House of Commons
Tuesday 12 May 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
The House entered into hybrid scrutiny proceedings (Order, 21 April).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
SMEs: US Trade Agreement
We are working on a dedicated small and medium-sized enterprise chapter in the US trade deal to help the UK’s 5.9 million small businesses. Some 31,600 UK SMEs already export to the US, and we want to help them by cutting red tape on customs and tariffs.
SMEs are the backbone of the UK economy, but while the US Government are engaging with their SMEs, SMEs in the UK say that there is no equivalent engagement from the UK Government. Will the Secretary of State commit to having a dedicated chapter in every trade deal that they are looking to develop, and will she create a mechanism for SMEs themselves to help shape it?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We have been in touch with a number of organisations representing SMEs—for example, the Federation of Small Businesses, which has come out in favour of a US trade deal, saying:
“For small businesses, the US is the number one single market of choice for importers and exporters for the next three years, which is why these negotiations are so critical.”
We are committed to working with businesses of all sizes in this trade process through our expert trade advisory groups, which we have with all industry sectors, and I am very happy to engage with the hon. Lady about how even more SMEs can be involved in this process.
US Free Trade Agreement
A free trade agreement with the United States is set to deliver a £15 billion increase in bilateral trade, benefiting every region of the UK, including the nation of Wales and the great county of Yorkshire, and delivering an extra £1.8 billion for workers’ wages.
In the light of the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in globally, I would like to congratulate the Secretary of State on setting up talks with the US. With the UK set to leave the EU at the end of the year, it is also important that we have free trade agreements in place with other nations, particularly our Commonwealth partners and countries in the far east. Therefore, could my right hon. Friend provide an update on progress with the potential trade deals with Australia, New Zealand and Japan?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We will shortly be launching negotiations with Japan, Australia and New Zealand, and pressing for early accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. This is an important step in diversifying our trade and making sure we are not just dependent on a small number of countries for our imports and exports. It is also important that we work with like-minded free market democracies to help set global standards in trade.
Does the Secretary of State agree that all parts of the UK and all economic sectors stand to gain from a trade deal with the United States? However, some lobbyists are concerned about their specific interests, so what reassurance can my right hon. Friend give that fairness to both the UK and the US, as well as economic opportunities for all parts of the country, will be central to her thinking in the negotiations?
A free trade deal with the United States is set to benefit every nation and region in the UK, including Wales. We will strike a hard bargain, and seek a deal that is fair for our producers. For example, we want to make sure that we gain access for British lamb and Welsh lamb in the United States market. It is the second biggest importer of lamb in the world, and it represents a massive opportunity for our farming sector and for the nation of Wales.
I thank the Secretary of State for the warm welcome that she has given me in this new role and for the co-operative discussions that we have enjoyed so far in relation to both coronavirus and US trade. On the latter subject, she will be aware that the Trump Administration and the US Congress see the US-Mexico-Canada agreement on trade as a template for every other free trade agreement that they are looking to sign around the world. Can the Secretary of State make it clear to them today that she will not agree to any version of article 32.10 of the USMCA that would constrain the UK’s ability to negotiate our own trade agreement with China and therefore represent an unacceptable breach of the sovereignty of this Parliament?
First, I welcome the right hon. Lady to her seat. It is great to see her in the flesh, even though we have had a number of calls over the last few weeks. I am committed to working with the Opposition to ensure that we get the best possible deal for all parts of the UK in the US trade deal. I can assure her that when we negotiate with the United States we will negotiate in the UK’s interest, ensuring that we have full freedom of manoeuvre and making our own sovereign decisions as a country. Of course, we are looking at a number of precursor agreements for the text we use in those trade negotiations, but my No. 1 priority is to ensure that we have our own sovereign capability to trade with the rest of the world as we see fit. One important benefit of a US trade deal and the trade deal we are looking to strike with Japan is that we need to be setting standards with fellow free market democracies and ensuring that we have proper transparency in our operations and proper setting of standards.
Business and trade are all about the bottom line and numbers, and we know from the Treasury estimate that Brexit will cost about 6% of GDP. An American trade deal—and remember that the USA is a quarter of the global economy—will only give an average lift of about 0.2% to GDP, or a thirtieth of what Brexit will cost. Is there any prospect of that number improving? What are the GDP lifts for the deals with Australia, New Zealand and Japan and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership? We need to get to the numbers at the bottom of Brexit.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. He will be aware that there is a projected benefit to Scotland from a US trade deal of over half a billion pounds on gross value added, which is a significant figure. In fact, Scotland is one of the parts of the UK likely to benefit most from a US deal. We will shortly publish the economics behind the Japan, Australia and New Zealand deals when we launch the respective trade negotiations.
Free Trade Deals
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We will shortly be launching negotiations with Japan, Australia and New Zealand. This is an important opportunity for the UK to form closer ties with a fast-growing group of countries and look forward to joining the CPTPP, which comprises 11% of the global economy.
I warmly welcome the ambitious agenda that my right hon. Friend sets out. Can she confirm that any trade deal with the United States will not lower our standards on imported food and that these talks and the other ones she referred to represent a great opportunity for world-leading companies in west Norfolk such as Bespak and other pharmaceutical, engineering and manufacturing firms to benefit from reduced tariffs and the removal of other barriers to trade?
I can confirm that we will not lower our food import standards as a result of the US deal. We are going to maintain those standards; it is an important part of the quality assurance we have here in the United Kingdom. My hon. Friend will be aware that there are lots of opportunities for Norfolk farmers and producers from a US trade deal, and overall the east of England stands to benefit by £345 million.
Around a third of the value added of UK trade comes from indirect trade—indirect links—where goods and services are first exported to one country and subsequently exported to the UK. Given the importance of indirect trade and value chains generally, I am sure the Secretary of State would agree with the Dutch Trade Minister that we should rethink our trade deals to take a closer look at the sustainability of those value chains. Will she go further and agree that we should not just be looking at sustainability, but that trade deals should be as inclusive as possible and based on World Trade Organisation rules, and because of the importance of value chains and indirect trade—
The hon. Gentleman is correct to say it is very important that we have resilient trade as well as trade that benefits our economy. That is why our strategy is to strike trade deals with more partners, to ensure that our companies have more options and that we are trading with a wider variety of nations than we were before.
Our priorities for the last four years were supposed to be in this order: first, securing a free trade agreement with the EU; secondly, rolling over all our existing deals with third countries; and thirdly, agreeing free trade deals with the rest of the world. Can the Secretary of State explain why the Government have failed on all three?
I would argue strongly that we are succeeding on all three of those aims. We have opened talks with the United States; David Frost is making significant progress in his talks with the EU; and we are making significant progress in increasing the number of countries that we are able to agree continuity trade deals with. We are on course to succeed in all those areas.
As the WTO makes clear, coronavirus will lead to a substantial fall in global trade. It suggests a reduction in the range of between 13% and 32% in 2020. Although it is true that this is primarily a health issue, trade will be an important ingredient of the recovery, so does the Secretary of State agree with the WTO that keeping markets open and predictable will be crucial to secure the renewed investment that we need?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman; he is right that protectionism would be a disaster for the global economy at the moment. That is why we have been pressing at the WTO to keep trade open, and why the UK has unilaterally lowered tariffs on key medical goods, to keep that trade flowing.
As we emerge from the Covid crisis, it is vital that we keep free trade flowing. That is why the UK has been making that case with G20 Trade Ministers and the WTO. We have another G20 meeting this Thursday, where I want to see further action to cut tariffs on medical products, and for longer-term WTO reform.
Stilton producers, such as the excellent dairies of Cropwell Bishop and Colston Bassett in my constituency, face a 25% tariff when they export to the US market. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what progress has been made, in the first week of negotiations, to reduce those tariffs?
We are determined to get those tariffs reduced and removed on products like Stilton, and the brilliant producers in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The Stilton Cheese Makers’ Association has backed a US deal, saying that a US free trade agreement will help recognise Stilton cheese further in the US, and bring down some of the existing barriers that we are currently facing.
Import of Medical Products
We continue to work tirelessly to secure vital supplies of medical equipment from overseas partners to meet UK demand. Hundreds of millions of units of PPE have been procured and over 2,000 ventilators have arrived in the UK thanks to our trade and FCO networks.
Across the world, we are being advised to wash our hands with soap regularly to keep us safe from the virus, but the average import tariff on soap among WTO members stands at 17%, with some countries charging tariffs of up to 65%. What steps has the Minister taken to seek global agreement to reduce tariffs on the import of soap and other hygiene products, to combat the spread of covid-19?
That is a very good question and I thank the hon. Gentleman for asking it. We are working tirelessly, at different international fora, to ensure that trade barriers—either long-standing barriers or ones that have been thrown up as a result of the crisis—are reduced or removed. For example, just last month, at the UK’s initiative, the G20 Trade Ministers met and discussed a lot of these and took significant action. We have also been lobbying bilaterally, most successfully, with India to ensure that such barriers are reduced or removed.
It is shameful that our national stockpile of PPE dwindled during years of austerity. The Government’s response since has been one of confusion and panic—missing three chances to join the EU scheme to bulk buy PPE, and with the recent fiasco of flying in unusable gowns from Turkey. What discussions are Ministers having with the Governments of New Zealand, Singapore and other WTO countries to support global efforts to keep medical supply chains running during and beyond this crisis?
We are extremely active at the WTO and other forums, including the G20, to ensure that products flow. We have delivered 1.22 billion items of PPE to the NHS, which is a tremendous achievement. That includes 40 million safety goggles and 1.3 billion face masks; the numbers are substantial. On the action that we are taking at the WTO, we continue to lobby at all levels. May I just correct the hon. Gentleman on one point—about the delivery of 400,000 Turkish gowns? That number represents a tiny proportion of the total, and only a tiny proportion of those gowns were actually found to be defective. We are very thankful to Turkish suppliers for what they have done.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. May I also thank my colleagues for asking such vital questions about shortages of PPE and other essential medical supplies?
One area where we have, thankfully, not seen shortages to date is the supply of prescription medicines, thanks to the so-called Brexit buffer of supplies built up in preparation for a no-deal Brexit. But given that this buffer only provides somewhere between three to six months of supplies, will the Minister tell us how the Government are getting on with replenishing these stocks from imports, so that we do not experience any shortages once the Brexit buffer starts to run out?
I join the Secretary of the State in welcoming the right hon. Lady to her position. After four years of the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), we always look forward to seeing somebody new at the Dispatch Box.
Again, we are active in all available forums to ensure that the UK’s supply of prescription and non-prescription medicines continues. For example, following the restrictions that India put in place on 3 March, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been very active with the Indian Trade Minister to get almost all those restrictions removed. We will continue to be active with all our trade partners to ensure that products continue to flow to our NHS at this time.
The UK has a strong history of safeguarding human rights and promoting our values globally. Our strong economic relationships with trading partners allow the Government to have open discussions on a range of important issues, including human rights. We continue to encourage all states to uphold international human rights obligations.
Twenty-one countries have been listed where negotiations are ongoing with regard to rolling over existing trade agreements beyond 31 December. A number of those countries have shockingly poor human rights records, including Cameroon, Egypt, Singapore, Uganda and South Sudan. Will the Minister tell us whether human rights are part of those discussions? Also, in order to ensure that there is no saying one thing and doing another while everyone is diverted by coronavirus, will he guarantee the inclusion of human rights clauses in any eventual deals?
I think the hon. Lady is referring to the various EU agreements. She was a passionate campaigner —and, I think, still is—to remain in the EU. Of course, if we had remained we would still be in those trade agreements with the self-same countries that she mentioned, but we are clear that the UK will remain a strong voice for human rights and that more trade does not have to come at the expense of human rights, and we will continue to encourage all states to uphold international human rights obligations.
Covid-19: Business Support
For British companies that trade overseas, the one thing guaranteed to make a very bad situation even worse would be the loss of free frictionless trade with the rest of the EU at the end of the year, so will the Minister reassure UK firms that the top priority when it comes to trade is securing the free trade agreement that we need with Europe?
Of course. The hon. Lady will have seen that the UK is continuing the negotiations, which the chief negotiator David Frost has been doing virtually. We have completed the first round and we look forward to getting the trade agreement that I believe is in the interests of both sides and which will bring relief to British business and others at this important time.
In Sunderland and the wider north-east, lots of businesses—large, small and start-ups—rely on international supply chains as they trade internationally. What are the Government doing in these challenging times to ensure that international supply chains are protected?
The hon. Lady asks a good question. One important thing that we will learn from this crisis is the importance of the robustness of supply chains. Currently, most of the focus is obviously on medical supplies, but that will extend more broadly. We need to make sure that we have diverse sources of supply, that the supply chains that ensue are robust, and that we have choice and diversity in respect of where we procure our goods from.
Covid-19: Trade Barriers
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the negative impact of trade barriers. OECD analysis shows that cutting tariffs and addressing unnecessary costs associated with non-tariff measures could increase trade by more than 20% among G20 economies. We are working to remove barriers for UK exporters around the world—from helping British beef and lamb to export in Japan to obtaining geographic protection for Scotch whisky in Indonesia.
The most recent WTO review saw G20 economies implement 28 new trade-restrictive measures, estimated to cover around $460 billion of trade, and import-restrictive measures in force for the period January-October 2019 are now estimated to cover $1.6 trillion, suggesting that import restrictions have continued to grow. It is obvious that we need resilience in our economies, but does the Minister agree that that cannot be an excuse to engage in economic protectionism or simply close down value chains?
I entirely agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Lady; she is absolutely right. Pre-covid, over the past decade, perhaps since the financial crash, there has been an increase in the number of trade barriers that have been erected, which is why, as an independent nation once again, we are so determined to champion free trade and to use the WTO and the other international fora referred to by colleagues to make sure that we make that case. It will lead to prosperity for all.
Africa: Trade Negotiations
I thank my hon. Friend for his work as chair of the all-party group on Ethiopia and Djibouti. The UK has signed continuity trade agreements that secure our long-term trading relationship with 11 African countries, and a further 35 will benefit from our unilateral preferences scheme. We continue to work with our partners on arrangements for the remaining African countries covered by EU agreements, in a way that reflects the current economic and public health realities.
I thank the Minister for that response. Does he agree that trade is the best way out of poverty for developing countries? Bringing that idea together with the fact that the United Kingdom is looking to forge trade agreements around the world would create a bigger benefit. Will the Minister do everything he possibly can to bring about strong trade agreements with African countries?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it is a win-win situation for the UK economy and those developing countries in Africa, and it is so important that we work together. To those considering seeking to put up barriers to foreign produce in our consideration of the Agriculture Bill tomorrow, I should say that not only would that breach the WTO’s global rules and hurt our good name in the international community, but it could also have the effect of restricting imports from developing countries, including those in Africa. Surely no one should wish for that.
The Secretary of State was asked—
South China Sea Operations
May I just pay tribute to the men and women of the armed forces who have risen to the challenge of helping to deal with covid? We will find them up and down this country, and indeed in Whitehall, embedded right across the system helping to deliver the response. May I also welcome to his place the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey)? I look forward to working with him to tackle the issues around defence.
The Royal Navy, along with other NATO allies, will continue to uphold the right of navigation across the globe. This is an inviolable right, and, where it is threatened, the UK will always be at the forefront of defending it.
The Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Navy collaborate across the globe on a near daily basis. Only this morning, I had an hour-long conversation with my counterpart in Australia. The Type 26 Hunter-class frigate partnership has flourished through the Global Combat Ship user group. Operationally, we have worked closely on the management and challenges of covid-19 in the maritime sector, as well as in the Strait of Hormuz, providing security to global shipping.
I echo the comments of the Defence Secretary and say thank you to our armed forces for what they are doing to tackle the coronavirus. The British people may have come together as one nation, but the same cannot be said on an international level, which is a very different picture. Our world order was already in a fragile state, but now, under the fog of covid-19, countries such as China and Russia are exploiting this global distraction to further their own geopolitical agendas. May I ask him to call for an urgent meeting of the National Security Council to review our competitors’ activities, which, left unchecked, could lead to serious conflict in the future?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point that there are adversaries and competitors around the world seeking to use this horrendous outbreak not only to exploit our differences, but to further their ambitions. I urge them to focus on the matter at hand, which is tackling covid collectively around the world, rather than taking advantage of that. On the point about the NSC, the decision to call an NSC meeting is a matter for the Government Security Directorate in the Cabinet Office, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister. It is not the case that, by not having such a meeting, we have no agenda on security. We meet the threat every single day and, indeed, many of the decisions made at NSC are enduring and do not need to be refreshed unless there is a major turn of events. We will keep the situation under review, as will, I know, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
Covid-19: Departmental Support
On any given day, up to 4,000 men and women of the armed forces support the Government’s response to covid.
Joint Military Command Wales has provided mobile decontamination teams and drivers to support the Welsh Ambulance Service Trust. It has also provided general duties personnel to unload PPE from aircraft at Cardiff Airport and transfer it to civilian trucks for onward distribution to Bridgend. As of 10 May, there are 30 military planners also embedded with the Welsh Government.
I welcome the intervention of the Ministry of Defence in supporting the covid-19 testing capacity across the whole UK, but can my right hon. Friend tell me what discussions he has had with the Department of Health and Social Care and the devolved Administrations on the effectiveness of those MOD testing facilities, and will he meet me, at least virtually, to discuss specific issues that we have had recently in Peterhead in my own constituency?
Mobile testing is a capability developed between the Department of Health and Social Care and the Ministry of Defence under DHSC direction. NHS Scotland decides on the location to which each mobile testing unit will be deployed in Scotland. Peterhead, to which my hon. Friend refers, was an isolated incident in which the opening of the site was delayed due to capacity issues with central laboratories. Unfortunately, the site incorrectly remained open on the digital booking portal for a few hours longer. Such bookings were accepted when the site opened on 4 May. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss further the use and deployment of mobile facilities throughout Scotland.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I thank the Secretary of State for his welcome, too. It is a privilege to take on this role, which has always been so important to the Labour party. We will do right by our armed forces and veterans and we will promote their role as a force for good at home and abroad. Like the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to our military’s essential role in helping the country to respond to the covid crisis. They are keeping us safe, and it is right that we do everything we can to keep them safe.
The US Defence Department has increased its testing capacity to 30,000 military personnel a week. It has set out a strategic testing plan and has now tested everyone deemed a priority for national security, including strategic deterrence, nuclear deterrence, anti-terror forces and healthcare as well as, of course, its entire covid support force. Has the Secretary of State done the same here in the UK?
I am grateful to the right hon. Member. May I place on record a tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who did a great job as shadow Defence Secretary, sometimes in difficult circumstances? We have done it slightly differently from the United States with testing our personnel. We have no problems whatsoever testing whoever we want, when we want. The best example I can give is that, before embarkation, we tested all 799 of the crew of the Queen Elizabeth carrier. We will test them again throughout their period of sailing and when they return.
We have a strategy around protecting the national security-vital parts of our forces, which involves testing and quarantine. That is also being carried out in areas that I will not particularly comment on; nevertheless, the right hon. Member mentioned what the Americans view as strategically important. We do not have a mass programme; we have testing that is available—we do not have any problems acquiring it—and, as we bring forces up to either readiness or deployment, there is an opportunity if required, if quarantine has not done the job, to test them as well.
The Secretary of State talked about testing who we want when we want, but he gave no definition of that. The last published figures show that we had tested just 1% of our entire military personnel. This is about keeping our armed forces safe and safeguarding our national security. There is no fix for coronavirus without mass testing, and we really expect the Ministry of Defence to lead the way, not lag behind, so will he get a grip of this? Will he produce a plan for testing our military, set a target for the number of tests and publish the results, just as our allies in the US have done?
I am grateful to the right hon. Member. The reality is that we have a grip, because we do have a plan. We have certain individuals whom we treat as a priority and, at the same time, we have all the availability we need for testing; getting it is not a problem. He will know that the vast majority of our military in the UK have been sent home to self-isolate in their homes and follow what the rest of society is doing; they are not on duty, en masse back in their barracks unless they are part of the covid force.
Those who are part of the covid force and either feel symptoms or come into contact with someone will be tested. There is a clear path for them, through the medical officers and the direction of the commands, to get testing. There is a plan. Unlike the United States, we have sent many of our personnel home. They can acquire testing, if they feel the need, in the same way as the rest of the public. When we bring them back for duty, we will have a proper regime for getting back to work, following the Government’s changes to advice. In getting back to work, a comprehensive testing plan will be included.
Covid-19 Support: Armed Forces
Defence remains ready to contribute however requested, with a further 16,000 troops available at high readiness if required. We keep our support under constant review and adjust the capabilities available to meet demand. We have liaison officers deployed in the other Government Departments and local resilience fora, which provide the standing joint commander and the Defence head office with insight into developing needs.
As the crisis develops in our care homes across the country, does my right hon. Friend agree that our military are ready and able to help our local authorities if they need that support to get into care homes and provide the logistical support to get PPE to the people who need it?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point about care homes. There are two parts to the issue: one is infections in care homes; and one is, effectively, leakage of infections from care homes into the wider community. Only this morning I spoke to the Prime Minister about offering up more military support if needed to make sure that our local resilience fora and care homes get the assistance they need, whether that is bringing testing to care homes or helping them with the routine and structure of decontamination, so that staff can come and go better from care homes. We stand ready to do that as required by the Department of Health and Social Care and any other stakeholder.
Covid-19 Support: Armed Forces
Reflecting on where the armed forces have been needed most shows that we have helped the most in logistics, command and control, and testing. The MOD’s strengths of moving at pace, assessing the situation, and resilience have been key enablers to the rest of Government.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to all our armed forces personnel for their significant contribution to the nation’s efforts to tackle the covid-19 virus. What plans does my right hon. Friend have for service personnel in the continuing battle as we enter phase two of this process?
As I have said, the armed forces have played a vital role in supporting the NHS and others to manage the situation, and I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to them. Defence remains ready to contribute, as requested, by any civil authorities through the MACA—military assistance to civilian authority—system. After this crisis started, as Defence Secretary, I took the decision very early on to devolve the power to grant military assistance right down to the regional commands—so it is not from my desk, from the bureaucracy of head office—and those regional commanders stand ready to call on the whole forces of the covid force for support as needed.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The armed forces are indeed playing a vital part in helping the country through this coronavirus crisis, as are our veterans, who, across the country, are volunteering to help their local community, and I commend them all for their contribution. Many are helping other veterans because the Government have closed the Veterans UK helpline. Will the Secretary of State set out why he decided to close the helpline in the midst of this crisis, when many veterans will need its help and support?
From my understanding of the helpline, the activity that it did remained and, in fact, the vast majority moved online, reflecting the changes to the working patterns that we all have to face. We have found that the services are still being delivered. My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans has reported that there is no decline in the service being given to those veterans—this is about the medium that is currently being used. However, as soon as possible—indeed, maybe it has already started—we will be returning to some form of telephone service alongside the online service. The feedback, both from charities and veterans, is that they are getting the service they require, and my hon. Friend is absolutely, on a daily basis, keeping on top of that.
Defence is supporting the Government’s campaign against covid-19 disinformation, specifically to counter disinformation, misinformation and malign information from abroad. The Government are also working closely with social media platforms, academia and civil society to tackle this issue, although I stress that this is not a role undertaken by our military personnel. The Government’s particular focus remains on promoting factual public health advice and countering inaccurate content.
In many cases, disinformation about covid-19 can travel faster than the virus itself and pose just as great a threat to our security. Does the Secretary of State agree with me and with the majority of the public surveyed by the Open Knowledge Foundation that the Government need urgently to impose compulsory action on social media sites to clamp down on the spread of such disinformation?
The hon. Member will know that, not just in this world of the coronavirus battle but previously, in the world of exploitation, misinformation, radicalisation and other areas, the biggest challenge for Governments across Europe has been how to deal with social media companies, many of which are based abroad. The extent of our powers and jurisdiction is sometimes limited. We have consulted widely about duties of care, but in this outbreak we are seeing media outlets way away from this part of the world that have no regard for the fact or truth magnifying or spreading propaganda in real time. That is the challenge we have. No amount of legislation will be able to deal with some foreign outlets that are based elsewhere or linked to Governments elsewhere, and that is a challenge. To be fair, the mainstream social media outlets, which are often United States-based, have been more responsible in this; Facebook, Twitter and so on have stood up to the plate and removed lots of content when it has been pointed out to them.
Covid-19: Defence Science and Technology Laboratory
Two hundred and seventy-five civilian scientists and 13 embedded military personnel from the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory are currently deploying their unique capabilities right across Government. That includes statistical analysis, decontamination trials, assistance on testing laboratories, and experiments on how the virus survives in the atmosphere.
It has been reported that the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory is conducting studies on Citriodiol, an ingredient found in insect repellent, to test its effect on covid-19. Can the Minister tell us if and how our armed forces are involved in those tests? If the tests show that the ingredient is effective against the virus, when will it be available for use on the covid frontline?
As the hon. Lady will be aware, Citriodiol is a natural extract of lemon eucalyptus oil, and it is readily available to the public in a range of insect repellents. It has been issued to members of the armed forces to use at their discretion if they wish to. We are aware that it was efficacious against SARS. There is no evidence as yet as to whether it is useful against covid-19, but I can confirm, as per the hon. Lady’s question, that, at the request of the Surgeon General, DSTL is conducting tests on this product to see whether it is efficacious. If it is, we will of course let the House know and let that be known more widely as soon as possible.
May I, too, put on the record my thanks to the armed forces, particularly for helping with building the NHS Louisa Jordan in my home city, Glasgow?
This Citriodiol issue is deeply serious. The Minister has just said himself that there is no evidence that it is effective in the fight against covid-19, yet it was dished out to the armed forces without being tested. Can he tell us on what basis it was given out? Will he publish the guidance that was given to members of the armed forces? Did it go through an ethics committee? Who signed off on it without it being tested? A false sense of security can be deadly.
As I emphasised in response to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), Citriodiol is a natural product—it is a natural extract of lemon eucalyptus oil—and it is readily available to the public as an insect repellent. We know that it was efficacious in the past, and the view was that if it was efficacious against SARS in the past, it may have properties that are useful against covid-19, but we have been very clear that that is not as a result of tests. It is very early days. Those tests are ongoing. If they prove that there are positive properties, that will be shared. However, this is just one very small element in a range of protections provided to our armed forces personnel, including appropriate PPE and all the appropriate hygiene and other instructions that are widely shared and widely known.
Covid-19: Government Procurement
Defence’s considerable commercial expertise is actively supporting the national effort in providing procurement, supply chain and logistics advice and expertise across Government. As a purchaser of some £19 billion of equipment and services annually, we are also working closely with our suppliers to support them at this difficult time.
In times of trouble, we rely on our armed forces as much now as we did 75 years ago, as embodied by Basildon resident and veteran Don Sheppard, who celebrated his 100th birthday last week. There are many who also rely on defence procurement for their livelihoods. How has my hon. Friend ensured that small businesses and the jobs they provide, which are particularly important in my constituency, are being protected at this time?
I am sure we would all wish to congratulate Mr Sheppard on his century, just as we all thank his extraordinary generation for their fortitude and service to our country.
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of defence jobs. There are 119,000 employed directly in the defence industry, and we are hugely grateful to all who have persevered in maintaining critical defence tasks at this difficult time. Our suppliers have made clear their determination to ensure safe working environments. We have worked with them to support the industry right through the supply chain, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, and we are grateful for all their work.
Covid-19: Defence Industry
We remain closely engaged with our strategic suppliers and continue to monitor the impact of covid-19 on the defence sector during this difficult time. We are engaged with defence primes and with SMEs, directly and via the prime contractors. As I said, the sector employs 119,000 people directly, and we are committed to its success.
It’s always sunny here, Mr Speaker.
The UK’s world-leading defence industry is critical to our national security as well as our prosperity, particularly here in the north-west, as the Minister has just outlined, but its future capability is inextricably linked to the aviation industry, which is now suffering a collapse in demand. Will the Government now commit to bringing forward major research and development programmes and clean tech to help support the whole sector, especially SMEs and others, to retain jobs and capability?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question from sunny Manchester. The Government are providing a range of help and support across the board to every industry, as she is aware. In defence in particular—she is absolutely right that many defence companies have aerospace arms—we have been clear that we want to do everything we can to help. That includes ensuring prompt payment and looking, where appropriate, at interim payments to support companies where they are requested and required. We are doing our utmost to work with the industry, and I will be saying that again at the defence suppliers forum, which I will chair virtually later this week.
Armed Forces: Capabilities
The Ministry of Defence has rigorous processes to test its capabilities and force structure to ensure they are robust against the ever evolving threats to our country and our allies. We will be assisted in doing this by the forthcoming cross-Government integrated review.
I pay tribute to everyone involved in the covid support force. Will the Minister give an early indication of how this current deployment might influence the integrated review and whether defence planning assumptions will be amended to reflect the fact that the MOD has again provided extensive liability to support the civil power?
My hon. and gallant Friend is absolutely right that the lessons learned will be picked up by the IR. There will be many points to take on board from what has been a formidable military effort, including the value of being plugged in early for effective working at regional and devolved level. The huge value of our reserves, not only to their local links but for the specialist skills they can bring to bear, and for their agility in coping with all the tasks of our brilliant military planners and logisticians, is a point that will not be lost on my hon. and gallant Friend, a former commanding officer of 27 Regiment Royal Logistics Corps.
VE Day Commemoration
I am sure the whole country was disappointed that the planned parades and commemorations could not take place, but the activities we did manage were, I felt, still a very fitting tribute to the greatest generation. From the Red Arrows over London to our ships at sea and the military banners in the gardens of Downing Street, I was proud of the way our armed forces still managed to mark such an important moment for our nation.
First, may I thank my hon. Friend for her unstinting support for our nation’s armed forces? Like everybody, I am hoping the lockdown measures will have been lifted further to allow us to celebrate and commemorate VJ Day properly later in the summer. That day is every bit as important as VE Day, and the MOD wants to make sure that it is marked just as enthusiastically.
Covid-19: Overseas Territories
HMS Medway and RFA Argus, along with 30 military personnel, are currently deployed in the Caribbean, and our garrisons in the overseas territories have been engaged in supporting the local communities as they are required.
It is great to hear how our country has helped the Caribbean overseas territories during this emergency. Will the Minister also assure me that our armed forces will have enough resources to support any future humanitarian assistance or disaster relief, if that is needed?
People in the overseas territories will be reassured to see their plight being raised by my hon. Friend in the House today. HMS Medway and RFA Argus are already on post in the Caribbean, but additional naval assets and personnel are on standby. The commitment of our armed forces to support the overseas territories in times of pandemic or national disaster, or whatever else, is unwavering.
Covid-19: Support for Veterans
I have used this unprecedented situation to continue to modernise and improve our support to veterans in the UK. Last week, I launch the first stage in placing veterans’ care in the palm of the hand of every veteran in the country, with the launch of the smartphone application of Veterans UK. I have also secured £6 million of funding from the Treasury for service charities at this time.
Although the UK was unable to celebrate VE Day as originally planned, because of the threat of covid-19, it is still important that we remember and support the veterans who bravely played their part in fighting for peace and who sacrificed so much for our freedom. The UK’s armed forces compensation scheme, which helps veterans claim for injuries obtained while in the armed forces, was temporarily paused because of the covid-19 lockdown. Can the Minister assure my constituents that payments will be made as soon as possible? When will those payments be made?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am afraid he may be slightly misinformed; we have not missed any payments. We made 470,000 payments last month. Veterans’ care has not been suspended in the UK. We have, as the Secretary of State alluded to earlier, changed the way we provide services, but I am unaware of a single veteran currently in the care of Veterans UK who has not had their need met during this time.
But that is not good enough. Other Departments and businesses have found ways of operating call centres safely, so at a time when the nation has been awed by the efforts of Captain Tom Moore, why has the Ministry of Defence closed its vital Veterans UK helpline—the telephone service? It is not good enough.
I am certainly not going to take lectures on what is and is not good enough from a Labour party whose veterans’ care I experienced over a number of years. No services have been closed. We have changed the way of doing business. Clearly we cannot do new face-to-face consultations at this time. Again, I reiterate that not a single veteran in the care of Veterans UK has had their needs unmet at this time. I would caution Members against politicising what is clearly a very important issue.
Again, I find that hard to believe, because we have gone out on a huge programme of engagement around the future accommodation model. This is a significant part of what the Government are doing to invest in what we call the offer to keep people within the military. If anybody requires that information, I am more than happy for them to get in touch with me. We have used the Army Families Federation’s publications and so on. I am always happy to do more. This is a communications battle we are determined to win. It is a positive step, and I look forward to engaging further with the Army Families Federation in future.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Minister has heard me speak previously about how fortunate veterans in Hull are to be supported by the Hull Veterans Support Centre and Hull 4 Heroes, which have been doing an incredible job in providing resources and mental health support. But I remain concerned that these are charities and are therefore competing with all other charities for donations at this time. So what specific funding can the Minister make available to support veterans’ charities?
I pay tribute to Hull 4 Heroes, which the hon. Lady knows I have been in contact with. It has done an amazing job during this time, as have many in the veterans’ sector. We have secured an initial £6 million out of the Treasury to support veterans’ charities at this time. But make no mistake—the environment that these charities operate in is changing, and will change, as a result of covid-19. I am absolutely determined to make sure that the ambition the Prime Minister has set out—that this is the best country in the world to be a veteran—is realised in due course.
Covid-19: Economic Package
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your warm wishes.
This Government’s plan is one of the most comprehensive anywhere in the world. We have provided billions of pounds of cash grants, tax cuts and loans for over 1 million businesses, tens of billions of pounds of deferred taxes, income protection for millions of the self-employed, and a strengthened safety net to protect millions of our most vulnerable people. These schemes speak to my and this Conservative Government’s values. We believe in the dignity of work, and we are doing everything we can to protect people currently unable to work.
Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out our plan for the next phase of the public health response, and today I can confirm the next stage of our job retention scheme. This scheme has been a world-leading economic intervention, supporting livelihoods and protecting futures. Seven and a half million jobs have been furloughed—jobs we could have lost if we had not acted—and nearly 1 million businesses supported who could have closed shop for good.
As we reopen the economy, we will need to support people back to work. We will do so in a measured way. I can announce today that the job retention scheme will be extended for four months, until the end of October. By that point, we will have provided eight months of support to British people and businesses. Until the end of July, there will be no changes whatsoever, from August to October the scheme will continue for all sectors and regions of the UK, but with greater flexibility to support the transition back to work. Employers currently using the scheme will be able to bring furloughed employees back part time. We will ask employers to start sharing with the Government the cost of paying people’s salaries.
Full details will follow by the end of May, but I want to assure people today of one thing that will not change: workers will, through the combined efforts of the Government and employers, continue to receive the same level of overall support as they do now, at 80% of their current salary, up to £2,500 a month.
I am extending the scheme because I will not give up on the people who rely on it. Our message today is simple. We stood behind Britain’s workers and businesses as we came into this crisis and we will stand behind them as we come through the other side.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I would also like to wish the Chancellor many happy returns.
As a constructive Opposition, we want to work with the Government to ensure that people’s jobs and incomes are protected and the furlough scheme is a critical element of that. Many of the more than 6 million people who are currently furloughed were taken aback by comments made in the media by Government spokespeople suggesting that, for example, people needed to be weaned off an addiction to the scheme. There were many intimations that changes might have been announced to that scheme by the Chancellor, potentially in the media, without the opportunity for proper scrutiny.
I have only heard about these changes in the last few seconds. We will look at them very carefully, but there are some critical principles that the Chancellor surely must follow as he redesigns the scheme.
First, we must acknowledge that people did not want to be furloughed. It occurred through no choice of their own and through following the Government’s advice about the closure of sectors. It is critically important that they are not penalised for that choice.
I welcome the flexibility mentioned. We have asked for that repeatedly; it applies in many other countries. It has been a long time coming, but I welcome the fact that it is occurring now.
That flexibility includes an employer contribution, so the Chancellor needs to provide more information about that employer contribution now. He also surely needs to provide more information about alternatives to the scheme. Other countries have job creation, training schemes and redeployment schemes. We do not have those yet. Will the Chancellor work with me, trade unions, businesses, local authorities and further and higher education institutions to create the support that is so desperately needed?
I thank the shadow Chancellor for her warm wishes and for the constructive support for today’s announcement. I will address two specific points that she raised. First, the word addiction is not one that I have ever used and it is not one that I agree with. Nobody who is on the furlough scheme wants to be on the scheme. People up and down the country believe in the dignity of their work, of going to work and providing for their families. It is not their fault that their business has been asked to close. It is not their fault that they have been asked to stay at home. That is why I established the scheme to support those people and their livelihoods at this critical time. I wholeheartedly agree with the shadow Chancellor in that regard.
On the next steps, I am pleased to tell her that I have already been talking to the TUC and, indeed, the CBI about the future; helping those people to get back into work who, unfortunately, may lose their jobs through this period. That issue weighs heavily on my mind. Every person who loses their job through this difficult period is a person the Government are determined to stand behind, whether that is with new skills, new training or indeed through supporting businesses to create new jobs. We are determined to make sure that that happens. I look forward to continuing my conversations with Opposition Members and with the trade unions, the CBI and other business groups as we look forward to a brighter future. As we get through this crisis, people can come back to work and we can create the jobs and opportunities, and a brighter future for tomorrow.
I broadly welcome the statement the Chancellor has made relating to furlough and, in particular, the additional flexibilities that he has outlined, most notably about part-time working. However, as we come through this crisis, many businesses will be saddled with significant debts just at the time that we are looking to those businesses to invest and to grow the economy. Does he therefore agree that it is vital that the Government come forward as soon as possible with a clear plan as to how they are going to assist those companies with that indebtedness in terms of debt forbearance and equity finance so that they can fire up the economy and grow the jobs that the country will so desperately need?
As always, my right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I agree that debt is not the answer to all businesses’ problems at this time, which is why we have provided business with unprecedented degrees of direct cash support, with cash grants of £10,000 or £25,000 for up to 1 million businesses and 750,000 businesses benefiting from a cut in their business taxes and tax deferrals. All of that will help. With regard to equity in supporting the future, I hope he will agree that the Future Fund that we have announced will be part of that solution, with the Government matching essentially quasi-equity investments in early-stage companies to ensure that they are here to power the growth and innovation we will need as we recover from this crisis.
I wish the Chancellor a very happy birthday. The coronavirus job retention scheme has kept people from unemployment at a cost to other parts of the UK Government’s spending and to the economy as a whole. I welcome his commitment to extend it to October and to look at flexibility in the scheme, because that is something that many, including the Scottish National party, have been calling for. We await the details of that, which I hope we will see before too long. Does he recognise that removing or reducing wage support levels in the furlough scheme prematurely would increase universal credit claims, force workers back to work before it is safe for them, and risk a second peak? The Scottish Government have been clear that the stay-at-home advice has not changed, so will the Chancellor commit today to ensuring that the job retention scheme will remain in place in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland if our lockdowns continue longer than in England? Lastly, will he commit to looking at the gaps within the scheme for new starters, and will he look at those businesses who are still waiting for money under the scheme, because he said that he would do whatever it takes, and if he does not fill those gaps, that will ring very hollow?
I thank the hon. Lady for her warm wishes as well. To clarify, there will be no reduction in the level of support for those on the scheme. That is the commitment that I made earlier, so I am not entirely sure whether I understood her question right. It is crystal clear that those on the scheme have the reassurance that the level of support they will receive will not be changed. Those wages and support will now be shared by the Government and employers, but the levels and percentages of support will not change. I committed to bringing forward further details by the end of this month, while we work through some of the technical details of implementing part-time furloughing. As I said at the outset, this is now an extension for four months to the end of October, which will provide eight months of support in total to all regions and all sectors of the United Kingdom. I think it provides a good, generous runway for businesses and firms to plan against, so that they can start getting back to work when the time is right, as per the Prime Minister’s plan that was outlined on Sunday and Monday.
We know that international comparisons should be made carefully, but I note that polling released yesterday showed that the UK is considered the best in the world for supporting businesses and jobs during the crisis, so what steps is the Chancellor taking to ensure that this success is continued for companies in Milton Keynes and elsewhere as we gradually come out of the lockdown?
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning that. He is indeed right. I was pleased to see polling that showed that people in this country felt that businesses were well supported, as compared with almost any other developed country. Indeed, the full scale of the economic intervention that we have put in place as a percentage of GDP stands as one of the most comprehensive anywhere in the world. I am very happy to continue listening to my hon. Friend to see what more we should be doing to support his businesses in Milton Keynes as they look forward to a future where they can start to reopen, start to get their employees back to work and start to rebuild our economy as we emerge from this crisis.
I welcome the continuation of the furlough scheme and its new flexibility to allow part-time work. That is vital for businesses in Brighton, particularly those in tourism and hospitality. Will the Chancellor consider further support to that sector by a reduction in VAT on tourism? It is a policy that many of his Government MPs support. Will he consider revising the self-employed scheme by including small business owners who take their income in dividends, as well as those who combine PAYE with freelance work?
Those who work for their own companies can indeed avail themselves of the coronavirus job retention scheme for the PAYE part of their income already. With regard to support for the hospitality and leisure sector, I agree that it is the sector that has been most impacted by what we are all going through, which is why it is the sector that has received the most support, with cash grants of up to £25,000 for those businesses—almost a million are eligible—and an entire business rates holiday worth almost £12 billion for the entire 12 months of this financial year. I believe that to be considerable support, but, of course, as we emerge from this crisis I keep all economic measures under review.
May I thank the Chancellor for the speed with which he has managed to get so much money out to help my constituents in Bury? Does he agree with me that the coronavirus job retention scheme is one of the most generous in the world? I express my gratitude to him for supporting so many jobs in my constituency and throughout the country, many of which would have been lost without these schemes.
I thank my hon. Friend for his support, and he is absolutely right. In Bury, as elsewhere, businesses have benefited from the support that the Government have put in place. They have been able to retain their employees through using the scheme. That means that Bury, when we get through this crisis, can be in the forefront of making sure that our economy bounces back as strongly as it can. I look forward to hearing from him what more we can do to support his constituents and his businesses through this crisis.
The Mayor of Greater Manchester’s United We Stream initiative has raised thousands of pounds for our creative industries, which make a vital contribution to our economy and to socioemotional wellbeing. With the sector likely to be among the last to exit lockdown, and with many artists working on a freelance or self-employed basis, will the Chancellor confirm that full support will be given to that vital sector for as long as is needed?
I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has engaged extensively with that sector as part of planning for a future where people can get back to work and sectors can reopen in a responsible and safe way. That work is already ongoing. Of course, many people in that sector are benefiting already from our self-employment income support scheme, which opens this week for applications. People will start receiving their lump sum payment as early as next week, and I know that will make an enormous difference to the many tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people who work in that sector and will benefit from that scheme.
May I too welcome the Chancellor’s announcement today on furlough? P&O and many ferry operators are benefiting from millions of pounds of support that the Chancellor has provided for furlough and freight. However, P&O, which is headquartered here in Dover, last night announced redundancy plans for more than a thousand jobs after its Dubai owners failed to provide the support that the company needs. Does the Chancellor agree with me that companies and their investors, such as Dubai, cannot simply rely on taxpayer handouts, but need to play their full part, investing and supporting British businesses and British jobs at this time?
My hon. Friend is an excellent advocate for the freight industry and the importance of the port in her town, which does so much to help fuel the growth of our country. That is why I was pleased to extend support to the sector, to maintain our vital freight links.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: as I said at the outset of this crisis, we are in this together—everyone has to play their role, and that means employers and companies as well doing their bit to support and protect their staff to the best of their ability and pitch in to help get through this crisis. I would be happy to talk to her further if there is more that she thinks we can do.
Women are considerably more likely to be furloughed than men, and the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on our black, Asian and minority ethnic communities is already being investigated from a health perspective by Public Health England. Has the Chancellor assessed the equality impact of all his package of economic measures on women and our BAME communities? If so, will he publish that impact assessment?
What is clear and emerging is that the sectors and people most impacted by the lockdown are disproportionately women, as the hon. Member mentioned, and those in lower-paid sectors, who probably are financially less resilient. That is why the scheme is so important in providing job and income security to millions of people. That is why today I have made the decision to extend the scheme, to maximise the possibility that those people will have a job to go back to. The hon. Member can rest assured that I keep a very careful eye on all the impacts of the scheme. I do believe that it is benefiting some of the most vulnerable in our society today.
The Chancellor will be aware of widespread concern about the future of our commercial airlines—not least in constituencies such as mine near Heathrow, Gatwick and other major hubs. The CEO of International Airlines Group appeared yesterday before the Transport Committee and made it clear that job losses at British Airways were only being considered as a direct result of the pandemic. What further support might be available from the Government for UK aviation?
Companies in the aviation sector, like all others, can benefit from the considerable range of support measures already announced—indeed, I know that many companies in the sector are benefiting currently from the jobs retention programme. Of course, individual companies have the opportunity to engage with the Government on a bilateral basis, where that is appropriate, but it obviously would not be right for me to comment on those conversations.
May I give the Chancellor a small birthday present by welcoming the extension of the furlough scheme and the greater flexibility for employees coming off furlough—not least because the Liberal Democrats have been campaigning for an almost identical package? But may I urge him yet again to look at those employees and self-employed who have not been helped at all and are in dire straits—people who have moved jobs, who were not on their employer’s payroll by mid-March? Will he consider the new starter scheme that I proposed in early April? Will he please review his refusal to properly help those self-employed people who operate from limited companies and who have just been cut adrift?
The self-employment scheme in this country remains one of the most generous and comprehensive anywhere in the world. It was designed to provide support to those people who have a different pattern of working. As I have explained previously to the right hon. Gentleman, there is a difficulty in distinguishing the dividends that company directors earn from the dividends that anyone might earn through earning a passive share portfolio.
I have seen the proposals that the right hon. Gentleman and others have sent. Of course, my team and I have considered and are considering those, but that does not take away from the fact that what has opened this week is a scheme that will support millions of those in self- employment and enable them to receive the same level of support as those in employment, starting with cash coming into their accounts as early as next week.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his announcement today, and also, in particular, on his handling of this crisis and the support he is providing to businesses and individuals during it.
Many of my constituents in Chesham and Amersham work for British Airways, which despite furloughing nearly 23,000 staff has been threatening to make over 12,000 staff redundant. Can my right hon. Friend send a clear message to British Airways today that with this extension it should now remove all threat of redundancy, which has been adding to the anxiety and stress of so many of its hard working and in many cases long-serving staff?
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (James Sunderland), my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Dame Cheryl Gillan) is right to advocate for and support her constituents employed by the airline industry, and she is right to urge employers to do the right thing at this difficult time. The Government have provided considerable support to companies to help them get through this crisis, and she knows what will benefit her constituents. I will continue to support her in those efforts to make sure that we can protect as many of those jobs as possible.
Prynhawn da, Mr Speaker. The Chancellor has said that he is doing everything he can, but has he seen the New Starter Justice campaign for people who started or were due to start a new job after 28 February and are still cut adrift from any help from the Chancellor and his schemes? Why has he thrown this particular group of hard-working British people under the bus?
When we announced the job retention scheme, I said clearly that it would apply for those of whom HMRC was aware on 28 February. We were able, while protecting the taxpayer against fraud, to extend that date to 19 March, the day before I made the announcement, which is reasonable, in the sense that without HMRC or the Government knowing whether someone was actually employed the scope for fraud would be considerable. I did not think it appropriate to expose the taxpayer to that.
That change to 19 March brought in 230,000 of the 350,000-odd people that the hon. Gentleman talks about. Yes, that left a number of people who could not be covered, but for a reason that I believe is defensible. The scheme is able to cover the 29.5 million people who were notified to HMRC on that date; indeed, 7.5 million of them are benefiting from it. We should not lose sight of that. The scheme is doing an enormous amount for several million people up and down this country.
Time and again, the Chancellor has stepped up to ensure that our businesses have what they need to get through this difficult period, and I welcome the measures announced today. The bounce- back loan scheme is another example of the unprecedented interventions that the Chancellor has made and this has been unequivocally welcomed by organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that work is continuing to be done to ensure that we increase the number of accredited lenders that provide bounce-back loans so that we can make sure we are getting funds to those businesses that need them, wherever they may be?
I thank my hon. Friend for his advice as we looked to design and improve our lending scheme. I very much value his direct links with business and his relaying that to me. If you will allow me Mr Speaker, I can update him and the House on the number of loans that have now been approved. I am pleased to say that more than a quarter of a million bounce-back loans have been approved—267,000—with over £8 billion of capital benefiting small and medium-sized companies up and down the UK. On top of that, 35,000 CBILS loans worth more than £6 billion have now been put out. Hundreds of thousands of businesses are benefiting from the loan schemes that my hon. Friend helped to implement, ensuring that they worked well and quickly for businesses.
As a result of the loss of income through both fundraising and small service charges, many small and local charities will be struggling financially despite being heavily involved and active in the covid-19 response and in supporting constituents. When will the Chancellor issue guidance to local authorities on providing grants to charities that are in receipt of local charitable rate relief but have up to now been excluded from securing the £10,000 grants from the small business grants fund?
Just over a week or so ago, we outlined plans for a top-up fund for local authorities worth more than £600 million nationally so that they could distribute further rate relief to the businesses that they thought were appropriate. Indeed, it would be up to those local authorities to make the decisions and they could well use the money for that purpose if they so wished.
We also unveiled a £750 million package to support charities through this crisis. They are an important part of the social fabric of our country. Charities are impacted in the same way that businesses and the rest of us are, and it is important that we maintain them through this crisis, not least for the valuable work that they do on the front line, but also for the contribution they make to our civic society as we come out of this.
The Isle of Wight is Britain’s festival island, and we have a unique tourism sector that is supported by events in the arts, music and sport. Will the Chancellor confirm that the furlough extension will help islanders in that devastated part of the economy? Will Ministers meet me, and others, to discuss how we can further protect the visitor and festival economy, which relies on specific parts of the year, and sometimes only on weekends, to generate an entire annual livelihood?
Let me start by conveying the thanks of the whole House, and certainly of the Government, to my hon. Friend’s constituents for the role that they are playing in trialling the new app. That will be important as we look to gain control of this virus in the second and third phase of our approach to tackling it. Will he please pass on our thanks to all his constituents? I reassure him that they are very much in our minds. We know that the sector he mentioned is struggling and will need support. The document that the Government published yesterday spoke about creating an industry taskforce, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend, and others, as we chart a future for those in the leisure, hospitality and tourism sectors.
The all-party group for disability, which I chair, believes it is crucial that the Chancellor accelerates efforts to include people with disabilities in the economic recovery plan, enabling a disability-inclusive covid-19 response. Will he address that issue by undertaking an impact assessment of the economic recovery plan, based on equalities principles?
The Government and the Treasury will, of course, undertake all appropriate equalities and disabilities assessments for policies as they are unveiled and as is required. I have talked about this issue in the past with the hon. Lady, and the Budget outlined something that she and I care very much about, which is the Changing Places campaign for those with complex disabilities. We created a fund to help local authorities and businesses to adapt or build new changing places that will benefit hundreds of thousands of those, especially young children, who suffer with complex disabilities, and who require different types of facilities so that they can enjoy time with their families out and about. I hope we can continue to work closely on that issue.
Has the Treasury made an assessment of how many employers are currently topping up the wages of furloughed workers to full pay? If the Government reduce the amount they are contributing, many employers may struggle to top up wages. What will the Government do if employers cannot top up wages?
As well as the furlough scheme, the Government have provided direct cash support to businesses in the form of cash grants or tax cuts, and allowed them to defer taxes such as VAT. We have also provided them with access to discounted and attractive loans to ease cashflow. I believe that in sum that represents a considerable amount of support for business, and we have now stretched and extended the furlough scheme to cover eight months. Sitting alongside the plan that the Prime Minister outlined, that will provide businesses with a generous and sufficient amount of time to help bring their employees back to work. Indeed, they will also benefit from the part-time flexibility to ramp up their operations.
I welcome the world-leading package of measures that we are providing to support livelihoods and businesses through this pandemic, which is helping a huge number of people in Runnymede and Weybridge. Aviation is crucial to my constituency due to our proximity to Heathrow, and many constituents have contacted me who are employees of not just BA but logistics firms and others associated with the aviation industry. Getting our planes flying again is crucial to our economy through air freight and just-in-time supply lines. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in addition to direct support for the carriers and industry, we need to get planes flying again as soon as possible?
I know that my hon. Friend is rightly focused on that issue for his constituents, given the location of his constituency. Of course, aviation has been impacted considerably by this, but he is right; the best way to help, in the end, is for us to find a way to control this virus, live with it and reopen those parts of our economy that are currently closed. That is the best long-term way to provide the support to the industry and his constituents that we all want to see.
The extent of Government support available is of cold comfort to those who are still not receiving any support. New starters are being abandoned simply by accident of the date on which they happened to change jobs. Those workers could be helped if the Government would accept evidence of their employment in the form of a contract of employment. Many of these workers have paid taxes for years. Will the Chancellor reconsider his approach and take further action so that new starters are not left behind?
I do not have much more to add to my previous answer, but for those who do not benefit from this scheme or others, we have taken significant action, investing several billion pounds in strengthening our safety net in this country. Whether it is through tax credits, universal credit, the local housing allowance or the hardship fund provided to local authorities, the most vulnerable in our society through this crisis are seeing considerable extra support from Government to help them get through.
Like others, I am grateful to the Chancellor for his extension of the furlough scheme, which is a reverse birthday present from him to workers and firms in my constituency. He will want our brilliant creative industries to come out of this crisis intact, and he knows that many people working in them are freelancers or on short-term contracts. Can he give some hope to those producing world-class work, often in precarious circumstances, that their sector will survive and flourish again after this is all over?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; the creative industries play an incredibly important part in our economy in this country, and they are also one of our great exports around the world and add to our soft power. He is right that we should do everything we can to preserve the jewel that is that industry. As I said, I am talking to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who is engaged with that industry to find the safest way for those workers to get back to work. We all want to see that happen in a measured and safe way. He can rest assured that I am also thinking about it from an economic perspective and seeing whether our support schemes and everything else are optimised for that industry as we emerge from this recovery.
The furlough scheme is hugely welcome, but it needs greater flexibility. I hear what the Chancellor says, but the Opposition have set out ways in which the furlough scheme arrangements could be adapted to include new starters who have just missed out without risking fraudulent payments. Will he give those proposals urgent and serious consideration?
We did give consideration to proposals that we received and worked with our systems, which is why we were able to extend the date from 28 February to 19 March, the day before I made the announcement. To me, that is a reasonable and defensible date to choose. It is important not to underestimate the operational challenge of creating these schemes and ensuring that they work for people. As I said at the time, from announcement to the scheme going live was a matter of weeks. Thousands of people worked their socks off to make that happen, and several million people’s pay packets are now being supported because that all works. These things are not straightforward to do, and changing them and adding complexity to them will simply make it more likely that they do not work and that people have to wait a lot longer to get the support they desperately need at this time.
I welcome the fantastic announcement about the coronavirus job retention scheme, and thank my right hon. Friend for all that his Department is doing to support businesses in Redcar and Cleveland, with the CJRS, the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme and the new bounceback loans. Will he reassure me and employers in my constituency that this support will be kept under review so that it reaches the businesses that need it most?
I can give my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour exactly that reassurance. I thank him for all that he is doing to support his businesses and constituents at this time. I very much welcome the advice that he has given me, as he has fed back what he is hearing on the ground from businesses in the north-east. He and I have a shared ambition to make sure that Teesside drives our economic recovery as we come out of this situation, and I look forward to continuing those conversations with him.
Aberdeen has been hit by the double whammy of covid-19 and a massive drop in the oil price. Will the Chancellor tell us when he last had a conversation with the industry, and will he please give consideration to announcing sector-specific support in order to protect my constituents and those in other regions where employment is centred around oil and gas?
Regardless of the industry in which companies operate, they are able to benefit from our furlough scheme. That is something that we were keen to do. It is not necessarily replicated by every scheme around the world, but we thought that that comprehensive approach was the appropriate one. Many of the companies that the hon. Lady mentioned will be able to benefit from that scheme. Beyond that, my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary engages regularly with all sectors regarding their particular concerns, and I will continue to liaise closely with him.
I strongly welcome the extension of the job retention scheme. It is the most generous in the world, and is saving a huge number of jobs here in Harborough, Oadby and Wigston. One of the great successes of policy in recent years has been a huge reduction in youth unemployment, but the virus is inevitably going to disrupt a lot of apprenticeships and work placements. Is my right hon. Friend thinking hard about how we can limit or stop any rise in youth unemployment?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I know that he has put a lot of thought into this particular issue, and I look forward to hearing his ideas on it. As we emerge from this situation, we need to be cognisant of having the right support available for those who are most affected by this issue, especially those who are young and entering the labour force for the first time who will face this challenge, but also younger people who work in the disproportionately affected sectors of retail and hospitality; and that support might include skills, retraining and a dynamic labour market. This is about the economic impact on us all, and especially on those individuals; not having a close connection with the labour market at that early stage in their life is very damaging for their long-term prospects. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend to ensure that that does not happen.
If 800,000 businesses have benefited from the welcome job retention scheme, the 800,000-strong world-class automotive industry will be key to recovery, including Jaguar Land Rover, whose Jaguar factory lies at the heart of my constituency of Erdington. Does the Chancellor recognise that the continuation of the job retention scheme for as long as is necessary, together with welcome measures to help companies that are deeply in debt and battling with liquidity, will be crucial for the future, providing the necessary certainty upon which businesses, workers and trade unions can plan to rebuild?
I think I find myself in agreement with the hon. Member. He is fortunate to have such a fantastic company locally to him. I know that that company and its workers will be pleased that the Government, and their representative, are advocating on their behalf. We have extended some of our loan schemes for larger companies—not Jaguar Land Rover specifically—and many companies in the automotive supply chain, for example, will now be able to benefit from our larger CBILS programme, which went live last week and is already lending billions of pounds. The hon. Gentleman is right; these various schemes are important and the industry that he mentions is critical to the UK. I look forward to ensuring that it can have as strong and swift a recovery as possible.
I, too, welcome the announcement the Chancellor has made today. It will be particularly welcome to the businesses in the leisure, hospitality and tourism sector, which are very important in my area and have been very hard hit. I welcome the fact that the Chancellor has extended the scheme to October. Should businesses plan on that scheme coming to an end in October if we are able to stick to the timetable set out by the Prime Minister in the Government’s recovery strategy, or is there any chance that the Chancellor will be able to extend the scheme? I think some certainty for businesses will be helpful.
We will of course keep everything under review, but my expectation is that by then the scheme should end. As I have said before, we have stretched and strained to be as generous as possible to businesses and workers. That is why we have made the decision we have made today, which is important to me personally, but of course as I have also said the scheme is expensive. It is the right thing to do—the cost of not acting would have been far higher—but it is not something that can continue indefinitely into the future. Eight months of total support is a considerable amount of time. Now that we have a plan from the Prime Minister, with a path to reopening those parts of our economy that are closed, I believe we can get the country back on track and get people back into work. This scheme will help them to do it in a measured and phased way, and protect as many jobs as possible.
Diolch yn fawr, Lefarydd. May I take the opportunity to wish penblwydd hapus to the Chancellor? In Wales, workplace restrictions have not been changed as many parts of the country have not yet passed the peak of infection. The economic taps must not therefore be turned off in Westminster before the public health emergency has subsided in Wales. Will the Chancellor ensure that the furlough scheme remains in place for as long as necessary and in such a form as to enable expert-led public health guidance to be followed in each nation?
As I have just said, and have said previously, this is a UK scheme. It applies equally to all regions, nations and sectors of the country. It is generous in its length, extending all the way to October, and I believe that provides sufficient runway and support to businesses wherever they might be in this country. But I thank the right hon. Lady for her warm wishes.
I commend my right hon. Friend and the Treasury team for bringing together the economic support package that has given businesses and families across the UK the support they need during the lockdown. Obviously, it is one of the most comprehensive packages in the world and my constituents are pleased that when they needed help this United Kingdom Government had their back. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that the work is in progress so that businesses, particularly in the tourism sector, are prepared for when the lockdown restrictions are eased, as it is a significant element of Delyn’s economy?
May I start by thanking my hon. Friend for everything he is doing not just for his constituents but in providing advice to me, using his own experience about how best we can support the economy and businesses at this time? I very much appreciate all the time and effort he has put into that and hopefully he can see the fruit of some of that work in the announcements that have been made. I can also give him that assurance on the tourism sector. That work is under way. The report talked about setting up a taskforce. I look forward to hearing his thoughts. I know how important it is to his constituency and others. The Culture Secretary and I look forward to engaging with him, creating a plan to make sure as many businesses as possible can safely open as soon as they can.
Many minimum wage workers have been furloughed. They are now expected to get by on just 80% of the minimum wage, even though rents, bills and food prices have not fallen. Will the Chancellor implement guarantees, so that no furloughed worker is ever forced to live on less than 100% of the national minimum wage?
The scheme, as it is designed, does provide income support of 80% of those wages. Indeed, where those wages are variable the scheme allows an average to be taken to benefit the employee. We have also strengthened the safety net, as I mentioned earlier. Crucially, employees who are furloughed are then able to work elsewhere as well to supplement their incomes. That flexibility is often unnoticed, but it is very helpful. I know many people are taking advantage of that to boost their incomes during this time and I think the scheme, as it is designed, provides the required support especially to those on the lowest pay.
The Chancellor has spoken about freelancers, who often work on short-term contracts or for personal service companies. In answer to the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green), he talked about optimising the existing mechanisms for those people, but will he come forward today with the suggestion that there are concrete proposals in place? These are people with clear financial records and they often have accountants, so there is a track record. Will the Chancellor support these different types of self-employed people?
They are being supported. The scheme to support them goes live tomorrow, ahead of schedule. Those who are self-employed whose returns and earnings we are aware of will be contacted, and are already being contacted. They are able to apply from tomorrow and will receive cash in their accounts for a three-month grant as early as next week. The scheme is one of the most generous in the world for those who are self-employed.
Excellent birthday work on the furlough scheme from the Chancellor; the flexibility that is being added to it is very welcome. When he announced the original furlough scheme, many of us in this House and outside in the country talked about the self-employed and asked for parity. He then acted but, notwithstanding the issues that he knows I have with the people left out of the self-employment support scheme, that scheme will come to an end very shortly. To return to the call for parity, can we assume that he is working on an extension to the self-employed income support scheme? Many people will be listening carefully to what he says about that today.
My hon. Friend has spoken passionately about this issue before, and I look forward to continuing conversations with him. I am of course keeping those measures under review. As I said at the time, there is of course parity in the level of support, but the nature of the schemes is different in the sense that employers who have been closed and have to make employment decisions, potentially 45 days in advance in respect of redundancies, do need to be treated slightly differently in that regard. I will of course continue to keep all things, including that scheme, under review.
Women who are eligible for the self-employed income support scheme but have taken a period of maternity leave since 2016 could receive up to one third less financial support. This discriminates against women on lower incomes in particular, penalises families with young children, and exacerbates the gender pay gap. Will the Chancellor therefore exempt periods of maternity leave from the self-employed income support scheme calculations?
People have ups and downs and variations in their earnings for all sorts of reasons, whether because of maternity, ill health or something else. To deal with that, we have provided an average of income over up to three years on a look-back basis, to smooth out all the ups and downs in all people’s incomes. That was something that stakeholder groups were keen to see at the beginning,