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Covid-19: Statutory Sick Pay

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 2 March 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Leo Docherty.)

May I ask Members to exit via the door into Members’ Lobby? That will allow the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work to take his place for the Adjournment debate. May I ask the Serjeant at Arms to sanitise the Government Dispatch Box during the video link contribution by Richard Burgon?

The idea behind statutory sick pay is as simple as it is important: workers who are ill are financially supported so that they can stay off work to recover. But during a rapidly spreading virus pandemic, it also helps to prevent the spread of infectious illnesses. The test of whether a system of sick pay is working is whether it achieves those simple aims.

Unfortunately, as has been shown time and again during this crisis, the UK’s statutory sick pay system is quite simply broken. In the middle of a global pandemic, it is failing to protect either workers who are ill or their wider community. This failure, like so many others of this Government—from Serco test and trace to the personal protective equipment debacle—has contributed to the virus having spiralled out of control and so many losing their lives unnecessarily.

From the very start of this crisis, I have been contacted by constituents who simply cannot get by on statutory sick pay. Before this debate, I invited my constituents to share their experiences of having to rely on statutory sick pay. The stories that people from my constituency sent to me were quite simply heartbreaking: workers forced to use up their annual leave to self-isolate because the sick pay they would get is not enough to keep them going; families who found that sick pay did not cover even a quarter of their bills; and people forced to use a food bank to feed their family and go into debt to pay their bills after just three weeks of relying on statutory sick pay.

I have described just a glimpse of the horrific social harm inflicted on people in this country by this Government’s refusal to provide proper financial support during this crisis. People are being forced to choose between putting food on the table and self-isolating to protect their community and their colleagues. This is happening in every constituency of every Member across the country. MPs in this House know it is, and those who refuse to call for better sick pay have to take responsibility for the consequences.

The two biggest problems with sick pay have been clear from the very start: the level that it is paid at is far too low and, even then, huge numbers of workers are excluded from actually getting it. At £95.85 a week, statutory sick pay is an 80% cut in income for an average worker. Many workers simply cannot afford the immediate loss of income. And who can live off £14 per day? The TUC found that two fifths of workers would have to go into debt or miss paying bills if they had to take statutory sick pay.

Of course, the terrible consequences of this unacceptably low level of support are not felt equally. Many of the workers hardest hit by it are the same workers on the frontline fighting this pandemic. Let us look at social care. The GMB trade union has revealed that the majority of the UK’s social care workers are entitled only to statutory minimum sick pay, with no additional sick pay from their employer. When the GMB consulted its members who work in social care about what they would do if they had to rely on statutory sick pay, a full 81% said that they would be forced in to work. The Office for National Statistics found that care homes where staff got contractual sick pay above the level of statutory sick pay were less likely to have covid cases than those where staff were forced to rely on the statutory minimum. It is hard to imagine a more fatally self-defeating system during a pandemic than one that leaves care workers forced to go in to work when they should be self-isolating. How many people died in care homes because of this Government’s refusal to properly support workers financially when they are unwell?

As if the paltry level of sick pay was not enough of a problem, nearly 2 million of the lowest paid workers do not even qualify for sick pay because they do not earn enough. The lower earnings limit means that those earning less than £120 a week are prohibited from accessing sick pay—a discriminatory measure, given that 70% of the workers excluded by that limit are women. Millions of self-employed workers are also excluded. That is the stark reality of working conditions in this country in the 21st century: millions of workers—disproportionately women, black and minority ethnic workers, and those on zero-hours contracts—excluded from even the most basic and limited support by the Government.

From the start of the pandemic, Labour has called for urgent action to remove the barriers to sick pay that have left the lowest paid workers without support. Throughout the pandemic, trade unions such as Unite the union have made consistent demands on the Government to increase statutory sick pay to the level of the real living wage, and to remove the minimum income requirement so that every worker who needs to self-isolate is supported to do so. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union has also called for the Government to legislate for full rights to contractual sick pay for all workers from day one, paid at 100% of wages. Outside the Conservative party, there is even widespread support in Parliament, with MPs from seven parties signing up to support my motion calling for sick pay at a real living wage level.

I am sure that the Minister’s response will include reference to the Government’s £500 self-isolation support scheme. It is true that, six months into the pandemic, the Government introduced a scheme to give a one-off payment to some people on low incomes who have to self-isolate. Unfortunately, the scheme is woefully inadequate. Only one in eight workers qualify automatically for the main payment; the rest have had to apply for a discretionary payment, and figures suggest that 70% of applications for support from that scheme were rejected.

Back in November, I asked the Government how many people had applied for that payment. It took more than 100 days to get an answer, and when it finally came, it was that the Government still did not have the figures. No one could honestly look at the scheme and claim that it is an adequate alternative to providing proper sick pay at real living wage levels.

We know that covid is increasingly a disease of the poor. Those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods have been more than twice as likely to die from covid as those in the least deprived. People in some of the lowest-paid manual jobs are three times more likely to die of covid-19 than those in higher-paid, white-collar jobs. Covid is still circulating at higher levels in the poorest neighbourhoods than in the wealthiest. Proper levels of statutory sick pay would disproportionately help those in poorer areas and in manual occupations, and that is what needs to happen. When we look at why the Government have never acted on increasing sick pay as a priority, perhaps that is the real answer.

Sick pay was already broken before the pandemic struck, yet even in a global health crisis, the Government have chosen not to fix it, helping the virus spread out of control. The Government cannot claim not to have been warned in advance of the scale of this problem, because just months before the covid crisis struck, their own consultation on sick pay said that the system of statutory sick pay

“does not reflect modern working practices, such as flexible working,”

and looked at

“widening eligibility for SSP to extend protection to those on the lowest incomes”.

I, along with many in the labour and trade union movements, have been demanding better sick pay for workers for almost a year. In fact, it was a year ago tomorrow—when the UK had a total of just three deaths from covid—that the TUC published a report warning the Government to urgently make our sick pay system fit for purpose. The report called on the Government immediately to raise sick pay to the level of the real living wage and make it accessible to all workers, including the lowest paid. Those recommendations were ignored. It was also last March that the Health Secretary himself said that he could not afford to live off statutory sick pay, but, 12 months on, his Government have done nothing to raise it. If only the Health Secretary were as generous with the payments to working people as he appears to be with his friends when handing out Government contracts.

The Government’s refusal to act decisively has meant that the virus has spread more than it would have done, and people have lost their lives who otherwise would be with us still. The Government knew about this problem from day one but chose not to address it. The decision not to raise sick pay to a level that workers can actually live on is a deliberate political calculation from this Government. They feared that if sick pay was improved during this crisis, they would never be able to lower it again in the future; it would be a permanent gain for working people. This Conservative Government cannot allow that because it would go against the grain of the constant undermining of our welfare state. Fundamentally, the Conservative party sees the social security system as a means to punish—be that by setting universal credit deliberately low or the cruel bedroom tax— rather than it being there to support people when they need help.

The Chancellor has a chance finally to sort this issue out tomorrow at the Budget. If he does not, once again he will have shown which side this Government are on, and it is not on the side of working people and their families.

I thank the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) for securing this debate.

We have been facing the most serious public health emergency in a generation since the beginning of the pandemic, and the whole of the UK has joined together in a great national effort to face this challenge. Throughout the pandemic, the Government have done, and will continue to do, whatever it takes to fight the virus and get our nation through these difficult times. This Government have a strong safety net in place, and we took action to strengthen it for those who need it most. As part of that action, we introduced the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme, increased the universal credit standard allowance by up to £1,040 this financial year, and extended statutory sick pay to those who are self-isolating or shielding in line with the latest Government health guidance. We also went further and made SSP payable from day one instead day four for anybody who is sick, self-isolating or shielding due to coronavirus.

Taken together, these measures help to ensure that employees do not attend work when they should be staying at home, helping to keep themselves and others safe. Where clinically extremely vulnerable individuals are not able to work from home and shielding advice is in place, they should not attend work. Statutory sick pay is available to those who are unable to work, and is intended to be a safety net in cases where their employer chooses not to furlough them under the coronavirus job retention scheme and does not have other suitable policies in place.

In my constituency, quite a number of employers did not buy into the furlough scheme, and sick pay simply does not cover costs. I understand that the Minister is always very responsive to the issues; he always has been in any debates that I have been in, and I hope that he will be to this one. Will he and the Government consider grants or a help scheme for those who have got into debt just to feed and heat themselves at this particularly difficult time?

I thank the hon. Member, who I know from several debates to which he has contributed cares passionately about those in most need in his constituency. I am meeting the First Minister of the Northern Ireland Assembly next week to discuss a number of issues, including this, and I will set out in my speech the wider support that I know he will be looking to champion, and rightly so.

Clinically extremely vulnerable individuals are currently being advised to shield until 31 March. We expect employers to do the right thing and help their employees in following public health guidance. That is underpinned by the clear guidance issued by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, ACAS and the Health and Safety Executive to help employers make workplaces covid-secure. Where individuals have concerns about their health and safety at work, they should raise them directly with their employers or with staff representatives, HSE or their local authority.

The Government have also provided a comprehensive economic response that is one of the most generous globally, taking unprecedented steps to protect people’s income and support businesses, most notably through the coronavirus job retention scheme. We know that this has been a difficult time for businesses too, with many experiencing increased levels of absence due to employees needing to self-isolate. Any increase in the rate of SSP during the pandemic would have placed an immediate, direct financial burden on employers at a time when we know that many of them are struggling. That could have put more jobs at risk.

Many of those earning below the lower earnings limit who are not eligible for SSP are already in receipt of benefits, meaning that the welfare safety net is the most efficient way of providing targeted further financial support. Statutory sick pay should not be looked at in isolation. It is the minimum level of income replacement that employers must provide to eligible employees, and the majority of employees receive above the statutory minimum. Those who require further financial support while unable to work have been and will continue to be supported by the Government. For example, where someone’s income is reduced while on SSP, they may be able to claim universal credit. Where they are not eligible for SSP, they may be able to claim UC and new-style employment and support allowance. For ESA, we have removed the seven waiting days for claimants affected by coronavirus, so it is payable from day one of the claim.

For the millions of hard-working people who are self-employed, we continue to provide generous support through the self-employment income support scheme. The minimum income floor in universal credit has been relaxed for the duration of the crisis, which means that where self-employed claimants’ earnings have fallen significantly, their UC award will have increased to reflect their lower earnings.

Beyond the welfare safety net, we have also introduced a number of unprecedented packages of support to put money directly into the pockets of those who are in most need. We are providing financial support to self-isolate to those on low incomes through the £500 test and trace support scheme, alongside £35 million being made available to local authorities for discretionary payments to support those on low incomes who cannot work from home if they are required to self-isolate because they have tested positive for coronavirus or have been identified as a contact of someone who has.

We have worked closely with local authorities to monitor the effectiveness of the scheme since it launched in September 2020 and have listened to feedback from charities and support groups on the frontline. I welcome the changes to the eligibility criteria to include a parent or guardian who is staying off work to look after a child who is self-isolating. We will also be making an additional £20 million available for discretionary payments every month from March until the end of the scheme, which has been extended until the summer. Employers can also furlough employees who are on long-term sickness absence or have been advised to shield.

At tomorrow’s Budget, the Chancellor will set out the next phase of our economic support package, reflecting the Prime Minister’s road map to ease restrictions published last month and tailoring support for individuals and businesses to reflect the changing public health restrictions. The actions that this Government have taken were the right ones to respond to the immediate short-term pressures that the pandemic presented, but it is right that we also think about the longer term.

As the Minister for Disabled People, I welcome the opportunity to highlight the “Health is everyone’s business” consultation, in which we sought views on the rate of statutory sick pay and the role that employers can and should play in supporting employees who are disabled or have long-term health conditions to stay in and thrive in work. We have explored how long-term reform of SSP could support the Government’s ambition to reduce ill health-related job loss and drive transformational change, so that those managing long-term health conditions can live and work well. I cannot stress enough the importance of that work. One in five people in this country have a disability or health condition, and the vast majority of them will get that while they are of working age. It is therefore absolutely right that we review and look at the ways we support both employees with changing health conditions and employers to do the right thing.

I thank the Minister for giving way again. One thing that is very much an issue in my constituency—it probably is in the constituency of the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) as well—is mental health. When it comes to accessing all those benefits, there is absolutely no doubt that mental health and anxiety issues are one of the greatest crises we have had for a long time. Can the Minister and his Department offer help to those people with anxiety or depression or wellbeing issues?

The hon. Member, with laser-like precision, has identified one of the key issues. For those employees who have a fluctuating health condition—for example, mental health—one of the inbuilt challenges of the system is that someone is presumed to be either 100% fit for work or 100% sick, which stops them dipping in and out or having phased returns to work. Also, while society’s awareness of issues around mental health and mental wellbeing is significantly improving, there is not an easy guidebook that any employer—particularly small and medium-sized employers—can simply take off the shelf and then know exactly what to do. Therefore, we must look to address the issue of 100% fit or 100% sick to allow for that phased return as well as significantly improve the guidance and support for employers to ensure that people do not drop out of work. We recognise that work is good for people’s health, and it is significantly harder to help somebody back into work, dealing not only with their health condition but with the loss of confidence from losing their job, than it is to provide that support earlier on.

SSP maintains an important link between the employee and their employer during sickness absence while providing a level of income replacement for such a period. That is why the consultation set out that we are minded to extend SSP to those earning below the lower earnings limit, who are not currently eligible for financial support from their employer during a period of sickness absence. I think this is an area where the Government and the hon. Member for Leeds East would agree: it is important that there is a link, regardless of the number of hours that an employee works with their employer, because it is a partnership to deal with short-term, medium-term or long-term health conditions for the benefit ultimately of the employee but also the employer. We know that good work is good for one’s health and that work can play an important role in a recovery.

The consultation also proposed changes to SSP rules to allow for fully flexible phased returns to work, as I have set out, with SSP being paid alongside an employee’s wage. That can be beneficial for both the employer and the employee. We know that many employers are already taking positive action to support their employees to remain in work, but many businesses—particularly small and medium-sized organisations—need access to improved information and advice on how to better manage health in the workplace. We want to ensure that employers are supported and equipped so that they can do the right thing by their employees, and many of them wish to do so. We will publish the findings shortly.

Crucially, as we begin to build back better, employers will have a vital role to play in creating workplaces in which all employees can thrive. It is by working together that we can truly transform the lives of disabled people and those with health conditions. The benefit of that will be felt by all, so we must each play our part. I welcome the points made by the hon. Member for Leeds East. This is something that we will all continue to focus on.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.