Finance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:15 pm on 27th April 2020.

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Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow 8:15 pm, 27th April 2020

I am sure that all Members agree that the covid-19 crisis is unlike anything we have experienced in our lifetimes, and life will possibly never be the same again. This Government, however, have a duty to ensure that people’s jobs and incomes are protected. The crisis, as we know, has caused serious financial suffering for businesses, for people and for their families. Although everyone’s lives have been affected by the efforts to contain covid-19, so many people are struggling to cope with the financial and practical repercussions of tackling the spread of the virus.

According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, households across the UK face a fall in disposable income of £515 a month due to the pandemic. Well over 1 million new claimants have signed on for benefits since the start of the coronavirus crisis, and there are genuine fears that unemployment is heading towards levels not seen since the 1980s. The Government’s emergency measures are welcome, but, along with the measures set out in the Finance Bill, they simply do not go far enough.

My constituency of Jarrow has already been hit hard by a decade of austerity and remains an area of high unemployment. The north-east has the highest unemployment rate in the country, which is extremely worrying, but equally concerning is that many of the tens of thousands of people employed across our region are in low-paid, part-time or insecure jobs or on zero-hours contracts. If the coronavirus crisis leaves 2 million more people unemployed, as suggested by the Office for Budget Responsibility, it will be crucial that the Government do everything in their power to minimise the depth and length of the economic impact.

My two local authorities, South Tyneside Council and Gateshead Council, have lost more than half of their funding during the past decade, leaving services stripped to the bone. That cannot continue, and they cannot be expected to pay for the crisis. In the South Tyneside and Gateshead local authority area, one in three children are already living in poverty and thousands more families are living on the edge of the poverty line.

Nationally, people have lost their jobs or seen their income fall during the pandemic and the lockdown, and there have been more than five times as many claims for universal credit in the space of a month. I am regularly contacted by constituents who receive universal credit and have been left with no choice but to turn to a food bank, left unable to pay for heating and struggling to pay their rent. This Government say that universal credit is working, but from the people of Jarrow and the whole of the country I tell the House that it is not.

We know that businesses have been hit hard, but the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, though welcome, is going only a small way to helping those firms that are now struggling to stay afloat. Providing 16,000 loans in four weeks in a country of 6 million small and medium-sized enterprises is simply not good enough. Those 16,000 loans amount to £2.8 billion of lending to SMEs. In comparison, the French scheme has provided 174,000 loans worth €24 billion.

So many workers are falling through the cracks. I have written to the Chancellor about the cut-off date for employees to receive support through the coronavirus job retention scheme. Although the extension from 28 February to 19 March will allow more employees to be furloughed, a lot more new workers will still miss out because they are paid towards the end of each month. Some have contacted their previous employer and asked to be re-employed on furlough, but I am informed that some companies are either unwilling or unable to help. The Government must consider further extending the cut-off date for the coronavirus job retention scheme to include the large proportion of workers who are paid monthly and giving the opportunity for other new employees also to be furloughed.

With economic growth already predicted to fall even further in the months ahead, the coronavirus crisis must not be used as cover for all the problems that have resulted from the lack of investment over the past 10 years. Lessons need to be learned from this crisis. This Government’s Finance Bill does not come close to reversing the damage of the past 10 years of austerity. The Government need to make sure that no families, workers or businesses fall down the cracks, because there is no doubt whatsoever that after this crisis is over our society and our economy will have to be very different.