It’s a year today since Munira Wilson was elected as MP for Twickenham. Since then, she has held one of the most stressful roles, as Health Spokesperson, holding the Government to account for its often reckless and chaotic handling of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Like all other MPs, though, she will have a lot of casework from people who have had the financial rug pulled from under them – owners of small businesses whose activities have been curtailed or stopped altogether during the pandemic. People who run events companies, creative industry freelancers such as make-up artists are just some examples of those who simply have had no income and no support since March. Then they were struggling. Now they are desperate.
Lib Dems have led the fight for support for this group. Jamie Stone set up an all-Party Parliamentary Group and our MPs have repeatedly pressed the Government to do more.
This week, Munira led a parliamentary debate to highlight the plight of those 3 million people who have been excluded from the Government’s support schemes:
"Debt is rising. Rachel from the SE says:
'I am selling my house, cannot get a mortgage, selling my personal belongings just to put food on the table. Never been so scared. I’m also a single parent & it’s heart-breaking telling my daughter Santa can’t afford much this year.'" pic.twitter.com/Mg2BACIs2k
— Munira Wilson MP (@munirawilson) December 9, 2020
You can read the whole debate here.
In her opening speech, Munira highlighted the impact the Government’s failure to provide support has had:
There has, at times, been a suggestion that some of the excluded are highly paid and dodging tax in some way, especially those paid via dividends. My constituent, Fraser Wilkin, who runs a travel company in Twickenham, pays himself by dividends because of the huge fluctuation in annual income due to events outside his control, such as the coronavirus. If he had drawn a regular salary through the year, he would have been unable to fulfil his statutory and contractual obligations to his clients, in terms of prompt refunds when their holidays were cancelled due to the pandemic.
Universal credit is cited as the fall-back. A survey of more than 3,000 individuals found that almost three quarters were unable to access universal credit. Let us face it: we all know that universal credit is not meaningful support. Otherwise, the Government would not have felt the need to create the furlough scheme or the self-employed income support scheme.
We know that the mental health impacts on many of those excluded from support have been stark. There have already been eight reported suicides, and one respondent to the House of Commons digital engagement team said that she almost took her life several times, and one week spent every day in contact with the Samaritans.
The Centre for Mental Health has said that covid-related unemployment has caused an additional almost 30,000 people to request services for depression. Those mental health impacts spread well beyond the 3 million individuals to their families and support networks. Many report having to move back in with elderly parents and rely on their pensions. Marriages and relationships have been strained or ended. Parents of young children talk about the stress it is putting on their children.
She shared a story written by an illustrator who has also found himself ineligible for the Government schemes:
I want to conclude by sharing from a children’s book sent to me by Kev Payne, who was a teacher and became an illustrator in 2018. He is ineligible for support because of the 50% rule. He wrote a story to try to explain how he feels. In it, the mice are the taxpaying workers and the bear is the Government. A storm hits and the bear provides food and shelter for all the animals, but the mice are left out and told that there is no space for them:
“‘But I gave you my food’, said Mouse. ‘You said you would help me.’
‘I cannot help you now,’ said Bear. ‘I will see you when the storm is over.’
‘But…’ began Mouse. Bear glared and growled at Mouse. It turned its vast back against her.”
My plea to the Minister is to listen to how these hard-working, tax-paying people are feeling and to look at the long-term impact of his policy. The Chancellor does not have to be the big, bad bear; he can be Santa Claus this Christmas.
Labour, Conservative and SNP MPs supported Munira’s calls. The Government minister responding to the debate offered precious little hope as he defended the Government’s position.
Christine Jardine also spoke, highlighting the case of a make-up artist:
I was contacted recently by a woman—a make-up artist—who had used her husband’s pension to set up a small business to provide for her and her two children, but she cannot work and she is getting no support. I get calls every week from constituents who built up successful businesses that they are now losing through no fault of their own because they are following Government rules, and the Government are not helping them. They are distraught; they are at their wits’ end.
I know what it is like to build a career, and I am sure many on the Government Benches know—or think they know—what it is like to have it ripped away for following the Government’s rules. In many cases, these are people who voted for the Government. Yes, many of them are the people we will depend on to rebuild our economy, but to do that, they will have to depend on the help they get now. We want our west-end theatres to be alive again and our TV industry to thrive, and in my city, we want our world-famous festival to regrow, but they all need help now. Covid-19 might not discriminate, but we know how to be fair; this Government could do so.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings