(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor to make a statement on financial support for the self-employed in the light of the covid-19 pandemic.
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.]
Order. It might be easier if Members pass notes down the line, rather than going round and speaking to everybody.
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 are 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 the 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.
Order. I am aiming for this to last until about 1.20 pm.
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, 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?
I can provide a degree of reassurance to my right hon. Friend that the self-assessment has been deferred from July to August. That is one of the areas where the Chancellor has taken action to address concerns.
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.
The Treasury is looking at those issues in the design of the scheme. We recognise that the vast majority of self-employed people face very considerable challenges, and we are mindful of the urgency that goes with that.
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.
As I said in my opening statement, the Chancellor is meeting on this today and we hope to bring forward proposals in the coming days.
I welcome 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?
I refer to the answer I gave a moment ago. We are actively looking at this and we hope to bring forward proposals in the coming days.
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?
We are looking into that, but it is available as of now. It goes up to £5 million and my understanding is that it does not require personal guarantees. If it is any different, I will come back to him on that point.
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 a £0.5 billion package to allow targeted support on council tax. I think he is drawing his 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 so 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 from 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.
I am very happy to draw my right hon. Friend’s concerns to the attention of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care so that precise medical guidance can be given to address the concern he raises.
I am sorry that we have to come to an end. There will be disappointment, but if we had helped each other, nobody would have missed out.