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Coronavirus: Employment

Volume 681: debated on Wednesday 7 October 2020

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on supporting job retention in Scotland during the covid-19 outbreak. (906960)

What estimate he has made of the number of self-employed people in Scotland who have not received support from the Government’s covid-19 financial support schemes. (906961)

What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on supporting job retention in Scotland during the covid-19 outbreak. (906972)

I have regular discussions with my Cabinet colleagues, including the Chancellor, on all aspects of how the UK Government continue to support Scotland’s economy. The Chancellor recently announced a package of measures that will continue to support jobs and help businesses through the uncertain months ahead.

At the height of the biggest economic downturn this country has seen in our lifetime, the UK Government stepped up and protected nearly 1 million Scottish jobs through the job retention scheme and the self-employment income support scheme. Does the Secretary of State agree that those measures show that the UK Government have done everything possible to support people’s livelihoods across the entirety of the United Kingdom?

Yes, I do. The might of the UK Treasury has supported all parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland.

I note that the Government’s latest package of measures for the self-employed slashes their support from 70% of income to just 20%. And that is only for those who are eligible—many self-employed people have not received any help at all from the Chancellor. How many self-employed people in Scotland have fallen through the financial safety net, and what is the Secretary of State doing to help them?

The hon. Lady will know that we have brought in a new set of measures, as she said. There is the self-employed support scheme and the new job retention scheme. We have made a cut in VAT for the tourism and hospitality sector, and introduced the kickstart scheme. The self-employed income support scheme was a broad scheme. By definition, in a broad scheme it is inevitable that some people will sadly miss out, but I would say that in Scotland 283,000 grants were given, which came to some £777 million of support. The scheme now continues for another six months.

Many hard-working people in Hertford and Stortford are set to benefit from the introduction of the job support scheme, offering employers and workers a transition from furlough. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this job-saving measure will have the same impact north of the border, and that Scotland shares in this Government’s focus on jobs, jobs, jobs?

Yes. The whole United Kingdom will benefit from all the measures put in place by the Chancellor.

Businesses across Scotland, particularly in the hospitality, tourism and culture sectors, are still closed or nowhere near back to any sort of normality. With additional restrictions being reintroduced as cases have rocketed in Scotland, things are only going to get worse for those sectors. The high-profile case of Cineworld is the latest in a very large number of hammer blows to Scottish jobs. The Government do not seem to see that the health and economic responses to covid are one and the same thing. What message does the Secretary of State have for workers on the precipice of losing their jobs and business owners on the verge of losing their viable businesses, or is it simply the flippant response, as the Chancellor said yesterday to the culture sector, that they simply have to retrain and get new jobs?

In this pandemic, the Chancellor has been very clear that he cannot save every business and every job. The hon. Gentleman mentions Cineworld. Independent cinemas were supported through the culture fund to the tune of £97 million in Barnett money. As I said, sadly we know we cannot save every business. Retraining programmes and the kickstart scheme are being put in place, and we have reduced VAT for hospitality, leisure and tourism to 5%. To protect the Scottish economy, I encourage the Scottish Government to make the restrictions coming forward as local as possible.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State, but the reality on the ground is that the Chancellor’s measures simply do not go far enough to protect jobs. The employees and businesses in the sectors hardest hit will need more support, and what they are getting from the Chancellor’s announcement is less support.

Another area critical for jobs is the Scotch whisky industry. This week marks one year since the United States announced a 25% tariff on Scotch whisky. Figures from the Scotch Whisky Association show that that has led to a devastating 32% drop in US Scotch whisky exports, costing a massive £360 million. Given the thousands of jobs in the industry that this supports, rather than the Secretary of State just telling us that he will raise the issue again with the International Trade Secretary, what is he actually going to do to encourage the US to lift the tariffs on Scotch whisky, or is this just another example of what his new Scottish Conservative leader describes as the Tories not caring about Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very serious issue not just for the whisky industry, but for biscuits and cashmere. I am pleased that biscuits are now off the tariff carousel. The Boeing-Airbus dispute has been many years in the making. It is unfair. It is harmful to both industry and consumers. However, in the trade talks that have opened up with the US, we have now got agreement to have a bilateral discussion—in other words, not using the EU negotiators anymore—with the US. The good news I can tell him is that we have moved to a new phase. The Secretary of State for International Trade this week is starting discussions to try to resolve this problem.

I very much welcome the fact that 11,000 or more of my constituents have benefited from the furlough scheme. Covid is changing our economy. We therefore need to focus on creating new sustainable jobs. That is why it is even more important that we press ahead in the south of Scotland with the borderlands growth deal. Will my right hon. Friend agree that we need renewed impetus into the deal, in particular into delivering the mountain bike innovation centre of Scotland in Innerleithen?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the invaluable work that he did in bringing the borderlands growth deal to fruition. I am also delighted to inform him that the business case for the mountain bike innovation centre was delivered by the Borderlands Partnership only yesterday. It obviously has to go through further assessments in the usual way, but I am well aware of and support the initiative, because mountain biking in what is a very beautiful part of Scotland is an incredibly popular sport, and it is locally a very popular initiative.

Knowing as we do the negative consequences that the delay to the autumn Budget will have on the Scottish Parliament passing its budget, will the Minister tell us if he made his Cabinet colleagues and the Chancellor aware of these negative consequences, or was he himself unaware?

We have had one Budget this year in March. That was slightly delayed and, at the time, the then Finance Secretary in Scotland, Derek Mackay, said that that was going to be disastrous for Scotland and that it would be unable to set its budget, but that was incorrect. The Finance Secretary was able to set her budget, and the message goes out now from the Treasury, as it did then: if she has any problems setting her budget, Kate Forbes should come forward and talk to us.

Just to ask the Secretary of State again, because I did not hear an answer in there: can he tell us if he made his Cabinet colleagues aware of the negative consequences that would happen, and what was the result of these conversations?

I say to the hon. Lady that I do not agree that there are negative consequences. The Chancellor and I have had discussions on this matter. I make it quite clear that if Kate Forbes has any questions on setting her budget, she should come forward and ask us. The offer was made to Derek Mackay when he made similar cry-wolf stories back in March, when there was a delay, but no questions were asked and nothing came forward because they had all the information they needed to set their budget.

The Union connectivity review announced by the Prime Minister will improve transport infrastructure across the country and bring jobs and investment to Scotland. I assume that Scotland’s two Governments will work together on this ambitious programme, so will the Secretary of State outline what response there has been from the Scottish Government so that the two Governments work together to deliver jobs and progress right across the country?

The Union connectivity review, which is being led by Sir Peter Hendy, who I met yesterday, is a really important initiative for Scotland and the whole United Kingdom, and it will create very exciting opportunities. However, I am concerned that Transport Scotland has been told by the Cabinet Secretary for Transport, Infrastructure and Connectivity, Michael Matheson, not to engage with the review, and I urge Mr Matheson to think again and to ensure that his officials take part. It cannot be in Scotland’s interest for the SNP to play politics with an issue that is so important to our economic future.

The Secretary of State says that the job retention scheme is a great example of their Union, but according to his boss, the ever-cheerful hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross), the Westminster Tories are not interested in their Union anymore. He says:

“The case for separation is…being made more effectively in London than…in Edinburgh”.

Is his boss right? Are the Westminster Tories full of defeatism about their Union? And if they do not care about their Union, why on earth should the Scottish people?

First, the new leader of the Scottish Conservatives cares deeply about the Union, and that is something that we cannot say for the Scottish nationalist party. But I would go further: he was making the very clear point that Westminster should not devolve and forget. Huge sums of money and support go to Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom, and he was just pointing out that Departments in Whitehall should stay focused, stay connected and follow up on those funds.

The Secretary of State and his colleagues are given to chest-beating about the tremendous amount of revenue flowing to Scotland to get us through the pandemic—every penny of it, of course, borrowed. Will he tell me and the people of Scotland why those borrowing decisions are better made here than they would be by the people of Scotland in Scotland, and why we are habitually brow-beaten into being grateful for a service that we never asked for?

The simple reason is that not only do we have a strong Bank of England underpinning a strong currency, in the pound, but we are one country with one currency and because we have a strong economy, we are able to borrow money at much better rates.