Covid-19

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:10 pm on 22nd October 2020.

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Photo of Anne McLaughlin Anne McLaughlin Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Women), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Equalities) 3:10 pm, 22nd October 2020

I see that the Health Secretary agrees with me somewhat. Everybody on these islands is tired at the moment, but those making the tough decisions do not have the option to give in to the tiredness. I might not always agree with everything they are doing—I do not generally agree with most of what they do—but I understand that everybody is an expert these days.

Some of what the Government did in response to the pandemic was good. Furloughing was not just good; it was fantastic. I am not going to qualify that. These islands were not alone in having the idea, but it was a great idea. When I sat and watched the Chancellor’s initial response, I thought he was fast, flexible and responsive. I felt at that point that ideology had gone, that politics had been taken out of the situation and that the Government were simply doing what they could to support people as best they could. In fact, I remember thinking that when the Chancellor appeared on “Spitting Image” he would be wrapped in the red flag, so socialist were some of the furloughing policies.

We also heard about people slipping through the net. As everybody keeps saying, we are in unprecedented times. We had those Paymaster General calls every day, and much of what we reported was acted on initially. It was a terrible time, but it was a good time for politicians to work together in the interests of the four countries of these islands.

Not everything was acted on, however, and not everyone was supported. Some of those gaps were never filled. I want to mention two things in particular. First, my constituency has many wholesalers who chose not to furlough their staff because they wanted to play their part in responding to the pandemic. They wanted to ensure the flow of food and drink, particularly to hospitals. I know something was said in the statement earlier today, which I have not yet seen, but they have felt for a long time that they did not receive a response.

I wrote to the Chancellor to ask about that and I just want to say something about the responses I have been getting. Nick Smith made a point of order about this earlier. Some of the responses have no reference—when we put a reference, they do not include it when responding. One of the complaints made in the point of order was about a six-word response to a question. I got an eight-page response to something, but I have no idea what the question was because, as I said, it did not give a reference. In addition, it seemed to be eight pages of “Isn’t the Government great?” which is just not acceptable. I do not know why the replies are like this. I wonder if it is an attempt to stop us asking questions in the first place, because I am certainly giving up sometimes.

The people who have formed the campaign organisation ExcludedUK have not given up. I am part of the all-party parliamentary group on the ExcludedUK. They have been incredible, but they are in a really difficult position and I, too, would have been in their position had I not won my seat in December. I was self-employed but I had not been self-employed for long enough. I will not go into the details, but I know that if I were one of them right now, I would not be living in the home that I have lived in for 10 years. I do not know what would have happened to me, so I identify with them and want to keep supporting them.

It was really good that the Government added £1,000 a year to universal credit, although it had been cut to the extent that that simply brought it back up to 2011 levels. On the other hand, I did not expect a Conservative Government to do that, so I am glad that they did. However, they need to extend it and they need to add it to legacy benefits. I implore them to do that and to extend the furlough scheme. Whenever that is mentioned in this place, Government Members shout, “For how long can we do that? We can’t sustain it forever!” But it would not be forever, and even though we do not know exactly how long it would last, we can estimate and reasonably suppose that by next summer there will be some kind of normality, so why not extend it until then, if needs be? In the past few months, I have noticed some terrible situations with employers and I have many examples. I already gave some examples when I spoke in the debate on whistleblowers a while back, but I want to raise one situation today, because I am hoping that Government Members will do something about it. It is a very serious matter. The employer is the Government. Whoever took the decision that I am going to tell the House about should be ashamed of themselves.

There are three service centres in Glasgow for the DWP and the situation concerns people working in those service centres who do not have to do face-to-face. I am telling the House what is happening in Glasgow, but I am sure this will not just be the case in Glasgow; I imagine that it is widespread across these islands. Workers were on a work-from-home pilot scheme. Some teams were allowed to work four days a week at home and one day in the office. Others worked three weeks at home and one week in the office.

On 23 September, the Prime Minister and the First Minister both gave the instruction that anybody who could work from home should work from home. Naturally, those workers expected that they would be allowed to work from home full time, but they were refused permission to do that. Some of the workers, who are all kitted out at home, are having to bring their equipment into the office on that one day of the week or that one week of the month, despite what the Government were saying people should do. They were constantly being told that it was fine, it was safe and that there was no danger to them. Well, that was not what the Government were saying.

On the week ending 9 October, it was announced that two members of staff in that building had tested positive. On 12 October, another three members of staff were reported to have tested positive. On 15 October, a further two members of staff tested positive—seven cases in less than a week. On 19 October, Monday of this week, there was another case and on 20 October, Tuesday, there were another two. So that is 10.

I am sure that Members can understand the fears that those workers were experiencing, but I will tell them who did not understand—or maybe they did and just did not care. Last Friday, a senior manager at the DWP held a Skype meeting with the teams to reassure them that the office was safe and to remind them that the pilot could not be changed and there could be no flexibility, despite what the Prime Minister and the First Minister were telling employers to do. I understand that the tone was more threatening than reassuring. The senior manager warned that if workers continued to raise concerns the pilot might be cancelled and they would all be forced to work in the office full time. She “hoped” that that would not have to happen. That is workplace bullying and I hope the Secretary of State will raise it with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. I certainly will be raising it.

Yesterday, just to bring everyone up to date, staff were told that the pilot had been suspended. That is good in the short term, because all those who can work from home are now doing so full time, but there is no information and no answer to their questions about how this situation will progress. Given threats that speaking out might mean that the pilot is cancelled and everyone will be forced to work in the office, one can be forgiven for thinking that that is what is going to happen. So I just want to ask a few questions. Why, if they could work from home and are equipped to work from home, were they forced to work in the office? Of the 10 testing positive so far, how many were part of the work-from-home pilot? How can a Government agency be given permission to ignore the restrictions that everyone else is rightly following? Will management punish the “unruly dissenters” who complained about it by forcing them all to work in the office, as was suggested by the senior manager? Do the Government understand the message that the workers are getting, which is, “You don’t matter, you have no power”?

Well, not only do they have no power, but their MP seems to have no influence. My attempts to represent my constituents started on 4 October, when I had a meeting with DWP senior managers. I had just been made aware of the situation—the meeting was about something else—so I said I urgently needed to know who to contact to raise the issue on behalf of the employees. They got back to me yesterday, 21 October, after being prompted three times. I waited 17 days and their response was, “You might need to give us some more information.” If I cannot represent those employees as an MP and make any difference to their lives, and they cannot as workers, who else can?

Madam Deputy Speaker, you are looking at me like you want me to stop—[Interruption.] No? Oh, that’s excellent.