Protection of Jobs and Businesses

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:33 pm on 9th September 2020.

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Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury) 1:33 pm, 9th September 2020

The hon. Member is absolutely correct. A second spike does not seem to be on the Government’s agenda, and it should be. The measures put in place were put in place at speed, at haste, and the Government should be learning from this and preparing for that second spike now. I would be incredibly grateful if at some point a Minister confirmed that they are doing that, because it is absolutely necessary. We cannot ignore the risk of a second spike, given how the figures have been creeping up in recent days.

The IPPR has said that ending the furlough scheme will lead to unemployment

“not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s”,

with the loss of 3 million jobs, 2 million of which would be viable in the longer term if it were continued. The furlough scheme should be continued for at least two years, or for as long as we need it—perhaps we will not need it for two years, which would be a good eventuality—as is being done in Germany and France. Independent Ireland is keeping its scheme going for a year. No employee or employer should be forced to decide between their health and their income.

The self-employment support scheme should also have been continued. In addition, a basic temporary income scheme should have been introduced to protect anyone falling through the gaps in support. There is still time for the Treasury to step in and make that commitment, because the lack of parity between those in the different schemes is completely unjustifiable. I remain deeply disappointed that the recommendations of the Treasury Committee to address the gaps in support have not been taken up by the Treasury. The ExcludedUK group, representing at the least 3 million people who have been denied any UK Government support—these include the newly self-employed, freelancers, limited company directors, those on short-term PAYE contracts and many others—is still being ignored by the Chancellor, despite having presented the Treasury with viable solutions.

The situation facing women requiring maternity leave has also been incredibly stressful and unfair, with many finding themselves ineligible and some who were forced to take maternity leave early now struggling to get the childcare they need to even attempt to go back to work. It is hugely disappointing to hear that the UK Government have rejected the very reasonable request by the 226,000 maternity petitioners to extend maternity leave for three months. I hope the Government will reconsider that. I am led to wonder whether different decisions might be made if there were more women on the UK Government Benches.

When we see Jim Harra, head of HMRC, admit this week that £3.5 billion of furlough cash has been lost in fraudulent claims or error, it is even more galling to those who have no support whatsoever. There have also been errors in my constituency on HMRC’s part. Its inflexibility and inability to deal with MP requests on this issue has also been hugely frustrating for those whose businesses are on the brink.

The take-up of the coronavirus job retention scheme has been significant, as has been said, with 9.6 million workers furloughed by 1.2 million employers since March. Those employers had made £34.7 billion of furlough claims by 9 August. The scheme will cost the UK Government an estimated £80 billion in total, but we should not forget that this cost is an investment in people and in public health. The cost of not acting would be far greater.

The figures published by the Treasury demonstrating the sectoral impact of the furlough scheme are interesting. They show only 2% of employees in public administration and defence and 7% of those in finance and insurance being placed on furlough, compared with 77% of those in accommodation and food services—some 1,693,600 employees—and 70% of those working in the arts, entertainment, recreation and other services, amounting to 474,300 employees across the UK. This of course reflects the different nature of the jobs in those sectors and whether it has been possible for people to work.

The sectors in which furlough take-up has been high are not suddenly going to be able to return to pre-covid business, and there is a real argument for sectoral extensions if the Government will not consider a wholesale extension. The ability of these businesses and organisations to generate income will continue to be hampered by the need to impose public health restrictions. For example, how would a national arts company or a full-scale production be able to get a theatre performance up and running? How would that theatre be able to turn a profit at 40% capacity? What about the restaurant next door, which theatre goers might usually have gone to for a pre-theatre meal, or the pub they might have gone to afterwards, where nobody will be allowed to stand at the bar and that will not have outdoor seating in the depths of a Scottish winter, or even a Scottish autumn?

How does the Chancellor expect such firms to bear the cost of staffing, rent and other outgoings when they will not see a corresponding increase in income? The short answer is that those costs cannot be borne. The CBI’s head, Carolyn Fairbairn, has warned that

“it’s too soon to pull business support away at the end of October”.

The Fraser of Allander Scottish business monitor for quarter 2 this year reported that 55% of businesses that have made use of the job retention scheme expect to decrease their staffing numbers when the scheme is phased out.