Statutory Sick Pay and Protection for Workers

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:51 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Secretary of State for Employment Rights 2:51 pm, 18th March 2020

We conclude this debate on statutory sick pay and protection for workers at a time of immense uncertainty, as we are witnessing an implosion in our labour markets and people’s lives being turned upside down. As we have long feared, those in the most insecure work have little resilience to weather this storm. As we speak, thousands of people are being laid off, falling into hardship and fearful for their future. We cannot let the story of coronavirus also be the one about avoidable poverty, so, today, Labour is highlighting how Government must take a far more robust approach to create the safety net that we all need.

The Government have said that no one should be penalised for doing the right thing, yet without stronger underpinning of statutory sick pay and employment and wage protection, many will be plunged into serious debt, unable to pay their rent, their bills and even for their food, as my hon. Friend Matt Rodda set out.

I will, if I may, start with workers’ protection. We need all workers to be kept safe and to be protected from contracting coronavirus in the first place. Employers must maintain their duty of care. Too few workers still have access to appropriate PPE, as my hon. Friend Wes Streeting set out while paying tribute to NHS staff, and I endorse what he said.

Yesterday, community pharmacists in my constituency highlighted to me how they have now become the frontline of healthcare, and yet they only had a tiny stock of plastic pinnies, gloves and masks. Tradeswomen and men such as plumbers will need to carry out urgent home repairs so will also need protection. Care staff need to be provided with PPE and not expected to pay for it themselves.

Workers must never feel that they have to choose between health—their own and that of others—and hardship. Even after yesterday’s announcement, they were offered little comfort. I have three asks on SSP, isolation leave pay and families’ and carers’ leave. First, no worker should be excluded from statutory pay protection for sickness or isolation no matter their employment status—employee, worker, self-employed, office holder or limb (b) workers. This should also apply no matter what a person earns, which is why the lower earnings limit must go, and no matter whether a person has already taken 28 weeks SSP. All who work should have statutory pay protection for sickness and isolation from day one.

If people are required to stay away from work, or are staying away to protect their health due to existing underlying health conditions, they should not be penalised and neither should their family members be penalised, as my hon. Friend Bill Esterson set out. Life must come first. We also need these measures to reach beyond the narrow application of coronavirus. People will be isolating because they have signs of the virus, but not the virus itself. Vulnerable people are at risk from all communicable diseases and so the application of the measures needs to apply to all sickness and isolation absences. While many companies are establishing full pay for those sick and in isolation, others are not. This inequality must be addressed. Universal credit is no substitute, as my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms and my hon. Friend Ruth Jones highlighted with their experience, and, as we have heard in the debate, it pays even less than SSP and takes five weeks to process. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who set out the plight of those who have no recourse to public funds; that must be resolved.

Simple changes to section 16 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and section 64 of the Employment Rights Act 1996 would ensure that all workers were fairly remunerated and did not experience hardship; with the underpinning of statutory sick pay UK workers would be protected to levels we are seeing elsewhere.

Secondly, as life must come first, to reduce a worker to poverty levels of statutory sick pay at just 18.4% of the average wage will not be sufficient for those forced to make a choice between health and hardship. We cannot afford for anyone to go out to work if the determination is that they should isolate or are sick, but if they are battling to keep their head above water financially, they may lessen the severity of their sickness to justify just to themselves that they are not really a risk.

At a time when other countries are significantly raising their statutory sick pay, the UK, which pays the lowest rate of statutory sick pay compared with the EU27 countries, must now ensure that statutory sick pay provides vital protection. The TUC has highlighted how the real living wage is the right benchmark when full pay is not paid. Many in today’s debate across the House, including my hon. Friends the Members for Leeds North West (Alex Sobel) and for Ilford North, have highlighted the opportunities a universal basic income would provide. The Prime Minister earlier said that he is willing to look at that, and he must.

In light of the possible scale and duration of isolation and sickness expected to be taken, the £1 billion package announced by the Chancellor is totally insufficient. Will the Secretary of State return to the House this week and confirm that she will, through a poverty prevention measure, ensure that statutory sick pay is paid to take away the additional fear of financial hardship, so people will be able to pay their rent bills and fuel and food? Without this significant shift, people will be dependent on other sources of income support, perhaps food banks and other charitable support. However, we know that these are areas in themselves experiencing major challenges at this time. The infrastructure to underpin this completely avoidable poverty is so fragile, so statutory pay must rise.

Thirdly, parents and carers are also facing new challenges as they are having to significantly change their lives. No one should be denied the right to meet family and carer needs at such a time as this, so will the Secretary of State ensure that taking leave for family emergencies and for care provision becomes a right—not a right to ask, but a right to get—and that people remain fully remunerated while doing so? While most employers will be accommodating, this is a critical time, and we need to ensure all parents and carers are supported in this national effort.

I further want to raise the issue of pace. While welcoming the Chancellor’s announcement that he will work with trade unions and businesses to provide wage protection, this needs resolving now—this week. If Denmark and other countries have brought forward a scheme of wage protection, there is no need to reinvent the wheel; we can deliver a scheme through the emergency legislation being laid tomorrow. As my hon. Friend Rachel Reeves said, if it is good enough for workers in other countries, it is good enough here.

Denmark’s first coronavirus case was on 27 February and New Zealand’s first case was on 28 February, and they have developed and delivered support already. The UK’s first case was on 31 January, and we still have nothing to protect people’s incomes. People are losing their jobs now, and it could be avoided; it must be avoided. Employers need confidence that the Government will deliver a package of wage substitution; workers need confidence that they will not face poverty. We need interventions now so that jobs can be saved.

Many workers, where there is a cessation of work through this crisis, may step up in the national effort to provide vital services elsewhere in the economy, for instance in health and care. They will be doing the right thing, so can the Secretary of State ensure their position in their substantive jobs is protected when they return so that like someone returning from maternity leave, they will be able to return to the job they left?

I endorse my hon. Friend Navendu Mishra in highlighting the extended role that others such as postal workers can play. I urge the Government to meet the CWU and to explore that terrain further.

The last few days have exposed the weaknesses in zero-hours contracts—workers who are reduced to zero hours, yet must still be available to work. Those workers are desperate. Some 1.87 million of them will not qualify for statutory sick pay, and 70% of those people are women. I ask the Secretary of State to end this insecurity in work. All workers need security, not least at a time such as this. Will she move to ensure that all employment become substantive, and that workers are placed on proper contracts underpinned by the same securities afforded to all employees?

Workers and employers are being called upon to take extraordinary steps to protect our country from the worst aspects of covid-19. They need a Government who recognise all the challenges they face, and who will provide the full protection that they need. The Chancellor promised to do this, so will the Secretary of State ensure that all the holes that continue to exist in the safety net are closed, with the publication of the emergency legislation. Will she ensure that workers get the support they need to save them from hardship? All these things are political choices. Making the right call today may save us from the worst aspects of an economic crisis, and reset the dial for a fairer and more equitable country to come.