The speech made by Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, in the House of Commons on 13 January 2021.
It is unfortunate that I have to raise, and not for the first time with this Government, an issue that faces so many of our businesses, particularly small enterprises. There can surely be nobody in the House—or, indeed, the country—who is unaware of the impact of the pandemic on them, on their businesses, their employees and their families. Every business in every sector in this country is actually a group of people or often only an individual. My concern for their future is matched only by my admiration for how so many of them, working and using their ingenuity to stay within the rules and restrictions on covid-19, are staying afloat, too often without any support at all.
As with practically everything else in the past year, circumstances have dictated a different approach for us all, from how we go about our daily lives to how we shop to how we do business. We have watched as companies have skilfully adapted to ever-changing circumstances, but we have also seen the cost to our arts and entertainment sector, our hospitality sector and quite starkly to our retail sector, where even big names have been vulnerable. To be fair, the Arcadia Group was perhaps already vulnerable before covid-19, and likewise Debenhams, but that is no consolation to the thousands of people who spend their time worrying about whether their jobs can be saved from the rubble of what were once some of the proudest names on our high streets, or whether they might be next.
In the run-up to Christmas, small businesses had to face the reality that the usual festive volume of trade, which they need to enjoy a profitable or often even a survivable year, was gone. The two most recent former Conservative Prime Ministers made no secret of the fact that they believed that small business was the backbone of the British economy. Promises were made. I ask this Government to consider whether they have been fulfilled or whether, as I believe, more needs to be done. Yes, there are packages of support, loans and furlough, but they are all short term. They are patches—knee-jerk, bit-by-bit responses to a long-term problem with unprecedented implications. Surely it is long past time to bring those patches together and create a long-term strategy to support that backbone of the economy.
As a politician, one of the things I believe we should try to do is to get to the heart of what people actually need and find practical, workable solutions that can make a difference to people’s lives. In the past year, that has been a challenge. For example, the most recent forecast from the Office for Budget Responsibility suggests that the economy will have shrunk by a frightening 11.3%. At the end of September, GDP was already down 9.7%. We should remember exactly what it is we are talking about. Behind all the numbers and equations are people who feel the ramifications of the sums that we do.
Before Christmas, I wrote to the Chancellor urging him to support an idea that I believe would still have value in supporting small businesses, particularly those in retail: covering their postage fees, to help level the playing field with online giants. Freeing small shops of delivery costs for online purchases would go some way to help combat the decreased footfall over months of lockdown. As restrictions are tightened and our worlds become even smaller, the impact of such a move cannot be underestimated. Together with the suspension of business rates, it could support small businesses in much the same way as the Eat Out to Help Out scheme rightly pumped £800 million of Exchequer cash into hospitality. It would also give them something with which to fight back against the online giants, who have soaked up so much custom as we all seek ways of shopping during enforced home time. The Federation of Small Businesses welcomed the idea as providing its members with the boost they need to help level the playing field.
Too many people have been completely left out of support. We need to innovate our way out of this crisis, so where is the help for the self-employed and the entrepreneurs whose ingenuity and inventiveness we will rely on as we look for growth? We need them to survive along with those small businesses, until they are all able to thrive once again. In arts and entertainment, an industry in which there are so many small companies and self-employed people, there is a huge hole that we need to fill—a gap in the safety net that this Government promised when they said they would do whatever it took to get us through this.
I am a great believer in putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to look at an issue—the constituent with a problem, the business facing bankruptcy because it is following rules or the make-up artist, musician or freelance journalist who cannot work and whose pleas for support have fallen on deaf ears for 10 months. Perhaps it is easier for me to appreciate that last category. In a previous career, I was a freelance broadcaster for some years. I can see only too clearly what my life might have been in this time. I see it reflected in their campaign and in their hardship. I saw it every day in my constituency when I was still able to shop, socially distanced and wearing a face mask, in the many and varied independent outlets that are the lifeblood of my community.
A high street is not just a thoroughfare. It is where people come together and support their communities, whether or not they are making a conscious decision to do so. We might not have thought about it before as we nipped between the newsagent and the bakers. We would notice it now, however, if they were no longer there to nip to. We often speak about businesses as if they are just there to fill the coffers and there are no humans behind them at all. Behind every idea and every counter is someone with a family and a mortgage who has been brave enough to try. They need us to take on covid for them, because that is what they deserve. Just as they have adapted to serve our needs and bring us hope and joy, we have to adapt. We have to extend furlough, suspend business rates and admit that schemes in place for last summer will no longer be enough come the spring.
We need communication across all four nations, and we need every Government in this United Kingdom to put politics aside and do what is best and what is right for those who need it most. To that end, I ask the Government to put pressure on the Scottish National party at Holyrood to expedite the many applications from people who are still waiting for support, even though the money is there. Tonight I spoke to a constituent in precisely that position. As an MP, the health of my communities is always at the forefront of my mind, even in good times. I hope and ask that our small businesses are at the forefront of the Government’s.