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Topical Questions

Volume 680: debated on Tuesday 15 September 2020

This Government’s comprehensive and generous package of support in response to the coronavirus has protected millions of livelihoods and supported hundreds of thousands of businesses up and down the country. Our plan for jobs announced in July will protect, create and support jobs, notably through our recently launched kickstart scheme, as we look to get the UK economy back on its feet.

Scottish Government analysis has revealed that ending the transition period in 2020 could cut £3 billion from the Scottish economy over the next two years—on top of the impact of coronavirus. With the UK Internal Market Bill making the risk of a no-deal Brexit even greater, what reassurances can the Chancellor give to my constituents and the people of Scotland that there will be no real-term spending cuts that will inflict even greater damage on our economy?

The Government and I remain committed to getting a deal and will continue to engage constructively with our European partners in pursuit of that aim. With regard to funding for Scotland, I can tell the hon. Lady that the Scottish Government have received £6.5 billion in advance of it being called for, so that they can provide the support required to their residents.

Innovation has been at the heart of the story of the Black Country for over 150 years—and nowhere is this more true than in companies such as Thomas Dudley in Tipton in my constituency and Stephens Plastic Mouldings in Oldbury. Given that these are the types of businesses that will help us as we come out of the pandemic, what work is my right hon. Friend doing with manufacturers and exporters in the Black Country, and with local stakeholders such as the West Midlands Combined Authority and West Midlands Mayor Andy Street, to show that they have the support they need to thrive and survive post pandemic? (906105)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Manufacturing and exports, especially from the west midlands and the Black Country, will play a key part in driving our recovery. I am pleased to tell him that the Exchequer Secretary is shortly meeting with the Mayor, Andy Street. That comes on top of our plans to provide £1 billion to develop the UK supply chain for electric automotive vehicles over the next five years, and £850 million of allocations from the local growth fund for his region.

The Chancellor will be aware of concerns that the UK risks a slower recovery than comparable economies for self-inflicted reasons. Despite the devastating impact on jobs, the Treasury Front Benchers have yet again today—six times—rejected targeted wage support. Economists are concerned about this Government’s inability to get a grip on the public health crisis, which evidence from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies suggests stems in part from a failure to adequately support people who have to self-isolate. Rumour has it that the Chancellor is blocking attempts to improve sick pay, so I put it to him: can he put himself in the shoes of those low-paid workers who often have to choose between paying their rent and bills, and putting food on the table for their kids? If these workers are advised to self-isolate, they get £95.85 a week—and that is if they are even eligible for statutory sick pay. Surely the Chancellor must agree with the Secretary of State for Health that statutory sick pay is not enough to live on.

From the beginning of this pandemic, we have made changes to the operation of statutory sick pay and our welfare system to ensure that those who are isolating in any circumstance receive support from day one, and that we improve flexibility, particularly for the self-employed, through the removal of the minimum income floor. As the hon. Lady knows, we are also trialling incentive payments in local lockdown areas.

I did not ask the Chancellor about the precise details of delivery and I did not ask about the scope; I asked him about the value of statutory sick pay. He needs to get a grip on this issue. If he fails to do so—and the blockage appears to be his responsibility—then we will see additional localised re-impositions of lockdown, with all the implications that has for jobs and businesses. Please, Chancellor, get a grip on this issue.

There are two other reasons why economists are worried about the UK’s recovery. First, of course, there is concern about our future as a trading nation. Both of the Chancellor’s predecessors warn that the threat to override the withdrawal agreement could damage our country’s reputation and prosperity. Why do those former Chancellors appear to be more concerned about our country’s economic prospects than the current one? The second reason for concern stems from the prospect of premature spending cuts or tax rises. According to the Financial Times, it is politics that could drive the Chancellor towards early tax rises, so will he rule them out for the rest of this year?

The hon. Lady talks about our place as a trading nation. She may have missed the news last week that this country has concluded an enhanced free trade agreement with Japan. I pay enormous tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Trade for concluding a deal that will be better for British businesses, particularly in the areas of the economy we do so well on such as digital and services. It will protect more of our great agricultural produce, open up more markets for our businesses to sell to and reduce prices for British shoppers. That is what the future of global Britain looks like.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his support for local businesses in Beaconsfield and across the UK. What provision or safety net is he creating for local businesses that may be affected by lockdowns across the country? (906107)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I thank her for it. She will know that some of the interventions we have already put in place last through into next year, for example the removal of the need to pay business rates for businesses in hospitality, which has been particularly affected. She may be reassured to know that we recently introduced the new business support grant for businesses forced to close as a result of local lockdown, where the Joint Biosecurity Centre gold command has instituted that measure, and those grant payments will be available up to £1,500 per few weekly cycles.

The aviation industry is on its knees: airports are deserted, planes are grounded and travellers are frustrated. In large part, the plight of the industry is due to the inconsistent, illogical and contradictory policies being followed by the Government to attack coronavirus. Will the Chancellor consider what actions he can take to support this vital industry, which we depend on for our connectivity, by either reducing or suspending air passenger duty, or through targeted job support? (906109)

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the importance of the aerospace industry to our economy. It is, in common with aerospace industries across the globe, suffering a deep depression in demand for all the obvious reasons. He can rest assured that we engage regularly with the companies in that sector. In particular, to support their future success, we are investing heavily in R&D alongside those companies to make sure we remain on the cutting edge of advanced manufacturing capability.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the benefits of the Government’s tax-free childcare scheme, which gives eligible families a 20% contribution to the cost of childcare and works alongside the 30 hours funded childcare that is available to working families, cannot be overstated as the economy reopens to my constituents and across the UK? (906108)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of good childcare and he is right to highlight that the Government support people with 20% of their childcare costs up to a cap of £2,000 through tax-free childcare. I can also tell him that, in recognition of the importance of this issue, we made some adjustments to how tax-free childcare operated during the pandemic, so that if someone’s income fell below the minimum income requirement as a result of what was happening they would continue to receive financial support up until the end of October.

At the end of August in my constituency, there were 2,000 more people unemployed than there were in March. The number of 18 to 24-year-old claimants has almost doubled. If history teaches us anything, it is that young people and those living in deprived areas will be more adversely affected by any downturn in the economy. What special measures is the Chancellor considering putting in place for young people in areas like mine, which are the most deprived? (906113)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the disproportionate economic impact that this crisis will have on young people. I have spoken about that from the Dispatch Box before, and he is right that we should focus our attention on them. That is why, in our plan for jobs, we outlined the kickstart scheme, which will initially make available fully-funded Government job placements for a quarter of a million young people at risk of long-term unemployment. I am confident that many young people in his constituency, like all of ours, can benefit from that scheme, and I urge him to work with his local businesses to get them signed up to the scheme and take on a young kickstarter.

I recently had the pleasure of visiting Smart Display, a great Calder Valley business in the events and exhibitions sector, which supports over 28 employees. While it praises the sterling work done by my right hon. Friend to support businesses through furlough, CBILS—the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme—and rate relief, many businesses in its sector were among the first to close and will be the last to reopen, with many exhibitions not planned until next year. Can my right hon. Friend take this into serious consideration during the Budget process to see what additional measures he could take to support these businesses, which are the hardest hit financially by the pandemic? (906110)

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the particular impact on that sector. It is something we are engaging on closely with it, and I am very happy to continue to have dialogue with my hon. Friend on the issue.

Tackling the covid crisis relies on us all doing the right thing, but for many that is just an impossible choice financially, as we heard from the shadow Chancellor. The lowest-paid workers who self-isolate must do so on statutory sick pay of £190 in total for two weeks. Can the Chancellor even begin to imagine how impossible it is to bring up a family for a fortnight on about the same amount as the cost of his £180 high-tech coffee cup? (906116)

I think my right hon. Friend addressed this in his reply to the shadow Chancellor. The key issue is to look at the package of measures the Government are putting in place. First and foremost among those is retaining people’s link to employment. That is the most important issue. Alongside that, the measures on welfare, including support for businesses that are in lockdown, are part of the comprehensive response, and statutory sick pay is one of a suite of measures.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the best way to stimulate our economy is through measures that create jobs and help people back into work? (906111)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is the underlying principle behind furlough—to enable the labour market to bounce back, with jobs in businesses that were viable before the pandemic being able to recover quickly. It is also part of the three-phase strategy that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has set out. The second phase is to concentrate on skills to create jobs, protect jobs and support jobs, and to enable those workers to come back into the economy and for the economy therefore to recover quicker.

The Government will be aware of the significance of the sale of Cambridge-based ARM to American chip maker Nvidia. Will the Government intervene both to secure the headquartering and jobs in Cambridge, but perhaps more significantly, to get an exemption from the American CFIUS—Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States—rules, which give the American Government such leverage? Why on earth would we want to throw away such a bargaining chip in advance of trade negotiations? (906125)

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise ARM, which is obviously a key employer in his constituency. The Government are taking a very close interest in this transaction. It was pleasing to see yesterday that parties close to the transaction said that the headquarters would remain in Cambridge. It is a matter we are engaging very closely on, and I am very happy to engage with him personally on any questions arising from that.

Bounce back loans have been vital to many businesses in Crewe and Nantwich. Although they appreciate the help they have had from the scheme, some have been left waiting too long to access the support. For example, Axis Boats in my constituency waited eight weeks. Until it approached me and we worked together on it, it was not able to get the finance. Will my hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss examples such as this and to ensure that banks are fully playing their part in getting people access to this support? (906112)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this point, which he has raised before. In his constituency, 1,400 businesses have benefited from the bounce back loans from 28 providers across the country, but I am happy to engage with him in relation to the number of cases he has dealt with and see what interventions can be made at this time.

The likes of Amazon, Facebook and Google have seen their profits soar during the pandemic. Using accounting tricks, these companies avoid paying their fair share of tax, which is how Amazon UK’s pre-tax profits have risen by 35%, while its tax bill rose by less than 3%. Will the Chancellor promise to keep the digital services tax and promise that it will be billionaires and the multi- national corporations who will pay for coronavirus spending, not workers and small businesses who have been hit so hard? (906130)

It is right that companies pay the tax that they owe the Exchequer so that we can fund the public services that all our constituents rely on. That is why this Government instituted the digital services tax for online companies, which came into force this year. We remain committed to that tax, although we work with our partners around the world to replace our unilateral one with a multilateral solution through the OECD that will properly tackle this issue once and for all.

Businesses in Rugby and Bulkington have told me universally how they welcome the measures that the Government have introduced for their speed and their breadth, but they know that the coming months will be difficult for trading and there are tough times ahead. Which of the Government’s measures, given limited resources, does the Minister think are the most appropriate to support businesses over the next few months? (906114)

The Government have a range of schemes that have been supporting businesses throughout the pandemic, as my colleagues have mentioned time and time again. If my hon. Friend has specific requests from the businesses in his constituency, I am very happy to discuss those with him so that we can work out the best way to continue to spur economic recovery.

Does the Minister recognise that while the proposed changes to small breweries tax relief may well benefit members of the Small Brewers Duty Reform Coalition, they will work against the interests of fledgling micro-breweries, such as Attic Brew in my constituency? Will the Minister look again at the impact of the changes on those small, but job-creating businesses? (906131)

We have been looking at this relief for several years now, and the changes that we have made are going to benefit the vast majority of brewers. The smallest brewers will be exempt from most of the changes, and those brewers who have been unable to grow will now be able to do so. We had a long consultation and quite a few brewery groups have been very supportive of this change. We will have further announcements to come after the next technical consultation on this relief.

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 now suspending the House for a few minutes.

Sitting suspended.