My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Leigh, because I disagree with so much of what he says that it invigorates me for my own speech. But in fact today I did agree with some of the things he said; for example, on small businesses and of course in welcoming the Minister to his new role.
I spend most of my life in a constant fury about this Government and their inadequacies, incompetence and inability to see beyond the immediate condition of the economy. Clearly, Covid-19 has exacerbated everything. I had hoped for high things from the Budget last week. We were promised that it would be an environmental Budget, but it absolutely was not; it was a failure. However, I do not want to be too hard on the Chancellor. Yesterday was a chance to improve things a bit, so I do not want to be completely rude about it. However, we have to understand that last week’s Budget has been overtaken by events. The Government had a rare second chance to get it right but, somehow, they did not.
Many of the problems are based on the fact that we have had 10 years of Tory government, and their austerity policy has damaged our society and our economy at the most basic level. A decade of relative stability, apart from the political noise of Brexit, has largely masked the devastating harm inflicted by austerity on our public services and communities. The virus is now exposing the weakness that has been cultivated by this Government: local authorities that have been cut to the bone; the NHS at breaking point; families with lots of debt and barely any savings; and a job system that has moved so heavily to precarious contract work that we now have a record number of unemployed.
Every inch of spare capacity in the public sector has been ripped out—and then more has been ripped out. The economic and social impact of reacting to this virus will break us unless the Government make an urgent, swift and massive fiscal response. I shall suggest a couple of things, one of which the DUP agrees with us on. If you have the DUP and Greens uniting on an issue, I think you are in trouble if you do not pick it up.
I fear that the Government’s response to this unique economic challenge will be to tinker at the edges of what is already a broken system. A few tweaks to statutory sick pay and a lightening of universal credit sanctions, while still bailing out and protecting big business, will leave huge gaps in the safety net, through which literally millions could fall. We have to look after all carers, zero-hours workers and parents with two jobs; all those in the gig economy and the self-employed, who are being laid off from industries such as the arts and entertainment; all those who are being asked by corporate billionaires to take weeks of unpaid leave; all those worried about having their benefits sanctioned merely for protecting their health; and all of the huge number of people involved in small businesses, who are at risk of ruin.
The Prime Minister pulled the rug from under many small businesses without any hope of insurance to cover their losses; many have already gone out of business. I have been watching the news all day and have had messages coming in. A huge number of cafes, breweries and pubs are now facing closure, with absolutely no hope of recouping their losses. I am not sure whether this Government know this, but Trump has ordered the suspension of all evictions and home-loan foreclosures. This Government are behind Trump—how embarrassing is that?
Anything less than a blanket guarantee for people who are potentially falling through the net will involve asking the population to make massive sacrifices to our way of life. We need a bailout for the people, not just for businesses and property owners. We need an end to benefit sanctions; help for renters and a ban on evictions; housing for the homeless; money off people’s energy bills and a ban on cutting off energy supplies—and, an incredibly important thing, a rescue package for local authorities, so that they can help their communities through this emergency.
While we face up to the immediate threats, it remains important not to lose sight of the bigger picture. The virus is spreading fast and is very attention grabbing; it marks a stark contrast to the climate and ecological crises, which are much slower but more impactful. Our response to those crises should be cross-party, cross-border. The Chancellor’s Budget should have been a decisive moment in our country’s history but, sadly, it was not. If the planet were a bank, the Government would have bailed it out by now. If the people were a bank, the Government would have bailed them out by now.
It is time to act in a way that prepares for a better, climate-safe future. My recommendations are that we need a green new deal, a new fiscal settlement that can transform our economy to a stable, healthy net-zero carbon future that respects our role as custodians of the earth. The Government should issue billions of climate bonds with the support of the Bank of England and invest the money in our green future. The Green Party proposed £100 billion a year of investment in a green new deal, which is less than 5% of GDP—that is the scale of investment we need to tackle the climate and environmental emergency and which can pull us out of the economic tailspin that the virus will inflict on us all.
It was the so-called environmental Budget from the Chancellor, but he caved in to pressure from the fossil fuel lobby and froze fuel duty yet again. It was a big roads Budget, with £27 billion to be spent on new roads. It tinkered around the edges. People are of course taking all this into their own hands: they are stopping going out, stopping socialising, and stopping sending their children to school. The Government are behind the people. I understand that the Chancellor might be saying even now that schools will be closing, but it was something that should have been done before. And of course we need more testing. All these things should have been in the Budget update this week.
We are obviously massively threatened, and the Government are just not doing enough. Can the Minister please reassure me that he and his department understand the real needs that this country is facing?