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Topical Questions

Volume 682: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2020

This Government have put in place a £200 billion programme of support to help jobs and businesses throughout this crisis. Although we will not be able to save every job or business, we remain committed to doing what we can to protect the economy and people’s livelihoods at this difficult time.

This Government have taken extraordinary steps to protect the economy and now we must take the extraordinary steps to unlock it. Uncertainty stemming from coronavirus and the volatility of the oil price is leading to delayed investment in the Tees Valley. One thing that could break the deadlock in that investment would be the announcement of a freeport in Teesside. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will not delay the roll-out of 10 new freeports? Does he agree that a freeport in Teesside could lead to thousands of new jobs for my constituents in Redcar and Cleveland?

My hon. Friend—like my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Mr Clarke) and the Mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen—is a fantastic champion for the freeports agenda. They are all absolutely right: this policy can unlock investment and growth, and therefore create jobs in parts of our country that want to see that growth. I can assure my hon. Friend that I look forward to receiving the bid that, no doubt, he and his colleagues are putting together for us.

I am sure the Chancellor will agree that confidence will not return to our economy until we are able to control the virus with an effective test, trace and isolate system, yet the current system is not working and was described by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies as having a “marginal impact” on transmission. Will he explain why, although he has funded the system generously, it is failing so badly?

I am glad that the hon. Lady recognises that we have provided substantial funding for the test and trace system. Although there have been times when we would all have wished that the response would be faster—that is indeed what is happening now—it is worth bearing in mind how far we have come since the beginning of this crisis, when 10,000 or so tests a day were being done. We are now marching towards our target of half a million daily tests. That is enormous progress and it will make a difference in our ability to suppress the spread of this virus.

In March, the Chancellor was clear that if people could not earn a living by going out to work, it was the Government’s job to step in, “whatever it takes”. By July, he was moving away from that belief and today he has moved so far that his employment support schemes have more holes than a Swiss cheese. Will he tell the House: was he wrong in March or is he wrong now?

I did say we would do what it takes, and I think that £200 billion later, with almost 9 million jobs protected, we see the evidence that we have done. We will continue to do what it takes to protect this economy and people’s livelihoods.

The Government’s economic support packages have been some of the most generous anywhere, and they have been essential sticking plasters from which many of our constituents have benefited. However, given that covid may be with us for some time and that the economy is in transition, may I encourage the Government to think more strategically and perhaps draw lessons from, for example, Margaret Thatcher’s enterprise allowance scheme, which helped hundreds of thousands of people, over some years, to transition from unemployment to self-employment? (907822)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We should have an eye on our recovery and he is absolutely right that entrepreneurship can play an important part in driving that recovery, which is why during the crisis we announced the future fund to help to provide financing for start-up entrepreneurial companies. I am also happy to have a look at the enterprise allowance scheme. My hon. Friend will be aware of the start-up loan scheme, which does something similar by providing Government-discounted and funded loans to the budding entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

The £63 million of funding for emergency assistance grants for food and essential supplies is due to run out at the end of the month. The funding has been a vital lifeline for our community in Liverpool which, thanks to Liverpool City Council, has an effective local welfare assistance scheme to support people who face destitution. Our region is now faced with tier 3 measures, which makes the funding even more crucial. Will the Chancellor tell the House what discussions he has had with the relevant Secretary of State about extending that essential funding? (907820)

The hon. Gentleman will know that, as a result of Liverpool entering tier 3 restrictions, those conversations have happened with representatives from the Government and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that Liverpool gets the resources it needs to provide extra compliance enforcement and, indeed, extra funding to provide support for businesses and people during what is, I appreciate, a very difficult time for his constituents.

Last week, I formally named the e-Voyager in my home village of Millbrook. The e-Voyager is the UK’s first seagoing electric ferry and will operate from Cremyll, near Mount Edgcumbe country park. Will my right hon. Friend look at investing further in South East Cornwall, where we have this proven expertise? (907823)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for her work on that important initiative. She is a champion of levelling up in Cornwall and the Government are committed to working with her, which is why among the package of measures of support is included the Cornwall social housing retrofit acceleration and the Cornwall institute for space artificial intelligence. That is part of a suite of measures that will work with the welcome initiative that my hon. Friend has championed.

It is noticeable how many Members have raised today the issue of the self-employed and freelancers, such as musicians, actors and dancers, who have had little or no support throughout the pandemic. Rather than suggest that they abandon years of dedication and training, will the Chancellor now consider initiatives such as a universal basic income to protect our valuable arts sector? (907826)

We recognise the concern for the valuable arts sector that the hon. Lady describes, which is why we have put £1.57 billion towards it. As I have said, £330 million of that has been released, and a further release will be made in the next few weeks. That is because we believe in that sector and support those people. Of course, other schemes are already in place—I have highlighted the support for independent production and films, for example—from which those affected can derive benefit.

The events industry and conference sector have been among the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic outbreak and have been told that they will not be assessed until March 2021. Given that they will have an anticipated 15 months with little to no income, will my right hon. Friend advise what support packages are available to support businesses such as Hirex and Exceed in Radcliffe in my constituency? (907824)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that there are businesses that are experiencing a difficult time, especially in the sectors he mentioned. Our comprehensive set of interventions, whether loans, grants or business rates holidays, will all provide help in different ways, but the most important thing that we can all focus on is supressing the spread of the virus and unlocking those parts of our economy that are unable to function. That is the surest and only way, in the long run, to protect the jobs that we all care about.

The Minister or Chancellor will know that tax-free shopping is a major source of income for airports such as Southampton airport in my constituency. With the ongoing problems for the sector caused by covid, that income is even more important, so will the Chancellor or a Minister meet me and representatives from Southampton airport to discuss the continuation of tax-free shopping, which is a valuable lifeline for our struggling aviation industry? (907825)

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this matter. As someone with an airport in my own constituency, I fully understand the issues. I have had various meetings with many stakeholders and am happy to offer Southampton airport a meeting with Treasury officials to discuss the changes. At the same time as removing tax-free sales from 1 January 2020, the Government are extending duty-free sales to EU-bound passengers for the first time in more than 20 years. That will be a significant boost to regional airports, such as the one in Southampton, which serve significantly more EU than non-EU destinations and have not previously been able to offer duty-free sales to EU-bound passengers.

My constituent, Alex, is a Blue Badge guide. Her income is just above the threshold for the self-employment income support scheme. The money that she has saved to cover her tax bill pushes her over the threshold for universal credit. Despite moving her tours online, Alex is earning very little. Given that the situation looks set to continue, what advice does the Minister have for her and the 3 million other people excluded from the Government’s covid-19 financial support? (907833)

I thank the hon. Lady very much for the concern that she describes. I understand the problem. As she will know, the situation with people on lower income levels who may also be on universal credit is that it is a flexible benefit, which allows the top-up to income received. That is also true with the support received through the support scheme for self-employed people.

I stand here as a proud ex-coalminer. The mineworkers’ pension scheme has done very well over the past 25 years, with successive Governments taking more than £4.5 billion in return for guaranteed payments from the Government. Will my right hon. Friend work with me to ensure that ex-miners and their families get a fairer deal? (907829)

I know that my hon. Friend has championed this issue and I look forward to further discussions with him on it. He will also know that the Government and the mineworkers’ pension scheme have agreed to guarantee the core pension rates in the case of a deficit in the scheme, and have further agreed to protect bonus pensions that have accrued to date. Therefore, clear progress has been made, but I am happy to have further discussions with him.

The covid-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the income of medical research charities, which could jeopardise progress in discovering new ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating diseases and their risk factors such as air pollution. Given this risk to medical research, what consideration has the Treasury given to the proposal of the Association of Medical Research Charities for a life science charity partnership fund? (907843)

The hon. Lady will know that this Government remain absolutely committed to our ambitious plans to double research and development funding over the course of the next few years. We have made enormous progress on that this year, with a huge and, I think, unprecedented increase in R&D funding that goes not only to basic science research, which she talked about, but ensures that we can develop that research into actionable ideas that benefit people and create jobs. She can rest assured that that remains an important aim of this Government, to ensure that this is the best place in the world in which to research.

The Energy Research Accelerator brings together nine midlands research-intensive organisations, including Keele University in my constituency of Newcastle-under-Lyme. With its initial Government funding, it secured 23 new research facilities, £120 million of industrial funding and £450 million of total value added in new investment in energy research and development. Will my hon. Friend praise the work that it has done and look favourably on its submissions seeking further funding to build on those successes to deliver on this Government’s commitments both to net zero and, of course, to levelling up? (907830)

The Government appreciate the work that the Energy Research Accelerator has been undertaking across the midlands on energy innovation. We have set out our ambition to invest up to £22 billion in R&D by 2024-25. The Chancellor also announced in the spring Budget that the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy innovation programme will at least double to £1 billion-plus. R&D investment will continue to have a strong regional impact and benefit areas across the UK, including the midlands.

The Chancellor will know that food and drink wholesalers —such as Harvest Fine Foods in my constituency—supply both the hospitality sector, where 70% of sales are made, and the public sector, where the other 30% are made. With the closure and reduction of much of the hospitality sector, and without any targeted Government support, wholesalers are on the verge of collapse, and, with that, the supply of food to institutions such as care homes, prisons, schools and hospitals is at immediate risk. Will he or the Financial Secretary therefore meet the Federation of Wholesale Distributors to discuss the need for business rates relief to be extended to wholesalers to prevent the dire scenario of the public sector finding— (907835)

Order. Dr Julian Lewis, you know better than to take advantage of me; it is not fair to others. Who wants to answer the question?

It is in order to address such pressures that we have set out such a comprehensive package of support that applies universally, including to the businesses to which my right hon. Friend refers. Through his question, he points to another substantive point, which is that suppliers supply to different sectors. One of the challenges with the Opposition’s proposals to extend the furlough was that they were never clear which sector they wanted to extend it to. The fact that suppliers supply multiple sectors, including the public sector, is a good illustration of why that proposal is flawed.

The Chancellor will be aware that wholesalers play a fundamental role in the food and drink supply chain, and, among other things, provide vital resources to our schools, hospitals and care homes; yet many are still struggling and do not have enough Government support. Bidfood, which is based in my Slough constituency, has seen an almost 50% downturn in its sales volumes, and has been forced to make 7% of its workforce redundant. Why has this company been ignored? Given the increased lockdown measures that are proposed, what measures will the Chancellor put in place to support struggling wholesalers—

Order. Chancellor, I have cut the hon. Gentleman short. I have done you a favour; now, do not take advantage.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Obviously, the hon. Gentleman raises a similar point to my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)—in a co-ordinated attack. Such businesses have not been ignored. I appreciate that they are treated slightly differently from the hospitality businesses which they serve, but, for the reasons that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury set out, it is tricky when there are businesses involved in the supply chain. The hon. Gentleman talked specifically about the business in his constituency facing reduced demand. The job support scheme is specifically there for businesses that are open but facing a reduced demand. That will allow them, rather than making redundancies, to receive a wage subsidy from the Government to help top up those employees’ wages. I hope that the company will look at that.

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.

Sitting suspended.

Virtual participation in proceedings concluded (Order, 4 June).