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Economic Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:17 pm on 17th March 2020.

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Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 7:17 pm, 17th March 2020

I thank the Chancellor for the action and the extra money that he has announced this evening. I put on record my thanks to health staff, volunteers and everybody working at the forefront of this crisis. I also mark my sadness at the second death that was recorded in Scotland today.

We want to work across the economy and across society, because fundamentally this is about people’s lives. The Chancellor is right that nothing should be spared when it comes to that. Can he tell me precisely what the Barnett consequentials will be from today’s announcement? He says that the Scottish Government knew in advance. I do not make the point to be party political, but my understanding is that the Scottish Government were only notified by letter at 5.30 pm yesterday of the previous set of Barnett consequentials from last week’s Budget. [Interruption.] I hear hon. Members saying that that has been the same for Wales.

The Scottish Government want to act swiftly. They must not be behind the curve of what England is doing. The Chancellor must pick up the phone to Kate Forbes, the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance, to let her know exactly what is coming, so that she can take action for Scotland’s businesses and individuals across the country.

The Chancellor mentioned that the loans will be on attractive terms. Can he tell us more details? Businesses will be nervous about taking on more debt at this time, and interest free for six months is perhaps not good enough for businesses that are struggling and questioning their very future. His flexibility on the next steps is also welcome, but we expect those measures to come before the House if at all possible.

Will the Chancellor take a stake in the airlines to guarantee that money for the future? In any intervention for airlines, will he make sure that staff are protected first, including support staff in airports and in the supply chain, not just airline staff directly? They are all worried about their jobs.

Cash grants for small businesses are welcome, but I gently suggest that the £3,000 announced last week was not enough. Today’s announcement of £10,000 shows how short that was. The hospitality sector in particular needs urgent clarity about what is going to happen for events, for pubs and right across the sector. The Government need to be absolutely clear: if people are to stay away from pubs, pubs need to know that and have the Government’s backing if they close. That applies across the hospitality sector, including for hotels and lots of small businesses in the supply chain.

The Association of British Insurers has suggested that many businesses will not have a policy that covers pandemic. Will the UK Government stand as an insurer of last resort, as Professor Sir Charles Bean suggested at the Treasury Committee today, saying,

“Big early action is better than half-hearted action that’s late”?

I urge the Chancellor to think on that. Can the insurers cope if they are asked to pay out on all those policies? Will the Government stand behind the insurers if need be?

What protection has been given to pregnant women around maternity entitlement? Lots of women have been asked to take their maternity leave early, which will affect how long they can stay off at the end. They need to know that the Government will back them on that and that they will not lose out on their maternity leave because of the coronavirus.

The Chancellor made no mention of private renters, particularly young people who are more likely to be in insecure employment. He is giving a break to those paying mortgages, lots of which are buy-to-rent mortgages where people rent the accommodation. If the mortgage holders are getting a break, that must be guaranteed for renters as well. It must be passed on, and passed on quickly. If the Chancellor looks at Twitter, he will see that people around the country are losing their tenancies and do not know whether they can get a new one.

There has been talk in the US of $1,000 being given to Americans, and in Italy €500 being given to the self-employed. Will the Chancellor consider such direct schemes for individuals who may be struggling to cope? Will he also look at the situation for asylum seekers and those with no recourse to public funds who cannot claim benefits and are particularly vulnerable? The services, food banks and voluntary action that they rely on will disappear. They need direct payments as well if they are to live through this crisis.

I note that France is moving to the direct payment of bills. Will the Chancellor look at that measure? That is a different mechanism that stops money being taken out of people’s pockets, rather than putting money into them. Has he spoken to the energy companies about that?

Turning to the vulnerability of people in the economy just now, the Fraser of Allander Institute has said that only one in four under-25s has enough savings to cover one month of income. The under-25s are incredibly vulnerable, so will the Chancellor consider specific measures to tackle issues for those young people? Only 42% of households in the bottom income decile have enough savings to cover one month. People will not get through this crisis with the money they have in the bank, because a lot of them have no money in the bank. He needs to consider how he will ensure that people can put food on the table. That need is particularly pressing for families, because if the schools do close and parents cannot work, there will be no money coming in. He needs to think about how those families will put food on the table for those children during this extended period.

I agree with everyone who has said that statutory sick pay is woefully inadequate to deal with this crisis. The Government have suggested that people should apply for universal credit, but they seem to be forgetting that for many people universal credit is far less generous even than statutory sick pay, so will the Chancellor urgently increase the amount that people can get through the universal credit system? Will he uprate that so that people can get enough money to survive the crisis? Will he consider extending the period for universal credit advances, or ideally get rid of the advances and pay people straight away? Will he ensure that the Department for Work and Pensions looks carefully at the implications of people claiming universal credit for their entitlement to legacy benefits, because people might lose out on their legacy benefits if they jump into universal credit just now? Will the Department protect that for all claimants so that they do not lose out in the long term?

This is a crisis. I welcome all action that the UK Government will take on this, but the questions this evening will be legion, and people will have so many questions in the days ahead. I ask the Government to listen and to react as quickly as possible to all the questions that honourable colleagues will raise this evening, and in the weeks and months ahead.