I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the emergency financial and social package needed to support people, families and business through the covid-19 outbreak.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for accommodating the change that we wanted to make to the Order Paper today to make for a more efficient debate, and to ensure that Prime Minister’s Question Time ran for the extra time that you gave it. In response to what Dean Russell said, I join him in paying tribute to the life of Tristan Garel-Jones, whom I knew very well when he was a Conservative MP. He had an enormous knowledge of Latin America and central America, and spoke very fluent Spanish. He and I would often exchange pleasantries in Spanish in the Tea Room. I send my best regards to his family: “Siento la muerte de Señor Garel-Jones”.
We are holding this debate amid a crisis unlike any other we have experienced in our lifetimes. I hope that the Leader of the House, whom I thank for the kind remarks he made about me, understands how important it is that, in this crisis, democracy is not closed down, but strengthened and enhanced. It is the job of Oppositions to hold the Government to account. I thank my right hon. Friend Valerie Vaz for the kind remarks she made and for the work that she is doing in her role as shadow Leader of the House.
The coronavirus outbreak will have a lasting impact on our economy and our society. Life is never going to be the same again. The immediate task of the Opposition is to help to arrest the spread of the coronavirus and to support the public health efforts that are being made, while being constructively critical where necessary to ensure that there is an improved official response. I thank all hon. Members for the questions they put to the Leader of the House about how the House can continue to operate as it should, even during a recess.
The advice and instructions are crystal clear, so people know precisely what they should and should not do to limit or slow the spread of the virus, but there needs to be detailed guidance to employers and workers about which workplaces should close. Clear communication from the Government is vital for everybody’s safety. The crisis exposes the vulnerabilities in our economy and our society. Underfunded public services, insecure work and a threadbare social security system all carry a heavy burden, which is usually hidden from public view, but has been thrust into a brutal light by a public health emergency.
The crisis also shows just how dependent we are on one another, and on the many ties of mutual aid woven together that make up the fabric of our society and our communities. We can come out of the crisis with that fabric strengthened if we value and support one another. I pay tribute to all the fantastic people, many of them young people, who are volunteering now to help people going through stress and crisis. Indeed, I met a group last week who were leafleting in my constituency to ensure that everybody gets some help if they need it. Our first duty is to say to all of them: thank you.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that although there are some excellent local initiatives, the announcement in the last two days of a national initiative is welcome? It would be great to have some co-ordination, however, to cut out any confusion about who should volunteer, when and where.
My hon. Friend is right. There are lots of enthusiastic volunteers, which is great, but the initiatives need co-ordination and protection. We are dealing with assisting vulnerable people, so we have to be quite clear that the people who are volunteering are responsible and are doing it for all the right motives. All the volunteer groups that I have been in touch with and met are clear about that. They are well organised and responsible in the way that they are doing it, and I thank them for that. All those efforts will help us to overcome the crisis.
It is also necessary to say thank you to those delivering essential public services, especially our national health service staff on the frontline: the medical professionals, healthcare workers, auxiliary staff, administrators, ambulance drivers, paramedics—the whole team in every health facility. They are already very stretched in normal times; now, they are coming under unimaginable pressure and stress at the same time as being vulnerable themselves to contracting coronavirus. We should acknowledge that and say thank you.
We should also say thank you to those in our social care sector, who are so often unrecognised and ignored, and almost always badly paid. They are caring for the most vulnerable people in our society. As my hon. Friend Peter Kyle explained earlier, the problem of contracting the virus in a home where people have not been tested only gets worse the longer we delay.
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend’s approach and the fact that we should all give a socially distant hug to care workers, and to those in other parts of the economy with precarious employment and housing situations. Does he agree that, against the background of the biggest crisis we will ever know, we need a collective approach, and that policies such as nationalising the railways, providing economic stimulus to kick-start our economy, and free broadband do not look so outlandish after all?
It was not so long ago that I was making lengthy speeches about those subjects, and I am quite prepared to hand a copy of our manifesto over to the Government. They are already being forced to implement a great deal of it because of the crisis and because of the deficiency in public services that we exposed during the election campaign.
On a much more granular point, a care home owner has been in touch with me to say that he is increasingly short-staffed because of infection among staff, yet he is aware of staff from overseas who have the qualifications but are unable to work because the Home Office has not moved quickly enough to allow him to give them jobs and to sort out the sponsorship requirements. Will my right hon. Friend encourage the Minister to get this issue looked at quickly by the Home Office? I will write to the Home Office, but it would be good to flag that now.
My hon. Friend makes a very strong point. Indeed, that has been raised by my right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary and others on many occasions. It is absurd that we have highly skilled people in our society who are awaiting a letter from the Home Office before they are able to contribute to our society. We are talking care workers, doctors, social workers—all sorts of highly skilled people. They want to contribute to help us out, so I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and I strongly support the view that he is putting forward to the Home Secretary.
We should also take a moment to say thank you to civil servants in the Department of Health and Social Care and other Departments. They are putting in incredibly long hours. I talk to local government workers in my local authority who are working really hard to try to ensure that the community and society are safe.
We should thank teachers who are having to go into school to ensure that there are some facilities and teaching available for the children of essential care workers, as well as for children who have very special needs. Let us value them and the work they do, and thank the National Education Union and the other teaching unions for the work that they have put in to ensure that that takes place.
Let us also thank those who deliver stuff—delivery workers, delivery riders and delivery companies, and also our postal workers—for what they do. Our postal workers suspended their industrial action—their wholly justified industrial action, I might say—to ensure that essential deliveries can carry on throughout this crisis. We should say thank you to the Communication Workers Union and to those workers for all of that.
“when we emerge from the crisis…there will be a general reassessment of who is important in this country and what a ‘key worker’ means.”—[Official Report,
He is absolutely right. We can all now see that jobs that are never celebrated are absolutely essential to keep our society going. Think of the refuse workers, the supermarket shelf stackers, the delivery drivers, the cleaners—those grades of work are often dismissed as low skilled. I ask the House: who are we least able to do without in a crisis—the refuse collector or the billionaire hedge fund manager? Who is actually doing more for our society at this very moment? Let us value people for the contribution that they make and respect the skill of the cleaner, the refuse worker, the postal delivery worker and all those others. Let us have respect for those who are part of the glue of our society. Right now, they need our help, and I hope that, as we look beyond this crisis, they will continue to get our respect, because people we respect should not be treated in the way they have been treated throughout the past decade of austerity.
Right now, we must guarantee for our NHS staff the personal protective equipment that they are crying out for. There must be no excuses: get it there and deliver it for NHS staff, care staff and all the others. Doctors have said they have had to go along to Screwfix to buy face masks. They need visors, long gloves, surgical gowns and hand sanitisers—and they need them now. It is not as if this crisis happened yesterday; the coronavirus broke out in China some months ago and has spread rapidly across the whole world. One doctor was quoted as saying:
“I feel totally abandoned. We don’t have the protective equipment that we desperately need and our children are being treated like orphans and sent off to care camps.”
NHS staff are putting themselves on the line for the rest of us; we must not let them down for a moment longer. It is a matter of their safety and the safety of their patients. For the same reasons, let us test all our NHS staff for the virus as quickly as possible. It is an absolute requirement to accelerate testing throughout the population—“test, test, test”, as Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the World Health Organisation, instructed us all to do quite some time ago. I pay tribute to him and the World Health Organisation for their steadfast and calm leadership during this crisis, and for pointing out that a world pandemic is going on and some countries are better able to cope with it than others.
As we look beyond this crisis, our NHS staff should be treated with respect, which means ensuring that the health service in which they work is well funded; bringing down their levels of stress, which are enormous; and ending the threat of the privatisation of their jobs and the outsourcing of services in NHS hospitals. Right now, can we ensure that our social care workers have the very best protective equipment that they need, and can we also have full testing for them? They also need financial security, an issue I raised at Prime Minister’s Question Time four weeks ago. A quarter of social care workers are on zero-hours contracts. Their job is, as we know, to travel from house to house, making contact with those often at the highest risk of death from this virus. They sometimes see 12 or more clients a day, spending time in their homes and potentially passing on the virus from one home to another and another. A lack of testing increases that danger all the time, so it is not just urgent, it is super urgent—like today, it has to be done. They need to be given the security to know that they can afford to stay off work if they have symptoms, yet none of them are included in the Chancellor’s scheme to pay 80% of wages. That must be addressed immediately. I pointed out in Prime Minister’s Question Time the situation for construction workers, and exactly the same applies to care workers.
As we look beyond the crisis, we need to learn the lesson and end the scandal of paying so little to those entrusted with the care of our loved ones. Let us end the disgrace of 1.4 million people being denied the social care that they need. Right now, the Government can give peace of mind to all self-employed and insecure workers with an income protection scheme equivalent to the one devised for employees. The Prime Minister said he would work on this very quickly, and it has to be done very, very quickly indeed; otherwise, we are all put at greater risk and danger.
Freelancers, workers on zero-hours contracts and those with no recourse to public funds still have no support. From cabbies to childminders, actors to plumbers, people are being told to do something absolutely extraordinary: to stop earning a living. Having made that demand, the Government—yes, the Government—have an awesome responsibility to ensure that these people do not fall immediately into hardship and that they are able to do what is necessary for public health.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there has to be a crackdown on some employers? Constituents have contacted me this morning to tell me that employers are insisting that people go to work and telling them that if they do not turn up, they will not get paid. Even businesses that are clearly not on the list of key industries have done this. Does he think the Government should crack down on employers that are putting their employees at risk?
If employers are putting us all at risk by forcing people to work in a non-essential industry or company or non-essential work, they should be sanctioned, and those sanctions should include fines. They have to understand that they have a responsibility as well.
The Government should ensure the closure of any construction work that is not urgent or health and safety-related, just as Transport for London and the Scottish Government have already done—and remember, both have many major building projects going on at any one time.
Having worked in the construction industry for the past two decades, I appreciate how critical that industry is. Does my right hon. Friend agree that because of the Government’s mixed messages and the lack of support for the many workers in that industry who are self-employed, freelance, working as consultants or on zero-hours contracts, they are left in the unenviable position of having to get on the tube and go to work, because they have no other source of income? That is why the Government must step in, give a clear and concise message and support the self-employed workers in the construction industry.
My hon. Friend anticipates the point I was about to make. We have all seen the images this morning of construction workers packed on to the London tube and other trains all around the country, going on to site because it is the only way they can earn a living, and putting themselves and all of us at risk as a result. Action has to be taken now on this.
Is there not also a responsibility on Government contractors? I am thinking of Atos, Adecco and those that have call centres, which are telling at-risk employees to attend their work. Is not that disgraceful, and should not the Government intervene?
It is absolutely disgraceful and totally unnecessary. If someone feels they are at risk, the advice from the Department of Health is that they should self-isolate—and eventually get tested, but clearly the tests are not available immediately. If the employer then forces that person to go into work, we all know what the consequences will be. There is a responsibility on employers as well in all this.
I hope that the Government will take action to close building sites, provide the workers with the necessary economic support and tell the companies that this should not be seen as an opportunity to cut their workers’ wages by 20%; they are getting 80% from public funds and they should make up the rest with the profits they make on big construction projects. Many people on construction sites are, sadly, self-employed, which is a slightly different issue that I referred to earlier.
As we look beyond the crisis we should all give workers respect, with proper social security extending to the self-employed as well. We have to understand that we have a very different economy than we had 10, 20 or 30 years ago. A very large number of people are self-employed. They are making their contribution. They deserve respect, recognition and the necessary social security support: full rights for workers, including those in the gig economy.
We must raise statutory sick pay to European levels. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said, honestly, that he could not survive on £94 a week. I suspect that most Members would not want to survive on £94 a week and most probably could not survive on £94 a week, so how can expect others to do so? We are saying that they have to survive on £94 a week and we cannot. It is up to us to say that in this crisis we have to increase it, so that people can have a survivable income. Looking beyond the crisis, no one should become poor just because they become ill. Many people have been shocked—I have spoken to self-employed people—to find just how low statutory sick pay is. They imagined statutory sick pay was something they could live on. They did not realise what it actually was. Even more shocking is that disabled people on employment and support allowance are expected to survive on £73 a week, as are those on jobseeker’s allowance. Those figures are disgraceful. People cannot live on that sort of money, so they will be forced to take risks and therefore put us all at risk. For carers, it is even less money. Carers allowance is just £66 a week. That is simply unacceptable.
Right now, we have to give support and security to renters in the private rented sector. The Government promised 20 million of them a ban on evictions, but then broke their promise. Emergency legislation does not stop people losing their home due to coronavirus; it just gives them three months in which to pack their bags. This public health emergency will become a housing and homeless emergency if the Government do not change course now on the treatment of people in the private rented sector. All of us represent large numbers of people in the private rented sector, none more so than my hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle, who I know represents a very large number.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a real problem that rents might increase straight after this crisis is over? Many mortgage companies are offering not a mortgage holiday but a payment deferral, which will be rolled into mortgage payments later on. Landlords will likely pass that on to tenants and tenants will be evicted a month after this crisis is over. There needs to be control on rents expanding straight after this crisis finishes.
My hon. Friend understands the issue and represents his constituency extremely well. I know that a lot of his constituents are in that situation. We have to have better regulation of the private rented sector, with security of tenure and realistic rent levels. We also have to have the spirit of what was said, which was that there would be protection for people in the future. The danger, as he points out, is the opposite: it will just put costs up in a few months’ time. Remember, if somebody has a mortgage and they rent privately, they will pass on the cost of the mortgage to the private renter. That is a problem he quite rightly emphasises.
Shelter estimates that 20,000 eviction proceedings are already in progress and will go ahead over the next three months unless the Government act to stop them.
I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. He is making a powerful speech. Just last week, the Prime Minister assured us that he was bringing forward legislation to protect private renters from eviction. Pauline, a 76-year-old in my constituency, received a letter two days later saying that she would be evicted on
Exactly. How on earth can she go around looking at places if she is not allowed out of the house? It is absurd.
Labour’s demands are very clear: ban evictions for six months and suspend rent for those affected by coronavirus. It is going to cost and it is the right thing to spend it on. It protects people in their housing. As we look beyond this crisis, let us give tenants greater rights and control exorbitant levels of rent. We need real solutions to the housing crisis, as the shadow Housing Secretary, my right hon. Friend John Healey, has said on many occasions.
Let us end rough sleeping and homelessness once and for all. We are the fifth richest country in the world. It is not necessary—in fact, it is a national disgrace—that there are so many people sleeping rough in our society. Again, the coronavirus has shown just how vulnerable is the health of the most desperate and poorest people in our society. I want to pay tribute to the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, whose team have worked tirelessly to secure hotel accommodation for rough sleepers—well done Sadiq, and well done the team. They are aiming to get 3,000 hotel rooms for people who have been sleeping rough on the streets of London. I know that the Mayors of Greater Manchester and Liverpool City Region and others are doing everything they can to do exactly the same. The Government can make a pledge today that anyone who was homeless before the pandemic will not be returning to the streets at the end of the pandemic. If we can house people in a crisis, we can keep them housed when it is over. Right now, we need to support all our public services as they face their greatest test.
Does my right hon. Friend share my concern for that particular group of victims who are people with no recourse to public funds? They cannot work in a situation where so much of the economy has been closed down, and they have no legal rights to benefits of any kind—even the paltry level of benefits that the Government are talking about. They are not the only group, but these people face destitution. I raised that with the Home Secretary on Monday. We have still not heard anything about what the Government are going to do to protect people and their children who have no recourse to public funds
I thank my right hon. Friend for her intervention and for what she is doing about that. There are people with no recourse to public funds all over the country. Typically, they are people who are seeking asylum, their case is going endlessly through Home Office processes, and they are not getting help or an answer. Many groups are doing their best to help them. I pay tribute to the north London liberal synagogue for its monthly drop-in sessions and the support that it gives those people, and to many others, but it should not be down to charities to do it. We need to ensure that those people and their families are supported throughout this crisis. This is yet another lesson about the dislocation of our society and the way in which we treat people.
Every single person in this country can now see how important public services are, and looking beyond this crisis, they must never again be subjected to the damaging and counterproductive cuts that have taken place over the past 10 years. The hard truth is this: austerity has left us weaker in the face of this pandemic. We should not have gone into it with 94% of our NHS beds already full, with 100,000 NHS job vacancies or with a quarter of the number of ventilators per person that Germany has. Ventilators are our most precious resource in this crisis; we should not have begun with so few. We need more of them urgently, and we need the staff trained to use them urgently as well.
We all have a duty to do what we can for the collective good, to come together and to look out for each other—for our loved ones, our neighbours and our communities. But we also need collective public action to be led by the Government. That is the only power that can protect our people from the devastation that coronavirus could wreak on us.
This crisis demands new economic thinking. We cannot rely on the old ways of doing things. A major crisis we face as a society cannot and will not be solved by the market. Coronavirus, the climate emergency, huge levels of inequality, increasingly insecure patterns of work and the housing crisis can only be solved by people working together, not against each other.
The corporations and giant multinationals that weald so much power in our economy and appear to have the ears of the Prime Minister and presidents worldwide will always put private profit ahead of public good. Just look at the actions of Tim Martin, the chair of Wetherspoon—he told his staff, who are paid very little while he has raked in millions, to go and work in Tesco, instead of standing by them in their hour of need. Look at the attempts of Mike Ashley to keep his shops open, putting his staff at risk. The insatiable greed of those at the top is driving another crisis, one even more dangerous as we look to the future: the climate emergency. Oil companies and fossil fuel extractors continue to damage and destroy our planet, our air and our wildlife, threatening the future of civilisation itself. We need to find the same urgency to deal with that threat as we now see working against coronavirus.
The coronavirus crisis will not be solved by those driven by private profit and share prices. It will be solved by the bravery of national health service workers and those who are on the frontline. It will be solved by communities coming together in all their diversity. It will be solved by the Government and public institutions taking bold action in the interests of the common good. The crisis shows what government can do; it shows what government could have always done. We have found the money to give more support to people in financial hardship. We have found the money to increase investment in our national health service. We have found the money to accommodate the homeless in hotels. If we can do it in a crisis, why could we not have done it in calmer times as well?
We are learning, through this crisis, the extent of the interdependence of each of us with each other. If my neighbour gets sick, I might get sick. If the lowest-paid worker in a company gets sick, it could even make the chief executive sick. If somebody on the other side of the world gets sick, as they did in Wuhan’s province¸ it makes us all sick. Indeed, the virus is now hitting Syria and the besieged Gaza strip. If the healthcare systems of Europe cannot cope, just imagine what it will be like for countries in the global south. Save the Children has warned of the
“perfect storm conditions for a human crisis of unimaginable dimensions.”
This virus knows no national boundaries, and neither should our capacity for compassion and care for our fellow human beings. The internationalism of the doctors from Cuba who have gone to fight the virus in Italy is inspirational, as is the action of the European Union, which has given €20 million to help tackle the crisis in Iran at the present time, despite the sanctions. It is a scandal that sanctions have prevented many Iranians from accessing vital medical supplies, putting each other at risk and, inevitably, putting all of us at risk. The old trade union slogan goes, “An injury to one is an injury to all, united we stand, divided we fall.”
People across our country know that. So many are showing such compassion in the face of adversity, as we see when we look at how people are coming together. Mutual aid groups have been springing up all over the country, with thousands of people organising to protect their communities. It is inspirational to see people who have never spoken to each other before suddenly getting together in this time of crisis and realising that they live in the same street and they need that help and support for each other. It is that spirit which will take us forward. There is no doubt that after this crisis our society and our economy will be, and will have to be, very, very different. We must learn the lessons from the crisis and ensure that our society is defined as a society by solidarity and compassion, rather than insecurity, fear and inequality.
It is a privilege to return to the Dispatch Box for the third time in two days, and I can only pay tribute to your fortitude and resilience in being in the Chair for much of the time I have been at the Dispatch Box, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am opening this debate on behalf of the Government and I would like to pay tribute now to Jeremy Corbyn, in case this is his last appearance at the Dispatch Box as Leader of the Opposition. May I also associate myself with the very warm comments that he and others have made about Tristan Garel-Jones, who was widely loved and admired across this House?
I thank the Opposition and the leadership of the other political parties for their constructive and supportive approach over the past few weeks, which is reflected across the House. Truly, these are extraordinary times. Our country has not faced a threat of this magnitude since the second world war. It is astonishing to think that it was just two weeks ago today that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer delivered his first Budget, standing at this Dispatch Box. I can say from direct personal experience that the Chancellor, Her Majesty’s Treasury and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs officials have worked around the clock before and since that time. Our single goal has been to do whatever it takes to support the British people at a time of crisis.
That Budget laid the foundations for a coherent, comprehensive and co-ordinated plan to limit, mitigate and address the impact of coronavirus, with a £12 billion package of support for public services, businesses and individuals. It was an unprecedented intervention by this or any recent Government, yet it has proved to be—and how—merely the first step. From the outset of the crisis, the Government have been clear that they are ready to do whatever it takes. Last week, we announced further support for businesses and individuals, including a £330 billion package of business loan guarantees. Only yesterday, I took through the House the Contingencies Fund Bill, which increased the cash-flow financing to Departments to £266 billion, pending the main estimates.
There are reports that the announcement about the self-employed will be made on Thursday, when the House will not be sitting. Will the Minister guarantee that there will be some mechanism for us to question and prod the Government and get responses about the announcements that will be made when we are no longer here?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She will be aware, as we all are, of the issue relating to the self-employed. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor said that we will come forward with a package shortly. The House will rise by, I think, the common assent of all the political parties and in the knowledge that it is in the face of a crisis. When such a package is brought forward, there will be ample opportunity to debate and discuss it in the House when it returns. Before that, the Government will be held to account in the public square in the usual way, and Ministers are available for direct interrogation by any Member of Parliament who wishes to contact them.
Will the Minister arrange a Zoom call with all of us when that package is announced, so that we can be briefed and discuss it? I ask for a simple yes or no—it would be really easy to do and it is secure enough, because we will be asking clear questions in public.
It is not in my power to say yes to that, I am afraid, but the request has been noted and, of course, I will pass it on.
I think I can speak for everyone in this House in wanting to put on record my thanks to all those across Government, in Parliament and in our public services who have made this astonishingly fast speed of reaction possible. The result has been an unparalleled package of measures that we have brought forward with great rapidity and resolve, and I pay tribute to them for that. I reassure the House that Ministers and officials continue to work day and night to consider how best to provide further support, including for the self-employed, which I will touch on later.
Ultimately, however, success in defeating this virus rests not with Ministers and officials in Whitehall, but on the actions of millions of individual people throughout the country. Our common aim must be to reduce the rate of infection and prevent the national health service from becoming overwhelmed. In that way, our doctors and nurses, and all those who support them, can focus on helping those in greatest need. Every man, woman and child can be a lifesaver by staying at home, only venturing out when strictly necessary for food, medicine and essential exercise, and even then staying at least two metres away from other people.
The Government are in no doubt of the scale of the challenge. The action that we must take collectively represents a profound, but temporary change to our way of life in this country. Indeed, it runs counter to human nature.
Does the Minister recognise that, in order to be able to stay at home in the way he is describing, people need financial support? Will he respond to the shadow Home Secretary’s earlier point that large numbers of people working legally in the UK have no recourse to public funds? At the moment, there is no support available to enable them to self-isolate in the way he is rightly advocating.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the question. Of course, if people are falling through the social safety net as it presently exists, we will stand ready to address that and support them. He will recall that when the Prime Minister was Mayor of London he called for an amnesty on illegal immigrants and others, so he has a wide and capacious interest in that area.
I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. He will have heard about today’s shocking and saddening terrorist attack on a Sikh gurdwara in Afghanistan. I am sure he will join me in expressing sincere condolences to the victims’ families, many of whom live in the UK. My right hon. Friend Stephen Timms has mentioned those with no recourse to public funds. Does the Minister agree that it is also very important that the Home Office takes into account those minorities who are seeking asylum and that they are given adequate support during this time of crisis?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the question. I was not aware of the attack—I am afraid I have been focusing on our response to the coronavirus—but of course I share his concern and send our deep sympathy and condolences to the families of those involved. He has registered in this conversation in Parliament his point about the Home Office. We will, of course, provide support to them in the usual way in reaction to the coronavirus, as we would to any person living in this country.
Let me press on. As the Leader of the Opposition has rightly pointed out, the action of distancing one from another runs counter to human nature. We value our relationships with our friends and our family more than anything else. Communities thrive through social interaction. He rightly spoke of our interdependence, and this bears that out. Of course, businesses also rely on their physical as well as online connections to consumers in this country and overseas. When we think of people co-operating, let us not forget that business and, indeed, markets are often forms of human co-operation themselves. However difficult and painful this may be, at the present moment it is nevertheless essential. We must all play our part in this gigantic collective effort. Only through discipline, patience and community spirit can we turn the tide together. Now is the time for the country to come together behind this goal. As Burke said, the nation is a moral idea. It is the legitimacy of the nation that underwrites our capacity to intervene in people’s lives, and it is only by believing in each other that we will succeed in doing so.
The response from across the United Kingdom has already been magnificent—from the thousands of former medical staff now returning to the frontline alongside student nurses who have opted to begin their NHS careers early, to the world-class engineering firms working with us to ramp up production of ventilators, to the men and women of our armed forces, both regular and reserves, stepping up once again to serve their country. Coming from Hereford, I cannot think of them without paying them a special tribute.
I also pay tribute, as the Leader of the Opposition has done, to the thousands of key workers—shop assistants, pharmacists, delivery drivers, cleaners, police, firefighters, teachers and many others—who are keeping essential services running at this critical time, and of course to the legions of volunteers who are mobilising to support the elderly and vulnerable in their community. I have myself signed up for the NHS volunteer programme—it was a very straightforward process—and I would encourage any Member of this House who feels so inclined to do the same thing.
The whole country is united in common cause. We are a nation and a people with strength in depth, yet this pandemic represents a deep shock to the global economy. In this country, many of the restrictions now in place go even beyond some of those seen in wartime. There is concern among business for the future, among people for their jobs and wages, and among all of us for our loved ones and our neighbours. We in Government recognise all those concerns.
I am immensely grateful to the Minister for giving way. It is right that he talks about key workers, but over the last 24 to 48 hours my inbox has been overflowing with messages from constituents who are being required to attend work, including people who work in home furnishings and as sales staff in call centres. I understand the need to be bipartisan in these times, but may I say very gently to the Minister and the Health Secretary that the messaging from the Government on this particular issue has, by and large, been pretty poor? We have a situation where, frankly, workers are being exploited and called into work when they do not need to be there.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for registering that point and putting it on the record. I will come to the question of communications, and perhaps I can include that point when I do.
As I have said, we stand ready to do whatever it takes to protect our society and economy. The first task has been to buttress our frontline public services. In the Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a package of support for the public sector—notably a £5 billion covid-19 response fund. Those investments will save lives here and now, and will also fund the research, diagnostic testing and surveillance that will bring the virus to heel over the longer term.
Meanwhile, the Government are working with the business community to bring our nation’s scientific, industrial and commercial expertise to bear behind the public health effort. We are seeing examples of this “can do” attitude all the time, as red tape is slashed, timeframes are condensed, and the public and private sectors pull together as one. Let me give one example. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is fast-tracking applications to authorise the production and use of denatured alcohol. That means that Scottish distilleries and others can turn the ethanol that they have over to the production of alcohol-based hand sanitiser. The usual turnaround time for such requests is 45 days. Since the beginning of March, HMRC has cut that to five days. This has resulted in an additional 2.5 million litres of alcohol for sanitiser being authorised in the last three weeks. We have now gone even further; as announced on
Here, as elsewhere, we see a common approach: decisive action as soon as we can take it; feedback, often from colleagues across Parliament; and improvements as we go. We now have excellent consolidated information on coronavirus available through a single link on gov.uk, and there is specific guidance for businesses from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on a new web page. I had a text message myself from the Government yesterday and the Prime Minister’s broadcast was watched by 27 million people, so I think it is fair to say that the message is getting out there. We have even had Ministers leaving behind their red boxes in order to work online. We know that we must be in the grip of a national crisis when Ministers leave behind their red boxes.
I am pleased that the Minister is giving us some good news about this advertising campaign—at last, because it seems to have been a bit slow. Could he shed light on two anomalous categories of business, examples of which have contacted me? Buttons Nanny Agency says that domestic staff fall into the category of workers who do have to physically turn up, but it is not clear whether they will retain 80% of their salary; they are in a strange and anomalous position. What is to be done about them? West London English School is a private language school that falls above the rateable value level, but it is an educational service. It is very worried that it is about to shut down. The rateable value of many businesses in my constituency is above £51,000 because it is London and it is different here. Could the Minister do something for them? Very briefly, let me also say that domestic violence is set to rise. Where has the abortion amendment gone? Many of us are concerned that it seems to have vanished.
I was just discussing the process of improving the Government response through feedback, often from colleagues, so I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving her feedback on those specific areas. In so doing, she will have activated Government processes with the relevant Departments, which will then look at the issues that she has mentioned.
In the spirit of clarifying anomalies, I have been contacted by many businesses who tell me that, because they do not have business premises or work in co-working spaces, they appear not to be eligible for the business grants. I can understand why they would not be eligible for the rates support, but I do not understand why they would not be eligible for the grants. They are also telling me that they are required to put their own personal homes on the line to get the loans from the banks, so they do not want to take them up and get into debt.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point. I will look into the question of whether there should be any relation between business loans; I am certainly not aware of one myself. It ought to be possible for people to claim business loans as she has described. As regards the business interruption loan scheme, borrowers are not required to pledge their house, but there may be some requirement for personal guarantees of other kinds, which is what one would expect, and which will open up lending in other ways. The Economic Secretary is very engaged on this issue. There are 40 lenders involved, so ironing out the guidance with all of them, to ensure a consistent picture, has not been the most straightforward thing one could imagine.
I will read out what Barclays is saying to businesses about personal guarantees:
“Loans will need to have a director’s guarantee, or in the case of partnerships and sole traders, you will be personally liable”.
If a person’s only asset is their home, pledging it and being liable amount to the same thing. Will the right hon. Gentleman deal with that problem? That quote was read to me by a person from a company that will now have to lay off its staff and close, and so will not be eligible for the furlough scheme. This will hit workers as well as businesses.
I cannot comment, obviously, on the specific circumstances that the hon. Gentleman describes, but I can certainly say that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury is working very closely with the banks to make sure that no business is forced to close as a result of coronavirus.
We have discussed this quite a lot, so as I have quite a long speech, and a fair number of colleagues want to speak, I will press on, if I may.
We must face facts: it may take several weeks—possibly longer—before this national effort is reflected in a fall in infection rates, and it may take longer still to defeat the virus completely, but however long it takes, we will do what we can to support businesses and workers. As the House will know, under the jobs retention scheme, the Government will pay 80% of staff wages up to £2,500, provided businesses keep those staff employed. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is working tirelessly to get the scheme up and running. The first grants will be made in a matter of weeks.
Of course businesses face cash-flow concerns, and we are recognising that through the business interruption loan scheme. For larger enterprises, the Bank of England is providing a new facility to help overall liquidity, and HMRC’s existing time to pay arrangements are available to help businesses make ends meet. We have deferred VAT payments for the next quarter, so that VAT-registered businesses will not need to pay VAT alongside their normal returns; that intervention alone is worth over £30 billion. Those measures are on top of those announced in the Budget earlier this month.
As colleagues across the House have mentioned, this is a particularly worrying time for the self-employed. I am acutely aware, as are all Ministers, of how deeply these concerns are felt across the House. Let me be clear that the Government recognise the specific challenges that self-employed people face. We will respond shortly. There has already been discussion of this, and a commitment from the Prime Minister on this issue, with tailored and targeted action. As the Chancellor has said, this problem is very far from straightforward. We are trying to be as inclusive, but also as fair, as possible.
Could the Minister tell us how quickly this will be done, because the levels of stress out there among the self-employed are absolutely huge?
I understand that. The right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that if we date the official recognition of the need for intervention on coronavirus from the Budget, we are two weeks into the situation. The Prime Minister knows the situation; he made a commitment to the right hon. Gentleman an hour or two ago, and I cannot do better than the Prime Minister.
As of Monday, sole traders and freelancers have been able to gain access to the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, provided that their activity is channelled through a business account. We are removing the universal credit minimum income floor, so that self-employed workers have access to universal credit, and we have deferred the next deadline for self-assessment income tax payments until 2021, so that self-employed people can manage their finances better over the course of the year.
It goes without saying that more needs to be done and, as I have said, we will do that, but as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made clear to the House yesterday, it is essential that that support reaches the people who need it the most. The Chancellor will provide a further update, as I have described, shortly. Until then, the Government will continue to listen carefully to hon. Members and, crucially, to those most directly affected. As the House knows, just as we are supporting businesses and employees, so we are also supporting families through the crisis. Those on low incomes will benefit from a package of measures worth more than £6 billion, including a £20 a week increase in universal credit standard allowance and the working tax credit basic element—an increase from £318 to £410 a month for a standard claimant over the age of 25. Those who are new to universal credit will not be required to attend assessment interviews. Advances for those claimants who need them will be available by phone or online.
Through these measures and others, the Government are absolutely clear that the burden of this pandemic must not fall on the lowest paid. We are particularly mindful of the needs of the most vulnerable members of our community and the charitable organisations that are working so hard to support them. The jobs retention scheme is available to all PAYE employers, including charitable and not-for-profit organisations. Furthermore, the business interruption loan scheme is applicable to social enterprises and to charities that receive half their income from trading. Charities will also benefit from a three-month VAT deferral to the end of June, and many are already eligible for 80% charitable rate relief as well, and, of course, as you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, we are giving councils an additional £500 million in hardship funding to ensure that help is available for the most vulnerable people in our society who may be struggling to pay council tax bills.
On the point about the extra funding for councils, when I was talking to my own council yesterday it says that that will barely cover the number of people who will be applying for council tax relief; it will just fill that hole. It is looking at things such as the grant scheme. The loans that it will have to administer will amount to £50 million in my borough of Croydon, and there is no system in place yet to help it to understand how it is supposed to administer them, how it will work, and, indeed, how it will fund the support for the very vulnerable, many of whom are already struggling and will be struggling increasingly over the coming weeks.
I thank the hon. Lady for registering that point. She will be aware that we have made £1.6 billion available to support local authorities, and, of course, we are specifically supporting them by bringing forward the cash-flow element of business rates. We are leaning into this problem hard, but I thank her for putting the concern on the record.
It has been suggested that this may be the Leader of the Opposition’s final outing at the Dispatch Box. I am sure the House will not welcome that. I will leave it to others to write any political verdict or obituaries that may come, but let me say that no one in this House—certainly not I—would doubt the sincerity and the commitment that he has shown to his beliefs over many, many years, however vigorously we may disagree with them. For myself, I believe in a big society rather than a big state, but let us be clear that, in a time of national crisis, both will be needed. Finally, I think I can speak for my colleagues on the Conservative Benches in saying that we will be sad to see him go.
The coming weeks may be difficult. The action that we have taken has far-reaching consequences for our economy and our society, and yet it has the power to save thousands of lives. Throughout this time, the Government will continue to listen to the concerns of hon. and right hon. Members and of the public. They have already delivered one of the most generous and comprehensive interventions of any Government of the world, and we stand ready to do more. We will make every effort to safeguard people’s jobs and livelihoods, to support our public services and local communities, and to preserve and protect businesses, large and small, across the country. Our message is this: we have got your back and, together, we will defeat this virus and the Britain that emerges from this pandemic will be not only stronger and more resilient, but more united, too.
It is a considerable pleasure to speak in this debate on the motion that has been tabled by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition. It has always been a privilege to follow him in a debate, as I often have to do, and it is very much so on this occasion.
We are now a number of weeks into this emergency, and yet its impact and the measures required to fight it remain shocking to all of us. This virus has come to dominate not only everything that we do, but all our thoughts. It is truly all-consuming. The misery of this virus will undoubtedly come to define this period, but it must not come to define how we as human beings have responded to it. As we collectively face the difficulties of the weeks and months ahead, it is right that we reflect on all that is good about the human spirit of service and sacrifice that reaches into every corner of these islands. That duty and sacrifice has been seen day after day across our communities in our health services, our police, our carers, our civil servants, our small businesses and so much more.
This is primarily a health crisis, but its economic impact is deepening by the day. Thousands have already lost their jobs and millions are threatened with the same. People are deeply and genuinely worried about keeping their income, protecting their families and keeping a roof over their heads. My party has been open and public in welcoming some of the measures brought forward by the Chancellor last Friday, but we have also been crystal clear that more needs to be done, and done now.
There has been one massive gap in the Government’s economic response to the crisis: so far, the self-employed and the unemployed have been left behind, and left to wait. They have been left with no protection and have been left to live with that uncertainty for weeks. I am sure that all Members across the House have been inundated with emails from people living in those terrible circumstances. They are rightly worried: they are worried about putting food on the table; they are worried about looking after their family; they are worried about keeping a roof over their head.
On Saturday, I wrote to the Chancellor calling for an urgent cross-party meeting. I am saddened to say that I have not had a reply. The SNP has pressed the UK Government to introduce a financial package of support for self-employed and unemployed people. They cannot wait any longer.
We have proposed four key measures that would help. I again ask the Chancellor to ensure that everyone has a guaranteed income by using the tax and welfare systems to put money directly in people’s pockets through a universal basic income, reverse national insurance or another similar mechanism. I ask him to raise the UK’s statutory sick pay to the EU national average and expand entitlement to the self-employed and those under the earnings threshold. I ask him to include self-employed people in the coronavirus job retention scheme, providing the same support for the self-employed that has been announced for employees. That would be the right thing to do; that would show compassion for all our people in their time of need.
The coronavirus lockdown makes it even more urgent that the UK Government deliver a comprehensive financial package of support for the millions of freelance, self-employed and unemployed people who are struggling to get by in this unprecedented emergency. There is no good reason why these moves should be put on hold when people are already in need. We in Parliament should be debating the Government’s response today.
If we are truly to fight this crisis together, there is a desperate need to protect those who were vulnerable before the pandemic and are more vulnerable now. That means strengthening social security protections, increasing child benefit and making universal credit more flexible. Once again, my party has brought forward practical and compassionate solutions.
On universal credit, we have proposed introducing an immediate up-front payment, not a hardship loan; extending the backdating of benefits for those who might not have realised they were eligible and relaxing the criteria under which backdating is allowable; providing a new one-off hardship payment for self-employed people who are impacted; removing the nine-month qualification period for support with mortgage interest and providing a one-off grant for mortgage holders making new claims; removing the capital tariff reduction to universal credit when claimants have £16,000 in savings; removing the shared accommodation rate from the local housing allowance for both universal credit and housing benefit; stopping the bedroom tax; and uprating employment and support allowance and the personal independence payment.
Those are practical measures that are needed to protect the most vulnerable through this crisis period. I am often reminded of the phrase I have used in this Chamber before: society is only as strong as its weakest link. How we protect these people will be the truest test of how we all respond to this crisis, and if we truly meet the challenge of this time together.
It is right and proper that Government step in with solutions and supports. Government must rise to the challenge, because our communities are already rising to the challenge before them. Given the enormity of the challenge ahead, it would be easy and understandable for people to feel overwhelmed and frightened to function, yet all that we hear—and all of our experience tells us—is that their reaction has been the exact opposite.
Since the crisis began, people have risen to all the unknowns that have confronted them. Day in, day out, they continue to do it, in the full knowledge that the worst is yet to come. It is their spirit and example that strengthens our faith that we will get through this together. It is that partnership across every single aspect and element of society that will see us through this crisis. It is a crisis that has suddenly reminded us of just how fragile our world is, but it also reminds us of what really matters: our health, our community spirit and our solidarity. If we stay true to those values, we will come through.
I conclude by paying my own tribute to two individuals in this Chamber who have given long service in the defence of public investment, institutions and protecting the vulnerable. I know that today is perhaps the final occasion when the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor will lead their party into debate in this House. This is a very appropriate debate to mark that end. I know that for both of them, community activism has always taken prominence ahead of parliamentary routine, but I also know that the constituencies they serve in this House have benefited greatly from the care, diligence and representation they have both given for decades. I have worked constructively with the Leader of the Opposition since the election. We have met on numerous occasions and had wide-ranging discussions.
Indeed—sometimes that has been to the frustration of our respective advisers, Jeremy, if I may use that word in this context.
From his beloved allotment to an expansive interest in international affairs, the Leader of the Opposition could never be accused of limiting his interests or his ambitions. He has contributed to debate and diversity in this House and across these islands. If I may say to the right hon. Gentleman, I have enjoyed our engagement. No doubt we will continue to meet in the Tea Room and discuss the merits of allotments and crofting—you may be excluded from those, John—but one thing is for sure, I know that he is not the retiring type. His enthusiasm for issues and activism is in no danger of dimming.
In recent months, I am sure the shadow Chancellor has taken some comfort from the fact that the Conservative Chancellor appears to be embracing a more expansionist state. Perhaps they have passed around the little red book that he gave to George Osborne a few years ago. However, I do have a suggestion for him. As he returns to the Back Benches, I would suggest he now has the time to write a little red book all of his own. He is uniquely qualified in the House to write it, and I suspect, in the current context, people are about to get back into the habit of reading.
The shadow Chancellor has a lot to look forward to in the weeks ahead. Despite the fact that the premier league is postponed, it is only a matter of time before his faithful following of Liverpool football club will pay dividends with a title after a 30-year wait. Not even the virus will be allowed to get in the way of that. I can only hope that my beloved Hibernian will one day scale the heights of the Scottish league and deliver our championship. If the shadow Chancellor thinks 30 years is a long time, try 63. Mind you, having waited 114 years for the Scottish cup success to be delivered, as it was in 2016, we can wait. I wish both the right hon. Members and their families every best wish as they return to the Back Benches of this House.
We parliamentarians are assembled in this Chamber facing a crisis that none of our predecessors faced, because the crisis that we are dealing with is invisible. I have listened very carefully to the proceedings from the start of the House’s sitting this morning, and it is obvious that Members of Parliament are raising a huge number of issues. They are constantly changing, and Ministers are grappling to come up with the answers to them.
I would like to say to the Leader of the Opposition before he departs that, although I missed him, I had not realised that today was his last Front-Bench appearance. He, the Labour Chief Whip and I were all elected 37 years ago—I think only four or five of us from then have survived—and we were actually in the same queue, although they both happened to be ahead of me. Although the right hon. Gentleman and I do not share the same politics, I think we both are united in wanting the very best for our constituents and the country. I have seen a few Leaders of the Opposition over the years, and he has at all times done the very best he can to try to work with the Government and achieve the best endeavours. I wish him well in whatever he does in the future. As far as his football team is concerned, he will continue to support Arsenal and I will continue to support West Ham and Southend. I think his team is doing a little better than mine at the moment, but I wish him well.
If there had been an opportunity, I would have mentioned that tomorrow, but I have decided that, in these unique times, it is best that I not mention that Southend should become a city. However, when we overcome this crisis, I will never forget that the Leader of the Opposition said to the Prime Minister that he very much supported the idea that Southend should become a city, and I am very grateful for what he said.
As far as this crisis is concerned, this is the first opportunity that I have had to comment on it. It occurs to me that we Members of Parliament are struggling to decide what our role should be. There is only one Member of Parliament in each constituency, we have a relatively small number of staff, and every Member is inundated with questions from constituents asking all manner of things. It occurred to me, following what the Leader of the House said this morning, that one of the most useful things that the Government could provide is a dedicated hotline. I know that we have four dedicated hotlines already, but if there was some way—perhaps through Zoom, which I am now using and finding pretty effective—to roll out dedicated hotlines to all Members of Parliament, particularly when all of us have constituents and their families stranded abroad, which is even more frightening, that would be very useful indeed.
I do not want any my parliamentary colleagues to take offence at this, but how are the Government dealing with this crisis? The jury is out: we do not know how well they are dealing with it at the moment. The overwhelming majority of my emails are from people who are quite satisfied with the leadership that our country is getting at the moment and are full of praise. That may change, but that seems to be the case at the moment; however, one thing has occurred to me. Not all parliamentarians are blessed with great oratorical skills because the way that we deal with matters in this House has changed dramatically. I do not offer my voice—it would be a big turn-off. The Dimbleby family had wonderful broadcasting voices, which reassured the general public. I think the message is getting through better—as I drove here this morning, I saw that people seem to be observing the distancing advice in the queues outside supermarkets and taking the advice about social gathering more seriously. However, if we intend to do a few public service broadcasts, I cannot think of anyone better to ask to do that than Sir David Attenborough or Dame Judi Dench, who are well respected and probably listened to in a way that does not apply to all politicians by young, old and middle-aged. I have not been in touch with them, but I assume that they would be only too delighted to help. I throw that in for what it is worth.
Essex Members of Parliament have by and large already returned to Essex. My constituency office is being set up as a centre now that we are leaving Westminster. Yesterday, we successfully video-conferenced our chief constable and the lady in charge of the fire service. In the context of the motion we are debating, all sorts of financial matters were mentioned then. At 3.30 this afternoon, I will take part in a video conference with all Essex Members of Parliament to talk to our health managers throughout Essex, specifically dealing with several points that the Leader of the Opposition mentioned, such as personal protective equipment. We are working together pretty well.
Before I comment briefly on the financial measures, like all Members of Parliament, I want to praise the way in which local residents are coming together. Southend council has set up a coronavirus action group, working with Southend Association of Voluntary Services, local charities and local Facebook groups, pairing volunteers with those who most need help in a safe and well organised way. Last night, I had a message from Southend scouts. Five hundred adult scouts in Southend have volunteered to assist with food deliveries. That is absolutely wonderful. They have buildings that can be used as delivery hubs and they will help pack and deliver food parcels.
This is not a party political point, and I will talk only about my party. Political parties employ staff to do politicking. There is no politicking happening at the moment. I hope that my party will give a lead. I have written to the chairman of the Conservative party to suggest that the people we employ throughout the country could do some sort of volunteering work. That would give a useful lead because there should be no party politicking at a time of national emergency.
HARP has set up an emergency taskforce along with the council and public health organisations to take rough sleepers off the streets and safeguard them and the wider public from the spread of coronavirus. On people’s health and mental wellbeing, the remarkable David Stanley of the Music Man Project has risen to the challenge of teaching during the lockdown and is personally calling every one of his students who has got learning disabilities and engaging with them through a video conference session. Another organisation that helps people with mental health problems is Growing Together, which, through its wonderful leadership, is bringing positive change to people who experience mental health problems and is messaging individuals to support them.
Earls Hall Baptist Church has said, “You can have our building. Do what you want with it.” Nazareth House, which I mentioned at Prime Minister’s Question Time, has been evacuated and offered to house doctors. Grosvenor House Hotel has offered its building. This morning, we phoned the Royal British Legion. Members who are under 70 are running errands for those unable to shop or collect prescriptions.
However, in the context of the crux of the Opposition motion, there are undoubtedly problems for charities. The British Legion has had to cancel fundraising activities, particularly for the 75th anniversary, and is worried about its finances. Age Concern Southend has seen the closure of shops and suspension of services, and is very worried about the situation as well.
The shadow Chancellor might have an answer to this, if he replies to the debate, but in simple economic terms we are all saying that we have to get financial help to the self-employed and to every facet of society. I am very much in favour of that, but if we keep giving more and more money, will the country go bust, meaning it will be very difficult to run a successful economy afterwards? Or will we all, throughout the world, have to reset the value of our currencies? Presumably, somewhere in the Treasury someone is working on this deep, deep problem.
On the subject of the financial measures that the Opposition are worried about, I have four emails to touch on quickly. A lady has emailed me today saying that she is a self-employed sole trader. She is a seamstress and works regularly altering people’s clothes, especially for weddings and proms. Her husband is a key worker as a bus driver. He is okay—he can get money—but what is she going to do? Another person says that her husband is self-employed as a foot health practitioner. Of course, elderly people want podiatry to continue, but it cannot at the moment. She does not have any income, so what can we do to help? Another person has said that her partner works as a cook in a local private nursery. She suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and is concerned about her vulnerability to covid-19. What are she and her family going to do?
On a slightly different subject, the fourth email is from someone saying that she is diabetic and has her 74-year-old mother staying with her. They are following the Government’s advice on staying indoors, and they have tried all day to book a delivery slot. She has a three-year-old who needs feeding and everywhere is booked up, and those offering priority slots for vulnerable people are uncontactable. She says to me, quite rightly:
“How are we supposed to stay indoors with no food and no way of getting any!”
There are all types of lists. What about wedding planners? I have one daughter who was married last year, and another who is going to get married this year. People are dealing with the emotional stress of that, but the people who run these businesses and are self-employed are asking what they are going to do.
I could burden the Minister of State, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend Mr Clarke, and the Chancellor of the Exchequer with a never-ending list of questions on which we need answers. Members of Parliament from all parties very much want the Government to get through this crisis and to succeed, and I think they are genuinely not being too critical of what is happening at the moment.
I was in business before I became an MP, and we as Members of Parliament do not need to worry about where our salaries will come from. We are paid from the public purse, and there are many other people in that situation. The risk of running a business is a huge one in itself, and when someone is self-employed and might not have put the money aside for their pension or all those other things, it is even more challenging. My hon. Friend the Minister was wonderful in what he did to help on caravans and motorhomes, which is only a drop in the ocean compared with what we are dealing with now, and I know that he and his team must be working on this problem. I share the frustration of Opposition Members, who obviously wanted to be in this place to question Ministers when the package is announced, and we obviously will not be here to do so. I do not know whether there can be some videoconferencing, but there will be many questions that Ministers and their advisers have not thought about. I say again that we as Members of Parliament, with our small teams, are expected to come up with the answers. People are very worried and very frightened at the moment, and it would be so helpful if we could somehow have an increased availability of hotlines to deal with all these issues.
Madam Deputy Speaker, we, of all nations, know more than most that by working together and supporting each other we will get through this national crisis.
May I start by adding to the tributes to the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor for the roles that they have played? As shadow Housing Minister, I have benefited greatly from their prioritising housing as an issue much more than perhaps we did before, and that has been right and a good thing to do.
I start by thanking the civil servants and everybody who is working on the Government’s response to coronavirus. It goes without saying that everybody is working incredibly hard and it is right that they should be acknowledged and appreciated.
I want to take just a few minutes to talk about housing, which I have already done this week, but I want to talk about it again because there is a particular problem with people who are renting, which has yet to be resolved by the Government. There is misinformation about what has changed and what has not changed in terms of the emergency legislation and what support renters can expect to get over the coming weeks and months. The Prime Minister said several times today that he wanted us all to put our arms around everybody in the country at this time and make sure that they are supported, but renters are not being supported at this time, and it is really important that the Government intervene. The Prime Minister promised last week that nobody would be evicted during this crisis, but that promise has not been upheld and it needs to be.
There are 20 million renters in England, 6 million have no savings whatever, and in 1.5 million households the renter is someone over the age of 65. Those are potentially vulnerable people. Any one of those people, at any point over the coming weeks and months, could find an eviction notice drop on their doormat. The Government have done nothing to stop landlords sending eviction notices to people who are renting their properties.
What the emergency legislation does, to be clear, is say that someone who is being evicted cannot be taken to court for three months rather than two if they have not left the property. So we are shifting to 12 weeks rather than eight, which means that someone sent an eviction notice might get evicted in June rather than May, if things go to court. The point is that most people leave when they get an eviction notice; they do not wait for things to get to the point where they go to court. When someone is given a notice of eviction, they have to leave the property, but people are misunderstanding the implications of what the Government are introducing. People will still at this point be getting eviction notices dropping on their doormat, so we could have families and vulnerable people, who have been told by the Government that they must stay indoors, receiving eviction notices telling them they must leave. That must be wrong, and something has to be done about that.
The Leader of the Opposition mentioned what we think needs to be done. We need a ban on evictions for six months and maybe more. Three months is not enough. We cannot have people going to court in June and being evicted, because we will still be in the middle of the crisis at that point. We need to see a suspension of rents if people cannot pay them and a manageable repayment system set up, and we need a substantial increase in support for rent costs through the social security system. We need the courts to be instructed to suspend all possession orders. In Prime Minister’s questions and in the debate since, Members have raised cases of people being evicted right now, and that cannot be right. Shelter can help with the changes that need to be made. We need clear Government guidance to people that if they are served an eviction notice, they must not leave their home. They must stay where they are there, because we do not want them to leave. If people are getting eviction notices, the Government must make it clear that they should not leave. We do not want that to happen to people.
I want to raise two other housing issues, if I may. One is the post-Grenfell situation. Tens of thousands of people in blocks covered with Grenfell-style cladding are going through the process of getting that cladding removed. They need some urgent guidance from the Government about whether the removal of that cladding will remain an essential construction task. They are in buildings that could go up in flames or be dangerous. Many of them are paying for waking watch, which is costing them hundreds of pounds a month each. They are funding waking watch to make sure that, if there is a fire, people can get out quickly enough.
These people have also seen huge rises in their insurance costs, which they are really struggling to pay. I will give just one example. For Islington Gates, a block with 141 households, the insurance for the block has gone up from £36,000 to £191,000. The residents have been told that they have to pay £10,000 each by
At New Capital Quay in Greenwich—one of the first blocks to be identified as being covered with the same cladding as in the Grenfell Tower fire—the residents were contacted just yesterday and told that all the cladding removal will be halted. They have to carry on paying for waking watch, and they have to carry on with the uncertainty of living in a very dangerous building, so we need some clarity about that, please.
The other group of people I want to mention are those in temporary accommodation. We know that 125,000 children live in temporary accommodation, and we are facing several problems here. The first is that they can be evicted at any point in time, which is a great worry. In the past 24 hours, Travelodge has closed many hotels, evicting the families who were using them as temporary accommodation. This is a live and very real problem for families right now, and the Government need to intervene there.
There is also the problem of people in bed-and-breakfast and hostel accommodation and the risk of spreading coronavirus there. The Mayor of London has found some hotels that he can use to put rough sleepers in so that they have somewhere they can go. As I understand it, the Government have also identified hotels where people can go if they are displaying symptoms or need somewhere to be if they are on the streets. However, we need some clarity about what that programme is and what is being done there.
I will leave my remarks there, because I know other people want to speak. I would just say that, at this time of great crisis, we are all retreating to our homes to be safe. If we find ourselves in a situation where people cannot stay in their homes, which we will do unless the Government act, that will be a great injustice for those people.
I would like to concentrate on a few of the enormous number of issues that this crisis is throwing up, and which our constituents are contacting us about and expecting us to have the answers to. I appreciate the difficulties for the Government, but here are just a few of the most pressing issues.
The first issue is children’s hospices. In the best of times, children’s hospices provide invaluable comfort and support to some of the most vulnerable children and families in our society, but these are not the best of times. Despite the range of measures announced by the Government to support the NHS, businesses and individuals, many children’s hospices rely on charitable donations and already receive very little Government funding.
The urgency of the situation is illustrated by Shooting Star Children’s Hospices, which cares for babies, children and young people with life-limiting conditions and their families throughout all 11 districts of Surrey and across 15 boroughs of London. Just 10% of its funding is from the NHS, with the rest through charitable donation. On Monday, Shooting Star had to close Shooting Star House in Hampton, owing to the immediate financial implications of coronavirus. That could get worse. If Government support does not come urgently, the charity might be faced with closing its doors permanently in all its hospices.
Many children’s hospices across the country will be in the same situation, but without hospice services, families will be forced to rely on the NHS or council social care at a time when both are under extreme pressure. The need does not disappear. My question to the Minister and the Government is, will they provide urgent help? I ask that not only on an emotional and a moral basis, but on a financial basis.
If anybody compares the cost of a bed in a children’s ward in an acute hospital with the cost of a bed in a children’s hospice, far more taxpayers’ money goes into the hospital, and the care cannot be as great, because the hospices are the specialists in that regard. For relatively little amounts of public money, the Government can save more money and provide much better care to those children and those families.
Secondly, my hon. Friend Sarah Jones has already raised the issue of evictions, but the question needs to be clarified. Section 21 no-fault evictions are the biggest single cause of homelessness in this country. Last week, I called on the Prime Minister to ask the courts to stop all section 21 evictions, to take pressure off hard-pressed councils and worried families. The Prime Minister reassured me and this House that legislation would be brought in. The Housing Secretary assured me, face to face, directly after PMQs, that there would be no evictions for three months. Contrary to that, however, the Government proposals instead appear simply to extend the notice period for section 21 notices by four weeks.
What then happens to all those tenants who already have an expired section 21, or who already have an unexpired possession order, let alone those people with expired possession orders who are waiting for the bailiffs to call at any moment? How can they stay at home to save lives if they are going to be evicted? We have even heard unbelievable reports of landlords threatening to evict health workers, because of their risk of exposure to coronavirus. That is completely unacceptable. Will the Government urgently clarify their position, and legislate so that no one is kicked out of their home in the heart of a global pandemic?
A further, smaller but nevertheless important, issue to those going through the process is for those who will be completing on the sale of their homes over the coming week. Miss O from Morden emailed me a number of times over recent days, as she is due to complete her sale on Friday. She has been told by her solicitor:
“If you are unable to complete on time, whatever the reason, including coronavirus, you will be in breach of contract”.
She has been told that if she cannot complete on Friday, she will be fined or liable to costs of £33,000. Miss O is entirely dependent on the banks and building societies working, and on the home removal company still being able to move her goods out of her home, for her chain of four sales actually to go ahead. She is a woman who has worked hard to own her home, and she has been through a difficult process of selling her home. What advice can we give her?
Thirdly, I would like to discuss charities. I am sure all colleagues from across the House share my admiration and gratitude for the selfless work that is done by the voluntary and charitable sector at this extraordinarily challenging time. Charities in my constituency are calling for urgent support. Their questions are clear: how will the job retention scheme affect staff who are furloughed—I did not know what that word meant until today—but want to remain working as volunteers to keep these essential services going? The current guidance for employees states that to qualify for the scheme, they should not undertake work for their employer while furloughed. Will charities receive emergency grants to survive at the time when they are needed most? Donations and fundraising have plummeted. Will small business rate relief be extended to smaller community organisations, too? The Prime Minister indicated this morning that he would look at a package of measures for community organisations, but organisations such as the Commonside Community Development Trust in my constituency simply do not have the time to wait. Will these measures come in, and what will they entail?
Finally, I want to mention gas and electricity prepayment meters. Have the Government considered calling on companies to override gas and electricity key meters so that no one needs to leave their house to recharge a key and, importantly, no voluntary organisation needs to spend its time working out how they can do that? Current policies across the industry differ greatly. SSE can send pre-loaded credit to people’s homes, whereas E.ON’s emergency credit scheme requires customers to visit their local top-up stores three times in advance to get their key activated. Similarly, EDF is helping vulnerable customers by offering them pre-loaded keys, to a total value of about £3 million, and even offering to collect deliveries from chemists and shops. British Gas, meanwhile, is offering next to nothing, other than that customers can phone the company if they get into difficulties. We know that some of our most vulnerable constituents have prepayment meters. They are precisely the people who we do not want to have to go out to charge their keys, even if they are in a financial position to do so.
I have outlined four urgent measures on hospices, evictions, charities and utilities that could make a key difference to so many families at this time. I appreciate that the situation is coming at the Government from all sides, but we need answers to these very basic questions.
As many have said, although we are in a terrible time, we are seeing the greatest sacrifice and kindness from so many of our constituents. Merton Voluntary Service Council has set up a scheme to help people and get volunteers. Only yesterday, Mrs B from Mitcham rang me to say that she could not get out to shop because she was caring for her disabled husband. Within an hour, the voluntary service council had the shopping on her doorstep. Today, my great friends Jenny and Mark Allison, together with a team of volunteers, have run a food bank from Commonside trust, which they have trialled to make sure that it poses no medical threat to the volunteers or to the families who need its help. Without these people, we will not get by. They are silent, and they do not look for glory, but I just want to say thank you to each and every one of them.
First, I send my deepest condolences to all who have lost loved ones in this global pandemic, and to all who are worried about loved ones. I thank the Clerks, the cleaners, the police and all the essential staff who are here keeping Parliament running, but I echo the sentiments of the Members from across the House who have said that we really must investigate how we can work remotely in this time of crisis. I am not trying to make any cheap political points, because this is not the time to do that, but it is the right time to talk about politics, because we are closing Parliament for Easter. Politics is about resources. It is about spending money. It is about what and whom we value and what our values are.
Those values have never been more vital than in the midst of a crisis such as this. It should not have taken a crisis to prove that the country’s safety net keeps us all safe, but it has. It should not have taken a pandemic for cleaners, delivery workers, waste disposal workers, transport workers, care workers and domestic violence workers—to name but a few—to be recognised as key workers, but it has.
It is at moments such as this that we are forced to reflect on what sort of country we are creating, what sort of country we want to be and where our priorities lie. We have the second biggest economy in Europe, but one of the lowest rates of sick pay. The Government have suspended mortgage payments, but not rents; they have given £350 billion in grants and loans to businesses, but little for the 5 million self-employed or the 1 million on zero-hours contracts and in the gig economy. We hear that that might happen on Thursday, but we will not be here to question the Government.
As for the millionaires and billionaires who are dismissing staff or telling them to go and work in Tesco—Wetherspoons and Branson—I will not even waste my breath on them, because the first priority must be to protect the most vulnerable. Now more than ever, in the truest sense of the word, we are all in this together, and nobody should be left out in the cold.
Let us imagine key workers cleaning away the deadly virus or care workers looking after the elderly. They would all be judged as unskilled under a points classification system. The postal workers who cancelled the strike action to deliver prescriptions, the supermarket workers and all those key workers looking after the most vulnerable—they all answered the call, and while there will be no box on a form that says, “I served my country”, no one should ever doubt again that they did. Every day they go out and work on the frontline, but if they fall ill, they might get £94.50 in sick pay.
It goes without saying—it has been said many times—that sick pay needs to be increased if we are to value our key workers. They say that, in times of crisis, when current policies are not working, those in power need to use whatever ideas are lying around. It is lucky that the Labour party, under my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, put together such a comprehensive set of ideas and recorded them in two Labour manifestos. We are now treating people the way we should have been treating people all along. It should be the norm.
Sometimes, the discussions in Parliament sound sensible, but they do not reflect what is happening in constituencies such as mine in Brent. I have lots of homes in multiple occupation in Brent—loads of people with no recourse to public funds. They stay in one house, often a house with strangers, but that never normally matters, because they often work shifts, so they do not see each other. Being forced into lockdown is causing multiple problems in Brent, and I wonder whether that has contributed to my constituency’s having such a high infection rate and such a high death rate. I thank Brent Council for considering all that and for the work it is doing. I thank the businesses that are offering accommodation and extra help to the most vulnerable in my constituency.
To all the domestic abuse survivors, I would like to say, “Please do not suffer in silence.” We know that domestic abuse increases during the holiday season, and this lockdown is much worse. I worry about the rise in domestic and child abuse. If the Government’s “whatever it takes” is to mean anything, there will be a safe place for people to go. To all those who are suffering, I say, “Please make that call.”
Now I would like to talk about the superheroes—the doctors and nurses. They might not take home £2,500 a month, but they risk their lives every day. The nurses now being asked to work did not have nursing bursaries when they started, but now they have been called in early—and they have come willingly. The Government now need to offer them a £15,000 grant to compensate, now that nursing bursaries have been reinstated. At the end of the day, doctors and nurses are becoming ill. Some, sadly, are dying. One nurse who we read about this week committed suicide because of the number of people who died on her ward. We need to ensure that there are tests, tests, tests, and that there is personal protective equipment for the doctors and nurses. There is no excuse. There is no value in going on TV and praising nurses and doctors, calling them “angels”, and then neglecting them when they are on the frontline.
It needs to be said that austerity has made the situation much worse than it needed to be. If this is not a time to prioritise key workers and increase pay, when is? We in this House can say thank you—we have all said that, and will continue to—but that will not put food on the table. It will not put clothes on people’s backs or pay for a much-needed holiday when we get through this—and we will get through this. But the Government can make the difference, and this is what it takes: to improve the wages and terms and conditions of our key workers.
I want to thank all the people who are helping to build and rebuild communities and helping the most vulnerable, as well as everyone who is staying at home to keep others safe. I say to all who are panic-buying that I understand the need to feel in control, especially at a time when there is so much conflicting information. But most will have what they need now, for several months probably, and our key workers do not. Please leave some toilet paper for others. At moments such as this, each individual must take responsibility for what they do. They must be reminded that their actions impact on not only themselves but others. Everyone must do what they can. Remember that, although we cannot control the situation around us, we can control our actions.
I say to the Government that, as we go forward into this crisis, for the sake of the nurses, doctors and all our key workers, please get your priorities right. So far 422 people have died. Hospitals are struggling to keep on top of the virus. Each number represents a loved one—a mother, father, son, daughter, uncle, auntie or friend. Each number represents a hole in people’s lives: a truncated grievance process and a broken heart that will never fully heal.
I conclude with this. It will take a long time for us to come to terms with this deadly virus and pandemic and understand what we have faced and are going through, but we must emerge from this better. We must pause to think that many of these workers are migrants. In a year’s time, people who want to come and do key jobs in our country’s vital sector are going to be told that they have not gained enough points. It is a shame that people do not get any points for mere humanity.
I say to the Government: as you work to protect the economy, remember who the economy is ultimately for. Remember who creates the wealth and who keeps us safe. Remember the people who put their lives on the line. Remember who tended the sick and the appeals for compassion, consideration, solidarity and responsibility. Those values do not work just in a pandemic: they are the cornerstone of a decent society and a vibrant nation.
It is a great pleasure to follow Dawn Butler, who has just made a most moving and thoughtful contribution. I was particularly taken by what she said about our need to give thought after this to the country that we wish to be. I absolutely agree that in all that we do we must emerge from this better.
Significant policy changes when it comes to the support on offer for the economy have already been announced in the House over the past couple of days. On Monday there was the Coronavirus Bill, and we took further important steps yesterday—we did a rain dance around the much fabled magic money tree, to make sure that the supply was there to give effect to the policy changes. It was important to make sure that we did that to protect our constituents.
My party has been resolute in its support for that package of measures. It is clear that the response continues to evolve. We have already heard from Government Front-Bench Members about the changes being put in place to make it easier for distillers, for example, to produce quantities of hand sanitiser. In my constituency, a brewer and distiller, BrewDog—other brewers and distillers are available, but that one comes to mind—has already been supplying hand sanitiser that it has been making to the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. That is exactly the sort of repurposing and innovation that we need. The Government must always be there to facilitate and enable that, and I am pleased that that has happened.
Like those of all hon. Members, my constituents are increasingly getting in touch in response to the crisis with questions of detail that are underpinned by deep questions of substance. We might think that the Government have been clear about who should be at home and who should be working. Nevertheless, I am hearing worrying stories. My inbox is becoming increasingly active with stories of employers who, through a lack of knowledge or awareness, or because they simply think that the rules do not apply to them, are trying to force people out to work under pain of disciplinary action, redundancy, termination of contracts or not being paid.
My office has also found stories of employers who seem reluctant to pass on the considerable amount of support that has already been offered to companies and to PAYE employees. The Government have taken the right actions, but they need to reinforce the right expectations of where that resource is supposed to go. If that resource does not hit the pockets of working people, it will certainly not achieve all that we need it to achieve to get through the crisis.
While we are rightly about to fire-hose cash at businesses and PAYE employees, I make no apology for returning to the issue of the self-employed and those on zero-hours contracts, who find themselves outwith furlough schemes, who are now underemployed, and who might expect to see reductions to their take-home pay in consequence. We need to make sure that we are also supporting them. Although I am reassured that the Government are giving considerable thought to how they support the self-employed, I have picked up worrying signs that they might be overthinking it by trying to follow every glitch and contour in a determination not to see a single penny go astray. The bigger picture point is perhaps being missed in paying attention to the wrong sort of details.
In summing up the debate on the Contingencies Fund Bill yesterday, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said that he did not share my enthusiasm for a universal basic income, which is a shame. I respect his view, but nobody has yet devised a perfect welfare system that is entirely free of bureaucracy or of some perverse incentives, or that manages to make sure that people never lose from their earnings more than they would lose from the support that was there when they were not earning. That has led to many people finding themselves trapped in a poverty that is not of their choosing and that they would desperately like to escape from. A universal basic income would resolve many of those problems if we were prepared to consider it as part of our package of support for the self-employed and others.
It is also clear that businesses are still in need of more and different types of support. We have heard about the difficulties—indeed, I was speaking to an employers’ federation this morning about the need for clarity on insurance, in order to trigger payments from insurance companies. It is not good enough just to say that the words we have heard from Ministers ought to be sufficient; they need to be sufficient. I encourage the Government to continue to engage with not only the insurers but the various industry sectors, to ensure that clarity is absolute and that payments can be triggered in the light of the response we are expecting.
Other measures are required. We need to raise the statutory sick pay level to at least the EU average. We need to get rid of the bedroom tax. We also need to scrap the rape clause. Let us not forget the impact that advising people to stay at home can have on households where there are, sadly, abusive relationships and how much worse it must be at this time of dread for so many people to find that the financial support that would ordinarily be on offer simply is not because of the two-child limit.
Ministers have rightly praised NHS workers who are on the frontline of the response to this crisis, but there is one subset of NHS workers who might be entitled to find those words just a little hollow: those who have come here to work from elsewhere, whether that be the EU or countries outwith it, who are expected to pay the NHS health surcharge. I was contacted this morning by the husband of a nurse who works at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. She came to the United Kingdom in 2017 from the USA. She is here perfectly legally, with a visa. But in order to have the right to access the services of the NHS that she and others work so hard to support on a daily basis, she has to pay a fee of £400 a year, which the Chancellor announced in his Budget will soon rise to £624 a year. At this time of national crisis when we expect so much of workers in the NHS in particular, is it not sending the wrong message entirely that we are charging people to access services that they may need more urgently as a result of the help they are trying to give others? I urge the Government to consider that point carefully.
We must consider how we prepare ourselves for the period after this. Earlier today, the Prime Minister said that he believed the country will “emerge better and stronger” from this crisis. I very much hope that he is correct, but the one thing that is certain is that we cannot allow a return to business as usual. We have to think about how we lay the foundations of recovery—economic, yes, but it is not just about the economy. It is about how we build on the efforts we are seeing in our society to rebuild social infrastructure and ensure that it is fit for purpose for the country that we will be living in afterwards.
We need to be placing much greater value on the ethos of public service, and we also need to value more the public services that we have. As I said in relation to the NHS surcharge that is expected of those from outside the country, we need to value far more the contribution of those who have paid us the compliment of choosing to come and live their lives among us. I do not wish to make this about Brexit, but it is inescapable that since the UK voted to leave the European Union, a meanness and a nastiness has crept into some of the discourse. I do not blame Brexit for that—I think that it was always there in many respects, but it seems to have been emboldened. We need to do far more to value the contribution of those who make their lives here. As we expect discipline, patience and self-sacrifice, we need to expect similar levels of those attributes from those who have most, and not just, as ever, those who have least.
Whatever challenges we face today, we know that there will be a tomorrow and that we must make it better. We owe it to all those we represent to make sure that the tomorrow we are about to bequeath to our constituents is, through our actions and our foresight today, better than the country that far too many of us were prepared to tolerate the unfairnesses and injustices of.
As this will be one of the last debates in Parliament before recess, it is important to put on record my thanks to the leader of my party, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, on his last day as leader in Parliament. It is a shame that the parliamentary authorities have not managed to get their act together to organise an electronic, online continuation of proceedings. During a recess in normal times, in a crisis, we would be recalled, and this is a crisis, so we should be able to continue our work. For Ministers to ask for our work to continue through correspondence is not satisfactory. However, I actually think it is not the Ministers who need to step up; it is the parliamentary authorities, the Speaker’s Office and IT. If they are having problems, I am sure we can find people who can fix them. It is important to press that, and colleagues who dismiss it need to have a look at themselves.
I, to some extent, am lucky. I got the virus and was ill for five or six days with a horrible, unpleasant fever and flu-like aches and pains, and then it disappeared. That is what will happen to most people, but in that time I did not have to worry about whether I would be on sick pay, were I to spend another week and a half, as I did, in self-isolation, to ensure that the virus had fully gone through my system. The doctor’s advice was followed. I knew that I would be paid full wages. The problem is that during that period many people will be paid not full wages but statutory sick pay, which for large numbers of them means absolute ruin. It means ruin because they will not be able to afford to pay their rent or mortgages properly, or to eat or live properly. They may have to borrow from other people, or potentially banks, and when they get out of the crisis, if they are able to work again, they will struggle for many months, and maybe many years because for many there will be a long, scarring effect on their wellbeing.
We need to do something to support people on sick pay; that is clear. The Health Secretary said that he would struggle to live on that level of pay. I note that Australia has already raised by three times the amount of statutory sick pay offered during this period. It is time that we do something similar—and quickly. We should have always had a sick pay system based on contribution and therefore a percentage of earnings, but now is the time to do that.
I want to touch on a problem that many workers have with 80% of pay versus sick pay. For many, it will be advantageous to take the 80% pay the Government are potentially offering and be furloughed for this period. However, some employers are not offering that. Some constituents have contacted me to say that airlines, for example, are just offering less work—sometimes 10% or 20% of what that employee would normally get—so that employee, on a retention contract, a zero-hours contract, a minimum hours contract or whatever anyone wishes to call it, is receiving far less in wages than they normally would, and the Government scheme is not an option for them. That needs to be resolved. It could be done quite easily by looking at what a worker’s pay was last month—if they are on the PAYE system, that is already known by the Government—and allowing companies to put them on the Government scheme, with a variation if the company needs workers to go in. At the moment, the bar on any work being done by those on the 80% scheme means that many companies are avoiding putting workers into that scheme. That needs to change.
We also know that many people will struggle to pay rent in this period. I mentioned this earlier, but there is a real problem with some of the mortgage lenders. I should declare an interest: I have a buy-to-rent house that I rent out. One of the two people I rent out to works in the theatre and the other produces circus equipment, so as hon. Members can imagine, their work has ended. I immediately rang my mortgage provider and asked what the arrangements were for suspending mortgage payments on the buy-to-rent house, so that I could pass it on directly to the tenants. I think every landlord should be doing that if tenants are not able to pay. The mortgage company said that because my wage is not directly affected by this, it expects the mortgage to continue to be paid. It said it could offer me a three-month holiday, but after that, I would be expected to make up every single penny that I had not paid in that three-month period.
I can probably do that, and I have made sure to give my tenants reduced rent this month, while they still have some ability to pay. My tenants will be able to stay there as long as they need, but many landlords are not in the same position as me, They need to be able to get a proper holiday—to push the mortgage back, suspend everything, and put it in stasis. That way, their mortgage might end six months later than planned, but that is the relief that is needed, not being told that interest will accrue on the mortgage and it will have to be paid back. Many landlords will simply pass those costs on to renters, forcing them, in effect, to self-evict.
We know that eviction prevention measures do not necessarily prevent evictions—the Rachmans of this world will find other ways to squeeze tenants out—but during this period, we also need to stay aware of the condition of rented property. Many people live in damp, squalid, poor conditions. They survive because they do not spend much time in their house; they sleep in the damp bedroom, but are able to get out in the fresh air. Now, if they demand improvements from landlords and the landlords are not able to make the improvements, they will have to live in squalid accommodation for months on end; that will harm their health and might even exacerbate the current health crisis. Also, if they make demands, there is a danger of revenge evictions after the crisis is over. The whole issue of housing needs to be reviewed urgently; otherwise, we will be building up another crisis for ourselves.
I want to talk about universal credit and disability benefit appeals. A number of my constituents have had their disability benefit reviewed and downgraded. In normal times, my office or one of the disability offices in the constituency would help them to put in an appeal. When we put in an appeal, we know that there is a very high chance of success and of the award being backdated. We have been told that appeals are now being suspended for the period of this crisis. If no appeals can be dealt with, people will be waiting a long time and it may be harder to backdate awards—it is almost impossible to backdate further than the start of the appeal process. In my view, the Government should continue to pay the higher rate to anyone who was recently downgraded and who has put in a paper appeal until that appeal is processed, so that no one is disadvantaged. If they do not do that, many people who deserve the money will never be able to get it, and they may get into a spiral of debt trying to survive in the meantime. That is not good enough.
We have heard a lot about self-employed people, and I would like to add my thoughts on the subject. Toni, who lives in Saltdean, contacted me. He is a construction industry scheme self-employed builder. He says he has been told by the NHS that he is high-risk vulnerable. He is on some medication and has an underlying condition, but he is fit and healthy in every other part of his life. Because he is self-employed, it now looks as if he will get statutory sick pay, which will not even cover his outgoings. He has a mortgage that will offer some support, but not complete support, and he says
“for lots of the lads at the sites, including mine, it is now looking like our families could starve if we don’t get money.”
Please do not let his family starve. Please can we get something that is fair?
In my view, universal basic income would have done that. It would have been simpler, it would have been easier, and it would have been quicker. The Government have the details of most people’s bank accounts linked to their national insurance number, through either the benefits system, PAYE, the self-assessment tax system, or the pensions system. A universal basic income could be paid to everyone immediately, and then clawed back through a proper progressive taxation system at the end of the year. That would have allayed all the Government’s fears about people who are still earning. At the end of the year, when self-assessment or general taxation is due, that money could be clawed back, and it would have been fair. Instead, the Government have introduced this complex system of mortgage relief, rent relief, 80% here, blah blah blah, and it is extremely confusing and scary for self-employed people. I look forward to the chance to consider that on Thursday, but I wish the Government had acted more quickly and decisively on something like a universal basic income.
It is a pleasure to follow Lloyd Russell-Moyle. He made his points well and with force and clarity, and I agreed with much of what he said.
I understand that this afternoon is a testimonial for the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor, in terms of their performance at the Dispatch Box. I count them both as good friends, and I wish them well for the future. They have always led by example in speaking truth to power. That is something I have always tried to emulate, and they set a good example for other hon. Members. We must speak truth to power, particularly given the current situation.
In my view, the past two weeks have brought out the best in people, but sadly, and as we have read and seen on the television, all too often they have also brought out the worst. We have seen behaviour in supermarkets that I found extraordinary, and we have had to put pressure on supermarkets to ensure that they do not cut orders to local foodbanks. I thank supermarkets for addressing that and ensuring that foodbanks get the support they need. I also thank foodbank volunteers right across these islands, as well as workers in our national health service and in local and central Government, as they try to assist people through this process.
I also wish to mention the constituency office staff of every hon. Member of the House. They have been flooded this week—as have we all—by emails, particularly from constituents who are abroad and trying to get home. I am concerned by some information that was provided to me by my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend Stewart Malcolm McDonald, who told me that the Foreign Office is not providing support to individuals who have dual nationality. That really is nonsense. Glasgow in particular has a thriving Asian community that does great work across the city, and many of those people will have UK as well as Pakistani citizenship. If UK citizens are stuck in Pakistan, we should be doing everything we can to bring them home, and we should not refuse to help them because they happen to have dual nationality. I hope that the Foreign Office will address that urgently.
Let me say for the third time today—I am going to keep mentioning it as often as I can until the message is driven home—that there are far too many businesses out there that are still open but should not be. They are defying clear public health advice. The advice is clear that, by doing what they are doing, they are putting not just public health, but lives at risk. I think we know what is happening here. This is blatant opportunism. They are blatantly trying to make money and make a profit. There is only one way to deal with these people, and that is to issue them with closure orders and heavy fines. They are only operating to make money, so the only way to deal with them is to take money off them.
We cannot have a situation where businesses are threatening staff—including, I am sad to say, those at risk—with their jobs. People with symptoms and those with a health condition that means they are at risk of getting this virus are being ordered into work by too many employers. It really is a disgraceful situation. If the Government do start fining those businesses, I hope they name and shame them publicly in the same way as we do with employers who do not pay the national minimum wage. Once the crisis is over, I think consumers will be entitled to know what businesses defied the public advice given not just by the UK Government but by devolved Administrations.
In the past two weeks we have also seen some—not all, but some—employers opportunistically try to lay off workers and tell them they will no longer have a job. That was completely unnecessary. The best example I can give is the G1 Group, which notified 200 people in Glasgow on Friday that they were being laid off due to a lack of trade. If it were not for the great Unite hospitality branch we have in Glasgow, which organised a sit-in by workers in one of the G1 premises, those workers would not have had the victory of being told that they are being kept on and that the company will apply for the job retention scheme.
I want to say a word about the job retention scheme. If any of the businesses that are still open today—I am sure they will, in due time, be ordered by the Government to close—apply for the job retention scheme, that money should not be backdated to
I hope the Government are taking seriously their responsibilities to their own workforce when it comes to social distancing. I am thinking in particular of workers employed in service centres by the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. I am picking up examples where social distancing is not taking place and there is a lack of basic health facilities. The Government have a responsibility and a duty to ensure that those workers are protected—that their health is protected and their lives are protected.
That also goes for those Government contractors—I am thinking of Adecco and Atos—that have ordered at-risk employees into work. I am thinking in particular, because he gave me permission to mention him, of my constituent Andrew Rossetter, who clearly has health conditions that mean he is at risk, being ordered into his workplace. Why is a Government contractor doing that? It is time the Government had a word with those contractors to ensure that they are applying the appropriate guidance and advice, and are doing so to the letter.
I received a letter this afternoon from the Glasgow Institute of Architects, which is rightly concerned about what is happening on construction sites as we speak. Construction workers are being ordered into work. I really cannot see the purpose of that. It is clearly against the advice and guidance the Government have given, and it really needs to be sorted out. Of course, it comes as no surprise that some of the companies trying to order construction workers into work have traditionally operated blacklists. We need an assurance from these companies that they will not put any worker who decides to self-isolate on any blacklist. Blacklists are, of course, illegal, but we will make sure that that does not take place.
This morning, the Work and Pensions Committee, of which I am a member, asked about the pressures being put on DWP staff as a result of 500,000 people applying in one day. We have probably all seen the screenshots on social media showing where people are in the queue—I have seen one where someone was 100,011th in the list of those trying to get their claims processed. I am sure that I speak for many Members in saying that we support the staff going through this process. We understand, of course, that the Government will have to redeploy staff to make sure that claims are processed and that people get the money they deserve and are looked after, but we need the Government to keep in touch with us on what the pressures are. If the Government need to hire more people, they should do so. If they need to redeploy staff from other Departments, they need to do so to ensure that everyone is looked after.
On statutory sick pay, I join other colleagues in saying that £94.25 a week is not enough to live on—indeed, I think the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is on record saying that. We need to see the level of statutory sick pay rise, certainly to the European average. I do agree with many—the Select Committee had a chat about this today after our session with the Secretary of State—that we really do need to look at a universal basic income. In a time of crisis such as this, we need to consider and address the need for a universal basic income.
In closing, I just want to say—I am thinking particularly of what Wes Streeting said last week—that after this crisis is over, there will be political choices to be made. The last thing we need is another decade of austerity. The decade of austerity we have lived through has shown us that the public services are not all ready to deal with situations like this. We need to have a serious conversation about the role and function of public services and to make sure that they are properly financed, maintained, resourced and staffed.
We also need to have a conversation about the status of the worker in the workplace, because, as we have seen in the past two weeks, there are a lot of opportunistic, bullying employers out there. We need to sort out, once and for all, who is self-employed and who is not self-employed. Far too many workers are finding out only now that they are self-employed, and they should not be self-employed—they are directly employed. If someone has to go in for a job interview, I think it is safe to say that they should be considered as being directly employed.
I hope that after this crisis there is no return to austerity and that we invest in our people and our public services. That will be the people’s bail-out, and it will require the sort of investment that the banks got in 2008.
Before I begin, and since it is the last time they will speak from the Opposition Front Bench as Leader of the Opposition and shadow Chancellor, I would like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friends the Members for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). I would like to put on record that they are among the most principled people in politics and their leadership has been no exception to that. Before he was Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North was for me someone who always gave a voice to the voiceless and championed the oppressed. Few have done as much as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington to champion the interests of the working class, and to build on the idea of society marked not by greed and fear, but compassion and equality. I thank them for giving me and so many other people hope for a better future. I look forward to many more years campaigning together.
I thank my hon. Friend for allowing me, too, to place on record that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is a principled, down to earth, decent individual who is committed to his cause. Like the shadow Chancellor, he has done that not just for a year or two, but for decades. It has been an honour and a privilege to serve as the Leader of the Opposition’s permanent private secretary. Does she agree that they are excellent individuals?
Absolutely. I wholeheartedly agree.
Ten years ago, in response to a crisis, the then Prime Minister said that we were all in it together. A decade of public service cuts tells a different story. It tells a story of the working class paying the price for a crisis not of their making. Our services have been run into the ground and our NHS pushed to the brink. That has left us more vulnerable to this pandemic. The chairman of the British Medical Association said earlier this month that, after a decade of underfunding
“Our starting position…has been far worse than many other European nations”.
We see that with the NHS staff confronting this crisis without the resources they need. They do not have the proper protective equipment, ventilators or tests they deserve. Frankly, that is a scandal. Before I go on, I want to put on record my thanks to and admiration for the NHS staff at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire and across the country. Their bravery, dedication and self-sacrifice at this time is an inspiration. If we are to learn one thing from this crisis, I hope it is that no one will ever again undervalue or underfund them and our NHS again.
This emergency has already taught us something: it has taught us who our key workers are. It is not the bankers or the city traders. It is the nurses, the doctors, the cleaners, the shop assistants, the teachers, the bus drivers, the carers, the postal workers and the delivery drivers. It is the 99%. It is the working class in all our diversity. This crisis shows that society is nothing without the labouring class. But just as the financial crisis showed us, it is the working class who risk being hit hardest by this crisis. Belatedly, the Government are appreciating the scale of the economic challenge, but they are not going far enough, fast enough. They are allowing bosses to force staff to go to work even in non-essential areas. If we are fining individuals for going out when they should not, surely it is right to fine businesses that tell their staff to come into work when it is unnecessary.
The job retentions scheme offers support for businesses, but it gives no guarantees that workers will be able to retain their jobs. It does not cover the 5 million self-employed, from actors to taxi drivers. The Chancellor has promised further measures, but they should never have been excluded in the first place or left with the fear of their incomes disappearing overnight. I urge the Government to extend the scheme to the self-employed before they are pushed into poverty. Poverty is what it would be, because at £94 a week universal credit is simply not enough to live on. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has himself admitted that.
It is the whole system that is broken. We see that at the moment, with reports that online queues for universal credit are 150,000 people long. It is taking days to move forward just a few thousand places. That is what happens when we gut the social security system. It is about time that this broken system was fixed and funded properly. Again, I urge the Government, before more people are driven into totally unnecessary poverty, to end the five-week wait, suspend all sanctions and raise the universal credit rate to a liveable rate. Our social security system must be extended to people currently excluded from it. Before this crisis, “no recourse to public funds” was an injustice. During this pandemic, it is a public health calamity. Migrants must be given access to healthcare, vital public services and financial support. The Government must end “no recourse to public funds”.
The final point I wish to touch on is the position for renters. Last week, we called on the Chancellor to suspend rents and ban evictions. Ministers promised that our concerns would be swiftly met, but we are still waiting. The Government’s announcement on evictions was inadequate to start with and has only disappointed on closer inspection. It is not a ban on evictions; it only extends eviction notices to three months. Evictions are going ahead right now, as the charity Shelter has warned. People cannot stay at home if they are being kicked out of their home. So, again, I urge Conservative Members to live up to their promise and ban evictions throughout this crisis. But banning evictions alone is not enough. If rents are not suspended, debts will pile up and renters will be at the mercy of landlords when this outbreak subsides. The Government have “asked” landlords to “show compassion”, but if there is one thing I have learnt after years of renting it is that we cannot rely on the compassion of landlords. So I tell the Government: suspend rents before it is too late.
I will finish on one final point. Yesterday, it was reported that banks are exploiting this crisis, putting up the cost of personal loans, quadrupling interest rates on overdrafts to nearly 40% and failing to pass on Bank of England’s interest rate cuts. We bailed them out when they crashed the economy, and we paid the price. We cannot let that happen again. So I urge the Government: this time, let us bail out the people. Let us protect the incomes of the self-employed; raise statutory sick pay for all workers; increase universal credit, end “no recourse to public funds”; suspend rents and ban evictions; and make sure that working people are not hit the hardest ever again.
I know that all right hon. and hon. Members will want to pass on their condolences to the family and friends of the 435 people who have died in this coronavirus epidemic. Each of those deaths is a personal tragedy for them and their families, and, sadly, we know that there will be more in the coming days and weeks. I also want to put on the record my thanks to those working in the NHS, our vital emergency services, including the police; the civil service; and to local government officers, some of whom are working round the clock; retail distribution workers; postal workers; and those in our armed forces. Mention was made earlier of cleaners, whom we should thank in particular, because they are going to be important in fighting this epidemic. We need to be honest and say that these are fraught times and tempers may get frayed in the coming weeks and months, but may I urge people not to take it out on the individuals who are there working on our behalf—shop workers and others—who will be vital in getting us through this crisis?
I am disappointed that the Government have not brought forward measures to support the self-employed. Last Thursday, I raised the case of Andrew Brown, a graphic designer in my constituency whose business folded overnight last week. Since then, I have been inundated with questions from individuals who are in real need—taxi drivers, self-employed individuals, and people who run businesses. Let me say to the Minister, as I said to the Chancellor last week, that these individuals do not have recourse to independent wealth and do not have masses of savings. In most cases, they are living and working week to week. Some, such as taxi drivers, have ongoing bills, for example for the rental of cars, that they have to meet. If they cannot work, they do not have recourse to funds that they can suddenly find somewhere else. It is important that a sense of urgency is brought into this, and I am not sure the Government recognise the deep upset, hurt and fear that these people are facing.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he agree that it is deeply disappointing that the package is likely to come out tomorrow or Friday, when the House is not sitting, so Members will not be able to scrutinise it in the way in which we are accustomed to do?
I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I have been raising this issue for the past week, as I know other colleagues have. The Federation of Small Businesses, for example, has been lobbying not only us but the Government, asking them to do something urgently about this.
Another key point is that some individuals, if they are not supported now, will not be in business after the crisis is over. All our communities need the services that those businesses supply. It is about not only supporting individuals, but supporting those businesses in our local communities. I urge the Government, as I have been doing for the last week, to do something about that urgently. I hope that that comes in.
When the Financial Secretary to the Treasury opened the debate, he talked about communications, which the Government have not got right. Chris Stephens mentioned companies that are still asking people to go to work. It is okay for the Prime Minister to go on television and say, “This is what you can do,” but this morning I received telephone calls from individuals who have been told by their employer that they must go to work in their local engineering company or they will not be paid.
That is fine for people who have great savings or access to a trust fund, or for those who are independently wealthy, but some people need that money to survive. The messaging is okay when it is said, but turning that into action is another thing altogether. As Richard Thomson said, some companies know that their workers are not needed with regard to the criteria that have been laid out. They are putting not just those individuals at risk, but the rest of us as well.
The other issue is the support that has already been given to business. I welcomed the comprehensive package that was introduced last week for business but, again, communication is an issue, and the Government need to look at that. As the debate started, I received an email from Scott Hawthorne, who runs a waste disposal company in my constituency. He asked whether it would be possible to get clarification on the announcement on furlough funding, because he wants to keep people on. However, he cannot do so, since he cannot explain the basic, simple messages to people because he does not have the information about what the deal is. His finance director cannot make an assessment regarding cash flow, who they can keep on, and whether they will get the money in time.
Earlier in the week, that waste disposal company offered its services to the local county council. The company wants to do good, but the messaging has to get out. I know the people at this company; if they are having difficulty interpreting the Government’s scheme, I am sure that others will be in a similar situation. That is leading to a lot of uncertainty on behalf not only of companies, but the individuals they employ. There are companies that want to do the right thing by their employees, and we should support them. I urge the Minister to ensure that that advice is put up on Government websites and reaches such companies as a matter of urgency.
In Durham, we have a number of prisons and a lot of prison officers live in my constituency. There is an issue for prison officers regarding exposure to the virus in prisons. The Government need to take some steps as a matter of urgency to ensure that those prison officers and other people working in prisons have protective equipment. I think the Government will also have to make the decision to release individuals to take pressure off those hard-working staff.
On communication, Sir David Amess mentioned MPs having hotlines. If those hotlines are anything like the one that the Foreign Office set up, do not bother, because it did not work. We have people abroad. The message has been put out: “Please return home from overseas.” However, if people do not have the means of doing so, that needs to be put right straightaway. In Prime Minister’s questions, my right hon. Friend John Spellar raised the issue of leasing aircraft. That needs to be done as a matter of urgency, to get those people home.
I will finish on the issue of community support. These are dark times but there is a lot of good will out there. I have been humbled by the great work being done in my constituency. People have been coming forward to help Pact House, a community charity in Stanley in my constituency that is delivering meals and support to local people. Local people want to do the right thing, but they need to know how to do it. I congratulate Stanley Town Council, which yesterday provided £63,000 to a number of community groups, to support their efforts in these difficult times.
The Government need to address the point made by my hon. Friend Siobhain McDonagh. We supported charities in 2008—I can remember doing it. Without direct financial support, some of these charities—we need them now and we will also need them in the future—will go under. It is important that that is also done as a matter of urgency. There are demands on their services now and we are going to need them in the future. Without them, we will find it very difficult.
Finally, I wish you and your family all the best, Madam Deputy Speaker, in staying safe in the coming weeks and months. I also extend those wishes not only to all right hon. and hon. Members of this House, but to the hard-working staff who have worked really hard over the past few weeks to keep us going. Let us think about them in the coming weeks and months.
I am pleased to follow my right hon. Friend Mr Jones. I begin my echoing his appeal for support for local charities and community organisations, on which we are going to be very dependent over the next few weeks, and which we need to survive the challenges they face with loss of funding, bookings and so on in the period ahead.
I warmly welcome the employment support package announced by the Government last week, including the commitment to pay up to 80% of the wage costs of those employees who are furloughed. I welcome the fact that it came forward quickly, just one week after the Budget. A huge package was put together in a very short period and I congratulate those responsible for it. I must say that, over the following week, the package has stood up quite well to the scrutiny to which it has been subject. The Government and those involved can take credit for that.
Like others, I think it is a shame that we still do not know what is going to be done for self-employed people. It is particularly regrettable that we are not going to know before the House rises, so Members are not going to be able to scrutinise that package when it is unveiled. Inevitably, we need to talk about the position that self-employed people are going to find themselves in over the next few weeks. Whatever is in that package tomorrow or the following day—I have no idea what is going to be in it—it is clear that universal credit is going to have to carry a fair amount of strain in supporting people through the period ahead.
I therefore want to speak about universal credit, picking up on some of the points made by Chris Stephens, who was at the Select Committee on Work and Pensions session that I chaired this morning. He has referred to the very large number of people who have applied for universal credit—470,000 since Tuesday of last week, and 105,000 yesterday—and it is a good thing that, so far, the systems have not collapsed. We can be thankful for that. Like others, I have seen screenshots telling people that they are in a queue—due to the incredible volume of new users, there is a queue—and:
“Number of users in queue ahead of you: 79129. Your estimated wait time is: more than an hour.”
Indeed, it is quite a lot more than an hour.
It is right, however, to pay tribute to all those in the Department for Work and Pensions who are working very hard to deliver much-needed urgent support over this period. I am grateful to the DWP’s permanent secretary for offering this morning to give the Select Committee weekly updates on how things are going. It is clearly very important that, once people apply for universal credit, they get the help to which they are entitled quickly, because people are going to need urgent help, including those self-employed constituents we have heard about whose businesses disappeared last week. They need help urgently.
My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly important point about universal credit. The system of universal credit has been in design for years and was supposedly designed, so we were told, to be agile, adaptable and scalable. Is this not absolute confirmation that the system cannot be effectively scaled? Does he agree that universal credit needs to be scrapped and a system put in place that actually works?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We took evidence this morning on that very point—the need to improve universal credit and change some of the problems. Unfortunately we were told that, because of the IT systems, there is very little that can be done in the short term.
For example, one thing the Government have agreed to do is reduce the maximum deduction from people’s standard payment of universal credit. There are deductions for people to pay back the advance they receive up front and for other reasons. There is a case for suspending those deductions for the time being, but that is not the Government’s intention at the moment. They have agreed that the maximum deduction will be reduced from 30% of the standard amount to 25%, but they tell us that they cannot do that until October 2021 because of the problems with the IT system.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Chi Onwurah for reminding the House that, years ago, we were all told that this was going to be done in agile, precisely in order that changes could be made quickly. I am afraid that those promises have not been fulfilled. We were assured time after time that all the problems of the old DWP systems would be solved by adopting the agile approach. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case. Despite that, I am going to press this afternoon, as I and the Committee did this morning, for changes to universal credit. A way has to be found to overcome some of the problems and to get these things done much more quickly than is suggested will be the case.
I very much welcome the fact that the headline rate of universal credit and working tax credit has been increased, although only for a year. Given the long freeze in the rates of benefits, there is a case for making that increase permanent rather than temporary. That is something we will no doubt come back to in the months ahead.
When it comes to universal credit providing much needed support to the self-employed, people who come off zero-hours contracts and freelancers, there are some serious problems with the way it works at the moment. The Trussell Trust has found that people on universal credit are two and a half times more likely to need a food bank than people on legacy benefits, such as jobseeker’s allowance.
There is a remarkable article in this month’s issue of The Lancet Public Health about universal credit, which finds that
“an additional 63674…unemployed people will have experienced levels of psychological distress that are clinically significant due to the introduction of Universal Credit”.
It goes on to estimate that more than a third of those people
“might reach the diagnostic threshold for depression.”
A little further on, the article states:
“When the policy change was introduced, the prevalence of psychological distress started to increase among those eligible for Universal Credit;
however, the prevalence remained constant for people not affected by the change”.
Lastly, the article states:
“We also tested if there was an increase in the number of participants transitioning from unemployment into work in the intervention group after the introduction of Universal Credit relative to the comparison group;
the reform had no effect on employment”.
There are serious problems with the way universal credit is working, and we are now forcing—understandably—hundreds of thousands of additional people on to this benefit. What is the problem? Why does it cause so much more difficulty for people than jobseeker’s allowance and other past benefits? A big part of the answer is the fact that people have to wait five weeks after applying to receive their first regular benefit payment. That is inevitably pushing people into debt with the Department for Work and Pensions. A lot of people are then choosing to say, “In that case, I’d better not pay my rent for a bit,” and they are getting into rent arrears. The National Housing Federation is reporting that people on universal credit are significantly more likely to be behind with their rent than people on jobseeker’s allowance, both in the past and currently. This is a problem that will affect very large numbers of those who are now applying for universal credit.
It seems to me that it cannot be a good idea—given the boldness and generosity and the welcome characteristics of the package for employees that was introduced last week— to force self-employed people, by contrast, on to an arrangement where they do not get a substantive payment for five weeks.
Does my right hon. Friend not agree that many of the individuals on universal credit and jobseeker’s allowance are having to go to food banks, and at the very time that we need support for food banks, many food banks are unfortunately having to close because of the age demographic of the volunteers, who are normally a lot more mature? That is why, within this package, we need more support for food banks and the charitable sector.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I very much agree about the need for more support for charitable organisations. I spoke yesterday to the chief executive of the Trussell Trust, who told me that of its 1,250 food banks, two have closed so far. One of them is reopening and some other arrangement is being put in place for the other one instead. It is a remarkable tribute to exactly the people that my hon. Friend refers to, who are running those food banks, that despite the potential risks to them, they are carrying on. The whole House will be grateful to them for their extraordinary effort.
My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. One of the constituency inquiries coming into inboxes at the moment is about the availability of certain food products to elderly people. Even those who do not need to go to a food bank but who are trying to get food from supermarkets find that the things that they want are not being fulfilled on their lists. Therefore, that is creating a situation of food insecurity, whether people have the money or are on universal credit. In general, the food supply is a really tricky situation, which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could look into.
That is one of quite a number of anxieties that are around at present.
What should happen with universal credit is that the advances that are payable to people up front—about a quarter of those who have been applying over the last few days have applied for an advance—should be converted to grants for the duration of the current crisis. We were told this morning that it is very difficult to change the IT so that the advances are not automatically clawed back from subsequent payments, but I really cannot believe, even with this extraordinary IT system that appears to be in place, that that is beyond the wit of those who are running it to manage. It is a very simple thing: just do not claw back the advances from subsequent payments, because otherwise, people will ask how the Government can treat self-employed people so badly by comparison with the package for employees.
I also think that the current savings limit for eligibility for universal credit needs to be lifted, if it is going to do the job of supporting self-employed people. At the moment, if someone has more than £16,000 in savings, they get nothing at all from universal credit. If someone has more than £6,000 in savings, the amount that they get in universal credit starts to be reduced. If we are going to support adequately self-employed people over the next few months, that needs to change.
I hope as well that during this crisis, there will be a long and careful look at the rules around sanctions for universal credit. People will not be required to go into jobcentres for the time being, which is welcome—I am glad that that has been announced—but I hope the opportunity is taken to ensure that sanctions are not applied, because people will not be required to look for work in the normal way. As for the handling of deductions for past debts—tax credit overpayments and that kind of thing—I hope that there will be some easements in the application of terms.
I very much welcome the increase in the local housing allowance, which is back up to the 30th percentile. I hope that it will stay at that level so that it can adequately support rent in the future. However, there is a problem in London of the interaction between that new higher level of the local housing allowance and the separate housing support cap, which means that many renters in London will not be able to benefit from the increase in the local housing allowance. I hope that the cap will be addressed. I was disappointed this morning to hear that there will not be any change in the overall benefit cap level, and I think that that may well need to be looked at again as things develop over the next few months.
My final point has been referred to already a number of times in this debate. There is a large group of people in my constituency, and in many others, who are hard-working, law abiding, and permitted to work in the UK, but they do not have indefinite leave to remain and they do not have recourse to public funds. That means that if they have to stop working because they have to self-isolate, or because their business has collapsed, they will get no help at all as things stand. We do need people in that position to be able to support themselves, because, otherwise, they will have no alternative but to carry on working at risk to themselves and to wider public health. I want to end with a plea that the Government should, at least temporarily, lift the restriction of no recourse to public funds to those who have leave to remain but not yet indefinite leave to remain.
The badge on the Chancellor’s Twitter account says: “Stay At Home save lives”. I completely agree with the sentiment behind that message. A number of hon. and right hon. Members also have that badge on their Twitter accounts. However, if people cannot afford to stay at home, they simply will not do so. They will have to go out to find the money to put food on the table. That applies, as things stand, to very many self-employed people. It also applies to many people who have lost their jobs because of the financial downturn that has happened so suddenly and unexpectedly. People who do not qualify for sick pay and who have symptoms of the virus will also have to go out to find money, as will those who suffer as a result of the delays in universal credit, which have been so well described by many hon. and right hon. Members. As my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms said, it will also happen to those who have no recourse to public funds.
Health has to be absolutely paramount in everything that we say and do, by which I mean the health of the individual and their potential to pass on the virus to other people, especially to health workers who we need to look after the rest of us.
Today, we have heard the sad and shocking news of the death of a 21-year-old lady in Buckinghamshire who had no underlying health conditions. Does my hon. Friend agree that there are many individuals and employers out there who are under the misconception that those who are younger, or who have no underlying health conditions, will not suffer from this virus? They need to take heed of this story and look after the health not just of themselves, but of those around them.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. It is really, really important that everybody—no matter what their age or health condition—recognises that we are all at risk from this. But there are groups who are especially at risk, and we have an enormous responsibility to protect them as much as possible, including the health workers who we will need to look after us all.
If we want people to stay at home and to observe the 2 metres rule when they are out and about, we have to do everything in our power to make it as easy as possible for them to comply. Delivering financial security is crucial to ensuring that nobody has to go out unless they absolutely have to. I asked the Leader of the House earlier to pass on my point about the construction industry to the Prime Minister. I will make that point again now. There are too many people going on to construction sites that are not essential work. Such construction must stop, otherwise people will carry on going to work. Somebody who works away from home emailed me just this afternoon to tell me that their employer is saying, “I am only interested in the profits of my company”; they do not care about anything else. Those workers are being forced to go to work. If they do not, their pay will be cut and they will have nothing, and they will not be part of any income retention scheme if and when it is applied by that employer.
The mode of travel for construction workers going to work is often trains and the tube. The Minister and the Government talk about the trains and the tube system, and about how people should be staying at home. How can they marry the two? If we do not close the places where people go to work, they are going to travel on the trains. Does my hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and of course those trains and buses are needed by our health workers to get to hospitals. If they are infected by being in close conditions with people who have the virus and who are going to work—not just in construction sites, as this is true of call centres and a number of other places of employment, because of the behaviour of some employers—we run the risk of spreading the virus right across the country.
Health has to be paramount, but if that is to be the case, rent has to be covered. We cannot have people feeling that they are at risk of being evicted; that has to be taken away completely. I am afraid that the Prime Minister’s assurances earlier went nowhere near far enough in demonstrating that the Government are serious about no evictions because, as has already been mentioned in this debate, evictions are already happening.
People who are desperate will do desperate things. I am afraid that it does not finish with people going out to work to earn money to put food on the table. What will happen in those cases, in a few days’ or weeks’ time, where people simply have nothing left to feed themselves and their families? I do not want to paint a picture of too much disaster, but I am sure we can all imagine what might happen if people took it into their own hands to go and get food just to survive, if they do not have the means of paying for it. “Everything it takes” must mean that we do not get to that situation in the coming days and weeks, and giving people the financial security to ensure that that does not happen must be an absolute priority.
I want to talk about some of the practical steps. The behaviour of the banks, in saying that they will put up interest fees from 9% to typically 39%—is nothing short of usurious and extortionate. The same applies to the credit card companies. Where people cannot pay back their credit card debt, there must now be a case for a delay in the repayment of credit cards and a number of different kinds of loan.
There are still gaps in the job retention scheme; many workers will not qualify. A number of Members have mentioned charities. Charities are going to need to carry on working, and we are going to need them to carry on working because they provide essential services and are an important part of the answer in dealing with the health crisis.
Is my hon. Friend aware of the situation for religious charities in particular? In cases where there is usually a weekly collection, some mosques, churches and other faith gatherings are really struggling to pay their own bills because they are not getting that regular income.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about those charities paying their bills. The point that I was getting to was that they will not be eligible for the job retention scheme because they and their workers will have to continue working—quite rightly, and we will want them. Therefore, alternative arrangements are needed to pay their bills, to which she refers, and their wages, if they are to play their full part in providing the support that we all need them to.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham has covered universal credit in the technical detail that pretty much only he in this House can, and I thank him for that. Suffice to say that a constituent of mine said that, after three and a half hours on the phone, they were given a phone appointment for next Wednesday. They will then face a five-week wait before getting any money. They need the money now. They have no money; they need to put food on the table. That is typical of the kind of examples that we are all hearing, and it needs to be addressed.
That brings me to the self-employed. The Chancellor has made clear his preference for a targeted scheme—that applies to a number of the schemes that the Government are coming up with—that gives money to those in need. In normal times I would completely agree with that approach, but I am afraid that time is up. We cannot afford to wait any longer, and if a few people who do not need the money are given extra so that the vast majority—a far larger number—who need the money get it, and get it now, when they need it, so be it. That has to be the sensible way forward in this extreme emergency, and it is not without precedent in normal times. The entrepreneur’s relief gives money to very many people who actually do not need it, according to the Government’s analysis of the application of that scheme. If it is good enough for some wealthy entrepreneurs, it is certainly good enough for our constituents who are self-employed and, indeed, for constituents who need sick pay or universal credit now.
Then there is the behaviour of certain businesses—I can mention Virgin, Sports Direct and Wetherspoons. Travelodge, I believe, has already been mentioned for its behaviour in evicting homeless families. This must end. The Government must make it clear right now that any such behaviours that disadvantage people who will be put into difficulty cannot be tolerated. Intervention is needed, not just words from the Dispatch Box or on television.
I will quote the example of Village Hotels, because my hon. Friend Anna McMorrin asked me to do so. She has had a solicitor’s letter from Village Hotels for raising on social media what was sent to her by one of her constituents who is on a zero-hours contract. They have been told by Village Hotels that they will receive no pay and she has been told to take down the post, which is entirely true because she has quoted and shown a copy of the letter. Such behaviour by the company is completely unacceptable, and it should withdraw its letter to my hon. Friend. Her constituent and everybody in that position on a zero-hours contract needs to be the same position as every other member of staff at Village Hotels and everywhere else, so that they can be part of the job retention scheme. I hope that my raising this in the Chamber will enable a change of heart.
I really do not want to say what I am going to say next, but I have now heard from doctors who are saying that they believe, and they have had this confirmed by senior people in the health service, that the time is fast approaching when they will be forced to decide who lives and who dies. We know, I am afraid, that that must be true because of what is going on in other countries. That is why it is so important that we reduce the impact on the national health service and minimise infection. The points I have made and the examples I have given, like those of all hon. and right hon. Members, are designed to do just that. We have to make sure that people are financially secure and have somewhere to live, whether they are self-employed or unemployed; whether or not they have recourse to public funds; and whether they are renters, mortgage holders, homeless or rough sleepers. The “stay at home, stay safe” advice is absolutely right, and we must make it possible for everybody to follow it.
It is a real privilege to speak in this incredibly important debate. As I am, I think, the last speaker from the Back Benches, it is appropriate to start by paying tribute to the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor on the day of what may be their last appearances on the Front Bench. I regard both of them as comrades and friends, though I would not necessarily say that I have agreed with everything that they have said and done—but that is how it is in our great Labour movement. I particularly thank them for always bringing a deep care and concern for the most vulnerable in our society to the heart of our debates; for vanquishing austerity economics, which had such a grip on our political debate five years ago, and still has consequences for so many in our society today; and indeed for the way in which we are responding to the covid-19 crisis.
Like most Members here, I have been overwhelmed with emails from constituents—from a supply teacher who does not know how he will feed his family; from a plumber who feels that his health is in jeopardy, and feels abandoned by the Government; from a cancer survivor who needs to self-isolate, but does not know what she will eat on Monday; and from a circus owner who does not know whether her Newcastle-based circus will survive this crisis. Parliament should not be the only circus to survive the pandemic; I hope it is not disorderly to say that. It is really important that all our performers, and all our self-employed, of whom there are 5 million in this country, have the support that they so desperately need.
When I took the tube to Parliament today, I felt a bit of a fraud, because I did not feel like a key worker. I was not going to save lives. But when I thought about the impact of the Government’s delay and intransigence—I am sorry to have to use those words—in providing the support that is so desperately needed by freelancers and the self-employed, I realised just how much they need our voice. I have constituents who lost their jobs because the Chancellor delayed announcing the very welcome job retention package. The delay in respect of measures for the self-employed will not only cause lost jobs, but lead to deaths. The Minister shakes his head, but as we have heard in many excellent contributions, the absence of support for the self-employed is driving people to go to work when they should not, and to put themselves and others at risk, as well as causing enormous mental distress.
Parliament rises tonight, but I urge the Minister, Chancellor and Prime Minister to set out immediate measures to support the self-employed. Unfortunately, all those who are employed are not necessarily protected. We have heard again and again from Members of Parliament the desperate appeals from constituents whose employers are not protecting them from the coronavirus. I am going to name some from the emails I have received, and they can get in touch with me and explain how they are protecting their employees. DHL, the delivery service, is not offering any personal protection equipment to its deliverers and is not following the 2-metre guidance. Tolent builders are not following the 2-metre guidance. Serco and EE, which have many call centre employees in large rooms, are not following the 2-metre guidance. Santander is apparently bringing in contract workers to work on PPI, which I do not believe to be an essential service, and is not following the 2-metre guidance or social distancing. Then there is our very own Mike Ashley, the owner not only of Newcastle United but of SportsDirect, who, after claiming that SportsDirect was an essential service and finally—
It is an essential service for his fortune, but not in this crisis. He finally agreed to close his shops, hiking prices online while still making employees come into empty shops to act as security.
The Government’s payroll support and job retention scheme are very welcome, but we must have greater clarity for businesses on what they need to do to stand by their employees, as the Prime Minister said. Any private sector bail-out must have strings attached to it. Banks were bailed out in the 2008 financial crisis and people were rewarded with austerity. In this crisis, we must champion the good businesses that are doing the right thing.
I congratulate the hon. Lady, who is making a very gracious speech and a number of strong points. She is talking about the austerity that followed the bail-out of the banks, and one thing we need to put down as a marker today is that when we get through this crisis the poor must not pay the price a second time.
The right hon. Gentlemen makes exactly the point that I was going to make. It is pleasing to see that that is at least agreed across the Opposition Benches, and I hope to hear a message from the Government that in this crisis, after this crisis, the people must be rewarded and not asked to bear the burden.
On the behaviour of the banks, I mentioned the 39.9% interest rates that the banks have announced that they will charge pretty much across the board—funny that, isn’t it? Does that not suggest that they are already embarked on exactly that approach of trying to make everybody else pay when they should be taking the opportunity to pay back for their role in the financial crisis?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Without wishing to go into the financial crisis and the, in my opinion, very well deserved backlash against the financial sector, which continued to make profits while so many people felt the impact of that crisis, it now has the opportunity to demonstrate the social value and support it can provide in times of crisis and emergency, especially, as my hon. Friend says, for those who have taken out loans or credit cards and those who need loans. Many businesses are still saying to me that they are not getting the loans that they are promised, particularly the tech sector start-ups, which rarely have the assets that banks feel are necessary to offer such loans. We want greater corporate citizenship from the financial sector and from other businesses, too.
I applaud and echo what many of my colleagues have said about those who are suffering the most in this crisis, but my focus is on the impact of the digital divide in our country in relation to coronavirus. We know that access to and ability to use the internet is not evenly spread across our society. In the UK, data from the Office for National Statistics indicates that in 2018, 10% of adults said they did not have access to the internet at home, while 4.3 million had no demonstrable digital skills. That data also showed that 12% of those aged between 11 and 18 years reported having no internet access at home from a computer or tablet.
Since 2011, adults over the age of 65 have consistently made up the largest proportion of adult non-users of the internet. More than half of all adult internet non-users were over the age of 75. Across all age groups, disabled adults make up a large proportion of adult internet non-users.
In normal times, access to the internet improves hugely the chances of, for example, finding work. It also, as we have heard, makes it easier to access universal credit—in fact, it is essential to access universal credit—and it enables people to connect and communicate better with family, friends and the community. These are not normal times, however, and for the next few weeks and perhaps the next few months, social distancing is going to be the norm. Social distancing must be accompanied by digital coming-together, and for that we need digital skills and digital access. We have heard about the implications for mental health of isolation without the ability to communicate. I want the Minister to think about what that means for the 11% who have no access to the internet.
What I want to see from the Government in the next few days is first, digital skills. There are those who have access to the internet but do not have the real digital skills to use it. They need to be able to take advantage of the many different courses and means of entertainment and so on, which are all fantastically being developed at the moment. They need the digital skills to be able to access that. In that respect, I recommend the work of Sue Black with the #techmums initiative, which is still rolling out during coronavirus, and also the work of many other charities.
Secondly, there is the question of capacity. Here I am really concerned, because all we have had from the internet service providers and network operators is general vague promises that there will be the capacity and it will all be fine and all right. To be frank—I have been known to mention this, but I will say it again—as someone who worked designing telecom networks as an engineer for 20 years, that does not reflect at all my experience. Capacity needs to be dimensioned and built in. There will be capacity now that is dedicated to business networks that may need to be moved over to support home networks with the huge increase we are seeing in working from home.
Moreover, we need to be able to secure capacity for our essential services. I am already hearing that in Newcastle, for example, Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust cannot provide the capacity for administrative workers to work from home. If those essential services can be delivered from home, it frees up space and hospitals and car parks and so on.
Just as with personal protective equipment—we had a lot of time to prepare that was perhaps not best used, and there was a lot of talk about everything being okay, which has turned out not to be the case—I fear that over the next few weeks, when we are all confined to our homes with only the internet to serve as a social medium that we can take advantage of, we will find that there is not enough capacity. Networks will fall over. There will be delays and, as always, it will be the most vulnerable and the poorest who will suffer most. I would like to see modelling of the traffic impact on our networks. I would also like to see a commitment to digital access for all, particularly for young people and schoolchildren who will be expected to be learning from home. They need to have free access to the internet to enable them to do that.
Moving on, I want to say a little bit about where we need to go from here. In economics classes, we were taught that the virtue of a capitalist market economy is that it ensures the efficient allocation of capital, as market competition drives inefficiencies out of the system, ensuring the cheapest, most innovative products and services possible. The best the state can do, we were told, is to get out of the way. But the capacity to deal with a major health or economic shock is, by definition, inefficient when that shock is not there, so extra ventilators and stocks of masks or toilet paper are inefficiencies that the free market system drives out. They can only be provided and stocked by the state, and the problem with the lean, mean state machine that the Conservatives advocate and have done their best to create over the 10 years of austerity is that the state is then no longer equipped to provide the resilience, the stock and the inefficiencies that are necessary to support our population in a time of crisis as we have now.
This is a war, and as a war it has real heroes—NHS workers, care workers, teachers, transport workers and cleaners. Not all of them are in the public sector: we have heroes in the private sector too, in supermarkets with our retail workers, and those isolating at home, which is something we have never asked people to do before. As a woman of colour, I know that there is despair at the realisation that natural hair may no longer be a choice, but the only option for us. There are many sacrifices, large and small, which are expected to be made over the next few weeks. Obviously, not everybody faces the particular challenge I just mentioned.
The heroes of this war must be rewarded. After the second world war, we had the national health service, homes fit for heroes and the welfare state. After this battle, we need an economy fit for heroes. We who have the privilege of walking in these corridors of power are insulated from some of the worst impacts—the desperation, the fear and the confusion that I know is going on in homes across Newcastle. I want the Minister’s reassurance that we will build a better and fairer economy out of this desperate crisis in order to be an economy fit for the heroes who are now helping us to drive out coronavirus.
I want to end on a note of hope and optimism, because in Newcastle and across the country we have vibrant, active people who want to do the right thing and want to support and look after others. We have great communities across our country, such as in Newcastle with the Newcastle City Council city lifeline, which allows people to volunteer their time to support community organisations and projects. We have already heard that the national Government scheme for national health service volunteers has been inundated.
Newcastle upon Tyne Central has 11 active community Facebook groups that residents can post their needs and volunteers commit their time to. Slatyford tenants association in my constituency, which offers bingo and tea once a week, has closed down for the duration of the coronavirus crisis, but is looking forward to opening again. Mrs T’s Café in Blakelaw, which supports the local community through excellent nutritious food, is looking forward to getting back.
Of course, we also have our food banks. Newcastle United Supporters Trust is one of the most impressive organisations I have ever seen. As a Newcastle United supporter, one of the most inspiring sights on a Saturday when walking past St James’ Park is the Newcastle United Supporters Trust stall, where those shaking the buckets, as I have done, will find people putting in £1, £5, £10 or £20. We should not need food banks, but when we do, such generosity from Geordies and people across the country is inspiring. Although we cannot have stalls on the streets—we have no more football matches for a while—we still get fantastic support online. Food is being donated by businesses such as Fenwick, TK Maxx and Thorntons. Geordies from Newcastle, but also from Brighton, London and, I understand, the Falkland Islands have donated money online. We also have Newcastle United Foundation, which is delivering hot meals to schoolchildren. They all need our support, as do our theatres, cinemas and charities.
Much of the real world is going online and we need to ensure that we have a real-world community, as well as real employment and a real support and welfare sector for when the crisis is over, when we can build an economy fit for the heroes we will create.