Before I came into Parliament, I was a national officer in the electricians’ and plumbers’ union. I used to have to explain to people that the reason a problem got on to the general secretary’s desk was because it was insoluble. Otherwise, someone else would have made the decision and claimed the credit. In government, it is the same. The reason decisions are at No. 10 is that there are no easy answers. It is dealing with ambiguity and it is dealing with possibilities and probabilities, but nevertheless decisions still have to be made. There will be some that go wrong. It is the Eisenhower doctrine—all plans break down on first contact with the enemy. He also added, as people forget, that it is nevertheless still necessary to plan. That is where the military mindset of making decisions rapidly and moving rapidly towards implementation comes in. Frankly, the Treasury, while it is talking to other Departments and giving them money, has to insist on a change in practices. The old dither, delay and process-driven mechanisms are no longer acceptable. They have to either change their ways or move out of the way.
The other message I would like to get across is that we have to get our country moving again by opening up our economy and, at the same time, ensuring the safety of workers and customers alike. I am sure the Minister will join me in welcoming the positive message from the Trades Union Congress and the negotiations that are taking place right across the country between unions and companies about how they can safely restart work. It must be the frontline that Government support goes to. Denmark and Poland have, very helpfully, led the way in seeming to be declining subsidies to companies based in tax havens or paying dividends or lavish bonuses or using share buy-back schemes. We should be following that and supporting real engineers, rather than financial engineers. The same goes for public procurement. If we look, for example, at the production and distribution of PPE equipment, I have to say that I am slightly concerned that the Government seem to have, as always, gone straight to the big consulting companies, rather than real industrial and commercial companies that actually have that experience and know how to join it up.
This crisis has also revealed a neglect of our manufacturing base by Whitehall. We must hope that the lessons have been fully learned, and our national recovery must be focused on rebuilding industry. That requires Government to act as not only legislator and administrator, but customer. We may well be facing a deficiency of demand that will mean that the restarting of the economy is in fits and starts, and Government needs to look at what role it can play. It can order buses, cars, vans and trucks to get the auto industry going; it can have a programme of council housing and of road repairs, in order to get construction and building materials moving; and it can give orders to British firms for health service equipment, protective clothing, chemicals and a reconstruction of our vaccine production capacity. There are many more things it can do, but time does not permit me to mention them all. Equally, time does not permit me to raise the issue of the difficult situation supply teachers have got themselves into with umbrella companies, which puts them in a grey zone. I have been warning about this for a number of years, since as far back as five years ago, but I will write to the Minister about it.
In conclusion, I wish to echo the words of the new Leader of the Opposition—colleagues will understand what great pleasure it gives me to be able to say that after five years. He told the Prime Minister:
“This is a national crisis and therefore needs a national response. Will you therefore commit to publishing an exit strategy as soon as possible?”
The country desperately needs that strategy, a way forward and, most importantly, hope. We do not want to be told that everyone is focusing on the coronavirus epidemic; during the second world war they were in an existential world war and we had a command economy, yet they were still able to produce the Beveridge report and a host of other measures planning for the future. That report identified five giants—want, squalor, idleness, ignorance and disease. We are focusing on disease, but those other giants are still killing people, here and around the world, which is why we need an urgent strategy from the Government and why we need Britain back to work safely.