Arran’s MP calls for Island furlough to be extended

Arran’s MP Patricia Gibson has urged the UK Government to prolong furlough for island businesses as we work to ease lockdown restrictions and rebuild our island economies.

Mrs Gibson made her call in a parliamentary petition to the House of Commons on Wednesday 10 June highlighting the precarious position islands are in as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, not least because of the higher proportion of older people who live there and the dependency of islands on tourism. She said:

For Arran, this has been a particularly challenging time. Quite rightly, lockdown saw visits to Arran cease. Understandably, this had a devastating impact on the tourism and hospitality sectors, which provide the bulk of employment available to working-age residents.

“Exiting lockdown will be slower for Arran than on the mainland, as ferry capacity will be restricted to ensure social distancing in order to protect public health. This presents an unprecedented economic threat and clearly leaves the island at a disadvantage.

“Many hitherto profitable businesses are at risk. The planned reduction in UK Government support for businesses furloughed workers from 01 August, along with businesses being once more responsible for pension and National Insurance contributions is unsustainable and will inevitably lead to an increase in unemployment in sectors reliant on the summer trade.

“Island economies need additional support to survive this crisis.

“In order to sustain businesses and save jobs, the UK Government must act to support our island economies at this critical time. As all islands in the UK are likely to suffer to a similar degree, my petition calls on an extension of furlough to include them all, until our island economies are back on their feet. As less than 0.5% of the UK population lives on our islands, this should be easily achievable and ensure our island economies don’t just survive but thrive once the lockdown has ended.”

In some further news, Patricia Gibson writes about  Safeguarding the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme:

Recent Scottish Government figures show a drop in almost all areas of recorded crime compared to last year. However, some have used the lockdown as a chance to commit fraud.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has received almost 1,900 reports of fraudulent use of the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) up until the end of May.

Under this scheme, the UK Government pays 80% of employee wages up to the value of £2,500 a month for any employee who cannot work because of coronavirus lockdown restrictions. This helps employers keep staff on their books, rather make them redundant. The scheme is set to run until October, with 8.7 million jobs furloughed since the crisis began, involving 1.1 million employers.

While far from perfect, the CJRS has nonetheless provided vital support to workers who might otherwise now be unemployed at this extremely difficult time. So, it is hugely disappointing that a minority of employers ask staff to work while furloughed and claim taxpayers’ money on their behalf without their knowledge.

I urged the UK Government to ensure that all taxpayers’ money paid out under the CJRS reaches the furloughed employees for whom it is intended and asked HMRC to advise employees of any money paid to employers on their behalf.

Currently, HMRC’s Real Time Information system can only be accessed by an employer or an agent authorised by that employer, so workers have no means of knowing if their National, Insurance number has been used to claim under the scheme. It is totally unacceptable that employees could have their National Insurance number used without their knowledge while money is claimed on their behalf.

HMRC must ensure that all furloughed employees are given this information to prevent a situation whereby some unscrupulous employers fraudulently divert money meant for furloughed workers.

Anyone concerned their employer may be fraudulently abusing the scheme can contact HMRC anonymously.

These reports are just one way that HMRC identifies fraud. Claims are checked and payments withheld or must be repaid if based on dishonest or inaccurate information. If a genuine mistake, HMRC will help put it right, but won’t hesitate to act where fraud is suspected.

I have repeatedly called on the UK Government – to which such powers are reserved – to protect livelihoods by temporarily introducing a guaranteed minimum income for everyone. This would put cash directly into the pockets of employees, rather than being at the employer’s discretion and help ensure a strong economic recovery, a fairer society and reduce the likelihood of the system being manipulated. Despite cross-party support for the idea, the UK Government rejected it.

I welcomed the roll-out of the CJRS. However, UK Ministers must now act to ensure furlough is not undermined. It is a vital part of the collective effort to protect jobs and the economy. While businesses are struggling to see a future at the moment, it is disappointing that a minority see it as a way to obtain taxpayers money to which they are not entitled.