SNP demands apology from Prime Minister as Tory party conference starts

Boris Johnson faces one of the most important Conservative conferences for years as note-0note-1pressure mounts over labour shortages, the impact of Brexit, and an ongoing energy crisis.

His party’s conference – which begins today in Manchester – will coincide with a heavily criticised cut to Universal Credit as the Prime Minister attempts to regain momentum as the UK seems to head inexorably towards a winter of discontent.

Today, the SNP attacked Mr Johnson for the cuts to benefits, tax rises and the “growing cost of Brexit”, with Westminster leader Ian Blackford demanding the Tory leader opens his conference with an apology.

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Angus Robertson, Scotland’s constitution secretary, also writes in Scotland on Sunday about the impact of Brexit on labour shortages in Scotland and repeats SNP calls for a two-year temporary visa scheme to help alleviate the problem.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson ahead of his meeting with the Prime Minister of Slovenia, Janez Jansa, in 10 Downing Street, London on Thursday

The comments from both the high profile nationalists come as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation accused the Prime Minister of “abandoning millions to hunger and hardship with his eyes wide open”.

The charity said around half a million people, including 200,000 children, will be pulled into poverty due to the cut, as well as reducing the value of the main out-of-work benefit to its lowest level for more than 30 years.

Katie Schmuecker, deputy director of policy and partnerships at the anti-poverty charity, said: “The biggest ever overnight cut to social security flies in the face of the government’s mission to unite and level up our country.

“When the increase to Universal Credit was introduced, the Chancellor said it was to “strengthen the safety net” – a tacit admission a decade of cuts and freezes had left our social security lifeline to wear thin and threadbare for families in and out of work relying on it. This planned cut would reverse the progress made and leave it wholly inadequate.

“People’s bills won’t get £87-a-month cheaper from Wednesday and families are already anxious about how they will get through a looming cost of living crisis. This decision is set to plunge half a million people into poverty and shows a total disregard for the consequences.

"The Prime Minister cannot say he has not been warned, he must abandon this cut.”

This criticism was echoed by Mr Blackford who said the UK Government’s “disastrous” Brexit deal had left the UK “in crisis”, highlighting queues at petrol stations, difficulties with food supply chains and “prices soaring”.

Attacking Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal, the SNP’s top Westminster MP said an apology “to the millions of families who will be poorer and worse off” due to the Conservative government was needed.

He said: "Brexit has already cost Scotland billions of pounds - and is projected to leave every person the equivalent of £1,600 worse off a year by 2030 compared to EU membership.

"Added to that, Tory cuts to Universal Credit, the national insurance hike, and soaring bills will mean the majority of families will lose hundreds or thousands of pounds over the coming months.

"Low and middle income families are being hammered by this Tory government. On Boris Johnson' s watch, the UK already has the worst levels of poverty and inequality in north west Europe - and the highest levels of in-work poverty this century.

"For all the empty rhetoric, you can't level up by making people poorer - but that is exactly what this Tory government has done.”

Writing today, Angus Robertson repeats calls for a two-year temporary visa scheme to help with the labour shortage, labelling the decision to allow more than 10,000 poultry workers and hauliers access to the UK “inadequate”.

Stating that “substantial change” is needed, he writes that Brexit has highlighted the “stark limitations” of the UK’s immigration system.

Criticising the “deplorable decision” to press ahead with Brexit during a pandemic, the Edinburgh Central MSP added his party’s solution would not fully repair the “damage” of Scotland leaving the EU.

He writes: “Brexit is at odds with the internationalist vision we set out in the recent Programme for Government. It is damaging Scotland’s recovery from the Covid pandemic. It is a deplorable situation.”

Industry groups faced with a shortage of workers, including hospitality and haulage, said the current system for migration was “not fit for purpose” and was “holding Scotland’s economic recovery back”.

Leon Thompson, Scotland executive director at UKHospitality, said there were around 50,000 unfilled roles in the Scottish hospitality sector and the group would press Scottish UK ministers to make changes to “alleviate what is a rapidly worsening situation”.

He said: “The UK Government urgently needs to fix the migration system which is not fit for purpose and holding Scotland’s economic recovery back. Hospitality businesses are reporting they are on their knees due to a chronic lack of labour across all areas.

“UKHospitality has been calling for the immediate introduction of a Covid Recovery Visa and a review of the Shortage Occupation List, with more hospitality roles added to help business owners and operators. We estimate there is somewhere in the region of 50,000 unfilled roles across the sector in Scotland, which is holding businesses back from operating fully as they attempt to recover from 18 months of closure and restrictions.”

Responding to the calls from Mr Robertson for a longer visa scheme, Martin Reid, the Road Haulage Assocation’s policy director for Scotland and Northern Ireland, said there was no “silver bullet” for the problem.

He said: “The gaps we see in the labour markets across Scotland are felt acutely and are affecting supply chains across most sectors. There is no silver bullet to solve these issues and many levers will need to be pulled to help those sectors in most need.

"If this initiative can become one of those levers and help fill short-term vacancies then it would be welcome, but as always, the devil is in the detail”.

David Thomson, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation Scotland, said more than one in ten food businesses have job vacancies.

He said: “The problem of labour shortages in Scotland transcends individual parts of the food and drink supply chain.

"We continue to call on the government to engage with our industry to understand how we can meet our future labour demands in a fair and sustainable way.”

Responding, a UK Government spokesperson said: “We are closely monitoring labour supply and working with sector leaders to understand how we can best ease particular pinch points. Similar challenges are being faced by other countries around the world.

“We want to see employers make long-term investments in the UK domestic workforce instead of relying on labour from abroad. Our Plan for Jobs is helping people across the country retrain, build new skills and get back into work.

“The government encourages all sectors to make employment more attractive to UK domestic workers through offering training, careers options wage increases and investment.”

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