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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary) 4:45 pm, 16th March 2020

I commend David Mundell for his comments, and thank him for the measured tone in which he delivered them. It has been noticeable over the last few days that things have been a bit more calm and sensible here even when we have disagreed politically; perhaps we could keep that going after the public health crisis has passed.

I noted that the right hon. Gentleman could not resist having a wee dig at the Scottish National party Government for not having done up his bit of trunk road yet. Obviously I cannot speak for the Scottish Government, whose spending decisions are made in the Scottish Parliament, but I have had a quick look at the Scottish Parliament’s website, and I have the contact details of the MSP for Dumfriesshire, which I can pass on to the right hon. Gentleman later. He is some chap by the name of Oliver Mundell. [Laughter.] I do not know whether he is still holding surgeries, but I can probably find his phone number for the right hon. Gentleman.

I am pleased to be able to speak on behalf of the SNP today. Our position is a bit different from those of many other parties, in that we will be keeping out of many of the detailed discussions about which health trusts and local authorities receive funding, because we have a devolved national Parliament to make those decisions on our behalf. As the previous three speakers made clear, although today’s debate is about the funding of public services, we cannot ignore the rapidly changing public health challenge that faces all four nations in the United Kingdom—and, now, the majority of nations in the world.

The statement that will be made later by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care will be the right occasion for detailed questioning about the Government’s approach to those health challenges, but I want to consider some of the significant, and even potentially fundamental, changes that the economy will undergo as a result of them. The right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale—the former Secretary of State for Scotland—commented on the permanent change that the foot and mouth outbreak made to the economy of rural Scotland 20 years ago. This is much bigger, and its impact on the economy throughout these islands will be much bigger, and will probably be permanent.

My hon. Friends who spoke in last week’s debates will have specified which of the Government’s emergency actions we fully support—and there are a great many of them—as well as some instances in which we would like to see more being done, and a few in which we think that the action is simply going in the wrong direction. I hope that, at all times, the discussion of those matters can be kept as civilised and as temperate as it has been over the last few days. The situation has changed significantly since my colleagues made those comments on Wednesday and Thursday last week, and it has changed significantly since the Chancellor’s Budget speech. It is vital for the Government’s response to those changes to be not only sufficiently robust, but sufficiently flexible.

I am encouraged by the degree of co-operation on the part of the UK Government—through Cobra, for example—in agreeing on our combined and shared response to the public health issues, and I hope that we can see a similar degree of proper engagement when it comes to how to deal with the economic challenges. It must be said that, on those matters, the UK Government have not always engaged positively and constructively with the devolved nations in the past.

Let me give just one apparently small example of the way in which the coronavirus outbreak is already affecting my constituency. Like many other constituencies—perhaps most—we are blessed with a huge number of brilliant, independently owned cafés and restaurants. “Restaurants” sounds quite grand, but I am talking about places that can hold, at the most, 20 or 30 people who come in for a plate of soup and a bacon roll for their lunch. Their collective contribution to my communities and to all our communities, not just economically but socially, is impossible to measure. Several of them have changed hands recently or have been established for less than a year, while others have been on the go for decades. Obviously, I am not privy to any of their individual financial affairs, but I doubt that any of them would survive for two, three or four months without any customers—if that is how some people are interpreting Government advice, that is what those businesses would have to put up with. Clearly, it is not as bad as that, but it is an indication of the fact that those small businesses will need some severe Government intervention, and some of them will need it very soon indeed. I am happy to support them as much as I can.