Alison Thewliss – 2020 Speech on the Economy and Jobs

Below is the text of the speech made by Alison Thewliss, the SNP MP for Glasgow Central, in the House of Commons on 20 January 2020.

I rise to support amendment (b) in my name and the names of my hon. Friends, and I will start where the Chancellor left off—with claims of having a mandate. Well, he certainly does not have a mandate in Scotland, where his manifesto was rejected wholeheartedly and where the Tories lost more than half their MPs; he has absolutely no mandate to preach to Scotland on his austerity plans. In the last few weeks, we have had a new year, a new Prime Minister and a new UK Government. Under any normal circumstances we would be looking at some kind of fresh start, but for the people of Scotland it is the same old situation: a UK Government who they did not vote for, dragging us out of the UK against our will and sidelining the Scottish Government at every turn.

The Scottish Finance Secretary, Derek Mackay, wrote to the Chancellor looking for clarity on the Budget process on 22 December, but I raised this at Treasury questions on the first day back. I am not sure that the Chancellor even knew what I was asking about, never mind coming up with any kind of response. The Scottish Finance Secretary should not be finding out the date of the UK Budget in the media along with everybody else. It reeks of disrespect, and I think the Chancellor has yet to apologise. This comes after a November Budget that was cancelled so that the Chancellor could avoid any OBR scrutiny in the run-up to the general election.

The Scottish Government and local government in Scotland now face the prospect of writing a budget blindfold, and the stakes could not be higher. I urge the Chancellor and his team to do all they can to make amends for this and to work co-operatively to ensure that the Scottish Government can make the best of this situation. If the non-domestic rates order or the income tax resolution were not passed on time, Scotland could face having to take millions of pounds out of public services. It would be catastrophic, and the blame would lie squarely at the door of this UK Government and this Chancellor. Even if everything does go as smoothly as it can through this process, Scottish councils are being left in the unprecedented position of providing the vital services that the public rely on, without having certainty about their budgets. Should the council tax need to go up, for example, the very practicalities of issuing the necessary direct debit notifications will add time and difficulty to the process for councils across Scotland.

On funding, we welcome the Green Book review that the Chancellor is proposing, but we seek clarity on exactly what this will mean for Barnett consequentials, because in Scotland we still have not seen the £3 billion we are due as the share of the DUP’s bung from the previous Government. We still have not seen the £140 million that we were due from police and fire VAT. ​We need to know exactly what is going to happen with this Green Book process and how the Scottish Government will be involved in it.

The Chancellor has followed the Prime Minister’s lead in showing a total disregard for the people of Scotland. We voted against this hard Tory Brexit at every available opportunity, and again we are being sidelined. The Chancellor was keen to talk about the immigration Bill and how much that will matter, but in fact immigration is something that we need, and value, very much in Scotland. I have people at my surgery, week in, week out, complaining about this Government’s hostile environment, and all I see the Government doing is making it harder for everyone. They are not making it any better for anybody; they are making it even harder with a further hostile environment being rolled out to EU nationals.

Not only are this UK Government charging ahead with a withdrawal deal worse than the one that the previous Government and the previous Prime Minister came up with, but, as we saw in his interview with the Financial Times, the Chancellor is engaging in a race to the bottom when it comes to regulatory standards. He skated over the issue of equivalency, but we need to have a lot more detail on what he actually means by this. His predecessor knew well how important alignment was, and this Chancellor needs to explain why he has decided unilaterally to rip this up. Businesses are concerned that they are going to face tariffs, price rises and the loss of competitive advantage—particularly for Scotland losing out to Ireland. The Government are doing nothing to assuage these fears. This is particularly significant for services, which make up 81% of the UK’s total economic output.

The Chancellor needs to confirm what his statement means for equivalency in financial services. What is outcome-based equivalency and what exactly does he mean by it? Without equivalency, the UK faces losing access to European markets. For those working in services, the Chancellor must confirm that he still intends to guarantee mutual recognition of professional qualifications, without which they cannot work and move across Europe.

This withdrawal deal threatens economic growth across all the nations of the UK. For years after this Brexit, businesses will find it more attractive to take their investment moneys to other countries—to Germany, to the Netherlands, to Denmark and to Sweden. This is not my opinion; it is the opinion of David Blanchflower, the former member of the Monetary Policy Committee at the Bank of England. It is not just those nations that will benefit; we are seeing investment in Ireland booming. That is particularly clear to those of us watching in Scotland. Ireland has gained more than 4,500 jobs from international firms as a result of Brexit-related investment. IDA Ireland, the country’s foreign investment body, said that its annual results had gone up. Moreover, according to the European Commission, Ireland’s economy grew by 5.6% in 2019—the highest in the EU—while the UK’s growth dropped to its lowest since 2012. That is no coincidence.

The value of being in the EU in a partnership of equals is not lost on my constituents and those across Scotland. I am sure that it will be more pronounced as we see the increasing negative effects of Brexit—because, ​after all, we have not left yet. The Centre for European Reform says that Brexit has already cost £70 billion, or £440 million a week—something the Chancellor has yet to put on the side of a bus. More and more people in my constituency and elsewhere are realising that this place cannot be trusted with safeguarding Scotland’s interests. The little growth we have seen has been attributed to businesses stockpiling in case of no deal, while investment has stalled since the EU referendum and does not show any signs of recovering soon. Companies cannot be expected to sit on investment for three years; they will move it elsewhere if they can. All the investment lost since 2016 will have an impact on wage growth and job creation for years to come, even if, by some miracle, we can avoid the harshest of hard Brexits. We are already seeing effects creeping into the labour market. The Fraser of Allander Institute estimates that a hard Brexit such as the one that we might face at the end of the month could cost Scotland 100,000 jobs.

Of course, the Prime Minister and his cronies will say that this is all tosh and they are going to get Brexit done—abracadabra and off we go! I am afraid that the Chancellor knows just as well as I do that our relationship with Europe cannot be formed using a three-word magic incantation, no matter how many times it is said. There will be no getting Brexit done this month. There are still years of negotiations ahead. I cannot reassure businesses in my constituency what our relationship with Europe will look like, and I do not think the Chancellor can either.

Turning to other measures in the Queen’s Speech, the Chancellor knows that I have long criticised his pretendy living wage, which fails to meet the aspirations of young people in particular. The gap for young people who will not fall into his pretendy living wage is growing. I do not know—and he cannot explain—why a 16-year-old starting the same job on the same day as a 25-year-old is worth £4.17 an hour less. Why is that? He is extending it to 21-year-olds; can he not see the injustice in not extending it to everybody? He must make it a real living wage. The Living Wage Foundation currently sets the living wage at £9.30 an hour. The Scottish Parliament Information Centre suggests that by 2024, it will stand at £10.90—far short of what the Chancellor is suggesting. He cannot justify that age discrimination in the minimum wage, and no Chancellor has been able to justify it yet. The fact remains that women are more likely to be in part-time, low-wage work, so there is a disproportionate effect on women, who often have families to support. They deserve and are entitled to better than the Chancellor is offering.

I turn to the financial services legislation. Can the Chancellor provide a bit more clarity on the progress of the fifth anti-money laundering directive, which we have to implement, regardless of our leaving the EU at the end of the month? We in the SNP want to see reform of Companies House to uncover the beneficial ownership of Scottish limited partnerships, which were in the papers at the weekend, and other companies and trusts. We want to increase transparency, and we want to ensure that UK company information rules no longer allow illicit businesses to funnel millions of pounds of dirty money from all around the world, using British companies, and specifically SLPs. I wonder, is it any coincidence that in the first four weeks of the election campaign, the Conservatives accepted £567,000 from ​four companies with links to offshore tax havens in Luxembourg, Guernsey and the British Virgin Islands? I sat on the Joint Committee on the Draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill. When will we see some progress on that Bill? It has been sitting there for some time, and we have not seen much movement.

It would be neglectful of me not to challenge the Government on their austerity agenda—on issues such as the welfare cuts, the two-child limit, the rape clause and universal credit, which is causing so much pain to so many people across the country.

Drew Hendry

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Does she share my dismay that, more than six months after the UK Government said that they would hold a review, Marie Curie and the Motor Neurone Disease Association reckon that over 2,000 people have died before accessing the benefits they should have had through being classed as terminally ill? Is it not time that that scandal was addressed? The Government could take a simple measure to sort that out for these people and their families.

Alison Thewliss

I welcome my hon. Friend’s intervention and the work he has done on this issue. The Government have had their eye off the ball on universal credit and so many other welfare measures on which the courts have found against them. We are still waiting to know what they will do to remedy the situation for so many of our constituents who are waiting for their money back from the Government.

Another group of people who are waiting for their money back are the WASPI women. The Government have no plan for the WASPI women, who are entitled to their pension and should not have lost out as a result of successive Governments’ actions. The Chancellor is not even listening to this point, which is a disgrace. There are thousands of women up and down this country who deserve their money back, and this Government need to find a way of addressing that injustice, because these women cannot wait much longer.

This Government need to be a lot more ambitious in tackling climate change, investing in green infrastructure and making real changes that will last for generations to come. They need to look at the way the energy system is set up, so that those who are producing energy in rural parts of Scotland are not penalised because of geography. With the transition away from oil and gas coming up—I understand my hon. Friends will be speaking about that later—we need to be making sure that that is a fair and just transition, meaning that communities will not be left behind, as they have been in the past.

I am pleased to welcome COP26 to my constituency of Glasgow Central next year, but what has to come with that is investment from the UK Government to make sure that that event works as well as it should do: as a beacon to show what can be done and to highlight the very real achievements of the Scottish Government, who have made great strides in tackling climate change. In fact, a lot of the UK Government’s targets are actually being boosted by the actions of the UK Government, and that should absolutely be recognised.

With all of these things in the Queen’s Speech, opinion in Scotland is shifting. People are seeing the difference between what is happening at Westminster and the potential of Scotland as an independent European ​country—a country where the welfare state could be restored from the tattered, damaged safety net that Tory Governments have left it to a system with a safety net that is full of dignity and has respect for everybody at its core; a country where the Government have all the levers to build an inclusive economy, built on participation and making sure that everybody feels as though they have a part in the economy; a country more equal for women, disabled people and ethnic minorities, where they can play a full part and not feel as though they are being penalised and left behind; and a country where we do not have to rely on mitigating broken Westminster promises. I am determined, as are all my colleagues, that Scotland should have the choice and a right to choose its own future, and to choose it before much more damage is done by this Tory Government.