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Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:04 pm on 25th March 2020.

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Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South 4:04 pm, 25th March 2020

Absolutely. I wholeheartedly agree.

Ten years ago, in response to a crisis, the then Prime Minister said that we were all in it together. A decade of public service cuts tells a different story. It tells a story of the working class paying the price for a crisis not of their making. Our services have been run into the ground and our NHS pushed to the brink. That has left us more vulnerable to this pandemic. The chairman of the British Medical Association said earlier this month that, after a decade of underfunding

“Our starting position…has been far worse than many other European nations”.

We see that with the NHS staff confronting this crisis without the resources they need. They do not have the proper protective equipment, ventilators or tests they deserve. Frankly, that is a scandal. Before I go on, I want to put on record my thanks to and admiration for the NHS staff at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire and across the country. Their bravery, dedication and self-sacrifice at this time is an inspiration. If we are to learn one thing from this crisis, I hope it is that no one will ever again undervalue or underfund them and our NHS again.

This emergency has already taught us something: it has taught us who our key workers are. It is not the bankers or the city traders. It is the nurses, the doctors, the cleaners, the shop assistants, the teachers, the bus drivers, the carers, the postal workers and the delivery drivers. It is the 99%. It is the working class in all our diversity. This crisis shows that society is nothing without the labouring class. But just as the financial crisis showed us, it is the working class who risk being hit hardest by this crisis. Belatedly, the Government are appreciating the scale of the economic challenge, but they are not going far enough, fast enough. They are allowing bosses to force staff to go to work even in non-essential areas. If we are fining individuals for going out when they should not, surely it is right to fine businesses that tell their staff to come into work when it is unnecessary.

The job retentions scheme offers support for businesses, but it gives no guarantees that workers will be able to retain their jobs. It does not cover the 5 million self-employed, from actors to taxi drivers. The Chancellor has promised further measures, but they should never have been excluded in the first place or left with the fear of their incomes disappearing overnight. I urge the Government to extend the scheme to the self-employed before they are pushed into poverty. Poverty is what it would be, because at £94 a week universal credit is simply not enough to live on. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has himself admitted that.

It is the whole system that is broken. We see that at the moment, with reports that online queues for universal credit are 150,000 people long. It is taking days to move forward just a few thousand places. That is what happens when we gut the social security system. It is about time that this broken system was fixed and funded properly. Again, I urge the Government, before more people are driven into totally unnecessary poverty, to end the five-week wait, suspend all sanctions and raise the universal credit rate to a liveable rate. Our social security system must be extended to people currently excluded from it. Before this crisis, “no recourse to public funds” was an injustice. During this pandemic, it is a public health calamity. Migrants must be given access to healthcare, vital public services and financial support. The Government must end “no recourse to public funds”.

The final point I wish to touch on is the position for renters. Last week, we called on the Chancellor to suspend rents and ban evictions. Ministers promised that our concerns would be swiftly met, but we are still waiting. The Government’s announcement on evictions was inadequate to start with and has only disappointed on closer inspection. It is not a ban on evictions; it only extends eviction notices to three months. Evictions are going ahead right now, as the charity Shelter has warned. People cannot stay at home if they are being kicked out of their home. So, again, I urge Conservative Members to live up to their promise and ban evictions throughout this crisis. But banning evictions alone is not enough. If rents are not suspended, debts will pile up and renters will be at the mercy of landlords when this outbreak subsides. The Government have “asked” landlords to “show compassion”, but if there is one thing I have learnt after years of renting it is that we cannot rely on the compassion of landlords. So I tell the Government: suspend rents before it is too late.

I will finish on one final point. Yesterday, it was reported that banks are exploiting this crisis, putting up the cost of personal loans, quadrupling interest rates on overdrafts to nearly 40% and failing to pass on Bank of England’s interest rate cuts. We bailed them out when they crashed the economy, and we paid the price. We cannot let that happen again. So I urge the Government: this time, let us bail out the people. Let us protect the incomes of the self-employed; raise statutory sick pay for all workers; increase universal credit, end “no recourse to public funds”; suspend rents and ban evictions; and make sure that working people are not hit the hardest ever again.