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Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:28 pm on 25th March 2020.

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Photo of Richard Thomson Richard Thomson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business and Industry) 3:28 pm, 25th March 2020

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.