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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.