Debates between Edward Miliband and Alok Sharma

There have been 7 exchanges between Edward Miliband and Alok Sharma

1 Tue 21st July 2020 Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
5 interactions (443 words)
2 Thu 16th July 2020 UK Internal Market: White Paper
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
3 interactions (2,379 words)
3 Mon 29th June 2020 Business and Planning Bill
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (725 words)
4 Tue 16th June 2020 Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
5 interactions (552 words)
5 Wed 3rd June 2020 Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (707 words)
6 Tue 12th May 2020 Covid-19: Business
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
2 interactions (1,327 words)
7 Mon 4th May 2020 Oral Answers to Questions
Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
4 interactions (481 words)

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Edward Miliband and Alok Sharma
Tuesday 21st July 2020

(2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

My hon. Friend highlights an important point. Throughout the covid-19 period, the Government have provided unprecedented support for employment and worked in close partnership with the business community. I understand that it continues to be a difficult time for many businesses, but as he highlights, in that spirit of partnership, we expect all employers to treat their employees fairly and follow the rules.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab) - Hansard

I want to return the Secretary of State to the question asked by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) about the many businesses that are part of the 3 million ExcludedUK group. They include over 2 million people who are essentially self-employed but have been disqualified from help under the self-employment scheme for various—often arbitrary—reasons. In many cases, this is not simply rough justice but deep unfairness. Many of these individuals are not high earners. Will the Secretary of State give an indication that he recognises that this is an injustice, and can he tell us how he plans to address it?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

The right hon. Gentleman will also acknowledge that the Government have provided unprecedented support to businesses across the whole economy. As I said, the key right now is to support businesses to open, to get the economy up and running. That is the best way that we can support businesses across the United Kingdom.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband - Hansard

This issue of 3 million people being excluded is not going away. Let me ask him about the winding down of the furlough scheme. Yesterday, Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation, said that a furlough extension was vital to prevent a “jobs bloodbath” in aerospace and automotive. We see the looming threat too in sectors that have not yet reopened, such as events and exhibitions, and those operating well below capacity, such as hospitality. Yet from next week, the Government are insisting that every single employer, whatever their industry, will have to start contributing to the furlough. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that this decision to phase out the furlough, irrespective of circumstances, risks handing a P45 to hundreds of thousands of workers?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

The furlough scheme will have been up and running for a full eight months, providing a huge amount of support for more than 9 million jobs. It is becoming more flexible and allowing people to return to work part time. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Chancellor has also set out the job retention bonus which, if it is taken up by all employers, will represent a £9 billion boost for the economy. I say to him again that the key is to get the economy up and running and to get businesses trading.

UK Internal Market: White Paper

Debate between Edward Miliband and Alok Sharma
Thursday 16th July 2020

(2 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Alok Sharma Portrait The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Alok Sharma) - Parliament Live - Hansard
16 Jul 2020, 12:04 a.m.

For centuries, the United Kingdom’s internal market has been the bedrock of our shared prosperity, with people, products, ideas and investment moving seamlessly between our nations, safeguarding livelihoods and businesses and demonstrating that, as a union, our country is greater than the sum of its parts.

Today, I am publishing a White Paper on the Government’s plans to preserve the UK internal market after the transition period. Since the Acts of Union, the UK internal market has been the source of unhindered and open trade across the country, one which pulls us together as a united country. I know that the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) cares as much about our precious union as I do.

Since 1973, EU law has acted as the cohering force for the UK internal market. In 2016, the British people voted to repeal this legislation, allowing us now to articulate the continued functioning of the internal market. The Union’s economic strength is unrivalled. Since the Acts of Union, the size of our economy has multiplied over 170-fold. Successive UK Governments have legislated to share this prosperity and protect workers’ rights—for example, through the introduction of the national minimum wage and now the national living wage, and by providing for more generous holiday and maternity leave than required by the EU. Today we are announcing plans to continue this hugely successful economic Union. We will legislate for an internal market in UK law, as we leave the transition period and the EU’s single market. Our approach will give businesses the regulatory clarity and certainty they want. It will ensure that the cost of doing business in the UK stays as low as possible.

But let me be clear: preserving the coherence of the UK internal market will be done in a manner that respects and upholds the devolution settlements. On 1 January 2021, hundreds of powers previously held by the EU will rightly flow directly back to devolved Administrations in the United Kingdom. For the first time, because of our approach, the devolved Administrations will be able to legislate on a whole range of policy areas. Each nation that makes up our United Kingdom will hold an unprecedented level of powers after the transition period.

To respect devolution and uphold our internal market, we propose to legislate this year. Businesses across the UK will be given a market access commitment. That will be underpinned by the principles of mutual recognition and non-discrimination, which will guarantee that goods and services from one part of the United Kingdom can always be sold into another. The simple principle at the heart of this approach is a continuation of our centuries-old position that there should be no economic barriers to trading within the United Kingdom.

The economies of our four nations, within one United Kingdom, are strongly integrated. At the time of the last census, 170,000 workers commuted daily from one part of the UK to another. Scotland makes over £50 billion of sales per year to the rest of the UK, accounting for over 60% of all exports. Indeed, Scotland sells three times as much to the rest of the UK than to the whole EU put together. About 50% of Northern Ireland’s sales are to Great Britain, and 75% of exports of Welsh final goods and services are consumed in other parts of the UK. In some parts of Wales, over a quarter of workers commute across the border. It is in the clear economic interest of the whole United Kingdom that its internal market continues to function successfully and seamlessly, as it has done for centuries.

As part of our proposals, we will also clarify in law the position that subsidy control is a reserved matter for the whole United Kingdom. This has never been a devolved matter. The Government have been clear that, after the end of the transition period, the UK will have its own domestic subsidy control regime. We will develop our policy proposals on this in due course, consulting widely.

We will only recover from covid by working together. Just over two weeks ago, the Prime Minister set out how we would strengthen the incredible partnership between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland through our economic recovery. That will be underpinned by a strong UK internal market and avoid the damaging uncertainty for businesses of a fractured economy. It will provide the unquestionable advantages of continued open trade. It will benefit businesses, workers and consumers across the country through lowering trading costs and allowing different regions to specialise in sectors where they enjoy a comparative advantage.

Our proposals are designed for co-operation between all four nations. We invite all devolved Administrations to work together and to agree common approaches to cross-cutting issues such as regulatory standards.

The UK economy has some of the highest standards in the world. We go beyond EU rules in many areas, including health and safety in the workplace, workers’ rights, food, health and animal welfare, consumer protections, household goods, net zero and the environment. We will maintain our commitment to high standards, as we negotiate trade agreements that will provide jobs and growth to the United Kingdom. Through our common frameworks approach, we will support regulatory consistency across our internal market, so if the devolved Administrations seek to agree standards across the UK economy, I say simply this: come and work with us.

The UK internal market is a historic achievement for the United Kingdom, which for 300 years has supported unrivalled economic growth and innovation within our great Union. That has underpinned the best of our United Kingdom’s innovation and prosperity: the Scottish enlightenment, the steam engine, the world’s first vaccine, the telephone, the electric tramway, penicillin, radar, pneumatic tyres, the breaking of the Enigma code, the sequencing of DNA, and the world wide web. As we rebuild and recover from covid, we will work together as one United Kingdom to support jobs and livelihoods across our whole country. We will maintain high standards for consumers, and deliver our commitment to devolution by giving more power to the devolved legislatures. I commend this statement to the House.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab) - Parliament Live - Hansard
16 Jul 2020, 12:19 p.m.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. We support the principle of maintaining the UK’s internal market, which is vital for trade, jobs, and prosperity across the whole United Kingdom. The way the Government go about that has profound implications for whether we drive up standards across the UK, or drive them down, and for whether that issue becomes a source of tension across the four nations of the UK. We believe in our United Kingdom, and there is a big responsibility on the Government to seek to build consensus, and ensure that we do not drive a wedge between our nations or give an excuse to those who wish to do so.

By those standards, there are significant problems in the announcement. On the process, for example, the Welsh Government were promised a draft of this White Paper last March, yet when I talked to the Welsh First Minister yesterday afternoon, the Government had still not shared it with him. That approach does the Secretary of State and the Government no good. On the substance, we should be honest that there is a real challenge regarding how we maintain an internal market without barriers in the UK as we leave the European Union, while at the same time respecting devolution when issues such as food standards and labelling, animal welfare, and other important environmental issues are devolved.

For the past 40 years, including 20 years of devolution, that has been achieved by the EU setting minimum standards, which all four nations had to abide by. The crucial question is not whether we have an internal market, which we need, but how we now set minimum standards to ensure that each nation has a proper voice in doing so, and a means of resolving any disputes that arise. By answering those questions, we can do what we need to do, which is both keep the internal market and respect devolution. Unfortunately, despite the warm words from the Secretary of State, the approach of the White Paper as presented for England, Scotland and Wales appears to be simply to legislate that the lowest standard chosen by one Parliament must become the minimum standard for all.

The risk is that one legislature would be able to lower its food safety standards and animal welfare standards, and force the other nations, which would have no recourse, to accept goods and services produced on that basis— in other words, a race to the bottom. The Secretary of State talks about levelling up, but there is a real risk of levelling down. That is not in the interests of consumers, workers or businesses, and it does not adequately respect devolution. For Northern Ireland, if standards in the UK diverge significantly below those of the EU, there is a real risk that checks on food and other products going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would increase in parallel.

The Secretary of State must, in the course of this consultation, provide better answers for how we avoid that race to the bottom, so let me ask him four specific questions. First, will he explain what is the mechanism, if any, by which the four nations of the UK will agree minimum standards that respect the voice of each nation? He mentions the common frameworks process and an ongoing process of dialogue, but he must realise that that is superseded by the White Paper, which simply states that the lowest standard among the nations wins. If the framework process is to prevent that danger, how will it be incorporated into legislation?

Secondly, there needs to be a means of resolving disputes that can command confidence. The White Paper states:

“The Government will consider tasking an independent, advisory body to report to the UK Parliament”.

That is far too weak. Surely the Secretary of State must recognise that any independent body, if it is to respect devolution, must be accountable to all four nations, with its functions agreed by all four nations.

Thirdly, the Secretary of State must understand that the anxiety caused by the White Paper is partly due to the gap between the Government’s warm words about raising standards—we heard them again today—and their deeds. They had a chance in the Agriculture Bill to agree that no trade deal would be signed that lowered animal welfare, environmental protection or food safety standards, through an amendment tabled by their own side, but they refused to do so. The spectre of a Trump trade deal that would drive down standards and be imposed on the whole of the UK hangs over this White Paper. For years they have denied that their real agenda is a bonfire of much-needed standards. Great, but if they do not plan to lower standards, why cannot the Secretary of State agree to legally binding commitments?

Fourthly, the state aid rules need to be in place in just five months’ time, but even after this White Paper we still do not know any details about how they will work. Will the Secretary of State tell us when we will get the Government’s plans?

I want to end by saying to the right hon. Gentleman that we absolutely need to maintain the internal market from 1 January, but it is time the Government showed—in deeds, not just in words—their commitment to levelling up, not levelling down. It is time, too, that they showed a desire to build constitutional consensus, rather than risking constitutional conflict, and the White Paper is not a good start. The Secretary of State and the Government must do better in the weeks and months ahead.

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Parliament Live - Hansard
16 Jul 2020, 12:22 p.m.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments and for his support for the principle of the UK internal market. I hope that that is something we will hear echoed across the House as we open up to questions. Let me address some of the points that he has raised. The first thing worth noting is that he talked about anxiety. The real issue at the moment is giving certainty to businesses, so that they know from day one that they are able to operate as they do now within a coherent, seamless internal market. That is what this White Paper proposal absolutely gives them. I have spoken, as I am sure he will have done, to business representatives and organisations over the last 24 hours, and they have told me that this is one big issue off the risk register of companies.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about standards. I would point out to him once again that the UK has some of the highest standards in the world across a whole range of areas. I have listed issues around maternity and paternity pay, around the exclusions and around zero-hour contracts. I say to him once again—I am sure that this issue will be raised by others as well—that we are not going to be compromising our high environmental standards, our high animal welfare standards or, indeed, our high food safety standards in the deals that we do.

The right hon. Gentleman then raised the issue about working together. He will know that the common frameworks programme has been running for some time, and we have had consultations and discussions around that. If colleagues in the devolved Administrations want to have a discussion about standards, that is absolutely the right forum in which to do it. He also mentioned the state aid rules. I know that he will understand the reason that we want to continue to have this as a reserved matter. We want to ensure that there is effectively equality across the whole of the UK and that there are no distortions. I understand his desire for us to set out the details on this, and that will come.

In conclusion, the White Paper gives certainty to businesses. It is about protecting jobs and livelihoods, and about supporting businesses in making their investment decisions. That is good for consumers as well. It is about underpinning our recovery from covid as we seek to work together. I say to all colleagues that this is about businesses and people, not about politicians, and I hope that that is the spirit in which we will conduct the rest of this debate.

Business and Planning Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Debate between Edward Miliband and Alok Sharma
Monday 29th June 2020

(2 months, 4 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
29 Jun 2020, 12:04 a.m.

The Minister for Housing, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Christopher Pincher), will deal with the details of that. The point of these measures is to get the economy going, which my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) is keen to do. I understand his point, and we will address it in Committee.

The Bill temporarily allows the issuing of one-year lorry or bus driving licence renewals, rather than the standard five years. Shorter renewals will be allowed if an applicant is otherwise healthy but unable to obtain the medical report required for a five-year licence. That will relieve pressure on GPs and allow drivers to continue to work. The Bill also reforms powers to exempt temporarily goods vehicles, buses and coaches from roadworthiness testing. That will allow the high demand for heavy-vehicle testing, which restarts from 4 July, to be managed in a manner that prioritises road safety by targeting higher-risk vehicles or operators.

In conclusion, the Government have stood shoulder to shoulder with businesses throughout the covid-19 emergency and now, as we emerge from this pandemic, we need to support our economic recovery and help businesses with more flexible ways of working. The great British economy, helped by a willing public, is reawakening from its enforced slumber. Taken together, the measures in the Bill are designed to provide a much-needed economic boost, and I commend it to the House.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab) - Hansard

May I start by thanking the Business Secretary for the constructive conversations that he and I have had on the Bill? As he knows, we support the measures contained in it.

The wider context to this Bill is the economic crisis that we face, the scale of which we have not seen for a very long time. As an Opposition, we have tried to work constructively with Government. Indeed, we have welcomed a number of steps that the Government have taken. We called for the furlough scheme and indeed have welcomed it, though we believe that too many people remain excluded from support. We called for the 100% underwriting of Government-backed loans, and we have welcomed the bounce back loans, too. We have also supported the Government on the difficult decision to move from 2 metres to 1 metre-plus where 2 metres cannot be observed, although we do have concerns about the test, track and trace system.

I hope that we can agree that the past few months have shown the power of Government to step in and protect jobs and businesses at a time of crisis. My case today is that that power has not gone away, and neither has the need for it to be exercised. The Government must not shrink from that, because, let us be clear, we are not at the end of this economic crisis, but just at the beginning of it.

Let me deal first with the provisions in the Bill. It is a short Bill and there is a large degree of agreement on it. The headline provisions, as the Secretary of State has said, will enable the hospitality industry to reopen quickly and serve a greater number of customers in a safe environment. We welcome the temporary loosening of planning regulations to enable bars, restaurants and cafés to serve customers outside their premises. I take the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) has made about the need for some caution here. It is important that local authorities continue to have discretion in these matters because they are best placed to make the judgments about the local impacts. It is also right to put on record the concerns of the shop workers’ union, USDAW, which has worried about the safety of staff. The guidance is very clear about the mitigation and reduction of risk that is needed if 1 metre-plus is in place, and I am sure the Secretary of State agrees that that is really important, and that it is also very important that the Health & Safety Executive takes a tough line in enforcing safety as well.

We also welcome the measures in enabling construction sites to get back to work more easily through extended working hours. Again, and I am sure that Members across the House will agree with me, it is in the interests of local residents that local authorities have discretion in these matters.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Edward Miliband and Alok Sharma
Tuesday 16th June 2020

(3 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

My right hon. Friend, I know, has been engaging with businesses through virtual networks across Warwickshire, and I thank him for the work that he is doing locally. What I would say to him is that, of course, we have ensured that loan schemes are available across the economy. Smaller businesses in hospitality, leisure and retail have been able to access a £25,000 grant. The key issue is to have a safe and phased reopening of the economy to get it going again, which is what we are currently undertaking.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab) - Hansard
16 Jun 2020, 12:06 a.m.

I join you today, Mr Speaker, in both mourning and remembering Jo Cox.

I welcome much of the help that the Government have provided, but, according to Make UK, we could see the loss of 170,000 manufacturing jobs this year. In France, steel got loans within 10 days of applying for them, and aerospace is benefiting from billions of pounds of support, including for low-carbon engines. Here, three months after the crisis began, 60% of companies that have applied for large loans are still waiting and there has been no targeted help for our manufacturers. Will the Secretary of State tell us when specific help will actually materialise for sectors such as steel and aerospace?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

I do welcome the constructive tone in which we have approached our exchanges over the past few weeks, but what I would just say to the right hon. Gentleman is that if he looks at the sum total of what this Government are providing, he will find that it is significant and incredibly favourable when compared with international comparators. On loans, as he knows, we have increased the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme to allow up to £200 million to be made available, and we will continue to support businesses. He will also know that in certain cases we do have individual discussions going on with businesses.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband - Hansard

I urge the right hon. Gentleman to get a move on when it comes to those sectors, because they really need the help. I want to ask him additionally about sectors such as hospitality, tourism and the creative industries, which have just been raised. They will take longer to reopen and recover because of public health measures, and I want to ask him about the impact on them of the one-size-fits-all winding down of the furlough. Can he explain to thousands of pubs across the country how they are supposed to find an employer contribution for furloughed employees from August when they are struggling even to survive? Is not the risk of that approach, and we have seen the jobless figures this morning, that hundreds of thousands more workers will lose their jobs, and all of us will end up paying the costs in higher benefit bills and a weaker economy? Would it not be better to have a different approach for those at-risk sectors?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

We have taken a whole-economy approach, as he knows, and I have set out the measures that we have put in place. With regard to the retail and hospitality sectors, we have provided specific support for them in the one-year rates holiday, as well as the additional support that is available, but the key issue here is the safe reopening of the economy, and that is what we want to continue with over the coming weeks.

Corporate Insolvency and Governance Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
Debate between Edward Miliband and Alok Sharma
Wednesday 3rd June 2020

(3 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. This is not about mandating; this is about giving choice. I expect that many companies will take up the temporary support that is being made available through these measures.

Expanding on the announcement I made on 25 March that companies would have an extended period for filing accounts, the Bill will also give businesses more time to meet a range of filing requirements. The extensions to the various filing requirements will be set out in regulations to be laid once the Bill receives Royal Assent. We will be giving businesses the maximum period allowable under the powers in the Bill for filing their accounts, confirmation statements and event-driven updates. We will also extend the period within which charges should be registered with Companies House to 31 days, which I believe strikes the right balance between providing businesses with breathing space and ensuring that lenders are protected.

In conclusion, the package of measures that the Bill introduces will give businesses the best opportunity to survive the effects of the covid-19 crisis and lay the foundations for a bounce-back in the UK economy. This Government are committed to supporting businesses. We are listening, and we are putting in place meaningful and common-sense measures to provide that support. Let me end by again paying tribute to the millions of business owners up and down our country who are doing their bit to keep Britain moving. In bringing these measures forward, we demonstrate again that we stand with them. I commend the Bill to the House.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab) - Hansard

I begin by thanking the Business Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), for the constructive conversations that we have had about the Bill, including with the shadow Business Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester Central (Lucy Powell). We are very much approaching this in a constructive way, and we welcome the discussions.

I want to focus on the provisions in the Bill and the wider policy context around insolvencies, which will determine what happens to millions of businesses in our country. As the Secretary of State implied, we face potentially the most dramatic recession in 300 years. What is more, we know that it is a recession necessitated by the essential public health measures that have been taken to contain coronavirus. Just as we are mutually dependent on each other when it comes to controlling the pandemic, I believe there is agreement across the House that that sense of mutual dependence should extend to the businesses of our country, because it is the right thing to do and because it is in all our interests. Every viable business we save will make the recession less deep and the recovery easier. Every business lost is disastrous not only for that business and its workers, but for our economy and all of us.

We know the great distress that many businesses are facing, and I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to businesses up and down this country that are keeping going in these circumstances, with one fifth temporarily pausing or ceasing trading during lockdown and another quarter saying that their turnover was down by at least 50%. That is the context in which we should test our approach as a country. I acknowledge that this challenge is bound to test the imagination, speed and responsiveness of any Government, and that is why we want to work constructively with them.

In that context, we welcome the measures in the Bill to help reduce insolvencies and will support their passage. As I will explain, we do not think the Bill does enough to address the dangers for what we might call the less powerful interests—particularly employees—when it comes to insolvency and the new restructuring provision, and I will explain what I mean by that.

Let me say something about the headline provisions, many of which we agree with. As regards the permanent measures, we support the moratorium to give breathing space to firms. We welcome the measures to prevent suppliers from sending businesses into liquidation, suspending so-called ipso facto provisions, and I will say something in a minute about our views on the new restructuring plan provision.

Covid-19: Business

Debate between Edward Miliband and Alok Sharma
Tuesday 12th May 2020

(4 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab) - Hansard
12 May 2020, 12:04 a.m.

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and add my thanks to all the workers and businesses that have kept our country going during these past few weeks? I say to him that we do not underestimate the challenges of lifting lockdown in certain parts of the economy. We agree that it is in all our interests for it to happen if it can be done safely, and that there are difficult decisions confronting Government, businesses and workers, who have to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances. I also want to welcome a number of steps forward in the guidance published last night, which he has talked about in his statement. They do represent progress from previous proposals, and I also welcome the tone of his statement.

However, I also say to the Secretary of State that what really matters to workers and businesses in these highly sensitive and difficult matters is proceeding in an orderly and judicious way. The confusion and mixed messages of the past 48 hours have been ill-advised and avoidable. Let me ask him six specific questions. First, on the impact of the Government’s change of emphasis on going back to work in phase 1, Ministers say that the reproduction rate of the disease—the R number—is currently between 0.5 and 0.9. How many extra people does he expect to go back to work as a result of the Government’s change of emphasis? What is the scientific advice about the impact on the R number?

Secondly, we are being told that in our daily lives, outside our places of work, that we must not come within 2 metres of those from other households, for reasons I understand. I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said, but for workplaces the overview document he has published asks for an observance of 2-metre distancing only “wherever possible”. If it is not possible, the only requirement is that employers should “look into” various mitigation measures. I understand that in some workplaces 2-metre distancing may not be possible, but can he explain why there is no requirement for mitigation if social distancing cannot be observed?

Thirdly, on enforcement, the challenge is, as the Secretary of State said, not the vast majority of employers, who want to do the right thing, but the small minority who do not. I welcome £14 million more for the HSE budget, but it is a drop in the ocean compared with the £100 million of cuts over the past decade. Given the challenges of enforcement, will he discuss with the trade unions how their tens of thousands of health and safety reps could player a bigger and, I believe, constructive role in ensuring covid-19 compliance, including in non-unionised work- places?

Fourthly, can the Business Secretary now provide an answer for parents who are being asked to go back to work tomorrow but are not deemed “essential” workers and therefore have nobody to look after their children, because they cannot send them to school or nursery? What are parents in those circumstances supposed to do?

Fifthly, can the Secretary of State clarify the position on the 2.5 million workers who are deemed clinically extremely vulnerable and are advised to shield at home until at least the end of June?

Currently, they have no automatic right to be furloughed and many have felt pressured to keep working. As workplaces reopen, the pressure will become greater. To protect their health and provide clarity, would it not make sense to place an obligation on employers to furlough these individuals if they cannot work from home?

The chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, said at the press conference last night that the reopening of workplaces was dependent on whether they can be made safe for work. Can the Secretary of State confirm that workplaces that are not safe should not reopen tomorrow and that, by law, workers who have a reasonable belief that they will be in danger do not have to be at work?

Finally, the Secretary of State will know that it is the highest paid workers who will generally carry on being able to work from home and lower paid workers who are being asked to go back to work. We also know from yesterday’s figures from the Office for National Statistics that, among men, construction workers have so far been more than twice as likely to die from covid-19 as the average member of the population. I know the Secretary of State will agree that working people are being asked to go back to work to help us all. Whatever the economic pressures, their health must be protected. They deserve to be safe. That is what the Government must take every action to ensure.

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard
12 May 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his comments. I also thank him for the very constructive discussions that we have had, particularly last Friday, on a range of issues. He wrote to me yesterday on the issue of safer working and I hope he has received my response. I also want to thank him for the acknowledgement that what we have put out represents progress. I think there is consensus across businesses and trade unions for what we have sought to provide.

The right hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues, which I will try to address. His first question was about the R number and the numbers of people potentially going back to work. We have been very clear that we want to ensure that people are safe in the workplace and, at the end of the day, that we are saving lives. That is why we produced the guidance, which has been put together with the HSE and Public Health England. We are also very clear that people who can work from home should continue to work from home.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about the fact that there was some confusion. The Prime Minister made reference to the manufacturing sector and the construction sector; those sectors are already open. Millions of people are already going to work and their employers are doing everything they can to keep them safe.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about how employees can feel safe in the workplace. We have had this discussion previously. We know for a fact that many employers are already open, and they are working incredibly constructively with their trade unions. When I held my stakeholder calls as part of preparing the guidance, that was abundantly clear.

He talked about enforcement. I am pleased that he welcomes the extra money for the HSE; we need to make sure that we provide support if it is needed. I want to be very clear that the HSE is able to do spot checks and to be proactive. We ultimately want to make sure that if employees feel unsafe in a work environment, they are able to get in touch with the HSE or with their local authority.

He asked about parents and made a very reasonable point about schools. The Prime Minister set out the timetable for that. Again, it is a question of employers and employees working flexibly together. That is already happening in the workplace. I would say to all employers that they should look to see what they can do to support their workers to continue to work from home if that is at all possible.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman raised a point about reopening, whether it is safe to open workplaces, and what to do about workplaces that are not safe. He is absolutely right. People should not have to feel that they are going into an unsafe work environment; frankly, from my experience, that is not what employers want either. We absolutely need our workers to feel safe. If they feel unsafe, they can get in touch with the HSE and with local authorities. I would say to all employers to please do absolutely everything you can, because it is in all our interests that the economy gets going again.

Oral Answers to Questions

Debate between Edward Miliband and Alok Sharma
Monday 4th May 2020

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband (Doncaster North) (Lab) - Hansard

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

I can tell the Secretary of State that we are committed to working constructively with the Government on all issues, and we welcome the recent changes to the loans system. I have two specific questions about his draft guidelines on workplace safety. We share the desire for a return to work as soon as it is safe, but he will know that firms with more than five employees are obliged by law to carry out risk assessments on safety. First, does he plan to ensure the publication of these risk assessments to give confidence to workers? Secondly, on enforcement of safe working, the Health and Safety Executive is operating on substantially reduced resources. What will he do to ensure that the guidelines are enforced so that all workers can feel safe?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

I also take this opportunity to welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new role. We have already had two very constructive discussions. I hope that will be the tone of our future interactions. He raises an important point. We both want workers in our country to feel safe and confident that they are returning to a safe workplace. Work on the consultation is ongoing, and obviously I do not want to pre-empt it, but he makes some very important points, and of course he is always welcome to write to me. I will look at what he says very carefully.

Edward Miliband Portrait Edward Miliband - Hansard

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, and I hope that he will come to the House to make a fuller statement on these matters at the earliest opportunity.

I want to ask about another aspect of the lifting of the lockdown, which is financial support for businesses and workers. Does he recognise that there will need to be a second phase of financial support for those businesses that will have to stay closed for longer, including an extension of the furlough scheme, with more flexibility for part-time working? Secondly, on the hospitality sector, which he knows is facing very challenging times, can I urge him to look favourably at the proposal, which has the support of over 80 of his own Back Benchers, to extend business support grants to businesses with rateable values of up to £150,000? It would make a difference to tens of thousands of pubs, restaurants and other businesses that are the lifeblood of our communities.

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma - Hansard

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have provided support for the hospitality, leisure and retail sector. There is a 100% rates holiday for all businesses in that sector, and we are also making £25,000 grants available to them. Under the grant scheme—the £25,000 and £10,000 grants—as of last Monday, £7.5 billion had been paid out. I hope he will welcome that. On the wider measures he talks about, we keep everything under review, and I will look at anything that comes forward.