Alistair Carmichael – 2020 Speech on Covid-19

Below is the text of the speech made by Alistair Carmichael, the Liberal Democrat MP for Orkney and Shetland, in the House of Commons on 12 May 2020.

I do not always agree with the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), but what he said about the need for the Government to show proper respect to Parliament and to this House is correct, and I hope that it will be heard on the Treasury Bench.

I welcome the announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of his intention to extend the furlough scheme. For businesses in the Northern Isles that will provide welcome clarity, which is very much needed. It will also allow us time to work out how we can build sufficient flexibility into the scheme in order to see a glide path coming out of it. However, my welcome for the announcement is very much tempered by my regret that so much of the provision that remains for self-employed people is wholly inadequate. We still have no answer for those small business people who rely on dividend income rather than a salary for their income. Although it would be complicated, surely it is not beyond the wit of man if the political will were there.

The Government are allowing too many self-employed people to be left behind. Here in the Northern Isles we particularly see that in the visitor economy, which is crucial to us. The assistance for bed and breakfast operators, or operators of self-catering accommodation, leaves too many people without the assistance they need. As my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) said earlier, the seasonal nature of our provision means that a support scheme that finishes at the end of August, or September or whenever it will be, simply will not be adequate in parts of the country such as ours. Those parts of the country that have seasonal tourism require a 12-month programme, or else the tourism industry that will be left to be resurrected at the end of this process will be that much weaker, and the rebuilding and recovery that much more difficult.

We all know that at some point we will need some sort of inquiry into this. I do not suggest that now is the moment to start that—obviously, the important thing at present is to deal with the job in hand—but we should be thinking about how the inquiry will be done. Without prejudging the outcome, it is pretty clear that when we look back at this time, we will realise that the response to this pandemic has been at its strongest when all four Governments of the United Kingdom have been able to work together. I commend them all for embarking on a four-nations approach right from the start, although we saw the first divergence from that this weekend, with the Prime Minister changing his messaging away from staying at home, to being alert. That is an intrinsically problematic message. It lacks clarity, but worse than that, it also lacks credibility with the population as a whole. I hope that as we go ahead, the four Governments of this country will see that not as an opportunity to score points against each other, but as a warning about the need to keep a unified message. Only with that unified message can we ​possibly hope to bring all four parts of this United Kingdom successfully through to the other side of this outbreak.