Jane Dodds, Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
C19 has caused the biggest economic shock of modern times. The Government has announced a range of measures to support businesses and the self-employed, in particular through putting in place strong incentives to keep staff on the payroll. Nearly a million people applied for Universal Credit in March – and the Welsh Liberal Democrats have called for the Government to scrap the five-week wait. We need to get money into people’s pockets now.
But we need to think beyond the emergency. Economic recovery could be slow and painful, and the most difficult time for families and businesses – especially the small businesses in the economic front line – may be when the lockdown is over and the short-term, time-limited measures announced by the Treasury fall away. Our family businesses are at the heart of our communities, and we need to ensure they bounce back stronger and more resilient than before. These shops and businesses will only recover if their customers have money to spend once the lockdown ends.
But we also know how weak the economy was before the crisis. Since 2008 we have seen real incomes falling, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable; We have this shocking situation now in Wales of people who are in work being poor and attending food banks. There is greater job insecurity, poor working conditions and zero hours contracts. And all too often, when people do get an extra couple of hours’ work, they lose more in tax and benefits than they gain. We have longer working hours and people are still struggling to pay bills. Automation may eliminate many occupations altogether.
Many people are calling for what is described as a Universal Basic Income as a response to this emergency – regular payments made to individuals to enable them to meet their bills.
I want to trial Universal Basic Income because it is a policy approach for the long-term – and it means transformational reform of the tax and benefits system too in order to tackle that deep-seated crisis of work. This gives an opportunity for carers to stay caring for children and older people. And by removing the fear of poverty and unemployment it provides us all with the chance of extending our studying and becoming those entrepreneurs many of us want to be. It could help build a more dynamic and innovative economy in Wales.
But I want to go further. I want to see Government supporting local businesses and communities; a new deal based on sustainable, thriving communities in our towns and villages. And in Wales, we need to ensure that our Government has the powers and resources to make the difference.
As a society our response to C19 is turning economic debate on its head, and making us think again about the role of government and what matters. We are learning to travel less and shop local; that communities matter; and which jobs are most important. Four decades of economic and social orthodoxy are being overturned in front of our eyes.
Eighty years ago, William Beveridge, one of the giants of the Liberal tradition, crafted a report to address what he called the giant evils: want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness. He challenged a generation of economic thinking that had failed, placing work at the centre of his vision of a decent and generous society. We need the courage, the breadth of vision, and the radicalism of Beveridge if we are to build a renewed and decent and just society in the aftermath of C19.
There can be no going back to business as usual.