Economic Update

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:03 pm on 8th July 2020.

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Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 1:03 pm, 8th July 2020

I would usually start by thanking the Chancellor for advance sight of his statement, but today I think I might ask for a fresh printer cartridge for the heavily redacted copy, which was effectively useless, that was sent to spokespeople ahead of his statement.

Countries around the world have supported their people in this crisis, and the only UK exceptionalism is in being among the countries where the most people have died. The Chancellor has spent big over the past few months and comes with more proposals today. We support measures such as the job support schemes and encourage the Chancellor to be more ambitious and think to the future in his stimulus plans; we want a comprehensive plan to support the economy, protect jobs and incomes, and build a greener, fairer society.

We have looked to the ambitious stimulus packages of our European neighbours and urge the Chancellor to look at a package of investment with no less than £80 billion of new money, equating to approximately 4% of UK GDP, the equivalent investment to that being made by Germany. That would allow for the level of investment needed to secure jobs not just now, but for the future, because we know that Brexit is coming over the horizon.

The Scottish Parliament currently has a very restricted ability to borrow, under a fiscal framework that was not designed with covid-19 in mind. Kate Forbes, Rebecca Evans and Conor Murphy, the Finance Ministers of all three devolved institutions, have come together to seek urgent devolution of the financial powers in these unprecedented times and to be able to have the flexibility to switch from capital to revenue spending. The Scottish Parliament must have the full range of powers to deliver a tailored response and secure a strong recovery for Scotland, otherwise necessary spending on coronavirus will mean cuts elsewhere and fixed budgets. And will the Chancellor be clear on what these proposals today mean for the block grant adjustment?

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has said today that UK GDP could be cut by 2.5% if the Chancellor goes ahead and withdraws the job support schemes prematurely. Roz Foyer, general secretary of the Scottish TUC, has called for the continuation of the scheme, noting that hospitality, tourism, aviation, and oil and gas are in particular need of extended support—and there was not a word about oil and gas in the Chancellor’s statement.

Those shielding and with caring responsibilities will also need ongoing support. Coronavirus is not going away, and there is a real risk that with future outbreaks, such as happened in Leicester, the support will not be there when it is needed. I hear what the Chancellor says about encouraging people back to work and about a bonus for employers who do, but for many people it will not be safe to go back to work. At the start of this crisis my inbox was full of correspondence from people worried about the safety of their workplaces, and people should not be forced to go back if it is not safe for them to do so.

Recent Treasury Committee reports and work by Excluded UK highlight the substantial gaps in the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme, with between 1 million and 3 million people left with no support whatsoever. People were furious at the suggestion by the Chancellor yesterday that they have had support; they asked me to assure him again today that they have not. The SNP believes that the Chancellor must fill these gaps and extend the furlough and self-employment income support schemes for as long as each of the four nations require that, so that no one is left behind.

A report by the Social Mobility Commission last week warned that UK child poverty is projected to increase to 5.2 million by 2022, with covid-19 adding to this problem. Now is the time to strengthen measures to reverse rising child poverty, including a £20 per week increase in the child element of universal credit and child tax credits. That will help families put food on the table and clothes on children’s backs at a time when many are struggling. These parents are not eating out. Some of these parents are barely eating at all.

The Tories must also scrap the callous two-child cap, re-establish child poverty targets, introduce a real living wage for all ages and roll out an emergency basic payment plan to protect families. We want to see investment in a national debt plan to support businesses, families and individuals who have been struggling. While I am glad to hear that the Chancellor wants to re-employ jobcentre staff, will he reopen the many jobcentres he closed in Glasgow?

We support a temporary reduction in VAT, and we are glad to see the Chancellor coming forward with plans—we have been calling for this since March. He mentioned cinemas. Will live events also see a VAT reduction in their ticket sales? Gigs and theatres would benefit hugely from being able to offer that. All this sits alongside a 2p cut we are calling for to employers’ national insurance contributions, to protect jobs and reduce the cost of hiring staff.

Our bright, talented young people are worth so much more than 25 hours a week on minimum wage, rather than a real living wage, with age discrimination baked in. For many of those young people, it will not be so much a kick-start as a kick in the teeth to be told to go to work for so little money. Those aged between 16 and 24 have bills to pay too, and they deserve fair pay for their work. I note that the Chancellor cited the higher band of pay for a 24-year-old, not the £6.45 an hour for younger people or the £4.55 that 16 and 17-year-olds get—an absolute pittance. There should be a real living wage for all.

If, as has been trailed, this plan is tied to universal credit, can the Chancellor confirm whether sanctions will be applied to those who do not take it up? What will happen to those shielding or with caring responsibilities? What will happen to those not currently on universal credit—will it be open to them? What commitment will he require from employers not to fire older, more expensive staff in favour of people on this scheme? What will happen after six months? What is open to older people to help them continue in employment? Many young people are already employed in sectors where jobs are disappearing right now. Many are already on furlough. Would it not be less disruptive to maintain that link with employers, rather than make them start over?

The voucher scheme that the Chancellor proposes for green plans is, relatively speaking, tinkering when we look at the comprehensive work that the KfW Development Bank in Germany has done to change the whole conversation around green investment. We want to put significant and sustained investment in the future at the heart of these plans and to ensure that Scotland has the widest possible range of powers to tackle covid-19. Only by doing that can we avoid the worst of this storm and protect both businesses and the health and wellbeing of our people.