Ian Blackford, SNP leader in the House of Commons.
By Bill Heaney
The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford has told the Commons that the first priority in dealing with the coronavirus crisis has to be about maintaining the health of all our people.
He said: “The scale and seriousness of the coronavirus demand a collective response. As I said last week, this virus requires all of us to demonstrate calm and practical leadership.
“This is the very least the public deserve from us at a time of deep and natural worry. SNP Members are committed to that approach.
“That example of leadership has been clearly embodied by our First Minister of Scotland, and I welcome the close co-operation between the Scottish and UK Governments on this matter.
The Ross, Skye and Lochaber MP said: “The scale of the coronavirus has and will put added pressures on the NHS in Scotland and across the United Kingdom. I take this opportunity to thank all our NHS staff for everything they do, but most especially now, as they deal with the outbreak of this virus.”
Mr Blackford welcomed the fact that the Chancellor provided additional funding, but wondered whether he would take the opportunity to tell the House how much of that additional spending on the coronavirus will come to Scotland.
He added: “I also urge him to go further—the SNP Scottish Government have ensured that frontline health spending in Scotland is £136 higher per person than it is in England. Social care funding is £130 per capita higher than it is in England.
“Matching Scottish per capita NHS spending would provide health services across the UK with the resources, equipment and staff that needed now during this crisis and in the longer term. It would also allow Holyrood to increase funding for NHS Scotland by over £4 billion by the end of this Parliament.”
Mr Blackford said: “We believe that that is the only adequate and prudent response to this unprecedented health crisis. As part of the Budget package, we also need to recognise the deep worry that people are experiencing about the impact of its consequences on their incomes, employment, rights and benefits.
“Just as our health response must be led by the best scientific advice, our economic response must be guided by the need for an appropriate fiscal stimulus that ensures that the economy is not tipped into recession.
“The employed and the self-employed need to be aided through the crisis. I acknowledge many of the measures taken today by the Chancellor to do just that, but more urgent and more targeted action is also required.
“In particular, urgent measures are needed to help the tourism and hospitality industry, above and beyond what has been offered today. Industry leaders are already warning of the consequences of the coronavirus, with a raft of booking cancellations and a significant drop in numbers.
“Many of the businesses in my part of the world, in the highlands of Scotland, come through a fallow period over the winter. It is not just an issue of their seeing a reduction in business; in some cases, they are going to be desperately short of cash coming in through the door.
“Let us not forget that many of these businesses have relied on an EU workforce over the last few years. In anticipation of what is happening with the migration proposals from the Government and of the difficulty of recruiting labour, they have had to staff up.
“They have additional costs, but their revenues are about to fall through the floor. That is why I have written to all the major UK banks to ask them to support businesses and households through this period to make sure that working capital is extended to all businesses, and that no business—no good business in the hospitality and tourism sector—should be pushed to the wall as a consequence of what is happening.”
He asked Chancellor Richi Sumat for a temporary drop in VAT which would allow business to weather the storm as people follow public health advice and tourist numbers drop, but let me say, on the basis of the scientific advice that we have today, that Scotland is well and truly open for business, and I encourage people to come and experience the breadth and depth of our tourism offering.
“VAT was reduced in Ireland and it helped to boost both employment and tourist numbers. I urge the Chancellor, in the strongest possible terms, to consider a similar policy to help our tourism and hospitality sectors to come through this crisis.”
The SNP leader said: “The Budget is a warning of what may be ahead of us and a reminder of Scotland’s need to choose a different future. It has never been more stark: Scotland’s economic interests are not served by being part of this UK union. Rather than the instability and limitations imposed by the UK, independence now offers the Scottish people the chance to build a better, more prosperous and safer future. The 2016 Brexit referendum was the moment when our political futures met a point of divergence, and we are now on the cusp of the moment of decision for Scotland’s people. The Conservatives may have delayed our democratic right, but they cannot indefinitely block the voices and votes of the Scottish people. Scotland’s future will be ours to choose, and we will very shortly make that choice. I am more confident than ever that the Scottish people will choose to be an independent, equal and European nation.
“As I have said, this is a Budget produced by a group of people who are expert in fabricating slogans but amateurs in delivering competent government. The Tories have a new slogan about levelling up funding and living standards. Let us judge them on their record. A reasonable place to start is basic income. The Office for National Statistics recently confirmed that the median income for the poorest 20% fell by 4.3% per year between 2017 and 2019. Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis shows that since 2010 the poorest 10% of households have lost an average of 11% of their income. That is £1,200 per year. For those with children the average loss was up to 20%, or £4,000. That is the cost of Tory Government to people in Scotland and the United Kingdom. That is the true Tory record: falling wages and growing hardship. While the gap between rich and poor grows, last month the ONS revealed that income inequality was as much as 2.4% higher on average than official figures had suggested over the decade since the financial crisis in 2008, and this Budget does not help by failing to implement policies that deal with growing inequality. The Tories still refuse to raise their pretend living wage to the real living wage and refuse to end the age discrimination that penalises our young people.
“Another reasonable place to judge their levelling up record is overall public spending. Let us not be fooled by some of the rhetoric in the statement today. Since 2010, aside from health spending, the Tories have cut per person spending on public services by a whopping 21%. This Budget comes nowhere near either closing or reversing that devastating legacy. By any standard, by any measure, by any objective acknowledgement of fact, this Tory Government have failed to level up for anyone anywhere. They cannot be allowed to hide from these facts, just as they cannot be allowed to hide from their legacy.”
He added: “Let us be clear: the poor becoming poorer was a Tory political choice. The Resolution Foundation has said that the fall in income for the poorest has been driven by policy choices, with gains from higher employment, more than wiped out by benefit cuts.”
“Why did the Conservatives take these political choices? As ever, they were serving their own interests and the interests of those they serve. For them, it is a simple and cynical calculation. A Government who rob Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul. As far as the Tories are concerned, everyone else can go whistle.
“I suppose we should not be surprised. This is a Budget advocated by a Prime Minister who once eulogised: Some measure of inequality is essential for the spirit of envy and…is, like greed, a valuable spur to economic activity.
“Greed—a valuable spur to economic opportunity! That is the reality of the vision of the Prime Minister. That does not sound like a man determined to level up. The honeyed words and new slogans in the Budget will not change the long and bitter experience of Tory economics. People in Scotland know that they cannot believe their words, they cannot believe their promises, and they cannot believe that they will ever change—not ever.
“As I have said, the decade of Tory austerity and the inequality it inflicted has hit the poorest hardest. The brutal cuts have targeted children and the most disadvantaged. The benefits freeze, universal credit sanctions, disability assessments, the cruel two-child limit, the rape clause—the list of failed and punishing policies goes on and on. It is a legacy the Tories should be ashamed of, and should have the basic decency to apologise for.
“If the Chancellor is serious about looking after those who have been left behind, he can begin to prove it by committing to four things. Will he increase the monthly allowance for universal credit and end the benefit cap; increase benefits above inflation and restore their value after the four-year freeze; scrap once and for all the two-child cap on tax credits and the rape clause; and follow the lead of the Scottish Government and bring in a child payment scheme similar to theirs, which has lifted 30,000 of our children out of poverty? If the Chancellor cannot commit to those four basic measures, which would reduce poverty and bring compassion into the social security system, his words and promises of levelling up will be shown to be hollow.
“The devastating Tory legacy on social security has especially hit pensioners, who still receive the lowest state pension in the developed world, according to the OECD. They have also been denied their full rights. I am proud that the Scottish National party, with others, has stood shoulder to shoulder with 1950s-born women since the beginning of their campaign, and we stand with them still. They deserve justice, and it is disgraceful that their plight continues to be ignored in yet another Budget.
“Another Tory attack on pensioners, and another broken promise, is of course the removal of free TV licences for the over-75s. This will hit 240,000 households in Scotland and 3 million across the United Kingdom. Chancellor, this is your Government’s responsibility, not the BBC’s. It is time to pay up. Stop punishing pensioners, and keep the free TV licence for all those over 75.
“I say to the Prime Minister that when I knocked on doors in the election campaign, I found that a great number of elderly people were alarmed by the loss of their TV licence. That is what we get from the Conservatives, but they sit laughing and scoffing. I find it remarkable. It is okay for them; the rest of the population can go hang.”
Despite all the money that has been spent, there is still not an ounce of clarity on the UK shared prosperity fund, which was supposed to be the great sweetener offered by the Brexiteers. There was nothing in the Budget from the Chancellor on that. There was no clarity, either, for young people in respect of their opportunities to enjoy the right to travel, work and education throughout Europe as part of the Erasmus scheme. We took those rights and benefits for granted. Around 15,000 people have been involved in the programme through nearly 500 Erasmus+ projects throughout Scotland. On Monday, Universities UK estimated that leaving Erasmus+ will cost around £243 million per year. So why do it? There was no clarity, either, for the vital research and development facilities in our world-leading universities, or on their ability to access the new multibillion-pound Horizon Europe project.
In the Agriculture Bill Committee last week, SNP amendments gave the UK Government the opportunity to ensure that food and welfare standards will not be diminished and will not be on the table in any future trade deal. It tells its own story that the Conservatives voted against all our amendments, threatening our farmers and crofters with crippling tariffs, reduced standards and costly customs bureaucracy. That has left many of them burdened with very uncertain futures. Will the Chancellor’s Government pick up the bill to compensate our farming and fishing communities if they lose revenue as a consequence of a botched Brexit?
“The UK Government must now do their bit by ditching nuclear power and instead investing in renewables, making sure that we deliver on carbon capture and storage, and supporting the North sea sector to play its part in the transition. While they are at it, they should ditch the madness of spending £200 billion on Trident nuclear weapons that we do not need. Climate change is already threatening our world; we do not need weapons of mass destruction on the Clyde doing the same. Instead of paying lip service to climate change, the Chancellor should have set out a plan that matches Scotland’s green ambitions, matches the Government’s Paris climate agreement responsibilities, and sticks to future EU emissions standards. As Greta Thunberg has said, our house is on fire. The inaction of the Tories is the equivalent of ignoring not only the fire alarm but the flames that are swirling around our feet.
“The Scottish budget was everything this UK Budget is not: ambitious, green, collaborative and compassionate, and delivering £1.8 billion of investment in low-carbon infrastructure, progressive income tax rates, free bus travel for our under-19s, record NHS spending, additional funding for Police Scotland and £800 million for 50,000 new homes. It is a budget that reflects the vision and the values of all our people. It is a budget that puts the building blocks in place for a fairer society and that makes further progress towards a new Scotland—an independent Scotland in the European Union.”