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Coronavirus: Employment Support

Volume 673: debated on Thursday 19 March 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement about support for the wages of employees.

This is an uncertain time for our country, but the Government are clear that they will do whatever it takes to protect our people and businesses from the coronavirus pandemic. On Tuesday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out further steps in the Government’s economic response, building on the initial response he outlined in the Budget last week, which included standing behind businesses, small and large, with an unprecedented package of Government backed and guaranteed loans to support businesses through this crisis. I have been working very closely with him and the banks, and they are very clear about their responsibility to make these measures work. The Government have made available an initial £330 billion of guarantees, equivalent to 15% of our GDP. That means that any business that needs cash to pay salaries will be able to access a Government-backed loan on attractive terms. The Government will do whatever it takes to support our economy through this crisis and stand ready to provide further support where necessary. As the Chancellor announced, we will go much further to support people’s financial security working with trade unions and business groups. Following his appearance at the Treasury Select Committee yesterday afternoon, the Chancellor spoke to the trade unions, and he will today be meeting the TUC, the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, and the Federation of Small Businesses. This will be with a view to urgently developing new forms of employment support to help protect people’s jobs and incomes through this period. I am sure that you will appreciate, Mr Speaker, that these are unprecedented times. The Chancellor has said that he will look at further steps to help protect jobs and incomes, and he will announce further details in due course.

For much of yesterday, like many Members of the House, including the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), with whom I have been working, I was speaking to businesses in our constituencies that are facing a crisis. With revenue collapsing and no knowledge of when normal trading can resume, they see no choice but to lay off workers now. The loan scheme that the Chancellor announced on Tuesday is not enough to prevent that. These businesses have no idea when they will be able to pay back the debts they would incur and it provides no reason to keep staff employed. In fact, the reverse is true because, the smaller the wage bill, the less would have to be borrowed. On Tuesday, the Chancellor promised that there would be employment support, but as each day goes by, businesses are making decisions that will be irreversible and if the Government do not act immediately, large numbers of people will be unemployed and registering them will put huge pressure on the welfare system. Vital skills will be lost and good businesses, which will themselves be the customers and suppliers of other businesses, will cease trading.

There is a straightforward and immediate solution. All employers have an account with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to pay tax for employees through pay-as-you-earn. The monthly wage bill is known to HMRC. Instead of firms paying PAYE to the Government, that flow should now be reversed, with the nation paying the wages of people for the next few weeks if, and only if, they continue to employ their staff. Separate arrangements would need to be made for the self-employed, but at a stroke this would save people’s jobs, save businesses and put an immediate end to the risk of contagion and help to save the economy. This is a crisis the like of which we have not seen for 100 years. It requires a response that is immediate, effective and equal to the scale of the problem. The Chancellor said that he will do whatever it takes, and do so urgently. He now needs to make good on that without delay.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising this matter. I made clear in my response the urgency of the Government’s deliberations on this—it is absolutely at the top of everything we are doing. Ministers are working flat out, 24/7, to look at all the options.

My right hon. Friend raises the specific anxieties of businesses. I recognise that the package of measures that we have put out—with respect to statutory sick pay, easier access to universal credit and employment and support allowance, the business rates relief, the small business grant facility, the local authority hardship funds and the HMRC forbearance measures—will for some not feel sufficient at this point. However, he will also know from his experience in government that it is very important that when the Government announce the measures that we wish to take to assist with supporting employees, they need to be effective and need to work. So I say to the House and to my right hon. Friend: be in no doubt that all options are being examined. We are looking at models that exist in other jurisdictions and when, very imminently, the Chancellor comes to the House, we want to be sure that what we announce will be effective.

It is now six and a half weeks since the first cases of coronavirus were reported in the UK. For over a month we have known about the substantial risk that coronavirus poses to the economy and to workers, yet the Government have announced no plan to protect jobs and wages—no full plan for employment support. We are all—all of us—inundated with so many questions, and I have just four of those questions to ask.

People are asking us: why, for example, have Denmark, which had its first coronavirus case on 27 February, and New Zealand, which had its first case on 28 February, four weeks after our first case, both announced comprehensive job protection plans, while we have announced nothing to secure people’s jobs and wages? Given that, the second question is: what consideration has been given to the models in Denmark and Austria, which the Economic Secretary referred to, which involve the Government paying the bulk of people’s wages in exchange for job guarantees?

The third question is: why, when the Chancellor announced the loan guarantee on Tuesday, did the Government not tie those loans into an undertaking from business that no one would be laid off? The fourth question: will the Minister accept that freelancers will need additional support if they do not qualify for statutory sick pay? For example, in the culture sector we have as many as 2 million people, hundreds of thousands of whom may be affected.

The country deserves answers to those questions as a matter of urgency. We will continue to ask these questions not as a matter of political point scoring or ideology, but to ensure that we have a Government response that properly protects the public and matches the scale of the crisis affecting us here and now, not just next week.

It is in order for the hon. Gentleman to raise those points, and he is right to draw attention to the experience in Denmark. Throughout this crisis, the Government have acted on the best scientific and health advice, and that has clearly had to move over time. That advice has been challenged and questioned, and the Prime Minister and the Cabinet have made decisions based on the best advice available. Consequent to the health advice, which is clearly motivated to relieve as much pressure as possible on the NHS, there are other issues that we are dealing with urgently, and sequentially we are offering that advice as urgently as we can in different domains.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the Danish experience, and we are looking at the furlough system. We are looking at the proportion of support that is available, and we are also looking at the German system. In the last significant recession that happened in 2009-10—that is broadly the comparator that we could use—only 3% of German firms were helped. We are aware of what is happening in the US, and we are aware of the proposals that have been put forward by various think-tanks this morning. We are looking thoroughly at all those options, but it is very important that we have a system that delivers the support that is required to employers.

We have extended the coronavirus business interruption loan to up to £5 million. It is clear that there will be no interest payable in the first six months and no fees, and obviously we expect businesses to use that to support their employees during this time.

I commend my hon. Friend and I agree with him—that is something that the Government should be moving on now, but there is something else the Government could do literally today. Universal credit has three basic levers that can all be pulled now enormously to help people who are in work. First, the taper could be lowered dramatically at this stage, which would push the floor right up underneath people in work at the moment, allowing them to fall back on that if employers cannot deal with them. Secondly, Ministers could change benefit rates, allowing a greater expanse of money to flow to claimants: that could be done today. The third area where my hon. Friend could act is to look at the waiting time and reduce that almost immediately. Those three things were always built into the system for flexibility and they can be done today. They can be delivered within days by a Department that already has the ability to do that while he gets on with the other facilities.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has unrivalled experience in this area. He makes some very reasonable points, and we are looking very carefully at all the options. As I said earlier, when we have decided—very imminently—the Chancellor will make announcements to this House first.

In recent days, the Chancellor has already outlined support for business, which the SNP has welcomed. In Scotland, that support has been passed on in full by our Finance Secretary, Kate Forbes. However, I remain concerned that not enough support is being mobilised for sole traders, freelancers and the self-employed. Today though, our focus is rightly on people many of whom are already self-isolating or moving to work from home, if indeed they can. But bills are still coming in and rent payments are being sought, and so I welcome the news that some support will be put in place, for example, for payment for energy bills. The question is who is eligible for that, and will that go far enough. Will the Government use the tax system to put thousands of pounds in people’s pockets by way of an emergency universal basic income? Will the Government extend statutory sick pay to the 2 million people who earn less than £118 a week and benchmark it to at least the real living wage?

Firms are already starting to make staff redundant, but we need to stem the flow of that immediately, and today. The Government should introduce a statutory retention scheme to provide firms with financial support to keep staff in employment during this uncertain time.

Now more than ever, our social security system needs to kick in. To protect families impacted by hardship and strengthen automatic stabilisers that support demands in the economy, does the Minister agree that the main adult rate of out of work support in universal credit and other benefits, including carer’s allowance, should rise by a third to £100 per week?

We are in the midst of a national emergency the likes of which I have never seen before. How this generation of politicians responds to the crisis will be how history judges us. During the financial crisis of 2008, no expense was spared to bail out the banks, so today with the coronavirus outbreak we must similarly be prepared to bail out household budgets at this time of economic crisis. It calls for us all to rise to the occasion.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is important that the Government do whatever it takes in these circumstances. He raises a number of specific points. He will be familiar with the changes we have made in terms of access to statutory sick pay and eligibility starting much sooner; that commenced from 13 March. He will be aware that, to make that easier, there is now no need to have a GP note. He makes a number of points on universal credit and changing the eligibility there. Advances are available online; the minimum income floor has been temporarily released. He also makes a number of points about freelancers and the self-employed, which the Government are clear about.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the universal basic income. The Government are looking at that, but the question whether it will help the most affected most urgently is one we have to consider. Many of us in this House, for example, would not require such support. We have to ensure that we target it at the most vulnerable.

I have had a lot of emails on this subject, so may I ask the Minister again how the Government are going to support freelancers and the self-employed? They are desperately worried.

My hon. and gallant Friend is right to raise that. We have changed the rules on access to employment support allowance and sick pay. It will depend on individual circumstances. We have also released funds to local authorities for hardship relief. Further advice on that will be given tomorrow by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

I very much agree with the proposals just made by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith). It is particularly important that the advances paid to people claiming universal credit become non-repayable for those affected by the crisis. The Minister mentioned the suspension of the minimum income floor for self-employed people—a welcome announcement made by the Chancellor in the Budget—but it appears to relate only to people who are directly affected by covid-19, whereas many of those suffering at the moment are not themselves ill but are affected by the wider changes in the economy. Will the Economic Secretary confirm that the lifting of the minimum income floor will apply also to those who are not directly affected? Will we know the details of the employment support package—I am glad the Government are working on that—before this weekend?

The right hon. Gentleman makes some specific points essentially about the consequential effects on different groups of employees who are affected. I cannot comment on the details of that. As for the timing of the employment support announcement, we are working on it as quickly as we can. There is no timetable or specific date because we have got to get it right. We are working as urgently as possible, but I cannot tell him the precise moment at this point.

I commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) for his urgent question and endorse everything he said. Those of us who are not in the engine room of Government are being told by our constituents that, welcome though Tuesday’s package was, it is simply not going to be enough. When diehards such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) and Allister Heath of The Daily Telegraph are lining up for far more radical measures than the Government have yet announced, the Government must take note. May I urge the Government to say something today to give people assurance that the help will come?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his observations. He is right, but there is no sense that the Government are saying that what we have announced is the last announcement we are going to make. It is a question of making sure that when we announce measures, they will be effective in meeting the needs that we know exist. All of us, across the House, will have been inundated with emails from concerned individuals and businesses. We are taking that on board and acting as swiftly as we can. The points raised today are directly informing the nature of our response.

I understand that this is very difficult for the Government and I am sympathetic, but this is about real people’s lives. The Treasury’s natural approach—being cautious and wanting to stress-test everything—is not appropriate in these circumstances. The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) suggested some really good ideas. Why can they not just be implemented today?

I understand the hon. Lady’s frustration. It is totally reasonable for Members of this House to be extremely concerned in the absence of the announcement, but it would be even worse, I would suggest, if we made ad hoc announcements when different Government Departments were not quite ready to implement those effectively. We are talking about an unprecedented crisis, and therefore we will need to take unprecedented measures. It is important that we do that as swiftly as possible, but it is also important that we do it as effectively as possible.

I thank my hon. Friend for his recent announcements, and I absolutely understand that we are living in unprecedented times. In my constituency, hospitality and hotels are obviously huge employers. Is there any scope for the suspension of national insurance contributions, which would really help many of the chains, and particularly the smaller hotels? From speaking to those at the Goring hotel this week, I know that they are very concerned, and they are now offering their hotel to the Government for anything they need—for hospitals or for employees. Suspending NI contributions would be great.

I thank my hon. Friend for her suggestions. Obviously, we have made a specific package of interventions available in the retail, leisure and hospitality sectors. We also have the grant facility at a high level for those sectors. She makes a reasonable point, and we will look at it—and we are looking at it—very carefully.

I was here on Tuesday night when the Chancellor made his statement, and there can be no doubt what the attitude of the House was at that time. It was that the package of loans and other measures announced by the Chancellor on that occasion would not be sufficient. It would not be sufficient for those who are relying on benefits, it would not be sufficient for those who are already finding themselves out of work, and it would not be sufficient for the self-employed. Here we are two days later, and the Minister is telling us that there simply has not been time to consider these things. This is urgent, and we really must have action now. Why is it taking so long?

Every day, Ministers across all Departments are working on different aspects of the package. Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary brought forward some measures for renters. We also have the three-month relief for mortgage holders where they need it, and for buy-to-let mortgage holders. There is more work being done urgently to give clarity on the elements that Members of the House are raising, but, as I said earlier, it is a question of making sure that when these measures are announced, they are going to be effective and can be delivered efficiently.

The feedback I am receiving is that many businesses will have difficulty in accessing Government loans because of restrictions they have in granting additional security to a new lender. With that in mind, may I urge the Government to support payroll costs far more directly, as other European Governments are doing? This is the way to avoid large-scale redundancies.

My hon. Friend refers to the loans. I was meeting the banks last night to make sure that these loans are accessible. The criteria for issuing them are based on the solvency of businesses prior to this crisis arising. It is absolutely clear that the banks see they have a massive responsibility to make this scheme work. That term sheet is being finalised; it may already have been finalised this morning. The banks are now working on making sure that that will be available through all their call centres and branches. He makes the suggestion of a supplementary measure, and we are looking at these things very carefully.

A constituent of mine works in a residential home for adults with learning disabilities. Her son’s school will be closed from Monday. She does not know whether she is considered a key worker, and even if she is, as seems obvious, her son has respiratory problems, so she is uncertain whether she wants to send him to school. Her employer says she will not be paid and is not even entitled to statutory sick pay if she cannot come into work because of childcare. What should she do? Where is the clear advice and guidance, and where is the helpline for the thousands of other constituents of mine and of every single Member in this House? Where can they get answers, because they are so worried?

The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point about the concerns that are being raised. That is why the Cabinet Office will give further advice today on key workers and the support that will be given. I recognise that yesterday’s announcement on schools will be a significant disruption to the lives of many of our citizens. It is very important that we put in place urgently clarity about who is involved—who is designated in those categories—and the support that will be available. I will ensure that her point, which I am sure reflects the views of many, gets to the Cabinet Office after this session.

Given that the suggestions of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) could be implemented so speedily, will the Minister undertake to try immediately after this session to get an answer on whether they should be implemented?

The very essence of the hospitality industry is to provide social contact. Does the Minister understand the real anger of many in that industry that the Government have given advice to their customers but not to them? If the Government believe premises should close, they should say so, and they should accept the consequences of paying people whose idleness is enforced because of a contribution to a public health emergency. What is so hard to understand is that the system for doing that is staring the Government in the face. It already exists. It is called Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. That is a system for taking money out of wage packets every month and giving it to the Government; now, it should be put into reverse to put money into the pockets of those employees.

The hon. Gentleman is right to express the deep frustration of people in that sector, and I am sure his words resonate across the House. We have put in resources for 2,000 people from HMRC to take calls for bespoke solutions to deal with some of those issues. He is right that there is also an issue in terms of access to insurance. I was on a conference call with the insurance industry to clarify that where insurance has been taken out, that will be effective. However, he is perfectly right that more work needs to be done, and I have been very clear that more will be forthcoming imminently.

I thank the Minister for the measures that he has already taken to help the self-employed, but my constituency has the highest number of self-employed in the country, so will he elaborate on what tax incentives, or tax advice or support, can be given to the self-employed at this time, particularly during April over the end of the financial year?

As I said to the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), people have access to an HMRC support line, which is properly manned and up and running. That should give them bespoke support for their circumstances. I have referred to the package of other measures that the Chancellor announced a few days ago.

Charities such as Faith in Families in my constituency are really nervous that they will not be able to pay their wages. Without staff, they cannot deliver the projects for which they are applying for funding, which would provide food and childcare facilities in very deprived areas. That is necessary now; it will become essential in the future. What can the Government do to help those charities?

The hon. Lady is right with respect to the role that charities play across our communities, binding communities together and working closely with local authorities. My colleague in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is working on these matters, and we will make further announcements shortly.

I echo the calls for urgent support for British tourism, which I know the Minister will be familiar with in his constituency. In the Bournemouth area, tourism is worth more than £1 billion and directly employs 17,000 people. I received a letter from David Bailey, who is chair of the Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole destination management board. He talks about lay-offs happening right now, as we speak, affecting the future of businesses. He asks whether it would be better if, rather than handing out benefit claims, the Government provided salaries immediately. That would mean the industry could retain the skills that will be needed to spearhead the economic recovery and would reduce the number of businesses that cease to trade. Will the Government consider that?

My right hon. Friend makes some very reasonable points about the tourism sector just down the road from my constituency. The issue of what we do to support sectors that are directly and immediately affected by the action we have had to take will be at the front of our minds as we examine what employment support to put in place.

After six and a half weeks, when we knew we might reach this stage, it is hard to understand why the Government have no idea what they are going to do to pay the wages of those who are being laid off. A whole tranche of people are going to be laid off now, and more industries will lay people off next week and the week after. If the Government do not act now, they will not be able to retrieve the situation. How have we got to the point where the Government have not got a clue?

I accept the hon. Gentleman’s frustration, but characterising the Government as not having a clue misrepresents the situation considerably. There are a large number of issues that we need to examine, and we are doing so at pace. We will make further announcements to address those that have been raised in the House today. We have sequentially done more by the day, reflecting the evolving nature of this crisis and the steps we have had to take, based on health and scientific advice. I understand that the hon. Gentleman is not happy with the Government’s announcements so far, but more will be coming.

This weekend, pubs, clubs, restaurants and other retail outlets will be considering whether to close on an almost permanent basis, and the people employed in them have an uncertain future. However, most of them are relatively young and mobile, and they are able to offer help and assistance to the weak and vulnerable. Could we not guarantee loans to those outlets on the condition that those people continue to be paid and that they then become part of a volunteer force to help the weak and vulnerable at this time of crisis?

I do wish Ministers would stop using hyperbole such as “whatever it takes”, when they do not follow through sufficiently quickly. Will the Government extend SSP to support all workers and pay it at the rate of the real living wage straightaway?

The Government will do whatever it takes, but we also want to make sure that when we do it, it will be effective. The hon. Gentleman made a specific point about statutory sick pay, and the Government will bring forward a package of measures in due course.

Many of the “just about managing” are not managing, and there will be many more of them in the next few days. The last thing we need at this time is an over-engineered new system. As a humble Back Bencher, I have heard many good ideas in the Chamber this morning—particularly from my right hon. Friends the Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms). If those three right hon. Members are not in No. 11 for a meeting later today, I will be really disappointed. We have had the architect of universal credit in the Chamber, and he has given the Government the answer to their problem. Please can we get a move on?

I take the challenge from my hon. Friend in the spirit in which it was intended. There is no sense that the Treasury is trying to over-engineer anything. We are not trying to restrain spending for the sake of restraining it. We want to bring forward an effective package of measures that effectively meets the needs of the most vulnerable. My hon. Friend makes the reasonable point that a number of colleagues of great seniority have raised significant points of interest, and I will ensure that their contributions are heard at the heart of this process today.

Dental practices are at high risk of spreading coronavirus, yet there was nothing for them in the financial package on Tuesday, which means they have to stay open, with an increased risk of spreading coronavirus. Will the Government give assurances that they will cover fixed-price dental costs so that dentists can close and provide only urgent care?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. I will take it back to my colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care and see what can be done.

Many of the Government’s schemes have to be delivered through retail banks, which means people and businesses calling already overloaded call centres and going into retail branches—where they exist—which might restrict hours over the coming days. Most banks and most large private sector companies in this country that rely on some phone contact have resilience and contingency places dotted around the country that have pop-up call centres in times of crisis. Could the Government deploy those to ensure that desperate immediate-need calls from businesses and individuals are dealt with as quickly as possible?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point about the resilience required in banks at this difficult time. I discussed that with the heads of the banks last night and over the previous two days. We need to ensure that the terms of these loans are effective in allowing people to access them swiftly and we need to ensure that the banks can ramp up the accessibility of their specialist advisers. I have been given assurances that that will be in place.

So many of my constituents are caught up in this, like those of other hon. Members, and I have constituents who have no recourse to public funds, so when they are unable to work they cannot claim benefits. Many are freelancers and people who are self-employed and running small businesses. None of the packages the Government have announced help them so far. The Minister has had to be dragged here to answer an urgent question and has nothing he can say that will comfort our constituents. I think we all recognise that it is difficult, but could he not even give us a clue about the general direction of thinking from the Government? Will he raise the local housing allowance? Will the Government ensure that those with no recourse to public funds get funded? Will they stop this ridiculous loan system, which will never get paid back? Businesses will go bankrupt before they can pay it, and they are laying off staff now.

The hon. Lady raises a number of sensible points. We are looking at many of them. I reassure her that we will make further announcements very soon. Yes, we are looking at the ideas raised. We are looking at other jurisdictions. But in some cases we have a very different set of processes and IT systems behind some of these Government Department distribution mechanisms. I know that that is very technical, but the bottom line is that we need to ensure that when we introduce something, it delivers.

I support strongly the ideas on the universal employment retention package proposed by several right hon. Friends, and I hope that the Government take it on board to prevent a health crisis becoming an economic disaster. In addition, briefly, rateable value capped at £51,000 is too low for medium-sized tourism employers such as the Seaview Hotel. Secondly, we need clarity in the system because my chamber of commerce still does not know how to apply. Thirdly, we need a package for the voluntary sector. West Wight sports centre is a world-leading sailing academy and a major employer on my patch. We need either a voluntary sector package or a universal employment retention programme.

I thank my hon. Friend for his points; he raises a number of interesting ideas. He is absolutely right about the voluntary sector needing support. As I have indicated, there will be a package coming and different Departments are working together to make this as effective and comprehensive as possible. His constituency has a number of issues regarding the hospitality and leisure sector, and I am very aware of the representations he has been making to Government over the previous few days.

Letting many people get into rent or mortgage arrears or asking businesses to take on debt are not the answers. They are just going to make the crisis worse—[Hon. Members: “And longer.”] Yes, thank you. Every business, every employee, every self-employed person and everybody in the third sector needs to know that their living costs will be covered. The Government need to show the urgency that the Minister talks about and they need to show it today. Will the Chancellor come back today and make a statement on how they will deliver this?

The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right that we need a comprehensive package that deals with businesses, the voluntary sector and individual employees of different categories. We are looking very carefully at the best way to do that, in addition to the significant package of measures we have introduced. I feel his frustration and I will take all these points back and make sure that they are addressed.

The greatest difficulty for the Government in this fast-deteriorating situation of no one’s making is the speed of response. My worry is that the business interruption loans package will be too clunky for most small and medium-sized businesses, and the cash grants will take too long to get to businesses before decisions are made about jobs. Will the Minister look closely at the recommendation of our right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)? If that were put in place, some of the recommendations made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) on universal credit would not be so important.

I note the point that my hon. Friend makes about the clunkiness of existing measures, and obviously we are looking at the point raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells. My hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) refers to the accessibility of the loans. The Government guarantee to the banks through the British Business Bank is in order to provide a massive incentive to making the loans available to solvent businesses as quickly as possible, but I hear his concerns, and they are reflected in the design and in conversations that we are having with the banks.

Does the Minister not understand that a universal minimum income guarantee does exactly what it says on the tin? It will provide that minimum level playing field for tenants and their landlords, for business owners and their employees; it will provide everyone with a minimum level of assurance so that they can have some certainty in this time of uncertainty.

Yes, I recognise the provisions of a universal minimum income guarantee, and we are looking at that. We are looking at a number of options, and will bring forward a response as quickly as we can.

Like many Members, I have been fielding calls for the past 10 days from businesses that are sitting on the wire, wondering whether their futures are safeguarded. Has the Minister looked at the possibility of a VAT rebate for businesses that are desperately trying to hold on to their employees to ensure that they have a future? Will he please look into that, and will he also ensure that we have greater clarification of whether pubs are open or closed, because that is causing much greater distress than it needs to cause?

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point about the hospitality sector, and a very credible suggestion with respect to VAT. Across the benefits system and the tax system, we are looking at the optimisation of interventions to support the most vulnerable and most affected at this time, and to give reassurance to the whole country. We will urgently bring forward measures to address the concerns that he has raised.

Individuals are losing their jobs now—they are in desperate need now. Andrew Brown, a freelance graphic designer in my constituency, contacted me this morning; his business has folded overnight, and he cannot apply for any grants because he works from home. What does he do in that situation? The Minister talks about the great package that was announced the other night, but councils still do not have the guidance to get that money out to businesses. I urge him to get that out as a matter of urgency, because this morning Durham County Council told me that it will not be available until the weekend, and that is too late.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his points. I accept the need to give urgent advice through the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. My understanding is that that advice will be coming tomorrow. I understand—

I understand the frustration felt in the House. We are all receiving emails from constituents who are in a state of great anxiety. The Government are working—

We are collectively working as hard as we can to come up with the right package as soon as possible.

There are more micro-businesses in Buckinghamshire than in any other county in the country. I pay tribute to Buckinghamshire Business First, which is working extremely hard to try to support them, but may I urge my hon. Friend to take the unique needs of micro-businesses into account in the measures that he is developing?

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point about the nature of the businesses across his constituency. We need to ensure that we have an effective intervention for all workers.

Our farmers, crofters and fishers are crucially producing our food, but the situation has rocked those sectors to their foundations. Will the Minister outline what specific considerations are being given to supporting those sectors, so that they can continue their vital work?

The hon. Lady will know that a large number of the grants and loans schemes will be accessible to all sectors, as well as grants from the local authority. Comprehensive advice went out to all hon. Members last night setting out all that information, and there will be further announcements. Sector-specific issues are best addressed through the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but I hope the announcements that we have made will give some interim comfort to her constituents at this difficult time.

I am afraid that it is quite evident that the Government have lost support and confidence across the Chamber, and that is echoed by the markets. We have seen a 5% drop in sterling, which will translate into higher food and energy prices for already hard-pressed households. In Warwick and Leamington, we are losing jobs and good businesses. Will the Minister support the comments of the right hon. Members for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith) and for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and introduce some form of universal income support to restore both the supply and demand side?

I acknowledge the point on the minimum income guarantee, which I have responded to previously. On co-ordination with the Bank of England, we have worked with the Financial Conduct Authority to introduce better forbearance measures for the banks so that they can act effectively and use their flexibilities. Obviously the bridging facility that the Bank of England has brought forward for bigger businesses is also important.

Will the Minister assure us that the package of measures that the Government intend to bring forward will offer support to the self-employed, sole traders and freelancers who may not themselves be ill but who may have already lost work due to the economic disruption of covid-19?

I confirm to the hon. Gentleman that we are looking at the most comprehensive package that we can bring forward that deals with all sectors and all categories. We want it to be effective to deal with the reality of the challenges that our country faces.

May I raise a specific question with the Minister? Childminders and childcare providers in my constituency tell me that, although they have insurance if they have to close their businesses as a result of a notifiable disease, which covid-19 clearly now is, insurance companies are saying that they will not provide the cover, because it does not appear on the list of notifiable diseases. Will the Minister take that up urgently with the industry?

I have taken that up urgently with the industry. Businesses take out business relief, and then about 5% take out insurance for non-specified diseases, and 5% for specified diseases. We have made sure that for those that have taken insurance for specified diseases, that will be triggered by the Government’s announcement this week, and the other package of measures will support businesses that do not have that insurance. We cannot retrofit contractual obligations to insurance companies.

The Minister is a decent man, but there is a feeling across the Chamber that Treasury Ministers, and the Chancellor in particular, find it difficult to empathise with the situation that people find themselves in and do not speak human very well. I appeal to Ministers to show a bit more understanding of the predicament facing freelancers and the self-employed who have lost all their work, and perhaps take on board simple ideas, such as that of the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). Reverse the polarity—it usually works.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman wishes to criticise the tone of my response. I am clear that this is an unprecedented crisis. The Government have made a series of announcements, and will be making further announcements. A range of sensible suggestions have been made, many of which we are already examining urgently.

In response to specific questions about technical matters, I have had to use quite complex and unfamiliar constructions. If I did not do that, I would not be answering the question. If I used too many soundbites, I would be criticised in another way. We will do everything we can to take on board the questions that have been raised today to come forward with a comprehensive package that all our constituents will see as effective.

I asked the Government 10 days ago whether they would guarantee the wages, rents and business rates of small businesses. The measures that have been announced are riddled with problems. Businesses in St Albans tell me that they do not qualify for the secured loans or the grants up to £25,000, and they are being told that business interruption insurance will be payable only after the event when the insurance company can see how much they have lost. That is not good enough. Businesses are saying that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs must be used, not the benefits system; that they need grants, not loans; and that wages for all must be guaranteed, and guaranteed today.

I will not reiterate some of the responses I have given, in the interests of time, but I am very happy to look at the specific insurance point, as a responsible Minister, and see what I can do.

Can I ask about people who use registered childminders who now will not be able to do so? Quite understandably, childminders are still asking for the fees, because otherwise they will be short. We now have people who cannot go to work because they have to look after their children, but if they are self-employed, they cannot get money either. What support is available to help them?

The Government are very aware of that particular category. We are looking very carefully at what we can do and an urgent announcement will be made with respect to that issue.

Can I say to the Minister as constructively as possible that his Government’s economic response is undermining the public health response? Job losses are contagious. Fear of economic hardship will spread the virus. The technical details can wait, but he needs to say now—today—that in principle he will guarantee the incomes of everyone at a level that provides security.

We will do what it takes to support workers who are in distress. We have brought forward a package of measures, some of which will be imminently delivered, such as the unprecedented loan scheme. We have also added a number of grant schemes available through local authorities and reliefs from business rates, and additional measures will be coming imminently.

The Links market is the largest street fair in Europe and has been happening every spring for the last 700 years in Kirkcaldy. Unfortunately, as a result of coronavirus, the Scottish section of the Showmen’s Guild of Great Britain has had to take the reluctant decision to postpone the event this year. That is going to cause significant hardship for their members. It will also have a significant impact on the local economy because it attracts many visitors. What support will be available to get them through this difficult time and preserve their important fair?

The hon. Gentleman highlights what many colleagues are going to experience: events that have been planned and have been going on for many, many decades will be cancelled as a result of what is happening. The package of measures that we have announced will be accessible to many of those people. The sectors that are involved will sometimes have sector-specific packages, where there has been a direct effect as a consequence of Government decisions, and we are urgently working on a broader package with respect to employees.

I am sure that the Minister will have heard the cross-party consensus here. If the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) and I are in complete agreement, something is happening, so on behalf of the 130,000 people of Bristol West, I plead with him to take every single one of these suggestions straight back to the Treasury and to put them into practice today.

The hon. Lady can absolutely take my assurance that we are working to absorb all ideas from across the House that can be actioned. I brought forward legislation previously in this House building a cross-party consensus, and we would seek to do so on this, too.

The Minister is very keen to point out that he understands the frustration of Members and their constituents. Can I assist him by pointing out that it is no longer frustration, but desperation? What we need are not loans; we need grants. Businesses in Angus are asking me why they should take out a loan to provide incomes for people who cannot work, through no fault of their own. That looks dangerously like welfare, and delivering welfare is the responsibility of Government. When will the Government deliver?

I understand the use of the word “desperation”—I recognise that, and that is why we are working urgently to have a package of measures, and extend that package of measures, so that there are a range of options to businesses of different sizes in different situations, based on their sector and the risks that they face.

The first coronavirus death has been confirmed in Northern Ireland, and I wish, through the House, to convey our commiserations to the family.

I have been contacted by a school bus driver on a zero-hours contract who normally works 45 hours a week but has now been told that there is no work for him until further notice. Does his employer not have an obligation to pay his wages, and the wages of others in the same boat? What is the Minister’s message to help this employee?

I am very happy to look at that individual’s circumstance. We have made interventions to provide advances of ESA and to remove the minimum income floor. It is clear that we will need to do more to support employees who have been specifically affected by the tough decisions we have taken. I am very sorry to hear of the first death in Northern Ireland.