Statutory Sick Pay and Protection for Workers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:27 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Richard Fuller Richard Fuller Conservative, North East Bedfordshire 2:27 pm, 18th March 2020

Yes, yes, yes, yes and yes. Those yeses are for each of the businesses in my constituency that I have spoken to in the last 24 hours that have asked for precisely that. We often think: how can a business suddenly be short of money to pay its own workers within a short period of time? But the truth is that, in some sectors, cash flow is of a nature that those issues do come up. More importantly, I say to those on my Front Bench that every single responsible private sector business right now will be thinking, first and foremost, “How can I protect cash flow for the long-term survival of my business?” One of the nearest short-term costs that can be reduced is their employee cost, so there is the sense that this is needed, as the hon. Member rightly says, in hours rather than days. To be fair, I think the Chancellor was very aware of that in his statement yesterday.

To that end, may I encourage hon. Members on both sides—there are slightly more on the Opposition Benches than on the Government Benches for certain reasons—to think more about using what is already in place, such as the systems that connect what the Government can do to those institutions and people that need it, rather than trying to broaden it out into a big and different debate about whether we should have this or that. There is of course a time for debating universal income, and there is time for us to think about ways in which we might look at a better overall system in the future.

Right now, I say to my right hon and hon. Friends on the Front Bench that we should be looking at proposals using the existing arteries of the financial system, of the benefits system and of the pay-as-you-earn and tax system that can reach people, either to amplify payments that are already made or to reverse flows from into the Government to back out to those who need them, and I ask them not to get too distracted by items along the way.

We should also recognise that in this period there will be a test for the labour market structure in the United Kingdom. The UK does have some not quite unique but nuanced features, particularly its reliance on flexible working and on self-employment. The changes that Governments have put in over the past 15 years to create a flexible market—there are benefits to that—will also be tested during this pause in the economy. After we have gone through this crisis, I would encourage the Government to see what lessons can be learnt from that.

This is also a test in terms of the enlightenment we have in our social insurance system. I was moved by the contributions from Rachel Reeves, the Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and Wes Streeting. It is absolutely right that this is an opportunity for us to look at those things and to reflect. We may have different perspectives on it, and we will definitely have different politics, but only a fool would say that we should not look at this and learn lessons. This is no time for fools.

My core message for the Government is this: the staging of announcements is absolutely right, so that they can bed in with people; use the systems we have to get money into the hands of the people and businesses who need it; and follow the advice from both sides of the House, which is that we would welcome the Government’s moving with speed between the announcement and the time that the money is available in the bank manager’s office in Arlesey, Bolnhurst or anywhere else in the country, or in that person’s pay packet, their bank account, or their benefits slip.