tonight are one lost payday away from being in a real crisis, and the crisis for them will be a crisis for all of us if demand is further sucked out of the economy. I hope that Ministers will take that message back to the Treasury.

Finally, it is not just the social insecurity system that has left people exposed in this crisis. We have to make sure that this is a turning point. It could be that our political choices further entrench inequality in our society—just as, frankly, the coalition and Conservative Governments did after the last financial crisis, when too many of the political decisions and so-called tough choices meant balancing the books on the backs of the poorest.