I contributed to last week’s adjournment debate in the Commons, speaking about steel, the gaps in government support for businesses, and the workers who are at risk of losing their jobs during the pandemic. I also took the opportunity to thank all the organisations and individuals who have been there for us all during this difficult time – those who don’t do it for the thanks.
Here’s my speech from the debate in full:
I am pleased to be able to speak in this end-of-term debate. On behalf of the constituents of Newport East, I would like to put on record our enormous gratitude to the workers who have been there for us and kept services up and running throughout this unprecedented crisis, including our wonderful NHS staff, emergency service workers, retail staff, council workers, school staff and many more. I also want to take this opportunity to thank all the community groups and organisations that have done so much unsung work on the ground to support people, including the two food banks based in Newport East—Raven House Trust and Caldicot—and the Trussell Trust, Jesus Cares and Feed Newport, which do such a wonderful job. I thank those who do not do it for the thanks.
The Aneurin Bevan University health board region, which covers my constituency, was initially a hotspot for the virus and one of the worst affected areas in the UK when the virus took hold. Since then, there has been a dramatic fall in the number of new cases, and it is fantastic that the virus has been so well contained in Gwent. There is no doubt that this is down to the remarkable work of our brilliant NHS staff—a testament to the value of our health service in the region in which it was conceived and the diligence of the public in adhering to the guidance from the Welsh Government over the past few months. On that note, I would like to thank the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, and his Cabinet colleagues for the considered and dignified leadership that has been shown throughout the pandemic. That has made a real difference.
The support provided by the Welsh and UK Governments has been welcome and a lifeline for many. However, it is important to note that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) said, many groups have fallen through the cracks of the support provided by the UK Government. I want to mention some of those businesses and individuals in my constituency.
Support for the self-employed has not been comprehensive, and many hard-working individuals have missed out—people like the 68-year-old self-employed handyman who gets more than 50% of his income from his state pension and was not entitled to any support, or the constituent who became self-employed part-way through the year and was counted as having more than 50% of earnings from employment so was excluded from Government support. Those are just some of the 3 million people excluded from help, and we need the Government to address that.
Then there is a whole cohort of people who were not placed on furlough by their employers, including people advised to shield or self-isolate who received just statutory sick pay, agency workers who were laid off and working students who could not claim universal credit. There are also those who have been unable to apply for bounce-back loans despite fitting the eligibility criteria, because banks refused their application for business accounts due to credit ratings.
A number of other businesses have been left in the lurch—in particular, in my constituency, the hospitality supply chain and the exhibition and events industry. We think of all those who have lost their jobs during the pandemic or are now at risk, including constituents of mine at Virgin, Caldicot Tinmasters, the Orb steelworks, which closed on 3 July, EnerSys, Newsquest, British Airways, the Celtic Manor and more. I hope that the Government will look at more ways to support those different groups over the following months. I urge them to look at the report by Chwarae Teg and the Fawcett Society on the devastating impact of coronavirus on women and girls in the UK, highlighted to me by Newport women’s institute. The crisis has made existing inequalities worse, as women are the majority of those in poverty and are more likely to be in low-paid, insecure work. There are very good recommendations in the report, which I ask Ministers to look at.
Along with the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft), I co-chair the all-party group on steel and metal-related industries, so I would like to say a few words about the steel industry. The Government must look urgently at what further steps they can take to support our industry in both the short and long term. The steel sector has seen a huge drop-off in orders during the pandemic, and many UK steel companies are still waiting for liquidity support some four months since the Government pledged to do everything they could to support businesses. I am glad that the Prime Minister acknowledged this in Prime Minister’s questions, but it is high time that it was backed up with more substantive action.
Given the importance of the sector’s supply chains in trading relationships with mainland Europe, urgent clarity is needed on how steel exports will be treated under the EU steel safeguards in 2021, which draws ever nearer. I know that Trade Ministers are working with UK Steel on that, which is welcome. Steel should and can play a vital role in the economic recovery from the pandemic, and I fully support Community, Unite and GMB unions’ “Britain, we need our steel” campaign, which calls on employers and the Government to create a plan that uses Britain’s steel and invests in our industry and our people. That will require the Government prioritising UK steel in major construction and infrastructure projects such as HS2 and an auto scrappage scheme. We must ensure that we use our steel.
As I have emphasised repeatedly in this place and in meetings with Ministers, the situation at the Orb steelworks, which sadly closed on 3 July, raises a generation-defining question: do we want to be a country that manufactures goods or one that just imports them? We need a comprehensive UK industrial strategy if we are to avoid days like 3 July, supporting a thriving manufacturing base, which will be the foundation of Wales’s and the UK’s future economic success.