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Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:50 pm on 25th March 2020.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Industrial Strategy) 4:50 pm, 25th March 2020

It is a real privilege to speak in this incredibly important debate. As I am, I think, the last speaker from the Back Benches, it is appropriate to start by paying tribute to the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor on the day of what may be their last appearances on the Front Bench. I regard both of them as comrades and friends, though I would not necessarily say that I have agreed with everything that they have said and done—but that is how it is in our great Labour movement. I particularly thank them for always bringing a deep care and concern for the most vulnerable in our society to the heart of our debates; for vanquishing austerity economics, which had such a grip on our political debate five years ago, and still has consequences for so many in our society today; and indeed for the way in which we are responding to the covid-19 crisis.

Like most Members here, I have been overwhelmed with emails from constituents—from a supply teacher who does not know how he will feed his family; from a plumber who feels that his health is in jeopardy, and feels abandoned by the Government; from a cancer survivor who needs to self-isolate, but does not know what she will eat on Monday; and from a circus owner who does not know whether her Newcastle-based circus will survive this crisis. Parliament should not be the only circus to survive the pandemic; I hope it is not disorderly to say that. It is really important that all our performers, and all our self-employed, of whom there are 5 million in this country, have the support that they so desperately need.

When I took the tube to Parliament today, I felt a bit of a fraud, because I did not feel like a key worker. I was not going to save lives. But when I thought about the impact of the Government’s delay and intransigence—I am sorry to have to use those words—in providing the support that is so desperately needed by freelancers and the self-employed, I realised just how much they need our voice. I have constituents who lost their jobs because the Chancellor delayed announcing the very welcome job retention package. The delay in respect of measures for the self-employed will not only cause lost jobs, but lead to deaths. The Minister shakes his head, but as we have heard in many excellent contributions, the absence of support for the self-employed is driving people to go to work when they should not, and to put themselves and others at risk, as well as causing enormous mental distress.

Parliament rises tonight, but I urge the Minister, Chancellor and Prime Minister to set out immediate measures to support the self-employed. Unfortunately, all those who are employed are not necessarily protected. We have heard again and again from Members of Parliament the desperate appeals from constituents whose employers are not protecting them from the coronavirus. I am going to name some from the emails I have received, and they can get in touch with me and explain how they are protecting their employees. DHL, the delivery service, is not offering any personal protection equipment to its deliverers and is not following the 2-metre guidance. Tolent builders are not following the 2-metre guidance. Serco and EE, which have many call centre employees in large rooms, are not following the 2-metre guidance. Santander is apparently bringing in contract workers to work on PPI, which I do not believe to be an essential service, and is not following the 2-metre guidance or social distancing. Then there is our very own Mike Ashley, the owner not only of Newcastle United but of SportsDirect, who, after claiming that SportsDirect was an essential service and finally—