The Economy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:44 pm on 8th July 2020.

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Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 6:44 pm, 8th July 2020

I think we can recognise from all the contributions today that the pandemic is the biggest crisis we have faced in our lifetime. My hon. Friend Karin Smyth talked about the need for the health of our country and our economy to be taken together, as well as about the contribution of women to our economy. That was a point also picked up by Caroline Nokes, the Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee.

My hon. Friend Catherine McKinnell also drew our attention to the fact that Government measures are having a real impact on the north-east of England and called for infrastructure investment in our region, to which I am naturally and understandably sympathetic. My hon. Friend Olivia Blake drew our attention to the incredibly challenging situation facing our universities. We also heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western), for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) on the need to secure a green transition. My hon. Friends the Members for Luton South and for Warwick and Leamington talked about the need to invest in electric vehicles, in the charging infrastructure and to see greater support for the automotive sector and manufacturing.

My hon. Friend Emma Hardy, who is a doughty champion of the caravan industry, drew our attention repeatedly to the need for Ministers to respond to the challenges facing that sector and to do more to support business through this crisis. My hon. Friends the Members for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones) and for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith) drew our attention to the fact that the shared prosperity fund is vital and that we urgently need clarity from Ministers on this issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney also rightly drew our attention to the positive action being taken by the Labour Government in Wales.

The British public have the expectation, quite rightly, that politicians will be working responsibly to overcome this crisis. That is why we have supported the Government where possible and remain committed to working constructively to find solutions to the challenges that we face. We do acknowledge that some of the steps taken by the Government earlier in the crisis, such as the job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme, were the right thing to do. We called for those measures and we were proud to support them. Where we criticise—where we offer constructive criticism—it is because we know that, for Britain to succeed, the Government have to do better. Our priorities are those of the British people: protecting health and protecting the economy.

We know that we are facing a sharp and deep downturn and that the UK faces one of the largest hits to output of all industrialised countries. We also know the impact that this crisis has had on working families and on communities that have paid the price of Tory Government since 2010. I am talking about the poorest families who have seen their earnings plummet and household debt rise and the parts of the country, such as the area that I represent, that have been neglected by Governments since 2010 and are projected to face greater unemployment and competition for jobs in the coming months. There are 17 jobseekers for every single vacancy, and that is before we see additional unemployment. The young and the low paid, who are far more likely to work in sectors that have been shut down, face the toughest job market in a generation, and women, particularly mothers, are more likely to have quit or lost their jobs or been furloughed since the start of the lockdown. We can all recognise the disproportionate impact that this crisis has had on black, Asian and minority ethnic women who have been hit even harder. That is why, for weeks, we have been calling for a back-to-work Budget that supports those at the sharp end of this crisis, so that we can build a fair recovery, one of which we can all be proud.

Already, the Chancellor’s counterparts around the world have laid out broad and ambitious packages to boost their economies and support vital sectors in facing the challenges that are yet to come. As usual, since the crisis, Ministers have been slow off the mark. They have had plenty of time to plan for a sustainable green recovery that benefits communities up and down our country. Labour called for many of the measures that were announced today and, as a constructive Opposition, we welcome them, but no one can ignore the major blind spots in this statement. It is part of a running trend. Throughout the crisis, the Government have consistently been too slow, putting off the tough calls. This has made lockdown longer and the economic harm greater. It is why we must get our response right now. We need Britain to move on from the crisis not be scarred by it for generations.

We have set out tests for what we expected from the Government today: a back-to-work Budget that focused on retaining jobs, sustaining jobs and supporting new jobs. For weeks, we have been calling for an effective scheme that ensures that people are able to find decent work, even in the challenging labour market ahead. That is why we called on Ministers to learn from the example of Labour’s future jobs fund, which supported hundreds of thousands of young people into training and employment opportunities. We are glad that the Government have finally heeded our call for such a programme, but the fund does not address the scale of the youth unemployment challenge. More than 400,000 young people were already out of work pre-crisis, and a further 800,000 are set to enter the labour market. There is one specific point on the detail that I hope the Minister can address: will companies be able to use kick-start funding to support apprenticeships? I hope he will be able to answer that question when he responds. Welcome as it is for younger workers who will benefit, it does not address the concerns of many workers, especially older workers, whose jobs are now at risk and who face a very uncertain economic future.

A plan on job creation should have moved in lockstep with our commitment to tackling the climate emergency, but again, Ministers have fallen short. The recent Committee on Climate Change report laid bare how badly the UK is falling behind, and with this package, we continue to do so. The French Government have promised €15 billion for a green recovery. The German Government—€40 billion. The UK Government—£3 billion so far. Tackling the climate emergency should have been at the heart of the Government’s economic response. Decisive action to drive towards net zero goes hand in hand with job creation, providing upskilling, training and new opportunities, yet the Government approach in this area is sadly lacking.

While we have heard a great deal today about supporting job creation, which is urgent and vital, the Government’s No. 1 goal must also be to prevent people from becoming unemployed in the first place. We have seen a wave of job losses right across a number of sectors, including retail, food service, aerospace and hospitality in the last week alone, with every job lost a tragedy. We know that unemployment does lasting damage not just to individuals, their livelihoods and families, but to whole communities, and the best way to keep unemployment down is to keep people in work.

That is why the Chancellor should have abandoned his one-size-fits-all wind-down of the furlough. We want British business back on its feet, but the Government’s failure to adopt a strategic approach will hamper this. We should have had a more targeted strategy that addresses the fact that some sectors that are not at full capacity should not be treated in the same way as those that are. We need ongoing, targeted support. This is not about picking winners. It is about protecting those who have lost through no fault of their own, and the job retention bonus scheme risks a transfer of money into the hands of companies that would have brought their staff back anyway.

We have been too slow into lockdown, too slow on PPE and too slow on testing, and it is failures on public health that risk a repeat of the local lockdown we have seen in Leicester. Such further occurrences will be a hammer blow to businesses that are just scraping by. We have said we will be a constructive Opposition and part of that is making the Government aware of where this response is falling short. This crisis has highlighted the chronic underfunding of our public services, where our older citizens have been denied the care that they need and where precarious low-paid work is the norm for too many people. But out of this crisis, there is a chance to build a better country.