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

It absolutely is not fair. The scheme is being abused by businesses, and that should not be allowed to happen. I commend to the Government my hon. Friend’s Bill on fire and rehire. If they wanted to do anything at all to help, they would take on the recommendations in his Bill, because they would make a huge difference to people. People should not be expected to do the same job on vastly reduced terms and conditions, under pain of losing their job altogether. It is exploitation pure and simple, and the Government should not accept it.

The Chief Secretary talked about new opportunities for those in industries that could not continue, but that fails to recognise the reality that there might not be enough jobs for those who are laid off to go into, and that what jobs there are might not be at the same wage level as the jobs they are in now. The cost will be met by the UK Government in one way or another—in employment benefits if not in extending furlough.

The end of furlough coincides with the end of the period for which people have been granted bill payment holidays. The Standard Life Foundation report, “Emerging from lockdown”, highlights that

“of the 3.7 million households across the UK granted a bill ‘payment holiday’, over 6 in 10 are already facing financial difficulties and will struggle to repay their debts when these arrangements end. For many, these payment holidays will cease on 31 October 2020—the same date the government’s job retention schemes end, leaving many facing job losses and crippling financial strain.”

The effect could be devastating: people laid off because their employers cannot afford to keep them on, with debt mounting, and all this among people who are already finding life difficult. The drop in income if people move on to universal credit—if, indeed, they are eligible, which many people are not—will push many families over the brink. I fear that the UK Government are not looking at the bigger picture in the choices they are making.

The kickstart scheme is not available easily to small employers, which could have a disproportionate impact on the rural economy in places where there are not enough employers to club together to make up the minimum 30 employees. To return to a theme I have spoken about before, there is a risk of young workers being exploited and not being paid a living wage. Nobody in this House would want to live on the wages that young people are expected to work for in this country. I ask the Chief Secretary to reconsider and to pay a real living wage to the young people on the scheme. They deserve nothing less.

I also raise caution about relating the scheme to universal credit, because many people are not able to access universal credit, as I have said. If the scheme runs only through universal credit, many young people who might otherwise have benefited from the scheme, such as it is, will not be eligible.

Where the Scottish Government have the power, they have acted. The Scottish Government have spent £4 billion on covid, with over £2.3 billion for businesses. That is above the Barnett consequentials allocated to us. The Scottish Government published their response to the recommendations of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery on 5 August. They are acting to protect jobs by developing and delivering sector-led recovery plans, working with industry leadership groups, trade unions and others, starting with the construction sector, which is coming back from its furlough period. They are supporting jobs through the covid-19 transition training fund. Through the programme for government, they are supporting a national mission to create new jobs, good jobs and green jobs, which includes investing £60 million to support up to 20,000 young people into jobs. There is the £100-million green jobs fund, investment in decarbonisation and the Unlocking Ambition programme. They are also using the national performance framework to promote equality and to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.

The Scottish Government have made an extra £330 million of funding available this financial year specifically to support Scotland’s economic recovery. That includes £230 million of economic recovery stimulus to invest in capital projects and a £100 million package of funding focused on protecting jobs and supporting those who have been made redundant or whose jobs are at risk.

I would dearly love the Scottish Government to do more, given the scale of the crisis, but their hands are tied. The Fraser of Allander Institute is clear that

“the Scottish Government can borrow up to £450m per annum for capital investment (a cap of £3bn). On resource spending, they can borrow up to £600m per annum (a cap of £1.75bn), but only for ‘forecast error’
and ‘cash management’. They cannot borrow to fund discretionary resource spending.”

That is the crucial point. We urgently need more financial powers in Scotland. If the UK Government will not act on the things we have asked them to act on, they should not stand in Scotland’s way when we have a desire to support our people and businesses. Powers must be devolved to let the Scottish Government get on with the job.

All of this stands in the context of the looming threat of a no-deal, chaotic and damaging Brexit, with the UK Government gleefully breaking international agreements they themselves signed up to and the outrageous proposals today in clause 46 of the Tories’ United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. The UK Government’s power grab over economic development and infrastructure plans cannot be allowed to stand. The Tories speak of a power surge, but the last time I checked, a power surge was a dangerous thing that usually lasts only a few seconds, but that results in serious damage to valuable appliances. For once, the Tories might be telling the truth when they say that that is what is coming to Scotland under their plans.

Westminster and the Tories cannot be trusted with our economy. What we see today is not “whatever it takes”. Winding up the furlough scheme and allowing so many people to fall through the support net will cause lasting harm to so many people with businesses and to the wider economy. We must have the full powers of a normal independent country to meet the needs of our economy and, most importantly, of the people of Scotland.