Statutory Sick Pay and Protection for Workers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:15 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (International Trade) 2:15 pm, 18th March 2020

I thank my hon. Friend for what she says. It reinforces the point, and she made the same point in the question she asked the Chancellor yesterday evening. I just hope that Ministers are taking on board how quickly things need to change. One of my constituents made the point that he does not qualify for statutory sick pay, as he is self-employed. That is a real problem for the 5 million people who are self-employed and have lost all their work. Whether it is universal credit or ESA, it simply is not anywhere near enough money. He is staying at home, observing advice from Government and not able to earn his weekly wage. Whatever is in the package from the Government, which the Minister has already referred to, it is nowhere near enough for what they need.

Another of my constituents, a nurse, asked me to raise the situation of principal carers who live with somebody in a vulnerable group. What is the advice for her? The example she gives is her son, who cares for his wife, who has a chronic respiratory disease. She is 26, but with that disease she is clearly in one of the highest risk groups. She cannot work and does not leave the house, but what is he supposed to do? He is still going to work, but with great anxiety, because he might catch the disease and pass it on to her. They have a mortgage and they need his income. Those are real-world examples. We have all heard them from our constituents and from others around the country, and they show why action has to be immediate.

I have mentioned the self-employed and freelancers, small firms and people on zero-hours contracts. The support just is not there. If someone is employed and they qualify, the £94.25 a week they get is not enough. Universal credit is not enough. The support announced yesterday for the hospitality and retail sectors for a few weeks is encouraging, but what is really needed is the kind of cash injection that a number of my hon. and right hon. Friends have already mentioned, and that was put to the Chancellor last night in the statement.

Loans are part of the answer, but there is a massive question mark with loans from a banking system that many businesses still do not trust because of how it behaved during the financial crisis. Loans have to be repaid. That was the point I made to the Chancellor in the question I asked last night. In reality, we have to avoid storing up problems further down the line with the actions that are taken now. These were very big numbers—eye-catching, headline-grabbing numbers, such as £330 billion—but the reality is that the £10,000 on offer to small firms will not last very long as a grant.

Then there is the question of information. The Minister mentioned the gov.uk website. Not many businesses—and I work with them across the country—are aware that that is where to go to get this information. The Government need to do a lot more to get the information out there quickly on a range of issues, using social media, television and radio.

The grant system for businesses announced yesterday appears only to be starting next week. Again, that is so much later than needed. Is there any way of bringing it forward? We have heard the examples from Scandinavia, with contributions towards salaries of 75% by the Government in Denmark, 90% in Sweden and 60% in Germany, or 67% for those with parental responsibilities. The Minister said that these things take time. Why is it that other countries have been able to put these measures in place so quickly, but we are not at that stage yet? What is holding us back if they were able to do it? It seems to me that if they can do it, so can we.

Are the Government looking at what the TUC has said about a real living wage and what Members have said about a universal basic income for a limited period? I tend to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford North on that period. We need to redefine what we mean by sick pay. It is not just whether someone is sick; it is whether they are in danger of becoming sick and infecting other people. It is about giving financial reassurance and making up for the lost jobs, the livelihoods that are at risk and the contracts that have gone in whatever sector of the economy, for as long as it takes.

Only the Government can intervene, and if we do not get this right, it will be so much worse for the health of us all and for the economy. The Government say that they will do whatever it takes—that is the three-word slogan of the moment. “Whatever it takes” means giving every single person in this country the financial security they need right now to ensure that they can protect themselves, their families and the rest of us.