Debate resumed (Order, 12 March).
Question again proposed,
That income tax is charged for the tax year 2020-21.
And it is declared that it is expedient in the public interest that this Resolution should have statutory effect under the provisions of the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is currently at a Cobra meeting, determining the next stage of the Government response to the coronavirus. He therefore apologises for the fact that he is unable to open this debate. With your permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, he will be making a statement to the House a little later this afternoon. That will provide right hon. and hon. Members with the opportunity to question him on the latest position, so I urge colleagues to pause any specific questions related to coronavirus until that statement, when they will have the latest information.
May I also say that it is a pleasure to be back after last week’s precautionary self-isolation, following contact with a confirmed case and on Public Health England advice? It has subsequently advised me that, as I am symptom-free, I can return. Let me put on the record my thanks to PHE for the work it is doing for everyone at the moment, and to hon. Members and constituents for their kind words last week.
Coronavirus is the most serious public health challenge that our country has faced in a generation. Our goal is to protect life and to protect our NHS. Last week’s Budget showed that we will rise to that challenge. Under the plans laid out by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, workers will have a strong safety net to fall back on if they fall sick, businesses will get financial help to stay in business, and the NHS will get whatever resources it needs. All in all, the Chancellor announced last week a total of £30 billion of investment in the financial health of the nation.
Many of those measures are extremely welcome, but is it not becoming clear that the economic impact of coronavirus is perhaps even greater than was anticipated, even last week? Perhaps now is the time to consider a temporary universal basic income for people who work as freelancers or who are self-employed, for the duration of the crisis.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I believe that the package announced last week is the right package, at this time, to meet the challenges posed by this situation. Without necessarily referring to the hon. Gentleman’s particular proposal, I note that the Chancellor continues to keep all interventions under review as the situation develops. At the moment, what was proposed last week remains the right approach.
I underline my support for the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan). The Minister asked us to wait to question the Secretary of State later, but I have a specific question about personal protective equipment. I am hearing a lot of concerns—shared throughout the country—about care homes, and particularly those involved in domiciliary care, as well as about some of the differentials between what is going on in private care homes and in public sector care homes. How is the Minister going to make sure that, working with the devolved Administrations, people throughout the whole UK get the PPE that they need, particularly in the care sector?
I reassure the hon. Gentleman that, first, we are working across the four nations, because the situation needs an entire-United Kingdom response, and secondly, we are working extremely hard to ensure that all those who are on the frontline looking after people and keeping them safe get the protective equipment that they need. I suspect the Secretary of State will say a little more about that later this afternoon.
Will the Government look again at the issue of the hospitality, travel and leisure industries? Some of those businesses are losing not just 10% or 20%, as they might in a normal recession, but the bulk of their revenue. Do they not need some revenue-sharing with the Government? Could we have a scheme like the German one to keep workers in work for a bit when they have a major loss of demand? I have declared my interests in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—they are not in this particular sector.
My right hon. Friend is right to highlight the challenges for particular sectors that are posed by what is currently happening, and he is right to mention the hotel and hospitality trade. Alongside the measures set out by the Chancellor last week, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport continues to have discussions, not only within his Department and across Government but with the sector, about what can be done to ensure that it gets the appropriate support that it needs as a sector.
Just to follow up on that point, I have several cases of businesses coming to me and saying that their business-interruption cover is not being recognised by their insurance companies because coronavirus was not a notifiable disease at the time. If the insurance industry takes that attitude nationwide, many businesses—not only in tourism and hospitality—are going to go to the wall, and my constituents on the Isle of Wight will be especially badly hit.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The Treasury, my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury and others are in conversations with the industry more broadly—I believe that more conversations are set to occur tomorrow—to ensure that businesses get the support that they need and are treated in a fair way.
Our investment in the financial health of the nation includes £40 million for literal vaccines, research and testing, because we base our decisions on the bedrock of the science. This national response is made possible because of our careful stewardship of the British economy over the past 10 years—because record numbers of businesses are making, selling and hiring; because millions more people are in work, earning and paying taxes; and because we have backed the NHS with a record long-term funding settlement.
This is a national effort and we will get through this together, as the Prime Minister has said. In Government, we will do the right thing at the right time, working through each stage of our coronavirus action plan guided by the science and the advice of our medical and scientific experts. We will stop at nothing to defeat the disease, but we will succeed only if everyone does their bit: washing their hands regularly; self-isolating for seven days if they have symptoms, such as a new, continuous, persistent cough or a high temperature; and looking out for their neighbours. In that spirit, may I thank the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Leicester South (Jonathan Ashworth), my constituency neighbour, and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), for the constructive approach that they have taken since the start of the outbreak? They are doing their bit. They are good and decent people and public servants, and their approach is a prime example of how we can work together during this crisis.
One question I am getting from constituents who already have medical conditions is to do with their worry over any interruption to their supply of medicine and their treatment. What reassurances can the Government give to people with epilepsy, for example, that they are still going to get the medication that they need?
The NHS has robust procedures in place to ensure the continuity of medical supplies. In respect of supplies bought over the counter, I urge people not to stockpile, to behave responsibly and to buy what they need. In respect of prescription medicines, I can reassure the hon. Lady that we have very strong and robust processes in place to ensure that those medicines continue to be available.
I wonder whether we could consider the language that we are using around the at-risk groups of people. Very few people will self-define as vulnerable or elderly, and, in fact, people with underlying health conditions might not even realise that they are particularly at risk of infection. Can we think about the language that we are using and specifically issue guidance to those groups of people?
As ever, the hon. Lady makes a sensitive and sensible point. She is right that clarity in definitions and the language that is used is important. I do not want to pre-empt what my right hon. Friend may say in the House in a little while, but I think that she will see in the coming hours and days a greater degree of clarity for people and more information and guidance on that matter.
I thank the Minister for giving way. Clearly, we are very early into this, and we do not quite know what the business continuity impact will be or the financial impact on business. Do the Government have a framework by which they will operate and have discussions? For instance, when Virgin Atlantic comes forward and says that it needs financial support, what will be the framework of that support and what might the Government want in return for that investment?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, which, almost to a degree, goes back to the point made by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) about giving people greater clarity and understanding of how things will work and in what way. Because the matters are fast evolving, as he says, they continue to be under review, but we will ensure that we work with industry—including both the example that he gives and others—to give the support that people need and that is most appropriate. Again, I hesitate to say this, but I caution slightly, as I did at the beginning, and say that if he waits until the Secretary of State’s statement, which I think is at half-past five, he may well get more details on that.
Coronavirus is the biggest challenge facing the NHS today. With clean hands and calm heads, we can help tackle it together, but, equally, we will not allow it to divert us from the long-term improvements that patients and staff rightly want to see. As the founders of the NHS knew better than anyone, we can fight the war while also planning for the peace.
Let me now turn to the measures in the Budget that will secure those long-term improvements. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor committed £6 billion of extra spending to support the NHS over the lifetime of this Parliament. That comes on top of our record long-term NHS funding settlement—£33.9 billion more over five years—which we have now enshrined in law. Most of the extra £6 billion will go towards delivering our flagship manifesto commitments. They include starting work on 40 new hospitals, 50,000 more nurses, and 50 million more appointments in primary care—more buildings, more people and more services. Let me take each in turn.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I can say quite honestly that it is an impressive list of capital spending commitments that he is giving us today. He will be aware that the Office for Budget Responsibility has based its longer term debt forecasts on the assumption that 20% of those capital promises will never actually happen. Does he accept that view from the Office for Budget Responsibility?
The Office for Budget Responsibility is independent of the Government and sets out its opinions as it sees fit. We are committed to the hospital building programme. If the hon. Gentleman waits a moment, I will come to the detail of that capital spending.
The Budget increases my Department’s capital budget by £1 billion in 2020-21. That will allow trusts to continue investing in vital refurbishment and maintenance. Of course, we are funding the start of work on 40 new hospitals and the 20 hospital upgrades that are already under way. The work to plan and design those 40 new hospitals has already begun.
Halton General Hospital campus—which, as the Minister knows, is part of Warrington and Halton Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust—has been turned down twice for capital funding for much needed refurbishment work. I plead once again for the Minister to ensure that it is prioritised; I am still waiting for a meeting with him.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. As ever, he is a vocal champion for his constituents and his hospital. I say very gently that recent events have slightly impacted on my ability to schedule as many meetings as I might wish, but I remain committed to meeting him and talking to him about that particular project.
We want the new hospitals to be fully equipped with the very best modern technology, with touch screens, not clipboards, and systems that talk to each other. We also want them to be fully integrated with other local NHS organisations. But this is just the start, and we will follow this work up with multi-year capital funding through the spending review to be announced later this year.
Is the Minister looking to divide up hospitals—new ones and, indeed, the existing ones—into coronavirus and non-coronavirus, with people wearing protective suits in coronavirus sections? China has been building a number of hospitals within weeks specifically to deal with this problem, so will the Minister refocus the programme he is outlining and bring it forward to address the coronavirus crisis?
I suspect that Chinese building regulations and similar are possibly a little different from the processes in this country when it comes to speed, but the hon. Gentleman makes a good point. These hospitals, though, will be built for the future of our country—for the next 10, 20 and 30 years. He alludes to an important point and one that I was touching on in my speech, which is that we should ensure that our new buildings are adaptable and can be adapted to the changing needs of medical emergencies and the long-term demographic trends in this country. On that front, yes, we are building hospitals that are fit for the future, whatever that future may throw at us. But the issue he is raising is perhaps a little more short term than the length of time it will take us to build some of these hospitals.
Let me turn to people—the 1.4 million-strong team who make up the most dedicated workforce in the world. What is the one thing most NHS staff would change if they could change one thing? What is the best present we could give our nation’s nurses? [Interruption.] I will not be led astray by the Opposition. The answer is more nurses—more nurses to share the burden of rising demand, and more nurses bringing their compassion and determination to their work in the NHS. Over the next five years, we will deliver 50,000 more nurses for our NHS. We will do so by retaining and returning existing NHS staff, and by recruiting more nurses from abroad, but crucially by attracting more young people into the profession in the first place. The Budget delivers that by providing new non-repayable maintenance grants for nursing students of at least £5,000 a year for every undergraduate and postgraduate nursing student on a pre-registration course at an English university, with more for students with childcare costs or in disciplines such as mental health where the need is greatest. More than 35,000 students are expected to benefit.
In the coming months, the British people will have even more reason than usual to give thanks to our nation’s nurses, and we will work to repay them by making the NHS the country’s best employer—more supportive, more inclusive and more concerned with the wellbeing of staff as well as patients, an NHS that cares for its carers. We will set out how in our landmark NHS people plan.
We will also tackle the taper problem in doctors’ pensions, which has caused too many senior doctors to turn down work that the NHS needs them to do. Thanks to action in the Budget and the work of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, from April the taxable pay threshold will rise from £110,000 to £200,000. That will take up to 96% of GPs and up to 98% of NHS consultants out of the scope of the taper based on their NHS income. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend for his work on delivering that.
Turning to staff in primary care, the Budget funds 6,000 more doctors and 6,000 more primary care professionals in general practice, on top of the 20,000 primary care professionals already announced. Why? It is because we want every NHS professional working at the very top of their skills register; because there are brilliant physios, pharmacists and healthcare assistants who can offer great treatment and advice for people seeking primary care; and because we can improve patient access to the NHS while freeing up GPs for those who need them most.
While we welcome the numbers of professionals in the range of clinical areas that the Minister has outlined, can he tell me the numbers in each of those clinical specialisms and say when they will be ready to start work? When will they be fully trained and where will they come from?
I set out in my remarks just now exactly where they would come from—from a variety of different sources. We have already seen, from the latest numbers for nurse recruitment, for example, many thousands more recruited in the last year. We are succeeding in delivering on our pledge, and we set out very clearly in our manifesto the timescales within which we would deliver.
That brings me to my third point—NHS services. I have said that I want the NHS to pursue two long-term policy goals to which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is committed. They are five extra years of healthy life and increased public confidence in the service. The coronavirus outbreak demonstrates that we have to target both. It is an explicit goal of our policy not just to tackle the disease, but to maintain public confidence. We take the same approach more broadly in healthcare. We want people to live healthier for longer, and we want people to be confident that the NHS will always be there for them, that it will treat them with dignity and respect, and that it will feel like a service, not an impersonal system. We want people to know, for instance, that they can always see a primary care professional whenever they need to. The Budget funds our manifesto commitment to create an extra 50 million appointments a year in general practice.
I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me last week and very glad that I did not have to follow him into isolation. We had a good discussion last week and talked very much about those health inequalities and the necessity for more people to have more healthy years. I was grateful to him for being kind towards North Tees and Hartlepool and talking about a new hospital for Stockton. If there is a bit of capital to get that under way, I hope he will come up with it soon.
The hon. Gentleman and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (Matt Vickers) are both strong advocates for Stockton and for the hospital there. I very much enjoyed our discussion. I am glad that the self-isolation rules are such that the hon. Gentleman did not have to follow me into it, but I am very happy, as I said when we met, to pick up on that discussion further in the future.
We also want people to know that the NHS will treat them fairly in their hour of need. That is why we care about hospital parking. Thanks to this Budget, from next month we will start the roll-out of free hospital parking more broadly across our hospital estate for disabled people, frequent out-patient attenders, parents with sick children staying overnight and staff working night shifts, delivering on our manifesto commitment.
The hon. Lady will know that the four categories I have just referred to are the four categories we explicitly referred to in the manifesto on which we were elected. As she knows, if she wants to write to me, I am always happy to receive and respond to letters from her on that issue.
The last measure I want to point to may have escaped notice last week, but it is an incredibly important part of putting the “service” into national health service. Too many people with autism or a learning disability are being treated as in-patients in mental health hospitals instead of being helped to live in their communities. In our manifesto, we committed to making it easier for them to be discharged from hospital. This Budget makes good on that commitment. It creates a new learning disability and autism community discharge grant that will be available to local authorities in England. That is new money and all local areas will receive a share of that funding.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. On that point concerning people with autism and learning disabilities in assessment and treatment units, can he advise on the arrangements that are being made during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure that those people currently in in-patient provision will not suffer additional isolation and further breaches of their human rights as a consequence of restrictions that might be put in place?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, which is that throughout this challenge that we face as a country, we must ensure that everyone is treated with dignity and receives the care and support that they deserve. I was about to say that I know my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have heard what she said, but given he is in Cobra, he might not. I will ensure that he does. I will mention the matter to him, and in the context of the future tranches of guidance that will be coming forward in future days, the hon. Lady may want to raise the issue with him specifically later.
Modern buildings, more staff, an NHS that continues to truly serve its patients and a national response to coronavirus—that is what the Budget delivers. We can tackle this emergency while putting in place the long-term improvements that NHS clinicians are asking us for. We can fight the war against coronavirus as a united country, but we can also build the peace. We will stop at nothing to protect life and to protect and invest in our NHS. I commend the Budget to the House.
First, I welcome the Minister back to his place after his period of self-isolation. I am sure that all parts of the House will agree that the current coronavirus crisis has demonstrated beyond all doubt just how important our public services are. We all know that this is a very serious time and that our constituents will be concerned. I know many are frightened by the way the crisis has escalated over the past week or so, so I start by sending our condolences to all those who have already lost a loved one including, sadly, one gentleman in my constituency. I also send our gratitude to those who are already working flat out to do their best to limit the impact of coronavirus, whether they are in the NHS, the rest of the public sector or the private and voluntary sectors, which are making a vital contribution as well.
As the Minister will know, we are supportive of the national effort to contain and delay the spread of the virus, and it would be irresponsible of us as an Opposition to make any attempt to exploit the pandemic for party political gain. I thank the Minister for his kind words in that respect. Equally, it would be irresponsible of us to ignore the concerns being raised by the public, the scientific community and the sector more widely. It is critical that we ask important questions on their behalf, especially when the limits of public service will be tested like they have never been tested before.
We know that many aspects of life will have to change or stop altogether, albeit temporarily, but it is hoped that accountability, transparency and the ability of Opposition parties to scrutinise Government decisions will continue. We are under no illusions that, at this time, our ability to do that comes with a particular responsibility, so I hope the House will understand that I will focus mainly on the challenges of the immediate crisis facing us and ask some of the many important questions that have been raised. I appreciate that there will be a statement later, and I will understand if the Minister refers some responses to that, but we will have slightly more time in this debate to discuss important concerns that have been raised with us by many in the country.
Let me turn to the Budget, as this is a financial debate. We have previously acknowledged the extra funding announced in the Budget for the NHS and social care as part of the covid-19 response. That is something we have long called for, but there remain unanswered questions about how that funding will be precisely allocated. Can the Minister tell us exactly how the extra funding will be allocated and what will happen once the money is depleted? The NHS said last week that it needs to scale up intensive care beds sevenfold. That new pot of money is going to run out at some point, and it will need topping up. Will another Budget be necessary then, and what will the process be for determining resources at that point?
While we welcome the extra funding, we are aware that it is in the context of the NHS already facing extreme pressure, as usually happens over a busy winter period. We know from the last NHS winter report two weeks ago that 80% of critical care beds were occupied and that 93% of general and acute beds were also occupied. We know that the proportion of people being seen within four hours at A&E is the lowest on record, and the target has not been met since July 2015—the best part of five years. We know that the number of people on waiting lists in England is the highest it has ever been—nearly 4.5 million people are on a waiting list for treatment—and the waiting list target has not been met for nearly four years. Sadly, some cancer targets have not been met for over six years.
Those figures should tell us that the NHS is already stretched to capacity and that we are not starting from the optimum position. But it also tells us why the Government’s strategy of delay is one that has to be supported. Even if we take at face value the Government’s insistence that they have provided enough NHS resources to deliver the commitments in the long-term plan, we must surely all accept that the covid-19 outbreak will lead to an increased demand on trusts, meaning that resources in the system will have to be reallocated. Should trusts be expending time and resources on working on control totals and end-of-year accounts at this precise moment?
Will beds from the private sector be made available to covid-19 patients, and at what cost? What will the process be for trusts that have particularly large outbreaks and increased demand? Is any audit being undertaken of disused hospitals or other public sector facilities that may be required at some point? For example, is there any way that the brand new Royal Liverpool Hospital building could be brought on stream more quickly? Are the Government sourcing more ventilators, and when can we expect to see those available? Many manufacturers export all around the world. Will steps be taken to ensure that the NHS is at the front of the queue when those goods are produced?
I want to say a few words about the workforce. We know that, before we entered the crisis, the NHS was already short of over 100,000 staff, including 43,000 nurses and 10,000 doctors. The impact of staffing shortfalls manifests itself across the whole spectrum of NHS performance, as I have just outlined. It is therefore more critical than ever that those people who work in the NHS and whose good will we rely on already get adequate protection. It is evident that, in order for patients to have the best care possible, the NHS must support its staff to ensure that they stay well and can provide that vital care. That means a continuous supply of the right equipment and facilities. Personal protective equipment is vital in that respect. I hope we will hear, either in the Minister’s response or the statement later today, about what is being done to secure supplies of equipment and whether there is enough capacity in the system to ensure continued supply.
We would also be grateful for more information on the plans mooted to get retired staff back into the health service. Will some of the money announced in the Budget be used to deal with the anticipated increase in the wage bill that that would mean? Can we have an explanation as to how those people would be protected given that, by definition, the majority of them are likely to be over 70? What oversight will be put in place to ensure that they are delivering safe care if the revalidation process is to be suspended for retired returnees? Those on the frontline who I have spoken to are concerned about identifying the point at which an individual has been away from practice so long that it becomes impractical to reintegrate them in a safe and effective way. Will guidance be issued on what that point might be? What consideration has been given to those in the existing workforce who might be in a more vulnerable category because of their age or an underlying health condition?
A major concern is the lack of clarity about when people should be tested. We are hearing of many frontline NHS staff displaying symptoms but not being tested. What does that do for morale, if nothing else? The World Health Organisation has said that we should be continuing to test and contact-trace those suspected of having the virus. As a matter of importance, we should have a full explanation of exactly why we are currently diverging from WHO advice. It has been reported that labs are overwhelmed and tests are now taking several days to come back with results. Is the current ambiguity on testing policy a question of capacity rather than anything else? Will the Government be putting more resources into those labs, and if so, when will this materialise? It seems to us that continued testing is vital not only to stop the spread of the disease, but to understand when its peak has been reached. It may also be that efficient and accurate testing means fewer people having to self-isolate unnecessarily, which of course has an unnecessary economic knock-on effect.
A GP has been in touch with me today to say that they were in close proximity to a patient who is likely to have coronavirus and have been sent home to self-isolate, but they have not been tested. How on earth will they know, when they do return to work, that they are not a risk to others? Surely testing should be extended to such vital GPs.
My hon. Friend makes very well the point that I was making. It is evident that if that particular GP does not have the virus, it would be better for us all if they know that sooner rather than later, so they can get back in and treat patients. It is also worth restating at this point that people who have suspected symptoms should not be turning up at their GP practice because that is one of the ways, unfortunately, that we will spread the virus.
The case that has been outlined is very important, but we also need to remember that social careworkers, who will be visiting all the people in their care in their homes, are also placing their patients at high risk, but at the moment there are no plans I have heard about to test those social careworkers. I should say, by the way, that many of them are paid just over the minimum wage, and there is a real question here. We say that we value the NHS and that we value these community workers, but I am not sure a lot of them feel that way at the moment.
I will be dealing with the concerns about the social care sector in a little while, but the points my hon. Friend makes are absolutely valid and they certainly require a Government response.
We should think about protecting NHS staff not just in terms of the doctors, nurses and other frontline staff, but in terms of the cleaners, porters and all the other essential staff who are needed to keep a hospital running and who also play a vital part in infection control. We often hear about the importance of data, and it seems to me that this is a particularly clear example of where data have a huge role to play. If the data are not collected on a regular and consistent basis, surely we will not be in the best position to take the right action.
Yesterday, it was announced that UK medical schools have been urged to fast-track final year students to help fight coronavirus. Can we have an explanation of how this will work, and how will we ensure that graduates still face rigorous testing to make sure they provide the best quality care for patients? There is certainly a role for them to play, but trusts need clarity about its limits so that they can plan ahead. Are staff on maternity and paternity leave being encouraged to return to work early, and would they be able to do so without losing any untaken leave?
Does my hon. Friend agree with me—I asked Defence Ministers this question—that we should be calling up full-time reserve service members of the Royal Army Medical Corps and the medical corps of the other armed services, if they are not already NHS workers in their civilian lives? There are people with excellent training and excellent skills, and they and their facilities should be brought into use as soon as possible.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I think it shows the spirit of this place at the moment that we are all coming up with very important suggestions. No stone should be left unturned in using all the resources at our disposal to tackle this virus.
As we move to the later stages of the Government’s plan, do we expect to see the cancellation of elective surgery, which will only make those record waiting lists grow further? It is fair to say that that would not be a surprise, but a reduction in elective surgery will have a knock-on impact on trust finances in the longer term. I would be grateful for some clarity about what contingencies will be put in place to help trusts financially in these difficult times, especially when they are collectively in deficit to the tune of almost £1 billion already. Is there also a case to defer loan repayments that are currently made by trusts back to the Department for a period of time?
There was a great deal of surprise and disappointment at seeing no mention of public health in the Budget. Public health directors are currently preparing local responses to covid-19. They need to expend significant sums of money on that, yet they do not know what the public health allocation will be for the next financial year, which starts in just over two weeks. I am sure the Government understand what an invidious position that puts them in, and we urgently need those allocations to be published. Will the Minister say when that will happen? Will he assure the House that the funds will be sufficient to help local authorities deal with these issues?
Has any assessment been made of the extra demands placed on public health budgets regarding preparatory work? It is likely that the knock-on economic effect will severely impact on council finances. Fewer people will use services that they currently pay for, such as leisure facilities, and it is likely that council tax collection rates will drop. There will almost certainly be unanticipated expenditure from covering staff sickness, and that is before we get to social care.
Is my hon. Friend aware of whether the Government are continuing to pursue the idea of herd immunity—namely letting the virus transmit almost unchecked through the population, which would put overwhelming strain on beds, social services, and so on, or are they trying to minimise transmission by asking people to move and assemble less, and then get resources and testing in place? I am worried that they are still attached to the social services model, rather than to evidence-based experience from China, and elsewhere, regarding ways to control this virus.
That is a perfect question to put to the Secretary of State—he will be here shortly—and my hon. Friend raises an important point about the messages being put out. All sorts of stories are coming out in the press, not all of which are necessarily accurate, and it is important that we do our utmost to ensure a clear and consistent message across the board. I am not sure whether or not herd immunity is a Government policy, but I am sure the Secretary of State will take the opportunity, if he is so minded, to put that matter straight once and for all.
On confusing messages coming from Government, will my hon. Friend help me seek clarity on advice for people who self-isolate? Can they still go for walks outside? Can they go outside to walk family pets if they go on their own, or are they to be contained within their property? There seems to be a mixed message about what constitutes self-isolation.
Again, we need a definitive answer on that from the Secretary of State. I appreciate that things are evolving rapidly, and sometimes what was considered best practice a few weeks ago might have changed in light of the evidence. It is incumbent on us to hear the advice directly from the Secretary of State, and then we can send the same message to our constituents, so that there is no more confusion and ambiguity.
My hon. Friend was excellently covering council income, but one area I am concerned about, and have heard nothing about, is council rents. Many council tenants are at risk of losing work or being forced into self-isolation, and they might not get paid. I appreciate the Government’s work on statutory sick pay, but that will not be enough to pay council or housing association rents. Does my hon. Friend share my concern that many people could be at risk of arrears unless the Government support councils in addressing that issue?
My hon. Friend is right: a whole raft of issues will have an effect over the coming months, and although housing revenue accounts are separate to main council budgets, we still need to have that balance. Over the past decade, as a consequence of welfare reform, we have seen how councils and housing associations have adopted policies to deal with that loss of income from a number of changes to the welfare and benefits system, and we must keep that dialogue open over the next few months. We certainly could not expect full collection rates at this time, and we must work with people to understand the limitations of that. We will talk to the Government regarding any legislation that comes forward in due course.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way; he is being extremely generous. Does he share my concern that, beyond rent, many households are just a payday away from poverty, so people will be sent into debt that they may never get out of in their adult lives? Surely, the Government need to do far more to help households that are really on the edge.
That is a very fair point. We are only beginning to understand just how precarious a lot of people’s household incomes are in this economy. It is going to take concerted Government effort to support people, but it is also going to take everyone in the private sector who has a debt with an individual holding off enforcing that debt while this crisis comes through. Again, that is something we need to work on. I am afraid I will not be able to take any more interventions.
Social care has been mentioned a couple of times already. Unfortunately, once again, we have a Budget in which social care is not addressed. Local authorities have had £8 billion cut from their adult social care budgets over the past decade, leaving people struggling without any care at all. Our social care system is already at breaking point, and it is likely that the spread of coronavirus will test it even further. Without proper measures to protect people in care homes and those who receive care in their own home, there could be tragic consequences. It is crucial that social care receives the same attention from the Department as the NHS. We expect to see a plan to advise people in social care along the lines we have discussed.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) mentioned, those in the social care sector have raised particular concerns about the availability of personal protective equipment. That equipment, which is crucial to protect staff and patients, is just as necessary in social care settings as in the NHS. I have heard from local care companies about difficulties sourcing hand sanitiser, to name but one example. As equipment runs low, how will care staff, including those who are self-employed, have the equipment they need to continue to keep patients safe?
However, the biggest concern for the social care sector is whether it will have the staff it needs to deal with this crisis. As we know, there are already 122,000 vacancies across the sector, leaving staff feeling under immense pressure. We know they already feel pressure, due to staff shortages, to come into work when they feel unwell, but in this case it is vital that they stay at home if they feel unwell. How will the Government ensure that there are enough staff to care for patients when we have far more people in the care sector who are unwell and self-isolating?
A quarter of social care staff and almost half of all home carers are on zero-hours contracts. For some care staff, there is no guarantee that they will be entitled to sick pay, despite today’s announcement. That is particularly true of those who work for multiple agencies or work irregular hours. It is vital that those staff, as a key part of the workforce, feel fully supported if they become unwell. We need a guarantee that all social care staff will receive statutory sick pay. All workers need reassurance from the Government that they will receive sick pay if they are unable to work.
Over the past few days, a number of nursing homes and care homes have made the difficult decision to close their doors to visitors. They made that decision themselves, in the absence of clear guidance. Families are now unable to see their loved ones, and they will want reassurance from the Government that that is the safest call. Will there be guidance on that issue for the care sector?
Inevitably, social care providers will face difficult choices over the next few months. Many will face higher costs. Last year, more than half of social care providers handed contracts back to local authorities because of financial pressures. That causes immense pressure on councils and, of course, worries for the families of people receiving care. It seems inevitable that we will face that situation again soon. Will local authorities and care providers get the financial support they need if cost pressures become too much to deliver safe care? At this difficult time, we must ensure that care services continue to provide the vital support that people need.
What about those who provide care for a loved one outside the system? Inevitably, there will be people who are not able to provide care for a period. The state has no official role to play in that situation, but those people will still need help and support. How will that be addressed?
In conclusion, providing well-resourced and well-funded public services is vital to tackle the spread of this disease, but of course that is not the whole picture. Every member of society will have to play their part. We will all have to recognise that the impact could be felt for many years to come, but we should take heart from the fact that we have a truly national health service and the capacity to rise to whatever challenges we face, so we are better positioned than many to take on this challenge. That will only be true, however, if we can be confident that the services people will rely on in the coming months are robust enough to deal with the storms ahead.
A decade of underfunding has not left us in as strong a position as we would like, but it seems that in the hour of need that may change. We will support the Government in any attempt to boost funding across the board, but we will not be afraid to point out when we believe measures are not enough. Beyond funding, we want messages from the Government about the action they are taking to be clear, consistent and quick. We all have a responsibility in this place to get that message across. Her Majesty’s official Opposition stand ready to give that message as well.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this debate. Harold Wilson said that a week was a long time in politics. During Brexit we found out that a week was even longer, but the Budget, only last Wednesday, seems a lifetime ago. Even when listening to the Chancellor, I still harboured hopes of a long-planned personal visit to New York this weekend, but for all the reasons we see around us that is simply not able to happen. Three weeks ago, I was in Rome for the Scotland-Italy rugby match. At that point, the talk was of difficulties in the north. No one envisaged that instead of the crowds in St Peter’s Square or outside the Colosseum there would be nobody.
As a Member of Parliament, I am often asked about the most difficult issue and time I have had to deal with. For me, the answer is very straightforward: the 2001 foot and mouth crisis, which affected my constituency deeply. I want to be very clear that I am not making any comparison between that disease and coronavirus. The comparison relates to the impact of an event of that scale on businesses and their continued prosperity, and on the wider community. There was also, as a report from Strathclyde University and others identified, the impact of isolation. During that period, very stringent measures were taken and many farmers had to be isolated on their own properties and could not leave. The report, two years later, made very clear the long-term consequences of isolation. We need to take those findings on board and think about them. We need to learn the lessons of such events, with measures that might come into place. I am sure those issues will be debated when we have more focused debates on coronavirus.
The businesses most affected by those circumstances were the self-employed and contractors, so we need to give those groups the maximum possible support. The hospitality industry was also very badly affected. One lesson from that experience is that small businesses need grants not loans. I remember taking part in a demonstration—I know that that will surprise you, Mr Deputy Speaker—outside the offices of Scottish Enterprise Dumfries and Galloway with colleagues in small businesses to make just that point. Grants, not loans, were needed to see them through. Rates relief is to be welcomed and I welcome the package of measures the Scottish Government have announced, but it is capped and we need to look again at whether that is appropriate.
The other big players are the banks. From my perspective, the situation that we face will be easier to deal with because it affects the whole United Kingdom, so the banks that are based outwith the south of Scotland and that are being asked to support businesses understand what is happening on the ground. We need that unity of purpose from the banks. Hon. Members who have dealt with the banks know that they always say the right thing, but doing it is something else, especially when the computer says no. We need to make sure that they follow through on their commitments, and on the positive tone that the Chancellor set in the Budget.
We need a uniformity of approach from the Government at all levels—the UK Government, the Scottish Government and local government. The underlying philosophy of all those institutions must be that we want to keep our businesses going and that we are not jobsworths who want the returns in on the exact date. That is why I welcome what the Chancellor said about VAT holidays and flexibility with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. I am sure, however, that hon. Members on both sides of the House have experience of HMRC not being particularly flexible, so we need that to be followed through. That unity of purpose from government will be vital.
As has already been said in an intervention, the hospitality and tourism industry is the most vulnerable in a constituency such as mine. Often, as I found out during the foot and mouth crisis, businesses that have done well and are planning for the future are the worst hit. For example, the Gretna Green Famous Blacksmiths shop in my constituency, one of the most visited tourist attractions in Scotland, has won numerous awards for its attempts to attract Chinese visitors. A large number of Chinese visitors go to that location, but not any more—there are none. Its business model has already been seriously disrupted by these events. It is a bigger business, not a small business, but it needs help and support too, if that sector of the economy is to survive after these events.
Hotels in my constituency were already in difficulty; many, such as the Moffat House hotel, have closed. One local hotelier told me that they were facing a perfect storm of events, of which, at that stage, coronavirus was not one. I appeal directly to the Scottish Government on that issue, because the way that our business rates system in Scotland works for the hospitality industry, and particularly hotels, is still not right.
As I indicated, there are lots of lessons to learn. I hope that there is still the institutional knowledge in the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government to learn lessons from 2001, and that the Government can take some of those lessons on board, particularly in relation to isolation, as I said.
I welcome the Budget as a whole for Scotland, in particular the £640 million of additional funding for Scotland, which was £172 million more than the Scottish Government had anticipated. By any analysis, the Scottish Government got extra money. In my experience, they have not always welcomed, or even acknowledged, extra money—indeed, sometimes it was the wrong kind of money, even if they did acknowledge it. I hope that on this occasion, and in these circumstances, they will acknowledge the extra money.
As I said, I am pleased with what the Scottish Government have had to say about spending on business support in relation to coronavirus, but I would also like the money that is coming forward to be spent on infrastructure. Back in the ’90s, before the Scottish National party was in power, and when it held the constituency of Galloway and Upper Nithsdale, as it then was, the A75 and A76 were described as the most important forgotten roads in Scotland that needed to be substantially upgraded. Of course, since 2007 there has been an SNP, or SNP minority, Scottish Government, but that investment has not been forthcoming. I use this occasion to plead for the needs of the A75 and A76. I am sure that there is somebody in the SNP who remembers those previous commitments.
Obviously coronavirus is significantly affecting today’s debate, and rightly so, because it is the issue that most affects our constituents at the moment, but I want to highlight one other issue on which I wrote to the Chancellor ahead of the Budget, together with 15 Conservative colleagues, the Association of Convenience Stores and the British Retail Consortium: access to cash. It is a big issue; in a crisis, many people like to have some cash available, so that they have flexibility in how they approach difficult circumstances. There is a crisis in access to cash, and it affects large rural constituencies such as mine in particular, but also many other communities.
Some of the most deprived communities in our country bear the hardest impact. I had not realised until relatively recently that the average withdrawal from a cash machine is around £10 or £20. A fee of up to £3 to take £10 out of a cash machine is a very significant mark-up. A report has indicated that about 8 million people in our country are not ready to cope with a cashless society. A cashless society may come; indeed, when I travel from my constituency to central London, I feel that central London is, in many ways, a cashless society—in which there are, ironically, hundreds of cash machines. We need to do something about this issue. I welcome the Chancellor’s promise in his statement to legislate to secure the long-term future of cash, but it is very important that the steps that he takes are the right ones.
I am pleased to see the Minister nodding; I hope that he will nod when I say that those steps should include reversing the arbitrary cuts to the LINK interchange rates paid by banks to fund the network; exempting free-to-use ATMs from business rates; and recognising that ATMs are the only infrastructure through which we can guarantee national access to cash. Of course, cashback at convenience stores and other places has a role to play, but it is very important that we have a sustainably funded network of cash machines throughout the whole country, given the many branch closures we have seen in our constituencies—particularly Royal Bank of Scotland branch closures in Scotland.
I agree with the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). The consequences of these events—such as the foot and mouth crisis that afflicted much of the south of Scotland 20 years ago—go on for years. They do not just end when someone declares that the crisis is over. They go on for a long, long time for the businesses, individuals and communities that have been affected. We do not just pledge support to those individuals and communities today; we pledge it to see them all the way through the consequences. I think that that will mean revisiting some of what was announced in the Budget and some of what was announced by the Scottish Government, and if that is necessary, so be it.
I commend the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) for his comments, and thank him for the measured tone in which he delivered them. It has been noticeable over the last few days that things have been a bit more calm and sensible here even when we have disagreed politically; perhaps we could keep that going after the public health crisis has passed.
I noted that the right hon. Gentleman could not resist having a wee dig at the Scottish National party Government for not having done up his bit of trunk road yet. Obviously I cannot speak for the Scottish Government, whose spending decisions are made in the Scottish Parliament, but I have had a quick look at the Scottish Parliament’s website, and I have the contact details of the MSP for Dumfriesshire, which I can pass on to the right hon. Gentleman later. He is some chap by the name of Oliver Mundell. [Laughter.] I do not know whether he is still holding surgeries, but I can probably find his phone number for the right hon. Gentleman.
I am pleased to be able to speak on behalf of the SNP today. Our position is a bit different from those of many other parties, in that we will be keeping out of many of the detailed discussions about which health trusts and local authorities receive funding, because we have a devolved national Parliament to make those decisions on our behalf. As the previous three speakers made clear, although today’s debate is about the funding of public services, we cannot ignore the rapidly changing public health challenge that faces all four nations in the United Kingdom—and, now, the majority of nations in the world.
The statement that will be made later by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will be the right occasion for detailed questioning about the Government’s approach to those health challenges, but I want to consider some of the significant, and even potentially fundamental, changes that the economy will undergo as a result of them. The right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale—the former Secretary of State for Scotland—commented on the permanent change that the foot and mouth outbreak made to the economy of rural Scotland 20 years ago. This is much bigger, and its impact on the economy throughout these islands will be much bigger, and will probably be permanent.
My hon. Friends who spoke in last week’s debates will have specified which of the Government’s emergency actions we fully support—and there are a great many of them—as well as some instances in which we would like to see more being done, and a few in which we think that the action is simply going in the wrong direction. I hope that, at all times, the discussion of those matters can be kept as civilised and as temperate as it has been over the last few days. The situation has changed significantly since my colleagues made those comments on Wednesday and Thursday last week, and it has changed significantly since the Chancellor’s Budget speech. It is vital for the Government’s response to those changes to be not only sufficiently robust, but sufficiently flexible.
I am encouraged by the degree of co-operation on the part of the UK Government—through Cobra, for example—in agreeing on our combined and shared response to the public health issues, and I hope that we can see a similar degree of proper engagement when it comes to how to deal with the economic challenges. It must be said that, on those matters, the UK Government have not always engaged positively and constructively with the devolved nations in the past.
Let me give just one apparently small example of the way in which the coronavirus outbreak is already affecting my constituency. Like many other constituencies—perhaps most—we are blessed with a huge number of brilliant, independently owned cafés and restaurants. “Restaurants” sounds quite grand, but I am talking about places that can hold, at the most, 20 or 30 people who come in for a plate of soup and a bacon roll for their lunch. Their collective contribution to my communities and to all our communities, not just economically but socially, is impossible to measure. Several of them have changed hands recently or have been established for less than a year, while others have been on the go for decades. Obviously, I am not privy to any of their individual financial affairs, but I doubt that any of them would survive for two, three or four months without any customers—if that is how some people are interpreting Government advice, that is what those businesses would have to put up with. Clearly, it is not as bad as that, but it is an indication of the fact that those small businesses will need some severe Government intervention, and some of them will need it very soon indeed. I am happy to support them as much as I can.
There are various examples of that happening. The Hug and Pint, a fantastic little venue on Great Western Road in Glasgow North, has had to announce that it is going to close tomorrow. It has set up a crowdfunding campaign, as have various enterprises on the folk music scene in Scotland. Will my hon. Friend commend those initiatives to try to encourage business? People would have been going there in other circumstances for a pint anyway, so perhaps they can spare that money to help some of those small businesses through the most difficult period.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. That is sometimes an indication of how important many of these businesses are in their local communities. Neighbours do not just see them as a business and they will support them. The difficulty is that, if neighbours, customers and clients lose their jobs and suddenly find that they have to get by on a wholly inadequate social security system, they will not be able to afford to put £4 or £5 over the bar in the local community-owned pub, whether or not they get a couple of pints in return.
I support many of these businesses as best I can—some of them are very co-operative, allowing me to hold advice surgeries on their premises—but if I do what a lot of colleagues are doing and begin to cancel surgeries, and if I do not go to the local coffee shop and sit for an hour or so talking to people, no one else will do that. By making that decision—I understand why people want me to make it—I might well be hastening the time when many of these valuable businesses can no longer continue. If they close temporarily now, some of them will not reopen.
It is not just cafés, catering and hospitality businesses—the same goes for locally owned hairdressers, bakers, craft shops, one or two-person printers and many other businesses. Independent retail businesses may be small individually, but cumulatively, they represent the financial wellbeing of a vast number of people on these islands, many of whom stand to lose not just their job and livelihood but the very home in which they live. For many of these establishments—I am thinking especially of small bed-and-breakfast businesses and guesthouses—their business is their house. Many others have mortgaged their house to finance the business. They stand to lose everything apart from the clothes they stand up in if things go wrong, and they will need help quickly.
I welcome the emergency measures that the Chancellor announced last week, but I do not think that they go far enough. I fear that a great many small and valued businesses in my constituency, and in all our constituencies, will close and never reopen. At the other end of the scale, we have heard severe warnings from some of the biggest and most iconic transport operators in the UK and elsewhere. British Airways, for example, has warned that its survival is not guaranteed if it gets it wrong.
This morning, my journey to Edinburgh airport was the quietest that I can remember in five years as an MP; I do not come down on the train all the time. The car park where I usually struggle to find a space was deserted—you could have played five-a-side football without bumping into a car. The flight on which I often struggle to get a seat was 30% full. That is not sustainable. What I prefer to do when it is realistic is come down on the train. If I had done that, I would have seen another drop in business, although I do not know whether it is as big. Train operators are struggling as well.
Hotel bookings in London and many other places have crashed. Comparing prices on hotel websites with what they were three or four weeks ago, I see they are a half or a quarter the price, or even less. Those businesses cannot survive that, and there are tens of thousands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of jobs at stake. It is not about bailing out the billionaires who own those high-profile businesses. It is about protecting the rights of tens of thousands of workers whose livelihoods are on the line.
Despite the torrent of platitudes from the Government, and despite the welcome measures announced last week, many of those hundreds of thousands of people face being thrown on to the mercy of a social security system that was utterly unfit for purpose before this crisis, and will be even more unfit to deal with the challenges that it will face. While the changes that have been announced are welcome, we need a lot more, and we are going to need them an awful lot quicker.
Detailed spending plans for Government Departments are going to be published, but there are worrying indications that the Budget is stretching public finances to the absolute limit. Page 5 of the report from the Office for Budget Responsibility says that public sector debt is likely to increase by £125 billion in four years’ time. That is assuming 20% of the promised capital spend does not happen. We cannot rely on economic growth to make the debt less painful to repay in five or 10 years’ time than it would be now, because Brexit is going to slow our economic growth by at least 4%, even if we get a good deal. The OBR commented that
“Public finances are more vulnerable to adverse inflation and interest rate surprises than they were”.
It strikes me that the fundamental problem of the Blair-Brown Government was that, in effect, we had a Chancellor of the Exchequer who by instinct was a Keynesian but who tried to do Thatcherite economics, and it failed. Now we have a Government packed full of Thatcherites and they are having a wee shot at Keynesianism, and I do not think that will work either.
As my hon. Friends have highlighted, the OBR also warns us that its
“forecast assumes an orderly move to a new trading arrangement”,
first with the European Union and then with the rest of the world. Given that the minds of the UK Government and of all our current and potential trading partners are, quite understandably, fully occupied by covid-19 and will be until after the June 2020 deadline by which the Government say they need to have at least the basics of a trade agreement in place, surely the Government will now finally admit that enshrining the end of the transition period—December 2020—in law was an act of criminal recklessness. They might not have known what crisis was going to happen in the intervening period, but it did not take a genius to work out that something might go wrong.
Although the Government announcements on public spending have been welcomed in many quarters, and rightly so, if we look at the hard facts behind those announcements, we find that the long-term sustainability of our public services is, if anything, less secure after the Budget than it was before. That is not helped by an illogical and immoral approach to immigration, which will contribute to a 0.3% drop in GDP over four years. Ludicrously, that immigration, or rather anti-immigration, policy takes more money out of the public purse, because even the lower-paid migrant workers—the ones the current Secretary of State for Scotland was so shamefully contemptuous of last week, accusing them of coming here to work on low wages just to take advantage of our benefits and our services—pay three times as much in taxes as they take in benefits. So by deliberately stopping them coming here, by deliberately stopping them earning and paying their taxes, the UK Government are deliberately creating an additional black hole of £1 billion to £1.5 billion in our public finances.
Today, I heard the head of Scottish Care, who represents Scotland’s private sector care providers—and yes, I have issues relating to some of the private care providers in Scotland—say how moved he was by so many workers in the sector offering to move away from their families and become residents in care homes or hospitals for several weeks, just to make sure that the people they care for do not lose out if several members of staff have to phone in sick. They are the very workers whom the Government regard as burdens on our public services. As for the idea that hard-working, low-paid NHS workers should have to pay an extra flat-rate tax of £624 a head just for the privilege of continuing to work in our NHS, I cannot describe it in language that you would allow, Mr Deputy Speaker, because there is no parliamentary language robust enough to properly describe the sheer immorality of that proposal.
The Government will want to make a big noise about the new capital spending they announced—as I said, we will see when it actually happens—but we need to remember the very low baseline they are starting from. The National Education Union has pointed out that, in England, 3,731 schools need immediate repair and a further 9,972 will need significant work within two years at most, but the Treasury figures in the Red Book show that the Department for Education’s capital budget next year will be £100 million less than it is this year. How is that going to help? In contrast, the Scottish Government have replaced or substantially upgraded 928 schools since the Scottish National party came to power, and I am delighted that two thirds of all pupils attending secondary school in my constituency do so in schools that are less than seven years old. In Scotland, teacher numbers have increased for the fourth year in a row—[Interruption.] I hear muttering from the usual suspects on the Tory Benches. In Scotland, there are 7,485 teachers per 100,000 pupils; in England, the equivalent figure is 5,545.
I want to look at what the Government’s priorities appear to be. Working-age benefits are going up by 1.7%. If that was 1.7% on top of a similar increase every year for the past five or six years, it would not be too bad, but it is 1.7% on top of nothing for far too long. How can we defend a 1.7% increase in working-age benefits when MPs are getting 3%? I will not defend that to my constituents and I defy anyone in here to try to defend it to theirs. Perhaps one emergency step the Government need to take is temporarily to put Parliament back in charge of MPs’ pay rises and have this place unanimously agree that we are not taking a pay rise this year unless it is going to be at least matched by that for the lowest-paid workers in our society.
The new financial year starts in 16 days’ time. The Scottish Government, if they are lucky perhaps, have only just had confirmation of the full Barnett consequentials of this Budget—I am not convinced they have even got that yet. When we look at the potential impacts on the devolved finances of the covid-19 emergency, and we try to disentangle what additional funding is coming to the Scottish Government and what additional funding is not additional at all, as it has already been announced, it becomes quite difficult. I suggest to the Minister that this indicates that the current financial settlement—the fiscal settlement between the UK Government and the devolved Governments—needs to be completely revised, because it simply does not give the Scottish Government the flexibility they need to respond to this crisis in the same way as the UK Government need to be able to respond.
I saw a comment recently that pointed out that it is sad that it has taken a public emergency and a public crisis to force the Government to do some of the things they should have been doing previously. Even now, in responding to a public crisis, they have not acknowledged the tens of millions of private crises that have been going on in these islands in the past few years under this Administration. Far too many people are still living in poverty and that number will increase significantly as a result of the coronavirus crisis. It is essential that the Government look at their spending and taxation plans, initially to make sure that as many as possible of those whose domestic finances are severely disrupted by this crisis are back on their feet financially as soon as possible. The Government then have to acknowledge that we are starting from a position where far too many people on these islands are living in poverty or close to it, and that for that to happen in the fifth, sixth or seventh biggest economy in the world, depending who you believe, is utterly shameful. For any Government to be presiding over those levels of poverty 10 years after coming into office is something they cannot be proud about.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am glad to be called to speak in this Budget debate, and it is good to see the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar), in good health on the Front Bench. In the brief time available, I wish to highlight three things in the Budget that we will need to follow in the weeks ahead: the science of the coronavirus; science and technology policy generally; and retaining skills and jobs at this time.
It is essential that our policy and practice throughout this crisis should be based on the science. We are fortunate in this country that in Professor Whitty, as chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, as chief scientist, we have two people of learning, authority and integrity, with direct personal experience of the management of epidemics. It is crucial that their advice continues to be followed in the way that it has to date.
I wish to raise two particular issues. The first is that the foundation of our scientific excellence is constant and unimpeded challenge. The peer review system we have and the replicability of empirical research demand that. So it is important in the days and weeks ahead that we do not see it as disrespectful or distracting for the scientific community to question the basis of actions and advice. Such questioning is essential, it is how science moves forward and it is the foundation of the excellence we enjoy in this country, so we need to avoid, in this House and in external commentary, treating any difference of opinion or challenge as being in some way calamitous, as it is the way we get to the right answer. It would help if the Government would publish the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which has a particular duty to scrutinise and test the evidence. That will be important to know, but it would also be good to know when the Government intend to publish the evidence on which decisions have been taken. When will that be available? I know it is going to be published, so it would be helpful to know when.
The second challenge is that this is a dynamic situation, as all epidemics are. It is essential that advice and practice can and do adjust according to the real-time findings of research on the outbreak—according to what works and what does not. Such adjustments must not be derided as U-turns, in the conventional political way, but should be seen as the normal progress of scientific inquiry. Given the intense and absolutely understandable public interest, we need constant explanations of changes when they take place.
Several Members have mentioned the policy on testing. For the past few weeks, the House has been told about the expansion of testing capability: it is important to understand the reason for the change in emphasis in the policy, and I hope that the Minister or his colleagues might be able to provide that to the House. Along with the Health and Social Care Committee, my Select Committee will play a responsible role in backing 100% the scientific approach, while playing its part in ensuring that Parliament understands the reasons for the steps being taken.
Were it not for the entirely appropriate attention paid to the coronavirus over the past week, more attention would no doubt have been drawn to what is an extraordinarily positive Budget for science and research. Just over two years ago, when I was the Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, we published the White Paper on industrial strategy. One of the key commitments made was that the UK should build on its strengths as—in an uncertain world—one of the key powerhouses around the world in innovation and science, which is one of our principal assets. Despite that world leadership, we were at that time devoting less than 1.7% of national income to research and development.
We made a commitment in the industrial strategy to raise the proportion that we spent on R&D to 2.4%—the OECD average—by 2027, and beyond that to 3% thereafter. The publicly funded research budget was increased by nearly a third, from £9.5 billion to £12.5 billion in 2021-22—the biggest such increase in UK history. I remember the battles with the Treasury—before the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) was there—and the struggle to achieve that commitment, so it is a momentous achievement to have not only reiterated that commitment to 2.4% but to have increased the funding available, and not to the £12.5 billion that I was able to secure but massively to £22 billion by 2024-25, including a commitment to private investment through an increase in the R&D tax credit. There is much to be welcomed in that commitment. My Committee will scrutinise the prospective use of the funds, but they are warmly to be welcomed.
It is important to emphasise that our excellence is not just confined to science and technology; we are renowned internationally for our creativity in the arts and humanities, and social sciences are an important source of innovation and growth. I commend in particular the work that Sir Peter Bazalgette led on boosting the contribution of culture in our regional towns and cities through the creative clusters programme, which I strongly back.
Finally, I wish to say a few words about jobs and the continuity of employment. We have, during the current crisis, heard of the challenges of the hospitality industry. I draw attention to the Earl Grey tearoom in Southborough in my constituency, which has faced a problem that has been described by Members from all parties: the coronavirus is not included among the conditions in the Earl Grey’s business-continuity insurance. That issue must be addressed urgently by the Government, to provide reassurance to businesses right now. There is no time to be lost.
Skills that are crucial to the continued expansion and flourishing of the manufacturing industry could be lost if the disruption of supply chains means that, for example, components are not available. I hope the Government will look carefully at what is being done in other countries to finance, jointly with industry, part-time working so that skills can be retained in industries—including manufacturing and beyond—so that when the crisis passes, as I hope it will soon, businesses can continue to make progress, just as they have already, based on the excellent skills that have been acquired.
A dark cloud is descending on our world, threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of people across the globe. We have only to see what is happening in Italy to recognise just what could be coming to our own country. The health service, the police service and social care, already stretched by 10 years of austerity, are stretched even further. None the less, now is not the time to panic, nor is it the time to engage in politics as usual. There needs to be a unity of purpose across the House, particularly on two key objectives. The first is to protect our people, especially the elderly and vulnerable. The second is to minimise the impact on our economy, ensuring that, nationally and internationally, a global recession does not happen, and does not become a global depression.
Last week, the Chancellor said that manufacturing was going through a tough period. That may prove to be an understatement. We were facing a tough period before the advent of the virus. According to the Office for National Statistics, we started 2020 with a flatlining economy, and
“yet another decline in manufacturing, particularly the drinks, car and machinery industries.”
That is why Make UK, the old Engineering Employers’ Federation, rightly called on the Government yesterday to step in to limit coronavirus damage to prevent further drastic decline in manufacturing and large-scale job losses.
There were a series of positive messages in the Budget, which I welcomed—no doubt about it. Crucially, though, the Government need to do more during the next stages. It was welcome that the Budget included measures relating to the environmental transformation of the automotive industry, by which I mean the move to electric cars. For the next stage, it is important that we see further significant moves, of the kind that the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders has called for, on tax-free electric vehicles—£5,000 off VAT on vehicles alone—which would greatly boost the production and sale of electric vehicles. It was my own experience that led me to that view. During the global crash in 2008, when I was deputy general secretary of the old Transport and General Workers’ Union—we later became Unite—Tony Woodley and I were involved in negotiations with the then Labour Government on emergency measures, one of which was the scrappage scheme. As a consequence of that scheme, 400,000 cars were built. That avoided what could have been a catastrophe in the automotive industry. In the first six months of the scheme, notwithstanding what was happening in the global and domestic economy, we saw a 31% increase in the registration of new cars. Had it not been for that scrappage scheme, we would have seen the closure of those car plants.
With my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), I was also involved in the negotiation of the Kickstart programme, which saw 115,000 homes built, some 110,000 jobs safeguarded and the saving of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses that would otherwise have gone to the wall. Those big measures were critical at the time. This Government need to think big going forward. Crucially, they need to bring together the voice of the world of work. The employers and the trade unions need to discuss the key next stage objectives especially, as the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) said in his excellent speech, in relation to short-term working. That has been called for by the SMMT, the aerospace, defence, security and space industries, Unite, the TUC, and the GMB.
I am talking about employers’ organisations and unions coming together to argue that such arrangements have the ability to protect the industrial capacity of British manufacturers. In particular, they pray in aid the German model, which was first used in 2008, significantly expanded and then followed by other countries such as Japan, Belgium, France, and Austria. That scheme created a fund to pay workers up to 60% of their foregone net wages if factory production were temporarily cut. The scheme allowed employers to cut production temporarily without cutting jobs, thereby maintaining vital capacity. It was credited by the OECD for saving 500,000 jobs in German industry. Back then, unemployment held at 7.5% in Germany—a rise of just 0.2%. The country therefore managed to preserve the capacity to undertake the rebuilding of the economy. Jobs were saved, pay continued, and experience and skills were retained.
That model is being used successfully in response to covid-19 in Denmark, where the Government have brought together unions and employers’ associations, and agreed a deal for affected industries whereby the state pays 75% of workers’ wages and employers pay 25%. Workers also give up five days of paid holiday, and in exchange there are no lay-offs. In the words of the Prime Minister of Denmark:
“If there’s a big drop in activity, and production is halted, we understand the need to send home employees. But we ask you: Don’t fire them”.
Only this afternoon, a major employer in my constituency that has invested massively in increasing its capacity—I cannot name the company—has said that it desperately needs short-term measures to preserve that capacity, if it is to be able to rebuild after the immediate challenges posed to the economy.
Although there are welcome measures in the Budget, the Government need to be more ambitious at the next stages and to work with the world of work. There is no question but that the threat posed is enormous and real, not only to life and limb, but to our economy and ability to recover. What we do now will determine whether we have recession or depression. The role of the Government, working with the world of work, is key to that process. I urge the Government to rise to that challenge.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to deliver my maiden speech during this debate; it is good to see you in the Chair as I do so. There have been a number of eloquent and thoughtful contributions today, and I hope that I do not change that too much.
On 12 December I made history in Burnley by being the first Conservative to be elected since 1910—109 years since the last. I thank the people of Burnley, Padiham, Hapton, Worsthorne and Cliviger for putting their trust in me and sending me down to this place. It is a huge honour.
I also pay tribute to my predecessor, Julie Cooper. Julie was a committed local politician, having served as leader of the council before taking up her seat here. She was committed to something else that I hope to carry on: ending hospital car parking charges. She campaigned vigorously on that issue, and I look forward to working with the Government to make that aim a reality, as we committed to doing in our manifesto and as the Minister mentioned earlier.
My constituency of Burnley has existed in various forms since 1868. It encompasses not only the urban centre of Burnley, which is the beating heart of the constituency—famous for a premier league football club and Burnley Miners social club, where, the House will be delighted to know, more Benedictine is consumed than anywhere else in Britain—but also the town Padiham, which has its own distinct feel and community spirit. That spirit has never been more important than in 2015, when the town suffered from severe flooding. Then there are the rolling green fields of the villages of Hapton, Worsthorne and Cliviger, where we have a thriving rural economy.
I have heard many colleagues speak of how their constituency is the best in the country, but I am confident that once they have all visited this gem of east Lancashire, they will agree that it is Burnley that takes that glorious title. Burnley is not a place of what once was, but a place of what will be. It has some of the most entrepreneurial people in the country, with more than 425 businesses starting up just last year, a college with a centre of engineering excellence and an Oscar-winning sound company. Above all else, it has a community that works hard every day—not just for themselves, but for each other.
When it came to writing my maiden speech, I asked the House of Commons Library if it could provide me with copies of those given by my predecessor, which it duly did. The only problem was that they only went back to 1918, which is eight years after the last Conservative was elected in Burnley. But I was not deterred. I went on and did my own research.
Gerald Arbuthnot was elected to this place in January 1910, the second Conservative for the seat. Although I could not find his maiden speech, I did find many of his other contributions. The topics of those contributions may sound familiar to those of us here today—improvements to the railways, furthering trade with other countries and reducing crime. So while the world may have moved on significantly over the past 100 years, the issues remain the same. Gerald Arbuthnot did not serve for very long as an MP, losing his seat at the second general election of 1910, in December of that year. It is a fate I am hoping to avoid—I say that as I look to our Front Bench. On leaving this place, Gerald Arbuthnot sadly lost his life in the battle of the Somme, but I was pleased to see that the Parliamentary war memorial was recently updated to include his name, which had been missing for too long.
Having looked back, I now want to look forward, at what I hope to achieve for the people of Burnley while I sit here representing them. I have already spoken about the entrepreneurial spirit we have in Burnley—the businesses that currently power our town, from Safran to Burnley football club, along with the new ones that are sprouting up all the time. In coming here, I want to do my bit to make their lives easier, encouraging even more to set up, drawing on the engineering prowess of the town, the digital skills that we are growing by the day and the fortitude of those who live there. The UK is consistently ranked as one of the best places in the world to start a business. My job is to ensure that Burnley is the best place in the UK to do so.
I also want to work with those who are already in Burnley, supporting them as they capitalise on the free trade agreements that this Government are negotiating, not just with our European allies, which is vitally important, but around the world. I am a member of the Select Committee on the Future Relationship with the European Union, and the Government should know that I plan on scrutinising their efforts to do exactly that—making sure that, in delivering a free trade agreement with the EU, we also deliver on our promises to the British public.
I am incredibly proud that this Budget, delivered by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor last Wednesday, shows that we are still the party of enterprise. It provides the support that businesses in Burnley need to invest in new technology, to undertake the research and development that will keep us cutting edge, and to employ the people who will power innovations of the future. That is because we on these Benches know that the way to improve life chances and reduce inequality is to get business booming. But that also relies on equipping our young people with the skills they need for the future. As I said on the campaign trail, one of my aims as the Member of Parliament for Burnley will be to ensure that when our young people leave school or college, they have the digital skills they need for the 21st century, not the 20th century. My right hon. Friend the Education Secretary can therefore look forward to me being a constant voice on this topic.
As I wrote in my weekly column in the local newspaper last week, sitting here as the Budget was announced, I felt incredibly proud to be the Member of Parliament for Burnley. It deals first and foremost with the significant challenge that we as a country and the world face as a result of covid-19. It is right that at this time we all commit to providing the NHS with whatever resources it needs to tackle the disease and protect life. The cross-party consensus on that shows that, when it is needed, this place can come together and do what is necessary. I hope that we will continue in the weeks and months ahead.
But the Budget also delivers for our other public services. The extra funding for our schools, increasing per pupil amounts, will make a real difference to the lives of children across Burnley, ensuring that people’s life chances are not shaped by circumstance, but by ability. The extra police funding will result not only in more officers on our streets, but in better equipment for those whose job is to protect us. Then there is the extra investment in our infrastructure, because it is that infrastructure that gets us to work or university, transports our goods across the country and gives us access to the digital world.
Mr Deputy Speaker, it has been a pleasure to speak in this debate, and in particular to give my maiden speech.
What a great pleasure it is to follow the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Burnley (Antony Higginbotham). I congratulate him on that. He touched on the historical context of his predecessors and the tragedy of one of his predecessors losing his life at the Somme, but he also gave us a sense of Burnley—not only the urban area, but the area that stretches out on to the hills and up on to Cliviger. That is not far, Mr Deputy Speaker, from your constituency, and it is a beautiful part of the Lancashire hills. I congratulate him on his maiden speech and welcome him to this place.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) talked about his time prior to his service in this House as deputy general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union and then Unite. What he did not mention was that at that point, he was my boss, and I always try to follow what he suggests. He was urging us at this time of national and international crisis not to be too political in this House, so I will do as my former boss suggests and try to take some of the criticism out of the Budget.
In a sense, this was two Budgets. There was the Budget that would have been given in normal circumstances, but then there are the emergency resolutions and the emergency provisions that were brought in to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Opposition Members welcome those provisions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) indicated earlier, and we will work with the Government on that. One concern that we have within this context is that after 10 years of cuts to public services that are already pared to the bone and running basically on the good will of public sector workers, public services will be under particular strain.
I want to mention a couple of areas in the short time available to me. The first is social care, and I was concerned that there was no provision in the Budget for additional social care money. Furthermore, there were no answers to the social care crisis that we are facing and have been facing for a good while. As the cost of social care rises, the chronic lack of central Government funding is pushing families to breaking point.
Unpaid carers are on the frontline of the social care crisis, taking care of family or friends who would not cope without their daily and sometimes hourly support. By cutting the amount of cash provided to councils, the Government are gambling on the good will of carers, friends and families to plug the numerous holes in our deficient and sometimes ineffective social care system. The situation is unsustainable, causing stress and in some cases mental health problems for carers due to the physical and emotional exhaustion of their caring role. Social care is getting more expensive. Children’s needs are complex, with some costing £4,000 a week. Families cannot face those costs, nor can local authorities.
My second subject is particularly relevant to Chester and is the status of heritage cities. Chester prides itself on its rich Roman history. Walking along the Roman walls—when they have not collapsed—or through the historical city centre is an experience that attracts around 8 million visitors annually to my city and my constituency. When Cestrians come together to celebrate and protect our heritage, great things happen. The recent reopening of Chester castle after seven years of closure is a huge step forward. I am delighted that visitors will be able to visit the top of the Agricola tower and see the city skyline this summer, current crisis permitting. Assets such as the Roman walls, Dee house and the Old Dee bridge form a part of English history and must be preserved for future generations, yet the Government have taken the rug from underneath local authorities, causing great difficulty, particularly for heritage cities such as Chester and York.
Chester does not receive any special funding to maintain crucial heritage assets. For example, the only support the council gets to maintain the Roman walls is taken from the local transport budget or its own asset recovery. A limited amount is provided by Historic England, but not a penny is allocated directly from Government. That means that Cheshire West and Chester Council, our local authority, is being forced to choose between protecting our ancient city and providing basic services for the people who live within the walls.
Communities should have the opportunity to celebrate their culture and history, but funding has been so deeply eroded that historic sites will not be able to be maintained. We cannot run a modern society on the cheap. The cuts have consequences, and if I have a major broad-brush criticism of the Government, it is that money is taken away from local authorities, which then have to put up council tax to pay for the deficits. When those local authorities put up council tax, they are blamed for it and have to take the political hit for something that is not their fault. Ministers talk about an increase in spending power for local authorities, but that increase is almost entirely as a result of council tax going up, and the political criticism is then given to local authorities.
It is not just Labour councils that are suffering; Conservative Members know that the cuts are making the lives of their constituents worse too. With less cash, fewer services and limited support, every single council in the UK is struggling. I urge Ministers to address the question of social care, which is dragging councils down by millions, so that at least some equity in funding can be returned to the local authorities that deliver so many vital local services.
Thank you for letting me speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. A maiden speech and no interruptions—oh, I do wish I could have one at home! I would like to start by telling you a story. It starts a little sombre, but stay with me, because it does brighten up. If you’re sitting comfortably, I will begin.
I am going to tell you the story of a 10-year-old called Tommy. Tommy goes to school every day, like most other kids. He sits in his class with some other 10-year-olds. He doesn’t like it too much, but it’s okay. Tommy’s handwriting is pretty good—it is better than mine—so a teacher somewhere in the last six years has done a good job. However, Tommy is in a special class now—not special good, but special because Tommy gets bored and messes about. He messes about more than most. Tommy knows he is in a special class, and although never directly told by the adults in his life, he pretty much knows he will get nowhere.
When asked, Tommy says he does not do much outside of school, so you press a little further and ask again, only to find out that Tommy smokes weed—not good for a 10-year-old, is it? He doesn’t really want to, but it impresses some of the young men who stand outside his school gate and around the shops waiting for kids like Tommy to come along.
So what does Tommy’s life look like at home? Well, let’s just say it is dysfunctional—no good role models here. The man who gave Tommy some cannabis is 22 and drives a car. Tommy thinks he is pretty cool. Tommy spends more time with this man than he does with anybody else. This is Tommy’s role model. After a year or two, Tommy starts running errands and carrying a bit of drugs. He likes to impress his role model. We all like to impress, don’t we?
Fast-forward a few years and Tommy is now 16, doing quite a bit of dealing—he is quite the young man on the street. People know Tommy, and he likes the attention. He starts carrying a knife. His mum tells him off because she’s seen it. He tells his mum to go away, but he doesn’t say, “Go away”—he uses the words that the adults in his life use. The police are watching Tommy. Everybody is watching Tommy. Tommy has a girlfriend. His girlfriend—a sweet little 16-year-old—starts taking a bit of drugs because Tommy does. She likes to impress. We all like to impress, don’t we?
I do not need to continue for you to know how this story ends—not much of a story, is it? It is not a good story, but guess what? This is what happens when we have the wrong role models and we try to impress the wrong people.
There is another story. There is another Tommy who is 10 and in a special class, and whose writing is better than mine, but when asked what he does after school, he tells you he plays football and he’s good at it. He is no longer a special kid for the wrong reason; he is special for the right ones. His teacher tells him that he is going to do great things. He has a great role model at football, who tells Tommy to go to the gym when he is not playing football, where there is another great role model. Tommy’s school organises a visit to the airport, to see a bomber called the Vulcan. Tommy enjoyed the trip to airport and wants to learn to take a plane apart and put it back together again. Now we have Boeing in Doncaster, and Tommy gets an apprenticeship. Tommy’s life is looking great. Isn’t that a better story?
It’s not just about Tommy. It’s about Rachel, Mia and Muhammad who work at Yorkshire Wildlife Park, Polypipe or the new hospital. It’s about having great role models. It’s about everyone raising their game. It’s about teaching kids that there is a right way and a wrong way, and that having dreams and goals are necessities in life, not luxuries.
It is about following what you believe in, like one of our many notable folk in Don Valley, William Bradford from Austerfield, who sailed on the Mayflower to follow his dream on a pilgrimage to the new world we now call America, some 400 years ago. It is about giving a town pride in itself. Can you imagine how the people of Don Valley felt when a castle was being built at Conisbrough in the 11th century? That was the last time we had some serious investment in Don Valley. It is around the same time that we last had a Conservative MP. Oh no—bear with me; we have never had a Conservative MP.
Can you imagine how the people of Doncaster will feel if and when a new hospital is built, when flood defences are put in place so their homes are not flooded every 10 years, and when a new rail link is built to Doncaster Sheffield airport, which will attract huge business and create thousands of jobs and homes? We need these big projects to raise the aspiration of our young, to raise the hopes of our families, and to let people know we care and that they are not the forgotten communities any more. But most of all we need to hold ourselves accountable, to take responsibility for our actions and become great role models—and that must start with me here. That costs nothing; well, I am from Yorkshire.
My predecessor and I differed on policy, but we did have one thing in common: she, too, cared for Don Valley. I know this as I heard many a kind word on the doorstep about Caroline Flint when I was campaigning, and that continued on my arrival here. “What seat are you?” you all asked. “Don Valley,” I replied. “Oh, that was Caroline’s. We liked her.” I said, “I know.” Caroline gave 22 years of her life to this place and the people of Don Valley, and on behalf of Don Valley I say thank you.
I know Caroline cared, and that is what I am going to do here: care by giving Tommy hope—hope of a better life—and this Budget will help do just that. With the doubling of flood defence spending, letting families keep more of their money, investing in infrastructure and new hospitals, and giving £8 million for football clubs, Tommy stands a chance. We are heading into some unknowns, and I appreciate that. However, as a businessman, I have read and listened to many gurus, but my favourite is the late Jim Rohn, who stated that in life, “it’s not the direction of the wind, it’s the set of the sail that counts”. So let us set our sail right, and let us get behind this Government and be positive about everything we say and do, and this includes dealing with the issue of the moment. By being the voice of reason, keeping calm, keeping to the facts and staying on course, we will come through this together.
Finally, I said in my acceptance speech that winning was nothing short of a miracle. I believe in miracles, and I believe in God. I know not everyone does and I know many see Christianity as a stumbling block to their way of life, but please remember it is my way of life. It is the reason I believe I am here—not to judge or condemn, but to listen, to help, to be kind, to forgive and forget. I therefore have two asks. First, will all the people here and back in my constituency forgive me when I get it wrong—and I will? But, secondly, and much more importantly, however long we are here, let us keep room for God in this place. If we do keep space for him in the hearts and minds of the people who believe, I know this country will continue to be the greatest place and continue to be a place that you and I are proud to call home. After all, I believe Christ is the greatest role model anyone can have.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher). He delivered an excellent maiden speech, and I look forward to listening to many more speeches by him.
This Budget has been dominated by the coronavirus crisis we are currently facing, and rightly so. Coronavirus represents an unprecedented challenge for the UK, and now more than ever, we need to strengthen the safety net available to the most vulnerable in our society. As a coronavirus pandemic unfolds, more and more people will be in need of this social safety net than ever before, especially those who are not eligible for sick pay or who have unstable jobs. For many of these people, the initial five-week wait for their first universal credit payment could cause real hardship. Indeed, it is well documented that that wait is already pushing vulnerable people to food banks, trapping many in years of debt, and making outstanding issues with housing, ill-health, disability and domestic abuse significantly worse.
Like many colleagues, I welcome the Government’s £500 million hardship fund to help local authorities deal with the coronavirus outbreak, but I remain concerned that thanks to a decade of austerity and cuts, local authorities lack the capacity or resources effectively to distribute that funding. The coronavirus outbreak exposes a deeper crisis faced by the UK—the crisis in our public services, which the Budget sadly failed to address. Over the past 10 years, consecutive Conservative Budgets have created and curated a social emergency. As a result, our social security system is punitive, complex and as mean as it has ever been.
In numerical terms, the emergency we face is truly shocking: today, 4.5 million children are growing up in poverty; this morning 281,000 people woke up without a roof over their head; and one in every 50 households is forced to use foodbanks in order to eat. Last week’s Budget was lauded as the most generous in decades, but in reality it does nothing to relieve the hardships inflicted on my community by 10 years of austerity, universal credit, the bedroom tax and the benefits freeze.
The Chancellor has let down my constituents by taking no significant action to tackle the inbuilt injustices that plague universal credit. Last week’s Budget said nothing about abolishing the two-child limit, the five-week delay to universal credit payments, or the benefit cap, even though each of these actions would have an immediate positive effect on my constituents, including the 52% of children living in poverty in Manchester, Gorton. Why will the Government not commit to any of those measures?
On a more positive note, the Budget took some important steps on the road to tackling the housing crisis we face in the UK, including in Manchester, Gorton. I welcome the Government’s announcement of more money to support rough sleepers, their commitment to the affordable homes programme, and the lowering of borrowing rates for councils to build social homes. But this by no means goes far enough.
Local housing allowance rates are a scandal. Some 1.4 million households in the UK claim LHA to help meet some or all of their housing costs, but the impact of cuts and a four-year freeze means that in 97% of England that help does not cover even the cheapest third of rents. In Manchester, the average monthly rent has increased by 38% in the past five years alone. The skyrocketing cost of private rents, and the freeze on LHA, has made it near impossible for many people in my constituency to find an affordable home. On top of that, my constituency has seen a significant increase in the number of LHA claimants who are refused rented accommodation by private landlords or letting agents. That is blatantly discriminatory, and I hope the Government act to stop that practice before more vulnerable people are pushed into homelessness.
I was pleased back in January when the Government announced that LHA was to be unfrozen, but that will not even come close to covering the vast shortfalls that people face when paying their rent. The Budget was a missed opportunity to raise LHA rates in line with the private rental market, and prevent more people from falling into homelessness. Although I welcome the £12.2 billion funding allocated to the affordable homes programme, I am concerned about the Chancellor’s definition of “affordable”. My definition of affordable housing, and that of my constituents, seems to be at odds with the Government’s. As they say, the devil will be in the detail. I look forward to gaining clarity about how much of that fund will be spent on delivering genuinely affordable social housing.
My constituency and communities up and down the country have experienced 10 years of immense suffering thanks to rampant austerity. With our economy now unstable and more vulnerable than ever, it has never been more important to invest in people and in the social safety net that protects them.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is with great pride that I stand in this place and speak about the town of my birth, and now the town of my constituency, Great Grimsby. I am equally proud that I am the first woman from my party to represent the seat. Indeed, I am the first Conservative MP to serve the constituency since Sir Walter Womersley in 1945.
I would like to acknowledge the work of my immediate predecessor, Melanie Onn. Melanie served as MP for four years. Even in that short time, she progressed to shadow Front-Bench positions, first as shadow Deputy Leader of the House and then as shadow Housing Minister. Melanie was hard working and diligent in her service of Great Grimsby.
I must also mention the Labour politician who served Grimsby for longer than anybody else: Austin Mitchell. Austin was a Member of Parliament for 38 years and is a politician whom I admire greatly. He once said that if you pinned a red rosette on a donkey, the people of Great Grimsby would vote for it. Well, I did not wear a red rosette and nor am I a donkey, which proves that Austin Mitchell was not always right. Austin was a constant campaigner against the common fisheries policy and the damage it inflicted on the fishermen of Grimsby. It is that part of his work that I will be particularly proud to continue now that we have left the EU.
I would also like to say a sincere thank you to my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who encouraged me to stand as a councillor and then as parliamentary candidate. He continues to be a valued adviser and a huge support.
Great Grimsby has a long and proud trading history. The town was well known as a trading port in the 800s and was particularly renowned even then for the quality of its fish and its fishing fleet. By the 1100s, the town had become one of the richest trading ports in the country. In 1201, the burgesses of the town bought it from King John, and it gained its first town charter in the same year. I am very proud to say that Great Grimsby was able to send two of its burgesses to start up the model Parliament in 1295. In recognition of that, our coat of arms and the name Great Grimsby are part of one of the stained glass windows in St Stephen’s Hall.
The enrolled freemen of Grimsby, who were created at the signing of the first town charter, ran the town until 1831 and are still an important part of its functions today. They are the beating heart of Freeman Street and continue to work with the council and MPs to ensure the town’s positive future. It is important to recall how the freemen encouraged economic success in the 1300s. They reduced or abolished taxes for local businesses. There was, for example, “No Keyage on loading or unloading ship,” “No Stallage on erecting a stall in the market,” and “No Anchorage on dropping anchor”. I encourage the Chancellor to emulate our forebears and bring a free port to Grimsby.
For centuries, trawlermen from our town set off into the North sea to catch the fish to feed the nation, including through two world wars. Those trawlermen then had to suffer the cod wars with Iceland, together with crippling oil price rises in the 1970s. As a nation we joined the Common Market and then the EU, which gave rise to the common fisheries policy. EU trawlers had access to our waters, and our own fishermen became subject to smaller and smaller quotas. All of that resulted in the decimation of the fishing industry in towns such as Grimsby. But now we have left the EU. My constituents will be watching the Government, and me, very closely over the coming year to make sure we negotiate a deal that means we are able to build a UK fishing industry fit for the 21st century.
Great Grimsby is not merely a town that looks back to its history. Our key Lincolnshire location on the bank of the Humber estuary and facing the North sea means we are home to the largest centre for seafood processing and cold storage, and we have become the UK’s largest centre for the maintenance and operations of our new offshore windfarms. Many of my constituents work at the Port of Immingham and Grimsby, the UK’s largest port by tonnage. We hope to be at the forefront of the new emerging technology in carbon capture and storage. I was particularly delighted to hear the Chancellor’s announcement of a £800 million infrastructure fund for carbon capture and storage clusters. Where better to place a cluster that will capture and store 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide than off the coast of Grimsby?
As my hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches know, small businesses are central to the life of our towns and our country. If we are to encourage the regeneration of our town centres, our local businesses are key. I therefore welcome the announcement to help small businesses cope with the potential extra costs of coronavirus by refunding statutory sick pay. The retail, leisure and hospitality businesses in my constituency will also welcome the extension of the 100% business rate relief in 2020-21. I am particularly pleased that the Chancellor has decided to freeze fuel duty for another year. My constituents, especially those who run logistics companies, will greatly appreciate that step.
To be elected to represent my hometown is the greatest honour of my professional life. It is an honour that has come to me because of how the people felt treated by politicians in the past. We know that they have lent us their vote and I am well aware that they voted for change. I will work tirelessly to see that that change happens.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici). She conveyed her passion and commitment to her constituents and her constituency. We on the Labour Benches remember her predecessor, Melanie Onn, with great affection and we are grateful to the hon. Member for mentioning her. On behalf of the whole House, I wish her all the very best in her endeavours in this House. She has made a powerful maiden speech on this important occasion.
This is a Budget debate, yet, as the Chancellor and many other Members have acknowledged, the only issue at the front of people’s minds at the moment is coronavirus. I know that families are concerned about their children and schools, I know that small businesses are worried about their survival, and I know that carers are very concerned about the elderly. We now have 20 confirmed cases of coronavirus in South Yorkshire. I take this opportunity to reassure my constituents in South Yorkshire that the best preparations are being made to keep them safe. For that reason I will not be able to attend the winding-up speeches later, Madam Deputy Speaker, for which I apologise. I need to be in regular contact with our public health directors and the local resilience forum to ensure that our public services have the support they need.
Last week, we convened a taskforce of the Sheffield city—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Last week, we convened a taskforce of the Sheffield city region’s local authorities and chambers of commerce to ensure we can respond quickly to support our economy, in particular our small businesses, through this challenging time. The Chancellor took welcome steps to support people and businesses financially, but I want, in the short time available to me today, to talk about something that we cannot put a price tag on, but which matters just as much as the measures being put in place to deal with this emergency.
Last week, we were promised millions for trains, roads and potholes, our transport infrastructure, yet in the face of a pandemic we are quickly realising we rely on something far more important: our social infrastructure. Our key workers and our carers on the frontline fighting the virus are the fabric that knit our social infrastructure, our society, together, helping to keep us safe and healthy. Underpaid, overworked and often little-thanked, they are helping our most vulnerable through this most challenging of times. They are the social fabric that makes Britain strong. They are the reason I am confident that we will pull together and get through this emergency. Our nurses and doctors have endured relentless workloads year after year. Now, they are on the frontline again, putting their lives in danger in our time of need. We rely on them more than ever before.
In these uncertain times, in addition to the demands that the Government spend where it is needed, I want us all to offer something which is free, which unites us all, and, critically, will support medical experts and frontline workers who are battling day and night to stem the flow of the virus. It is our national civic duty to keep our social infrastructure strong. That means looking out for each other. I urge everyone to look out for, and closely follow, the expert advice. I commend the chief medical officer, the chief scientific officer, public health directors and local resilience forums that have provided calm and clear guidance. We must look out for each other and show a common decency in all we do, checking on our neighbours, the elderly and the vulnerable who may not have family and friends to rely on. I saw this first hand in South Yorkshire during the flooding in November, when the worst weather brought out the best in people. Their selfless acts of generosity and kindness helped families to get back on their feet. We will need a similar effort this time around to keep us all safe.
We must also look after our doctors, nurses and carers by taking responsibility. Panic buying and stockpiling is not who we are as a country. It is not necessary. It makes it harder to protect the most vulnerable and, in turn, puts our people at greater risk of becoming ill. It adds unnecessary strain to our NHS and its wonderful staff. It may feel like Britain has been fraying at the edges over the past few days. Images of empty shelves have not helped matters. People are understandably tense and worried. As a country, we have been divided for too long, but through this crisis I am confident that we will rediscover our common decency and kindness.
Now is the time for leadership and expertise. Now is the time to look out for each other. Now is the time to pull together. I believe we are ready to do just that and to keep our social fabric stronger than ever. Coronavirus will be a tough challenge, but by following our British values of common decency, respect and kindness, we have the best remedy to keep our families and our country healthy and out of harm’s way.