The Economy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:46 pm on 8th July 2020.

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Photo of Wes Streeting Wes Streeting Shadow Exchequer Secretary (Treasury) 3:46 pm, 8th July 2020

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, because, as events in Leicester have shown, the virus has not gone away. Local lockdowns, or, God forbid, another national lockdown in the event of a second peak, would deliver a knockout blow to so many businesses struggling to get back on their feet, and as my hon. Friend has just alluded to, those businesses will continue to struggle unless the public are given the confidence they need to go out and start spending money again.

Since the start of this crisis, the Government have been too slow: too slow to take the threat of covid-19 seriously; too slow to lockdown; and too slow to ramp up testing. Our criticism of the Government’s approach to track and trace is not unreasonable; this is not mission impossible. Today, the German embassy in the UK is tweeting to invite British citizens to download its Corona-Warn-App before visiting Germany, and British people are replying to the German embassy here in London asking if they can use it here in the UK. We are not even demanding the world-beating track and trace system the Government promised; we just want a system that works.

In a spirit of national unity and common purpose, we sought to work with the Government wherever possible. We have helped expedite emergency legislation through the House, and we have supported many of the measures taken to respond to the health emergency and to the economic crisis. Where Government have fallen short, we have suggested alternative approaches, and to be fair to the Government they have been prepared to listen. They listened when they introduced the job retention scheme, which we had called for and the TUC helped design, and later when the Chancellor came back with support for the self-employed that has been a lifeline to so many.

In the same spirit, we called on the Chancellor to take immediate action to tackle youth unemployment, and we pointed to the future jobs fund introduced by the last Labour Government as a model. Today’s kick-start announcement is exactly that, and we welcome it. In fact, the greatest compliment I can pay to the Chancellor from this Dispatch Box is that in announcing the kick-start scheme earlier he sounded like Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling. Maligned by the Conservatives at the time, history has been kinder to them than the Conservative Opposition of the day were; their leadership is rightly recognised by the Chancellor today, and that is to his credit.

But I do want to impress on the Chief Secretary the following point before he returns to the Treasury. The success of Labour’s future jobs fund was in no small part thanks to the hard work of the third sector and local authorities in delivering it, all of which are now in a far worse position than they were when the financial crisis hit. They have already stepped up in response to this crisis. Charities have been on the frontline of responding to covid-19, at the same time as the virus has plunged so many of them into financial crises of their own. They are at the heart of community resilience, public service delivery and tackling some of the biggest challenges of our time; we need them to come through this crisis and out the other side, so that they can help our country to do the same.

Councils were asked to do whatever it takes, whatever the cost, and they did. They have delivered food parcels to those shielding and made contact with those isolated and at risk. Their workers have kept essential services running at personal risk to themselves, and they have delivered Government grants to the businesses that need them with remarkable speed and efficiency. We have also seen endless examples of their creativity and ingenuity throughout their crisis response. The Mayor of London has worked closely with London boroughs to get rough sleepers off the streets and into safe harbour, and they are working together now to end rough sleeping for good. My own local council procured step-down accommodation for covid patients leaving hospital in order to delay the immediate discharge of those patients into care home settings to help control the spread of the virus. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, provided a loan to a local business to help it scale-up PPE production during the national shortage. While the Government dithered and delayed over supports for arts and culture, the Mayor of Liverpool City Region, Steve Rotheram, was already delivering it through his music fund and film and TV development fund. Councils such as Staffordshire County Council and Brighton and Hove City council have provided additional support to community groups and third-sector organisations, recognising the important role that they are playing in the crisis response.

Today, those local authorities are in far worse shape after a decade of cuts from Conservative Government and the double whammy of rising costs and lost revenues as a result of this crisis. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government promised to reimburse them, but so far he has failed to deliver and, after a decade of Tory cuts, they cannot afford to pay for the opportunity to sit next to him at the next Conservative fundraiser in the hope of a favourable decision coming out of the Government.