Alison Thewliss – 2021 Speech on the Government’s Management of the Economy

The speech made by Alison Thewliss, the Economic Spokesperson for the SNP, in the House of Commons on 23 February 2021.

I thank the Opposition for bringing this motion to the House. I very much agree with the assertion that, this time last year, the UK was not in the best situation to handle the devastation that coronavirus would wreak on our economy. Let me quote this to the Chamber:

“The UK’s resilience has been weakened under sustained Tory cuts. Wages have barely grown in the last decade. The welfare state safety nets have been torn to shreds. Public services have struggled through chronic underinvestment and asset stripping, and some parts of the UK that have still not fully recovered from the 2008 financial crisis are ill-equipped to cope with a further recession. Coronavirus has the potential to have a lasting impact.”—[Official Report, 12 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 486.]

If the words sound a wee bit familiar, it is because I have said them before—in response to the Chancellor’s Budget plans almost a year ago. I congratulate those on the Labour Benches for finally catching up with what the people in Scotland have long known: we have had 10 years of damaging austerity and five years of Brexit uncertainty crushing investment, and it is likely that the UK would have fallen into recession in 2020 anyway, even before the pandemic began to take hold. Even in the face of the most harmful economic crisis that our generation has seen, the Tories have pressed ahead with a Brexit deal that has delivered near-fatal blows to our export sectors and has cost countless jobs.

The labour market statistics of the Office for National Statistics make grim reading. They state that, in January 2021, 726,000 fewer people were in payroll employment when compared with February 2020, of whom 425,000—58.5%—were under 25. This is both symptom and cause of the precarious and damaging employment practices that have been allowed to run rampant under this UK Tory Government. The Government have not dealt with zero-hour contracts. They have trapped young people in discriminatory and exploitative rates of the minimum wage—a minimum wage I should point out, not the pretendy living wage as the UK Government like to badge it— and they have failed to act on fire and rehire, despite being given options by my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands). Young people deserve better than this. The UK Government must now devolve all powers over employment law to the Scottish Government. We do not forget that Labour blocked devolution of those powers as part of the Smith commission, preferring to leave Scotland at the mercy of the Tories rather than letting the Scottish Government progress a fair work agenda for our people.

I agree with the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) that withdrawing furlough in April is too early. Realistically, if we are to prevent a cliff edge of unemployment when the job retention scheme ends, businesses will require the furlough scheme for at least two months after the current lockdown measures come to an end and perhaps longer if the course of the virus does not go as we all dearly hope—we have been here before. The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has called for an extension to the end of June and for much greater certainty from the Chancellor to allow businesses to plan properly. Many people lost their jobs unnecessarily due to the previous insistence from the UK Government that the scheme would end in October, which was followed, of course, by a last-gasp U-turn, by which time it was too late for too many.

The CIPD also points out that there is a clear imperative for a lower limit to the furlough scheme so that the incomes of those on the lowest rates do not fall below the national minimum wage. People have been struggling to make ends meet, and 80% of what was already a very low wage is not enough to live on. We on the SNP Benches have long argued that Scotland should have the powers to provide its own furlough scheme as well as the borrowing powers that would be necessary to save jobs.

Labour’s policy of recovery bonds are all well and good, but it is not exactly groundbreaking. The Resolution Foundation has described it as unnecessarily complicated, but not actually harmful. I am afraid that that is probably the best that can be said about it. Let us not pretend that it will have a huge impact on recovery. Money could be much spent on a further uplift to universal credit and legacy benefits, which would put money directly into the pockets of those who need it most. It could be spent on ending the benefit cap, which the Child Poverty Action Group has reported will already affect 35,000 households in the new year, 77% of which are households with children, followed by the capping of a further 41,000 households after the first few months of 2021 as their grace period expires from January through to March. The money could go towards scrapping the appalling two-child limit, which the British Pregnancy Advisory Service has found recently is driving up the numbers of women opting for an abortion rather than bringing a child into the world. This Government should be ashamed of those statistics and they must end the two-child limit now.

Unemployment is expected to peak later this year, so keeping and extending the £20 uplift would help to alleviate some of the uncertainty that families are facing at this difficult time. The UK Government’s plans to scrap this support will take the basic level of support to its lowest level since 1991. The National Institute of Economic and Social Research figures out this week also demonstrate that destitution levels have risen from 0.7% of all UK households to 1.5% in the space of a year under this Tory Government. So even with an uplift, families are struggling to make ends meet. The UK Government know this, and it would be utterly despicable of them to go ahead and remove that vital support, knowing what we all know.

Research by the Scottish Parliament Information Centre has shown that the single most effective policy in alleviating child poverty would be a generous increase in universal credit, and the Scottish Government are doing their bit through the Scottish child payments. The relationship here is very simple: the more money paid in benefits, the fewer children in poverty. It is time—it is beyond time—for this Government to scrap the two-child limit and bring payments in line with the OECD average.

The Opposition are tinkering around the edges of existing policy here, and it is really not good enough. The Labour motion seems stuck in the past by failing to acknowledge that the active state does not have to stop at the end of Whitehall. Holyrood currently has only very limited borrowing powers, leaving us always at the mercy of Tory decisions. Scotland needs bold, ambitious plans to fund large-scale investment and to stimulate the economy. An overwhelming majority of voters in Scotland now believe that Scotland should have the power to borrow on its own terms, but the Opposition have failed to share in that simple ambition.

The Scottish Government are already delivering policies such as the youth guarantee, which will ensure that everyone aged between 16 and 24 has the opportunity of work, education or training. We are putting money into growing the economy while tackling the deep-seated inequalities we have seen highlighted by the covid-19 pandemic, but without the powers of a normal country, Scotland still cannot do things like extending the furlough scheme. We cannot deliver our own tailor-made support schemes for those who have been excluded from the UK’s support, such as self-employed people and certain women on maternity leave.

The Scottish Government are delivering on capital investment through the Scottish National Investment Bank, the single biggest economic development in the history of the Scottish Parliament and the UK’s first development bank. The bank will provide finance and catalyse private investment to grow the economy through innovation and accelerating the move to net zero emissions and a high-tech, connected, globally competitive and inclusive economy. However, it is hampered by a rule that does not allow the Scottish Government or the investment bank to allocate funds between years. The Treasury must stop standing in the way when Scotland wants to get on with the job.

Scotland has bold ambitions for the future, but the hard reality is that we need more powers to deliver a bigger-scale fiscal stimulus to future-proof our economy. This lack of powers is going to have real-life consequences for the tens of thousands of Scots whose jobs are on the line. Reading the Labour motion, we can see clearly how little the Union has to offer to the people of Scotland. It is little wonder that more and more Scots—now in 21 consecutive polls—are waking up to the reality that only an independent Scotland can provide the fair, just economy that we all need.