There were lots of bribes and a lot of bluster in today’s statement, but very little on what will actually tackle the issues at the heart of society and expose those issues exaggerated by covid-19: the deep poverty and inequality endemic in society. The virus itself may not discriminate, but we know that the economic as well as the health impacts have been far more acutely suffered by those in poverty.
A recent Social Metrics Commission report found that 65% of those in work and in deep poverty have seen reduced hours or earnings, have been furloughed or have lost their jobs, compared with 35% of those who are comfortably above the poverty line. Families who are already struggling with in-work poverty and who cannot afford to lose their household income are those who are being most badly hit. They need hope. They do not need a meal deal; they need a new deal—no matter how much the Chancellor might like a cheeky Nando’s.
Covid-19 has caused a surge in the need for the UK’s welfare safety net, but that has been brutishly decimated over years by the UK Government’s austerity policies, described by a UN report as causing a
“systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population”.
Covid-19 has made millions more reliant on that broken system. Recognising the impact of poverty, and taking steps to eradicate it for all, should be at the forefront of any response.
We also need to look again at the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, and get the money flowing through to the businesses that need it. Uptake at the start was pitiful, and although some effort was made to improve the scheme—and some effort to massage the figures, some would say—too many companies are still being left without any support. Many are just surviving and cannot take on the weight of crippling additional debt, especially with the sky-high interest rates that some companies are offering for loans, with full Government accreditation. Instead of a hand up, many smaller businesses are being left to be hocked by unscrupulous lenders. The Government need to commit to turning those loans into grants instead of debt, to protect jobs and to ensure the survival of those businesses.
I want to give credit where credit is due. I certainly welcome the 5% VAT cut for hospitality. The Scottish Government have also called for a youth jobs guarantee, so I very much welcome today’s recognition of the need to centre on young people in the economic response. Young people from Midlothian’s youth platform recently met virtually with me to discuss the findings of a survey that they undertook to share the experiences that young people have faced through lockdown. It was worrying—I will be honest about that—and it showed the deep level of anxiety that young people felt about their futures, about jobs, about apprenticeships, and about their education. Many are in households where parents have lost their jobs and were struggling just to pay their bills, so it is hard to feel positive about their prospects. Action to help young people to see opportunities instead of struggles is certainly much needed.
Those who are excluded from the support so far have also been missed yet again today. There was an opportunity perhaps to recognise those who have been forgotten, although I accept that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said yesterday that they had not been forgotten. I can only conclude that, if they have not been forgotten, it is an intentional act to exclude them.
I would have thought that this was an opportunity for working together respectfully, and for the four nations approach; yet a support measure that could have genuinely helped a lot of these people was universal basic income. When I asked the Department for Work and Pensions what intention it had of considering the findings of a study on that, it simply said that it was not even going to look at it. Inequalities need to be tackled. This was a chance for the Government to do that, and unfortunately I think it has been missed.