Finance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:26 pm on 27th April 2020.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 8:26 pm, 27th April 2020

Thank you very much for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a great pleasure to be able to join you from a mere 718 miles away.

In the normal course of things, the purpose of a Finance Bill is to give legislative underpinning to the Budget. As others have reflected, however, it is a mere seven weeks since we heard the Chancellor’s Budget, and in that time most of it has been fed into the shredder. Obviously, this Bill reflects the legal necessity of having a Finance Act, but I think we all know that there will be further fiscal measures this year. It may be at that stage that we get a truer sense of the Government’s intentions.

We have all fallen easily into the habit of using the rhetoric of war when speaking of the challenge of tackling the covid-19 pandemic. I can see why, but it is worth remembering that for a Government to get the support of the people for a war, it is essential that they are able to give a clear vision of the purpose of that war. What is it that we are fighting to preserve? As I look around my communities, I am pretty clear about what I am prepared to fight for in this war. I want to preserve and protect the small businesses that are the lifeblood of the economy in the northern isles. We are overwhelmingly a small business economy. I hear so often from the builders, plumbers, electricians, joiners and decorators—people who may be working out of their house or the back of a van—and they tell me that the schemes that are available are not going to help them, and that this war effort is not going to give them the assistance that they need to get to the other side.

I also want to protect the myriad people who are part of the important visitor economy here in the northern isles. That is something that we have built up gradually and organically over decades. It involves the tourism guides, the food and drink manufacturers and the people who run café and bed-and-breakfast businesses or provide self-catering accommodation. This is something that we have all built up, and those people are all essential to that future offering. Just recently, I spoke to someone at a local hotel who told me that, having come through the six difficult months of the winter, they were now looking forward to the six productive months. However, they have had to close, and they see little prospect of opening again. They say that if they do not open over the course of the summer months, they will stay closed until next Easter. That will be absolutely critical. The people who work in those businesses will find something else to do with their time if they are unable to continue to work in them.

At the start of this pandemic, my inbox was overflowing with messages from people wanting to know that there would be help, and I am sure I was not alone among hon. Members in that. Recently, that has changed. The volume of correspondence is perhaps not as big as it was, but the pleas are just as heartfelt. People are telling me time and again that the help that is available is not going to work for them. One chartered accountant in my constituency recently told me that he reckoned that about 75% of his clients would get no help from the available schemes. That is why, when it came to the Chancellor’s statement today, I made a very unusual-for-me step—to ask him to consider the introduction of a universal basic income.

Let me be quite clear: that runs against just about everything I have ever believed. I was always brought up to believe that you work hard, you get on, you contribute and you pay back. The idea of effectively giving people something for nothing would otherwise be anathema to me, but in these times if the schemes we have are just too difficult and complex to reach the people who have worked hard and taken risks, surely we are going to have to do something different. Consider, for example, the position of those who rely on dividend income; people are going to be left without the protection they need, and they will not then be there when the good times return and our businesses want to open up again.