One year on from the appalling Manchester Arena attack, I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House in saying that on this day our thoughts are with those who lost their lives and their families, and those who suffered life-changing injuries. We will remember them with a minute’s silence later today.
The UK’s 5.7 million small businesses make a vital contribution to our economy, employing 60% of the private sector workforce, and the Government are determined to facilitate their success. We are keeping taxes low and ensuring that firms can access the support that they need to thrive. Following the patient capital review, we are expanding the tax reliefs available to entrepreneurs that will support them in growing their businesses, and we have launched a patient capital action plan to unlock £20 billion of funding to help high-growth firms to reach their potential.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will not raise taxes on small businesses, and will he share with the House what help the Government will give to entrepreneurs who are setting up for the first time, with particular regard to the business rate?
We have already introduced business rate concessions to reduce the burden of rates on small businesses, including by bringing forward by two years the switch in indexation from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index. We are ensuring that Britain is the world’s leading place to start and grow a business, including through reducing corporation tax rates. There are almost 7,000 small businesses in Southend-on-Sea alone, and this Government back them every step of the way. I can tell my hon. Friend who will raise taxes on small businesses, and has said so publicly: he is sitting opposite me.
In the rural and coastal parts of east Sussex that I represent, infrastructure delivery is key to bringing more businesses and entrepreneurs to the area. What plans does the Chancellor have to continue investment in road, high-speed rail and broadband connections so that we can attract more businesses to rural parts of this country?
The national productivity investment fund is investing in all those areas. We have the biggest rail investment programme since Victorian times and the biggest road building programme since the 1970s, and we are investing in superfast broadband, which is critical to this country’s future. As my hon. Friend will know, in his area we are investing in the A21, and we are working with Network Rail on exploring options for connecting HS1 services to Hastings via Ashford International.
Surely the Chancellor knows that the thing holding back most businesses—small, medium-sized and large—is the lack of good skilled people to work for them. When is he going to give the Secretary of State for Education a good shaking and make him do something about the apprenticeship levy, apprenticeship schemes and the higher education graduate apprenticeship scheme?
The hon. Gentleman is right that skills are a critical factor for business in an economy with such high levels of employment and low levels of unemployment as we have achieved. We are investing in apprenticeships with the new apprenticeship levy, providing funding for more and better apprenticeships; we are investing in T-levels, improving substantially the level of technical training for 16 to 19-year-olds; and we are reviewing the operation of tertiary education funding.
Marks & Spencer is closing 14 stores, affecting hundreds of jobs, and Debenhams and House of Fraser would be doing the same were it not for their longer lease commitments. The nature of the high street is changing, and the risk is the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. What are the Government doing about this, and will the Chancellor consider meeting me and businesses in Croydon as we push ahead for a new Westfield shopping centre in what is undoubtedly a difficult environment?
The hon. Lady correctly identifies the underlying problem: the nature of retailing is changing. Britain is leading the world in the adoption of online retail, which has huge opportunities, but will also bring huge changes. This is a microcosm of the changes we will face in this economy over the next 10, 20 or 30 years, as the digital revolution changes fundamentally the way we do business. The answer is not to try to resist change, but to embrace it, and to make sure that we train our people so that they can take up the new challenges and have the new opportunities that this economy will bring.
We have taken steps that I have already outlined this morning to reduce the burden of taxation on businesses large and small, although of course small businesses are most beneficially affected by the £10 billion programme of reducing business rates costs and through the reduction in corporation tax levels. But we are always looking for further ways to support the smallest businesses and to encourage them to become larger businesses.
I associate myself with the Chancellor’s remarks about the Manchester bombing.
For the Chancellor to make up his own small business tax policies on the hoof is one thing; making them up for the Labour party is a fantasy. The Government have ruled out a customs union with the European Union worth £16 trillion for an alternative customs union with British overseas territories worth only £22 billion. Is the Chancellor happy with that decision? Can he give us any clue about how such a decision will support businesses and entrepreneurs?
I do not know whether that was an announcement of a change in Labour party policy. My understanding is that the Labour party’s position is to increase corporate tax rates for small businesses. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us whether he has changed his position.
On the question of our future customs arrangements with the European Union, the hon. Gentleman will know that I have consistently sought arrangements that will protect our existing trade with the European Union, allowing British businesses to continue to trade freely with the minimal possible friction at the border with the European Union. We do not believe it is necessary to be in a customs union to achieve that.
For the Chancellor’s information, he can easily find our policies on www.labour.org.
When the Chancellor met David Cameron last October to give a thumbs-up emoji to Mr Cameron’s UK-China investment fund, presumably to help businesses and entrepreneurs, was he aware that the fund is to be domiciled in the Republic of Ireland? If so, did he think to ask the former Prime Minister whether that was for the purposes of tax avoidance?
I have already answered the hon. Gentleman’s questions about my meeting with Mr Cameron last October. In a meeting that ranged across a number of issues, Mr Cameron was good enough to inform me of his intention to take up this role with a fund promoting investment both in China and the UK. The Government support all initiatives that improve trade and investment between the UK and China.