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Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

Volume 674: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2020

Debate resumed.

It is a poignant moment as I call the shadow Chancellor to make what might be his final speech from the Dispatch Box.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

On Monday, the Prime Minister ordered the 21-day lockdown and asked non-essential retail and leisure facilities to close. We all supported that measure. Indeed, we called for and welcomed it. Today we need clarity and security for all. The spike in deaths that had been predicted hit us yesterday, with 87 of our fellow citizens killed by coronavirus in a single day. The number of people who have lost their lives has reached 435, and we all send our condolences and deepest sympathy to their families and friends. Sadly, we know that there is every likelihood that worse is to come. People understand the health risks. They fear for their loved ones and neighbours.

In many ways, the human response has been tremendous. I pay tribute to the British people for their response. We have heard about many of the community-based mutual aid groups that have sprung up, as well as the 170,000 people who have signed up as volunteers to offer support for those who need it. National health service staff have been mentioned today. We just cannot thank them enough, heroes and heroines. There are also the 11,000 recently retired NHS staff, who, despite all the risks, have returned to the profession.

People and businesses were initially reassured by the Chancellor’s financial package, but we have to be honest with ourselves: in recent days, gaps have emerged. People are worried and alarm bells are ringing across our constituencies. We in this House are trying to behave responsibly—we are socially distancing ourselves. [Interruption.] Some want to distance themselves even further. But politically we have come together, and we are working across party lines to get this right. In that spirit, we have all been appealing to the Government to act urgently to plug the gaps that have come to light. Let us be honest: this is not a blame game, but genuine, constructive engagement from Members of all parties.

Our constituents are raising issues with us—with all of us—as Members have mentioned. The self-employed in our constituencies, workers on insecure contracts, health and social care workers and so many others—we have been inundated, have we not, with emails, telephone calls and even personal representations—all have one thing in common: they are worried about their security, their income, their job and in some instances their home, but especially about the wellbeing of their families, their children and their elderly relatives.

It is the job of Government, the job of politicians and the job of all of us to provide such reassurance, especially at the most worrying times. I have to say that while people by and large are behaving responsibly, some employers are not. We have heard about them today from my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens)—he urges us to name and shame them—my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson), the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle). All of them named such businesses.

I have been contacted by one of the hon. Members who could not be here today, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Ian Byrne). He gives the example of Matalan in his Liverpool constituency, where shops have been closed but online shopping goes on. The employer has got 200 workers in a shift—packed together and working closely—handing items of clothing straight to each other with no gloves, masks or cleaning products. It is now reported that contract workers have been told they face the sack if they self-isolate. That sort of behaviour is unacceptable. Yes, there are the Tim Martins and the Mike Ashleys, but we have heard today that too many employers are behaving in this way.

Let us be clear as well—and let us do this cross-party—that while we condemn those employers, we also condemn those banks that see this crisis as an opportunity to hike interest rates on overdrafts, knowing that so many are going to see their income fall. We condemn those retailers that are hiking prices as people anxiously shop less frequently—profiteering in a crisis.

The whole country needs clarity about what should be happening in this lockdown for both businesses and workers. The Prime Minister described it as a war against this virus, and I agree with him. In the second world war, the initial period was described as the phoney war. I have to say that for many, because of the inconsistencies of the interpretation of the lockdown, we seem in some places to be in a phoney lockdown.

In reference to mixed messages, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a mixed message from the Foreign Secretary, who says that all UK citizens must return home, yet when we contact the Foreign Office it appears there is no help available for people to come home?

I will come on to the issue of repatriation, but let me mention it now. All of us now have constituents contacting us about their loved ones who are not able to come home. We need clarity about what support is available and can be given. If it requires emergency measures, let us undertake them, because people are now deeply worried and isolated.

I do hope this is not my right hon. Friend’s last outing at the Dispatch Box. I very much thank him for writing two Labour manifestos; a lot of that is being carried out today. He talks about this being a war and the Government talk about it being a war. If it is a war, is it not right that we should be sending in our doctors and nurses with the protective equipment they need to fight that war?

I welcome some of the reassurances that we have heard from the Prime Minister and others today, but I have watched the interviews with individual doctors about the risks that they have taken. They are heroes and heroines, but they should never have been put in a position where they took those risks in the first place.

My right hon. Friend mentioned profiteering a short while ago. There are very unscrupulous retailers and wholesalers. While some of them are acting very responsibly, the unscrupulous individuals are profiteering at the very moment that people are at their most vulnerable and are then having to contend with those hiked prices. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those individuals should bear it in mind that people have long memories, and they may very well find that after this crisis is over their

Profiteering businesses need to recognise that reputational damage to their operations will last beyond the crisis.

The point I was making is that if we are to be serious in this war-like situation about defeating the enemy, we have to go all the way. People and businesses need absolute certainty. The Prime Minister said that all businesses should close down unless they have an essential role to play in the fight against the coronavirus, or unless the business can continue to operate with staff working from home.

Let us be clear: construction sites should be closed down, unless they are building health facilities. They should close now. They are putting lives at risk by operating still. The Scottish First Minister says they should close, and the Mayor of London says they should, but the Government are allowing them to continue.

I have spoken to construction workers and their unions in recent days. They have told me that social distancing on a building site, as anyone who has worked on one will say, is just not possible. For some roles, it would not be safe either.

Yesterday, unfortunately, the Health Secretary tried to blame the Mayor of London for reduced services on the London underground. Earlier in the day, the Mayor had explained that some 20% of staff on the London underground are either off sick or self-isolating as a precaution, and that the tube was running at the maximum capacity it could, given those constraints. Construction company Taylor Wimpey—I praise it—has taken the responsible decision to shut down all its sites, and I commend that.

The Government must back workers and their unions who refuse to work in unsafe workplaces. The Government—let us be clear—must order workplaces to close if they are not essential to the fight against the virus. Businesses and workers need the clarity that they deserve. The Government also needs to reassure those businesses that they can furlough their workers, the directly employed and others.

Does the shadow Chancellor agree that businesses that refuse to close should be subject to closure orders and heavy fines? That is the only way that we can get some of those businesses to close.

The Government must get serious now, at this stage in the attack by the virus. Therefore, sanctions are required, if necessary.

Workers must also be assured that, as has been said, 80% of wages will be paid and backdated, and that the interest-free loans are available without the onus of the guarantees that are being asked of some companies. They should be readily acceptable now to meet any short-term shortfall.

My right hon. Friend may not be aware of reports that the Government have announced that they will make a statement on support for the self-employed tomorrow. Does he agree that the Government should come before the House today, while it is sitting, so that we can scrutinise that statement?

A bit of practice that has crept into our politics recently is that announcements are made at press conferences, rather than to this House. Mr Speaker has made it perfectly clear that that is inappropriate behaviour. We have time left for a Minister to turn up in this House to take us through it.

For clarity, Robert Peston is saying that the Government have confirmed, that the Prime Minister has confirmed, that the Prime Minister will announce that tomorrow. He ought to come to this House before it rises to make that statement. It is highly irregular for the Prime Minister not to, on a matter that is so important and that many of us have raised on a daily basis. I have to say that it shows contempt for this House and for Parliament. That should be happening here.

I support the words of Mr Speaker last week, when he made clear the practices that Ministers should pursue, and I believe that this is an act of bad faith on the part of the Prime Minister.

Let me make other demands on the Government. Here is a small one: can apprentices, many of whom are paid just £3.90 an hour, be furloughed too? Can they please get 100%, not 80%, because they earn so little? As I asked the Chancellor yesterday, can the scheme be flexible? Workers put on reduced hours must be eligible, so that the shortfall in wages can be made up. Some businesses will lose part of their operation. We need them to carry on in a reduced form, so that would be the right solution for them.

I want to take this opportunity to thank my right hon. Friend and the Leader of the Opposition for the work they have done over the last five years and for their friendship and support of all Opposition Members.

My right hon. Friend mentioned furloughing. Can he reiterate that there should not be any situation in which pay is allowed to be below the national living wage, and if that means going above the 80% rule, that is what should happen?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s words. We have asked for a while, not least when we put forward our proposals last Thursday, that there should be a floor of the national minimum wage. If those who are on low pay get 80% of their pay, many of them will be taken below the national minimum wage. It is set at that level because it is a basic survival level, so we urge the Government to act. Again, that is only a small step.

It cannot be beyond the wit of the great minds in the Treasury to find a way to resolve a number of these issues, and that call was reiterated by the Resolution Foundation this morning. A YouGov poll found that one in 10 people surveyed are still in work but with reduced pay or hours. Those people are not protected by this scheme. For businesses to stay afloat, many of them will need part-time workers, and those part-time workers need the support that this scheme should provide.

Zero-hours contract workers and agency workers who are not on PAYE are limb (b) workers, as I explained to the Chancellor and wrote to him about at the beginning of the week. They must be made eligible for the job retention scheme; otherwise, there is the potential that 2 million workers will not be included in the scheme. These are some of the workers who are most at risk of losing work and not being able to put food on the table during this downturn.

Several Members mentioned this, but I urge the Government to give an assurance that non-UK nationals are eligible for this scheme. I also appeal to the Government to ensure that support is provided for non-UK nationals in the coming weeks when travel is so restricted. Let me echo what several Members have said: that must include the suspension of the rules of no recourse to public funds. The rules that have been put in place may be acceptable to some Members, but in this period those rules are brutal and will force people into penury.

Staff who can no longer work because of childcare responsibilities must be protected as well. Why on earth are they not eligible for this scheme? Just think of the single parent who cannot work because they need to stay at home with their child—surely they should be covered as well. On the subject of childcare, can the Minister be clear that childcare providers should not be charging parents for services that they no longer deliver or cannot now deliver? Those childcare providers must be supported in the long term as well, because we will need them.

My concern, which many Members have expressed today, is the gaps in the scheme and the fact that it will not be operational until April. People will not receive funding for weeks, and it certainly will not be taken up at the rate that many of us would hope for, given the indications from a large number of employers. Lay-offs are happening at scale.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government need to ensure that anyone who was laid off before the announcement of the scheme can be brought back into employment and put on the scheme, and that any employer that does not do that should be named or required by the Government to do that?

The problem we have, as my hon. Friend points out, is that this is a voluntary scheme for employers to participate in. What we have to do is to use everything we possibly can to urge employers to participate, protect their workers and use to maximum effect the scheme itself.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on the fact that Wetherspoons just did a U-turn, so that staff will be paid and participate in the Government’s scheme? Is that not an excellent exhibition of what cross-party MPs can do? People scoff at Back-Bench MPs, but is it not wonderful to see the Select Committee in action and to see that Wetherspoons is now going to do the right thing? Does that not the challenge for groups such as Cineworld to do that as well?

It demonstrates that naming and shaming works, and at some time in the future I might drink to that.

Not necessarily.

Lay-offs are happening at scale, as I said, and hon. Members have mentioned the statistics. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said that nearly 500,000 people have now applied for universal credit. I welcome, as always, the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) and his Work and Pensions Committee have done in demonstrating the nature of the reforms that are needed to universal credit. We need those reforms rapidly now to be able to assist people and keep them out of poverty.

I thank the shadow Chancellor for giving way again; he has been extremely generous. Coming back to the point about lay-offs, does he agree that we must ensure that opportunistic employers who have either carried out lay-offs or are threatening them at the moment do not, once they have received funds from the job retention scheme and once the crisis is over, immediately think they can lay people off? Does he also think that we need some guarantees from the Government on that?

I am grateful for the intervention, if only because it enabled me to have a drink, but it was a useful one, because the hon. Gentleman will argue that we were suggesting to the Government that some of these loans should be conditional on participation in the scheme and the guarantee not just of the 80%, but of the 20% that employers would pay to top up the salaries as well.

That 500,000 people are applying for universal credit is a sign of the scale of job losses that we are facing now, so there is a real need to close the gaps and bring forward the scheme with some urgency. As many have said, there are 5 million self-employed out there. Let us be clear: the self-employed pay the same rates of tax, so they deserve the same protections and they are losing out.

As we have heard, the scheme will be announced tomorrow at a press conference, so let us say clearly that the self-employed must be treated fairly and they must be treated as any other workers, as in the job retention scheme. Let them be able to claim 80% of the income lost—yes, self-declared—and if there are any concerns about overpayments, exactly as has been said, they can be clawed back in their next tax return. This is not as complex as some have said. If people claim fraudulently while still working, they will rightly be prosecuted. It is as simple as that.

But right now, as we have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones), my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) and others, millions of cabbies, childminders, plumbers, electricians, painters, decorators and actors have all lost work or have had to close down their businesses, as have builders designated as self-employed under the construction industry scheme, and they have no income. They need a solution now.

We will see what the scheme is tomorrow, but the delay has just been unacceptable. For all those saying it is complicated, yes, it can be complicated, but other countries are managing it. One example that was given earlier was Ireland, where the national support scheme will be up and running on Friday and covers both PAYE and self-employed workers at 70% of their net wage. Many other countries have had more comprehensive and more generous schemes.

I turn to the issue of statutory sick pay, mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown and for Brent Central (Dawn Butler). As has been said time and again in this House, when the Health Secretary and his predecessor were asked whether they could they live on £94 a week, they were honest and said no. It is blindingly obvious that the rate has to be increased. At the moment, it is less than half the level of many other European countries. Our view is that it should be at the level of the real living wage, but we need an increase, and we need it rapidly, because people are having to choose between health and hardship.

I give the House another real example that was sent to me by an hon. Member whose constituent has been told that their terms and conditions are being changed, so instead of getting sick pay of three weeks on full pay, they will get merely SSP. While the Minister is at it, let us stop insulting the unemployed and disabled people by telling them that they have to live on £73 a week, or, if they are under 25, £57 a week.

Thousands of workers have been laid off in recent weeks through no fault of their own, and many are struggling to make a claim for universal credit online, as several hon. Members have pointed out. We want to know urgently from the Government what they are doing to expand capacity in those departments. I urge the Government to heed the call of the Resolution Foundation today to raise jobseeker’s allowance and employment and support allowance, exactly as we are saying. We also suggest that there is an urgent need to increase the carer’s allowance.

Other hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Ruth Cadbury) earlier this week, have proposed at least a temporary £10 increase in child benefit to help to lift children out of poverty. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham said, the Government have to get to grips with reducing the five-week wait for universal credit and follow the calls of groups such as the Child Poverty Action Group to turn that advance loan into a grant. We should not be pushing the poorest people in our society into further debt.

I spoke to the Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents staff in the Department for Work and Pensions. As a point of fact, during the last spike in demand after the global financial crash—a number of us were here—the DWP had 130,000 staff. Today it has just 78,000 staff. We are told that an extra 10,000 may be coming, but as the hon. Member for Glasgow South West said, the contractors and the staff who are directly appointed need to be cared for, so we are asking for the enforcement of social distancing and proper protections.

Many of the Government’s workers have not received personal protective equipment and clothing, with nurses and doctors relying on makeshift masks and plastic bags. Again, I pay tribute to the bravery and dedication of the NHS and social care workers who have ploughed on regardless, but they deserve better too.

Individual cases are being brought to us that it would be useful for the Minister to be clear about. For example, on medical advice, should pregnant workers be self-isolating if they cannot work from home? The advice that has been given appears contradictory to many workers and employers. I have been forwarded a case where a pregnant worker was told to take three months’ unpaid leave if she would not continue to do face-to-face working. That is the sort of treatment of some people out there at the moment.

We welcome the moves to protect mortgage holders and ensure that payment holidays are in place, but as many hon. Members, such as my hon. Friends the Members for Brighton, Kemptown and for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones), have said, we need the same security for renters. The difference needs to be understood: a rent holiday is not the same as a mortgage holiday. Rent is paid continuously while in tenancy, while mortgages are fixed-term, meaning that repayment terms can simply be extended. It is therefore important that the Government act to ensure that people’s rent payments are covered for this period, not merely suspended.

As others have said, we are extremely disappointed by the legislation published yesterday—frankly, the Prime Minister has broken his promise to the country’s 20 million renters. It was not an eviction ban, as promised: the legislation will not stop people losing their homes as a result of the virus. As my right hon. Friend the shadow Housing Minister said, it just gives people some extra time to pack their bags. The Housing Secretary said this morning that the Government could extend the three-month delay on evictions. He said it was extremely unlikely that any repossession proceedings would continue. That is just not clear or strong enough. The Government must look again at this.

There are wider problems. Over recent years, austerity cuts have lessened the value of support available via housing benefit. The Government must immediately suspend the benefit cap—and yes, the bedroom tax must go. We welcome the moves announced last week on local housing allowance, but the Government must go further and restore the allowance from the 30th percentile to the 50th percentile of market rates, as it was before 2010, under the last Labour Government. People will have made rental decisions based on their incomes, and they should not be penalised by the unforeseeable impact of the virus. Now is not the time for families to be downsizing or sofa-surfing with parents, grandparents or friends in the cramped and overcrowded conditions that my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) described so clearly.

We cannot have a situation in which, at the end of this, tenants have either depleted all their savings or— worse—amassed large and unpayable debts. The suspension of evictions for private and social tenants must be extended from three to six months. Shelter has told us that as many as 20,000 eviction proceedings are already in progress and will go ahead over the next three months unless the Government take action to stop them. They must be stopped, and I urge the Minister to be absolutely clear when he stands up: no evictions of any kind.

Others are also being hit by the impact of the virus. We need to ensure that undergraduates are not charged rent for student accommodation that they are no longer using as their institutions close. We need to know what scheme is in place for students to claw back rent or escape tenancy agreements rendered defunct by the crisis. Likewise, we are urging the Government now to suspend the interest on tuition fee debt.

The issue of utility bills has been discussed on both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden gave the stark example of what has happened with key meters and the behaviour of British Gas at the moment. Unless we do something to intervene on utility bills, especially when families are at home and their energy bills are increasing, families could shortly be threatened with disconnections. We cannot have bailiffs coming round to houses about water, energy or even internet bills.

What about the internet? My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central emphasised the critical importance of internet capacity and access at this point in time. We need to know what the Government are doing about internet access. Many people in our community used to rely on libraries to access the internet, but now libraries are closing. The Government must bring forward new measures to ensure that people can get online—whether for benefit services or to maintain some proper form of social contact.

The hon. Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), my hon. Friends the Members for Mitcham and Morden and for Brent Central, and my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham all raised the problems of charities, at a time when many people are falling back on charities. We have been told, by Members here and by reports coming in from across the country, that charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises are running out of money; the predicted losses will be about £4 billion in the next 12 weeks. What is being done to support those groups? The Government also need to clarify whether some of them could participate in the job retention scheme.

Finally, I echo what others have said; my hon. Friends the Members for Brent Central and for Coventry South put it eloquently. Lessons must be learned from this crisis. We must ensure that in future we build into all our public services the resilience they need to deal with any future crisis. We must eradicate from the economy the low pay and insecure work that prevent people from having the personal economic resilience to cope when hardship threatens. Above all, as others have said, we need to learn the lesson that austerity is no solution, and never will be. As has been said, let us start planning now for the economy and society that we want to shape after we have won the war against this virus.

Madam Deputy Speaker, you mentioned that this is my last speech in the Chamber as shadow Chancellor. I am grateful for the many kind words said about me and the Leader of the Opposition. In fact, I do not recognise myself from them, but thank you very much. It is almost as though I have been tamed.

Some Members present will recall that when I address party meetings, I usually end with a single word. It is a word upon which the Labour and trade union movement was founded. It is based on a secret we discovered; one that working people learned in the fields and workshops of the early industrial revolution. It taught us, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) said, that unity is strength and an injury to one is an injury to all. That word is solidarity. It is solidarity that will see us through this crisis, protect our community, and on which we should build our society in the future. Madam Deputy Speaker, I end with solidarity.

I begin by offering the deepest thanks and praise of all of us in this House for all those working to deliver essential services to the public across the country. The way they have come together is nothing short of astounding. Equally astounding is the fact that the Prime Minister confirmed this afternoon that, in the past 24 hours, 400,000 Britons have signed up to act as volunteers to support our NHS, which is an incredible statement of the shared sense of purpose we all feel in this unique national endeavour.

I want to address directly every individual working to deliver an essential public service or a business, or to support their local community during this crisis, from NHS employees, local government workers, care workers and community volunteers through to those keeping our supermarket shelves full: you are keeping this country running and collectively helping to shoulder the burden, and we thank you. The whole House will want to join me in recognising the contribution they have already made and will no doubt continue to make over this period of crisis. We need the help of the British public to ensure that we beat the virus as quickly as we can and, above all, we need them to stay inside whenever possible.

This is the worst public health crisis in any of our lifetimes. The Government are responding, and we aspire to make our measures as comprehensive as we possibly can. A national crisis needs a national response and we are offering UK-wide support to ensure that people in all four corners of the country are receiving help.

Whatever resources the NHS needs, it will get. As an aside, today we have agreed with local councils in England to provide free parking for our NHS and social care workers as they fight coronavirus. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Chancellor and other ministerial colleagues across Government to ensure that public services receive the funding they need to get their residents through this crisis. That means supporting those on the frontline; those who are in a dispensable. Generous tributes have been paid to them in excellent speeches from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend West (Sir David Amess), the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Sarah Jones)—I will return to some of the points she made—the hon. Members for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh), for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for Gordon (Richard Thomson) and for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana), as well as the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle), whom we are all glad to see back in his place after recovering from the virus, the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens), the right hon. Members for North Durham (Mr Jones) and for East Ham (Stephen Timms), the latter an expert in all matters to do with the welfare system, and the hon. Members for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) and for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). I thank everyone who has taken part in this afternoon’s debate. I assure all hon. Members that the Government are absolutely resolved to do whatever is necessary to support public services and authorities through the response to the coronavirus.

In normal times, I am a convinced believer in an agile state supporting free enterprise, which delivers jobs and revenue for our public services. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central gave a paean to the power of the market, but she is right: these are not normal times. In this strictly limited period, we must all accustom ourselves to a relationship between the state and civic society that is unprecedented in peacetime.

I have to correct the record. It was not a paean to the power of the free market; actually, I was identifying its critical failings when it comes to providing capacity for the state to respond to pandemics of the type we face.

I will of course take that point for the record. Let me in turn pay my own tribute to the power of the market.

In these unusual times, we have a shielding policy, for which my Department is responsible. Letters have been sent to 1.5 million high-risk individuals asking them to shield themselves and stay at home for the next 12 weeks. I think we all recognise the magnitude of what we are asking people to do. I emphasise to everyone who is in the process of becoming shielded that we are there for them and we will not let them down.

Let me ask the Minister for, I think, the fifth time today, what action are the Government considering to protect workers and employees who have one of those letters but whose employer is forcing them into work? What are they going to do for people put in that dreadful situation?

To put it simply, none of those individuals ought to be going to work at this time; the Government would stand with anyone who refused to go to work because they need to be shielded, and we will stand up for them if any employer is so foolish as to try to press that point.

Those who are being shielded will benefit from a website and a telephone helpline, both of which are now fully operational. We are working with all partners—councils, the food industry, local resilience and emergency partners and voluntary groups—to ensure that essential items can be delivered as soon as possible to those who need them. Deliveries of food will start this week, medicines will be delivered by community pharmacies, and groceries and essential household items will be delivered by local councils and food distributors working with supermarkets to ensure that no one needs to worry about getting the food they need. Parcels will be left on the doorstep.

The Government, the food industry, community pharmacies, councils and emergency services are working around the clock to get this scheme off the ground. I pay tribute to the civil servants who have been working tirelessly throughout this period. I am enormously impressed by the dedication and resolve that they have shown. I can also confirm that, from today, we have deployed military planners to every area of the country to help to co-ordinate this work. We pay tribute also to our armed forces and the role that they will play in this effort.

As Members have highlighted, it is not only the incredibly hard-working medical professionals on the frontline against coronavirus who are under immense pressure. We in my Department know that local authorities, which are essential to the running of this country, are feeling the pressure too. We have already announced £3.4 billion to alleviate that pressure, comprising £1.6 billion of covid-19 pressures funding and the initial £1.8 billion grant for business rates relief measures. We know that immediate pressures require immediate cash, so we can now confirm that the funding will be with every local authority, in its bank account, by Friday. We have said that we will do everything we can to support the sector, and this is us doing it.

When it comes to grants for businesses, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has now issued guidance to all local authorities, and we will provide the full £13 billion of funding for the business grant support scheme at the beginning of April. We must acknowledge that the crisis will not just burden our social care system and affect our most vulnerable; it will also affect our local economies, so local authorities should be confident about contacting businesses in their patch and making arrangements for the grants to be paid as quickly as possible. Time really is a vital factor here.

Further to the targeted funding, we have set out detailed guidance for local authorities on the 100% business rates discount for the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors, which was published by my Department this week. Today, we have announced a further expansion to the discount to remove some of the previous exclusions from the relief, to ensure that businesses that are now required to close—including estate agents, letting agents and bingo halls—will pay no business rates this coming year. My Department will amend guidance as necessary this week. We will, of course, fully compensate local authorities for the costs of this measure.

More broadly, I acknowledge that asking businesses to close their doors is a huge ask—those businesses have often been built up over many years of hard work and sacrifice—but it is only through such measures that we will ensure public safety. By the action that the Government are taking, we will mitigate the effects of the crisis so that once it is over, businesses can bounce back and renew our economy.

The Government’s measures not only are targeted at our businesses and public sectors but will support citizens at an individual level, too. We are working to support those who, through no fault of their own, are facing a sudden drop in income. The Chancellor has announced unprecedented measures to support people by making funding available to cover up to 80% of wages. In response to a point raised by the shadow Chancellor in his speech, I can confirm that apprentices will qualify for that if they are on PAYE. I will write to him on that point, but it is certain that they are included.

I accept what the Minister is saying, but during my contribution I referred to the email that I received from Scott Hawthorne, who runs a recycling business. He wants to do the right thing by his workers but he is still waiting and does not quite understand how to implement the scheme. I urge the Minister to get the information out to businesses as a matter of urgency, because those that want to do the right thing need to be able to implement it.

I take that point to heart. If the right hon. Gentleman sends me the details, I will write to him after this debate and ensure that that company is contacted personally so that we can provide the guidance needed for his constituents.

My ex has been sent a letter from his employer saying, “We want to put you on the 80% but we don’t yet know how this works. We do not know the details.” I suggest that it is perhaps not just one employer that needs to be written to; all employers in this country need to be given greater guidance. That letter came from a top law firm that his employer had got in to try to work out the system, and that firm could not work it out either. I do not think it is about an individual case. Will the Minister please put on the public record the details of how employers will use the scheme?

I can confirm that other Government Departments, alongside my own, will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s remarks, and we will ensure that they are taken to heart.

This is a convenient point to discuss universal credit and some of the related issues, which the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown raised, as did the hon. Member for Glasgow South West. I can confirm that advances for all new universal credit claimants are now available online or by phone, with no requirement to attend the jobcentre. Earning rules for the self-employed have been temporarily relaxed for those who are sick or self-isolating. From 6 April, we are increasing the standard allowance for UC and the basic element in working tax credit for one year: both will increase by £20 a week on top of the planned annual uprating, and that will apply to all new and existing universal credit claimants and to existing working tax credit claimants, too. We recognise that there is going to be an enormous increase in the number of people claiming universal credit; we will continue to make sure that the system responds to this fast-changing situation.

Will the Minister advise Members as to whether local authorities will be given full information about the number of universal credit claimants? As he rightly points out, many of us, along with local authorities—including mine in Slough—are expecting a huge hike in that number.

I can of course commit that we will share that information whenever we have the full dataset available. It is obviously important that we make sure the figures are accurate, but we will share all the relevant data so that local authorities can plan.

We have announced a £500 million hardship fund so that local authorities can provide council tax relief to vulnerable people and households in their area. Working-age people who already receive council tax support will have their council tax reduced by a further £150 and local authorities will have the flexibility to provide funding to support others, too.

On renters, we are aware that for many who are not receiving their regular income a financial strain will be put on all aspects of their lives. We want to protect tenants during this crisis. To address the concerns raised by the hon. Members for Croydon Central and for Mitcham and Morden, and the shadow Chancellor, I can confirm that the Government are clear that no renter who has lost income because of the coronavirus will be forced out of their home. The very clear guidance we have given to judges and bailiffs means it is extremely unlikely that any possession proceedings will continue during this period.

I will give way in one moment. We expect a formal practice direction to the courts imminently, underscoring that point.

I thank the Minister for finishing his sentence so that I heard that last bit, as it was helpful. He said just a few minutes ago that letting agents and estate agents are now on the essential list of things that have to close. I did not think that they were; I thought that was the advice. Either way, people are being evicted right now and will not be included in that definition the Minister used. How on earth are they going to find anywhere else to go if there is nowhere open to help them? We need clear guidance from the Government that nobody should be evicted, for any reason, at this time.

I will write to the hon. Lady with full details on that point and make that letter public. That is a firm commitment to the House this afternoon.

I am conscious that time is pressing. On support for rough sleepers, I want to confirm that the support package is comprehensive and, of course, therefore extends to some of the most vulnerable members of society. Not all of us are so fortunate as to have a stable home in case we are sick, so we are developing a bespoke response and have launched a £3.2 million covid-19 rough sleeping fund. Dame Louise Casey is heading up our rough sleeping response to covid-19, and our aim is to make sure that everyone is protected and is in appropriate accommodation. On the point raised by the hon. Member for Croydon Central, hotels engaged in this process should stay open, and the Department is working closely to ensure that that is the case. We are working intensively across all local authorities in England, and Dame Louise is focusing on high-priority areas, both in and outside London. The hon. Lady raised the issue of Grenfell, and we are absolutely clear that building sites and priority work, where appropriate PHE guidance has been observed, can continue, where the work is genuinely essential. We will be issuing further detail on this point. We want to see the Grenfell issue of cladding continue to be addressed at this time, assuming that safe practice can be followed.

On the care system, we are providing £1.6 billion for local authorities’ response to the covid-19 pandemic, to address the additional pressures they are facing. We expect that the majority of that funding will be spent on providing adult social care services, which are going to be required. I can confirm that 26,000 care organisations—care homes, home care and hospices—have each received 300 fluid-repellent masks. Obviously, many more will be needed and we are dramatically ramping up the supply of those. The Army is now involved in making sure that they are distributed across the country as required.

The hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden raised the issue of children’s hospices in her question, and I can confirm that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is working on a support package for charities right now, We are working at pace and hope to bring forward plans shortly, recognising that, as she rightly said, time is of the essence in making sure that these places do not have to close. On children, young people and those who work with them, our priorities are their safety, minimising disruption to everyday life and not unduly impacting on their progression and education. That is why we have asked parents to keep their children at home wherever possible. Schools and all childcare providers have been asked to continue to provide care for a limited number of children: those who are vulnerable; and those whose parents are crucial to the covid-19 response and who cannot be safely cared for at home. We are extremely grateful for the work of teachers, childcare providers and local authorities, and we will continue to monitor closely what is happening on the ground. To be clear, the position is as follows: children should be sent to school only if they have to be because someone’s work is genuinely crucial to our national response. If people are able to keep their children at home, they should do so.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor for raising the point I raised with Treasury Ministers yesterday about child benefit. Surely raising child benefit by at least £10 a week, as recommended by the Child Poverty Action Group, during this time—children are at home and the price of food is going up, as they will not now get free school meals or meals at school—would be quick and easy to do, unlike other schemes which are taking longer to set up?

I thank the hon. Lady for her suggestion, which will have been heard. I can confirm that free school meals ought to continue to be available during this time. Schools have discretion to make sure they find the appropriate way to do that, but I take her point on board. Costs will be higher for families at a time like this.

The Minister said that only children of parents who are engaged in essential services should be going to school. Earlier in his remarks he talked about “essential” construction. Can he confirm that the children of construction workers working on an essential site will also be included?

It is key workers only. I have to correct the hon. Gentleman. It is only those who are doing the jobs specified in the list we have issued.

To conclude, the Government have responded rapidly to this crisis. An enormous amount has happened in the past two weeks. I am proud of what we are doing. We are ensuring the long-term protection of public services and businesses.

I think I must move on.

Once this crisis is passed, the United Kingdom can re-emerge with pride and purpose. The Government are working flat out to get the right support to the right people at the right time. We must address this crisis very frankly. If too many people become seriously unwell at one time, the NHS and our public services risk being overwhelmed. It is absolutely vital that we slow the spread of this disease. We must do so together as one nation. I offer my deep thanks for the constructive approach and hard work of our counterparts in Opposition. We must look out for one another, our loved ones, friends, family, neighbours and strangers, because that is how we will overcome this. I urge any local authority, if faced with immediate unmanageable pressures, to contact my officials at the earliest opportunity. We are likely to be sorely tested in the weeks ahead, but I ask Members to rest assured that Her Majesty’s Government are prepared to do whatever it takes. The message to the public is very clear: we will support you and we will get through this together.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the emergency financial and social package needed to support people, families and business through the covid-19 outbreak.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I am most grateful to you for granting this point of order. Robert Peston, the ITV journalist, is tweeting that Boris Johnson has confirmed that the Government will be making an announcement tomorrow on help for the self-employed. Mr Speaker, you will recall the ticking off that you gave to the Chancellor for making statements that should have been brought to this House. First, I just wondered, given the time, why the Government are not coming here this evening, if they are ready to make an announcement on help for the self-employed, especially given the fact that so many right hon. and hon. Members right across this House have been asking for that day after day. Secondly, if it is the case that, for whatever the reason, the Government cannot come to the House this evening, why are we not sitting tomorrow? Why did the Government seek to move the motion that the House would be going into recess tonight? It is simply unacceptable that while so many of our constituents are in financial peril, their elected representatives will not be able to hold the Government to account. Further, I wonder, given the circumstances and because oversight is now so critical, why we are not due to be here for more than three weeks. What can we do to make sure that the Opposition parties can scrutinise the Government? I ask through you, Mr Speaker, that at the very least Opposition party leaders are offered the opportunity of ongoing conference calls with the Government as these announcements are made. The way the Government are behaving is simply not acceptable.

Quite rightly, emotions are running very high, and quite rightly, Members have been asking what measures are going to be put in place. I do not think that a tweet by Peston is the way that business should be carried out. If there is something to be said, people should come here tonight. I assume—I stand to be corrected—that they have not got the necessary information. I accept that, but if there is information, I would expect them to come. The right hon. Gentleman asks what we can do about the Adjournment motion. I have not got there yet. If he feels that way inclined, that might be a good time to question it.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Following what the SNP spokesman just said, may we ask you, through your good offices, to arrange for the leaders of all the parties to be included in a discussion, online or whatever, with you and the Government so that, as crucial things come up, as they will over the next three weeks—important decisions and announcements will have to be made—we have a chance to understand what they are, to comment on them and to suggest changes if we want changes, so that there is at least that degree of accountability? You will be aware that today, during the statement by the Leader of the House and questions to the Prime Minister, Member after Member made it very clear that we might be in recess for three weeks but that that does not mean democracy is closed down. Democracy must go on in this crisis, and that means questions—tough questions, yes, but that is what we were elected to this place for.

I will be quite honest. This is a time when people in the United Kingdom expect the parties to come together to work on behalf of this country, and I do not disagree. This is about ensuring that there is dialogue across the political parties to ensure that we do the right thing by the people in this country.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I echo the sentiments you just outlined—this is a time for coming together and putting political differences aside—but we have been played here. This issue was highlighted by hon. Members last week and into this week. The Government have had time to look at it. I accept that there are complexities in the process, but to have it announced that the statement is going to be made tomorrow in a press conference is totally unacceptable. May I ask your advice? If we were to vote down the motion on the Adjournment for the Easter recess, would that make it possible for us to sit tomorrow to accept this statement?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I rise to seek your advice further to what has just been highlighted to your good self. It seems that this is emblematic of the way the Prime Minister is dealing with this national crisis. At no point has he come to this Chamber to make a statement and to be held to account, apart from the very limited questioning that is available at PMQs and at the press conferences he attends. What powers do you have, through your good offices, to ensure that the Prime Minister comes to the Chamber to make statements, and what powers do you have to reprimand him?

In fairness, I am a servant of the House, and the House will decide whether we sit or do not sit. The House will decide what it wishes. I will be quite honest. The Leader of the Opposition quite rightly made a plea that party leaders should come together by phone to have discussions about how we move events forward, because events will begin to overtake us. We have to remember that we will have a vote shortly on whether to have the Easter recess, and I will abide by what the House decides.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I absolutely agree that, at this time of national crisis, parties should come together. I think the Prime Minister is in breach of that sentiment and trust by briefing journalists that he is going to make an announcement tomorrow. If we suspend before the Adjournment today, can we order the Prime Minister to come to the House to deliver the statement that he has already written and is planning to deliver at the press conference tomorrow? Can that be done, Mr Speaker?

If we were to sit tomorrow, no doubt somebody might wish to table an urgent question. I will leave it there.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment that this is a time for the parties, and indeed the country, to come together, but that requires us to share information, which is also part of my role as a Member of Parliament. After the Prime Minister’s announcement on closing pubs and the lockdown, and the Chancellor’s announcement about support for jobs, I received hundreds of emails asking for clarification—indeed, I received hundreds of emails about help for the self-employed before any announcement. What is your advice, Mr Speaker, about how I can perform my role as a Member of Parliament and share information, if we do not have the Prime Minister here to share it with the House?

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Is it within your powers to suspend this sitting while an urgent request is made to the Prime Minister or Chancellor to come and announce what he has already said he is going to announce tomorrow?

I suspect the answer will be that the Prime Minister is not ready to tell the House. I suspect that—I could be wrong. [Interruption.] The Leader of the House is indicating that he wishes to comment on these points of order, and it might be beneficial to listen to him. As I said, the House has got it upon itself to decide whether or not it wishes to accept the dates for the Easter recess. That is a course of action that the House may wish to take. I am not encouraging or saying it, but it is an option.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I wonder whether I can be as helpful as possible to the House, and to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). During Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister committed to bring forward a package for the self-employed within 48 hours, and I reiterated that in the business statement that I gave shortly afterwards. It will now be brought forward within 24 hours, and that is in response to considerable pressure and interest from this House, which asked for it to be done urgently. I have been informed that it is a complicated package that is not in fact ready for announcement today. Had it been ready today, it would have been brought forward today. The Government are keen to get on with this announcement, which will provide support and comfort to a large number of the self-employed. There is no discourtesy to the House. That was what the Prime Minister told us during Prime Minister’s questions, and the announcement will now be made slightly faster than was promised.

On holding the Government to account, I recognise, as did the Prime Minister, the major contribution made by Opposition parties to the development of policy in relation to the coronavirus. The Government are committed to working on a cross-party basis in dealing with this matter and, if further measures need to come before the House, they will be carried out on a similar basis. That is an important part of how the Government operate.

On the key question of how the Government will be held to account during the recess, I said during business questions that I would make available to all right hon. and hon. Members the hotline numbers that people can use, and email addresses for contacting Departments, so that Members may continue to raise questions or—perhaps more importantly—to seek information and answers for constituents during the recess. To facilitate that and to make it easier for right hon. and hon. Members, a consolidated list will be circulated. The Government are ready to be scrutinised.

Finally, although some right hon. and hon. Members would like the session to continue, we brought forward the date of the recess, having received many representations from many Members of Parliament who felt that, once we had completed the urgent business, we should, like the rest of the country, not be here. That was something we took on board, and that message came from across the House.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You made it very clear in your statement exactly how you wanted matters to proceed when announcements are made. I think the Chancellor did say that. I did say that he did not accept what you said or admit it, but he gave you an assurance that that is what he would do.

I say to the Leader of the House that this matter has been raised for three weeks now. The shadow Chancellor wrote to the Government—to the Chancellor—a week ago with a package. I appreciate that civil servants have a lot to take on, but if it has been announced to Robert Peston, surely it must have been signed off. Could the Leader of the House please say exactly when the package was signed off? If they are making a press announcement, it must have been signed off.

We have heard that condolences should be sent after Steve Dick, the deputy ambassador to Hungary, sadly died of the virus. We therefore understand how important this matter is.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I am very grateful for the statement from the Leader of the House. What is different is that the expectation was that the announcement would come on Friday, when we would not normally expect Government statements. This is rather regrettable, to say the least, because it is a very important announcement that is coming tomorrow. We should be here to question the Government on it.

I would like an undertaking from the Government that, at the very least, they will consult Opposition party leaders when they are going to make any significant announcement, in the way that I and the Leader of the Opposition have said. We want to work with the Government. There is frustration that we are outside this; we are not in a position to give advice when it would be pertinent to do so. The Government must think very carefully about how to create the circumstances whereby we can all work together through this crisis.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I understand some of the difficulties, but perhaps we could get an assurance that we will at least have a copy of the proposals in advance, before the media. We will honour whatever embargo is placed upon us, as we always do with statements that are provided to us. That would give us the opportunity to frame any subsequent questions we want to put to the Government, to respond to any concerns that are raised by our constituents and to prepare a briefing for our own Members of Parliament.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday, the Health Secretary held a very innovative press conference that was completely online. On Monday, I and many other Members held a very good meeting with the immigration Minister via Skype. Can there not be a reassurance that Ministers will undertake to hold briefings over telephone calls or online for Members—it does not have to be a sitting of Parliament—so that we can ask those questions directly, because often one gets a better or more nuanced response in person than through written correspondence? It would help resolve some of the issues if Members had access to Ministers directly after an announcement in that kind of mode.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. This is deeply unfortunate. I fully understand the work that officials will be doing and the pressure on Ministers. Whatever Ministers say to us, time and again it seems that people in No. 10 are working without any regard for the House of Commons and treating it as an inconvenience. We saw that with the Chancellor’s statement, when he did the press conference in spite of explicit assurances, as we understand it, that he would address Parliament first. We therefore need a statement, even if it is an interim one. If the announcement is going to be made tomorrow, there may be final details in some areas where he has to say, “We haven’t finalised that,” but he should be able to outline the main points. Frankly, we have a Treasury Minister on the Bench now and we should be getting answers to some of these questions, so that there can be proper scrutiny and accountability.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The Leader of the House is an honourable man. There is a sense of anguish out there among our constituents who are self-employed. He will have had the same emails and phone calls as I have had. The way this is being handled is terrible. Reassurance is being given and I accept that it is not easy to bring these schemes into being, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) has suggested, the announcement could be made tonight instead of tomorrow. A Treasury Minister—the Economic Secretary—is present, or somebody else could be made available in the next few minutes. If the Leader of the House knew that the announcement was going to be made tomorrow, it would have been in order for him to amend the business motion so that we could sit tomorrow to look at it. He is supposed to be our voice in Government, and I suggest that he should have done that. It would have been a good way forward. The alternative is that we vote against the Adjournment tonight.

I will come back to the Leader of the House. I think it is quite clear that those channels should be opened by the leaders of the parties. Some good offers have been made and I hope that the Leader of the House can respond.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. If I may respond immediately to the point about what I knew earlier, I will be indiscreet and confess to this House that, after I said that the proposals would be brought forward in 48 hours, when I got back to my office, I was told that they thought I had said rather more than I was briefed to say, because at that stage it was not certain when the proposals would come through. It is being worked on as quickly as possible, but it is not yet ready. My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary is not able to make a statement because the plans have not been completed. What has been announced, and what was announced by the Prime Minister at his press conference, is that the plans will be announced tomorrow and they will be completed in time for tomorrow’s press conference.

As I have been sitting here, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has said that he—and this is typical of other Ministers—is always willing to brief his opposite number and to ensure that correspondence is going on so that people are kept informed. Ministers are indeed willing to do teleconferences, to keep Members up to date. It is important that we keep everybody informed and that we work on a cross-party basis. We are keen to do that, but we cannot bring announcements to the House before they are written.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. A very clear request was made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor that we get embargoed copies an hour or half an hour—whatever it happens to be—in advance, as we do with ministerial statements, so that informed comments can be made by Opposition parties. We fully understand all the difficulties of getting this package together by tomorrow morning, but I do think we should be informed as to what is in it so that we can make what may well be helpful and informed comments. We, too, represent deeply stressed constituents at the moment.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The Leader of the House says that it is not possible to brief the House before this is ready, but if that is the case why has the press been briefed before this House? Does he not think that things have been done in reverse? He is holding the House in contempt. He is the Minister who loves the procedures of this House, so why have the Government briefed the press before the House?

The only thing I would say in their defence is that I do not think there was much detail in Peston’s tweet. I call Kevan Jones.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has made a very good suggestion. Could the Leader of the House indicate whether he would be able to take that forward? I think it would be a helpful way of moving this on.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Inspiration has come to me. It is possible for verbal briefings to take place, but it has to be borne in mind that in some instances the plans are finalised only minutes before they are released. It is not like announcements to this House. This is a particular crisis. It is an unusual crisis and decisions are being made and taken as rapidly as possible, so I cannot undertake that advance copies will be given, but I can undertake that Ministers will be happy to speak to their opposite numbers.

On that basis, I am going to put some questions. Somebody has asked why we cannot suspend. We cannot go beyond 7 pm or the whole thing would collapse. There are some things that you may choose to support or not. That is up to the House.