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Budget Resolutions - Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:20 pm on 13th March 2017.

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Photo of Neil Gray Neil Gray Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Fair Work and Employment) 10:20 pm, 13th March 2017

The Chancellor made several errors in his Budget. Somehow within hours he managed—in one of the thinnest Red Books for years and with a Budget of so little detail and so little action—practically to unite his Back Benchers, the Opposition and the press in calling for a U-turn on his central announcement on national insurance contributions.

I will be slightly kinder to the Chancellor than the former Prime Minister, because I know what he was trying to do. I can understand it: there is a worrying and growing trend of companies outsourcing their employees as self-employed contractors to save on employer NICs costs. Self-employment is a good choice for so many workers in the UK, but when workers do not have the choice and the employer drives the change, it tends not to be in the best interests of the workers. Raising employee NICs is not the way to solve the problem, and I suspect that the Chancellor may have to go back to one of his infamous spreadsheets soon.

The Chancellor’s biggest errors, for people up and down these isles, were errors of omission, and I plan to speak briefly about three of them—the employment and support allowance work-related activity group, WASPI and squeezed family budgets.

There was nothing from the Chancellor on ESA WRAG. In November I tabled a motion that was supported by Members from nine parties—that does not happen often—and it called on the UK Government at least to pause their cuts to ESA WRAG until the work and health Green Paper had been considered and implemented. People receive ESA WRAG because they have been assessed as unfit for work—they have long-term health conditions or disabilities that slow their path to employment. It has always been considered right that given their increased costs in finding work because of their disability or health problems, and the fact that they need support for longer than those on jobseeker’s allowance, they should receive a higher weekly payment. On 1 April that extra £30 a week will be cut away.

During the debate in November, Mr Burrowes garnered an important commitment from the Minister that financial mitigation and new regulations to help those falling in and out of work would both be in place before the cut came into force. We are less than three weeks from ESA WRAG being cut and we have heard nothing from the Government. The motion I tabled in November was deliberately consensual. It was a final appeal, a last pitch to the Government to act. Hon. Members on both sides of the House are now fast losing patience: time is running out and the Government need to act now.

The Budget included nothing on WASPI. On Budget day I joined a huge rally of women outside Parliament to call on the Chancellor to act on the injustice served to thousands of women born in the 1950s who have seen their state pension age increased at a faster rate than promised with little or no warning. Three of the 3,500 women affected in my constituency were there and it was a pleasure to speak to Ellen Connelly, Joan Cassels and Margaret Nisbet. It is not sustainable for the UK Government to keep trying to ignore those women—women who have suffered workplace injustice throughout their careers. The Government should do the right thing by those women and give them appropriate transitional relief.

All of the people affected by those errors of omission were victims of this Brexit Budget as the Chancellor set aside £26 billion as a down payment on exiting the EU. Ironically, however, there was barely a passing mention of the greatest economic, social and constitutional challenge to face this or any other Government for decades. Inflation is expected to rise, further squeezing households that are facing social security cuts and painfully slow wage growth. Cuts to support for sick and disabled people, cuts to women’s pensions, hundreds of thousands more in child poverty, slow wage growth and poor productivity—not so much spreadsheet Phil as the Dickensian Chancellor.