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Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:21 pm on 25th March 2020.

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Photo of Stephen Timms Stephen Timms Chair, Work and Pensions Committee, Chair, Work and Pensions Committee 4:21 pm, 25th March 2020

I am pleased to follow my right hon. Friend Mr Jones. I begin my echoing his appeal for support for local charities and community organisations, on which we are going to be very dependent over the next few weeks, and which we need to survive the challenges they face with loss of funding, bookings and so on in the period ahead.

I warmly welcome the employment support package announced by the Government last week, including the commitment to pay up to 80% of the wage costs of those employees who are furloughed. I welcome the fact that it came forward quickly, just one week after the Budget. A huge package was put together in a very short period and I congratulate those responsible for it. I must say that, over the following week, the package has stood up quite well to the scrutiny to which it has been subject. The Government and those involved can take credit for that.

Like others, I think it is a shame that we still do not know what is going to be done for self-employed people. It is particularly regrettable that we are not going to know before the House rises, so Members are not going to be able to scrutinise that package when it is unveiled. Inevitably, we need to talk about the position that self-employed people are going to find themselves in over the next few weeks. Whatever is in that package tomorrow or the following day—I have no idea what is going to be in it—it is clear that universal credit is going to have to carry a fair amount of strain in supporting people through the period ahead.

I therefore want to speak about universal credit, picking up on some of the points made by Chris Stephens, who was at the Select Committee on Work and Pensions session that I chaired this morning. He has referred to the very large number of people who have applied for universal credit—470,000 since Tuesday of last week, and 105,000 yesterday—and it is a good thing that, so far, the systems have not collapsed. We can be thankful for that. Like others, I have seen screenshots telling people that they are in a queue—due to the incredible volume of new users, there is a queue—and:

“Number of users in queue ahead of you: 79129. Your estimated wait time is: more than an hour.”

Indeed, it is quite a lot more than an hour.

It is right, however, to pay tribute to all those in the Department for Work and Pensions who are working very hard to deliver much-needed urgent support over this period. I am grateful to the DWP’s permanent secretary for offering this morning to give the Select Committee weekly updates on how things are going. It is clearly very important that, once people apply for universal credit, they get the help to which they are entitled quickly, because people are going to need urgent help, including those self-employed constituents we have heard about whose businesses disappeared last week. They need help urgently.