Contingencies Fund Bill Debate

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Department: HM Treasury
Committee stage & 2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & Committee: 1st sitting & Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
Tuesday 24th March 2020

(4 years, 2 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP)
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As many have said in the course of several of our debates this week, it is vital that we continue to work across party lines in response to the crisis. I reiterate here and now my party’s support for the Chancellor’s economic package for firms and workers that was announced on Friday.

Our attitude as individual Members to Government and what they should do, or even which Government should do it, determines in large part where we choose to sit in this Chamber, but the debates taking place now are very much subordinate to the task of deciding how to use our collective legitimacy and authority to guide, to direct and to steward the resources we are able to make available to protect the citizens we were elected to this place to represent. These are quite unprecedented times, the likes of which none of us has seen in our lifetime and which we all earnestly hope we will never see again in this or any other lifetime, but these extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. We all know all too well that lives and livelihoods are at stake. Significant policy changes in terms of support for the economy have already been announced, and yesterday this House took further important steps to protect the public by passing the Coronavirus Bill. Having made those changes to governance and policy, it is necessary also to make provision to support those changes in terms of supply through the Contingencies Fund. My party fully supports the steps that we are about to take to do that.

Although economic activity in the country will, of necessity, be curtailed for the duration of our response to the crisis, we need to maintain demand as far as it is possible to do so, and to be able to meet that demand where we can. We also need to make sure that we are laying the foundations of recovery, so that it can take place as soon as the scientific advice is consistent with doing so. To that end, I commend to hon. Members the work the Scottish Government have undertaken, particularly pledges of grants to support business and the offer of various business rates reliefs.

The economic measures we take must give people the security to follow the very clear public health advice that has been given by all the Governments on these islands, and we very much welcome the distance the Chancellor has already travelled in introducing measures to allow that to happen. However, we must recognise that, notwithstanding all that has already been done, not everyone either has or feels that they have the financial security to stop working or, in many cases, the agency to tell an irresponsible employer that they will follow the Government’s clear advice to stay at home.

On the further support we can offer, we need to be doing something and more to support those on zero-hours contracts. We must also provide support for those who have seen their hours reduced and are not involved in the Government’s furlough scheme. The Chancellor and his team have been questioned closely today, including by me, about support for the self-employed. We must take the Chancellor and the Government at their word that they are examining the details of a package and striving to present it to us as quickly as they can.

There are 330,000 self-employed workers in Scotland. Although they may not always feel that they have the ear of Government or that they are as visible as some of the larger corporate entities in the business landscape, they remain the backbone of our economy, and they must not be left behind in the responses to this crisis. We will certainly watch very closely to ensure that they are not.

Despite the Chancellor’s answers earlier, the SNP continues to believe that using the tax and welfare system to put money directly into people’s pockets through a universal basic income would be the simplest and most straightforward way of getting crucial individual financial support exactly where it needs to go.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami
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Does the hon. Gentleman regard universal basic income as not desirable for the longer term and advocate doing it only for a set period, or does he want it for the longer term?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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I happen to believe that it would be the best way to ensure that we deliver money to those who need it over the longer term. I do not view it as a Trojan horse; I believe its merits would speak for themselves. But whether we believe in it ideologically or not, from a pragmatic perspective, it would certainly reduce much of the red tape in getting financial resources where they need to be. I do not think the issue of whether it should exist in the long term needs to divide us; I think we could agree that it is how we can best deliver support over the period ahead of us.

There are other areas of the economy that require our attention. Although support for buy-to-let landlords is welcome—I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I rent out a small flat myself—it would be more welcome if that financial support went directly to tenants, which would allow them security of tenure and keep that cash circulating in the economy. Other potential measures include increasing statutory sick pay to the EU average, strengthening welfare protections, removing the bedroom tax and removing the rape clause.

When it comes to our transport infrastructure, we need to protect capacity. We saw yesterday welcome interventions in the rail industry and the train operating companies. My constituency contains Aberdeen airport, and the companies responsible for the ground operations there have been in touch with me. Support for the airlines is no doubt important, but so too is support for the airports and the people who work on the ground to ensure that the activity can continue. Our airports will be crucial in getting the country moving again once we are through this crisis. We need to prepare for the contingency of repatriations to the UK in the event that commercial airlines are not able to carry out that task. We also need to be prepared to cover those whose insurers will not pay out for coronavirus-related claims, whatever activity they relate to.

Those measures represent just some of what will be necessary, but we need the resources in place to take them.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP)
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It is right that the Government are bringing forward a whole range of support packages, and my hon. Friend is right to raise the other kinds of support that are needed. Does he agree that there is also a responsibility on employers to engage constructively with this and to look after their staff? It might be understandable that people placed on furlough receive an 80% cut in their salary, but I am hearing reports from some of our colleagues who are not physically present with us today that, for example, Newsquest publishers is preparing to cut the salaries of staff who are not being furloughed by between 15% and 20%. Does he agree that that kind of practice by businesses that are going to benefit from the Government support is a very worrying practice?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson
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My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. People will be watching very closely to see how companies behave in this crisis and how they react to the support that is there. It is very clear that while some companies have behaved very responsibly, with a real social conscience and with a sense of duty towards their staff, others are not behaving as creditably. I am sure we will hear of more examples of that as time progresses.

All the measures that have been outlined come at a considerable commitment, but the costs—in financial terms, but, more importantly, in human terms—of doing nothing are very much greater to us than the costs of intervening. The response to covid-19 is one that will need all of us to make our own contribution. On behalf of my party, I pay tribute to the public servants, the charities and the many volunteers who will be working around the clock to keep people safe and comfortable over this period. I thank those in the private sector who are working so hard to keep other essential activities in the supply chain under way, and all involved in all spheres and tiers of government—local and national—who will be helping to co-ordinate that activity in the days and weeks ahead.

I will draw my remarks to a close by saying that it was important this week that we gave all those in those spheres and tiers of government the political permission to act as they need to in pursuit of the greater good. This Bill provides the resource to underpin those permissions, and subject to good choices being made with the resource that is now available, it will also give us the ability to support businesses and families through this most trying of times. The Bill has our support.