Finance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:35 pm on 27th April 2020.

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Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth 7:35 pm, 27th April 2020

As so many of us speak virtually for the first time in a House of Commons debate, it is clear that the impact that—[Inaudible.] The early response to the pandemic was to provide some relief to businesses. The array of support, added to as the gaps in it were revealed, is not only inadequate but has too many hoops for businesses to jump through and is too slow to get to them. That is particularly the case for small businesses.

I wrote to the Chancellor five weeks ago about the gaps in the various business support schemes he announced. Among the questions I asked him were whether he would ensure that all Government Departments had paid their suppliers and that those suppliers had in turn paid their supply chain. I also asked him why he chose the small business rate relief option instead of an HMRC delivery mechanism. An HMRC route would have supported 7,000 small businesses in Oldham, instead of only 3,900 that have received rate relief. I have yet to hear from the Chancellor on those points, and I would be grateful for a response tonight. Fundamentally, his package of measures does not do what it is meant to do: keep businesses afloat until we are able to come out of total lockdown. I heard from a local business last night which has had to close after nearly 30 years of trading and another that is close behind.

Similarly, the Government’s response to the hundreds of thousands of individuals who do not qualify for, or whose employers are refusing to use, the job retention scheme has been found wanting. Ministers at last week’s Work and Pensions Committee were not able to answer how many people will have been pushed into debt after having to rely on social security support for the first time or about estimates of the increase in poverty. The £20 a week extra in universal credit and the increase in local housing allowance will be completely wiped out for some claimants, given that the benefit cap is still in place. Again, I would be grateful for a response on that tonight.

Disabled people are disproportionately represented in the self-employed workforce. Although I am pleased that the minimum income floor has been lifted from universal credit, why has disability social security support not been uprated, given the additional costs that disabled people are facing on top of the average pre-pandemic costs of over £530 a month?

This health emergency will be followed by an economic and potentially social one as well. Many have predicted that the economic effects from the pandemic could last for most of this decade, and in that regard, it is a reminder of the 2008 global financial crash. As we prepare for a partial lifting of the lockdown, we need to learn from other countries on how to do that safely and effectively—something I fear we did not do when planning our covid strategy.

We also need to recognise the impact that austerity has had on too many of our citizens over the last 10 years. Nearly six in 10 people living in poverty come from working households, compared with less than four in 10 20 years ago. Two thirds of the 4 million children living in poverty live in working families. Sick and disabled people are being isolated and excluded from society, with over 4 million living in poverty. There are increasing inequalities in income, wealth and power. The richest 1,000 people in the UK have significantly more wealth than the poorest 40%—that wealth increased by nearly £48 billion in 2019 and by £253 billion over the last five years. After decades of growth, we are now seeing our life expectancy flatlining, and for women and people in deprived areas it is actually going down. We have the worst child mortality rates in western Europe; four babies in 1,000 will not reach their first birthday.

Another round of austerity must not be allowed, and it certainly cannot be endured. Globally, it is estimated that the covid pandemic could cost as much as $10 trillion, and for each percentage point drop in the economy, 10 million more people typically fall into poverty. We must make sure that the poor, who are predicted to suffer disproportionately in this crisis, do not also suffer in its aftermath through widened socioeconomic and health inequalities.

We are at war with this virus. Out of this health emergency, and the tragedy and heartbreak that so many will endure, we must ask ourselves, “What type of society do we want?” It is my sincere hope that the Government’s long-term economic response will be to provide adequate support for all, as Labour did when we created the welfare state after the second world war.