House of Commons
Tuesday 24 March 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Taxation of Online Sales
A change to the taxation of online sales would require careful consideration, as my hon. Friend is aware. Many high street retailers are moving more of their business online, and we want to help them to manage that transition, without increasing the costs for them or their customers. The business rates review that we have announced will work closely with stakeholders to consider this issue in more detail. Meanwhile, as my hon. Friend will be aware, the Government have taken significant steps to support our high streets, including huge cuts to business rates and the £3.6 billion towns fund.
Clearly, we are living through unprecedented times, and I want to say thank you to all the Treasury team for the incredible work they are doing—working throughout the night—to help businesses up and down the country. Many sectors will be hugely impacted by coronavirus, not least my home of North Norfolk. We are now seeing shops being shut on the high street—quite rightly so—and I just want the Minister to consider that they will be hit enormously. When we come out of this pandemic, a 2% or 3% VAT-style tax rise to help high streets would be very well considered and welcome. Let us just remember that our last great leader was Margaret Thatcher, who said that we are a nation of shopkeepers—let us help them.
I speak for all my colleagues in saying how grateful I am to my hon. Friend for his kind regards and wishes. Of course, all taxes are taken into account and monitored by the Treasury, and will be subject to consideration at future fiscal events. We are living through very unusual times. I hope my hon. Friend understands that the high street, which was under pressure years before the current outbreak, is something we have supported over a period of time, most recently with a comprehensive package of support. He will be aware of the specific measures we have taken to support eligible retail, hospitality and leisure properties.
I thank the Minister and the Department for all they are doing for businesses at this time; it is much appreciated. Will the Minister further outline whether he has managed to close the loophole that enables massive companies such as Amazon to operate out of the UK yet pay little tax here? If not, what has been done to ensure that no one is exempt from paying appropriate tax in the UK if they trade in the UK?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. He will be aware that, in the Budget, we left in place our digital services tax, which is specifically designed to look at online marketplaces and other areas online that have user-generated content that needs to be appropriately taxed. We continue to pursue that tax.
Local Transport Infrastructure
The Government are committed to improving the vital transport links that people rely on every day. That is why in the Budget we announced a £500 million a year fund for potholes, confirmed £1 billion for shovel-ready local transport schemes through the transforming cities fund, and set out the Government’s intention to agree long-term intra-city transport settlements worth more than £4 billion.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all that he is doing. Businesses in my resort constituency have been delivered a significant blow due to covid-19. In good times, funding for the Burscough rail link would be a boost; in bad times, it could be business critical. Will he work with the Department for Transport and do everything he can to ensure that we get the funding for that vital link for our town?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the impact on hotel and hospitality businesses in particular. I hope he welcomes the significant cash grant support and business rates holidays for those businesses. With regard to his rail line, he is absolutely right about the importance of such links, which is why we set up a £500 million Beeching cuts reversal fund. I know the Department for Transport would be happy to hear from him.
Rail links will be essential to revitalising the economy once we exit this very difficult period. In Burnley, we have a fantastic rail link that connects us into Manchester, but unfortunately, at the minute, the station is not disability friendly. I know several stations across the country have been given funding to get them disability friendly, and I wonder whether a similar scheme will be announced in the future so that Burnley can finally get a bridge over its platforms.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he does championing improved accessibility for his disabled constituents, which is why in the Budget we announced £50 million to remodel 12 stations. I spoke to the Secretary of State for Transport this morning about Burnley Manchester Road station, and he is happy to take a call from my hon. Friend.
Transport infrastructure and, indeed, all infrastructure relies on the construction industry, and in particular its workforce. We have had reports of workers working in close proximity in construction—indeed, I have seen that myself, including at transport-related facilities this morning—in some cases with no hygienic support and no evidence of enhanced cleaning. The industry has been described as a breeding ground for infection. What action is being taken to protect workers in that industry?
The hon. Member is absolutely right: we must ensure the safety of our workers in their industries. The guidance from the Government last night was clear that people should go to work if they cannot work from home. In common with other countries such as Italy or France, construction has remained open, but of course it is right that that is done safely. I know that my right hon. Friend the Housing Secretary is in touch with the sector and I believe that he has had conversations about guidance in this regard.
My local bus company is one of many, I am sure, across the country that has had to introduce short-time working, but it is unsure about the implementation of the Chancellor’s very welcome wage subsidy. Will the Treasury top up the wages of those working two or three-day weeks, or does it have to lay off, say, 70% of the workforce and rely on the remainder to cover the rest of the routes, putting themselves at risk for a similar amount of money? Can the Chancellor clear that up for us, please?
We said that we would aim to have the scheme up and running by the April payroll. This is a brand new system that has to be designed from scratch. Claims could be backdated from 1 March, which will provide significant support to businesses and jobs, and in common with all other schemes like this across the world, the scheme applies to furloughed workers in proportion to the hours they have worked—but to workers who are put on furlough rather than being retained in employment.
Covid-19: Support for Businesses
The Government remain committed to doing what they can to support businesses, our people and public services. In the last week, I have announced unprecedented measures to support business, including over £300 billion of Government-backed loans, £20 billion of tax cuts and grants, a VAT deferral worth 1.5% of GDP and a landmark job retention scheme guaranteeing 80% of the wages of furloughed workers. We believe that these measures represent the most comprehensive and generous suite of interventions of any major developed country in the world.
On behalf of my constituents, I welcome those announcements. The Chancellor, though, will know that 15% of the UK workforce is self-employed, equating to about 5 million people up and down the country. According to the Federation of Small Businesses, there are 5,600 in The Wrekin. When will the Government come forward with plans for the self-employed and freelancers, given the immediacy of their need?
I thank my hon. Friend for the question. I will be making further announcements about progress on these measures. It is something that we have been looking at in intense detail over the past week in the Treasury. What I can say to him is that we are in dialogue with all the key stakeholder groups, including calls that I am having today with several of those bodies. There are genuine practical and principled reasons why it is incredibly complicated to design a scheme that is analogous to the one that we have for employed workers, but he can rest assured that we absolutely understand the situation that many self-employed people face at the moment as a result of what is happening and we are determined to find a way to support them. We need to be confident that that can be done in a way that is deliverable and fair to the vast majority of the British workforce.
On behalf of my residents in North Cornwall, I thank the Treasury for the support that it has put in place for employees and employers over the last few days, with this unprecedented series of events. Like my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), I want to ask about self-employment. I have a huge number of self-employed people in North Cornwall. I know that the Treasury is under a huge amount of pressure at this time, but I urge expediency on that so that we can get a package of measures in place for them, too.
As I said, we are looking at this in immense detail and at pace. As has been acknowledged by many stakeholders in the industry, there are genuine questions about practicality, fairness and delivery of any such support scheme, which is why it requires careful thought.
We have an urgent question on the self-employed after this, but to add to the comments that have been made so far, there is a sense of urgency about this now. There is no Member of this House who has not been contacted by a constituent who is in quite a distressed state about that. One of the most effective ways of supporting businesses is to make sure that the whole workforce is supported. There is another group—2 million workers are on zero-hours and there are part-time workers. They are still not eligible for statutory sick pay and they appear to be excluded as well from the job retention scheme, which is focused on the definition of “employees” while, in law, these are referred to and defined as “workers”. I have written to the Chancellor about this, so will he make a statement urgently that sets out how these workers will be protected in the same way as other workers were in the announcement on Friday?
It is not the case that those who are on zero hours are not eligible for the existing scheme. Depending on their status, they would absolutely be eligible for the job retention scheme. It could be based on an average of previous earnings over a period in order to get smoothing, but there is no reason why they should not be eligible. In fact, any worker who was on a PAYE scheme is eligible for the job retention scheme.
That is really helpful. I have welcomed the statements from the Chancellor to date, and I welcome that as well. I am grateful for the work that he is doing. There was confusion, and many of us had representations on that. I would like him to clarify one other point: he might have done so earlier and I missed it. Some people are being asked to work reduced hours in the interests of the company rather than being furloughed overall, and it appears that those people may also be excluded from the scheme. There is a lack of clarity on that: again, could the Chancellor confirm whether those workers will be included in the scheme? If not, can he bring forward a fairly urgent reform of the scheme to enable that to happen?
One other category we have had questions on is those people who have work available but cannot do it because of the shutdown of their childcare arrangements and as a result have childcare responsibilities. Are they are eligible for the furlough support scheme as well?
In common with schemes all around the world, the schemes are for furloughed workers. The check is that the company decides to put an employee into a furlough scheme rather than retain them as employed. That is exactly the same as every other scheme. It is not possible to design a scheme that deals with flexible hours, with the result that the state would essentially be subsidising the wages of almost the entire workforce. It is something that we looked at in detail and, given the time we have available, we went with a scheme that could be delivered and is in common with almost every scheme around the world that does exactly the same thing.
It is vital that we work across party lines at this time, and the SNP very much welcomes the Chancellor’s economic package for firms and workers announced last Friday. Given that millions of small businesses, freelancers and the self-employed are understandably concerned about their incomes, we welcome the fact that the Chancellor is considering a response to that and understand that it is important to get it right, but when does he expect to be able to come back to the House and announce the details?
As I said, we are looking at these things. I will not commit to a specific day until we know we can work through the details. One of the issues is that of course there are people whose incomes have been enormously impacted by what is going on currently, but there are also millions of people who are self-employed whose incomes may not have been impacted and, indeed, might be increasing. The ability of the Government to distinguish between those people, based on tax returns that are over a year and a half out of date, poses some very significant challenges in terms of fairness and affordability.
I thank the Chancellor for that answer, and our offer to work with him to protect incomes remains open. As part of his deliberations on this and in order to simplify the process of getting the money to where it needs to go, will he consider using the tax and welfare system to roll out a universal basic income in these times?
We are not in favour of a universal basic income, although we have strengthened the safety net for the most vulnerable in our society, with more than £7 billion invested in improving our welfare system for this year, including improvements to universal credit, employment support allowance and, indeed, the local housing allowance. Those payments are all available more quickly, more easily and more generously than they were before, and I know that will make an enormous difference to many vulnerable people.
I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that seems unique to my constituency. The Isles of Scilly sit 28 miles off Land’s End, and all people and supplies travel via large and small private companies. Those businesses rely on the tourist trade in the summer, but that has completely collapsed, and every single one of those businesses is liable to collapse if the Government cannot move quickly. Can the Chancellor look at this issue urgently, because 2,500 people are relying on urgent action from the Treasury to make sure that their transport infrastructure system is sustained and retained?
I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend further about his particular constituency issue, which I know poses particular challenges. We have committed to providing local authorities—and indeed all Departments —with any funding required to support public services, including local transport infrastructure in their communities.
On behalf of my constituents who will benefit from the measures that the Chancellor announced last week, may I sincerely thank him for the action that he has taken and for the responsibility that he is carrying? We are all rooting for him to succeed in the task ahead. The challenge, as others have described, is that for those who do not benefit, in particular the 5 million self-employed, the anxiety has increased, because they have seen a ship sailing carrying others but not them. I think they will be reassured that the Chancellor has given a clear commitment to do something, but many are facing a cash-flow crisis right now, so can he say a bit more to reassure them about how quickly he can implement the measures that he is considering?
1 am very grateful to the hon. Member for his warm words; I appreciate them. We are looking at pace at what support can be provided. The fact is that the universe of 5 million that we are dealing with contains such a wide variety of different people that we are unable to target support. That is the challenge in designing something that gets to the people we want to help, while at the same time being affordable and not having to benefit absolutely everybody. That is proving to be problematic, but we are hard at work on it.
In terms of delivery, it is almost certainly going to be the case that we would have to build another brand-new system to deliver any support. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree that, in terms of prioritising system design, the scheme that we have set up for 90% of the workforce who are employed should be delivered first and quickly, and that is what we have committed to do, ideally by the end of April. We are looking at how we can do these things in sequence or in parallel, but I take the hon. Member’s point: people are anxious. That is why we deferred the self-assessment tax return that is due shortly to provide some cash-flow benefit. We have also deferred VAT to a significant degree, which will help with cash-flow benefit, and many self-employed people will benefit from the business interruption loans, which are also interest-free.
Emergency Cash Grant Scheme
We are providing cash grants of £10,000 to over 700,000 small and medium-sized businesses across England and grants of up to £25,000 per property for qualifying retail, hospitality and leisure businesses. We estimate that these combined measures will benefit up to 1 million businesses in England. Local authorities will deliver these grants over the coming weeks and consequently will have information about the number of firms that have benefited at a local level in due course.
I declare my interest as a member of Kettering Borough Council. May I thank the Chancellor and the Treasury for coming forward at top speed with this business support package? May I also thank all the hard-working staff at Kettering Borough Council who will be delivering these grants to local businesses? Will the Minister send out the message to Kettering and the country that when the economy comes roaring back, once this pandemic is over, local authorities will have played a key role in ensuring that that happens?
I thank my hon. Friend for that wise comment. We very much share his views. Local authorities are crucial to delivery of a whole range of the support that we are now giving, and we will be very much acknowledging their role. We will also be supporting them, as he will know, through the business rates process and the hardship fund.
Rent a Room Scheme
As my hon. Friend will know, Rent a Room relief has been a feature of the income tax system since 1992. In 2016, the Government raised the threshold to £7,500. That was designed to deliver the Government’s objective of supporting individuals’ living standards and freeing up space in the housing market. It also reduces and simplifies the tax administrative burden for those affected and has taken some taxpayers out of self-assessment entirely.
Given that some 37% of homes in the country are under-occupied, my right hon. Friend will realise that encouraging more owners to take in lodgers could provide affordable housing to thousands more people. Will he please look to review whether there should be a higher level, perhaps £9,500, for live-in landlords with two or more lodgers, and would he be willing to have a virtual meeting with the Lodger Landlords Association at an appropriate time?
I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend. In 2016, as I have mentioned, the Government raised the threshold. In 2018, the Government consulted on the scheme and there was consensus among the respondents that the relief provides an effective incentive for people to make spare rooms available for rent. Of course, I take his point and he has put it squarely on the record. As with all tax policy, we will look at this and other measures and keep them under review.
I regularly discuss school funding with the Secretary of State for Education. At the spending round, the Government committed to a £7.1 billion cash increase in the funding for schools in England by 2022-23.
I would be very happy to give that commitment to my hon. Friend. He will be aware of the significant allocation to capital funding that was set out by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget, and obviously part of the discussion at the comprehensive spending round will be the allocation of that budget.
When the Minister is meeting the Secretary of State for Education, will he also talk about funding for the early years and nurseries sector? The 30 hours of free childcare is not working, and many of these nurseries were facing unviability before the current crisis.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, because across the House people recognise the importance of early years and early intervention, but he will be aware of the wider package of funding showing the Government’s commitment to education, not just in primary schools and secondary schools but through the measures on further education set out by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget.
We have been clear that the NHS will get whatever it needs to respond to the coronavirus. The Chancellor announced at Budget a £5 billion response fund and we have already allocated a significant proportion of that to a range of measures.
What frontline staff do in the NHS every single day is remarkable at the best of times, and what we are asking them to do now and in the weeks ahead will be incredibly challenging in terms of both the physical and emotional pressures and the personal risks to NHS staff, so would my right hon. Friend reaffirm that as well as providing the extra money announced in the Budget, the Government will do all they can to ensure that frontline NHS staff get all the equipment they need, including protective clothing, to get the country through this crisis?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Chancellor has made it clear that we will do whatever it takes to protect our NHS frontline, not just through PPE, as he correctly identifies, but by looking at additional capacity, such as in the independent hospitals sector, and at the support available, including the £1.3 billion allocated to speed up the discharge of patients, the £1.6 billion allocated to local authorities for adult social care and, of course, funding such as the £30 million for diagnostics research and £10 million for diagnostic testing that has also been allocated in recent days.
As a House, we require more specific detail about exactly what funding and arrangements are being provided across Government in relation to testing and PPE availability. We are all hearing from staff that they do not have the resources they need. The Minister talked about that funding, but to what extent is it being spent in the field, and what discussions has his Department had with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department of Health and Social Care about pulling in additional manufacturers not just for ventilators but for PPE and testing?
The hon. Lady will know from the statements made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care that significant efforts have been made on this, working with domestic manufacturers and procuring additional resource and stock internationally. On funding, we have been very clear with the Department of Health and Social Care that it will have whatever funding it needs, and that has been the case to date.
Covid-19: VAT Reduction
Last Friday, the Government announced that they were deferring VAT payments for the next quarter, so that UK VAT-registered businesses will not need to pay any VAT, alongside their normal VAT returns, until the end of June. That deferral is worth more than £30 billion, or 1.5% of GDP. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs already offers help to businesses struggling to meet their VAT payments, with arrangements such as Time to Pay. In the light of the covid-19 outbreak, the Chancellor has outlined a range of measures to help businesses through the crisis, including grants, loans and relief from business rates worth more than £330 billion. The Treasury will continue to review this and make further announcements as events unfold.
Scottish National party Members welcome the actions that have been announced so far by the Chancellor to support the economy during this outbreak. Given the particular strain felt by sectors such as hospitality, will the Minister consider reducing the VAT rate they are charged, in addition to the deferrals already announced?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will be aware that those businesses will fall under the VAT announcements that have already been made for the next quarter and that they are also already the beneficiaries of grants of £10,000 for the smallest businesses and of £25,000 for larger ones in the hospitality, leisure and retail sectors.
Marine Renewables: Fiscal Support
The Government take seriously their climate change responsibilities, including the target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. That means enabling a diverse range of low-carbon technologies, and we see the use of marine renewables in the future energy mix, though developers must demonstrate how those can compete with the low prices achieved by wind and solar technologies.
In order to compete with those technologies, these renewables have to get from the research and development stage to commercial deployment. The industry knows that and has come up with a mechanism known as the innovation power purchase agreement. Is there any reason why the Government are not engaging with that? I have to tell the Minister that these developers are not going to hang around in this country forever. If they cannot make that step here, they will go elsewhere and do it.
I am very aware of the 1,700 people who work in this area in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency and across Wales and Scotland. I am also aware that he wrote to the previous Exchequer Secretary, who moved post before he could reply. At the moment, renewables are five times more expensive than wind and solar, but the Government will engage in a dialogue with the industry as we look to resolve this and move forward constructively.
Low-paid Workers: Wages Increase
Low-paid workers will continue to benefit from above-average pay rises, with the national living wage set to reach two thirds of median earnings and to be extended to workers aged 21 and over by 2024, providing economic conditions allow. That is projected to benefit nearly 4 million low-paid workers.
I thank the Minister for that response and for everything he is doing to protect jobs in Peterborough and across the country. I was proud to stand on our manifesto in December and, in particular, on our commitment to protect the low paid. The Government have taken vital steps in the short term to protect jobs. Will he confirm that this Budget is also providing a £200 tax cut for the typical family in Peterborough?
Absolutely. I can confirm to my hon. Friend that a typical employee will be about £104 better off next year through the cut in national insurance and the freeze in fuel and alcohol duties, and the abolition of other taxes, such as the tampon tax, will also be of benefit to many of his constituents, for whom he has been fighting hard since he came to this place.
Many low-paid workers are self-employed. When I raised this matter with the Leader of the House yesterday, he said:
“The Government are inevitably conscious that when we close places by order and that has an effect on people’s livelihoods, there is a societal responsibility.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2020; Vol. 674, c. 27.]
Many of these low-paid self-employed people work in the music industry. I know that we have an urgent question coming up, but I say to the Minister that they will be looking for more reassurance than we have heard so far this morning that the Government are going to introduce a scheme and do it soon.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out clearly not only the range of measures that we have taken but our determination to come up with an enduring solution that addresses the range of challenges. The whole Treasury team is fully aware of how distressing and challenging people are finding it out there and we are working as fast as we can to come up with a solution that works for everyone.
If the current coronavirus and financial crisis has taught us one thing, it is that we need to look again at zero-hours contracts and the difficulty that they put many of our constituents in. I very much welcome the measures that have been brought forward on support for businesses and employees, and I very much hope that we will hear about support for the self-employed in the response to the urgent question this afternoon, but there is a lot of concern among zero-hours workers. Will the Minister outline what support the Government are going to bring forward for zero-hours workers in Glasgow East?
If they are on pay-as-you-earn, they are eligible for the job-retention scheme, but the hon. Gentleman makes a fair point about the range of concerns that exist, and we continue to look carefully at what we can do to enhance the measures that have already been announced. He will be aware of the enhancements to the welfare package—my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced that an additional £6.5 billion has been put in so far—and we will continue to look at what more can be done.
I encourage the Minister not to make the perfect the enemy of the good in the design of the scheme. Many self-employed workers are worrying about their inability to put food on the table this week. They are finding the universal credit system completely overwhelmed, so I encourage Ministers to announce the scheme and make sure that the cash gets through. It has to be soon; otherwise, people are going to be in real hardship.
The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point. That issue is why we have tried to move forward on interventions that could be done quickly and have done them as quickly as we can. In respect of universal credit, we have increased the UC standard allowance from £317.82 to £409.89 per month for single claimants. We have increased the local housing allowance, we have relaxed the earnings rules for self-employed UC claimants, and we will continue to look at every measure that we can to make an impact in the lives of those people who are suffering as the hon. Gentleman describes.
The Minister talks about looking at every measure that we can, but the Chancellor just appeared to rule out a universal minimum basic income. Is that not quite disappointing? The way to answer these questions—the way to avoid thousands of people being laid off, ending up on universal credit and potentially getting trapped in the benefits system—is to provide a minimum income guarantee for everyone. That would also help to provide a fiscal stimulus in the economy once we start to get through this crisis.
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out clearly the reasons why we have some concerns about, and indeed would not want to have, that universal guarantee. We want to make sure that the interventions we make are targeted at those who are most in need at this time, and not giving money unnecessarily to people who are wealthy.
We are facing an unprecedented challenge as a country, as a Government and as a society. The spread of the coronavirus has precipitated the extraordinary but necessary actions taken by this Government over the past week to protect people’s health and livelihoods and the economy we all rely on. There will be challenging times ahead, and despite the significant economic interventions that we have put in place, we will not be able to protect every single job or save every single business, but I am confident that the measures we have put in place will provide support to millions of people and businesses and ensure that we do get through this, get through it together, and emerge on the other side both stronger and more united.
The start-up loan programme has been hugely successful in getting thousands of new businesses off the ground, particularly in my constituency of Beaconsfield. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the announcement that the programme will be extended is hugely welcome news for entrepreneurs right across the country?
My hon. Friend is a champion for entrepreneurship in her constituency, and rightly so. The start-up loan programme is an excellent programme, providing grants of £25,000 for budding entrepreneurs. It has been operational for some years now and has provided almost 70,000 loans, putting to work more than half a billion pounds. It is absolutely right that, as we think about our future coming through the coronavirus, it will be the entrepreneurs of tomorrow who will help to create new jobs and drive the prosperity that we will all want to see.[Official Report, 21 April 2020, Vol. 675, c. 1MC.]
May I again welcome much of what the Chancellor is doing, and say that we wish to work with him as positively as we possibly can in this very difficult period? I just wish to return to the issue of zero-hours workers. The Chancellor said very clearly that this applies to all those who are on PAYE, and I welcome that, but the point that we have been making is that many of these zero-hours contract workers—in fact, most of them—are not on PAYE. They are called limb (b) workers, so the scheme does not apply to them. I understand that he is doing his best and I understand the complications, but he has also said that for zero-hours workers, employers may compensate on the basis of average hours worked. The unions in this field representing those workers have urged that this should be mandatory and applied to all zero-hours and variable-hours workers based on average earnings over the previous weeks. That is exactly how those workers’ holiday pay is calculated at the moment, and it is an accurate reflection of what they earn. We need some urgent action for this sizeable group of workers. There are at least nearly a million zero-hours workers, perhaps a million more.
As we are putting in place the detailed guidance for the scheme, we are actively considering the question of how best to average the earnings of people in this situation. I very much take on board the suggestion that the right hon. Gentleman has made, and I know that my team are engaging with those unions as we speak to try to get the details right.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of cash flow, which is why we have targeted our interventions specifically at smaller businesses by providing extra cash flow support. We have done so through the £10,000 grant to every business in receipt of small business rate or rural rate relief and, indeed, through the deferral of VAT, which starts from today for the quarter. As my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury said earlier, that represents more than £35 billion, or 1.5% of GDP-worth of tax deferral, providing immediate cash-flow support. We have done the same thing for self-assessment payments that are due in the coming months and have also, as of yesterday, launched a business interruption loan scheme, which my hon. Friend has done fantastic work developing. It will provide 12-month interest-free loans to small businesses, again, to help provide them with the liquidity that they need to get through this.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for the suggestion, and we will certainly look closely at the Child Poverty Action Group’s recommendation.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and pay tribute to the work that he is doing to represent his constituents and make sure that his local businesses get the support that they need. I hope that his businesses welcome the various interventions that we have provided in terms of cash flow support, tax relief deferrals, and subsidised loans to help them get through this difficult period. If he has further ideas that he thinks we should consider, I would be very happy to talk to him further.
Supply teachers play a vital role in our schools. Many thousands, including my constituent Ellie Atkinson, have found themselves out of work, so may I urge the Treasury to look at a way of supporting these vital workers, either with direct financial support or by ensuring that they can actually work in the schools that are being kept open?
The right hon. Gentleman will know that school budgets have been allocated, so the schools already have that money to spend; that will not change. The announcement that the Chancellor has made about the PAYE system is about supporting people through that mechanism. If the right hon. Gentleman has other proposals, I am happy to engage with him to discuss them further.
I thank my hon. Friend for her support, and join her in paying tribute to Sandwell Community Caring Trust, which we will be relying on through this difficult period. I can confirm that charities are eligible for the job retention support programme. Further to that, we have allocated extra funding to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to provide money to local charitable or caring organisations, especially to help those we are attempting to shield—the most vulnerable—in order to protect them against the effects of the coronavirus.
Yesterday in the Chamber, I and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) raised the question of escalating prices in local shops and concerns about profiteering. We understand that the Competition and Markets Authority may be looking into this issue, but may I ask the Minister to urge it very rapidly to look at where this is taking place? Is it local shops, wholesalers or cash and carry, or suppliers? Is it even to do with the international market in terms of perishable goods? This is a matter of real concern. Once the Government have found out where the problem is, will they bring forward measures to crack down on this profiteering?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very reasonable point, and sets out a range of issues. The Government will be looking into this, and I will liaise with my colleagues in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that they are focusing on all the dimensions of the problem that he has outlined.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. It is certainly possible to use those historical returns. They are a year and a half out of date, so they will be necessarily imperfect. They also do not provide an easy way to distinguish between those who are deserving of support and whose incomes are being affected by what is happening, and those who are much wealthier and whose incomes are potentially increasing currently, but they do provide a basis and a universe to look at.
When I mentioned earlier that the universal credit system was overwhelmed, the Minister may not quite have taken on board the point I was raising. A self-employed worker sent me a screenshot of their attempts to use the system yesterday; 33,383 people were ahead of them in the queue to use the claims section of the website. Unless this is resolved, people who need money right now—limited though that money is under universal credit—simply will not be able to get hold of it through the system.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about the pressure on the Department for Work and Pensions at this time. That is a key reason why the design of the schemes that we have been looking at and that have been put forward by the Chancellor do not add complexity and pressure on the DWP. We have been actively working on identifying where we can free up and reprioritise resource in DWP to assist with this issue. I have been discussing the matter with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and working closely with her on it.
My hon. Friend is right, especially given his constituency, to highlight the importance of airlines and airports. They have been particularly impacted by what is happening. I am in active dialogue with the Secretary of State for Transport and expect to write soon on that matter.
In Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath and other constituencies, public service workers, not bankers or nuclear weapons, will get us through this crisis. We must therefore change our focus. Will the Chancellor consider whether the nurses, doctors and other public service workers, who will be doing double shifts and working extra hours to get us through, can get tax relief on those extra hours so that they are properly rewarded and recognised for their tremendous efforts?
We pay tribute to our public sector workers, particularly those who are on the frontline of the NHS as we speak. We have said that we will make any and all funding available to the NHS to provide and support that workforce. That is exactly what we are doing, as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary outlined earlier. In the Budget, we specifically changed the taper relief, which was causing hours challenges for senior doctors and GPs. That was a significant fiscal intervention—we are providing more than £2 billion of tax relief to ensure that there is no disincentive for those senior clinicians to provide the extra work at this time.
The economic interventions that the Chancellor spoke about are greatly welcome in Bournemouth East. Will he join me in paying tribute to the armed forces for what they are doing and what they will do? We should all recognise that that is in addition to their day job of keeping the nation safe. What will happen in the spending review? Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that there is additional capacity for our armed forces so that they can deal with the threats that continue to exist, but also have the ability to step forward to help the nation in times of crisis?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of our armed services, and I join him in paying tribute to them for what they are doing, not just to keep us safe every day, but right now when we are calling on them to help us meet this public health emergency. As we speak, they are doing extraordinary work to help our healthcare system to respond to what is coming. We recognise that, and it will be recognised when we think about funding for the armed services not just today, but in the future.
One newspaper is already reporting that the Chancellor will implement an income protection scheme for the self-employed and make an announcement in the next 24 hours. I must say I got a slightly longer timescale from the Chancellor’s earlier reply, when he talked about the end of April. To come back to the point about reassurance, will he give some real reassurance now to those anxious self-employed people across the country that an announcement will be made very shortly?
We hope to have something to say very shortly. Implementation will take longer for the reasons I outlined, when a good point was made about capacity, whether at HMRC or DWP, to deliver brand-new schemes. However, in terms of saying what we plan to do, hopefully we can do that relatively shortly. Implementation will take longer because of the clear delivery challenges that the scheme would pose.
Detailed guidance is available. Further guidance will be provided and our aim is to build the new scheme so that it is operational by the end of April. That is a challenge. We are already working night and day to construct something from scratch, but claims will be allowed to be backdated to 1 March so that businesses have the security of knowing that the cash-flow rebate will be coming. As I have said, the aim is to have the scheme up and running so that the April payroll can be reimbursed through it.
One of the problems with this crisis is that we do not know how long it is going to last. I have businesses in my constituency—events companies, conference companies and sporting companies—that have long lead-in times to organise their events, but they cannot cancel them yet and thereby claim insurance because there is no Government guidance. Do the Government have any plans to give guidance, particularly to the insurance companies and events companies, that will perhaps say, “No events for the next six months”?
We are working closely with the insurance industry, and obviously events companies are underpinned by contractual obligations. We established that if they have cover relevant to non-specified diseases, the announcements by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have triggered those policies to be paid out, but I am happy to look at any specific cases that individual Members want to bring to me, which I can take up with industry representatives.
In the wake of the last economic crisis, when we needed the banks to stand on the side of small businesses, too often they did not, and many of us have seen too many examples of small businesses being bullied into bankruptcy. What can my right hon. Friend the Chancellor say about the posture he wants to see from the banks at this time?
The Chancellor and I have had dialogue with individual heads of high street banks. I have been speaking to the head of UK Finance this morning and will be convening a meeting of bank representatives later today. We anticipate that the banks should be taking the most sympathetic forbearance measures possible, and we have set out very clearly, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor did, that the loan scheme is interest-free for the first 12 months, with no fees or repayment penalties. I expect the banks to step up to the mark, as I know they will. We have to remember that many of the people actually delivering this service in high street branches or in call centres are not very well paid and are working flat-out to deliver a key service to our nation at this time.
The message from the Prime Minister last night for our constituents to stay at home could not have been clearer, but many of our constituents who are staying at home will have increased energy bills as a result. The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) is co-ordinating a cross-party letter to the Government asking for a reduction in VAT on energy bills. Are they willing to look favourably upon that to support our constituents, who will have higher energy bills as a result of staying at home?
I want to follow on from my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) and talk about our great armed forces. I expressed my delight at the budget of £10 million identified for veterans’ mental health. Will the Chancellor confirm that that will remain a priority, as the problem does not go away?
I am happy to give that assurance. I know my hon. Friend is a champion—rightly so—of our armed forces and speaks with great experience and authority on that. He will be aware of a number of measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced. That is one of them, and we stand by it.
A couple of times in the context of the self-employed, the Chancellor has mentioned wealthy people whose incomes are increasing. That is not who we are talking about. We are talking about people who have lost their entire income overnight. Will he please provide some more reassurance that it is his intention to provide help to those people? Does he intend to say how he will do that very soon and say to the banks in the meantime that they should be extending credit on a free basis, on the basis of what he has promised, so that people can get on with their lives?
The hon. Gentleman illustrates exactly the issue with such a scheme. Looking at historical tax return data from a year and a half ago gives absolutely no guide as to whether someone today who is self-employed is prosperous, and indeed that their income may be increasing, versus someone who is not. Of course I am sympathetic to those whose situation is being adversely affected by what is going on. The issue is one of finding a way to target help at them, rather than having something that provides blanket cash subsidies to 5 million people, many of whom will not need it, which will end up costing all our constituents on modest incomes a considerable amount. It is about finding a way to target support for those who most need it, and that is what is requiring time and thought.
Will the Chancellor join me in thanking Shropshire Council and the hard-working people at Telford and Wrekin Council? Cash flow is becoming a real issue for many local councils, with many having to borrow. Could he encourage his officials in the Treasury to be a bit more flexible as to where finance can come from and the use of reserves?
I am happy to look at specific suggestions. I pay tribute not only to my hon. Friend’s council but to all councils for the sterling work they are doing in delivering our grant schemes to many of their small local businesses. We are in dialogue already with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, to ensure that councils’ cash-flow needs are adequately met. There are things we are doing actively in terms of the timing of the various grant payments we make, to ease some of the near-term cash-flow pressures.
The detailed eligibility criteria are online and will be provided by local authorities. The grants of £10,000 are done on a per premise basis for businesses that are in receipt of small business rate relief and rural rate relief. There are larger grants for those in the retail, leisure and hospitality sector of up to £25,000. The Business Secretary has written already to local authorities, which are, as we speak, writing to businesses that are eligible for those grants to seek their bank details and start making cash payments as soon as is practically possible.
Self-employed Persons: Financial Support
We know that many self-employed people are in real distress, but we are working urgently to address this problem, and I say to the self-employed: we have not forgotten you—help is coming. But the policy and delivery are complex, and we cannot and should not rush to announce a scheme that gives rise to more questions than it answers. The Chancellor has held meetings this morning with representatives of the self-employed and will continue to meet them this afternoon.
It is important to remember that covid-19 is an urgent challenge to our entire economy, affecting workers of all types. It is essential that we respond swiftly, so that people can keep their jobs and businesses can carry on. That is the basis of our coherent, co-ordinated and comprehensive plan. It is a plan that gives those on the frontline the tools they need to tackle the virus, with all the support the NHS needs, backed up by an initial £5 billion fund for public services. It is a plan that puts a shoulder behind business with a statutory sick pay relief package for small and medium-sized enterprises, business rates holidays for all retail hospitality, leisure and nursery businesses in England, and grant funding for small enterprises, as well as support through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ time to pay scheme. As of yesterday, businesses with cash-flow concerns are also able to access the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, offering up to £5 million for SMEs through the British Business Bank. For larger firms—[Interruption.]
The coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, on which Members across the House have raised questions, is now available, offering up to £5 million for SMEs through the British Business Bank. For larger firms, the Bank of England is providing a new facility to help support liquidity.
I urge all Members of the House to continue speaking—as I know many are doing—to the business leaders in their constituencies and ensure they are aware that they are not alone and that help is coming. In this House, we are all standing behind business and everyone who works in it. To encourage businesses to retain staff, we are deferring VAT, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced the job retention scheme to facilitate that.
Taken together, this is a huge programme of support, and we will keep thousands of workers in jobs, but we know that there are thousands of self-employed people who have been wondering what the future holds for them. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already set out a range of measures in support. Sole traders and freelancers will be able to access the business interruption loan scheme as long as activity is channelled through a business account. We are also removing the minimum income floor for the self-employed workers affected by coronavirus so that they too can access universal credit in full. That is not only the standard allowance, but a wider package of support for those with children, disabilities or, indeed, housing needs. At the same time, the next self-assessment income tax payments will be deferred until January 2021, helping those who have set money aside for those payments with immediate cash flow. That means there is a package on tax, on loans and, more widely, through universal credit, to support those with that safety net.
Let me reassure everyone in this House and the self-employed people they represent that further help is indeed coming, but we have to make sure we get this right and that we target the right support to those who are most in need. The Chancellor will provide a further update on support for the self-employed in the coming days.
I thank the Chief Secretary to the Treasury for that answer. He knows that parties on all sides of the House have been supportive of the way in which the Chancellor and the Treasury have given support to businesses and to employees. But I have to tell him that the 5 million self-employed people across the country, who are in all our constituencies, are in real stress and are deeply worried. While we all understand that there are complications, the Government have to move as fast as possible to meet their concerns, because they are literally, in many cases, simply running out of money.
I want to say to those on the Treasury Bench that it is important we remember who the self-employed are: 80% of the 5 million self-employed are sole traders. They are our neighbours, our friends, our family. The vast majority are not wealthy people. They are cleaners, taxi drivers, plumbers, hairdressers; they are musicians, tutors, journalists; and they are builders, electricians and child minders. These people are literally running out of money now, and we have to support them.
Of course there will be stories about wealthy people who are self-employed, but they are the minority. If we look at the figures from HMRC’s own data, 36% of sole traders—the majority of the self-employed—have taxable incomes of less than £10,000 a year. That compares with just 15% of employees on incomes that low. We are talking about people on low incomes: 60% have profits of less than £10,000 a year. These people were struggling before the coronavirus pandemic, and they are now facing ruin.
I think that an urgent package of help is needed now, and it needs to be at least the equivalent of that offered to employees. While we all know the problems that the Treasury is facing, may I say to the Chief Secretary that if the package is capped as it was for employees, if it is temporary as it was for employees and, especially for the self-employed, if there is some sort of clawback mechanism if people are given money that they did not need, surely we can come together as a House and as a country to make sure these people get the support they need? It is not uncommon for the self-employed, when they do their annual self-assessment tax return, to have to pay money back to the Treasury. Surely, if money is given now so they can deal with cash flow—capped, in a temporary scheme—then that money can be clawed back the next time they do their self-assessment, if it turns out that they did not need it.
I honestly urge those on the Treasury Bench to move fast, and not to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. People need the money now: please act now.
The right hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise the importance of timing and speed in this regard. He spoke about how that can be targeted and the fact that there are many very deserving causes within the population, but it is probably useful to draw the House’s attention to the fact that one in 10 of those who are self-employed is over state pension age. Over two in 10, according to the 2017-18 figures, were earning less than £2,000, which suggests that it was not their main source of income. Between one and a half and two out of 10 are already on universal credit. Some remainders will be quite well paid, such as law partners and so on, and some will be in employment and returning self-employment tax forms for part of their income in addition to their employment. The point is that the population itself is complex and we need to ensure that the measures are targeted correctly.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the mechanism. One of the themes that has informed the Treasury’s approach is this: what is operationally deliverable? That is one of the things we are working through. For example, HMRC does not hold people’s bank accounts, which is why the support package for those in employment was through the PAYE—pay-as-you-earn—system. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out at Treasury questions, tax data is one and a half years old. Those are the issues we are working through. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that urgency is important—that is why the Chancellor is engaged on this—but we are seeking to target a complex population.
Recognising the complexity of solving this problem, can my right hon. Friend give some indication of how quickly we can expect to have at least an interim solution in place for those who are desperate for help and desperate for clarity at this point?
For some within this population—not all—there will be some solution already through the £5 million loan that is available as of yesterday. That will not cover the entirety of this population, but, in accordance with the business needs of some who are self-employed, there is support. For some of the population—again, by no means all—there will be some relief through some of the measures the Chancellor set out on property and business rate relief, but part of the complexity of the target population is that different measures work for different groups. That is part of what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is working through, but I recognise the point my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale West (Sir Graham Brady) and others have raised. We do recognise the importance of timing on this issue.
Can I say to the right hon. Gentleman and other Members that no one is looking for a row over this? We are looking for a solution. The reason some Members became irritated earlier was the emphasis, in one of the Chancellor’s responses, on the rich self-employed. They are not the people who are contacting us. The ones who are contacting me at the moment are the plumbers and the hairdressers. Yes, some freelance artists and others are in desperate straits, but I do not think there is a Member who has not received representations. We are just looking for something we can go back with today to give them some assurance. We know how complicated it is, but we have to find a solution quickly. I urge the Government to at least set a deadline, so we can go back to our members and say, “By the end of this week, there will be a proposal brought forward.”
The other assurance that people want was raised by the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey). If we can go back and say, “You will get the equivalent of the 80% or whatever that was offered to other workers,” it would lift people’s spirits that something was on the way.
Many self-employed workers, just like other workers, are having to sign themselves off sick. They do not have access to statutory sick pay—still. I have to say that asking people to survive on £94.25 a week is just an impossible ask. When the Secretary of State for Health was asked on television last week whether he could live on it, he said no. I agree with him. We need the level of sick pay raised for everybody if we are expecting them to choose not to work, and not have to choose between health and hardship.
Finally, in Treasury questions my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) raised a point about different categories of workers. I know that it is complicated, but we do have to consider agency workers. I have had many emails and telephone calls from people working in the construction sector who do not know whether they should be at work today, or whether they would be safe if they were. Let us use this opportunity to look at the exploitation by payroll companies and umbrella companies of people who in many instances are forcibly designated as self-employed.
We do not want a row over this; we want to work with the Government. In fact, Anneliese and I are happy to come and work a shift in the Treasury, if that is what Ministers want. [Interruption.] We might come up with slightly different solutions. We need this quickly and we need it to be effective as soon as possible.
May I first welcome the constructive tone that the right hon. Gentleman has struck? His offer to come to the Treasury might contravene some of the recent social distancing requirements, but I appreciate the spirit in which it was made. He is right that we need to move at pace and to work together. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was involved in further meetings this morning, as he will be later today, as we work through how to take this forward.
The Chancellor was drawing attention to the complexity of the target population. I think that a number of Members would have concerns, not least as we look to the future, if we were subsidising some very wealthy self-employed people. I take the point that they are not the ones getting in touch with the right hon. Gentleman, but it is important that our approach is mindful of the target population.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of reassurance, which is a legitimate concern, and one shared across the House. I draw the attention of his constituents, and those of colleagues across the House, to the Chancellor’s comments this morning. We are working at pace on this and we recognise the issue being raised. I hope that provides reassurance, certainly in terms of an announcement, although the operation of any solution may take further time, as the Chancellor set out.
Considerable work is being done, but the population is complex. We are looking at the burdens of different delivery mechanisms, whether on the Department for Work and Pensions or local authorities, which have their own staffing pressures because of the number who are ill. That is why we are exercising flexibility in lots of other areas in order to reprioritise resources, but it is important that the scheme is deliverable and mindful of the other challenges we are dealing with.
May I make a point from a public accounts point of view by urging the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to consider a system that is humane, rapid and, above all, simple? The Treasury and the Department for Work and Pensions have traditionally been obsessed with complexity, targeting and clawback, but what we need is a simple system. About 40 years ago I suggested having a universal basic income to Mrs Thatcher, and I got an earful for my pains. But we need something like that, which could be rolled out very simply and claimed by taxi drivers, cleaners and those sorts of people, because rich people would not bother with it. So just get on with it, make it simple and do it now.
My right hon. Friend wants us to get on with it. I refer him to the meetings and the considerable work being done to allow us to get on with it. As a former Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, he well knows that many policy ideas start with the simple but then the devil is in the detail of delivery. I recall many an interview that he has given to draw attention to simple schemes that were then less simple in their delivery. It is worth bearing in mind that a small number of self-employed people—a very small proportion—might be doing quite well in the current climate, while many others are suffering, but that is not what we are focusing on now. The question that we are seeking to address is how we target our measures at those who are most deserving, which is what the attention of the House is focused on, and we need to ensure that the scheme that is brought forward does likewise.
Years ago, I read in the newspapers that there was a red Ed in the House of Commons; I did not realise that it was the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh).
I, too, will try to strike a conciliatory tone in talking to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Obviously, there is very real concern. Like other hon. Members, I have been bombarded with emails from people who are self-employed. When this crisis is over, we should really sort out who is self-employed and who should be directly employed, but that is a debate for another time. Countries such as Norway, Denmark and Belgium have come up with schemes for the self-employed; is he looking at those international examples? Surely what works in those countries can work in the UK. There are 330,000 self-employed workers in Scotland, working in areas such as the creative industries, agriculture, forestry, fishing and construction, and as taxi drivers. Are the Government looking at increasing weekly sick pay from £94.25 to the equivalent of a week’s pay at the real living wage? Are they considering removing the lower earnings limit for qualification for sick pay to ensure that everyone can access it? Are they looking at ending the five-week wait for universal credit, so that the first payment is a grant—a real payment—and not a loan?
On the issue of advance payments and universal credit, the Chancellor has increased the standard allowance. That is not the total quantum that people will get; I referred earlier to those with children, housing needs or a disability, who would get more. We have also made changes to access, so that people can get payment quickly, from day one, without face-to-face meetings. Concerns about subsequent repayments have often been raised in the House, but clearly the £20 a week increase in universal credit that has been announced eases some of the repayment issues; it means that there is more in the allowance with which to address the issue of repayments. There has been a significant increase in universal credit, in part to address those issues. There is some operational complexity around a shift to a grant system because of the way that the universal credit IT system has been set up. We have sought to address the concern to which the hon. Gentleman refers through the increase, and of course an advance can still be offered.
Changes have been made to facilitate statutory sick pay being paid from day one, and changes have been made in respect of employers with 250 or fewer employees; the Chancellor set out measures to support those businesses with those costs.
The hon. Gentleman made a point relating to what I said about simplicity in a previous answer. Let me clarify the point that I was making. The vast majority of people who are self-employed are suffering; we recognise that. We are looking at how we can design a scheme that addresses the operational challenge that Members have spoken about.
Let me give an example. Part of the merit of the scheme that the Chancellor set out on furloughing members of staff, which is, I think, for many people a new concept, is that it gave clarity about delivery of the scheme. In answer to the previous question and the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, we are looking at what is operationally deliverable quickly; what recognises other challenges in the Department for Work and Pensions and elsewhere; and what will not result in support going to a small proportion of people who should not be getting this targeted action, and instead allow us to focus it on the much larger cadre of people who deserve that help.
In designing his scheme, will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury recognise that many self-employed people in the tourism sector have very seasonal businesses, so using February, for example, as a reference month would not be appropriate? Will he see what can be done to help recreational charter fishermen, who, because they pay harbour dues rather than business rates, have not been able to access the grant aid that their friends across the road from the harbour have been able to?
My right hon. Friend draws attention to the challenge that emerged from some earlier questions: the simpler the scheme, the less it accommodates often legitimate and deserving issues that Members raise on behalf of their constituents. I am very happy to have further discussions with him, but he will recognise the tension between simplicity and addressing all the concerns that colleagues raise.
Two of my constituents are musicians. One is in an orchestra, and the other is a freelancer. One will get 80% of his income paid, and the other will be on statutory sick pay. Surely, it would be better to have a system where one wealthy freelancer benefits but 100 do not go hungry.
I refer to my earlier comments. We are trying to target the support towards those who are in need, in a way that is operationally as deliverable as possible, mindful of the issues that have been raised. We also want to accommodate the other point that colleagues from across the House have raised, namely that we must ensure that those who have legitimate needs are not excluded from the measures.
Will Ministers consider suspending the application of the loan charge for the period of this emergency, thus stopping the hounding of the self-employed people who were the subject of an important debate in this place last week?
Many of us, up and down the country, depend on sole traders for jobs around the house. People in many communities that experienced flooding are expecting others to come to their homes and do work for them. How on earth are those households supposed to say, “We cannot have you helping us out and repairing our homes?” They are desperate for plumbers, electricians and so on. Those electricians, those plumbers and the owners of those properties want to do the right thing. What is the advice of the Government?
Without straying into individual cases, the key advice from the Government is to follow the medical advice that was set out following the Prime Minister’s statement and updated on the Government website. That sets out the advice to workers, including what is safe to do and what is essential.
In its unprecedented support for employed workers, the Treasury took a fairly generous overarching approach. I urge the Treasury—I am not the only one saying this; it represents the mood across the House—to take a similarly broad approach to benefit the majority of self-employed people who will need support, accepting that certain people may get support even if they do not quite need it.
More than 400 self-employed sole traders and freelancers have contacted me over the past 24 hours, and many of them have already lost their work because of this crisis. As well as echoing others’ calls to introduce support for them as soon as possible, can I ask the Minister to ensure that such measures are backdated, as in the job retention scheme, to help to address the disruption that has already been caused by the covid-19 epidemic?
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about backdating. The Treasury has brought forward a range of measures, and one of the challenges to date has been that it is not always understood what has been announced and what is already available. I draw attention to the fact that we are deferring income tax self-assessments, which will not need to be paid until January; we are supporting people through the welfare system with the measures that I announced earlier, including on contributory ESA; we are increasing universal credit and working tax credit by £1,000; we are suspending the minimum income floor for 12 months; we are increasing a three-month mortgage holiday for those in difficulty; the self-employed will be eligible to receive support with their tax affairs through time to pay; the business interruption loan scheme will be available for some self-employed individuals, up to the £5 million limit; and we have delayed IR35. Members of the House can assist our small business community, and particularly the self-employed, by drawing attention to the measures that have been announced. We in Government also stand ready to do that through a comms campaign.
I know that my right hon. Friend is working night and day to help businesses, and to help people stay in work. I am incredibly grateful for all the support he has given me as I respond to the self-employed in Wealden. The decision to take out a loan is proving to be quite an anxious one for the self-employed, if that is the only thing on the table. I will read out an email from Anna, a self-employed wedding photographer who has had to give up work, and who is going to try to find work elsewhere:
“I am loath to take any…loans offered, as there is no guarantee that future work will be able to take place because we have no idea how long this pandemic will last.”
I ask my right hon. Friend to take into account Anna’s dilemma before making any announcement concerning the self-employed.
My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the pressure and decisions that Anna and so many self-employed people are facing at this time. I draw attention to the fact that the loans are interest-free for 12 months. One of the key themes we are very conscious of is that it is a health emergency that is impacting on our economy. These were viable businesses before that health emergency arose, and they will be viable businesses after we have overcome it. The question is, how do we bridge the gap? How do we support Anna and others through this period? The interest-free loans are not the only measure; I have just drawn the House’s attention to other measures that are available, and I urge Anna and others to take advantage of them.
I appreciate the difficulties in coming up with these arrangements, but I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that small traders are simply applying for universal credit, blocking up the universal credit system, because they are desperate for money from somewhere. That is causing a problem for the Department for Work and Pensions, so delay does not get the problem to go away. People do not wait; they just try to find something else, which causes a knock-on problem.
I accept the concern the hon. Lady raises, but I think she would equally accept that this is an unprecedented challenge and that staff in the DWP and elsewhere are working heroically to address the increased volumes. The best way for all of us to address this issue is through wider support for the economy as a whole. That is what was behind, first, the £30 billion of fiscal measures announced by the Chancellor at the Budget; the further announcement of the £350 billion, including £330 billion of loans, and the wider package last Tuesday; and the further measures announced by the Chancellor on Friday. That is on top of the measures the Bank of England has taken—for example, reducing base rates, and the £200 billion of bonds. A range of measures have been taken to support the economy and to reduce that blockage, but I absolutely accept that the numbers have increased, and we are reprioritising work in the DWP to assist with that.
My rural constituency has one of the highest concentrations of self-employed people in the country, so while I and other Conservative Members thank my right hon. Friend for the timely and unprecedented measures he has come forward with, I add my voice to the growing consensus across the House for measures to be extended to the self-employed.
My hon. Friend speaks with considerable business and financial experience, and he will know the cash-flow issues and the challenges that many of the businesses in his constituency face. We absolutely hear his message, just as we do the message from Members across the House, and that is why we are moving at pace to address them.
Further to the point I raised at Treasury questions, which was echoed by the shadow Chancellor, the newly under-employed must be supported further. One of my constituents is a self-employed taxi driver with no work, due to the lockdown. His wife and four children have underlying health conditions. Any universal credit application would mean their tax credit ceasing. A jobseeker’s allowance application would mean having to prove that they are seeking work and engaging with their accountant. Will the Chief Secretary tell them how they can possibly put food on the table and pay their bills?
The hon. Gentleman speaks to a real concern and a real issue, but I draw attention to the fact that one of the challenges is to communicate what support has already been announced by the Chancellor. To give an example, a family renting in Sheffield with two children would be eligible for around £1,750 a month in support—far more than the £94 per week, if we take account of additional things such as housing and children’s support. It is about what package of support is available, and the Chancellor has already announced considerable measures in that regard.
I listened carefully to what my right hon. Friend said. He acknowledged that the vast majority of self-employed people were being impacted. If he makes sure that whatever help is given is taxable, we can claw back any money that is overpaid to those who are doing well. However, what self-employed people are looking for is a clear commitment today that whatever scheme is set out is of a similar magnitude to that for employed workers. If the Chief Secretary can say that, it will give people confidence to borrow, knowing that they can pay the money back. That will go a long way towards solving the problem.
As I have said, the Chancellor held meetings with small business leaders this morning. He is having further meetings on this issue today. He is very aware of the concerns raised by my right hon Friend and other Members, and we continue to work at pace on this issue.
I am sorry that the Chancellor is not here, but may I ask the Minister to pass on to him that the self-employed people contacting me are not wealthy individuals? They are individuals such as Andrew Brown, who I raised last week—a self-employed graphic designer whose income has disappeared. They are taxi drivers. They are small catering companies. Unless action is taken now for these individuals, not just to relieve the hardship they are facing, their businesses will no longer be in existence. My fear is that we will generate unemployment among these people for a long time to come.
I agree with the first part of that. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about the vast majority of these people. I have made that point repeatedly. I referred earlier to the fact that the target population has different elements, but the vast majority of those who are self-employed face enormous challenges. We absolutely hear that, and I accept that. On his second point, we have taken a number of measures, but we recognise that more is needed. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor is meeting leaders on this issue today to look at what further measures we can bring forward.
May I say that I do understand that this is difficult? If it were easy, the Chancellor would have announced it last Friday with the rest of the package. The self-employed people I represent just want a sign; they just want some hope and an indication. I think they have had that today from the Chief Secretary and the Chancellor, but may I make a suggestion? For self-employed people and all other people right now, if they cannot get the same in, they have to send less out. The Government worked magic last week with the mortgage companies, which seem to be falling over themselves to offer mortgage holidays, but all the other fixed costs that our constituents face—utilities; insurance premiums; car finance; council tax bills, which landed on the doorstep last week; and even, for some, a business improvement district levy due next week—are still there. I wonder whether there is something the Minister can take back to the Treasury, perhaps with help from the shadow Chancellor, on those sorts of fixed costs, because they are dragging people down at a time when they have a lot less coming in.
My hon. Friend is right that there is a range of costs. As I say, we are looking as part of our support at what action can be taken. He can see, as an illustration of that, the action that has been taken on mortgages and in support of renters—both for mortgage holders directly and in terms of the buy-to-let market. Measures have been taken, but we stand ready to look at further measures.
The local economy in Brighton and Hove is overwhelmingly dependent on the self-employed, so I cannot overstate how urgent it is that we have action on this. I do not know whether the Minister gave a deadline when he spoke to his colleague earlier, but if he did not, will he please tell us that we will have action by the end of the week? Universal credit is not a fair option for many freelancers, because it means they have to delve into savings that they have put aside because they do not have pensions. We are going to push them into greater insecurity right now if we cause them to have to rely on that instead.
I welcome the fact that the Treasury is working hard on supporting the self-employed. We must remember that these are local freelancers. They are mobile hairdressers, childminders, freelance driving instructors, photographers, musicians, IT consultants and home-based travel agents. They have lost all their income. Can the Minister confirm that the package for the self-employed, freelancers and sole traders will be announced by the end of the week?
The way around the problem that the Minister, and the Chancellor before him, identified of giving money to people who do not need it was given to him by the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey). The money can be recovered later. Do not let that concern about a handful of people get in the way of putting the scheme in place and deny desperate people, who cannot put food on the table, money they need right now.
As the hon. Gentleman’s earlier question in Treasury questions suggested, that is not the sole consideration. It is a question of what the operational delivery issues may be: for example, we do not hold details of people’s bank accounts, so how would we do it? It is how we roll this out, but we recognise his wider point that there are immediate issues for many self-employed people. That is what we are actively working on, and that is what my right hon Friend the Chancellor is engaged on in further meetings today. As I said in my previous answer, we hope to bring proposals forward in the coming days.
My right hon. Friend mentioned earlier the business interruption loan scheme. Will he confirm that all self-employed people will have access to it and that they will not have to give personal guarantees? Will the Government widen the scheme to include institutions such as OakNorth and Aldermore, which are currently excluded from eligibility?
A constituent in East Fife runs a mobile catering business, providing a service to both private and public events such as festivals. Having no fixed premises means that they will not benefit from the support announced so far, and the relaxation of planning rules that other food outlets can benefit from to do home deliveries is also an issue. They are also struggling, like many others, to access business interruption insurance. The independent mobile catering sector could be utilised to support and provide sustenance for our key workers. What amendments to the measures will the Chief Secretary consider to support that critical sector?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is looking at a range of options in terms of how we adapt to the change of circumstances. For example, many pubs and restaurants had significant food orders, so we are looking at what can be done there. There is food that would have been exported previously, but that may now be difficult, so there is a range of measures in terms of the food supply within which mobile caterers will have a role. I know that my right hon. Friend is looking at those issues.
In my constituency I have a large number of families where one partner works in the national health service and the other is self-employed. The children have been sent home from school and there is no one to look after them, because if the self-employed parent does not work, they do not get paid. Can my right hon. Friend look urgently at a scheme? Also and specifically, council tax bills are due on 1 April—next week—and people are worried, particularly in London, about how they will be able to pay. Can council tax bills be suspended?
My hon. Friend will recall that the Budget included targeted action specifically on council tax, with half a billion pound package to allow targeted support on council tax. I think he is drawing attention to a slightly wider issue of concern, particularly where one member of a household works in the NHS as a key worker and one is at home, but of course that draws attention to the fact that this is a complex scheme that we are seeking to design. Those are the sort of issues we are working through.
I have very many self-employed workers in my constituency, including more than 1,000 taxi and private hire drivers. They will understand from what has been said this morning that the Government have good intentions, but they will respond to me that good intentions do not pay their bills. Given that there will be a lag with the new system coming in, what more can the Government do in the meantime, through offsetting tax bills and also encouraging banks to be more generous with free overdraft facilities to help families through this? Let us not forget that we all bailed out the banks when they needed it, so maybe it is time for them to do something now.
The hon. Gentleman is right in terms of the role of the banks, and a clear message has been sent by the Bank of England Governor about the importance of banks showing forbearance at this time. That applies to things such as credit card debts, but also he will be aware that, for example, for many of his constituents in a London constituency, their rent is a significant issue, as well as the measures we have taken on mortgages. We have looked at what we can do to assist on some of those fixed costs, but the banks have had a clear message from the Governor about the need to show forbearance.
I commend those on the Treasury Bench for the calm way they are dealing with this unprecedented situation, but clearly something needs to be done for the self-employed. One of my constituents has made three points. First, they will be disadvantaged because they will not get the topping up that an employer might give an employee. Secondly, there will not necessarily be an immediate return to work, and finally, seasonality may affect their income, which of course it would not for an employee. Will those three very good points be taken into account by those on the Treasury Bench?
They are good points, and again they draw attention to the conflict between simplicity and addressing the various specific issues that Members have raised. One of those is seasonality, which obviously has an impact. That is why the design of the scheme is more complex than perhaps meets the eye, but we are looking at the issues and we intend to bring forward proposals in the coming days.
Like many other Members, I have been contacted by many self-employed people in my constituency who are welcoming of the support already offered, but in need of the absolute guarantee about what is still to come and quickly. Going into the shop to buy essential groceries for feeding their family and telling the checkout supervisor that the Chancellor says that they can pay for it soon is not going to get them their shopping, so how soon can we give that certainty?
We hope to bring forward proposals in the coming days. I absolutely appreciate the concern that the hon. Gentleman is quite rightly raising for his constituents. This does not address his specific question but, in part, that is why we have been strengthening the safety net of the welfare system, and why the main measures we have taken are to support the economy as a whole. That is the best way to get viable businesses, including the self-employed, back and earning money once we have dealt with the health emergency. We are looking at the specific issue of the self-employed, and we intend to bring forward proposals in the coming days.
While many of our supermarket shelves are empty at times, a food source currently going to waste is fish. Most of our fishermen are self-employed, but they have seen their markets collapse, because pubs and restaurants are closed and overseas markets are closed to them. Will we look for a bespoke package to support our fishermen through this time and, in particular, to find ways to get their fish sold to people who could buy it to feed their families?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, and one that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is aware of. I am sure that he will be happy to have further discussions with him in the coming days. My hon. Friend is right, the pub and restaurant trade having collapsed, there is not only food that would have been provided to them, but capacity in our fishing catch, because of the quota rules.
I know that the Minister has been sent out with a new three-word slogan from the Government’s three-word slogan unit, namely, “Help is coming”, but may I remind him that the previous one was, “Whatever it takes”? That is what the Government pledged, and it should apply to self-employed people too. He just said that, in the coming days, there will be some further clarity. There is fear across the House that we might not sit next week, and that the Government may be getting to the point where they do not have to come back to the House to account for what they are doing for the self-employed. What assurance will he give us that whatever “Help is coming”, it will constitute “Whatever it takes” and will be equivalent to what is being offered to employed people?
I am very happy to make it a six-word slogan, if the hon. Gentleman prefers: “Help is coming”, and we will do, “Whatever it takes”. As to whether the House will sit, that is not an issue for the Government, as he well knows as an experienced Member of the House. Whether the House sits—whether Ministers are called to answer questions—is a matter for the Chair, and not for Ministers. In fact, we had an urgent question last week, and we have one here, so that suggests that Mr Speaker is keen to ensure, quite properly, that Ministers are held to account.
Many self-employed have already taken the right decision and socially distanced themselves—the hairdressers who have not gone into care homes, the taxi drivers, the driving instructors—but they are looking for some reassurance from my right hon. Friend that they have done the right thing and will not be penalised for it.
Again, that is quite right in terms of the self-employed, which includes many hairdressers, but my right hon. Friend will also be aware of measures we have already taken—they will support many hairdressing businesses—such as the business rate relief and the grants. The £10,000 grants targeted at the 700,000 smaller businesses are, again, part of the package of measures to apply to some of that population. However, it is clear from many of the questions that populations are not tightly set, and that there is a degree of overlap and underlap, which is what we are working through.
Many farmers are self-employed, often on family farms, with a husband and wife team, or a son or daughter. The Minister and others in the House will know that lambing is taking place now, and the first lambs will be sold in July, but the prices for lambs and beef cattle are the lowest they have ever been. What help will the Minister and Government give to farmers who face financial ruin at this time?
As I see from the farmers in my own constituency, there is considerable demand for UK- produced food. I am very happy to continue to work with the hon. Gentleman, and we have often had conversations about farming issues in the past. I am happy to continue those conversations, alongside those with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, about how we support our farmers, but I think their products will be in great demand moving forward.
May we please have further clarity on how builders, plumbers, electricians and plasterers should be conducting themselves at work or, indeed, whether they should be at work at all? There seems to be some confusion as to whether they should be on site or in premises. A leading builders merchant contacted me this morning to say that it had to shut up shop because it feared that the collection of the builders outside its premises were failing to socially isolate, and it was concerned about what that would mean. It seems that there has been some confusion over the past 24 hours, so I wonder whether the Minister can clarify the advice for those crucial people.
British Citizens Abroad: FCO Help to Return Home
To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on what measures he plans to introduce to assist British citizens abroad to return home.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. We have FCO staff in all our 280 posts in 168 countries and 10 overseas territories, and they are working round the clock to respond to this global pandemic. Over the last three days, we have seen 80 countries place restrictions on their borders. That situation is unprecedented in scale, and our overriding priority now is to assist the thousands of British travellers who need and want to return home, bearing in mind the hundreds of thousands of UK nationals who may be travelling at any point in time.
Following last week’s decision to advise against all but essential travel globally, last night I changed our travel advice again because of the rate of new border restrictions. We strongly advise British people who are currently travelling abroad who live in the UK to return as soon as possible, where they are still able to because commercial routes are still running. Where commercial options are limited or prevented by domestic restrictions, we are in close contact with the airlines and local authorities in those countries to overcome those barriers to enable people to return home. With my ministerial team, and indeed across the diplomatic network, we are engaging with numerous Governments to keep commercial routes open, particularly in transit hubs. The Department for Transport is working closely with airlines to ensure that travellers can rebook or find alternative routes home.
I know that hon. Members in all parts of the House will have had constituents contact them in relation to particular countries, so with your forbearance, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on just a few of those countries. I spoke to the Peruvian Foreign Minister at the weekend, and we have agreed special arrangements for flights to return British nationals later this week and for Peruvian nationals to get back to Peru. I spoke to the Singaporean Foreign Minister this morning, and we have agreed to work together to help those stranded to get back to their homes in the UK. Given Singapore’s role as a transit hub, this commitment to work with us to enable UK nationals to transit via Singapore is particularly important, not least for those currently in Australia or New Zealand. In New Zealand, the high commission is working with airlines, airports and, indeed, the Government to keep flight routes open and to reopen some that have closed. In Australia, the high commission is doing the same. It has also opened a register of British nationals hoping to return to the UK and is supporting British nationals via phone calls and walk-in appointments at the high commission, as well as updating social media pages.
For those trying to get home in other countries, we are providing as much practical advice as is physically possible. We would first advise all travellers to take a look at the travel advice online, which is the best and most comprehensive source of information and is updated in real time. If people are in need of urgent assistance, they should call our embassies and high commissions. They will be automatically connected to our consular contact centres, the global centres based in Malaga and Ottawa—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) will allow me. We know that there has been considerable pressure because of the restrictions being put in place in countries around the world and the rate at which that has been done, with either limited or no notice. We doubled our capacity. We are now doubling it again to deal with the surge in demand. We are helping to reduce travel costs by encouraging airlines to have maximum flexibility on changing return tickets. Where people are in real need, our consular teams will work with them to consider their options. As a last resort, we offer an emergency loan.
More broadly, the United Kingdom is working alongside our international partners to deliver our international strategy, which rests on four key tenets: to provide resilience to the most vulnerable countries; to pursue a vaccine; to keep vital trade routes and supply chains for foodstuff, medicines and other things open; and to provide reciprocal support for the return of our nationals who otherwise are at risk of being stranded. These are the right priorities. We are working day and night to keep British people safe at home and abroad.
There is an MPs’ helpline that rings with no answer. Emails are acknowledged but not replied to. Embassies are closed, with staff flown home days ago and doors shut to our travellers. Guidance was issued by the Foreign Office yesterday advising British tourists to return to the UK where commercial flights are available, but they are not available. They are either banned entirely, are trying to transit via countries where no layovers are permitted, or are priced at tens of thousands of pounds and via airports that are expected to close imminently.
What help exactly is my right hon. Friend’s global network offering? He knows that the situation is dire, but he knew that last week when he stated in this House that
“we will look and liaise with the airline operators…to make sure that, where there are gaps, we can always provide as much support as possible for vulnerable or stranded constituents.”—[Official Report, 17 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 809.]
There are gaps. My constituents stranded in Argentina, Honduras, Venezuela, Australia, New Zealand, India, Peru and Egypt have much in common: an inability to get through to consular services on the phone, a standard acknowledgement email telling them to contact their tour operator, airline or insurer, and an increasing inability to find accommodation. Hotels are shutting, flights are cancelled, borders are closed and there are no routes home. Many are hours away from large airports in countries operating curfews. Those in Australia and New Zealand are looking for routes via Singapore, so I welcome the comments my right hon. Friend made about working with Singaporean allies, but to them it looks like his words of last week were empty. I ask him today, as I asked him last week, to explain how he is working with airlines with unused planes parked at airports around the globe to bring our people home. He must get the process fully under way. The vision of British citizens sleeping rough on the streets of Caracas is not a good one.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. In relation to embassies, she said that they have been closed, but actually a very small number of posts have had to be closed. What we have found—this is not a choice that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has made; it is a direct result of the restrictions that have been put in place by Governments in those countries—is that they have had to work remotely, and indeed, a large chunk of the consular staff work from home. That is not a decision that we made—it was forced upon us—but I reassure her that in all the jurisdictions that she mentioned, we are trying to respond to what I hope she will understand, given her experience, is an incredibly fluid situation. Some of these restrictions are being imposed with no notice or limited notice, and that is very difficult, of course, for our constituents, but we are making sure that we provide them with as much advice and support in real time as we can.
My right hon. Friend mentioned Peru. As a result of the work of the FCO, and having spoken to the Peruvian Foreign Minister, we now have agreement for flights to come out of Peru. There is, of course, a challenge because not everyone is based in Lima, which has the international airport, so we also have to try to work out how we get UK nationals travelling in more remote parts of the country to the capital. We are actively working on that. We have several flights lined up, but we also need to work around or try to overcome the restrictions that have been imposed.
I hope I have explained what we are doing in Australia and New Zealand. My right hon. Friend is right, and I thank her for her remarks, about the critical importance of keeping the international hubs open, and not just in relation to Singapore. We are concerned about other international hub airports. We must try to keep those open. Tomorrow, I will lead the discussion among the G7 Foreign Ministers on this and our wider international strategy for tackling coronavirus. This is extremely difficult. We have hundreds of thousands of British nationals abroad, but I can reassure her that, from the call centre to the support they are receiving at post, we are doing everything we can to give them as much support as swiftly as possible.
I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question, and I thank the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for securing it. This is a medical crisis, not a wartime one, but she certainly gave the Foreign Secretary some friendly fire, and she spoke for us all in the concerns she expressed for the hundreds of thousands of British nationals stranded overseas.
Since the House last discussed these issues, we have seen some progress, especially in the planned provision of repatriation flights for British nationals stranded in Peru, and I thank the Foreign Office for its work on that, but as today’s media coverage shows—indeed, as is shown by the dozens of emails, calls and letters that Members from all parties are receiving from Indonesia, New Zealand, Morocco and Pakistan, where I understand no outbound flights are now available—this is not a crisis that can be resolved one traveller, one airline, or indeed one country at a time. It is a crisis affecting British nationals in every continent, many of them accompanied by young children, many of them with worsening health conditions, and many of them running out of money and in danger of losing their accommodation.
They are all in desperate need of reassurance from the Government, so I hope the Secretary of State will take the chance today to clarify the statement he made yesterday, which was reported across the media as an instruction to British nationals abroad—indeed, this is a direct quote from him—to
“come home…now while you still can.”
Despite the headlines, the Secretary of State obviously meant that for individuals who have the option of taking a commercial flight to Britain, but does he accept that that is now very much the exception, not the norm, and that for hundreds of thousands of British nationals the option he highlighted is simply no option at all? Will he make it absolutely clear that the Government remain committed to helping all British nationals; that embassies will have telephone lines available so that they can get the support and advice that they need, whenever they need it; that the Government will find a flight to get them home, no matter how long it takes; and that they will be guaranteed continued accommodation in the meantime?
Does the Secretary of State have a plan to ensure the safe care and medical assessment of British cruise line passengers and their current health assessment? Is he negotiating with countries to ensure their safety during quarantine? Is he arranging safe travel home for all who are stranded? How is he keeping in touch with worried citizens abroad and their families here in the UK?
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with his foreign counterparts about the extension of visas, which may expire during the lockdown in other countries? What action is he taking on airlines to stop the profiteering that is going on, with inflated prices for flights home? In other words, will he send a simple message to those British nationals stranded overseas: “You are not in the last chance saloon; you are in safe hands, and this Government will get you home”?
The hon. Gentleman makes some important points, and we certainly want to give as much reassurance and as much advice as possible, but he will know—he has worked on the international brief for a while—that we have in this country a great tradition of travelling abroad, and that even if we take expats out of the equation we are talking about hundreds of thousands of people at any one time. Given the national restrictions that are being imposed, at pace and sometimes without notice, it is very difficult to give cast-iron guarantees about the situation. What we can do is lead internationally, in the way I described, with the G7, which we are doing tomorrow, and work as hard as we can with all our international partners.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the progress in securing the return home of UK nationals; I can tell him that we have already repatriated more than 1,000 British nationals, and also 254 non-British nationals, where we have had capacity, from 26 countries—places as far-flung as Wuhan over to Cuba.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Morocco in particular. We have facilitated the return of thousands of British nationals via commercial routes, with 49 commercial flights bringing 8,500 passengers home—in fact, it is even more than that now.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we cannot do it alone, which is why I am spending any moment that I am not in this House talking to Members hitting the phones, talking to Foreign Ministers and working our way through the problems. We have talked to the Peruvian Foreign Minister, as I mentioned, and I spoke to the Singaporean Foreign Minister first thing this morning.
The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the issue of accommodation, because where people are travelling for two to three weeks, that is ultimately the issue for them. In Spain, where a large number of Britain nationals are holidaying, the original Government decision in Madrid was to close all hotels today. I spoke to the Foreign Minister of Spain and we secured the flexibility whereby they would not be kicked out on to the streets, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. We have also secured flexibility to ensure that the airlines can come in and, given the large number of Brits in Spain, we can secure those flights home. On the detail of the travel advice to which he referred, we have given that advice based on the rapid rate of new restrictions that Governments and jurisdictions are placing, sometimes on internal travel, which will inhibit people’s ability to get to the airport, but more often on external flights coming in and out.
The hon. Gentleman also asked, rightly, about cruise ships. To the best of my understanding, on the basis of advice from the Department for Transport, no further cruise ships are hitting the water, so we are dealing with the stock of existing ships. We have successfully returned 684 people, including 669 British nationals, from the Braemar cruise ship, which was in the Caribbean, struggling to find a port of entry. We did that via Cuba. That is a good example of reaching out to—[Interruption.] I thought that would get the Leader of the Opposition excited.
I am happy to say that we work with all our partners across the world; we would not allow dogma to get in the way of securing the rights of British nationals. I am proud that we have that flexibility and I am grateful to the Cuban Foreign Minister for arranging it. We also had close to 3,000 British nationals on the Azura, docked in Bridgetown, and they arrived back in the UK over the weekend without incident. We had 355 British nationals on the Norwegian Spirit, and they took a flight back to the UK on 23 March. That is the progress we have made, but the hon. Gentleman is right to highlight cruise ships that were travelling after we changed the travel advice for such ships. We have a specific eye and focus on making sure that Brits on board those cruise ships get back safe and sound.
I thank my right hon. Friend for the progress he has announced on the Peru cases, and thank him and his team for the discussions we had last week about the need for a repatriation plan for my young constituents who have been stranded there. Given that so many of us across the House have numerous constituents stranded in different countries and given the problems they are all facing in getting timely, correct information from embassies and consulates, will he impress on all the ambassadors and high commissioners in these countries that we expect them to be leading the effort? We understand the constraints that the embassy staff are under in these countries, but we are expecting the people at the top of these organisations to be leading from the front and helping to put together plans for all British citizens stranded overseas.