Lockdown: Scandal of millions denied emergency help – Christine Jardine MP

Three million people have been excluded from emergency help during the Covid-19 crisis, leaving some with no income since March, writes Christine Jardine MP.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak had little to say when asked about plight of some self-employed (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)Chancellor Rishi Sunak had little to say when asked about plight of some self-employed (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Chancellor Rishi Sunak had little to say when asked about plight of some self-employed (Picture: Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Politics can be frustrating. Occasionally it’s infuriating. This week it has been both.

With the country facing its biggest economic challenge since the Second World War and possibly longer, the Chancellor unveiled a package of measures designed to get us out of the hole. Well at least most of us.

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Despite endless letters, parliamentary questions, news articles in papers, radio and television, there is a still a substantial proportion of the public to whose pleas this Government seems deaf.

Three million people in this country are excluded from any financial support from the Government. Three million people who have been running their own businesses, are self-employed or freelance do not qualify under any of the emergency schemes or even for universal credit.

Covid-19 doesn’t discriminate but, if you are one of those three million excluded, it must feel as if the Government does. How, you are probably asking, is that either possible or acceptable?

I don’t have an answer for you except to say that somehow for this Conservative Government, it is. And I don’t excuse the Scottish Government either – but I’ll come back to that.

Even the Chancellor of the Exchequer appearing on BBC Breakfast this week, fresh from his patronising spell as a waiter in Wagamama, apparently oblivious to the fact that to ‘eat out to help out’, you still need to have the means, seemed to have no answer.

When faced with a self-employed businessman with no income for months, no support from the Government and reduced to looking for loose coins and cash that might have been left lying about the house in order to survive, the man holding the country’s purse strings had nothing to offer.

Certainly Rishi Sunak appeared to be having trouble hearing the question but even when it was repeated so that he could, his only response seemed to be that this was a huge package of measures available etc etc.

I was astounded at the total lack of compassion from the Government.

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It was also in total contrast to the day before when my colleague and fellow Liberal Democrat Jamie Stone MP launched what we believe is the biggest all-party group ever, in support of the Excluded.

More than 100 MPs, including a few Conservatives, signed up to the group calling for action to help those for whom the Government has so far come up with nothing in this crisis.

As one of those excluded who had been invited to the Zoom meeting explained: this was the Government which he voted for and which has now abandoned him.

You have been denied furlough. Your business is too new. You are ineligible for business grants. No income since March.

For most of that time, MPs like myself have been making the case to the Government on behalf of constituents in exactly that position.

Like the small B&B in my constituency which opened in August 2018 and has been closed since 17 March because of Covid-19.

On top of the tens of thousands of pounds of lost income, they continue to have to pay council tax because they are set up as a business partnership which, while they are a non-rate paying business, means they are ineligible for the business support fund, self-employment income support scheme, bed-and-breakfast fund or furlough.

They are not alone. Every day I received emails from people I long to be able to tell that yes there is something which one of our governments is doing for them. But I cannot.

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There is a bitter irony in the fact that many of them are the very people whose ingenuity, innovations dreamed up in their living room or garage, and sheer graft through the recession, have been the lifeblood of our modern economy.

If our economy is to recover, they are very ones who will provide the spark that gets it going again. If they survive.

And that is where one or either or preferably both of our governments needs to step up to the plate. Surely it cannot be beyond either their ingenuity or the scope of their powers to come up with something.

The Liberal Democrats want to see a radical new approach which helps the economy grow by investing billions in creating jobs and building a greener economy.

But it has to be a plan which invests in everyone. Nobody should be left behind in this.

As a first step, the Government must extend and expand the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme which excludes far too many self-employed people.

But the Scottish Government should play its part too. Rather than patting themselves on the back that the cost in terms of our health has been marginally better than the rest of the UK, they need to put that hand in their Government pocket and help.

They were able to spirit up a very welcome £10 million this week when the UK Government was about to invest. Surely they can do so again?

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And instead is using their considerable public relations acumen to use this crisis to drive us towards the independence cliff, why not use the substantial powers they have to work with the UK Government to steer us onto safe ground. Make sure that everyone who needs help has it.

That has been my frustration this week. In Westminster I witnessed a genuine cross-party desire to use the new group to help those who have been left behind in this. All we need is the governments to do it.

Christine Jardine is the Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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