‘Alarm’ over gaps in worker support goes unheeded say MPs

The BEIS committee urged the government to consider sector-specific measures to protect business and workers.
Photo: David Jensen/EMPICS Entertainment

Repeatedly raised concerns over gaps in support for workers and businesses during the coronavirus crisis continue to go unheeded, a committee of MPs has told the government.

In a letter on Monday to business secretary Alok Sharma, the chair of the business, energy and industrial strategy committee, Darren Jones, has outlined a number of key problems that need addressing as the country emerges from the Covid-19 lockdown.

Jones said: “Given the evolving situation around Covid-19, it’s inevitable that issues would emerge concerning the effectiveness of the government’s support package and its impact on workers and businesses.

“However, it is also the case that the alarm over gaps in the government’s support, such as for women, and those affecting freelancers and agency workers, were being raised repeatedly by those affected and yet these warnings continued to go unheeded.”

The letter is the culmination of a series of evidence hearings with ministers and representatives from businesses, trade unions and the self-employed for an inquiry, launched in March, into the impact of coronavirus on business and workers.

Jones recognised the efforts of many workers and businesses who rose to the challenges brought about during the pandemic but also highlighted a number of issues, including the tapering of furlough support until October 2020, the treatment of workers during the pandemic, and health and safety issues.

He said: “The business department and the Treasury deserve significant credit for their efforts in addressing the unprecedented challenges faced by business and workers following the impact of Covid-19.

“Rishi Sunak echoed a previous Chancellor in suggesting that the coronavirus has seen us all in it together. However, it’s clear that the reality of the economic lockdown is that its impact has not been shared out evenly and that it is falling very heavily on some parts of our economy. For example, we heard from sectors, including retail, the creative industries and manufacturing, who expressed concern over increasing redundancies in the wake of the furlough scheme changes coming in this weekend.”

This package is one of the most comprehensive in the world and has been specifically tailored to target businesses worst affected by the pandemic, including through our job retention scheme and billions paid in grants, loans, business rates holidays and tax deferrals” – BEIS spokesperson

He highlighted sectors of our economy that will continue to face very challenging conditions, in particular the shutdown of the aviation and aerospace sector which will “have a longer-term impact” compared to others.

Jones, who is Labour MP for Bristol North West, said: “It’s important the government quickly learns the lessons of recent months so that they can act in future with more policy sophistication and transparency and be able to step up and deliver the most effective support possible to workers and businesses.

“If we face the prospect of a second-wave and the likelihood of increased local lock-downs, it’s essential the government looks again at its approach to sector support and to the additional measures which will be necessary to secure our economic recovery, help businesses prosper and enable workers to protect their livelihoods”.

The TUC told the committee in May that workers who depend on bonuses or piece work rates for significant parts of their earnings were adversely affected when furloughed, as they only received 80% of their basic salary. Agency workers have also been particularly affected, often having to wait months for furlough payments.

The MPs acknowledged that the government has been addressing some of these issues through its Good Work Plan, but recommended that the government reviews the status of workers, including how they are categorised by HM Revenue and Customs, so “there will not be similarly excluded workers in the future”.

The BEIS committee also asked  in the letter if the government was considering “specific schemes” for the worst affected sectors, especially in the event of a second wave of the virus.

Other questions for the government focused on health and safety and the treatment of pregnant women and women on maternity leave, including:

  • How many physical inspections has the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) carried out on “Covid-Secure”workplaces, and what are the number and nature of breaches it has found?
  • Has the government reviewed the capacity of the HSE, and other partner organisations such as local authorities, to ensure that workplaces are safe in relation to Covid-19?
  • What specific measures and mechanisms are now in place to monitor the treatment of pregnant women and women on maternity leave, and what action you will take where guidance has not been followed and where such women have been unfairly discriminated against?

Jones also recommend that government “urgently review” how pregnant women and women on maternity leave have been treated during the crisis and indicate when you will bring forward legislation to give all pregnant women and those on maternity leave equal protection in the workplace.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) said: “We have listened to businesses and workers throughout the pandemic to ensure they get the support they need. That is why we have put in place an unprecedented initial package of support to protect jobs, incomes and businesses worth £160bn.

“This package is one of the most comprehensive in the world and has been specifically tailored to target businesses worst affected by the pandemic, including through our job retention scheme and billions paid in grants, loans, business rates holidays and tax deferrals.”

BEIS added that a formal response to the committee’s letter would be issued in due course.

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