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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 674: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2020


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.

Order. I think the hon. Gentleman ought not to take advantage. We are just starting. I think he has got the message.

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

6. What estimate he has made of the number of businesses in (a) Kettering constituency, (b) Northamptonshire and (c) England that will benefit from the emergency cash grant scheme announced on 17 March 2020. (901723)

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

7. What assessment he has made of the socioeconomic effect of raising the Rent a Room Scheme threshold to £7,500. (901725)

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.

15. I think we are all united in saying that nobody should lose their home as a result of financial hardship brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. Again, we absolutely welcome the steps that the Chancellor and the Treasury have taken so far, but is it possible to find more fiscal support to safeguard tenants in the private rented sector so that we can guarantee that these people are also able to keep their homes in the months ahead? (901736)

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have specifically ruled out the possibility of eviction for three months, and we will continue to look at that situation as well.

School Funding

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 understand that there are immediate pressing issues for the Department, but after this will my right hon. Friend arrange to meet me and the Education Secretary to discuss the funding of a secondary school in Wolverhampton?

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.

NHS Funding

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

12. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on fiscal support for the development of marine renewables. (901732)

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.

Topical Questions

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.

T3. I commend the Chancellor and his team for the robust policy response that we have seen to this crisis so far, but may I ask them to continue to focus laser-like on the issue of cash flow, which is particularly important to smaller businesses, particularly important to the workforce, and particularly important to the vulnerable groups in society? That issue of cash flow is probably the most important when it comes to determining employment, which is important to everyone in this Chamber and to the country at large. (901740)

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.

T2. I acknowledge that the Government are dealing with an incredible number of challenges at this time and pay tribute on behalf of all MPs to the work that has been done by Ministers, by those on the Front Benches and by the people behind the scenes who are supporting them in this work. The financial challenges of families with children have not yet been specifically addressed, so will the Treasury listen to the Child Poverty Action Group and work with the Department for Work and Pensions on a fairly simple solution that will put money directly into the pockets of families with children, which is temporarily to increase child benefit? (901739)

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.

T4. On behalf of my constituents in Clwyd South, may I commend the Treasury team for its hard and speedy work over the past couple of weeks? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this Government will stand behind businesses, small and large, in Clwyd South and elsewhere in Wales and the UK as the crisis progresses? (901742)

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.

T5. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s world-leading package of support to businesses. There are many charities and community care providers in West Bromwich East, including Sandwell Community Caring Trust, which are all working extremely hard to protect the vulnerable. I thank them, and all the teachers and frontline staff in my constituency. Will he confirm that all charities that pay through PAYE will be eligible for the scheme and relief package? (901744)

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.

T6. The Chancellor has been more creative and accommodating than his equivalents in any other jurisdiction. Setting aside the question of fairness, how practical is it to use historical tax data to try to impute a wage equivalent for the self-employed? (901746)

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.

I thank my right hon. Friend and the Treasury team for all their work to help people through this crisis. Will my right hon. Friend outline when employers can access the job retention scheme and furloughed workers?

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?

We are certainly very happy to look at whatever letter the hon. Gentleman or his colleagues on a cross-party basis may wish to present.

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.

Can the Chancellor clarify whether the emergency cash grant scheme is intended to help per shop for businesses with more than one premise in different towns, or is it just for the business as a whole?

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.

Before we move on to the urgent question, I should say that I am bothered that Members are rather close in some areas of the Chamber. If it is possible to spread out, I would be very grateful.