A Tory minister minister has encouraged newly unemployed people to sign up for the furlough scheme only to be told it closed to new entrants back in June.
Skills minister Gillian Keegan told hospitality staff who lost their jobs in Bolton due to new lockdown restrictions to sign up to the chancellor’s furlough programme without realising it had closed 14 weeks ago.
The blunder came during a heated debate with Labour mayor for Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, on the BBC’s Question Time programme.
The row started when Burnham accused the government of leaving hospitality workers who faced the closure of their workplace as part of new stringent lockdown measures without proper financial support.
Touching on the restrictions in Bolton, where hospitality venues were forced to shut overnight on September 9, the former Labour minister said: “You closed pubs and restaurants in Bolton overnight just a few weeks ago.
“But the people who work behind the bars in those places – or in the kitchen – got no support at all. Do you think that is right?”
Keegan responded: “Well, the people would be entitled to furlough.”
Dismissing the mayor’s claims that they were not, the minister replied: “Well, their employers could have put them into furlough.
“That’s exactly what that scheme is there for. Everything was closed overnight on the March 23 – everything was closed overnight.
“Look at the skies, you won’t see hardly any planes flying. Go on a train, there’ll be hardly any people on the train.”
When Burnham pressed for a wider-ranging scheme, the minister continued: “For some reason, Andy, you don’t seem to realise that the furlough scheme in March – which is still in place today, which we’ve spent £40 billion on…”
Programme host Fiona Bruce then cut in to tell her: “Gillian, as I’m sure you know, it closed to new entrants.”
Keegan, appearing tongue-tied, then said: “Yes, but it’s in place until the end of this month…”
She was cut off by Burnham, who repeated: “It closed to new entrants. The Bolton staff did not have access to that scheme.”
Bruce then clarified: “It closed on June 30.”
Burnham went on to say the government’s new winter scheme would lead to job losses up North.
He said: “Furlough ends at the end of this month and industries like aviation can’t come back. The damage you’re going to do to people working in regional airports as combined with the local restrictions means fragile economies in the North are going to be levelled down.”