Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:52 pm on 25th March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Chris Stephens Chris Stephens Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment) 3:52 pm, 25th March 2020

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 1 March. I hope the Government take cognisance of those companies that have tried to lay off workers and ensure that it is made clear to companies that apply for job retention scheme money that it is not an excuse to lay off workers once this crisis is over. That would be an abuse of public money, and I will name and shame any company that tries to do that, as I am sure will many other hon. Members.

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.