Mr Speaker, let me start by as assuring the Chancellor that the official opposition will be supportive of the government and constructively critical where necessary. This is the gravest crisis facing our country that any of us in this House have known. We are debating matters of life and death and the proposals made and decisions taken deserve scrutiny, and that scrutiny should be welcomed.
The Prime Minister was right last night to call for people to stay at home. To stay at home, protect our NHS and save lives. We called for enforcement measures yesterday morning, and I know the mayor of London and many others had been making private representations for greater clarity and greater action. Mr Speaker, there needs to be clear and detailed guidance to employers and workers about which workplaces should close.
The Chancellor and the government must act immediately, so that every single worker has a protected income and so that every single household is secure in their home, whether they rent or have a mortgage. So, that no one who makes the right choice to stay at home faces hardship.
Last week, the Chancellor set out an unprecedented scheme to underwrite 80% of the wages of all workers furloughed, promising no redundancies or lay-offs were needed, and that the government would do “whatever it takes”. Today is the time to deliver clarity and security for all, including our most vulnerable – whatever it takes.
The Prime Minister last night effectively shut down every non-essential business. I want the Chancellor to make clear now, every single worker in every single one of those businesses will be covered by the 80% income protection scheme, and if – as a result of that 20% cut in incomes – they fall below thresholds for Universal Credit or housing benefit they will be eligible for top-ups?
And can we get a clear date when that income protection scheme will be operational? Will he also condemn employers, like Wetherspoons, that have stopped wage payments now, and have told employees they will not resume until the end of April?
I believe senior members of the government have influence on both these employers. Will the Chancellor make clear, they should pay their staff and they should close, so they play their part in making sure everyone is safe and protected?
But the government cannot act only for workers who are furloughed. Many will be having their hours reduced, but not stopped altogether. The government must step up for them. Whether, it’s to top them up to at least 80% of their regular wage or some other scheme. So, when the Minister responds, what is the protection for workers put on short hours?
Sadly many workers have already been laid off as a result of this terrible virus. The Secretary of State for Health & Social Care has candidly and honestly, said he could not survive on £94 per week Statutory Sick Pay, so how can he expect that entire families can afford a week’s food shop?
Will the Chancellor therefore increase now the appallingly low rate of statutory sick pay? And ensure all workers are eligible? And, will he increase the £73 rate of Jobseeker’s Allowance and of Employment and Support Allowance for disabled people? And the even lower rate – £66 per week – of Carer’s Allowance?
And Mr Speaker, there are five million self-employed workers in this country – many of whom cannot work from home – when will a scheme be ready for them? And will it also guarantee them 80% of their incomes? From cabbies to childminders, actors to plumbers our battalions of self-employed need the same security as everyone else – when will they get it?
Can I also urge the Chancellor to work with the construction industry and trade unions to find a solution that covers the peculiarities in that sector, workers employed through payroll companies and umbrella companies?
Mr Speaker, I will now move on to housing. We welcomed the moves to protect mortgage holders and to ensure that payment holidays are in place. We need the same security for renters. And to understand the differences. A rent holiday is not the same as a mortgage holiday. Rent is paid continuously while in tenancy, while mortgages are fixed term meaning that repayment terms can simply be extended. It is therefore important that government acts to ensure that rents are paid, not merely payments suspended for this period.
We were extremely disappointed by the legislation published yesterday. Frankly, the Prime Minister has broken his promise to the country’s 20 million renters – in 8.5 million households. It was not an evictions ban as promised. This legislation would not stop people losing their homes as a result of coronavirus, it just gives them some extra time to pack their bags. It is not good enough and the government must look again.
But there are wider problems: over recent years, austerity cuts have lessened the value of support available via housing benefit. The government must immediately suspend the benefit cap and the bedroom tax. We welcome the moves announced last week on Local Housing Allowance, but the government must go further and restore the Local Housing Allowance from the 30th percentile back to the 50th percentile of market rates, as it was before 2010.
People will have made rental decisions based on their incomes, and they should not be penalised by the unforeseeable impact of the coronavirus. Now is not a time for families to be downsizing or sofa-surfing with parents, grandparents or friends in cramped conditions.
Can I briefly pay tribute to the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, whose team has worked so tirelessly and creatively in securing hotel accommodation to get London’s rough sleepers off the streets, though we would like to know more about the duration and cost of the deal the government has procured with hotels.
It is important that the government acts to keep households in their homes, so that attachment to work, school and study can continue seamlessly at the conclusion of this extraordinary period. We cannot have a situation in which, at the end of this, tenants have either depleted all their savings or, worse have amassed large and unpayable debts. If this is the case the government will only be deferring evictions a few months down the road.
The suspension of evictions for private and social tenants should be extended from three months to six months. Shelter estimates that as many as 20,000 eviction proceedings are already in progress, and will go ahead over the next three months unless the government takes action to stop them. They must be stopped. And when the Minister rises to his feet – he must be clear no evictions – of any kind.
In addition, we also believe it is necessary to suspend all bailiff proceedings too for the same period, just practically speaking there are clear health and safety issues about entering the homes of families who may be self-isolating.
So, what measures is the Chancellor proposing for suspending payments of household utility bills? We cannot have bailiffs and we cannot have disconnections of water, energy or internet at this time.
What is the government doing about those without internet access? Many people in our community rely on libraries to access the internet. Now that these are closing, what measures will the government bring in to ensure people can get online, whether for benefit services or to maintain some form of social contact?
These are huge demands being placed on the civil service and I pay tribute to those public servants, who are working day and night to establish these schemes. But the civil service has been depleted by a decade of austerity, so as extra demands are placed on the HMRC and DWP; are other civil servants being redeployed; are the recently retired or those made redundant being asked to come back?
Can I also get urgent confirmation that the current HMRC programme of office closures and redundancies will be paused? Can I ask too what adaptations have been made for HMRC and DWP working in the mass call centres? Is the telephony technology there for them to work at home? Is there greater social distancing?
We all know that Universal Credit cannot cope now. Its rollout was again delayed in the budget. Now millions more households are becoming eligible for Universal Credit, Housing benefit and other payments. Is the Chancellor confident the system can cope?
On the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, can the Chancellor be clear what he is doing to encourage businesses to take them up, when some businesses see loans as less effective than grants for keeping them afloat?
And can the Chancellor tell the House whether he has considered our proposal, that such loans should include job retention clauses in the loan agreement? This would mean that business receiving loans can give workers the security they need that they will not lose their jobs.
And what consideration has been given to extend grants to the many small businesses, who can’t afford to take on additional debt and are not currently covered by the government’s eligibility criteria?
We also need clarity for workers beyond the retail sector, those on construction sites, in factories, in call centres, in warehouse and distribution and other settings. What are essential workplaces? I encourage every worker in Britain to join a trade union.
The NHS was promised budget increases over the next five years, will the Chancellor bring forward funding for years two, three and four into year one? Can the Chancellor assure us that we will not have another weekend when doctors and nurses – working in intensive care units – are having to go on the media to beg for personal protective equipment and clothing?
Can he assure NHS workers that they will not only get the equipment they need, but the tests they need? The World Health Organisation has been clear from the start in its advice: Test, test, test. Can he also assure the House, and the public, that everything is being done to procure more critical care beds?
I welcome the news that 7,500 recently retired staff have returned to the NHS and pay tribute to each and every one of them. The government recently begged recently retired NHS staff to return. The same must happen in social care. Chronic low pay in the care sector with many paid just the minimum wage, means staff have left for less stressful jobs in retail and other sectors. Those workers need to come back. And they need the appropriate personal protective equipment and clothing.
Many will have seen the devastating news from the Oaklands nursing home in the constituency of my Hon Friend, the member for Hove, where 16 of the 20 residents and seven staff have COVID-19 symptoms. But, Mr Speaker I was most concerned about the reports that despite pleading for it, the home has been unable to source the proper protective equipment?
Just yesterday the leader of the opposition and the shadow minister for social care demanded an urgent action plan for social care – a system that looks after those most at risk from the coronavirus. Our social care system needs ‘whatever it takes’. Whether its residential care, domiciliary care or family carers caring for loved ones in their own home, the resources must be there. So how much is being allocated immediately to councils and care providers?
Can I though welcome the sectoral consultation and dialogue with trade unions is taking place across all departments. Councils have a key role to play as guarantor of social care provision, but they too have been devastated by cuts, and now also have Hardship Funds to administer as well. What extra resources are being made available to local councils, especially as many are likely to start seeing drops in council tax and business rates revenue?
What extra funding is being made available, so that councils can extend council tax support schemes in this period While we fully back the measures outlined yesterday, there are some households, unfortunately, where these measures could mean more abuse and even death.
For victims of domestic abuse, and for others, this home isolation will be terrifying. We need the police, refuges, mental health and other social services to have all the resources and capacity they need, and I pay tribute to the shadow minister for women and equalities, for raising these issues repeatedly.
Many charities whose work is essential in filling in the gaping holes in our public services and safety net are desperately worried about their finances. Charities dealing with the immediate response to coronavirus and its effects on the most vulnerable need access to enough grants to allow them to scale up their operations. Others need to be assured they can access the same level of support that small businesses are rightly getting, so that they can suspend some of their operations without having to lay off their hard working staff, and can restart once the crisis passes.
What reassurances can the Chancellor provide to the charity and voluntary sector? Will he work with the sector to find suitable reliefs in these unprecedented times? And can he outline what schemes are available now to charities struggling with loss of revenue?
I understand that schools remain open to children of key workers and vulnerable children, but only if no safe alternative is available. Can I also ask about fees that will have been paid by students in further and in higher education and what refunds and deferments will be available?
Can I also ask that the interest rate on student debt is immediately reduced to zero for the duration of this crisis? What provision is being made by HM Treasury to refund lost revenue in transport authorities – whether that’s TfL in London or bus services across the country?
On railways, I echo the Transport Secretary, we back the measures that will keep key workers and freight moving on our railway during this crisis, which has exposed the fundamental weaknesses of the franchise model. And, can I thank all railway staff and all the bus workers who are keeping the essential parts of our country moving. And can the Chancellor assure us all public-facing railway staff will have appropriate personal protective equipment and clothing available?
Can the Chancellor tell us whether any consideration is being given to making public transport free for key workers, risking their lives every day? NHS staff are receiving free rail travel in Wales and a similar move is being rolled out across New Zealand.
Prisons were understaffed and overpopulated before this crisis. This is not just a question of resources but of safety. I welcome moves to escalate prisoner release schemes for those who do not pose a threat to our safety.
But Mr Speaker, the probation service was in crisis before this crisis. And the lockdown announced yesterday complicates matters further. Can the House be assured that the police and the probation service will have every resource possible to keep people safe, and to monitor those who need supervision?
I welcome the moves last week to release detainees from detention centres, due to health and safety concerns. Can the Chancellor be clear what extra resources are going into to protect people’s health?
As a lapsed Catholic, I still welcome a sinner who repents, so can I reach across the divide and pay tribute to the member for St Austell and Newquay who said yesterday: “Many people that we consider to be low skilled are actually pretty crucial to the smooth running of our country.”
Can I echo his call to the Home Secretary – it’s a point made repeatedly by the Shadow Home Secretary – to review the new points-based immigration system in his words “to reflect the things we’ve learnt during this time”. And can I ask the government whether any consideration is being given to temporarily suspending no recourse to public funds – and allowing temporary access to benefits for non-UK nationals?
This is important at a time when more and more people are out of work, and unable to travel. May I say, as a public service to all Conservative MPs, the market does not distribute wages fairly or efficiently in a capitalist society, and there is no correlation between pay rates and the social value of many jobs.
Three weeks ago, I asked the government to take a lead internationally in tackling this virus. It is vital that we are engaged in all global health and political forums forums, learn from best practice and share solutions. This virus respects no borders. By helping others, we help ourselves – and by neglecting others – we neglect ourselves. Will the Chancellor assure the House today that extra resources are being made, through the International Development budget, to aid the poorest countries in combatting this virus?
We will look back at this period as an unprecedented moment in our lifetimes. I know this is already a tragic time for so many, and all of us will be hurt by this. But I want us all to be able to look back with pride about what we did in this period. To be able to say: we widened who was covered by our safety net, when we had to; we protected people, and their jobs and wages; we cared for people around us, and we provided all the support that was needed.