Queens’ Speech debate – the economy and work

Alison Thewliss (Glasgow Central) (SNP): The sugar tax is an interesting proposal, but the Government have left some careless loopholes in their plans. I am not sure whether you often drink milkshakes, Madam Deputy Speaker, but they are not particularly healthy drinks. One brand has 19.2 grams of sugar in a 200 ml bottle, which exceeds the recommended daily allowance for four to six-year-old children. A milk drink linked to a well-known confectionary brand has 36 grams of sugar in 376 ml bottle, exceeding the RDA for seven to 10-year-olds. Finally, another popular milkshake drink has 50.8 grams of sugar in a 471 ml bottle, which far exceeds the RDA for adults.

None of those products is covered by the Chancellor’s sugar tax. That is a serious loophole because parents may infer from their exemption that these drinks are healthier. The response that I received from the Treasury states that “milk contains calcium and other nutrients which are vital to children’s health.” That is true, but if the goodness of milk is adulterated with huge volumes of sugar, the health benefits are seriously undermined. It would be sensible to include such drinks within the scope of the sugar tax.

There is another loophole that affects us as grown-ups. Pre-mixed alcoholic drinks such as cans of vodka and Coke or gin and tonic do not come within the scope of the sugar tax either. It cannot have escaped anybody’s notice that adults, too, struggle with obesity. They will not get an exemption from the sugar tax at the till, but there is a loophole if they choose to purchase vodka and Coke separately, rather than as a premixed drink. These drinks should be brought within the scope of the tax, as that would have benefits for all of us.

I am deeply concerned by the way in which this Government’s approach to the economy rewards those who are already at the top of the heap and punishes those who are already struggling. Experts from Sheffield Hallam University laid out the brutal impact of that. Their report, “The uneven impact of welfare reform—the financial losses to places and people”, ought to bring shame on this Government. As I suspect that, sadly, Treasury Ministers will not even give it a glance, I will use this opportunity to lay out some of the key findings.​

The report states that the cumulative loss experienced by claimants since 2010 is £27 billion a year—£690 for every adult of working age. The report finds that the welfare reforms are uneven geographically, hitting the most deprived communities hardest. The departing Secretary of State confessed as much to Andrew Marr, saying that the Tories were attacking benefit payments to people who “don’t vote for us”. In the constituency of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in the Three Rivers area, the anticipated loss to claimants by 2020-21 will £190 a year. In Blackburn the situation is much worse. Claimants there will lose £560 per year.

In Scotland, because our ability to make other choices is limited, we have made a difference, but Scots will still lose out to the tune of £320 per adult per year. We have been able to take the edge off. We have mitigated the bedroom tax, we have restored council tax benefit, and we will not bring in pay to stay. I very much look forward to the Scottish Government making use of the social security powers coming to us in the Scottish Parliament, because we are committed to everyone in Scotland, not just those who happen to vote for us.

In Glasgow claimants will lose out by £420 per year. This is money that is not ringing in the tills in the communities that I represent. It is money that ordinary people desperately need to put food on the table. It is money that my constituents need to heat their homes. It is absolute wickedness to punish people for the circumstances that they are in, and worse because they are people who did not vote Tory.

I reject this economic model, which condemns people to a lifetime of poverty. The lasting effects of such social policies are still there in Glasgow, a hangover from the time of the loss of heavy industry, and of clumsy Scottish Office policy that built the new towns left so many behind in poor quality housing. I commend to the House the recent report by the esteemed Glasgow Centre for Population Health, “History, politics and vulnerability: explaining excess mortality in Scotland and Glasgow”, which seeks to explain why Glaswegians continue to die younger than they should. The policy of this Government and of previous Governments has a lot to answer for, and we must not make the same policy mistakes now.