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Support for Small Businesses

Volume 672: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2020

Last month, we launched, our new website bringing together all Government information available to help businesses start, grow and scale. In my first week, I was delighted to chair the Rose review board, which works with industry leaders to break down the barriers that female entrepreneurs face.

I thank the Minister for his response. Last week, my constituents Martin and Deanne Brook proudly opened a brand new post office on Halifax Road in Cross Roads, which they operate in conjunction with their already successful small family business, SMS Workshop Supplies Ltd. What steps are the Government taking to help incentivise small business owners like them to explore the possibility of providing post office services as a means of safeguarding the post office network?

This is about working with Members such as my hon. Friend and coming up with imaginative ways of opening up post offices, including Martin and Deanne’s in their hardware store. It is also important that we take the Post Office’s relationship with postmasters seriously and closely monitor the situation during the legal proceedings that many people are going through and have been through recently. The Post Office, under its new chief executive officer, has since accepted that it got things wrong. He has apologised and said that it aims to re-establish a positive relationship with postmasters. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is working actively with the Post Office on this matter and will hold it to account on its progress. We are also looking into what more needs to be done.[Official Report, 13 March 2020, Vol. 673, c. 4MC.]

In Milton Keynes, we can get our groceries delivered by robot, and I was fortunate last week to meet some of the humans from Starship Technologies who wrangle these robots. What support is my hon. Friend giving to small businesses and start-ups such as Starship Technologies, which are at the forefront of innovative new technology?

Fortunately, questions are not answered by robot yet, so I am still here. [Interruption.] Well, there is a bit of character and it is less robotic. I believe that 50,000 deliveries have been done by Starship Technologies in Milton Keynes, so that is an excellent example. We need to make sure that small businesses can innovate, scale and grow, and we are supporting them to do so through such schemes as Innovate UK smart grants, tax credits and the annual investment allowances, and through programmes supported by the British Business Bank. Research and development tax credits are the single biggest Government support for business investment in R&D. So far, just over £4.3 billion has been claimed through those tax credits in 2017-18, £2.3 billion of which was claimed through the small and medium-sized enterprise scheme.

Small businesses in my constituency, including in the village of Stokenchurch, frequently tell me that they find it particularly hard to make a profit on the traditional high street. What can the Minister do to help traditional town centres to thrive and become commercial and community hubs?

We want our town centres and high streets, including in Stokenchurch in Aylesbury, to be vibrant community hubs where people can live, shop and use services. To support that, we are delivering a £1 billion future high streets fund, as part of a £3.6 billion towns fund to level up our regions. We are committed to a fundamental review of business rates, which the Treasury will announce in due course.

I welcome the Minister and the Secretary of State and his new team to their places. I look forward to our future exchanges.

Last week, I visited a café in Calder Valley that, despite having just started trading, has been ruined by relentless flooding. The owners, like the owners of so many small businesses, have received no support from the Government and have been left to repair the damage on their own, at their own cost, with the help of local people. Will the Minister outline to the House what meaningful financial support has been made available to businesses affected by flooding? Will the Government protect such businesses in future by outlining in the Budget an increase in the UK’s capital spend on flood defences to approximately £1 billion a year, as advised by the Environment Agency and the National Infrastructure Commission?

We have spent £2.6 billion on flooding so far and announced £4 billion in our manifesto. The business recovery grant provides local authorities with funding of £2,500 for severely affected businesses like the café the hon. Lady described. It is important that we support small and medium-sized businesses to recover and help to support local economies.

The Minister must acknowledge that that is a paltry amount of support. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, flooding will cost small businesses hundreds of millions of pounds, and thousands cannot find affordable flood insurance. Furthermore, on flood defence the Government have pledged less than half the capital advised—only £450 million a year for the next six years. The Prime Minister refused to hold a Cobra meeting following the floods and he could not even be bothered to visit the flood-affected areas. Is it not the case that the Government’s response to this disaster is yet another example of a part-time Prime Minister failing to provide the leadership that our country needs in a time of crisis?

The Prime Minister is leading on this situation from the front. He is getting money out the door. As a former small-business owner, I would welcome any visit from the Prime Minister, but what I would welcome more is the money that we are getting out the door on day one to help these businesses.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State and his new ministerial team to their places.

The UK’s proposals on EU trade negotiations could reduce Scottish GDP by 6.1%, or £1,600 per person. Small businesses, including many in the food sector, simply cannot afford to cope with the prospect of such Mad Max economics. They need help now, so will the Minister join me in calling for a cut to employers’ national insurance, to help them and to help to protect jobs?

We will see what happens in the Budget. Employment allowance has benefited businesses—including my former business—up and down the country. Businesses want meaningful things in the Budget, rather than platitudes from the Opposition.

That response comes as absolutely no surprise, given the email from a key adviser to the Chancellor leaked at the weekend that said that the food sector “isn’t critically important”. We all remember the Prime Minister’s shocking attitude and use of the F-word in relation to business concerns when he said “F*** business”. It now seems that the Government are doubling down on that and it is “F*** farming” and “F*** fishing.” With the Minister refusing to support businesses in their hour of need, it is clear to all that this Government deserve an F for their economic incompetence.

To date, the UK Government have committed up to £3.08 billion for city region and growth deals throughout Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Since 2012, the British Business Bank has issued more than 4,200 start-up loans in Scotland, worth more than £32 million in total. That is actual action for businesses.

I thank the Minister for his commitment to small business. Small businesses in Cornwall, and especially on the Isles of Scilly, face an unprecedented challenge on 1 January as a result of the proposed immigration Bill. Will the Minister work with the Home Office to make sure that small businesses that do not have a workforce in the local area sitting around looking to and able to fill posts are able to carry on doing business next year?

I happily confirm to my hon. Friend that our new immigration system is flexible, so, yes, we will work with businesses all around the country to ensure that we have the skills that we need to allow businesses to thrive.

For the past two weekends, properties and businesses in the Rhondda Cynon Taff area—I am one of the MPs for that authority area—have seen devastating flooding. Just this week, I was out helping businesses in my constituency find sandbags and pumps from my local authority. The Welsh Government, the Rhondda Cynon Taff council and council leader Andrew Morgan are offering support to small businesses, so if the Minister is to announce additional funding for those businesses that have been impacted, I plead with him not to forget about Welsh small businesses.

I have already talked about the £2,500 that we have been getting out through that business recovery grant, but we will always look to continue to work with businesses in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well as in England. It is important, as the hon. Gentleman said, that communities come together, which is why there is support for community economies, ensuring that they can continue to survive and thrive.

My hon. Friend will be a great supporter of small businesses, so will he get off to a fast start by urging the Treasury to scrap its misguided changes to IR35? Those changes are punishing small businesses, with large companies already implementing blanket bans that the Treasury had said in a statement would not yet be implemented and with the HMRC’s own assessment tool creating confusion, not clarity, for entrepreneurs.

I am sure the Chancellor will hear that question. As my hon. Friend well knows, that is a matter for the Budget, which is still under review.