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.