House of Commons
Wednesday 9 September 2020
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 4 June).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Armed Forces Personnel
British armed forces personnel in Scotland play a crucial role in defending the whole UK, and my Department meets regularly with the Ministry of Defence to help raise concerns that are specific to Scotland. I feel particularly indebted to the armed forces in Scotland, who keep us safe at home and abroad and who assisted with such dedication at the height of this covid pandemic.
The SNP Government’s decision to make Scotland the highest taxed part of the UK has threatened to put the many brave troops based there out of pocket through no fault of their own. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, because our armed forces serve the whole UK, it is only right that they are treated equally and fairly wherever they are based?
I absolutely agree. Our armed forces perform a hugely important task in their service of the United Kingdom, and it is unacceptable that any member of them should be subject to discriminatory taxation. That is why the United Kingdom Government took the decision to make an annual payment to protect them from the Scottish Government’s decision to make Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom.
British armed forces have contributed enormously to the national response to the covid-19 outbreak, supporting the distribution of personal protective equipment, assisting with testing facilities and transporting patients, for which Cumbria and my constituency of Workington are grateful. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking the armed forces for all their work during the pandemic, and can he confirm that every part of our United Kingdom will continue to benefit from their hard work?
Our armed forces have been instrumental in the Government’s response to the pandemic, and I give my deep thanks to them for that work. In Scotland, that has included military planning personnel for the Scottish Government’s emergency co-ordination centre, Puma helicopters deployed to Kinloss to support the NHS in medical transport and airlift critically ill patients from the Scottish highlands, and the operating of pop-up mobile testing sites across Scotland.
Strengthening the Union
The Government and this Prime Minister are passionate about the Union, and the strength of the Union has never been more important or more evident. The UK has the economic strength to support jobs and businesses with generous financial packages, and it is the strength of the Union that will enable us to rebuild our economy and swiftly respond to any emerging threats to our prosperity.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Figures released by the Scottish Government demonstrate that the cost to Scotland of leaving the United Kingdom and becoming independent would be £15.1 billion a year. We know that those figures must be true, because they were released by the SNP Government. Does he agree that, far from creating an economic case for leaving the United Kingdom, that demonstrates the strength of the Union and why Scotland is far better off being in the United Kingdom?
Yes, absolutely. The Scottish Government’s own figures show clearly how much Scotland benefits from being part of a strong United Kingdom, with the pooling and sharing of resources. Year after year, people in Scotland benefit from levels of public spending substantially above the United Kingdom’s average, and that Union dividend is worth almost £2,000 per person to everyone in Scotland.
Last month’s figures from the Scottish Government confirmed that our Union is worth nearly £2,000 a year for every man, woman and child in Scotland. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we not only benefit from being one Union and one happy family together, but that the economic benefits for Scotland from the Union are huge?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. The benefits of the Union go way beyond public spending. The strength and size of the UK economy creates opportunities for Scottish businesses, and around 60% of Scotland’s exports currently go to the rest of the UK. That is more than she trades with the rest of the world.
The Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland and for Health and Social Care have confirmed that the Government will break the law by overriding the Northern Ireland protocol. That would mean reneging on the withdrawal agreement—an agreement that the Prime Minister himself negotiated, brought to this House, voted for, ratified and campaigned on at the general election. This reckless move reignites the prospect of us crashing out of the European Union with no deal. The Prime Minister promised the British people an oven-ready deal. It now looks like an oven-ready no-deal. The Secretary of State himself has said previously that a no-deal outcome would “create damaging uncertainty” for the country and that he would never vote for anything that threatened or undermined the integrity of our United Kingdom. Does he think that reneging on an international treaty, breaking their promise on a deal and putting no-deal firmly back on the table strengthens or weakens the Union?
First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his partner on the birth of their baby daughter, Zola, which is why he is currently on paternity leave.
I hope that I face even questions such as that from the hon. Gentleman for some time to come, because he is honourable, which is a lot more than can be said for many in his party—the hard left of his party—who have sought to smear and undermine him in recent days. In answer to his question, we absolutely do want a deal. We are in serious negotiations again this week because we want to get a deal, and that is our intention, but the withdrawal agreement was written on the basis that subsequent agreements could be reached through the Joint Committee, and that Joint Committee process is ongoing and we are committed to it. None the less, in the event that it cannot deal with any adverse implications for the Good Friday agreement, it is important that we have a position that creates a safety net to uphold our commitments to the members of Northern Ireland.
I am very grateful to the Secretary of State for his kind words about Zola, and if his Government could legislate for a minimum of six hours’ sleep for new parents, I certainly would be the first person in the Aye Lobby to support them.
The Secretary of State’s Conservative colleague and prominent constitutional expert, Adam Tomkins MSP, his own—now resigned—most senior Government lawyer and many on his own Back Benches disagree with him. He must surely realise that the UK Government’s recklessness only benefits those who want to break up the UK and the consequences of breaking up the UK would be dire for all of our constituents. As has already been mentioned, the Scottish Government’s own figures last week showed that the UK dividend to Scotland is an extra £15 billion a year—the entire budget of the Scottish NHS. Does the Secretary of State agree with me that the focus of both the Scottish and UK Governments must be to protect public health, invest in our economy, and secure jobs and not to continue with this endless paralysing constitutional division?
I echo the congratulations to the shadow Secretary of State. However, I will not echo the congratulations to the Union. Today, the UK Government have published their United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. I want to ask specifically about clause 46, which states that any UK Minister of the Crown may promote and directly provide economic development, effectively allowing the UK Government the powers to legislate in the following devolved areas: health; education; water; electricity; courts and pension facilities; housing; and the list goes on. Am I correct in my understanding that when the Government says that they are strengthening the Union, what they really mean is dismantling devolution?
Absolutely not. We are strengthening devolution. We are bringing a power surge to Scotland—more than 100 new powers. We are not taking a single power away, and I invite the hon. Lady to name one that we are. I say that we are the party that backs devolution. The SNP is the party that wants to destroy devolution by leaving the United Kingdom.
The UK Government would like to get a legislative consent motion from the devolved Administrations, but we are quite clear that we need to bring forward this UK legislation to protect jobs, to protect producers, to protect manufacturers and to protect consumers. This is a piece of legislation that, through mutual recognition and non-discrimination, strengthens our United Kingdom economy. That is important to Scotland because over £50 billion of trade is done with the rest of the UK—more than Scotland does with the rest of the world.
Further talk of constitutional wrangling is deeply unhelpful at a time when we continue to fight the coronavirus pandemic in Scotland and across much of the world. Does the Secretary of State therefore agree that the SNP has got its priorities completely wrong by finding time to bring forward another referendum Bill as we have seen spikes in coronavirus in Scotland and across the UK?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment as leader of the Scottish Conservatives. I was sorry to lose him as a Minister, but I got to know him well, and I know very well that he will do an excellent job. He does make a very good point. It is important that we come together to fight this virus and not go back into division and constitutional wrangling. That just basically creates uncertainty and is bad for the Scottish economy and bad for Scottish jobs.
May I just say ever so gently and candidly to the right hon. Gentleman that he is not presiding over the strengthening of the Union—he is presiding over its demise? Support for independence is now at an all-time high at 55%—but after today it is going to get a lot, lot worse for him. If there was ever any doubt that this Government were determined to override the authority of the Scottish Parliament, it is clause 46 of this disgraceful Bill today. Why does he not man up? Why does he not confess and be honest with the Scottish people and tell them that this is an unadulterated power grab?
For the very simple reason that it is not—and still the SNP cannot tell us one power that is being grabbed, not one single power. It is quite the contrary—more powers are being delivered to the Scottish Parliament, strengthening devolution. SNP Members do not like that. They do not like the UKIM legislation because it strengthens the United Kingdom economy, and that does not fit into their plans either.
In response to the fact that a majority of people in Scotland, in all recent polls, want Scotland to be independent, the Secretary of State’s Government will today set out steps that betray the fact that they want to fatally undermine devolution, while declaring that they will break international law with malice aforethought. Does he believe that in being an accomplice to this, he will strengthen the Union?
We have been very clear about our position. These are contingent powers that will be exercised only in cases where the Joint Committee cannot be formed or operate, or cannot come to a view at a particular time, to prevent—it is important to understand this—adverse implications for the Good Friday agreement. Our responsibility, first and foremost, is to the people of Northern Ireland. For the SNP, it is always, “Britain second, Brussels first.”
Historically, the role of Secretary of State for Scotland has been to argue for more decisions to be made in Scotland. Does the current Secretary of State not feel ashamed and embarrassed to be the first incumbent of this office to actually argue for things to happen the other way around? Does he not realise that by so doing, he will make the argument for political independence for Scotland far better that those of us on the SNP Benches can?
I utterly disagree with the hon. Gentleman. This legislation strengthens the United Kingdom. Scotland does 60% of her trade with the rest of the UK—over £50 billion. We want to protect that trade. We want to improve the Scottish economy. In no way is a single power being removed from the Scottish Government. It is quite the contrary: powers are being increased.
UK Internal Market
I have frequent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of matters relating to the UK internal market. The UK internal market is vitally important for our economy. As I have said a number of times over the past five minutes, sales produced in Scotland to the rest of the UK are £51.2 billion per year and over 60% of our exports.
By contrast to the Secretary of State’s power surge, the European single market’s principles, for example, are based on equality, co-operation and consent, with agreed standards for all member states. If he claims that the policy on the UK internal market is not a power grab, will he guarantee a mechanism for negotiation, agreement and consent between the four nations of the UK?
The hon. Lady points towards frameworks, which is exactly what we are doing. For standards, frameworks will be by consent across the United Kingdom. There is the opportunity for parties to opt out. As a safety net for business, we are introducing mutual recognition, which underpins the European single market, and we are introducing non-discrimination.
The gravity analysis published in the internal market Command Paper suggests that a border effected between Scotland and the rest of the UK would have an impact of about 1.1% of Scottish GDP. Brexit will have an impact seven times greater—a loss of GDP growth in Scotland of about 8%. When the Secretary of State has discussions with the Scottish Government, will he commit to bring forward another Command Paper insisting that Scotland remains part of the European Union single market?
We are leaving the EU—I do not know if that point has been wasted on the hon. Gentleman. When we were on the Treasury Committee, we saw many projections about what would happen if the UK voted for Brexit, and all those projections had one thing in common: they were wrong. I do not recognise his figures. I believe that with good trade deals and this UK legislation, we will strengthen the Scottish economy.
Like many people in Newport West, I was astonished by the comments of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at the Dispatch Box yesterday in relation to the Government’s willingness to break international law. Legislation is important and so is the Government’s ability to obey it, so will the Secretary of State commit to a UK-wide framework that protects workers’ rights and environmental standards within the internal market, and will he pledge to stick to it?
There are over 42 frameworks—I have not studied them all in detail, but I am sure that those subjects will be covered. When we have frameworks, it is by consensus. It is up to each member state of the United Kingdom—the four nations—to adhere to those. They do have an opt-out and, as I say, the UKIM legislation underpins that and protects producers, suppliers, manufacturers and consumers alike.
Covid-19: Support for Businesses
I have regular discussions with my Cabinet colleagues, including the Chancellor, on all aspects of the impact of coronavirus in Scotland. The unprecedented actions we have taken have supported over 930,000 jobs and more than 65,000 businesses in Scotland. Over £2.3 billion of support for business is being given through the Government-supported loan schemes.
With its abundant renewable resources, Scotland has the opportunity to be a world leader in hydrogen technology, a $2.5 trillion global market. Will the Minister inform the House what conversations are taking place between the Government and Scotland to ensure that we seize this opportunity together as a Union?
The Government are absolutely committed to the development of hydrogen as part of our decarbonisation strategy. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that in July, the Government launched the Hydrogen Advisory Council, where Government and UK industry will work together to identify and promote the supply of low-carbon hydrogen at scale across the energy system. Scottish companies are members of this council.
First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) and Mariam on the birth of their baby daughter, Zola. The House will be pleased to hear that she has very robust lungs and her father’s cheeks—that is how it has been put to me. [Interruption.] These cheeks, Mr Speaker!
The Minister knows that businesses across Scotland are in desperate need of additional support specifically in relation to the furlough scheme. The UK Government have in place one of the shortest furlough schemes of any country in Europe. Will he please today, ahead of the Opposition day debate, announce that we will extend the furlough scheme for those businesses that need it most, and particularly in Scotland for the hospitality and accommodation sectors, because they need help from this Government?
I should also add my congratulations to the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) on the birth of his daughter. I am delighted to hear that her vocal contributions will be as strong as his.
The hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) highlights the furlough scheme, which has been a very valuable tool in our economic response to coronavirus, but I point out to him that it is about giving the right support at the right time. The Chancellor is correct to move us towards supporting people returning to work through schemes such as the job retention scheme and many of the other packages that we are putting in place to support all sectors of the economy.
Many local newspapers in Scotland were pleased to get UK Government advertising business at the start of lockdown and agreed heavily discounted rates for it. Many of them were surprised then, after invoices had been issued, to get requests from the UK Government for further discounts. Is the Minister content that his Government should be treating Scotland’s local newspapers in that way?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. This is a unique partnership to support the newspaper industry. It was agreed by Newsworks on behalf of all publications and the terms of the agreement are commercially confidential. I can tell him that at least 60% of the funding is supporting smaller local titles. If he has any specific issues with titles in his constituency, I am more than happy to explore them with him and raise them with my colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Covid-19: UK-wide Response
We can respond effectively to covid-19 only if we have a UK-wide approach. Pooling resources and using the strength of the UK economy enables the Government to support jobs and business and to provide the extra funding and other resources to the devolved Administrations to help them combat the virus.
The UK Government have delivered an extra £12.7 billion to the devolved Administrations throughout this pandemic, including £6.5 billion for the Scottish Government. Does my hon. Friend agree that the enormous level of financial support that has already been provided showcases the strength and value of this great and united Union?
I very much agree with my hon. Friend; the strength of the UK economy and the Treasury’s international standing means that we have been able to fund the covid-19 response across all parts of the UK. Given those facts, it is worth considering the point made last week by Alex Salmond’s former adviser:
“Thirteen years in government and the SNP have yet to show their workings”
on how a separate Scotland would manage financially.
There is no doubt that some confusion is caused when the different Administrations come to different conclusions based on our advice about quarantine, numbers of people who can gather together and so on. The Minister has just spoken about a UK-wide approach. Would it not be better if some of these regulations were decisions for the UK Government?
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. We have already had examples of collaboration during this period. For example, on 23 August, the chief medical officers for all parts of the UK issued a joint statement on the current evidence of the risks and benefits to health from schools and childcare settings reopening. UK and devolved Administration Ministers meet regularly to explore and discuss these issues. Although it is right that across the UK different authorities should be able to respond to specific circumstances, I hope that political considerations do not lead to this being difference just for the sake of it.
Will my hon. Friend expand on the success and the effectiveness of the Joint Biosecurity Centre in informing decision makers around the UK on our best way to combat coronavirus?
My hon. Friend highlights just another example of where working together strengthens our response. I am delighted that legislation has been passed enabling the Scottish Government and the UK Government to allow the JBC to provide services to Ministers and officials in both Administrations.
Covid-19: Care Homes
The UK Government and the devolved Administrations regularly discuss all aspects of the coronavirus response. Public health and social care are devolved matters for the Scottish Government, but we do provide support to the devolved Administrations where necessary, including increasing testing capacity.
My brother-in-law’s father somehow contracted covid in a care home and, sadly, passed away. Like us, many families will have had to bear the tragedy of not being able to comfort their loved ones as they grieved their loss. Scotland has the highest care home death rate in the UK, and last month it was revealed that at least 37 hospital patients who had tested positive for coronavirus were discharged into care homes, which helped to turn them into breeding grounds for the virus, resulting in the loss of invaluable lives. So what discussions has the Minister had with Scottish Ministers about why that was allowed to happen?
First, may I extend my sympathy to the hon. Gentleman for his family’s loss? There are so many examples where families are grieving because of the loss of loved ones. He raises a devolved matter, and I know that Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Health and Sport is looking at what caused this situation and that there will be an inquiry into it. This Government stand ready and we do help the Scottish Government in increasing testing capacity so that these instances are not repeated.
EU Exit: Scottish Economy
We left the EU on 31 January, and negotiations for a future trade partnership are ongoing. Over time, the economic benefits of departing from EU law will clearly offset any short-run and often hypothetical problems, and those benefits will be felt both in Scotland and across the UK.
Yesterday’s admission by the Northern Ireland Secretary that the Internal Market Bill would be breaking international law will make many countries question the trustworthiness of the UK’s trade negotiations and the reliability of any deals. What impact does this Minister think that will have on the Scottish economy?
Covid-19: Effect on Black Community in Scotland and England
It is clear that the black community has been disproportionately affected by covid-19, and action is under way to determine what is driving these disparities. We continue to work closely with the Scottish Government and the Department of Health and Social Care on a range of issues related to covid-19, and will continue to do so to address the impact on the black community across the whole of the UK.
Findings from three Edinburgh University surveys of Scottish ethnic minorities show that, from 2015 to 2019, between 18% and 20% of respondents said they experienced racial discrimination in using health services. Will the Minister’s Department commit to investigating this further and to taking steps to eliminate all kinds of racial discrimination in health services?
I recognise that the hon. Lady is an ardent campaigner for equality in the black community. The UK Government are keenly aware of the continuing discrimination ethnic minorities face in the United Kingdom today and take seriously their obligation to secure equality for all. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities on 16 June.
The Prime Minister was asked—
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the continual support he gives to the people of Gibraltar and to Gibraltar. I can assure him that the sovereignty of Gibraltar is inviolable, and I join him, as I hope all Members join him, in wishing the people of Gibraltar a very happy national day on Thursday.
Yesterday, I spoke to a mum who lives in London. She has a four-year-old daughter, who had a very high temperature yesterday morning. She phoned 111, and was told to get a test. She tried to book, and was told the nearest was Romford. That was 9 o’clock in the morning. She explored that, but there were no tests there. She was then told Haywards Heath, halfway to Brighton—on exploration, no tests there. By lunch time, this mum was told the nearest place was Telford or Inverness. A slot became available in Lee Valley in the afternoon—one slot—but, unfortunately, that was being offered across the country, including to people in Manchester, and it was impossible to book. At 9 o’clock last night, she was told the nearest centre was Swansea. This is, frankly, ridiculous. Who does the Prime Minister think is responsible for this?
Clearly, I take responsibility, as I have done throughout, for the entire handling of the coronavirus crisis, but I would just say to those who attack NHS Test and Trace, and those who deprecate the efforts of the people who are doing their level best to keep us safe, that it is precisely because of the success of test and trace that capacity has gone up from 2,000 a month in March to 320,000 a day. We know, thanks to NHS Test and Trace, in granular detail, in a way that we did not earlier this year, about what is happening with this pandemic. We know the groups that are suffering, the extent of the infection rates, and we have been able, thanks to NHS Test and Trace, to do the local lockdowns that have been working. We also know that, alas, some people have not been following the guidance in the way that they should and, therefore, we are seeing a rise in infections, and that is why today we are taking decisive steps to intensify our social distancing measures—the rule of six that will be familiar to the country—in order that we can keep our economy going, that we can keep our schools open and keep this virus under control. I hope that he will support those measures and, indeed, support NHS Test and Trace.
I will hear the measures later on, but we will in principle support them, as I have supported all the measures the Prime Minister has introduced, as he well knows. It is the right thing to do, and I have asked people to follow Government advice at every opportunity.
Nobody is attacking here. The Prime Minister needs to know how anxious hundreds of families are. In the past few weeks, they have been sent all over the country or told there are no tests. It cannot be brushed off. Earlier this year, the Health Secretary said:
“Anybody who needs a test can get a test, and it’s the most important thing that you can do to stop the spread of this virus.”
This is a very serious issue, but the Government line on it seems to be changing all the time. Yesterday, the director of NHS Test and Trace said,
“Can I…offer my…apologies to anyone who cannot get a covid test...it’s our laboratory processing”
that is the problem. This morning, the Health Secretary changed tack and appeared to blame the public. I note that he made a statement yesterday and faced questions but he did not say anything about the excuse that he puts forward this morning that emerged overnight. So who is right—the director of Test and Trace, who says it is a laboratory problem, or the Health Secretary, who says it is the public’s fault?
I, of course, sympathise with all those who are facing difficulties getting a test as fast as they want, but demand is at an unprecedented high, particularly because of demand for asymptomatic patients, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman should know that this country has done more tests—17.6 million—than any other country in Europe. He likes international comparisons. That is thanks to the efforts of NHS Test and Trace, which is, in my view, doing an absolutely heroic job in spite of the difficulties that it faces. It has massively raised its output and it will be up to 500,000 tests a day by the end of October. This is an organisation that is working heroically to contain the spread of the disease, and it requires the public to trust the organisation and to participate. Yesterday, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that it was on the verge of collapse. I think that those were ill-chosen words. I think he now regrets those words. I think he should reflect and he should take them back.
Hundreds of families have been trying to get a test in the last week, and they cannot get one. I do acknowledge the number of tests overall, but this is basic stuff. People who have got covid symptoms are very anxious about themselves, their children, their families and what to do. It means they cannot go to work and they cannot send their children to school. It matters, and if they cannot get tests the Prime Minister needs to take responsibility and not just tell us about the future or something else, but address this problem.
I want to take it further, because it is not just that people are being told to go hundreds of miles. Somebody contacted me yesterday and said: “My wife has a temperature and they said we needed to isolate and get a test done. I have been trying to book a test”. This is yesterday, Prime Minister. They continued: “the site says, ‘No capacity’. Then I tried for a home test kit and they are telling me that there are no kits available at present.” That is the situation yesterday. Yesterday, there were no tests available in London and it was the same the day before. Prime Minister, what is happening?
I note that the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not take back his criticism and his attack on NHS Test and Trace, and I regret that. I gave him the opportunity to withdraw his verdict that it was on the verge of collapse: it is not. It is doing a heroic job and testing hundreds of thousands of people. Yes, we will do more, and the world we want to move to as fast as possible is a world in which everybody can take enabling tests at the beginning of the day and antigen tests to identify whether or not we have the virus., like a pregnancy test, within 15 minutes or so, so that we know whether we are able to live our lives as normally as possible. That is the vision that the Health Secretary and others have been sketching out over the last few days and that is where we intend to get to.
In the meantime, NHS Test and Trace is doing a heroic job, and today I can tell the right hon. and learned Gentleman that most people get an in-person test result within 24 hours, and the median journey is under 10 miles if someone has to take a journey to get one.
We all want test, trace and isolate to succeed, and I have offered my support before. The Prime Minister is ignoring the problem: if people are being told to go hundreds of miles, something is wrong. This has got a lot worse in the past week or two—all Members of the House know that, because they have all had constituents telling them that. The Prime Minister talks about capacity. The latest Government figures were updated last night. They show that, on average, 75,000 tests are not being used every day. If 75,000 tests are not being used, why yesterday were people being told to go hundreds of miles for a test? Why yesterday were people being told that there is no capacity?
The issue at the moment is that there has been a massive increase in the number of people who need or want tests, particularly people who do not have symptoms. We need—I hope the right hon. and learned Gentleman agrees—to prioritise people such as NHS front-line staff and our care workers who urgently need those tests. As we massively increase the number of tests, it is those groups who are getting priority.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman is wrong in what he says about the failure of NHS Test and Trace, so let me tell him that of those contacts who supply details, 80% are reached, and 320,000 people have been persuaded to self-isolate and stop the spread of the disease. That is the British people ignoring the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s attempt to undermine confidence in test and trace. They are ignoring his attempt to undermine confidence, and working together to get this disease defeated.
I am listening carefully to what the Prime Minister says, and what is undermining confidence is families being told to go hundreds of miles and they cannot get a test. That is undermining confidence. I just want this fixed. We do not need to have an argument. What is the problem? The Prime Minister should accept that there is a problem, tell us what the solution is, and we will all muck in, try to make it better, and tell our constituents.
I have been listening. Is the Prime Minister saying that too many people are coming forward for tests and that it is a capacity problem, or not? People are trying to do the right thing. They want to go back to work. We want children back in schools. The Prime Minister is encouraging that—quite right too—and we understand and support that. The Government side of the bargain was to deliver an effective test, trace and isolate scheme, but two weeks into September there is a glaring hole. Will the Prime Minister tell the House when he first knew about this particular problem of people having to go hundreds of miles, or that tests were not going to be available? It is in the last week that this issue has arisen. When did he first know that that was a problem?
It is obviously a function of the growing demand and growing public confidence in NHS Test and Trace that we have to supply more and more tests, and that is what we have been doing. I do not know whether you have been listening, Mr Speaker, but I have been trying to give the House the figures. Thanks to the heroic efforts of NHS Test and Trace, we have gone up from 2,000 tests a day in March to 320,000 a day today. That is thanks to the efforts of thousands of people, who are listening keenly to the words of the right hon. and learned Gentleman for some support, encouragement or belief in what they are trying to do. Thanks to them, on average, people have to travel less than 10 miles, and thanks to them, 80% of the contacts that they or a coronavirus patient identify are reached and told to self-isolate. That is what we are trying to do. It is hard work. It is a big job, and they are doing a fantastic job. I think that what they would like to hear is some praise, encouragement and support from the right hon. and learned Gentleman.
Why can we not just hear from the Prime Minister an honest answer? If he stood at the Dispatch Box and said, “I know something’s gone wrong in the last couple of weeks. We have been getting hundreds of examples of people being sent all over the place or being told there is no test. I have looked into it. I have worked out what the problem is and here is my plan”, people might be reassured. But, as ever, he pretends the problem is not there. The infection rate is rising. This is the very point at which we need a functioning testing regime. Far from the “world-beating” system we were promised, the Government cannot even get the basics right. The Government are lurching from crisis to crisis. They still lack even basic incompetence—[Interruption.] They lack competence. [Interruption.] Yes, Prime Minister, they lack competence, and that is what is holding Britain back. My final question is this: when is the problem with test, trace and isolate going to be fixed?
I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman was on the money when he said that this Government lacked incompetence. I just say to him that we are working flat out to address all the issues confronting us today, including trying to get the infection rate down, and we are getting on with taking the tough decisions and making the tough calls that will take this country forward.
When it came to saying schools were safe, the right hon. and learned Gentleman was silent because he did not want to offend his union bosses. When left-wing anarchists tried to destroy the freedom of the press, he was silent because for some reason he did not want to offend crusty left-wing anarchists. When it comes, by the way, to sticking up for our UK internal market and for delivering on the will of the British people—one of the most important issues facing us today—he is totally silent on the Bill that obsesses the rest of his Back Benchers. He is totally silent. A great ox once again has stood on his tongue. He has nothing at all to say about that subject today, because he does not want to offend the huge number of his Back Benchers who want to overturn the verdict of the people and take us back into the EU, which is of course what he wants to do himself.
This Government get on and take the tough decisions on behalf of the British people, delivering thousands of jobs through our kickstart scheme, record-breaking investment in affordable housing with a £12 billion programme, and getting on with all our work, working with the British people and working with the right hon. and learned Gentleman—if he would only do so—to get coronavirus defeated and to take our country forward. We make the tough calls; all he does is sit on the sidelines and carp.
Shortly, the Government will publish their internal market proposals. I have seen them. They are nothing short of an attack on Scotland’s Parliament and an affront to the people of Scotland. As we have already heard, this legislation breaks international law, but it also breaks domestic law. The Prime Minister and his friends—a parcel o’ rogues—are creating a rogue state where the rule of law does not apply. Why does the Prime Minister think that he and his friends are above the law?
On the contrary, the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill is about protecting jobs, protecting growth and ensuring the fluidity and safety of our UK internal market and prosperity throughout the United Kingdom. It should be welcomed, I believe, in Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and throughout the whole country.
Of course, we saw the Prime Minister breaking the law last year with the Prorogation of Parliament. We have seen the behaviour of Dominic Cummings, and we know that the Government are prepared to break their international obligations. What the Prime Minister said is complete rubbish, and the Prime Minister knows it. His own White Paper was clear that state aid is going to be grabbed back from Scotland and handed to Westminster. If the Prime Minister will not listen to the Scottish Government, will he listen to the National Farmers Union Scotland president, who warned that the proposals “limit” the devolved Administrations? The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee warned that they will
“create new reservations in areas of devolved competence.”
The General Teaching Council for Scotland has warned that the proposals undermine devolved education functions. That, Mr Speaker, is the reality.
Scotland is speaking out, and I state that the Scottish Parliament will reject this attack on devolution, so the question is: will the Prime Minister break domestic law, disregard the settled will of the Scottish people, ignore the concerns of Scotland’s communities and press ahead with this Bill? The time for Scotland’s place as an independent, international, law-abiding nation is almost here. Our time has come.
The answer is that yes, indeed, we will press on with the Bill, because I believe that the right hon. Gentleman’s attacks on it are totally illogical. It actually represents a substantial transfer of powers and of sovereignty to Scotland, to Wales, to Northern—it is a massive devolutionary act. What it also does is—I believe this is common ground across the Dispatch Box—[Interruption.] It also ensures the integrity of the UK internal market. He speaks of a transfer of powers to the UK Government. On the contrary, what he would do is transfer powers back to Brussels not just over competition and state aid but, of course, over fisheries too. That is the policy of the Scottish nationalist party, and it would be a disaster for our country. [Interruption.]
Every suicide is an absolute tragedy, and my hon. Friend is right to focus on that issue in the way that he does. I am proud that the Government are rolling out record investments in suicide prevention. I also pay tribute to the charitable sector—to Mind, ENGAGE and Davy Orr—for the fantastic work it does to make a difference at that crucial moment and to prevent suicide.
The hon. Lady is entirely right to draw attention to the plight of the Uyghurs, as both I and the Foreign Secretary have done. We raise these concerns directly with the Chinese authorities and will continue to do so in the G20, the UN and every other context.
I understand that the council concerned has acknowledged the failures and the improvements that are needed. For our part, we are reviewing the oversight of special educational needs schools and will be commissioning a new round of inspections by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission. I am happy to write to my hon. Friend further about that issue.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, and I know that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to the family and friends of Mercy Baguma. We take very seriously the wellbeing of all who are in the asylum system, and I can assure him that the relevant Minister will take up that particular case with him.
I draw a sharp distinction and contrast between the civilised approach of my right hon. Friend to environmental protest and that taken by those who tried in vain to frustrate the freedom of the press. I must say that I was struck by the silence of the right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) when he had an opportunity to condemn it. To answer my right hon. Friend’s point directly, I do think it is important now, given the weight of the economic interests that were under threat and the threat to the freedom of the press, that we look at what we can do under public order and, indeed, under the law on nuisance. That is what we will do.
I have every sympathy with those who now want to get tests, and the demand is very acute, partly because so many people who do not have symptoms want a test. Our view is that the priority should be those who do have symptoms, and the groups that I mentioned earlier. We will do everything we can to address the issues in Jarrow and across the country. I remind the hon. Lady that NHS Test and Trace has so far conducted 17.6 million tests, which is more than any other European country, so she should take at least some pride in that.
I thank my hon. Friend, and I thank the people of Dewsbury for their fortitude in doing what they have done and the local action that they are taking to defeat the virus. Of course, as soon as we see results in the case of a local lockdown, we do take that area out of lockdown. I have no doubt that the same will happen in Dewsbury and elsewhere.
It was this Government that introduced the living wage, and I am proud that we have so far delivered a record increase in the living wage and supported families throughout the crisis, not just with the living wage but with a huge £160 billion package of support. This is a Government who put their arms around the people of the country and help them through tough times.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to champion Burnley College and the cutting edge education in the technologies of the future that this Government support. I welcome all the plans that Burnley College has for capital investment to develop its campus.
This Government have already built far more council homes, as far as I can remember, than Labour did in 13 years when they were last in office, and we will go on. You have just heard, Mr Speaker, about the huge £12 billion investment in affordable homes that are making this week, and we will deliver beautiful new homes across the country, building on brownfield sites in a way that is affordable and helps young people on to the housing ladder in the way that they need, either through affordable rent or through part-buy, part-rent schemes, which are immensely attractive. That is the way forward for our country.
King’s Lynn will benefit from the Government’s levelling up agenda with £25 million through the towns fund. Will my right hon. Friend encourage Ministers to look favourably at proposals for a school of nursing at the College of West Anglia, to help to kickstart local training and job opportunities for the people of west Norfolk?
My hon. Friend is an excellent champion for his area, and if he can just contain his impatience a little bit, he may hear something to his advantage and to the advantage of his constituency from his right hon. Friend and mine, the Communities Secretary.
The £150 million spent on faulty masks, the £120 million spent on contracts awarded to a Tory council and the staggering £1 billion-worth of contracts awarded without proper due diligence—where has the money gone, Prime Minister?
All I can tell the hon. Lady is that there has been a massive investment in PPE throughout this pandemic, and billions of items have been supplied. If she has a particular anxiety about some particular contract, I am more than happy to address that if she will take the trouble to write to me.
As somebody who grew up on a farm many years ago, I am thrilled to support Back British Farming Day. It is thanks to them that we have fantastic food on our plates every day, and also that we have an amazing opportunity to increase our agricultural exports around the world. That is why I am so much looking forward to that period, which comes at the end of this year, when we will be able to take advantage of the freedoms that Brexit brings, and I hope very much that Opposition Members will join the whole House in pushing through the valuable United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which will help to support UK farming across the whole country and build a stronger agricultural industry for our whole country.
The Prime Minister may be aware that there are some Scottish nationalists who want Scotland to follow the example of Catalonia and have a wildcat independence referendum. I oppose that because it would be illegal. If the Prime Minister thinks it is acceptable for his Government to ignore international law, on what basis would he oppose it?
I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman. Let me just say this, because the Leader of the Opposition in my view neglected to raise this important subject. My job is to uphold the integrity of the UK, but also to protect the Northern Irish peace process and the Good Friday agreement. To do that, we need a legal safety net to protect our country against extreme or irrational interpretations of the protocol that could lead to a border down the Irish sea in a way that I believe, and I think Members around the House believe, would be prejudicial to the interests of the Good Friday agreement and prejudicial to the interests of peace in our country. That has to be our priority.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Had the Secretary of State for Health given notice of the Government’s intention to further restrict our liberty to meet with one another in his statement yesterday, at least some of us would have been able to question him about it. What remedy is there for those of us who enthusiastically support the Prime Minister, but nevertheless want to restrain the Government’s ability to govern by order without debate?
I thank the right hon. Member for giving me notice. I am very sympathetic to the main point he makes. I accept that decisions have been taken in a fast-moving situation, but timings for statements are known to Ministers. It is really not good enough for the Government to make decisions of this kind in a way that shows insufficient regard to the importance of major policy announcements being made first to this House and to Members of this House wherever possible. I have already sent a letter to the Secretary of State. I think the total disregard for this Chamber is not acceptable. I know that the Prime Minister is a Member of Parliament as well and that he will ensure that statements should be made here first, especially as this particular Secretary of State requests statements. To then ignore the major fact that he wanted to put to the country, and not put it before this House, is not acceptable and I hope he will apologise to Members.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Not only did we not get a convincing explanation yesterday from the Secretary of State on the ongoing testing fiasco, but in fact Mr Robert Peston of ITV wrote on Twitter, ahead of the Secretary of State’s statement, that the Government were planning to shift the regulations down from 30 people to six. There was no reason why the Secretary of State could not have told the House yesterday that that was the Government’s plan. Has the Secretary of State given you, Mr Speaker, notice that he is coming to the House to update MPs on that change in policy, or should we assume that Ministers do not know what they are doing from one day to the next?
What I would take on board is the fact that it was all over Twitter as this was going on. Obviously, somebody decided to tell the media rather than this House. What I would say is that I expect the Secretary of State to apologise to Members and make sure that this Chamber knows first. He was fully aware—fully aware—of what was going to be said later. Let me say that if this Minister wants to run this Chamber ragged, I can assure you now that I am sure an urgent question every day might just begin to run him ragged.
I am now going to suspend the House. In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.
Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June.)
United Kingdom Internal Market Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Secretary Alok Sharma, supported by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Michael Gove, Secretary George Eustice, Secretary Robert Jenrick, Secretary Brandon Lewis, Secretary Alister Jack, Secretary Simon Hart, Chloe Smith, Robin Walker and Paul Scully, presented a Bill to make provision in connection with the internal market for goods and services in the United Kingdom (including provision about the recognition of professional and other qualifications); to make provision in connection with provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol relating to trade and state aid; to authorise the provision of financial assistance by Ministers of the Crown in connection with economic development, infrastructure, culture, sport and educational or training activities and exchanges; to make regulation of the provision of distortive or harmful subsidies a reserved or excepted matter; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 177) with explanatory notes (Bill 177-EN).
Houses in Multiple Occupation
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law relating to the licensing of Houses in Multiple Occupation; to increase penalties for the contravention of such licences; and for connected purposes.
The private rented sector is an important part of our housing market. As we see large premises in town centres being vacated by businesses, there is a growing demand for them to be turned into housing. The introduction of high-quality residential units to town centres may be a great way to bring life back into town centres, but a worrying trend is developing in such units: they are subdivided into poor-quality houses of multiple occupancy, which are aimed at the very poorest and most vulnerable in society. The problem affects not only my constituency in Blyth Valley, but other towns up and down this wonderful country of ours.
Houses in multiple occupancy, or HMOs as they have become known, are a useful part of the housing sector, providing cheap accommodation for people whose housing options are limited. Although standards need to be met in large HMOs, these mainly relate to fire and building safety, as well as ensuring that facilities such as bathrooms are available. However, no consideration is given as part of the regime for the welfare of the residents or the impact that subdividing large properties into HMOs can have on the local community.
The standards set out a minimum accommodation size, but this makes appalling reading. Two adults are permitted to live in a space of just 10.22 square metres, which is nothing—the size of a reasonably-sized garden shed. According to the regulations, a child under 10 requires an additional 4.6 metres, or the size of a double bed—space not merely to sleep in, but to live, play, learn and eat in. Even more appalling is that, until the last Conservative Government introduced it in 2018, there was no minimum room size at all. The mental welfare of those forced to live in such conditions must be a concern for us all in 2020.
But however woeful the standards required for licensing HMOs across the country, in my home town of Blyth only one such premises is licensed as a house of multiple occupancy. Others are listed as hotels or marketed as Airbnbs or bed and breakfasts, creating a multitude of problems. When a property is not registered as a house in multiple occupancy, it falls through the gap, which means that local authorities such as the council and the police do not have the right of access and cannot implement boundaries, restrictions or measures to support the safeguarding of the clients living there.
The very nature of the accommodation provided by HMOs often means that those living in them have fallen on hard times or are suffering from mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, and, in a lot of cases, as reported to me by the police, domestic abuse. These are vulnerable people, whom we have a duty to safeguard. Allowing HMOs to exist by disguising them as hostels, hotels or bed and breakfasts not only denies tenants security of tenure, but means that the accommodation does not face the true scrutiny it should. With no help or support, living in a community can be hard for people who are not well equipped to live on their own.
Many of these are young people. I worked for years in the NHS in a mental health capacity, and on a few really sad occasions I heard of clients forcibly being taken to cashpoints by drug dealers or loan sharks, where they were forced to empty their bank accounts of the benefits that had been paid in. This would leave the vulnerable client with no money left in their account to buy the basics to live for the next two weeks. Alone in a room with no support is no way for our vulnerable people to live in 2020.
You and I, Mr Speaker—and, I am sure, everybody in this House—are fortunate that we can take for granted being able to go to the fridge and have fresh milk, along with food to make a sandwich, clothing to put on our backs and a warm bed to sleep in. But when people are in a vulnerable position, it is hard when their finances are taken away from them. Just getting by, day to day, impacts on the trauma that some of these vulnerable people are already having to deal with.
It is vital that a stricter regime of checks and measures is imposed on landlords to ensure that safeguarding of clients is kept at the forefront. However, there are other issues that need to be addressed. For example, I find it concerning that, as things stand, the police are not consulted on planning applications for large HMOs. However, they are often called upon to deal with the issues that can arise from such dwellings. These houses cause concern in local communities that the inhabitants are likely to cause problems due to antisocial behaviour and other social problems. It is vital that the public living in and around the vicinity feel that they can live and integrate with the residents of houses in multiple occupancy safely and that community values are respected.
I would like to see, as a result of this legislation, greater powers to local authorities to deal with both the development and governance of houses in multiple occupancy. Requiring large HMOs to provide a nominated person to be responsible for the residents living there on a 24/7 basis would allow a point of contact for the authorities and the local community to highlight issues and, where possible, address them in a way that safeguards both the individuals and the local community.
I understand that not all HMOs exploit their tenants, and I also understand that there are other reasons why, for people wanting to live in small, cheap units close to facilities, they may be attractive. But I wish to ensure that they are not used as a method of housing vulnerable people in substandard accommodation with no regard for their mental or physical wellbeing or the needs of the local community. I want to ensure that someone being able to buy a house in a sub-prime area and divide it into multiple bedrooms, while showing absolutely no care for the individual or the local residents, becomes a thing of the past. I would like to see a balance given to the community, so that clients feel safe and part of that community, and the public living in and around the vicinities of houses of multiple occupancy feel that they can live and integrate with the clients, with respect and safeguarding for all.
Question put and agreed to.
That Ian Levy, Duncan Baker, Paula Barker, Dehenna Davison, Katherine Fletcher, Peter Gibson, James Grundy, Paul Howell, Marco Longhi, Rob Roberts and Matt Vickers, present the Bill.
Ian Levy accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 5 February, and to be printed (Bill 178).
[11th Allotted Day]
Protection of Jobs and Businesses
I beg to move,
That this House calls for the Government to abandon its one-size-fits-all withdrawal of the Coronavirus Job Retention and Self-Employment Income Support Schemes, and instead offer targeted income support to businesses and self-employed people in those sectors of the economy that have been hardest hit by the virus and are most in need of continuing assistance, and in those areas of the country which have been placed under local restrictions due to rising rates of infection.
Our country is in the grip of a jobs crisis—a crisis that will intensify if the Conservative Government do not change course. Between April and June this year, the number of people in work fell by the largest amount in over a decade. By July, there were nearly three quarters of a million fewer employees on the payroll than there were just four months earlier. We know that these are extraordinary times. That is why Labour has acted as a constructive Opposition, working with the Government, businesses and trade unions to do all we can to save lives and livelihoods. But it is not enough for the Government now to say simply that this is an unprecedented crisis and that only so much can be done to mitigate the damage. In their amendment to this Opposition day motion, the Conservatives maintain that
I repeat, any—
“from this Government’s proposed plan will cause damage to the United Kingdom economy.”
Some humility, willingness to listen and flexibility is desperately required here.
Under this Government, the UK has suffered the highest number of excess deaths in Europe. It has experienced both the worst quarterly fall in GDP in Europe and the worst quarterly fall among all G7 nations. The evidence suggests that the number of job vacancies in the UK has fallen further than in any comparable economy and that it will take us many months to get back to pre-crisis levels.
Our people have suffered a double whammy: a health crisis coupled with a jobs crisis, both made worse, I regret to say, by the Government’s unwillingness to listen, learn and accept that they do not always know best. But there is still time to change course. Around 4 million people are still furloughed under the Government’s coronavirus job retention scheme. Another 2.7 million people have so far made claims under the self-employment income support scheme, the second and final phase of which has just opened. Many more people have not yet had any support from this Government at all and have fallen through the gaps between the various schemes.
The hon. Member is making a really powerful point. Does she agree that a huge injustice is being done to the self-employed, many of whom have gone for six months without any support whatsoever? These are our small business owners who take some of their salary and dividends for perfectly good reason. Does she agree that the Government should take their fingers out of their ears and start listening to the self-employed?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention. I agree with her. We have repeatedly raised that issue with the Government. Repeatedly we have been told that the computer says no—that no response is possible. That does not appear to be the case given the evidence. There would be means to assess people’s previous income. If there is a concern around fraud, ultimately additional deterrents can be added to the system to prevent any such fraud.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Given the importance of the aviation sector, which has been particularly hard hit, the likes of myself have been calling for an extension of the furlough scheme and a sector-specific deal. However, due to Government inaction and procrastination, thousands of individuals within my Slough constituency are now being made redundant, or are on the verge of being made redundant. Does she agree that it is now time for the Government to act before we lose those jobs for good?
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point. The jobs crisis that we are talking about is particularly intense in many of those communities impacted by the withdrawal of support for industries critical for the future of our country. Of course, as he mentioned, we were promised a sector-specific deal for aviation. We have not received it. We have not had the Government sitting down with the sector to work through the different scenarios and how we can plan for the future in that case. And we are not seeing the targeted wage support in aviation or, indeed, in other industries critical for the economic future that we desperately need.
I fear that the hon. Member may have missed off the end of the sentence, which is that, while it poses challenges, ultimately that does not mean that those challenges should not be stepped up to—they should be faced up to by the Government. His Government have accepted the need for some targeted support for hospitality and retail with the grants. There is also the Eat Out to Help Out scheme. Yes, there will be boundary issues. We fully accept that, but, ultimately, to govern is to lead. It is to take difficult decisions. The Government trumpet the fact that they worked with industry, with trade unions and with other stakeholders in creating the furlough scheme. They need to do that again to work through these challenges and to create the targeted system of support that is needed.
I will make some progress if the Member will permit me. He may find the answers to his questions—any further ones—in what I am going on to say.
In addition to those groups of people who I have just mentioned, we know that there are many others who are concerned about their futures working in parts of the UK that are still subject to local restrictions, or that may be subject to additional restrictions in the future. We also have huge numbers of people, as we have just been discussing, who work in sectors that are still not back to business as usual, despite their critical importance for our economic future—whether we are talking about highly skilled manufacturing or the creative industries—yet the Chancellor is ploughing ahead with this one-size-fits-all withdrawal of the income support schemes, pulling the rug from under thousands of businesses and millions of workers all at the same time, irrespective of their situation. He is doing so without any analysis, it appears, of the impact of this withdrawal on unemployment levels and the enormous long-term costs of so many people being driven out of work.
One of the categories that comes under severe pressures, as the shadow Minister and others in this House will know, is local councils. Their staff have been furloughed and they are having to take them back but their budgets are squeezed. Does she support my plea that additional help must be given to those councils to protect and retain jobs, because people are operating as a skeleton staff for almost a standard level of service provision, and it is just not possible to deliver that?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising that point. The Government promised local authorities that they would meet their calls to back-fill not just the spending that they have incurred during this period but the income that was lost. What do we have instead? We have a resiling from that promise. That is problematic because of the huge impact it will have on employment in different areas—local authority employment can be a critical part of many economies—but it is also an enormous issue for the economic development in those areas, where ultimately the lack of local leadership will be a huge problem. The Government need to hold to their promise in that regard.
The shadow Chancellor says that she wants to extend the furlough scheme, but the key question is: how long for? The Chancellor said when he announced it that it would end in October. If it is October, the shadow Chancellor says it should be November; if it is November, then she says December. If she wants a sector-specific scheme, when does it end—at the end of the crisis, as some of her colleagues have said? Is that when the virus is eradicated? What is the solution?
With all due respect to the hon. Member, he may have missed what I said. We believe that the Government need to sit down and talk to exactly the stakeholders they trumpeted so much about working with when they created the furlough scheme, so that it can provide the system of support that is necessary to protect jobs and protect our economic capacity. As I have said time and again, we do not believe that a continuation of the furlough scheme precisely as it stands now is what is required. We need a targeted wage support scheme, which is exactly the approach being taken by huge numbers of other countries but which this Government are turning their face against.
I will make some progress because I am aware that so many Members want to speak on this critical subject.
For some businesses and staff well on their way back to normal, it is absolutely right and proper that wage support ends. As I said, we are not arguing for a continuation of the furlough scheme exactly as it stands across every sector of the economy, but for others, many of which are sectors crucial to our country’s economic future, additional targeted support could be the difference between survival and going under.
The Chancellor says that he wants to pick winners, but the necessary public health measures that his Government have enacted have created losers. Across the economy as a whole, about one in 10 workers are still furloughed. For the transport sector, it is closer to one in five. For arts and entertainment, it is one in two. Yet he is stubbornly insisting on treating every part of the economy as if it is in exactly the same situation, and in doing so putting the recovery and millions of people’s livelihoods at risk. A targeted extension of Government wage support to enable short-hours working does not mean extending support for everyone forever; it means targeting it at where it is needed most.
With respect, I will not give way as I have done so many times and I am aware of the time pressure with many Members wishing to participate in this debate.
We need support that is targeted to the sectors of our economy that have been hardest hit by the virus but are critical to our country’s economic future; to areas of the country that are subject to local restrictions because of this Government’s failure to get a proper grip on the health crisis; and to businesses that would be viable in ordinary times, employing people doing jobs they love, but just need a little more help to get through this crisis. These are people like those I spoke to over the summer in north Wales working in advanced manufacturing. They do not want a permanent handout from Government, just more support while the economy is still in dire straits to help them get back on their feet. Without that support now, jobs like theirs will take years to come back. Jobs in the supply chain linked to their plant will vanish too, and with them the economic prospects for their communities.
I called on the Chancellor to be more flexible when he gave his summer economic statement in this House two months ago. What do we get instead? A panicked handout of £1,000 bonuses to any business, anywhere, that brought back a furloughed employee. That is too much public money to dole out to a business that was going to bring back workers anyway. The Chancellor allocated £9.4 billion for that bonus scheme. Let us just imagine how much more effectively that money could be spent if only he had thought flexibly about how to respond to the crisis. Let us imagine how many of those at-risk jobs could be saved. The economic reality simply does not support the approach the Chancellor is taking, and he should have the courage to recognise that and change course.
The Chancellor may not wish to take our word for it that a targeted, flexible form of wage support is the right way to go, but he could at least be persuaded by the examples of other countries, such as Germany and France, which have each extended their schemes to last for two years; the Netherlands, which has extended its scheme for a further nine months; or Australia and Ireland, both of which have committed to support furloughed workers until March next year. Of course, in our own United Kingdom the devolved Governments have called for targeted wage support to be continued, not snatched away at the same pace across all sectors of our economy.
If that is not good enough for the Chancellor, he could listen to trade unions or think-tanks—after all, he trumpeted working with trade unions to create the furlough scheme in the first place. He could listen to the TUC, which has proposed a job retention and upskilling scheme; the Institute for Public Policy Research, which has advocated a coronavirus work sharing scheme; or the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which has suggested a covid-19 job support scheme.
If that is not compelling enough, perhaps the Chancellor could heed the voice of business. The British Chambers of Commerce has said that
“businesses across the UK are going to need further support to weather uncertainty over the coming months.”
Make UK has called for
“an extension of the Job Retention Scheme to those sectors which are not just our most important but who have been hit hardest.”
If I may, I will finish this point and then take one more intervention; I do not want to frustrate all those colleagues who wish to speak in this debate. The Federation of Small Businesses has said that
“it is time for the Government to bring forward a rescue package for those who have been left out.”
The Institute of Directors has said that the Chancellor’s bonus scheme would
“do little to prevent job losses”—
“some form of an extension to the furlough scheme should remain on the table.”
The CBI has been clear:
“It’s too soon to pull business support away at the end of October.”
The Chancellor likes to think that he has the ear of business, but it is clear that he is just not listening when business tells him to change course.
The shadow Chancellor makes some fair points, particularly about working constructively with government. On that basis, should she not constructively set out her solution to these problems, rather than simply saying that the Government should solve them? Obviously, she has ideas of how to solve them, so why does she not publish solutions?
I would love it, frankly, if the Chancellor and his team wished to open talks with the Opposition, with business, with trade unions, looking at the different options that I have just set out. I know the hon. Gentleman is one who does look at detail. I have just set out a variety of different models that have been set out by business, trade unions and think tanks. We want to work with government on this. If he is signalling that he wishes that discussion to happen, I hope that his Front-Bench colleagues will take that invitation up as well. It is not just he who wishes to have that discussion with his Front-Bench team. I note that a huge number of Conservative Members want to participate in this debate, and I am keen to hear their thoughts on it. Some of their colleagues have already pronounced on it. The right hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Stephen Crabb) has said that there should be
“targeted extensions to the furlough scheme beyond October.”
The hon. Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien) has said that he can see the case for it, too. How many more Conservative Members are worried, privately, about the impact on their constituents of this Chancellor pushing stubbornly ahead with his plan to take support away from everyone, all at once?
I recall the Chancellor saying that he would do “whatever it takes”. The hospitality and tourism sector, which covers a quarter of the jobs in my constituency, is now entering its third winter in a row, as the sector puts it. Should not support be targeted at that sector, too?
My hon. Friend has been such a champion for those jobs in York and, indeed, for jobs throughout the country. I say to her exactly what businesses in tourism right across the UK have been saying to me when I have spoken to them: they do not want a handout; they just want a fair chance. If they end up having to close their businesses—if they end up having to lay off staff—it will take a very long time to build those businesses back up again. The Government should be listening to them.
Indeed, the Government should be listening, as I said, to the Government Members who are concerned about the withdrawal of the scheme. More than half a million at-risk jobs belong to people living in the constituencies of the Chancellor’s newest colleagues on the Government Benches—over 18,000 in Burton, more than 20,000 in Watford and in excess of 21,000 in Milton Keynes North—but so far, the Chancellor is not listening. Of course, he has not come to the Chamber today to hear what Members have to say about the very real fears of their constituents. We have not heard him speak in the House since the summer recess, despite the fact that our country is in the grip of a jobs crisis.
The Labour party, trade unions, think-tanks, business and even the Chancellor’s own Back Benchers can all see that what the Government are doing will make our jobs crisis worse and lead to untold misery for millions of people, as well as reducing our economic capacity for the future. We are all sounding the alarm; the question is: what will it take for this Government to listen?
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“welcomes the Government’s response to Covid-19 which has already protected the livelihoods of over 12 million people through the eight-month long Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Self-Employment Income Support Scheme; acknowledges the support for hundreds of thousands of businesses up and down the country through unprecedented loan schemes, business grants and tax cuts; further welcomes the help to support, create, and protect jobs through measures such as the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, a temporary cut to VAT and stamp duty, increased incentives for apprenticeships, and the new Kickstart Scheme, as set out in the Government’s ‘Plan for Jobs’ policy paper published in July; and further acknowledges that any deviation from this Government’s proposed plan will cause damage to the United Kingdom economy.”
The House needs no reminding of the scale of the economic challenge facing our country. Recent GDP figures confirm that we have entered an acute recession on a speed and scale that we have never seen before. An economic crisis on this scale means that whatever the Government do, jobs will be lost, businesses will close and, as the Chancellor said last month, “hard times are here”. We should not underestimate the challenge ahead, but neither should we underestimate the Government’s resolve or that of the British people.
From the outset of this pandemic, the Government have acted decisively to protect people’s livelihoods, with one of the most generous and comprehensive packages of support anywhere in the world. We are doing everything we can to recover our economy, support businesses and give everyone the opportunity of good and secure work. Our economic response is moving through a careful, co-ordinated plan, in three phases: first, the immediate response, which started with the Budget in March; secondly, the specific plan for jobs announced in July, to protect, create and support jobs; and thirdly, rebuilding, on which we will say more in the autumn Budget and the comprehensive spending review. Let me take this opportunity to thank the many people—including Members from all parties—businesses and other organisations that have brought forward ideas and suggestions to help us to shape that plan.
I put on the record my thanks for all that the Government have done through the schemes that have helped many of my constituents. One thing needed to make this situation work is the co-operation and help of the banks. Will the Minister consider extending freezes on cards and loans for businesses, especially those in the retail and hospitality sectors? Discussions with the banks and credit card providers are critical to help companies to get over the line. We should extend that period to help them to recover.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury has regular discussions with the financial institutions; he will have heard the concerns set out by the hon. Gentleman and will be happy to take them forward in terms of how the banks respond. In some of the other measures the Government have taken—for example, on mortgage holidays—we have seen a recognition of and response to the concerns we have heard about from our constituents.
Haribo in Pontefract has announced that it is consulting on over 200 redundancies and proposing to move some of its production back to Germany. This is devastating for the hard-working workforce. Will the Chief Secretary urge Haribo to work with the GMB trade union and Wakefield Council to look at alternative plans to prevent huge job losses in the middle of a recession, and will the Government stand ready to help them to do so? Does the Chief Secretary accept that manufacturing industry needs support if we are to prevent deeply damaging mass redundancies?
I absolutely share the concern set out by the right hon. Lady. From conversations that we have had in previous roles, I know how much she advocates for her constituency, and I support that business engaging with her, the council, trade unions and others. I will come on to a number of measures that the Government have taken, and some further measures that we will take, regarding our wider support package to the business community.
This should be set in the context of the three-phase approach. In the first phase of this crisis, the Government introduced measures to halt the spread of the disease. That included protecting our public services with more than £49 billion of funding for the NHS, schools, local authorities and other front-line services. The Chancellor said that he would do whatever is needed to support our NHS, and that is what he delivered. Our plan supported people, with the furlough scheme supporting nearly 10 million jobs—jobs that might otherwise have been lost.
The self-employed scheme provided 2.6 million people with £7.6 billion of support, and mortgage and credit payment holidays helped 1.9 million people to manage their finances—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to that earlier. For those who are out of work, we made welfare support more supportive and easier to access, and we introduced a hardship fund to help up to 3 million of the most vulnerable people. Of course our plan backed business, because we know that only by supporting businesses can we create sustainable jobs.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I pay credit to the Government because they have supported a number of different groups very well. There is, however, one group who they have not supported: the self-employed, who are falling between the gaps. He will have heard about the very real hardship that they are facing right now. They, and the Excluded UK all-party group, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), have been asking for a meeting with the Treasury team, but they have not heard back. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree to meet them and hear directly about the scale of the difficulties they are facing?
I am very familiar with this issue. We covered it in my appearance before the Treasury Committee some months ago, and the Chancellor has repeatedly addressed it. As the hon. Lady will know, the shadow Chancellor referred to part of those concerns, and just yesterday there was discussion in the media about concerns regarding fraud in other Government schemes. Part of the challenge and the constraints on this issue is concern about the level of fraud. We have already set out the Government’s position on the issue. I do not think there is further to add in that respect, because those concerns have been well articulated.
I will make some progress.
In addition to our support for businesses, we have provided nearly £40 billion of support through the tax system, with tax cuts, tax deferrals and the time to pay scheme. We have provided direct cash grants of £10,000 and £25,000 for small businesses and an extensive range of loan programmes, including dedicated investments for innovative tech firms through our Future Fund, and 100% Government guaranteed loans for the smallest businesses through the bounce back loan scheme. The shadow Chancellor said that she wanted the Government to listen, and bounce back loans are a good illustration of how the Government listened to concerns and changed the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme to include that additional measure. That scheme has benefited 1.1 million businesses. The House does not need to take just my word for it, because the chief economist at the CBI described the Chancellor as
“standing shoulder to shoulder with small businesses to help them through this crisis.”
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the CBIL scheme, but many medium-sized and larger businesses in my constituency have struggled to get the loans they require. Lloyds Banking Group in particular has been poor at making positive lending decisions. What are the right hon. Gentleman and his Government doing about that?
I can give a clear and direct answer to that because, together with UK Finance, my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury has discussed bounce back loans, CBILS and larger business interruption loans. Those were targeted at up to £200 million for that mid-tier category of businesses, and I know from discussions with colleagues that a lot of regional businesses in that mid-tier category have been particularly impacted. The point is that this is about the package of Government schemes. Where there are individual constituency cases, we are, of course, always happy to look at them and UK Finance does a very good job in terms of its response.
I have set out the first phase. The second phase of the extraordinary support given relates to our plan for jobs. As part of protecting jobs, we have temporarily applied a reduced rate to VAT for tourism and hospitality, supporting over 150,000 businesses and protecting 2.4 million jobs. I do not know whether you, Mr Speaker, had an opportunity to benefit, but you will be familiar with the popular eat out to help out scheme, which has been a real success. The latest figures—only the one course, clearly, Mr Speaker—show that 100 million covers have been claimed, helping to support 130,000 businesses and protect almost 2 million jobs in a sector which, very seriously, has been particularly acutely hit by the covid pandemic.
Our plans also create new jobs, injecting new certainty and confidence in the housing market by increasing the stamp duty threshold to £500,000 for first-time buyers. That will drive growth and support across housebuilding and property sectors. It also builds on other schemes, such as creating green jobs through a £2 billion green homes grant, saving households hundreds of pounds a year on their energy bills, and through our £1 billion programme to make public buildings, including schools and hospitals, decarbonised. Together, they are all a part of the £640 billion capital investment in economic recovery, job creation and revitalising our national infrastructure over the next five years.
Earlier, my right hon. Friend pointed to the success of bounce back loans. There is no doubt that they have been a huge success, but some businesses who have taken out those loans will hit trouble in terms of making repayments. Will he support a programme of best practice across the banking sector to ensure that those businesses have every chance of getting through this, perhaps with different payment plans?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. From other parliamentary campaigns he has been closely involved in, I know how much he values best practice in the financial services sector. As a former financial services Minister, I share that objective, which is why I am so grateful for the work he has been doing to ensure that best practice is followed to address the specific issue he brings before the House. Of course, the best thing to enable businesses to pay loans back is to get the economy as a whole motoring. That is why we are redoubling our efforts to get on with that now and why the Prime Minister announced that £5 billion of capital investment will be brought forward as part of giving a boost to businesses, so they can indeed meet the requirements of those loans as they arise.
Our plan supports jobs, creates jobs and protects jobs. That supporting of jobs is really the third component. It includes the announcement of the £2 billion kickstart scheme set out by the Chancellor, which will subsidise hundreds of thousands of high-quality jobs for unemployed young people, allowing young people to gain experience that will improve their chances of going on to find long-term and sustainable work. We are also investing a total of £1.6 billion in scaling up employment support schemes, training and apprenticeships to help those of our constituents who are looking for a job.
The Chief Secretary will be aware that companies such as British Airways have used the furlough scheme to facilitate mass redundancy programmes for their staff. In fact, BA has also implemented the firing and rehiring of its remaining 30,000 staff, often on massively reduced wages. Does he think that that is fair?
That is exquisite timing, because I was just about to turn to the point that the hon. Gentleman raises about that use of furlough and the question that the shadow Chancellor raised about whether the scheme should be extended. I want to address head-on the concerns I have heard about that decision.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
The Chief Secretary is very gracious for giving way. This is possibly not the intervention he expects. When we get through all this, and when we have time and peace and quiet, may I urge him and the Chancellor to carry out some sort of audit of how the furlough scheme worked? There have been newspaper stories of inappropriate furloughing of employees, and for any Government of any colour, we need to get to the bottom of that when we have time to do so.
Having been Brexit Secretary over the previous year and Chief Secretary during this economic challenge, I can say that we will come through this, as the Chancellor has set out, and we will come to a time when we can look at the scheme in the way that the hon. Gentleman refers to.
The scheme has protected up to 10 million jobs. The shadow Chancellor raised the duration of the scheme, and I understand those concerns. It has been one of the most difficult decisions that the Government have taken, but it is the right one. I remind the House of the extent of the support that we have offered. First, the furlough is already over eight months. It is one of the most generous schemes in the world, and we have been contributing at a higher rate of people’s wages than in Spain. We are supporting a wider range of businesses than in New Zealand, and our scheme will run for twice as long as in Denmark.
I remind the House that our support for furloughed employees does not end in October, as has been suggested in some interventions. In the Chancellor’s summer statement, he announced the new job retention bonus, which will pay employers £1,000 for every employee still in post by the end of January. For an average employee, that is a subsidy worth 20% of their salary—nearly double the amount of subsidy that a cut in employer’s national insurance would have provided, which I know some people were calling for prior to the Chancellor’s announcement of the bonus. I further remind the House that most people on furlough are employed by very small businesses where £1,000 is a significant and welcome boost.
While we will continue to support furloughed employees through the job retention bonus, it is right that the main scheme comes to an end. We need to focus now on providing people with new opportunities, rather than offering false hope that they will always be able to return to the same job they had before. It is in no one’s long-term interests for the scheme to continue, least of all those trapped in a job that only exists because of the furlough scheme.
To those calling for a new targeted or sector-based furlough, I simply pose three questions that I have still not heard answered satisfactorily today. First, which sectors would we not provide support for? Secondly, what would we do about the supply chains of those sectors on furlough, which can reach across the whole economy? Thirdly, most observers have accepted that the furlough cannot last forever, so how long would we extend it for? Without being able to answer those questions, any proposal for a sector-specific furlough cannot be seen as a serious one—
The Chief Secretary is being generous in giving way; I thank him for that. He will be disappointed to hear that I do not have the answer. However, I want to ask him a simple question. Germany has a much more advantageous scheme, which lasts until 2022. It has been described by industry bodies in the automotive sector and elsewhere as giving them a competitive advantage. Does he agree with that?
The German scheme sits within a very different landscape. It is not actually administered by the Government. It is a long-standing scheme; it has not been set up as a response to covid specifically. I just gave some illustrations of where the UK’s furlough measures stand internationally. This needs to be seen as part of the wider package of support that the Government have set out. Again, the UK package as a whole stands comprehensively as one of the best international schemes on offer.
I will not, because I am conscious that a lot of Members want to speak in the debate.
It is important to note that providing such a comprehensive and decisive economic response has, in common with every advanced economy in the world, dramatically increased public borrowing and debt. In the short run, that has been the right strategy, so that we can protect jobs and incomes, support businesses and drive the recovery. Indeed, the OBR has said that if we had not provided the financial support, the situation would have been far worse. But over the medium term, it is clearly not sustainable to continue borrowing at these levels. Yes, clearly, interest rates right now are at historic lows, which means our cost of borrowing is cheap, but with the Government debt exceeding the size of the UK economy for the first time in more than 50 years, even small changes in interest rates would have a very big impact on our public finances.
Thankfully, we were in a strong fiscal position coming into this crisis, which allowed us to act quickly to support jobs and businesses, but having seen two supposedly once-in-a-generation economic events in just 10 years, we are reminded once again that we cannot know what is around the corner. We will need to return to a position of strong and sustainable public finances.
Let me make one further point this afternoon. While we have made great strides in tackling coronavirus, it may continue to be necessary to take targeted local action to keep the virus under control. We know the impact these local measures have on people and businesses. Since 1 September, we have been trialling support for individuals in Blackburn with Darwen, Pendle and Oldham. Eligible individuals who test positive with the virus will receive £130 for their 10-day period of self-isolation, with higher payments of up to £182 for members of the household or other contacts who need to self-isolate.
Today, I can announce further new measures to support businesses. The Government will provide direct cash grants to businesses that have been ordered to close.
Closed businesses with a rateable value of £51,000 or less will receive a cash grant of £1,000 for each three-week period they are closed. For closed businesses with a rateable value higher than £51,000, the grants will be £1,500. The grants will cover each additional three-week period, so if a small business is closed for six weeks, it will receive £2,000. This new support will give closed businesses a lifeline through the difficult but temporary experience of lockdown—an important next step in our economic plan to protect jobs and businesses against coronavirus. I am grateful for everything my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has done to develop this scheme, and he will bring forward further details shortly.
Let me close with one final observation. In the first phase of our economic response to coronavirus, we supported people, businesses and public services, with support totalling £190 billion. In the second phase, our plan for jobs is protecting, supporting and creating jobs, and as we enter the third phase our economic policy will be driven not just by responding to the immediate crisis, but by ensuring that we level up, spread opportunity, tackle climate change and make sure our response to the pandemic is not just about recovery but renewal. I commend the amendment to the House.
People across these islands are going through the most difficult of times. In the past six months, people have lost loved ones; they have not been able to have the human contact we all need; and they have struggled to keep themselves and their families going. Communities have pulled together admirably to help their neighbours, but businesses of all sizes have found it difficult, and an estimated 730,000 jobs have been lost so far. Ending the employment support schemes prematurely could cost 3 million jobs. The SNP fully supports the motion tabled by the Labour party today.
On 17 March, the Chancellor made a promise in this House. He said:
“I promised to do whatever it takes to support our economy through this crisis and that, if the situation changed, I would not hesitate to take further action.”—[Official Report, 17 March 2020; Vol. 673, c. 931.]
On these Benches, we welcomed the coronavirus job retention scheme and the self-employment support scheme. The economic powers to create such schemes rest in the hands of the UK Government. That has nothing to do with the strength of the Union: it is merely a reflection of where the economic powers lie.
The Scottish Government’s programme for government shows that where we do have the powers, Scotland has an ambitious and comprehensive plan for sustainable economic recovery, and 71% of Scots now think that Holyrood should have the financial powers required to protect our economy.
The hon. Lady mentioned the SNP’s programme for government. Does she agree with the SNP Scottish Government adviser who has said that the programme for government announced by Nicola Sturgeon lacks ambition for business and economic recovery in Scotland?
The hon. Member ignores the fact that the SNP Government do not have the full range of powers that we need to protect our economy and which only independence can give us. He knows that is the case.
This is no ordinary economic downturn. The UK Government, on clear and urgent public health grounds, instructed and required many profitable, productive and sustainable firms to close. In sectors, such as hospitality, events, tourism, aviation, culture and the arts, these limitations will remain for the foreseeable future.
One thing we have not yet considered in this debate is the proposal for a four-day working week. Does the hon. Lady think a four-day working week could enable the economy to maintain its position and get beyond the dark spots of next January, February and March?
The hon. Member makes a very good and well-considered point. There are lots of opportunities the Government have not considered for how we might spread around the limited and reducing number of jobs we have in order to keep people in employment.
The Federation of Small Businesses has noted that tourism and retail account for nearly half a million jobs in Scotland, many of them seasonal and rural, and many of them now facing the furlough scheme’s winding down at the very time business is at its quietest. As we have seen from local lockdowns, such as those in Leicester, Aberdeen and Greater Manchester, there is an urgent need to put in place more flexible and enduring support—exactly the type of further action the Chancellor promised he would take. Aberdeen, for example, only managed to raise £232,000 via the “eat out to help out” scheme because of the local lockdown imposed on hospitality there. That compares with over £1 million each in Glasgow and Edinburgh. We need to look at whether the schemes in place are flexible enough when local lockdowns happen.
A further spike and further local restrictions seem inevitable, so ending support now is incredibly short-sighted. Until public health grounds for closure are removed, the SNP believes that the Government have a clear responsibility to assist and support wherever they can. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury mentioned some additional schemes at the tail end of his remarks, but I would ask him to think very carefully: could he live on the money he proposes for those asked to self-isolate? If he ran a business, could he survive and pay wages, pay for stock, the rent and all the bills on the grants he has announced? He probably could not, and many businesses cannot and will fold as a result without support.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury talked about phases of this crisis. The coronavirus is not done with us yet. Life is not going back to normal any time soon. The British Chambers of Commerce’s quarterly recruitment outlook revealed that 29% of firms expect to axe jobs over the third quarter—a record high. At the same time, the number of new job opportunities is also depressed across almost all sectors, as is reflected in the various vacancies data. For example, the Office for National Statistics and Adzuna data show the number of online job vacancies for Scotland for the week to 21 August to be almost half the 2019 average—down 49 percentage points—and the Office for Budget Responsibility has warned that UK unemployment could surpass the peaks of the 1980s after weaker than expected economic growth. The Chancellor and his Treasury team have a duty to prevent this kind of economic scarring. The devastation of the 1980s still haunts many communities, and I urge them not to gamble with the life chances of the people we are here to represent.
I give credit where it is due to the Government: the assistance afforded to the tourism industry has saved it in my constituency, which relies hugely on tourism. God forbid that the second spike gets worse than it is, but if it does and we have to close things down again, frankly that will ruin some of those businesses permanently. I make a plea to the Scottish Government and Her Majesty’s Government in Westminster to work together as closely as possible. I hope that this eventuality does not happen, but if it does, we will all need to put our shoulder to the wheel.
The hon. Member is absolutely correct. A second spike does not seem to be on the Government’s agenda, and it should be. The measures put in place were put in place at speed, at haste, and the Government should be learning from this and preparing for that second spike now. I would be incredibly grateful if at some point a Minister confirmed that they are doing that, because it is absolutely necessary. We cannot ignore the risk of a second spike, given how the figures have been creeping up in recent days.
The IPPR has said that ending the furlough scheme will lead to unemployment
“not seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s”,
with the loss of 3 million jobs, 2 million of which would be viable in the longer term if it were continued. The furlough scheme should be continued for at least two years, or for as long as we need it—perhaps we will not need it for two years, which would be a good eventuality—as is being done in Germany and France. Independent Ireland is keeping its scheme going for a year. No employee or employer should be forced to decide between their health and their income.
The self-employment support scheme should also have been continued. In addition, a basic temporary income scheme should have been introduced to protect anyone falling through the gaps in support. There is still time for the Treasury to step in and make that commitment, because the lack of parity between those in the different schemes is completely unjustifiable. I remain deeply disappointed that the recommendations of the Treasury Committee to address the gaps in support have not been taken up by the Treasury. The ExcludedUK group, representing at the least 3 million people who have been denied any UK Government support—these include the newly self-employed, freelancers, limited company directors, those on short-term PAYE contracts and many others—is still being ignored by the Chancellor, despite having presented the Treasury with viable solutions.
The situation facing women requiring maternity leave has also been incredibly stressful and unfair, with many finding themselves ineligible and some who were forced to take maternity leave early now struggling to get the childcare they need to even attempt to go back to work. It is hugely disappointing to hear that the UK Government have rejected the very reasonable request by the 226,000 maternity petitioners to extend maternity leave for three months. I hope the Government will reconsider that. I am led to wonder whether different decisions might be made if there were more women on the UK Government Benches.
When we see Jim Harra, head of HMRC, admit this week that £3.5 billion of furlough cash has been lost in fraudulent claims or error, it is even more galling to those who have no support whatsoever. There have also been errors in my constituency on HMRC’s part. Its inflexibility and inability to deal with MP requests on this issue has also been hugely frustrating for those whose businesses are on the brink.
The take-up of the coronavirus job retention scheme has been significant, as has been said, with 9.6 million workers furloughed by 1.2 million employers since March. Those employers had made £34.7 billion of furlough claims by 9 August. The scheme will cost the UK Government an estimated £80 billion in total, but we should not forget that this cost is an investment in people and in public health. The cost of not acting would be far greater.
The figures published by the Treasury demonstrating the sectoral impact of the furlough scheme are interesting. They show only 2% of employees in public administration and defence and 7% of those in finance and insurance being placed on furlough, compared with 77% of those in accommodation and food services—some 1,693,600 employees—and 70% of those working in the arts, entertainment, recreation and other services, amounting to 474,300 employees across the UK. This of course reflects the different nature of the jobs in those sectors and whether it has been possible for people to work.
The sectors in which furlough take-up has been high are not suddenly going to be able to return to pre-covid business, and there is a real argument for sectoral extensions if the Government will not consider a wholesale extension. The ability of these businesses and organisations to generate income will continue to be hampered by the need to impose public health restrictions. For example, how would a national arts company or a full-scale production be able to get a theatre performance up and running? How would that theatre be able to turn a profit at 40% capacity? What about the restaurant next door, which theatre goers might usually have gone to for a pre-theatre meal, or the pub they might have gone to afterwards, where nobody will be allowed to stand at the bar and that will not have outdoor seating in the depths of a Scottish winter, or even a Scottish autumn?
How does the Chancellor expect such firms to bear the cost of staffing, rent and other outgoings when they will not see a corresponding increase in income? The short answer is that those costs cannot be borne. The CBI’s head, Carolyn Fairbairn, has warned that
“it’s too soon to pull business support away at the end of October”.
The Fraser of Allander Scottish business monitor for quarter 2 this year reported that 55% of businesses that have made use of the job retention scheme expect to decrease their staffing numbers when the scheme is phased out.
My hon. Friend will have heard me raise with the Chief Secretary those companies that have abused the furlough by using it to pay for mass redundancies—British Airways is not alone; Centrica and others have followed suit. However, he failed to answer the question about the firing and rehiring of staff at massively reduced wages. Does she think that is fair?
It absolutely is not fair. The scheme is being abused by businesses, and that should not be allowed to happen. I commend to the Government my hon. Friend’s Bill on fire and rehire. If they wanted to do anything at all to help, they would take on the recommendations in his Bill, because they would make a huge difference to people. People should not be expected to do the same job on vastly reduced terms and conditions, under pain of losing their job altogether. It is exploitation pure and simple, and the Government should not accept it.
The Chief Secretary talked about new opportunities for those in industries that could not continue, but that fails to recognise the reality that there might not be enough jobs for those who are laid off to go into, and that what jobs there are might not be at the same wage level as the jobs they are in now. The cost will be met by the UK Government in one way or another—in employment benefits if not in extending furlough.
The end of furlough coincides with the end of the period for which people have been granted bill payment holidays. The Standard Life Foundation report, “Emerging from lockdown”, highlights that
“of the 3.7 million households across the UK granted a bill ‘payment holiday’, over 6 in 10 are already facing financial difficulties and will struggle to repay their debts when these arrangements end. For many, these payment holidays will cease on 31 October 2020—the same date the government’s job retention schemes end, leaving many facing job losses and crippling financial strain.”
The effect could be devastating: people laid off because their employers cannot afford to keep them on, with debt mounting, and all this among people who are already finding life difficult. The drop in income if people move on to universal credit—if, indeed, they are eligible, which many people are not—will push many families over the brink. I fear that the UK Government are not looking at the bigger picture in the choices they are making.
The kickstart scheme is not available easily to small employers, which could have a disproportionate impact on the rural economy in places where there are not enough employers to club together to make up the minimum 30 employees. To return to a theme I have spoken about before, there is a risk of young workers being exploited and not being paid a living wage. Nobody in this House would want to live on the wages that young people are expected to work for in this country. I ask the Chief Secretary to reconsider and to pay a real living wage to the young people on the scheme. They deserve nothing less.
I also raise caution about relating the scheme to universal credit, because many people are not able to access universal credit, as I have said. If the scheme runs only through universal credit, many young people who might otherwise have benefited from the scheme, such as it is, will not be eligible.
Where the Scottish Government have the power, they have acted. The Scottish Government have spent £4 billion on covid, with over £2.3 billion for businesses. That is above the Barnett consequentials allocated to us. The Scottish Government published their response to the recommendations of the Advisory Group on Economic Recovery on 5 August. They are acting to protect jobs by developing and delivering sector-led recovery plans, working with industry leadership groups, trade unions and others, starting with the construction sector, which is coming back from its furlough period. They are supporting jobs through the covid-19 transition training fund. Through the programme for government, they are supporting a national mission to create new jobs, good jobs and green jobs, which includes investing £60 million to support up to 20,000 young people into jobs. There is the £100-million green jobs fund, investment in decarbonisation and the Unlocking Ambition programme. They are also using the national performance framework to promote equality and to respect, protect and fulfil human rights.
The Scottish Government have made an extra £330 million of funding available this financial year specifically to support Scotland’s economic recovery. That includes £230 million of economic recovery stimulus to invest in capital projects and a £100 million package of funding focused on protecting jobs and supporting those who have been made redundant or whose jobs are at risk.
I would dearly love the Scottish Government to do more, given the scale of the crisis, but their hands are tied. The Fraser of Allander Institute is clear that
“the Scottish Government can borrow up to £450m per annum for capital investment (a cap of £3bn). On resource spending, they can borrow up to £600m per annum (a cap of £1.75bn), but only for ‘forecast error’ and ‘cash management’. They cannot borrow to fund discretionary resource spending.”
That is the crucial point. We urgently need more financial powers in Scotland. If the UK Government will not act on the things we have asked them to act on, they should not stand in Scotland’s way when we have a desire to support our people and businesses. Powers must be devolved to let the Scottish Government get on with the job.
All of this stands in the context of the looming threat of a no-deal, chaotic and damaging Brexit, with the UK Government gleefully breaking international agreements they themselves signed up to and the outrageous proposals today in clause 46 of the Tories’ United Kingdom Internal Market Bill. The UK Government’s power grab over economic development and infrastructure plans cannot be allowed to stand. The Tories speak of a power surge, but the last time I checked, a power surge was a dangerous thing that usually lasts only a few seconds, but that results in serious damage to valuable appliances. For once, the Tories might be telling the truth when they say that that is what is coming to Scotland under their plans.
Westminster and the Tories cannot be trusted with our economy. What we see today is not “whatever it takes”. Winding up the furlough scheme and allowing so many people to fall through the support net will cause lasting harm to so many people with businesses and to the wider economy. We must have the full powers of a normal independent country to meet the needs of our economy and, most importantly, of the people of Scotland.
It will be obvious to anyone who has looked at today’s call list that 90 Back Benchers are hoping to participate. I have to intimate that it is unlikely everybody will be called; indeed, it is impossible. I will leave it up to individual Members to do their own arithmetic, but I am afraid that I will have to impose an immediate time limit on Back-Bench speeches of three minutes. I call Caroline Nokes.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and that might mean some of the niceties go out of the window.
My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary is absolutely right to have identified the great long list of support that has gone to business, and I thank him for doing so because I now do not have to. I welcome the presence on the Front Bench of my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury. I would like to pay particular tribute to him for the help he has given me with individual constituency cases, particularly, I note, with one small business and Lloyds Banking Group. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) has just left—in time for me to make that point.
I want to put on record some local perspective of where businesses in Romsey and Southampton North have had assistance: over 10,000 jobs protected by the furlough scheme; £9.5 million to self-employed people; more than £42 million of bounce back loans; and £17.5 million in business grants. Those are very significant figures. The borough council has worked hand in hand with the Government in reaching out to small businesses, making sure all those who are eligible applied and received assistance. Some 47,000 meals have been eaten via eat out to help out. Could my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary pass on to the Chancellor the particular thanks of the lady I met in the Cromwell Arms in Romsey who wanted to talk about the “lovely local lad” who is of course my right hon. Friend the Chancellor?
Turning to the issue of ongoing support for local businesses, I was pleased to hear this week from Simon Parkes of Elumin8, a Romsey-based business making advanced lighting systems for the automotive industry. He is looking to recruit between three and five new employees—young employees—as soon as possible, and is keen to make the kickstart scheme work not just for his business, but for the benefit of such unemployed young people. Both he and the local council are working with the local enterprise partnership to bring together the minimum number of 30 needed so that more local businesses will be able to benefit. It is great to see the determination to make schemes work and get young people into real jobs who will then enable his business, even in difficult economic times, to thrive and grow.
I commend the support that has gone to hospitality. We know it is a sector that employs many young people and, indeed, many women—an interest I have particularly. I pay tribute to the Four Horseshoes in Nursling, which is continuing the scheme on its own terms, and I know across the country many are doing the same. However, it would be remiss of me not to return to a sector that I have raised many times in this House and will continue to champion. The beauty industry employs over 370,000 people, over 90% of whom are women. They have stayed locked down longer than other industries, and in some parts of the country they remain locked down, so I welcome the grants that my right hon. Friend has mentioned.
The green homes scheme is a great scheme and one that can provide energy efficiency and jobs, but please can we make it as wide as possible, so that companies such as Kelda Technology in my constituency, which makes showers, can also benefit from it, reducing energy costs through reducing water heating costs?
Finally, on those in the events industry, my right hon Friend the Chancellor is working really hard to rebalance the economy, but these are small businesses which, if allowed to thrive, will in turn be paying tax in years to come, enabling us to rebalance the economy.
My simple request of Ministers today is that they summon the confidence to target support where it is needed most. The Chief Secretary said today to the House that he would not do that because a number of questions need answering. I may be old-fashioned—I hope he listens, as he leaves the Chamber—but I am sure it is for Ministers to answer the questions, not to sit back and wait for others to do their homework for them. If the Chief Secretary is not willing to provide sector-specific support, perhaps he could set out at the Dispatch Box why he is not willing to do that, as opposed to posing questions to Members in this House and deflecting from the call to arms.
Supporting the industrial foundations needed for our recovery and our future growth is right not just in terms of industrial policy, but in terms of spending taxpayers’ money.
The Government are understandably borrowing significant amounts of money, but they must spend every pound prudently. Wasting a few billion here and a few billion there is not acceptable when there are so many jobs and businesses on the line.
Ministers today might refer to HMRC reports that an estimated £3.5 billion has been fraudulently claimed from the furlough scheme, but that is the obvious pitfall of an open-to-all scheme. Bespoke packages of support to strategically important sectors would be negotiated directly with those businesses, with the due diligence and obligations that come with that. I hope that Ministers, too, will have the sophistication to differentiate support for the strategically important sectors—important for the foundations of our economy and our future growth—and the vast number of jobs in the broader economy that fish around them. If strategically important sectors cannot reopen or get back to work, the knock-on effect for bus drivers, security guards, coffee shops and the like, as well as the hospitality, creative and tourism sectors that rely on workers having money to spend, is clearly significant.
I have confidence that the Government are able to meet those challenges. In addition to sector-specific support, including for sectors that will take longer to reopen, that means two things. First, we need to ensure that we have an adequate test and trace system that gives employers, workers and unions the confidence to return to the workplace. It is not working; getting it right is crucial to retaining jobs in the economy. Secondly, we need the Chancellor to bring forward a fiscal investment in people, as well as a fiscal investment in infrastructure, with proper redundancy support services attached to skills and training opportunities in every part of the country.
British businesses are up for that challenge, from bringing forward R&D projects and decarbonising to pulling together in the national interest. This pandemic has shown the powerful partnership that can be formed between Government, businesses, workers and unions during times of crisis. We should try to hold on to that collective endeavour as we seek to recover and build the British economy, but that requires Ministers to step up to that challenge, to answer the questions that are being posed of them, and to take the necessary action to protect jobs and businesses across the whole of the country.
Across the House today, we have heard recognition of the extraordinary support that the Government have put in place for the economy and British businesses. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), I pay tribute to the Treasury team and the Parliamentary Private Secretaries who have been supporting us and many of our businesses with queries.
It has been mentioned that nationally, we are paying the wages of 9.6 million people. Of course, people find national statistics very difficult to relate to, so in Wimbledon, 12,100 people were furloughed, 4,200 people have benefited from the self-employed scheme, there has been £76.8 million of bounce back loans, which have helped over 2,000 businesses, and CBILS has helped 99 businesses. Inevitably, as the country returns to work and the post-economy starts to revive, we will see a very different mixture in the economy. Some industries and sectors will inevitably be impacted on in a way that we had not expected and there will be an adjustment. We would be wrong to try to pretend that that is not going to happen. Surely, therefore, a plan for jobs and a kickstart scheme is right, rather than a continuation of the furlough scheme, and the plan for jobs must look at protecting and creating jobs.
On the protection of jobs, I spoke about the arts sector in the pre-recess debate, and I hope that the announcement today from the Chief Secretary will extend to the arts sector. On the plan for jobs and where we are looking to create them, there must be a mixture of skills programmes to equip people coming into the workforce with skills for the future. The future is key, both in the Government’s announcement, rightly, about the acceleration of capital investment and in the £600 billion that they are talking about in terms of future prosperity. Certainly, in terms of infrastructure investment, I urge Treasury Ministers to look at what is fibre investment and what is iron investment—we need more fibre and less iron.
Finally, as we look to the future, it must be right in the short term that we concentrate our efforts on the growth programme. That is entirely right in terms of infrastructure. However, if we look to the medium term, beyond the growth ideas coming from many parts of the House—I commend for some notable growth ideas the One Nation Conservatives caucus group paper, which, surprisingly, I edited and authored, along with many other colleagues —we must put our economy and finances on a sound basis. I urge the Treasury, as we look to the medium term, not to rule out any of the economic levers that we are looking at to support the economy now in order to restore sound finances in the future.
In my constituency of Birmingham, Ladywood up to 8,600 jobs are at risk if the Chancellor presses ahead with the removal of the furlough scheme and the self-employed income support scheme in October and if he does not change course and adopt a targeted continuation of both schemes for particularly hard hit sectors. My constituency already had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country before the pandemic hit. My fear is that if many of the jobs of those currently on wage support schemes go, then my area and my city will take much longer to recover than other parts of the country.
I want to make the case for the arts and entertainment sector. I know that many are making cases for different sectors in this debate, but there are 60,000 jobs in the arts and entertainment sector in my region of the west midlands, and Birmingham is at the heart of many of those jobs. My constituency encompasses the whole of the city centre, which is home to many of the venues and therefore the jobs in the sector. It is therefore crucial to my area and the social, cultural and economic life of Birmingham.
The sector is struggling because it cannot get back up and running like other sectors can. The public health advice and the laws that are in place because of public health mean that its businesses cannot get back to normal. In those circumstances, it is unconscionable that economic support does not follow where the public health rules lead us.
Everything we heard from those on the Treasury Bench today about the challenges in continuing a sector-specific wage support scheme sounds very hollow to all those who are desperately trying to save their jobs. The Government have shown real creativity in coming up with economic policy to deal with the impact of the pandemic, and that should not stop now. They should overcome the hurdles that are in place to adopt a sector-specific approach, because every job in every sector that is saved today or in the next few months will decrease the scale of the bills we will all face when we ultimately have to pay off the costs of this pandemic. The cost of supporting jobs and sectors facing total collapse—those businesses are going to go to the wall—will be cheaper than the cost of inaction, which will be much more expensive in the long run. The Government’s current approach, I am afraid to say, not only does not make economic sense, but fails the test of fairness, too.
In the short time left to me, I wish to make the case for Birmingham in particular, because we are due to host the Commonwealth games in 2022. If the heart of our arts and entertainment sector is ripped out from our city, we will not be able to see the full benefits of what the Commonwealth games could bring to the brilliant city of Birmingham. I urge the Treasury to take a region-specific approach and take into account factors such as international events, so that we can have the full benefits for all our constituents—benefits envisaged when we win such bids in the first place.
I, for one, really think that the Government deserve enormous credit, not just for the sheer scale of the financial response to the pandemic, but for the speed with which key parts of the safety net were put in place really early on as the crisis unfolded. I say that first of all as a Welsh Member of Parliament who sat and listened to a near constant stream of criticism from Welsh Labour Government Ministers about our actions here as a Government, and something similar could be said for the Scottish nationalist Government in Edinburgh. I am really proud that we were able to support so many families and businesses in every part of the United Kingdom. The question those politicians need to confront is how on earth those businesses and families could have been supported in a similar way without the strong intervention of the United Kingdom Treasury. That is an important point.
I am not going to give way—forgive me. For me, the subject we are discussing today is about two things. One is how we support livelihoods. How do we support families and help keep them afloat during this crisis? There is a point I would like to make, which has not yet been made, about the strengthening of our social security system. Alongside the schemes to support businesses and jobs early on in the crisis, the Treasury took the very important decision to put extra money into universal credit as a temporary measure. If I may make one plea to those on the Treasury Bench this afternoon, it is that they need to decide very quickly that that increase should stay in place for next spring for those families, many of whom will still be adjusting to having lost their jobs and having perhaps moved from furlough to benefits, and many of them w