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Covid-19: Support for Businesses

Volume 689: debated on Tuesday 9 February 2021

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on increasing support to businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (912050)

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on increasing support to businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (912062)

What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on increasing support to businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (912076)

It is well known that we spent over £280 billion on an unprecedented package of support for businesses, including the job retention scheme, support grants and Government-backed loans. I speak regularly with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on all the support measures available for businesses, including in the next stage when we try to lead and help them through the pandemic and towards recovery.

Hundreds of my local hospitality businesses are extremely grateful for the Government support grants they have received. As the success of the vaccine roll-out allows those businesses to start planning reopening, will my right hon. Friend continue to speak with the Chancellor about helping hospitality businesses, including the wedding industry, as they get back on their feet, perhaps by extending help with VAT and business rates?

As my hon. Friend knows, we speak all the time not only to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer but to the sector; indeed, ministerial colleagues spoke to the sector just yesterday and I have dipped in on roundtables as well. We are very concerned about this; we fully recognise the great efforts my hon. Friend is making on behalf of his constituents, but we are in regular contact with our colleagues in the Treasury.

Almost 24,000 retail, hospitality and leisure businesses in Scotland are currently supported by 100% rates relief. That support has been extended until the end of July, but the Scottish Government want to go further and Scottish businesses need us to go further. However, due to borrowing constraints placed on Scotland’s Parliament, the funding necessary to extend further can only come from the UK Government, so does the Secretary of State agree that his Government should step up and fund this relief for another year?

What I do agree with is the fact that we have extended an unprecedented range of support and measures. I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor; he has taken a nimble approach, and I look forward to engaging with him on what further support we can supply.

The hospitality supply chain has remained open despite a significant loss of earnings to continue supplying the NHS and schools that have to be open. Here in North Devon, Philip Dennis and Savona delivered to people’s homes and operated pop-up click and collect venues when many vulnerable households struggled for supermarkets slots. However, these companies are not eligible for the same support as the hospitality businesses they normally service; will my right hon. Friend ensure that they have the support they need so they are still trading when our hospitality sector reopens?

As my hon. Friend knows, in January the Chancellor announced an additional £500 million in grant funding to local authorities for the additional restrictions; this discretionary funding enables local authorities to support businesses, including, as she pointed out, those in supply chains that have been adversely impacted by restrictions but are ineligible for other measures. This funding comes on top of the £1.1 billion allocated in November 2020.

If the furlough scheme is not extended beyond April, Scotland, like the rest of the UK, will face mass unemployment, with the consequent damage to businesses, communities, families and the mental health of hundreds of thousands of people. Will the Secretary of State therefore urge the Chancellor to take urgent action to ensure that this is avoided by extending furlough?

I am absolutely mindful of the immense pressures our businesses right across the UK are suffering under at the moment. I am in regular contact with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who has acted in an unprecedented way; as I have said, he has put £280 billion into the economy to help our struggling businesses. But of course we are looking at the situation as it evolves, and we are very keen to help our economy through this.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend again on his new position and on behalf of the 3,700 businesses across Beaconsfield that have benefited from the £200 million-worth of Government-backed loans since the start of the pandemic? Will he join me in paying tribute to Buckinghamshire Council for its excellent work in ensuring that businesses are supported during the pandemic, and confirm that he will continue to offer all the support he can to protect jobs and keep businesses afloat so that we can look to not only restart our economy but build back better from the pandemic?

Throughout this crisis, as I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, the Government have stood by businesses, as she mentioned, and worked tirelessly to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods across the entirety of our country. As we emerge from the pandemic, we will ensure that we seize the initiative, as she put it, to build back better, greener and faster from this pandemic.

Does the Secretary of State not accept that, if people who are excluded from support packages are forced to wind up their businesses and move to universal credit or social security, that is more costly to the Government and damaging to the economy in the long run? Surely it is better to bring the excluded in from the cold now than to pay the long-term costs of exclusion in the future.

I fully appreciate—this is our key message as a Government—that jobs and employment are a No. 1 priority. That is exactly why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor extended the furlough scheme. I am in constant conversation with him about how better to provide support for our economy under this distress.

Businesses are facing a £50 billion bombshell in less than two months as Government support packages are due to end, and there is still no clarity about the future. The Secretary of State must realise that the Budget is too late. Businesses are making decisions now about their future and that of their workers. The CBI director general said a week ago:

“Businesses are currently completely in the dark when planning for the weeks and months ahead and this is hindering investment.”

The Secretary of State’s job is to stand up for our businesses, so can he explain to them why, yet again, they are being left completely in the dark?

What I will explain is the fact that, in four weeks in the job, I have seen 200 business leaders. I meet the BROs—the business representative organisations —constantly, and I am in constant dialogue with them to ensure that the Government provide the support. We have provided £280 billion so far, which is beyond any precedent that we have seen. We are in constant conversation not only with our stakeholders but with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Excuses are no substitute for a plan. Businesses need clarity and certainty, and they are not getting it from the Government. Let me turn to another critical issue facing them. We want them to succeed in our new trading relationship with the EU, but according to Make UK, 60% of manufacturers are experiencing disruption, the fashion industry says it faces “decimation”, and hauliers are warning of a permanent reduction in trade. What personal, tangible action is the Business Secretary taking to get a grip and deal with the mountains of red tape now facing our businesses?

Of course, Mr Speaker, you will remember that, ahead of the Brexit deal, we were told that there was never going to be a deal and that we were going to crash out with no deal. We were told all sorts of scare stories about what would happen with Brexit. I fully accept that there are issues on the border, and I fully accept that many of the business leaders I have spoken to have raised issues, but I think the situation is far better with a deal—ask Nissan in Sunderland—than was the case, certainly, only three months ago.

I have been listening closely, and so far the Secretary of State has failed to give a long-term commitment to the furlough scheme, he has failed to provide any certainty whatsoever on business rates, and he has failed to back support for the excluded. As was just referred to, businesses are not just dealing with the damage caused by the pandemic; they are also facing the chaos of Brexit. Exports from the UK to the EU are reportedly down by 68%, and just 10,000 out of 50,000 customs agents are in place. Can the Secretary of State confirm just how bad things need to be before his Government set aside their dogma and instead ask the EU for a grace period in order to protect Scottish businesses?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Brexit debate is over; he, for his own purposes, wants to rekindle this. The business leaders I have spoken to have been extremely grateful for the fact that we got a deal, which he and others opposed—they also predicted that we would not get one. We are moving forward with an active plan and active engagement with the economy. Some £280 billion has been proffered so far. That is a picture that he fails to recognise.

It is probably helpful to advise the Secretary of State that in Scotland the Brexit debate is far from over—in fact, we are just getting started. But I will take it from his answer that there will not be any grace period for Scottish businesses. However, there is one area where I hope he can provide some positive news: in relation to the North sea transition deal. The perfect storm of the pandemic and price crashes has seen 12,000 jobs associated with the North sea go already—and sadly, more are expected to follow. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he still expects the deal to be signed by the end of March, as his predecessor stated in the House? Will he agree to meet me and my colleagues in the city to discuss this hugely important matter?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. He will be courteous enough to acknowledge that, as Energy Minister, I was directly involved in the conversations ahead of the North sea transition deal. I was very much in favour of bringing forward the completion of the deal. I am hopeful that we can manage to reach a really good deal, in which the sector accepts the need for decarbonisation very quickly.

The UK is a key player in supporting the research happening in developing countries that will be essential to putting an end to the pandemic and allowing our businesses to recover. Is the Secretary of State aware of the devastating blow that overseas development aid cuts will be to businesses and could be to our position as a global science leader, sending a message that the UK is not a reliable partner in long-term science advancement and business across the world?

I do not accept that any change in overseas development aid money will undermine our position as a global science superpower. As I said earlier, the science community around the world has been extremely impressed with how we are proceeding with the vaccine roll-out and the great innovation that takes place in this country.