Yesterday in parliament the Coronavirus Bill was debated.
It is right that at this time of National emergency, all political parties should try to work cooperatively towards tackling the crisis.
Equally scrutiny of legislation is a key part of parliamentary democracy.
This Bill in particular gives the government powers that have never before been seen in the United Kingdom even in wartime.
In order to respect the Social distancing protocols that are required to keep the public safe, only a very few members of parliament were actually designated to participate in the debate. This meant that I was not able to be in the debate itself. However, I was able to make a positive input by the shaping of a number of critical amendments to the Bill and by framing the Labour Party approach in the Shadow Cabinet which has been meeting remotely through video conferencing. I set out here my views on the Bill and the government’s handling of the crisis.
There were several key areas where I believe the government had failed to get things right and needed to do more:
Personal Protective Equipment
The failure to provide adequate PPE to our front line NHS and Care staff is simply unacceptable. Those who are putting their own lives most at risk by caring for those with the virus do not yet have adequate masks and visors that conform with the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. The government failed to order these in good time even though we knew that these were critical equipment in Wu Han Province by the end of January.
I am concerned that the government has still not purchased enough test kits and is not utilising those it has to test the right people. The WHO said that its key message was “Test, Test, Test” because it is simply not possible to fight the virus blindfolded. I said over two weeks ago that I believed primary carers and first responders should be tested regularly. Without such tests we cannot know if they are acting as super-spreaders of the virus and actually endangering the very people they are treating and caring for. Thereafter, I said that testing of those who are symptomatic is vital for three reasons: to encourage those who are doing the right thing and self-isolating, that they are not staying at home losing income for no reason; to ensure that epidemiologists get a clear sight of the development of the disease; and so that effective tracing of all those who have come into contact with the disease can be done quickly in order to isolate those who are infected but not yet symptomatic. Using tests only for patients in hospital who are already showing very serious symptoms does not seem sensible. Such people need treatment not diagnosis. It is also unacceptable that the government has not insisted that it buy up all the tests that are currently available but has allowed those who can afford to pay hundreds of pounds to secure private tests regardless of whether these people have any medical need or priority.
Provision for the Self Employed
I have applauded a number of the financial measures that the chancellor has put in place. Labour had advocated a Danish style scheme and I welcomed the move by the government eventually to pay 80% of the wages for any worker that was stood down or furloughed as a result of Covid-19. However the lack of proper provision for the self employed is disgraceful. There are 20,500 self-employed people in Brent North and many are desperately worried about making their rent, mortgage and other bill payments. They have seen the retention scheme and other measures announced for employees and I have received scores of letters asking me what help is going to be put in place for them when they are being told they cannot continue their work. I wrote to the Chancellor to ask that comparable support is put in place for the self-employed as this would send a clear message to all self-employed and freelancers that they have the financial support they need, and can take the right decision to stay at home, protect themselves and protect the public.
The Level of Statutory Sick Pay
If we are asking people forego their income to self-isolate and the only financial support they receive is Statutory Sick Pay(SSP), then we cannot be surprised if they are reluctant to do so for £94.25 a week – which even the Health Secretary himself said he could not possibly live on. In fact as the graph below shows, our levels of Statutory Sick Pay are the second lowest in Europe. Other countries have radically increased SSP in response to the Covid Pandemic and I believe that the government here should do the same.
Schedule 27- Part 2 of the Coronavirus Bill sought to allow designated local authorities to disregard section 46(3) of the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984, which is designed to prevent a local authority from being able to cremate a body against the wishes of the deceased. This issue is of particular concern to both the Jewish and Muslim faith communities. I supported an amendment which gives legal protection to the effect that should there be an exceptional capacity issue, local authorities must consult next of kin and where needed local faith based organisations. It is important that in these times of crisis we do not forget that freedom of religion regarding burials is recognised in the Human Rights Act, and the Labour Party remain committed to upholding it. Losing a loved one is a time of great sorrow for families. Unfortunately, we know that there will be deaths as a result of COVID-19. This amendment will I hope bring families some comfort at the most difficult of times.
Social Care and People with Disability
The Coronavirus Bill that the government introduced replaced the statutory provision in the Social Care Act 2014 with “reasonable endeavours to provide for the needs” of adults in social care and disabled people. I worked with my colleagues in the Shadow Cabinet to table amendments that made it clear that overstretched local authorities could not begin to ration social care and leave people without their basic needs.
Civil Liberties and Sunset Clause
The Bill gives to government exceptional and quite draconian powers, the like of which our country has never before seen in peacetime. Originally the Bill proposed that these powers would last for two years. I believe this was excessive and I and my shadow Cabinet colleagues proposed a sunset clause of 6 months. This meant that the Bill would have to receive parliamentary assent in a vote in order to continue beyond that period. It is also important that the such a vote should not take the legislation as a “job lot”, but can be amended to enable some parts of the legislation to continue where they are still required, but to drop other powers which are no longer necessary.
Tenants in the Rented Sector
The Bill failed to honour the promise that the Prime Minister made to protect the country’s 20 million tenants in the rented sector.
Labour argued for an ban on evictions during the crisis to stop people losing their homes as a result of coronavirus. The Bill simply offered an extra few weeks for people to pack their bags! Tenants deserve the same protections during the crisis as those already given to homeowners, who have been given mortgage holidays. Coronavirus is a public health emergency, it should not become a crisis of housing and homelessness too.
Tighter social protection measures
I welcome the tighter social protection measures in the Bill and consider that people to date have failed to act responsibly by self-isolating and not congregating with others. There continues to be a lack of clarity however from the Prime Minister as to what precisely is required of people and who is allowed out and how they may be challenged and regulated. In particular when he talks of people being allowed to leave home for essential work that cannot be done from home, it is unclear what is meant by essential. Is it essential to the public in the way that a nurses work is essential, or is it essential to the individual in that, as a self employed gardener, he will not have any income to pay his rent unless he goes out to work? Other countries are demanding that people stay indoors and issuing permits if they need to go outside. We are not China or South Korea and we do not operate in the same way as a population, but people need clarity and certainty about what is or is not permitted and about what enforcement penalties will apply if they do not act responsibly. The government is still not clear enough.
I believe that the job of Her Majesty’s Opposition is not simply to oppose for the sake of opposing. It is to oppose in the public interest. To try to improve legislation and to improve government in the best interests of the British people. That is what I will continue to do in holding this government to account.