Today, MPs will debate the Government’s emergency Coronavirus Bill.
The Coronavirus crisis is an unprecedented threat, leaving the most vulnerable in our communities at risk. People across the country are rightly worried about their loved ones. This is a national emergency and emergency powers are clearly necessary to keep individuals and communities safe from the virus.
Liberal Democrats are working with the Government and other opposition parties in Parliament to pass the emergency legislation we need. But we are also focused on ensuring that these powers do not go any further than absolutely necessary.
Many of the powers in this Bill have serious implications for civil liberties and human rights. We are therefore making it clear that these powers must only be used when necessary during this emergency – and not a moment longer.
Liberal Democrats will remain vigilant to ensure that any restrictions on civil liberties are only temporary, and that our rights and freedoms are fully restored once this crisis is over. These are exceptional powers for exceptional times. They must not be allowed to become the new normal.
We have tabled eight amendments to try and improve the Government’s Bill:
Limiting the powers to 3 months
As currently drafted, the Act would expire in two years. We believe that is far too long. Liberal Democrats have serious concerns about Parliament handing over such far-reaching powers to Ministers for a full two years.
We have therefore tabled an amendment (New Clause 10) which would mean the Act expires after 3 months. Parliament would then have to vote on whether to renew it for a further 3 months at a time, up to a maximum of 2 years.
In addition to proper oversight and transparency as to how these powers are used during these shorter periods, this would provide at least some protection.
Extending the Brexit transition period
It is extraordinary that the Government hasn’t already admitted that the Brexit negotiations have to be suspended during this national emergency.
The negotiations on our future relationship with the EU cover everything from trade to security, energy to intellectual property and air travel to extradition. It is vital we get them right. That requires far more time and resources than the Government has to spare, now its priority is rightly the coronavirus emergency.
Moreover, the transition period is due to end at the end of the year – and this Conservative Government has written into law that it cannot be extended. We therefore face the risk of a catastrophic no-deal Brexit in just nine months’ time. With another economic shock to compound the damage of coronavirus.
So the Government must extend the transition period now. Our amendment (New Clause 12) would both enable and require the Government to seek and agree an extension to the transition period. It would also require the Government to seek to keep the UK in the EU Early Warning System, which was set up to provide alerts and monitor pandemics.
Protecting those who rely on social care
One of my biggest concerns is what this Bill proposes for how we care for people – indeed how we care for the most vulnerable people in our society.
The Bill temporarily suspends the duties on Local Authorities to meet people’s care needs. We have serious concerns about what this will mean for older people, and adults and children with disabilities, who rely on social care.
We have therefore tabled two amendments to ensure care standards are not reduced any more than absolutely necessary during this crisis.
One (Amendment 14) would place a duty on Local Authorities to continue to meet an adult’s needs for care and support conditional as long as it has resources available to do so. The other (New Clause 14) would require the Government to urgently publish a comprehensive report outlining how it will guarantee provisions for social care while this Act is in force.
The Government must give councils the resources and support they need to undertake these duties to our most vulnerable, rather than leaving people without care.
Guaranteeing the incomes of self-employed people
The Government’s measures to support businesses and employees are welcome as far as they go, but they still leave the country’s 5 million self-employed people with no reliable safety net. Each day the Government fails to act for them, many of these 5 million self-employed people get closer to irreparable damage to their livelihoods.
Liberal Democrats have tabled an amendment (New Clause 13) to create a Self-Employed Income Guarantee, with the Government guaranteeing self-employed people 80% of their average incomes over the last three years, up to a cap of £35,000.
While assisting the self-employed does create more challenges than with PAYE employees, the Government must surely err on the side of caution and get help out to people, rather than find reasons and excuses for doing nothing, or too little.
Introducing a Citizen’s Income
It is the Government’s duty to do everything in its power to protect those facing destitution as a result of this pandemic. Those most in need must be given financial security.
Liberal Democrats are calling for a Citizen’s Income: an increased benefit of £150 per week for a single person and £260 per week for couples. This should act as the minimum income guaranteed to all UK adults, rather like the universal basic income many are talking about.
Our amendment (New Clause 9) would achieve this by increasing the standard allowances of Universal Credit, Jobseeker’s Allowance and Employment and Support Allowance to these rates. It would also ensure that people can get their first payment on day one without it being clawed back later, and it would abolish benefit sanctions for 12 months.
Increasing Statutory Sick Pay
At £94.25 a week, Statutory Sick Pay simply isn’t enough to make up for people’s lost incomes. We have tabled an amendment (New Clause 11) that would increase it to £220 a week – two thirds of average earnings – to provide a much more adequate safety net.
Making sure children can still learn
Staff and pupil safety must be a priority. The scale of the coronavirus pandemic means that school closures were inevitable. This is another serious but essential intervention to slow down the spread of the disease.
Now that schools are closing their doors, Ministers must take urgent action to minimise disruption to learning and protect vulnerable children. However, the Bill contains no explicit duty on schools to ensure that children continue to receive an education – or funding for them to do so.
Many schools are doing the right thing and are already preparing online resources to help pupils study at home. It would be a disaster for social mobility if some schools continue teaching their curriculum during the closure while others do not.
The Liberal Democrat amendment (New Clause 8) would place a duty on schools and colleges to provide teaching and resources to all pupils, whether they are in school or at home.
Our amendment would also ensure that the Government pays schools and colleges whatever it costs to get pupils and staff the equipment and resources they need for learning to continue.
This emergency legislation will only get 6 hours of scrutiny in the Commons. Munira Wilson and I may get just 15 minutes between us to make our points. For such a dramatic piece of legislation, that is nowhere near enough.
So the case for an early review, with an early requirement for Parliament to have to vote to renew these powers, is essential. The Liberal Democrats – like other opposition parties – have behaved responsibly and constructively throughout. Ministers must now do likewise.