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Covid-19: Support for Business

Volume 678: debated on Tuesday 21 July 2020

What support his Department is providing to businesses to help them recover from the covid-19 outbreak. (905053)

Since the start of the covid-19 outbreak, the Government have provided £160 billion of support through a range of schemes to protect jobs and help businesses keep going. We have also provided support to businesses through measures in the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020 and the Business and Planning Bill. Working with business and trade unions, my Department has published detailed guidance to help businesses reopen safely.

The Government’s support for people and businesses during the covid crisis has been fantastic and has helped countless constituents in Penrith and The Border and across the UK. Unfortunately, many have still not been able to access support, such as the newly self-employed, limited company directors, freelancers, new starters and those who fall on the wrong side of the eligibility criteria. Will my right hon. Friend work with the Treasury to see whether those hard-working people can be helped with some emergency financial support?

My hon. Friend will know that we have supported over 9 million jobs through the job retention scheme, 2.7 million people have benefited from the self- employment support scheme and around 870,000 small businesses have benefited from grants. The Chancellor set out his plan for jobs a few days ago. The key now is to get the economy up and running, so that businesses can trade.[Official Report, 1 September 2020, Vol. 679, c. 2MC.]

That is absolutely right, but it is not just about bouncing back; it is also about levelling up. Will the Secretary of State join my hon. Friend the Universities Minister in giving his backing in the spending review to the shovel-ready MK:U—a much needed technical university in Milton Keynes which will deliver cutting-edge science, technology and engineering jobs and skills for local employers?

As my hon. Friend would expect, the MK:U proposal will be judged objectively on its merits. More generally, I can confirm that the Government recognise the significant potential of the Oxford-Cambridge arc and the important role of Milton Keynes in achieving that potential.

Airline pilots working for easyJet took an unprecedented decision on Friday to declare no confidence in their senior management. I have heard from many constituents who work at the airline in Liverpool and Manchester who are worried about the company’s approach of “fire and rehire on different terms”. Does my right hon. Friend agree that safety in the airline industry must always be paramount and that negotiations about future job losses should be respectful and in good faith?

My hon. Friend highlights an important point. Throughout the covid-19 period, the Government have provided unprecedented support for employment and worked in close partnership with the business community. I understand that it continues to be a difficult time for many businesses, but as he highlights, in that spirit of partnership, we expect all employers to treat their employees fairly and follow the rules.

I want to return the Secretary of State to the question asked by the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Dr Hudson) about the many businesses that are part of the 3 million ExcludedUK group. They include over 2 million people who are essentially self-employed but have been disqualified from help under the self-employment scheme for various—often arbitrary—reasons. In many cases, this is not simply rough justice but deep unfairness. Many of these individuals are not high earners. Will the Secretary of State give an indication that he recognises that this is an injustice, and can he tell us how he plans to address it?

The right hon. Gentleman will also acknowledge that the Government have provided unprecedented support to businesses across the whole economy. As I said, the key right now is to support businesses to open, to get the economy up and running. That is the best way that we can support businesses across the United Kingdom.

This issue of 3 million people being excluded is not going away. Let me ask him about the winding down of the furlough scheme. Yesterday, Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation, said that a furlough extension was vital to prevent a “jobs bloodbath” in aerospace and automotive. We see the looming threat too in sectors that have not yet reopened, such as events and exhibitions, and those operating well below capacity, such as hospitality. Yet from next week, the Government are insisting that every single employer, whatever their industry, will have to start contributing to the furlough. Does the Secretary of State not recognise that this decision to phase out the furlough, irrespective of circumstances, risks handing a P45 to hundreds of thousands of workers?

The furlough scheme will have been up and running for a full eight months, providing a huge amount of support for more than 9 million jobs. It is becoming more flexible and allowing people to return to work part time. The right hon. Gentleman will know that the Chancellor has also set out the job retention bonus which, if it is taken up by all employers, will represent a £9 billion boost for the economy. I say to him again that the key is to get the economy up and running and to get businesses trading.

As we have heard, many businesses, sole traders, freelancers and others have been left without support throughout this health emergency. They are on their knees and they are still getting no support. How can they rebuild their trade when the Secretary of State’s Government will not help them? If his Government will not help them, why have they refused to allow simple adjustments to Scotland’s borrowing rules so that the Scottish Government can step in?

The hon. Gentleman talks about support in Scotland; like many colleagues in the House, I believe in the Union, and we must work together to support workers across the United Kingdom. More than 730,000 jobs have been protected in Scotland through the furlough scheme. The hon. Gentleman will know that, as a result of the additional moneys that the Chancellor announced at the summer statement, the total additional Barnett funding to Scotland since March is £4.6 billion.

Oh how the broad shoulders of the Union slump when asked a difficult question. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has exposed how the promised £800 million of consequentials for Scotland from the Chancellor’s job package is in fact only £21 million. Will the Secretary of State now do the right thing by Scotland’s businesses and urge the Chancellor to replace the missing £779 million—or has he also bought into the Prime Minister’s stated view that a pound spent in Croydon is of more value than a pound spent in Scotland?

The hon. Gentleman talks about supporting businesses in Scotland; perhaps he will come forward and give his support to the UK internal market White Paper that we have published.