Covid-19: Support for UK Industries

Sarah Olney Excerpts
Thursday 25th June 2020

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing) - Hansard

I am afraid that the next speaker will be the last person called from the Back Benches this afternoon. I call Sarah Olney.

Sarah Olney Portrait Sarah Olney (Richmond Park) (LD) - Hansard

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; I appreciate you giving me time to speak in this really important debate. My constituents have been in touch with me about this issue more than any other during the crisis. The crisis has revealed the complexity of the UK economy. It is a feature of our country’s creativity, energy and innovativeness that we host such a vast array of industries and businesses within our island nation. That is reflected in the myriad ways that people earn a living.

I am a member of the Public Accounts Committee, and we were taken aback at a recent hearing to find that the Government’s preparation for a pandemic did not include preparation for its economic impact. That left the Treasury with the huge task of devising and delivering its economic rescue plans when the lockdown started, and I pay tribute to it for what it was able to achieve in such a short period. As many Members on both sides of the House have pointed out, the job retention scheme—the furlough scheme—has been invaluable in supporting household incomes during this extremely difficult time. But it is clear that support was focused on those who earn salaries and pay mortgages, and, tragically, many sectors and workers were missed out. I urge the Minister to consider the lessons for future lockdown planning, although we all hope that this will not be necessary in the immediate future. The biggest tragedy is that many of those who missed out are the ones who will be most instrumental in rebuilding the economy in the months to come—our small businesses, our entrepreneurs, our freelancers, those who have taken a risk on a new business idea or taken on a new job. The Government must focus their investment on our key industries and those that will take the longest to recover.

I spoke earlier today in this place about the necessity of supporting theatres, and I extend that to the whole creative sector. Not only are they a huge earner for us abroad, but they reflect British values across the globe and are instrumental in so many ways. Beyond that, for all of us who have spent months staring at our laptop screens, it will be essential to enjoy live music and live theatre again. I spoke earlier about the necessity of using education programmes, which theatre companies and other parts of the creative sector are so good at, to engage our young people once again.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) spoke passionately about the tourism and hospitality sector, and it is essential that we support all these industries through the next few months. We do not just need to support our workers in these industries; we need to plot out a strategy for their survival and recovery. If the right people get the right help now, they will be ready to revive the economy as soon as they are able to.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP) - Hansard

This is a timely debate that has not just highlighted the concerns of those who have put their names to these petitions but will have widespread resonance far beyond them. We have heard many excellent contributions this afternoon, with concerns raised covering a wide spectrum of sectors, including arts, tourism, childcare, events, aviation and steel—a full sweep of the economy—and enterprises of all sizes.

The UK Government package, as the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne) said, was put together at speed, and as we have heard, many significant gaps have been identified. On the furlough scheme, for example, I need not dwell on the pivotal date of 19 March, which has left far too many people reliant on the good will of former employers if they are to benefit from it. The self-employed support scheme, which was unveiled after this House had broken up for the Easter recess, missed out those who were newly self-employed. Directors also missed out if they were remunerated through dividends. This makes the case, I think, for a universal basic income in that we know who everyone is, and if we give them the money to get through, then nobody, by definition, will have fallen through the cracks.

Much of the support has been based on the rateable values of business enterprises, and I can understand exactly why that is. It is clear and it is simple for local authorities to administer, but it has still left too many businesses missing out, because they were outside the relevant rateable value bands or they were not in the relevant sector, or because they were small businesses operating out of people’s homes and were therefore not on the business valuation roll.

The Scottish Government have certainly done all they can to try to plug those gaps in support with a £2.3 billion package of support. That has meant relief to the fish processing sector and to airports, support for the creative sector, plugging that gap in support for the newly self-employed, £78 million for construction and £51 million to support early-stage, high-potential companies. In all, the response amounts to over £4 billion for tackling this, when we have had £3.8 billion coming through the normal Treasury route.

However, it is important to note that the Scottish Government cannot do everything, and in trying to do more, they are finding themselves seriously constrained not only by the resource available, but by the constitutional limits placed on devolution, which have been particularly exposed in this crisis, and no more so than over borrowing powers. The borrowing powers that the Scottish Parliament has are designed to deal with cash-flow mismatches from year to year; they are not there to deal with serious amounts of investment for the future. I understand that the Finance Secretary in Scotland, Kate Forbes, has written today to the Chancellor to ask for greater flexibility around that. I hope she gets a reply that is not only swift but favourable.

This has also shown the limitations of the so-called Barnett consequentials. Too often, colleagues in Edinburgh have been left waiting to find out exactly how much is going to come through from spending decisions that have been taken in this place, occasionally finding that the money they thought was coming through was then not. It would be much better if the devolved Governments were able to decide what response they wanted to make and muster the resources at their disposal in the shortest possible time by simply having the powers to do so without reference to anywhere else.

I appreciate that we are short of time this afternoon, but I will say that borrowing powers were one of the key items identified in the report created by the Scottish Government’s advisory group on economic recovery, led by Benny Higgins. Borrowing powers were part of that, as was a series of 25 recommendations including a full review of the fiscal framework, jobs guarantees for the under-25s, prioritising a green recovery and a revised partnership between business and Government. These are all important structural changes in the economy that we absolutely need to have if we are going to make sure that the new normal is better than the old normal.

In the time remaining, let me just make a plea for the energy sector. Oil, gas and energy are absolutely crucial not just for jobs in the north-east of Scotland, but right across the UK. They are crucial if we are to maintain our energy security and effect the transition to net zero, but it is an industry on the brink of thousands upon thousands of job losses. The Scottish Government have invested £62 million to do what they can to assist in that. We desperately need a sector deal. Together with my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) and for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), I have made a plea to the Chancellor for just such a sector deal. Again, we hope for a swift and favourable response.

In conclusion, the support to date from the UK Government has been very welcome where it has landed, but desperately missed where it has not. All too often, it has failed to land. The economic challenges we face as the crisis evolves give us a new landscape. The challenges change, but are no less urgent and much remains to be done. I say to the Minister that if the UK Government are not willing to use the powers they have to address those shortcomings and to tackle the additional issues that need to be tackled, they should devolve those powers to Governments elsewhere in these islands who will use them.