Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:13 pm on 8th March 2017.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 5:13 pm, 8th March 2017

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to take part in this debate. It can occasionally be a dangerous debate in which to speak. In my experience, Budgets that are welcomed on Wednesday are often damned by Sunday, but I do not know what would need to happen between now and Sunday for this one to be described as exciting.

Other Members have referred to Brexit as the elephant in the room. It is important that we understand and explain to those on the Treasury Bench why the Chancellor’s failure to address Brexit was so important. As a member of the Select Committee on Exiting the European Union, it is rarely necessary for me these days to stick my hand in my pocket to pay for bacon and eggs. Just about everybody wants to buy me breakfast to explain why Brexit is going to be so difficult for their sector. The one recurring message, whichever sector I speak to, whether it is the Corporation of London or farmers, crofters and fishermen in Orkney and Shetland, is that a hard Brexit and the determination to leave the single market and the customs union, possibly without securing a trade deal, which would leave us on World Trade Organisation rules, would be disastrous for them.

This is the first day since the Prime Minister made her speech at Mansion House on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer has had an opportunity to give some reassurance, and to tell the various sectors of our economy that there was an understanding of their position, but he failed to do that. His failure to say anything on the subject was culpable and could ultimately be catastrophic.

It was also disappointing for Opposition Members that the Chancellor seemed to have nothing to say about the need to tackle climate change. There are so many possible measures, many of which are not particularly expensive. There could have been more measures to encourage energy efficiency, and only a small amount of money would be necessary to develop renewable energy—most notably, in my constituency, through wave and tidal power generation—but there was absolutely no mention of those things. At a time when there are so many other pressures calling for the Government’s attention, it is more important than ever that the long-term issues—of which climate change is probably the most clamant—should not be forgotten.

I am not, however, one of those who thinks that a determination to tackle climate change means that we should turn our back on hydrocarbons. They remain an important part of our economy, particularly in my constituency in the Northern Isles. I was a little underwhelmed by the Chancellor’s offer of a discussion document, especially since it was the second such offer, but on reflection, and having heard a few other emerging details, I believe that this at least shows an understanding of the need to take continued, serious action to help the North sea oil and gas industry.

The Chancellor did not refer to it, but I understand that the Government have today laid before Parliament a statutory instrument—I have not yet had sight of it—to extend the definition of investment expenditure for certain categories of operating and leasing expenditure. That will be welcomed by the industry. [Interruption.] The Financial Secretary to the Treasury has just indicated that it will be backdated. This measure could have a significant effect on our continued exploitation of resources on the UK continental shelf. We will await the Government’s discussion document with interest and see what it says.

The real story that will emerge from this Budget is the Chancellor’s lack of understanding of small businesses. He is really out of touch, and at no time was that more transparent than when he spoke about the changes to national insurance contributions for self-employed people. There are abuses of self-employed status. In the so-called gig economy, employers such as Uber are taking people on as self-employed agents when they are, to all intents and purposes, employees. That needs to be tackled, and it is something that the Chancellor could usefully have taken on today.

In fact, the Chancellor has introduced a tax increase for some of the most hard-pressed people in our communities. I think he has done this because he just does not understand what life is like for people who work as builders, plumbers, window cleaners or hairdressers, and for the many others who will be affected by this change. He says that this is about levelling the playing field between employment and self-employment, but we all know that that playing field will never be level, and that fact has to be recognised in our tax structures. Self-employed people take risks, sometimes putting their house on the line. The reality is that if a sole trader does not work, they get no sick pay. If their business goes bust, no one will step in and give them a redundancy payment.