I think it’s important for an opposition party not to oppose the Government just for the sake of it. When the Government gets something right, the Opposition should acknowledge and support these decisions, particularly when we are in the middle of a national crisis.
With this in mind, I’d like to put on record that I think the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme – which allows businesses to furlough staff on 80% pay – was the right thing to do. At the height of the lockdown, many businesses were unable to operate, so paying workers’ wages in this period made sense to avoid millions of people being made unemployed. It is a very expensive scheme, but I firmly believe that the cost of not having a furlough scheme would have been far higher.
Of course, the scheme cannot go on forever. Back in May, the Chancellor announced that it would last until 31 October. The rationale is that the economy is opening back up again and therefore furlough is no longer necessary. There are a few issues with this; firstly, the date was set months ago when there was no way of knowing what the public health situation would be at the end of October (the current local lockdown here in Greater Manchester shows that the outbreak is far from over) and secondly that there are certain sectors that will still not be back up and running by that point.
To deal with both of these issues, we need flexibility. Back in June, I asked the Health Secretary about local furlough for areas in local lockdown, and I hope that this is something that the Government will seriously consider. Similarly, it might be appropriate for targeted furlough schemes for selected industries and sectors that are still unable to return to anything close to normality. This is something that the new Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds has pushed hard for and I think it’s essential to ensure that we don’t see whole sectors of our economy – and thousands of jobs – disappear forever.
The Government needs to act urgently to spell out how they might support businesses and workers in these circumstances. Unemployment here in Tameside has already gone up very significantly since the start of the crisis and I’m very concerned that we’ll see an even bigger increase come the winter as furlough and other schemes are wound down.
I’d like to see the Government bring forward proposals now for how a winter jobs crisis can be avoided.