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Coronavirus Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 23rd March 2020.

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Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 7:00 pm, 23rd March 2020

I very much appreciate the spirit of co-operation and purpose in the Chamber today. We all want the same thing: for the coronavirus outbreak to be over, for people to be safe, and for our public services to be resilient and well resourced enough to cope. I believe that to achieve that, we need today’s legislation, but we also need to speak the truth, which is, sadly, that we have wasted weeks—time that could have been spent ramping up testing, acquiring more protective equipment and ordering more ventilators. This emergency legislation is welcome, but more than anything else, decisive Government action is overdue.

The UK had the advantage of being able to learn from the experiences of China and other countries, yet to people watching from the outside, we have too often seemed like a nation in denial. We cannot change where we are now, but only by understanding the answers to those questions can we ensure that similar errors of forward planning do not cost lives. So let us put that right now with a clearer and stricter lockdown—I agree with the shadow Secretary of State, Jonathan Ashworth, on that—and, crucially, with the economic security that will make that possible. I echo everything that others have said about the importance of underpinning the livelihoods of those who are self-employed, and crucially—I make no apology for repeating this—we need a much, much clearer, more comprehensive, wall-to-wall public education campaign to underpin all that.

The message from our health workers could not be clearer: stay home to save lives. We owe them a massive debt of gratitude, but more than that, as MPs in particular, we owe it to them to listen and model the behaviour that we are asking of our constituents. The clearest way to do that is for Parliament to start meeting virtually and voting electronically, rather than putting staff at risk here and risking sending mixed messages to the rest of the country.

I have three brief points to make about the Bill. The first, on sovereignty and democracy, has been made by many others and I am very grateful that the Government have accepted the amendments to ensure that the legislation will come back to the House after six months, rather than waiting two years. It is crucial that we have the opportunity to correct any mistakes that could easily have been made in the understandably speedy drafting of this very large piece of legislation.

My second concern is about what is missing from the legislation: from closing detention centres and safely housing those released to allowing asylum seekers to work and have recourse to public funds; and from preventing utility companies cutting off anyone’s water, gas, phones, internet or electricity to putting real pressure on the insurance companies who are hiding behind the definition of notifiable diseases and refusing to pay out to businesses that are forced to close. Powers are needed to make them play fair. The Bill should give local authorities the power to grant council tax holidays and suspend all business tax payments, with central Government meeting the lost revenue. It needs to freeze household and business rental payments across all sectors, again, with compensation for landlords for the lost rent—not just for three months but for as long as is necessary—and to allow for flexible provision for those at risk from domestic abuse, sexual violence and child abuse. Above all. the Bill needs to include those measures to protect people’s incomes, not just their wages.

So many people in Brighton have raised with me the fact that their concerns have not been covered by the Government’s guarantees so far. As a nation, we are rightly proud of our entrepreneurs, creators and innovators. We need to remember that many of them lack all the legal protections of redundancy and other rights that exist to help employees who are faced with a sudden lack of income. They need to be included in the Government’s scheme. Something like 80% of their average wage needs to be made available to them as well and it needs to happen very fast.

My last point is simply that, as we go through this crisis, we need to do it in a way that prepares us for the next crisis, which is still there, my friends—the climate crisis. Therefore, the kinds of measures that we put in place—for example, when it comes to choosing which businesses we are bailing out—must also be driven by a concern for the climate and ensure that we are supporting the green economy, not the fossil fuel economy of the past.