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.