Covid-19 Economic Support Package

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:41 pm on 14th October 2020.

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Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 3:41 pm, 14th October 2020

We have heard today from many Members on the Opposition Benches, but, sadly, rather fewer from the Government side. Owing to time constraints I am afraid I cannot mention every Opposition Member who spoke in today’s debate, but the House will have heard the despair that so many of our constituents feel at the prospect of their jobs disappearing, the very real difficulties their businesses are under, and the growing anger that while the Chancellor thinks it is too hard for the Treasury to provide targeted support, he is very happy to write off businesses and jobs as unviable. What all those contributions have in common is the need for the Government to provide clarity and consistency. Health restrictions and economic support must go hand in hand, or else the restrictions will not work and the costs will spiral.

What is extraordinary is that we are having to have this debate at all. At the start of the pandemic, the Chancellor—what a delight it is to see him with us today in the Chamber, gracing us with his presence—set out an economic support package for individuals and businesses. The Government were clear, and our party supported them, that, if restrictions on people’s ability to earn a living were necessary as part of a national endeavour to bring the virus under control, support was also necessary to prevent destitution and the collapse of businesses across the country. But since June, as area after area has been placed under local restrictions, we have seen the Government slowly retreating from that obvious common sense.

Today, millions of people, not just in England but in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, find themselves living under fresh restrictions. They may be local in scope, but the people of my constituency, and all the other areas facing such restrictions, rightly look to this House for answers. The restrictions strike at livelihoods, whether they are employed or self-employed. For others, it strikes at the heart of the viability of family-run businesses that for so many years they have put their life and soul into building up. It is heartbreaking to hear their stories and to hear the fear in people’s voices about whether they will still have a job by Christmas.

Families and businesses do not expect handouts from the Government; they expect fairness. They expect that, if the Government stop them working, the Government will step in to make sure they do not go hungry or lose their homes. As the shadow Chancellor rightly said, we cannot see people left to sink or swim. As well as the support needed to stop people’s jobs disappearing, the shadow Chancellor set out the Government’s failure to provide a safety net worthy of name for those whose jobs have already gone. I am aware that time is short, so I will not repeat her questions, but I note that, sadly, none of them was answered.

These are not new concerns. In July, we warned the Government that what was needed was not a stopgap statement, but a full back to work Budget. We warned that removing furlough too soon—a one-size-fits-all approach—failed to recognise the very different challenges faced by different sectors in the months ahead, with so much uncertainty about the future of the pandemic. We warned then that what would be needed was targeted support, and that the Government should be planning on that basis. We asked the Government then what they planned to do to support the excluded—the people who fall between the gaps of the Government’s schemes.

The refusal to think and to plan ahead and the refusal to fix problems until it is too late is becoming a theme of this Government. Five weeks ago today, Conservative Members argued and voted that

“any deviation from this Government’s proposed plan will cause damage to the United Kingdom economy”.

Only a fortnight had passed before the Chancellor was dragged to this House by the shadow Chancellor and deviated from his plan—to announce a winter plan, a replacement for furlough. Within weeks, he was at it again, on television this time, announcing yet another deviation. Of course, we cannot claim perfect foresight, but I do not think anyone in this House would have foreseen, even in our darkest nightmares, that the test, trace and isolate system would still be such an almighty mess almost seven months after the start of this pandemic.

Whatever our frustrations about the mishandling of this crisis, what matters above all else are the jobs and livelihoods of the people we represent, and Labour’s alternative is clear. We would put in place a job recovery scheme that fixes the problems with the Government schemes so that employers can keep more staff on, rather than having to let them go; that ensures that no one on the scheme falls into poverty; and that is open to all businesses impacted by restrictions. We would ensure clear, consistent and fair funding to every local area as soon as local restrictions are applied. We would reopen the Government’s closed £1.3 billion fund to support businesses in need. We would fix the yawning gaps in the Government schemes for the self-employed. We would stop wasting money on failing private contracts to deliver test, trace and isolate. The money should instead go to local areas, and should not be delivered only once infections have skyrocketed. Our scheme would be designed and targeted so that public money was spent where it was most needed, not splashed on unnecessary bonus schemes or without proper safeguards for workers.

It is not too late for the Government to listen—to the Opposition, to businesses, to families, to trades unions and to everyone whose livelihood and business is now at risk—and I urge the Government and the Chancellor once more to stop, to listen, to think again and to put in place the support our country desperately needs.