Tommy Sheppard | MP for Edinburgh East

A message to you Rishi

There’s lies, damned lies, and chancellor’s statements. I sat through Rishi Sunak’s statement at the House of Commons yesterday. I was at the time pleasantly surprised. I thought he’d done a handbrake turn and committed to continuing support for people who’ve been furloughed during the Covid crisis. Not as much as I’d have liked. But more than I expected.

I was wrong. Sunak said, and I was there as he said it, “The government, together with employers, will then increase people’s wages, covering two thirds of the pay…”  Immediately before that he said to be eligible someone must work at least a third of their normal hours paid for by their employer. That sounds like the government will cover two thirds of the cost. That’s what it was meant to sound like. But that’s not what it meant.

As Sunak was speaking in parliament the small print was being dumped online. In fact, the government will only cover a maximum of 22% someone’s wages on his so-called job support scheme. And there’s a cash ceiling of £697 a month. Of course, had the chancellor said they’d pick up a less than a quarter that would have sounded miserly – which it is.

But the mendacity achieves its purpose of putting two thirds in the public domain and generally confusing things, so you have to work that much harder to discover just how little your UK government is prepared to do.

So, we end up with a scheme so mean that many businesses will wonder if it’s worth the bother and many employees may feel they’re better taking their chances with unemployment and looking for a new job.

There are many things wrong with this scheme and the terribly watered-down self-employed equivalent.

For starters it is only aimed at businesses which are able to restart trading at a reduced capacity. What about those many businesses which have been ordered to stay closed (rightly) for public health reasons?  They’ve had no income coming in for six months. Many are broke. Where are they supposed to get the money to pay the employers contribution to this scheme? For some, entering the scheme will be a guarantee of going bust.

The Tories talk about zombie businesses. But it is the government who has ordered them to close – it is the government making them the living dead. If a business is otherwise viable but cannot trade by public order – then it ought to get public support to get to the other side. If that doesn’t happen then not only does unemployment rocket and businesses fold, but a lot of skill and expertise is lost forever meaning if there is a recovery it’ll take an awful lot longer.

I’m not arguing that the government could or should save every business or every job. But it ought to sit down and agree with individual businesses a survival plan if one can be drawn up – and it then ought to fund that plan through direct support. A task force of HMRC and DWP officers should be set to work doing this in every constituency – hiring additional staff if necessary to get the job done.

Sunak’s statement is also a slap in the face for the self-employed. Not just by reducing the existing support to 20%. Who on earth can live on 20% wages? You might as well take your chances with Universal Credit and we know how bad that is.

Worse, though, he’s chosen to ignore the pleas of three million UK citizens who were excluded from the self-employed support scheme in the first place through petty regulation. Those who’ve not been self employed long enough, or who haven’t made enough profit yet, or who have been working payroll jobs at the same time. They continue to get a big fat nothing. Sunak will be remembered not for his generosity but his parsimony.

I’ve written to him today to ask him to think again on this. Otherwise we face a winter of Covid misery enhanced and made so much worse by mass unemployment and economic collapse.

Perhaps worst of all, he refuses point blank to consider letting the Scottish government support people even where the Tory government choses not to. So, the financial straitjacket on Scotland continues and we are told to suck it up.

There’s one answer to all of this. You’ve guessed it – independence. The power to command our own resources, make our own decisions. No magic bullet, no easy options. But the right to have the alternative of doing better than this.

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