Furlough scheme: Why UK Government should extend it – Christine Jardine MP

The lockdown furlough scheme should continue until at least June next year to give us the time to create new industries and usher in a green revolution, writes Christine Jardine MP.

Monday, 14th September 2020, 12:30 pm
The QE2 seen at Clydebank in November 1968, a year after it was launched (Picture: PA)

As a child I was privileged to attend what everybody told me would be the last great launch on the Clyde.

The Queen was coming to name that huge sea bound structure which had cast its shadow over much of 1960s Clydebank.

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When what became the QE2 was gone it took with it more than the shade it created and nothing was ever quite the same for the people in the town again.

That experience, seeing the impact it had on my community is seared into every political thought I ever had and my attitude to both of the great political parties and the role they played in the demise of shipbuilding.

It came back to me again this week as I rose to make my first speech in the Commons as Liberal Democrat treasury spokesperson.

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Our economy stands now at a crossroads very similar to the one shipbuilding was at then, and potentially the most important in our recent history.

To take the wrong path will have far-reaching financial and personal implications for the well-being of future generations. The coronavirus has created real and far-reaching hardship claiming the lives of thousands and caused massive financial problems for others.

The UK Government’s Job Retention Scheme, or furlough, has been a crucial support mechanism, for those who have qualified for it.

So for the Government to contemplate ending the scheme in October, immediately before an EU withdrawal for which our businesses say we are ill-prepared, and with the potential for a second wave of Covid-19 seems misguided at best.

I would prefer, and called for, the scheme to be extended until at least June of 2021 and for it go further.

And if we get it right I believe it can go a long way to helping us meet that other great challenge which we face at the moment: climate change.

In its current form the furlough scheme – which the Liberal Democrat’s campaigned for – has supported almost 10 million jobs between March and June and still protecting the employment of almost seven million people. But it is not perfect.

We have seen more than three million people left without any financial support at all.

I have hundred of constituents, families who were told they would get nothing I because they have not been self-employed for long enough, because they have changed jobs or because they took a dividend rather than a salary.

None of those are acceptable reasons for leaving someone without any income to feed their family or keep a roof over their heads.

So yes it has flaws but what happens if we withdraw it? The current support scheme was described by the Government as a bridge. But not only have we not yet reached the other side of the chasm we need to cross but we do not even know what it is and what it will demand when we get there.

To cut it off now would leave those seven million people, indeed the whole economy, high and dry.

Instead I believe that we need to keep travelling along that route, extend the support and use it as a foundation to help us transition into whatever the post-Covid economy looks like.

We need to invest not just in staving off the crisis but in creating a new stronger, greener economy.

The sad reality is that when we emerge from this our economy, the world economy will look very different from how it did in February.

We do not know which sectors of our economy will survive, perhaps even thrive, and which will wither or die.

A thought which, for me, evokes not just memories of the end of shipbuilding but other times when change has been painful.

I know, I remember clearly the damage that is done to lives when an industry dies and those who have depended on it have nowhere to turn.

I saw the effects on communities across our coalfields when that industry ceased to be our powerhouse.

And I recognised it in the impact that what we once called ‘new technology’ had on the print industry.

But what we surely recognise now is that we have the skills, the technology and the will power to turn the job retention scheme and the developing support mechanisms into an opportunity. That foundation for change.

Use the job retention scheme to furlough people while we begin to transition and develop our future.

To keep the scheme going until June of next year has been calculated to cost £10 billion.

Surely that is a drop in the ocean compared to what will be lost if we do not take the opportunity it affords us to ensure that those industries and employers which can survive do and we help the others to transition.

Instead of putting jobs and companies in mothballs, encourage them to work and look for alternative markets, work methods and products.

We should look at the flexible schemes proving successful in Germany, Austria, France and elsewhere.

We need to innovate our way out of this and we can by using the time to upskill and retain.

We should be aiming to use the scheme to give us the time to create new industries and investigate existing possibilities like hydrogen power, encourage our aviation industry and so many others to be greener.

Most of all I believe that we need to make well-being the measure of our economy, and that the quality of our lives should be the measure of success.

When the QE2 slipped out of her berth in Clydebank, she became the last great symbol of the skills and know-how developed here in the birthplace of the industrial revolution.

Perhaps now we have the chance to use and develop those skills to create the home for a green revolution.

Christine Jardine is the Scottish Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West

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