Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. At times of crisis, we come together. I have been inspired by the generosity and everyday solidarity of my own community in Liverpool, West Derby: mutual aid groups, initiatives to tackle social isolation, the distribution of food to the vulnerable, and community PPE production lines set up to supply frontline workers who have been left unprotected by the failings of the Government’s response. The coronavirus has at the same time kept us apart and brought us together.
But a crisis also shakes the foundations of the status quo. It poses questions about how our economy is run and who it is run for. When the Government released their list of key workers, it was a long-overdue recognition of the people who really keep our country moving: not the corporate executives or the hedge fund managers, but the nurses, the cleaners, the porters, the posties, the transport workers, the shop workers and so many more—the working class in all its diversity.
Just weeks earlier, many of those same workers were being labelled low-skilled by the Home Secretary. That goes right to the heart of the problem, because when the Government say low skilled, what they really mean is low paid or underpaid. Indeed, the Resolution Foundation highlighted that 61% of English care workers are paid below the real living wage. The way work is rewarded in this country is completely detached from the social value that it creates. We overvalue those at the top and we undervalue those at the bottom.
While I do not want to put a dampener on the collective appreciation when our nation comes together every Thursday to applaud our key workers, that applause will ring hollow if we do not also give those same workers the PPE, the testing and then the pay rise that they deserve. This crisis shows that the real wealth creators are those at the base of society, not those at the top.
That fundamental truth has to be central to the debate about where the burden of this crisis should fall. Working-class people were forced to pick up the bill for the last crisis through austerity. The choice was made, following the last crisis, to have the most sustained funding squeeze in NHS history. The choice was made, following the last crisis, to make cuts to social care, with more than £7 billion cut from council budgets. The choice was made following the last crisis to let emergency stockpiles of PPE dwindle and go out of date. Those damaging and short-sighted choices crippled our ability to respond to the situation we find ourselves in, as pandemic planning became just another casualty of austerity.
Once again, the Government have a choice to make. This time they must learn from their mistakes and not follow the bankrupted doctrine of austerity or the words of its architect, George Osborne, who continues to promote it despite witnessing the dire consequences of his actions during this crisis.
Never again can the consequences of a crisis be heaped on those least able to bear it. We know that extreme wealth in this country is accumulated by taking rather than making. Indeed, the TUC recently highlighted that some hedge funds are raking in billions as a result of this crisis, while careworkers, who are putting their lives on the line, can barely scrape by.
This time, instead of squeezing wages for those at the bottom, we should ensure that those at the top pay their fair share. Instead of cutting funding for our vital public services, we should restore them to properly funded, publicly owned institutions that we can all be proud of. Instead of bailing out corporate tax dodgers and big polluters, we should prioritise people and communities. If we want appreciation for our key workers to be more than just empty gestures, let us take this opportunity to restructure our economy so that it works in their interests. In other words, let us build a society that works for many, not the few.