The Chancellor should use this opportunity to invest in the workers that have kept our country running during this pandemic
Our economic recovery must be driven by the people who go to work, day-in-day-out, writes Darren Jones MP. | PA Images
The Budget must not only to deal with the immediate priorities of the pandemic and put right the wrongs of the past year, but set out a vision for modern Britain.
Tomorrow is, hopefully, the last Budget under lockdown. We all expect the Chancellor to extend financial help and to continue to do so in line with health restrictions. It is also the last chance to help the millions of people who have been unfairly excluded from financial help so far.
More broadly, the country needs to see a Budget that tackles the real economic challenges facing our country. Post-Brexit adjustment, our net-zero transition, technological change and the lasting impacts of the Covid pandemic are all, like tectonic plates, changing the British economy.
This Budget is not just an opportunity to deal with the immediate pressures of the pandemic, but a chance to set out a vision for Britain for the years ahead.
The government’s early pandemic response was undermined by the gaps in eligibility for income support, premature end dates to policies such as furlough and a failure to take a more sector specific approach to help for businesses.
We can’t move forward on uneven ground, so addressing the discrimination between employed and self-employed workers is an obvious starting point. Distinctions between workers classed as employed or self-employed have life-changing repercussions for job security, pensions and sick-pay.
As in the case of Uber and the ‘gig economy’, the twisting of these definitions has meant the workers keeping our country going during lockdown have been put at greater risk with worse pay and fewer protections. It’s time to update the legal definitions of work and extend appropriate workers protections to all workers.
It is the last chance to help the millions of people who have been unfairly excluded from financial help so far
Many businesses have leapt forward with digital transformation, supported their local communities during the lockdown and changed their working practices to be Covid safe. However, many businesses are entering a new period of corporate Covid indebtedness, which means small businesses will find it harder to invest to best manage post-Brexit challenges and the net-zero transition.
The gap between those that can digitally innovate and those that cannot has also increased. The Chancellor needs to come forward with a package of support for businesses that meet these real-life challenges for business owners.
Sadly, there have also been unacceptable examples of companies acting in bad faith during the pandemic. Whilst many of the businesses that have been able to do well during the pandemic have now returned public funds, we saw examples of companies who saw the pandemic as a commercial opportunity to access cheaper taxpayer-backed finance. In some examples, this led to businesses paying dividends to already wealthy shareholders or taking taxpayers money whilst using unacceptable approaches to business restricting, such as fire and re-hire.
Ultimately, this Budget is an opportunity to invest in the workers that have kept our country running during this pandemic. We need a change in approach from the Chancellor that goes beyond flashy branding and headlines. Unemployment is on the rise, especially for young people, women and BAME workers. Jobs have been lost and futures put on hold.
Our economic recovery must be driven by the people who go to work, day-in-day-out. That requires a comprehensive jobs-and-skills program that allows people to re-train, skill up and find new work in every community. Going back to a pre-Covid approach ultimately means fewer self-employed workers, continued discrimination against working parents and an economy unable to transition to a net-zero future.
We have the opportunity in this decade ahead to build the foundations for a modern, successful, prosperous and sustainable Britain. A country that invests in our biggest asset: our people.
The test for the Budget this week is not only to deal with the immediate priorities of the pandemic, and to put right the wrongs of the past year, but to set out that vision for a modern Britain.
Darren Jones is the Labour MP for Bristol North West and chair of the BEIS committee.