The hon. Gentleman makes the extremely important point that the avarice attached to these contracts undermines any sense that the Government are putting their arms around anyone, let alone the whole country. I would be interested if the Minister could indicate whether the Prime Minister will heed SNP calls—in fact, cross-party calls—for a full public inquiry into the cronyism at the heart of this Government. Convincing answers are urgently needed as to why so many Tory friends, relatives, donors and prominent lobbyists were awarded jobs and privileged access to UK Government meetings and decision making.
The National Audit Office has exposed and confirmed the existence of VIP lanes in which unsuitable companies were often placed by the private offices of Ministers, and they were more than 10 times as likely to win a contract as other suppliers. Recent weeks have seen reports that £1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money has gone to companies linked to the Conservative party. Concerns have also emerged over the weekend about privileged access for lobbyists with links to the Conservative party, without any public process or announcement.
With so much suffering across these islands, it is vital that there is full transparency and that the public have confidence in the manner in which the UK Government spend taxpayers’ money fighting coronavirus. As we heard last week from Bill Esterson, rather than support experienced and established UK-based PPE providers, the Government chose 12-week-old businesses with no experience or capacity to provide PPE. How can UK-based companies survive when their Government cut them off at the knees? If everything is above board, surely the Minister will have no issues indicating her support for an inquiry.
Yet that is not the only economic vandalism of this Government during the pandemic. Despite the promises to wrap their arms around everyone, support remains poorly targeted and offers no relief for people who have become self-employed more recently or to businesses in my Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath constituency such as RG Construction, which was denied £64,000 of furlough support on a technicality it could never have predicted or met. Will the Minister undertake to ask the Treasury to review these entry requirements to open up support to self-employed people and other businesses that have so far been excluded?
The Government sprang into action to provide countless contracts for their wealthy friends, but that sense of urgency is sadly lacking when it comes to taking action on social care reform, pay awards for frontline NHS staff or addressing the poverty of carers. This week on the Health and Social Care Committee, we heard evidence that healthcare assistants were not being provided with the same standard of PPE as more senior staff, leading to stress, anxiety and burnout. This risk of burnout is all the more concerning when it comes to how we recover the delays in cancer treatment precipitated by the pandemic. The King’s Fund has described an already existing problem of chronic excessive workload in the NHS. This week we heard expert evidence that that, in combination with the culture that demands ever more, can lead to serious mental health problems. What action is the Minister taking to address these pressures and challenge such an unhealthy culture in the NHS?
I would like to pay tribute to Macmillan lead cancer nurse Denise Crouch for her valuable evidence highlighting the pressure cancer nurses have been facing before and during covid-19. Macmillan has highlighted serious shortages in the cancer workforce, in which 2,500 specialist cancer nurses are needed to meet current demand, rising to 3,700 by 2030. I say with genuine sensitivity that this pandemic has thrown into even sharper focus the fragility of our NHS workforce and the need for fast-paced and substantial action. I would be interested in what action the Minister has taken to secure additional capacity in the NHS beyond March 2021 and to invest in the cancer workforce as part of next week’s comprehensive spending review.
Work-related stress is also being amplified elsewhere. Where is the urgency or action addressing the deeply immoral exploitative practice of firms firing workers only to rehire them on significantly reduced terms? This fire and rehire practice has sadly emerged in many sectors, most notably in aviation. Those are not the only threats to our ability to build back better after covid. To pile misery on misery, the Government are persisting with their plan—I use that word in the loosest of terms —with no regard to the consequences or the views of the people of Scotland.
What of the £20 uplift to universal credit? With so many now facing redundancy, this must be made permanent and extended to legacy benefits. These calls are backed by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Save the Children. Can the Minister not see the need for this support and the positive impact that such support could have on health and wellbeing? If the UK Government are as keen they claim to be on protecting people, why is it that their own workforce in the Department for Work and Pensions, already equipped to work from home as part of a pilot, are being forced to work in an office one day a week in the face of covid clusters occurring among their colleagues?
In Scotland, we see things through a different lens. As a small country, we ascribe more value to the view that intangible infrastructure such as education and healthcare form the backbone of a country. The Credit Suisse country strength indicator places six small countries in the top 10. Small countries make up more than half of the world’s top 30 countries, with Scotland showing higher scores on the UN human development index than the UK as a whole.
Scotland must build back better, and that is only possible with the full powers of an independent nation. A new YouGov poll across Britain revealed that 85% of respondents from Scotland think that the UK Government are doing badly at handling the UK’s exit from the European Union. An expert study from Warwick University earlier this year revealed that Scotland is already £3.9 billion worse off as a result of Brexit, losing £736 per head of population, with Aberdeen the worst hit at £9,000 per head. Separately, Scottish Government analysis revealed that Tory plans to end the transition period in 2020 could cut £3 billion from the Scottish economy in two years on top of the impact of coronavirus. It is no wonder then that 14 polls in a row now show a majority of support for independence in Scotland, with the most recent poll by Panelbase showing support at 56%. I know that my focus on Scotland and the interests and aspirations of my constituents tire some on the Government Benches, but there is a simple and obvious solution available to them.
In closing, the difference between the independence regularly celebrated on the Government Benches and the one that Scotland will choose soon is that Scotland wants independence to join the world whereas the real separatists sat on the Government Benches have sought separation to be an isolated and rudderless state. It is no wonder that support to abandon the UK separatists is growing, and growing in the majority of Scotland.