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Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:11 pm on 25th March 2020.

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Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer 5:11 pm, 25th March 2020

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

On Monday, the Prime Minister ordered the 21-day lockdown and asked non-essential retail and leisure facilities to close. We all supported that measure. Indeed, we called for and welcomed it. Today we need clarity and security for all. The spike in deaths that had been predicted hit us yesterday, with 87 of our fellow citizens killed by coronavirus in a single day. The number of people who have lost their lives has reached 435, and we all send our condolences and deepest sympathy to their families and friends. Sadly, we know that there is every likelihood that worse is to come. People understand the health risks. They fear for their loved ones and neighbours.

In many ways, the human response has been tremendous. I pay tribute to the British people for their response. We have heard about many of the community-based mutual aid groups that have sprung up, as well as the 170,000 people who have signed up as volunteers to offer support for those who need it. National health service staff have been mentioned today. We just cannot thank them enough, heroes and heroines. There are also the 11,000 recently retired NHS staff, who, despite all the risks, have returned to the profession.

People and businesses were initially reassured by the Chancellor’s financial package, but we have to be honest with ourselves: in recent days, gaps have emerged. People are worried and alarm bells are ringing across our constituencies. We in this House are trying to behave responsibly—we are socially distancing ourselves. [Interruption.] Some want to distance themselves even further. But politically we have come together, and we are working across party lines to get this right. In that spirit, we have all been appealing to the Government to act urgently to plug the gaps that have come to light. Let us be honest: this is not a blame game, but genuine, constructive engagement from Members of all parties.

Our constituents are raising issues with us—with all of us—as Members have mentioned. The self-employed in our constituencies, workers on insecure contracts, health and social care workers and so many others—we have been inundated, have we not, with emails, telephone calls and even personal representations—all have one thing in common: they are worried about their security, their income, their job and in some instances their home, but especially about the wellbeing of their families, their children and their elderly relatives.

It is the job of Government, the job of politicians and the job of all of us to provide such reassurance, especially at the most worrying times. I have to say that while people by and large are behaving responsibly, some employers are not. We have heard about them today from my hon. Friend Chi Onwurah, Chris Stephens—he urges us to name and shame them—my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), Richard Thomson and my hon. Friend Lloyd Russell-Moyle. All of them named such businesses.

I have been contacted by one of the hon. Members who could not be here today, my hon. Friend Ian Byrne. He gives the example of Matalan in his Liverpool constituency, where shops have been closed but online shopping goes on. The employer has got 200 workers in a shift—packed together and working closely—handing items of clothing straight to each other with no gloves, masks or cleaning products. It is now reported that contract workers have been told they face the sack if they self-isolate. That sort of behaviour is unacceptable. Yes, there are the Tim Martins and the Mike Ashleys, but we have heard today that too many employers are behaving in this way.

Let us be clear as well—and let us do this cross-party—that while we condemn those employers, we also condemn those banks that see this crisis as an opportunity to hike interest rates on overdrafts, knowing that so many are going to see their income fall. We condemn those retailers that are hiking prices as people anxiously shop less frequently—profiteering in a crisis.

The whole country needs clarity about what should be happening in this lockdown for both businesses and workers. The Prime Minister described it as a war against this virus, and I agree with him. In the second world war, the initial period was described as the phoney war. I have to say that for many, because of the inconsistencies of the interpretation of the lockdown, we seem in some places to be in a phoney lockdown.