Budget Resolutions

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Monday 1st November 2021

(6 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, particularly to my position as chair of the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary group, as I shall focus my remarks on public sector pay.

The true test of a Budget is whether the political position holds in the days after or starts to unravel within minutes, which is what happened with this Budget. It did not take very long—indeed, the suggestion that we should all drink sparkling wine is unravelling as we speak, as wine experts cast their eyes over the Budget. We can see the Budget unravelling in no area more than the much-promised pay rise for public sector workers. It turns out that even the Treasury leaks were not accurate, because the Budget provided little or no comfort for civil servants who work for UK Government Departments.

In the past few days, the Chancellor has said in many interviews that pay is a matter for pay review bodies. If someone happens to be a civil servant who works for a UK Government Department, they will discover that their pay is not covered by a pay review body. Treasury money is needed to fund their pay rise. For those who, along with many, have helped to keep the economic wheels turning—who have, for example, processed and paid universal credit payments for a record number of claimants—and who have been subjected to 11 years of pay cuts and pay freezes, there is no clarity at all as to whether they will receive either a real-terms pay cut or a real-terms pay rise. As the hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) said, that is not levelling up.

Added to that is the fact that civil servants continue to overpay their pension contributions by 2%—of course, the Budget said nothing about that—so the Budget does not mean much at all for public sector workers who work for a UK Government Department. Inflation is over 3%, meaning that most have suffered a real-terms pay cut with this year’s pay freeze, and the predictions are that inflation will rise to perhaps 4%, with some even suggesting 6%. We need a commitment from the Government that civil servants will be rewarded.

As always with Budgets, the devil is in the detail. The Chancellor indicated that the Government want to cut jobs to 2019 levels. That would equate to 32,000 jobs leaving UK Government Departments. We have seen the benefits of the public sector and public sector employment, and the need for world-class public services, but the Budget does little to reward those who have kept UK Government Departments going and supported so many people. The Government have a duty and a responsibility to reward handsomely those who work for them.

Building Safety Bill

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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Absolutely. Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I chose to make the statement directly to the House of Commons and I will come on in a moment to set out the contents of it. The written ministerial statement merely summarises that.

In the actions we have taken and those we take today, we have always prioritised public safety. As I said earlier, the Bill before us will create a strong regulatory regime for all new high-rise buildings. However, it is also important that we put the risk of a fire, and in particular the risk of a fatal fire, into context. It is very low for all buildings of all heights. Dwelling fires have reduced by more than a quarter over the last decade and are now at an all-time low. It is right that we address safety issues where they exist and are a threat to life, but we must do so in a proportionate way guided by expert advice. That is why, through the Bill, we are drawing a very clear line at 18 metres for the enhanced regulatory regime. That is on the advice of building and fire experts that those are the buildings that pose the greatest safety risks in the event of fire spread or structural failure, albeit even there the risk should not be overstated given the low occurrence of fires and the even lower occurrence of fatalities. We are also including hospitals and care homes that meet the height threshold during their design and construction.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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The Secretary of State mentioned discussions with the industry. What can he say to companies in the Glasgow South West constituency, such as Bell Building Projects Ltd, that cannot get the appropriate indemnity insurance because insurance companies will not provide it? That company specialises in cladding. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with insurance companies to enable that company to do cladding across the UK?

Robert Jenrick Portrait Robert Jenrick
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I have been working intensively with those in the insurance sector and it is incumbent on them to bring forward products. We do not believe that it is the role of the state to step in and correct the market failure in its totality, but we are bringing forward a product—I will say something more about this later in my remarks—with particular reference to professional indemnity insurance for those assessors who are conducting EWS1 forms or equivalent. That is designed to give them the confidence to take the most proportionate risk-based approach to those assessments, which some are not able to do today.

Employment Rights

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 8th June 2021

(11 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right when he talks about a dynamic economy, which is why voters turned in their droves to him to represent them in this place, after decades of under-representation. I will gladly meet him to discuss auto-enrolment.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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The irony that the Government are consulting on enforcement powers against trade unions but only on guidance for bad employers is not lost on me. Talking about bad employers, zero-hour contracts, unclear employment status and short-notice shift changes were all mentioned in the Taylor report given to the Government five years ago—no rushing into legislation there. When will the Government legislate on the Taylor report recommendations, or will it be left to other Members to bring forward legislation to address these bad employment practices?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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The hon. Gentleman talks about the certification officer as if it were something new that has just been sprung on people, but clearly it is from the Trade Union Act 2016, so it has been five years, funnily enough. It is only just coming in now because we have tried to get the detail right. As for the legislation from the “Good Work” report that he talked about, the employment Bill will come to this place when parliamentary time allows.

Greensill Capital

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 13th April 2021

(1 year, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Chancellor and a number of Ministers reflected the view of the House that we wanted to push to make sure we had that diversity of finance and capital available to businesses of all different types. We should be proud of the support that has been given out, which has allowed companies to get through this incredibly difficult time, and it remains a difficult time.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP) [V]
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In responding to this story, David Cameron said that “important lessons” must be learned—I should certainly think so, given these shady back-door lobbying efforts with Cabinet Ministers. My question is simple: if serving Ministers are found to have breached or been in breach of the ministerial code, will they resign?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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The review will look to see exactly what happened in this situation. Nigel Boardman will do his work, which will report back at the end of June, and all the parties involved have committed to make sure that all the information is available.

Public Interest Disclosure (Protection) Bill

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Philippa Whitford Portrait Dr Philippa Whitford (Central Ayrshire) (SNP)
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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

Before I start my speech, I too wish to send my and my party’s condolences to the family of the police officer who lost his life in the line of duty last night.

Bristol Royal Infirmary, Mid Staffs, Morecambe Bay, Liverpool and Gosport: as in previous debates, I recite this shocking litany of tragedies, which have become household names, to remind us all of what is at stake.  In each of those scandals, there were those who tried to raise concerns and protect patients, but they were ignored and often intimidated, victimised or even dismissed. Had they been listened to, lives could have been saved.

Whistleblowing is an issue in many sectors, including financial services, as I am sure we will hear about later, but it is often the NHS and social care cases that stay in our memories, due to the terrible impact on patients and their families. The very term “whistleblower” denotes a boiling kettle—a sense of pressure and build-up, until a valve releases. In many cases, the poor working practices or patient safety issues have been going on for a long time before someone is finally driven to speak up. That is because the whistleblowing landscape before them is littered with broken careers and, indeed, broken people who tried to do the right thing.

Most businesses and organisations want to create a good external impression—to project an air of success and to attract more business. As Sir Robert Francis highlighted in the Mid Staffs inquiry, that can be a significant pressure if public services are competing for contracts in a market-based system. The temptation is to cover things up—to look good from the outside, rather than admitting a problem and trying to fix it. That immediately places the employee in conflict with their employer, who just wants the problem to go away. To redress that power imbalance, it is necessary to protect and support whistleblowers, to encourage them to step forward and raise their concerns, whether on patient safety, financial wrongdoing or environmental damage.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this Bill to the House. Does she agree that one of the important factors behind this Bill is to protect employees who engage in whistleblowing, many of whom find themselves dismissed, albeit for other reasons?

Philippa Whitford Portrait Dr Whitford
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I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. That is exactly the problem with the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which falls within employment law, putting the burden on the employee to prove that they have been sacked purely for raising a concern, rather than on the employer. As I will come to later, such cases very quickly turn into, as we would say in Scotland, a complete rammy.

In the five years that I have been in this House, I have heard politicians from all parties, including the previous Health Secretary, praising whistleblowers. However, despite several debates on the topic and about the need for action, nothing has been done to provide the protection they need from the point at which they make a disclosure. That is the critical thing: to protect them from damage, not to allow a system to pick it up afterwards. During the covid crisis, when we were out clapping the NHS and social care workers, we heard just as many stories of intimidation of those raising concerns about PPE or staffing.

When the Public Interest Disclosure Act—or PIDA—was passed 22 years ago, it too was a private Member’s Bill. I wish to express my thanks to the Clerk of private Members’ Bills in the Public Bill Office for all his work, but I recognise that I have pulled this Bill together, so I have no problem with its being improved, changed or developed in order to make it function. This is not a party political issue; whistleblowing exists in every sector, in every nation. We should recognise the need to deal with it and try to fix it.

At the time, PIDA was hailed as world leading, but that was 22 years ago. There are now better international examples, and it is in need of a complete makeover. What are the problems with PIDA? First, whistleblowers think that it offers protection from the point at which they come forward, but it does not. It merely allows them to challenge their employer in an employment tribunal after they have suffered detriment, such as missing out on promotion, being bullied or threatened or, as in a third of cases, even losing their job. As I said, the burden of proof is on the whistleblower to prove that raising a concern is the only reason that they have been sacked, rather than on the employer to prove the opposite. It is rather unsurprising, then, that only 3% of tribunal cases are successful—there is a 97% failure rate, and that is just the ones that actually go all the way to a tribunal.

The litigation process also creates opportunities for further victimisation and intimidation, with breaches of confidentiality and threats of spiralling legal costs. Ordinary workers in most sectors simply cannot maintain the fight. The problem is that as PIDA sits within employment law, it just turns into a battle between employee and employer. The original cause for concern that made them speak up gets completely lost, rather than investigated and action taken to fix the problem. This is actually the whistleblowers’ biggest complaint. The people I met said it was not even about their detriment or protection for them, but about the fact that after everything they went through the issue was never investigated and certainly never dealt with.

Financial and Social Emergency Support Package

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Wednesday 25th March 2020

(2 years, 1 month ago)

Commons Chamber
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John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell
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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.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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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.

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell
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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.

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John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell
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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.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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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?

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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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.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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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?

Simon Clarke Portrait Mr Clarke
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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.

Draft National Minimum Wage (Amendment) Regulations 2020 Draft National Minimum Wage (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2020

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 17th March 2020

(2 years, 2 months ago)

General Committees
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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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I apologise for being slightly late for the Committee, Mr Paisley. I was in the advertised room, where they were discussing Buckinghamshire, but I managed to avoid that—

None Portrait The Chair
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Today is your lucky day.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Indeed, Mr Paisley.

I have a couple of questions for the Minister. I am looking at the percentages that the Low Pay Commission has recommended. It is welcome that an increase of 6.5% is going to 21 to 24-year-olds. Is there an explanation as to why there is a lower increase for the development rate and the youth rate, for example, which are going up by only 4.9% and 4.6%? I am sure I am not the only Member of the House who has some issues with the age rates. Should people who are 21 really be getting the same rate as someone who is 25?

Secondly, the Government may describe this as the national living wage, but it is not the real living wage as far as we are concerned. The real living wage is £9.30 an hour. When does the Minister envisage the Government’s living wage being equal to the living wage applied and calculated by other organisations?

The Minister mentioned compliance. Do the Government have any plans to increase the number of employees employed by the national minimum wage compliance unit? It is important that there is strict compliance and regulation.

Another question relates to the current covid-19 pandemic. The Minister will be aware that the Government are discouraging citizens from going to pubs, nightclubs and so on. A lot of employees in the sector will be paid the national minimum wage. Are the Government encouraging the payment of the national living wage for people employed in pubs and nightclubs, which might very well close?

On Government contractors, are the Government encouraging the living wage to be paid, and are they ensuring that, when they issue contracts, the living wage applies? Can the Minister also tell us how he will make sure that employers do not use tips to qualify for the national minimum wage? That is still an issue in the hospitality sector, and it needs to be tackled.

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Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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Unfortunately, I am not the Chancellor, but I look forward to the statement this evening. At this time, it is important that we continue to speak out daily for businesses and, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, for the self-employed, for workers and for people who are worried not just about their jobs and the viability of the business, but about shifts in those areas. Make no mistake, we have all seen in our inboxes the amount of concern out there, so it is so important that we continue to address the concerns of self-employed workers, employees and businesses. The Chancellor introduced a timely and targeted package last week in his Budget, but things are clearly moving at pace, and we will see what he says during his statement at 7 o’clock.

On the future of the national living wage, although we are increasing it and getting through the technicalities now, it is really important to reiterate the point about younger workers. We are planning to extend the reach of the national living wage to workers aged 23 and over from April 2021, and to workers aged 21 and over by 2024. Unfortunately, I suspect that the children of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston will have already reached that higher level by that time.

A UK-wide minimum wage, recommended by the independent expert Low Pay Commission, ensures that the pay of the lowest paid in society is protected, and means that businesses compete on a level playing field. In 2016, the Government committed to raising the national living wage to 60% of median earnings, and we have stayed true to that commitment. We have the highest employment rate since comparable records began. The strength of our labour market shows that a higher minimum wage can go hand in hand with strong employment growth.

Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens
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Before the Minister continues, he did not answer my question about employers using tips to reach the national living wage. That is a form of cheating that happens in the hospitality sector in particular. Will he respond to that specific point?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Forgive me, I missed that one. The current rules are clear that tips do not count towards pay for national living wage purposes. That is part of the education that we need to ensure that the hospitality sector adheres to and does not fall foul of those rules, whether or not employers know about them. That is an area of possible exploitation and can be an area of ignorance, which is no excuse. We will shortly introduce legislation to ensure that 100% of tips go to workers, which I am sure will be welcomed in the hospitality industry.

Our pledge to raise the national living wage to two thirds of median earnings by 2024, taking economic conditions into account, makes the UK the first major economy in the world to set such an ambition. We will soon publish the remit for the Low Pay Commission, which will include recommending the national living wage rate to apply from April 2021—that is the first step on the path to two thirds of median earnings. We will continue to come down hard on employers who fail to pay the minimum wage.

The regulations and accompanying non-legislative measures show that we are committed to helping employers get the rules right at the first time of asking and without the need for enforcement. I commend the regulations to the Committee.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the draft National Minimum Wage (Amendment) Regulations 2020.

draft national minimum wage (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2020

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the draft National Minimum Wage (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2020.—(Paul Scully.)

Deaths of Homeless People

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Tuesday 1st October 2019

(2 years, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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We know from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities that the rent arrears of those on universal credit are two and half times the arrears of those on housing benefit. Will the Minister therefore tell us what discussions he is having with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that we are addressing the issue of rent arrears?

Luke Hall Portrait Luke Hall
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The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight this issue. We are having constant discussions with Ministers about these issues. Both that issue and the one about the local housing allowance are raised most often with me, and I am having constant discussions with my colleagues on the Front Bench about the way forward.

Definition of Islamophobia

Chris Stephens Excerpts
Thursday 16th May 2019

(3 years ago)

Commons Chamber
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Chris Stephens Portrait Chris Stephens (Glasgow South West) (SNP)
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The debate has been excellent, and it is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who explained the work of the all-party group. My good friend the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) led the debate quite superbly.

I am proud to represent a diverse parliamentary constituency. As the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) said, the Muslim faith is one of peace, love and charity, and that is my experience of the Muslim community in Glasgow South West. We have the Scottish Police Muslim Association, alongside the Glasgow South West food bank, which provides a community kitchen once a month to help the most vulnerable in our society by providing them with a hot meal. We have many charitable organisations, including the Crookston Community Group, and many of them are led by those of the Muslim faith, who are doing great work throughout the community.

The all-party group’s report “Islamophobia Defined” proposes the following working definition:

“Islamophobia is rooted in racism and is a type of racism that targets expressions of Muslimness or perceived Muslimness.”

I did not quite understand some of the criticisms of the report or the definition, which has come about as a result of a six-month inquiry. As we have heard, that inquiry took evidence from academics, lawyers, victims groups and British Muslim organisations, and included input from Member of the Scottish Parliament Anas Sarwar, who is chair of the Scottish Parliament’s cross-party group on tackling Islamophobia, along with the Scottish Ahlul Bayt Society, one of the office-bearers of which is my good friend Shabir Beg.

All that input has gone into looking at a definition, and as we have heard that definition has been endorsed by the Muslim Council of Britain, British Muslims for Secular Democracy, the Muslim Women’s Network and the Edinburgh central mosque in Scotland. The Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru have adopted the definition, as has the Scottish National party Westminster group. We are now going to feed that into our internal party structures so that the definition can be adopted at our next conference. It seems to me that a lot of serious work, thought, input and discussion has gone into the definition.

Several comments were made about hate crimes. The Scottish Government’s publication “Religiously aggravated offending in Scotland” has figures on the proportion of charges for offences that relate to Islamophobia. In 2010-11, there were 15 charges that were defined as Islamophobia, and that number rose to 115 in 2017-18. The number of charges in relation to other offences peaked in 2015-16, when there were 134 charges, of which 57 were recorded during one incident involving a march in Glasgow. It should be noted that the police in Scotland do not record the religion of the victims of religiously aggravated offences, so the data has been derived by analysing police reports and is based on the details of the incident and what the accused said and did. As such, the figures presented on the targeted religion should not necessarily be regarded as definitive.

We are deeply concerned about the growing levels of Islamophobia and other forms of intolerance seen recently not just in the UK, but around the world. Islamophobia is a real, lived experience, as confirmed by a 2018 ComRes poll that found that 58% of people thought that Islamophobia was a real problem in today’s society. A poll of 1,000 Muslims conducted by ComRes for BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme in 2015 found that 46% of Muslims felt that prejudice against Islam makes it very difficult to be a Muslim in this country. Others have mentioned the despicable terrorist attack in Christchurch in New Zealand, which is a grave reminder of what Islamophobia can become if it is left unchallenged.

We need to provide a vision of a nation free from fear, prejudice and discrimination, and we should all continue to work for that. As I outlined, I am proud to represent a constituency that, like many others throughout Scotland and the UK, has a vibrant and dynamic Muslim community who play a valuable role in our society and strengthen our interfaith relationships.

The SNP Westminster Group considered the definition very carefully and decided to adopt it. The all-party definition was arrived at following a careful and robust process and wide consultation with the Muslim community. That is important and it is why we should give this definition our support today.

On Islamophobic comments by politicians, I listened very carefully to the hon. Member for Bradford West and agreed with what she said. She reminded us that we all have a duty and a responsibility to be careful about what we say and to make sure that what we are saying is not intolerant or incendiary. Of course, the former Foreign Secretary’s remarks about Muslim women were cited in the APPG report. Those remarks were utterly inexcusable and should be called out for what they were. We should not stand by and expect dog-whistle Islamophobia. I have to say that the Conservative party really must stand firm against such grotesquely offensive and intentional comments, or risk normalising toxic and bigoted rhetoric. At a time when political discourse is alienating many, we all must consider the language that we use and reject intolerance.

It has been a pleasure to speak in the debate and to support the all-party group’s definition of Islamophobia.