It has been another busy week in Parliament. As Shadow Minister for Businesses and Consumers, I have spoken at BEIS Questions on support for the hospitality sector, closed Labour’s Opposition Day Debate on business support and given two speeches during the final stages of the Commercial Rents Bill.
Media and political focus have understandably been on the parties that have been taking place in Downing Street during the pandemic. In light of the information that has been made available, I believe the Prime Minister’s position is now untenable and he should do the decent thing and resign.
Please see below an update from my activity along with the major events in Parliament this week.
This week in Parliament during BEIS questions I asked a question on the support for the hospitality sector, which has taken a significant hit as a result of Omicron and the Government’s inconsistent messaging around the virus. Business taxes and costs are rising, while profits and revenues are falling. It is vital that the Government recognises that these businesses need more than just the one off grants that they have received so far and supports Labour’s calls to extend the VAT reduction for hospitality. My full question is available here.
Labour Opposition Day Debate:
On Tuesday, I gave the closing speech during Labour’s Opposition Day debate on business support. .What stood out to me from the debate is that so many British businesses are crying out for support. From every part of the UK, from so many constituencies, we have heard stories about struggling business owners, businesses facing hardship and closure and sectors of our economy that have been left to fend for themselves through crisis after crisis caused by Government inaction.
Labour called for a vote calling on the Government to scrap and reform business rates, alleviate the debt burden by allowing businesses flexibility on Government loans and implement a contingency fund to support businesses with high energy costs. Businesses need a Government that is on their side, but the current Tory Government is turning its back on companies during their time of need. It is Labour that is now the party of business and we will continue to push for more support to help businesses get back on their feet after the pandemic.
Urgent Question on Afghanistan
On Wednesday (12 January 2022), the Government was asked an urgent question about the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is facing a serious and worsening humanitarian crisis. It is affecting well over half the population, with 23 million people facing acute food insecurity. This is now the world’s most severe food security crisis. The UN has requested nearly $4.5 billion for 2022 – the largest humanitarian appeal on record, reflecting the magnitude of the humanitarian challenge ahead.
I spoke during the debate and urged the Government to come back to the chamber with a statement on how it is upping its humanitarian efforts and how it plans to expedite the return of family members of British citizens to the UK who are at risk. You can see my full intervention here.
Commercial Rents Bill
On Wednesday 12th January, I led the Labour Party’s response to the Report Stage and Third Reading of the Commercial Rents Bill. The Bill introduces a binding arbitration process for when business landlords and tenants cannot agree how to deal with outstanding rent arrears built up during periods of coronavirus restrictions.
As businesses were forced to close during the pandemic, many could no longer afford to pay their rents, leading to a build-up of rent debt up and down the country. While this debt will be ringfenced and protected until March, most businesses do not have the financial reserves available to pay it back when these protections end. Since June 2021, therefore, Labour has been calling for action on this rent debt, leading to the Government finally introducing this Bill.
I broadly support the Commercial Rents Bill and voted for it to pass through the Commons. Labour believes the guiding principle in any arbitration process must ultimately be fairness and the long-term interest of British businesses and jobs. The Bill mostly provides a fair balance between the interests of businesses and those of landlords.
However, it is lacking in key areas: there is no guarantee that the arbitration process will be made affordable for business tenants and landlords already suffering financially, or that arbitration decisions will be consistent. I spoke about these issues at the debate and encouraged the Government to heed my recommendations and ensure the Bill is affordable and accessible. I will continue scrutinising this legislation as it passes through the Lords.
Major Announcements in Parliament
On Tuesday (11 January 2022), the Government was asked an Urgent Question (UQ) in the House of Commons about evidence of another Downing Street party which broke the COVID-19 public health regulations then in force. The Prime Minister has since admitted that he attended the party in question on 20 May 2020.
That day, 181 NHS workers and 131 social care staff died from coronavirus at a time when people up and down the country were making huge personal sacrifices to follow the rules. There was also a tweet from the Metropolitan Police reminding people that those rules made clear that “you may meet only one person outside”. The then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport even gave a press conference urging people not to disregard the rules during the good weather that day. Yet senior No. 10 officials thought it would be appropriate to organise a “bring your own booze” event, and the Prime Minister judged it right to attend. During the UQ, MPs from across the House expressed disbelief and demanded an explanation.
In my view, Ministers are hiding behind the Gray Inquiry. There is no need to wait for an investigation into the question of whether the Prime Minister attended the event in the Downing Street garden on 20 May 2020, because he has admitted he was there. In light of this, I believe the Prime Minister’s position is now untenable and he should do the decent thing and resign.
Government COVID-19 Statement.
On Thursday (13 January 2022), the Government made a statement outlining changes to the minimum self-isolation period for people who test positive for COVID-19 in England.
The Health Secretary announced that, from Monday (17 January 2022), the minimum self-isolation period will be reduced to five full days. People will be able to leave isolation after negative lateral flow tests on days five and six. He said this decision would maximise activity in the economy and education, as well as reducing staffing pressures in some sectors, including the NHS.
I welcome this announcement. UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data shows that around two-thirds of positive cases are no longer infectious by day five. Workforce shortages are one of the biggest challenges facing the NHS and the wider economy during the current wave of the Omicron variant. This measure will help people get back to work faster and safely.
Nevertheless, COVID-19 is still with us. We hope that the Omicron variant has passed its peak in London, but we know it is yet to peak across vast swathes of England and that NHS services are under enormous pressure. Many NHS trusts have declared critical incidents, waiting lists stand at a record six million, operations have been cancelled and ambulance and A&E wait times have reached record highs.
While the pandemic has taken its toll, I believe the reality is eleven years of underfunding, cuts and mismanagement weakened our health service and left it exposed as COVID-19 hit. We went into the pandemic with NHS waiting lists already at a record high of 4.5 million, staff shortages at 100,000 and social care vacancies at 112,000.
We need a strategy to ensure our health service can run effectively through this latest wave. Beyond that, Ministers must outline a credible plan to address NHS backlogs and bring down waiting lists. Key to this is a long-term strategy to recruit, retain and train the staff our health service needs to deliver safe and high-quality care.
Urgent Question on Vaccine Strategy
On Wednesday (12 January 2022), the Government was asked to make a statement on its COVID-19 vaccine strategy.
I pay tribute to our NHS staff and volunteers who are on the frontline doing a fantastic job administering vaccines, which is especially complex and fraught with challenges. They are coping with numerous pressures in the system but continue to work tirelessly throughout this pandemic.
The Vaccines Minister said it is only through vaccination that we can begin to contemplate building a world beyond COVID-19. I agree. Yet in some areas the vaccine programme is stalling: take-up rates have dropped to their lowest level since mid-October; there are reports of children having to wait until February and travel long distances to get an appointment; and many eligible adults are still to take up the offer of a first vaccine.
Ministers must focus their efforts and provide the resources needed to ensure everyone can access the vaccine.
More widely, I remain concerned that immunocompromised, immunosuppressed and clinically extremely vulnerable people have been let down throughout the pandemic. Reports highlight that more than 300,000 housebound people are yet to receive their booster. I urge Ministers to provide clarity and set out their booster vaccination strategy for housebound, clinically vulnerable and clinically extremely vulnerable people.