The Scottish Tories are letting our communities down by not fighting for the furlough scheme, which is due to end next month.
If, like me, you remember the feeling of despair and misery in the early ’80s when unemployment was at a peak, you would have shuddered at Boris Johnson’s response to my call for an extension to the furlough scheme during prime minister’s questions.
Whilst the unemployment statistics alone were horrific, the numbers themselves do not talk of the human misery that high unemployment caused, the destruction of communities and indeed the erosion of our whole social fabric.
Those of us who can remember, know the sheer hopelessness that many felt from being locked out of making a contribution to society. We know of the many whose spirit was broken from long periods of being unable to find work. This time it has to be different. We can’t throw people on the scrapheap the way we did in the 1980s.
In the House of Commons on Wednesday, I asked why the UK Government is intent on accepting levels of unemployment last seen under Thatcher. Because that is where we will find ourselves if the UK Government does not extend the Job Retention Scheme, which is keeping so many people afloat during this pandemic.
Since March, the furlough scheme has paid 80% of the wages of workers placed on leave whose jobs have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. For thousands of households it has meant keeping their bills paid and food on the table – and for their employers it is providing a lifeline to help their companies remain viable.
By local authority, Highland has the highest percentage of people on furlough in Scotland, at 34% – which is 36,600 eligible jobs. There is a very real worry that these figures will turn into unemployment statistics because the UK Government is unwilling to act.
France, Germany and Ireland have all made the decision to continue their furlough schemes into 2021. Yet Boris Johnson seems to be digging his heels in, ignoring the cliff edge waiting for thousands of people across the UK.
The Scottish Trade Union Congress warned that 200,000 Scottish jobs are under threat with the premature ending of the furlough scheme. Last month the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) warned UK unemployment could surpass the peaks of the 1980s after weaker than expected economic growth; and the UK manufacturing sector warned of a “jobs bloodbath” in the autumn.
The British Chambers of Commerce has urged a rethink of support for businesses – warning replacement measures will not make up for the end of the Job Retention Scheme.
In the Highlands and Islands, those working in our tourism and hospitality sectors are most heavily relying on the furlough scheme. One hotelier described to me how they are now facing a “third winter.”
But if the prime minister is true to his word, then surely he must see sense and change tack for a ninth time, and extend the furlough scheme to protect jobs and livelihoods.”
The UK Government has harped on about the broad shoulders of the union getting us through this crisis, but the Chancellor’s refusal to hear the concerns of ordinary workers is staggering, and the failure of Scottish Tory MPs to stand up for their local communities is shameful.
We know this Tory government can change its mind. Indeed we’ve seen eight U-turns in eight months from the UK Government. During PMQs, I quoted the prime minister, who told his Cabinet: “I am no great nautical expert but sometimes it is necessary to tack here and there in response to the facts as they change.”
But if the prime minister is true to his word, then surely he must see sense and change tack for a ninth time, and extend the furlough scheme to protect jobs and livelihoods.
While the Tories are intent on cutting furlough support, Nicola Sturgeon has been announcing new investment to protect jobs, including a youth guarantee. Scotland is looking on as Westminster buries its head in the sand. It can be no surprise to Boris Johnson and the Scottish Tories that support for the SNP and Scottish independence is at record highs when the UK Government consistently fails to deliver for Scotland.
Ian Blackford is the SNP’s leader at Westminster.