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Covid-19: Support for Businesses

Volume 675: debated on Wednesday 22 April 2020

. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on support for Welsh businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (901909)

Since the beginning of this crisis, Welsh Government Ministers and I have had regular discussions with the Business Secretary about the support that the UK Government can offer to Welsh businesses. We will continue to work together and in collaboration with the Welsh Government to ensure that Welsh businesses are protected and supported.

I have plenty of constituents who work across the border in north Wales, all of whom are desperate to get back to work. Some of them cannot because they fall into the protected or shielded group or have family members who do and therefore need longer-term support. When the Government produce their exit strategy, will they ensure that support continues for businesses after the lockdown has ended, so that people who are not able to go straight back to work are not forced back into work because their employers have no option, since there is no support left for them?

The hon. Member raises a point that I suspect every Member of the House has been considering over the last few days and weeks, and my right hon. Friend the First Secretary of State will no doubt refer to that in a few moments. It is fair to say that whatever the means by which we come out of the covid restrictions, this will need to be carefully considered at every step and in conjunction with the devolved Administrations, to ensure that the fairness the hon. Member seeks can, between our two Governments, be delivered.

Welsh businesses have been hard hit by this pandemic, and they desperately need support to stay viable. Despite the Chancellor promising to do all it takes, the UK Government’s loans for small and medium-sized businesses have a very low take-up rate, not because firms do not need the money but because of the personal risk involved. How will the Secretary of State ensure that more businesses in Wales can access that support, and when will the Government do the decent thing and underwrite 100% of the loans, to give businesses the confidence they need?

May I start by welcoming the hon. Lady to her position on the shadow Front Bench? I look forward to lively exchanges with her, remotely or in person. I dispute the underlying point that she makes. There has been probably as much support offered by UK Government for UK businesses as any nation on the planet affected by the coronavirus. Even the Barnettised figure for the Welsh Government of a little over £2 billion is a significant contribution to address the concerns that she raises. I stress that her point is as relevant to her colleagues in the Welsh Labour Government as it is to us in the UK Government—that is crucial. I give her an assurance that it is my intention to work with the Welsh Government to ensure those outcomes, but I hope that she will not politicise this more than absolutely necessary.

The UK Government’s job retention scheme is an important tool for Welsh businesses and their workers, but gaps in the programme have left some employees relying on dismally low universal credit payments. For example, where reduced demand means that employers need to put workers on short-time working, they cannot top up from the scheme for their lost hours. Will the Secretary of State urge his colleagues to close the gaps and introduce flexibility, so that those put on short-time working can receive a proportionate payment for their lost wages?

As the Chancellor himself has said, we are fully aware that with schemes of this nature, set up under enormous pressure and at great pace, there may be occasions when they do not work perfectly for everybody. I offer this to the hon. Lady: if there are examples of the system not being as watertight as we think it could be and she alerts me to them individually, I will take them up with either the relevant Department in the UK Government or colleagues in the Welsh Government, if that helps.

Diolch yn fawr, Lefarydd. I too would like to thank all the technical staff. Necessity is truly the mother of invention, and they have done extraordinary work. I would also like to take the opportunity to congratulate the four Plaid Cymru-run councils Gwynedd, Ynys Môn, Ceredigion and Carmarthenshire, as well as Pembrokeshire, on working together to ensure that business support money is directed to those businesses which really need it and as soon as possible.

There remains a concern that the loophole allowing holiday homeowners to register residential properties as businesses for tax purposes to avoid paying council tax will see millions of pounds directed away from legitimate businesses in other local authority areas across England and Wales. How is the Secretary of State working with the First Minister to ensure that second homeowners do not exploit the business rates system across England and Wales and, more importantly, that covid-19 business support money is diverted to the businesses that really need it as soon as possible?

I have to say that that was far too long a question. We have to have short questions in fairness to others.

On the question of collaboration, may I say how pleased I am to see the first signs of a sort of Union approach from the right hon. Lady, which bodes well for the future? On the question of second homes and/or holiday lets—the two things being distinctly different, by the way—it is absolutely crucial that a business is a business and defined as such. It would make no sense to me that a business designed around holiday lets has to go through greater hoops than some other form of business, and it is very important that the councils she mentions are consistent.

We still have experiences of people making non-essential journeys to holiday homes and second homes in Wales. The penalty at present is £60 reduced to £30. Given the forthcoming May bank holiday, can the Secretary of State make a commitment that the police will have sufficient powers to have meaningful penalties in place to stop people making those non-essential journeys?

My own police force and others—Dyfed-Powys police force is an example—have done a fantastic job in using just the right balance of carrot and stick to ensure that, where possible, most people comply with most of the regulations. I take the right hon. Lady’s point on board, but I will be guided by the police as to whether they consider that they need additional powers in that respect, and if they make a good case we will take it to the Home Secretary.