The speech made by Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, in the House of Commons on 3 March 2021.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher). I think we all appreciate that the Chancellor’s statement today comes at a time when the covid-19 virus has had far-reaching and, in some cases, life-changing and even life-ending consequences for far too many of our constituents. People have seen the well-planned, well-financed future they had built for their families swept away by the virus. Businesses are now on the brink because they followed responsibly the rules laid down by the Government. While there are some steps in the Budget that I am sure will be welcomed, it does not go far enough for the many who have suffered the most, such as those on lower incomes, for whom the freeze on the tax threshold will mean a real- terms loss in their income.
Today, a million small businesses and small-business owners who have been fighting desperately to stay afloat and protect jobs and livelihoods were looking to the Chancellor to extend a lifeline—something to get them through the next few months and out on the other side of this pandemic. While there will be changes to corporation tax in two years’ time, that is two years’ time. What about tomorrow, next week and next month? I am sorry, but what we have heard today falls far short of what those small businesses needed. We need to get shops, tradesmen, hairdressers and florists, who are the backbone of our economy and the heart of our communities, through the next few months and they needed changes now. They have lost income and revenue to pay the rent costs, which are building up, and they are accruing debt.
Five billion pounds for small businesses is not enough. What the Chancellor has announced does not even touch the sides of the problem. What we need, and what Liberal Democrats have been calling for, is a £50 billion recovery fund to help small businesses meet their costs and replace their lost revenue until they are able to trade properly again, until the economy is open—£25 billion over three months, totalling £50 billion. We have seen in Germany that it can succeed.
We have also called on the Chancellor to implement a zero business rates policy for all small businesses in 2021-22. While maintaining the VAT cut for hospitality is essential, we would have liked to see that stay in place until the end of the financial year, not just until September, and not just for hospitality but for all businesses. VAT deferral would allow them to free up capital to invest in their business.
The extensions to furlough, to self-employment support and to the universal credit uplift all needed to go much further. Furlough should be extended for as long as we need it, and all the self-employed and excluded should be brought into it. Too many people who have been left out will remain so after this Budget. There are 3 million people who have had no financial support at all in this crisis, and only 600,000 of them, according to the Chancellor’s own figures, will be helped. The gaps in support all-party parliamentary group gave the Chancellor a plan that would have helped those left out. Why did he not take it?
As for the universal credit uplift, even with it, the UK still has one of the least generous social welfare systems in the OECD, and one that we all know is seriously flawed. The uplift is due to end when unemployment could rise again, as the furlough scheme, which has kept it down, comes to an end. Therefore, when will the Government listen to the voices across the country, and from all political parties, that are calling for pilots and trial schemes of a universal basic income, which would have meant that nobody fell through the cracks during this crisis?
Now we all look to September and wait for the Chancellor’s next batch of patches. I am left today with far too few answers and too many questions. Why is our economic performance so much worse than those of other countries? Why is support for small businesses and the self-employed so little, especially for those so hard hit by Brexit? There is no long-term reform of business rates. Why is there nothing on social care and carers? Why so unambitious on our future green industries? There are no tax incentives for transitioning away from a carbon economy, and there is nothing to replace the green homes grant. But there is a tax hike on the lowest paid, by freezing the threshold next year. Simply mitigating the problems caused by covid will not repair the economy or provide the investment for the growth that we need for recovery.
Small businesses, families and self-employed people up and down this country were watching today, hoping for something to repay their commitment and their sacrifice in fighting this pandemic—a fair response from the Government, not self-congratulations on having done so well. The Chancellor, at the beginning of his statement, promised us a Budget to meet the moment. I am afraid that I do not think he has fulfilled that pledge.