Statutory Sick Pay and Protection for Workers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:37 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West 2:37 pm, 18th March 2020

I thank Richard Fuller, who has been uniquely brave in speaking from the Back Benches on his side of the House. I think that there was much that we on the Opposition Benches could agree with him about.

The scale of the coronavirus crisis means that we need to take action in many forms, and ensuring that people have economic security is second only to our response in safeguarding people’s health. The point will come at which we have mass isolation—I feel that that point is probably coming very soon—and that will happen whether people are symptomatic or not. This unprecedented challenge needs an unprecedented response, and we must work together to bring forward the right response, which safeguards people and brings future confidence, not just immediate wellbeing. A measure that will do just that is an emergency universal basic income, which will give everyone the basic financial support they need to provide the necessities of everyday life through this crisis.

My hon. Friend Wes Streeting, who has just left the Chamber, made some very good points. In normal circumstances, this might be a debate in which we would ask questions, explore different aspects of the situation and, particularly on the Opposition Benches, talk about the benefits of universal basic income versus universal basic services. I suggest to the Government that if we had universal basic services in areas such as childcare and social care, we would be in a much better place to weather this crisis than we are with just a single universal basic service, the national health service, taking the brunt of the crisis.

Putting that aside, and thinking about where we are and the phase of the coronavirus crisis that we are about to enter, we need to take this step. We just need to think about how our economy has changed fundamentally since 2008, with the number of self-employed people having risen over the past 15 years from 3.25 million people to more than 5 million people. They can only properly be protected through a universal basic income, as can those who will sadly lose their employment through redundancy, temporary lack of work or the failure and closure of businesses because of the crisis.

Let us think about the app-based driver, the zero-hours warehouse worker, the children’s entertainer and the agency-supplied care worker. None of them has an employer. The Government can incentivise by keeping them in work. A universal basic income would be more holistic and more effective than subsidising a company payroll, which currently seems to be the Government’s main tool in dealing with the crisis.

Finally, let me, just for a moment, look across the Atlantic to the United States of America. Normally, on this side of the House, we do not look to the United States of America, but just yesterday the US Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, said that cash infusions could happen swiftly:

“We're looking at sending checks to Americans immediately.”

That sounds very much like a temporary universal basic income to me. Well before this crisis, Andrew Yang, the former Democratic contender for the presidency, said that a universal basic income of $1,000 a month should be introduced. He is now speaking directly to the White House. Donald Trump himself has said:

“I think we’re going to do something that gets money to them as quickly as possible.”

This is a measure that will get money straight to people and give them that basic economic security. Let me say to Ministers that if Yang and Trump can work together, surely so can Sunak and McDonnell.