House of Commons
Wednesday 3 March 2021
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Orders, 4 June and 30 December 2020).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Since the start of the pandemic, the UK Government have worked closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure the safety of the people in Northern Ireland. Vaccines are our way out of the pandemic, and the Secretary of State and I continue to hold regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive on this important issue. The Government have procured vaccines on behalf of all parts of the United Kingdom and are working with the devolved Administrations to ensure that they are deployed fairly across the UK. I am pleased to see that vaccine doses have been successfully administered to more than half a million people in Northern Ireland.
In Dewsbury, Mirfield, Kirkburton and Denby Dale, the roll-out of the vaccine has been a huge success thanks to the amazing work put in by North Kirklees and Greater Huddersfield clinical commissioning groups, and we appear to be well on track to hit the mid-April target for vaccinating cohorts 1 to 9. Will the Minister reassure the people of Northern Ireland that the target will also be met there, ensuring that we come out this pandemic as one United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend is right about this being a United Kingdom effort, and I congratulate his local clinical commissioning groups on what they are doing. When I visited the Worcester vaccination centre, I was pleased to be met by an ex-military logistics officer from Belfast—that shows the contribution that Northern Ireland is making to the UK roll-out. As of Monday 1 March, 558,000 vaccines have been administered to more than 29% of Northern Ireland’s population, including 525,000 first doses. Every step of the way, the UK Government work closely with the devolved Administrations, and I thank and commend those in the Department of Health, the local health trusts and the Executive who have helped to deliver such progress.
The vaccine roll-out is a great achievement, not just for the Minister here but for all the Ministers from the devolved Administrations, because we are part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—better together. In less than two weeks, at 16:40 on 15 March, I will receive the vaccine at the Ulster Hospital when my opportunity on the list comes round.
On supply, will the Minister further outline what discussions have taken place with regard to the needs of rural isolated communities, which will need dedicated clinics because they will find it difficult to make it to the centralised locations for the vaccine roll-out?
We all welcome the news that the hon. Gentleman has waited his turn and got an appointment to receive a vaccine. He raises an important point. Although of course the delivery of the vaccine in Northern Ireland is primarily a matter for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland, we will continue to work closely with it to support the vaccine roll-out to all communities, including those in remote and rural areas.
Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation
My Cabinet colleagues and I continue to work together closely to ensure that we meet our protocol obligations in a pragmatic and proportionate way. We have heard the concerns raised by people and businesses in Northern Ireland and are sensitive to the economic, societal and political realities in Northern Ireland. That is why we are taking forward a series of further temporary operational steps that reflect the simple reality that more time is needed to adapt to and implement new requirements as we continue our discussions with the EU. The steps include the new operational plan for supermarkets and their suppliers, committed to at the Joint Committee. I will lay a written ministerial statement detailing the steps later today.
After the EU’s outrageous abuse of the Northern Ireland protocol in relation to its failing vaccine programme, is it not clear that, as it stands, the operation of the protocol is not working? There is far too much disruption to businesses and families in Northern Ireland and it needs urgently to be either reset or scrapped altogether.
There were already challenges in the operation of the protocol in early January this year that were having a direct and often disproportionate impact on citizens. The EU’s decision to invoke article 16 has compounded those issues—there is no doubt about that—and significantly undermined cross-community confidence. That action was not in the spirit of the protocol, which is partly why we are taking the actions that I will outline in a written ministerial statement later today.
It took just shy of three years to leave the European Union but only 29 days for the EU to threaten to trigger article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol, without discussions with Great Britain or Northern Ireland—an apparent “oversight”. Will my right hon. Friend please reassure my constituents that confidence in the protocol will be restored? Does he agree that the EU urgently needs to resolve the issues faced by people and businesses in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend makes an important point, which was why I was pleased to hear that Vice-President Šefčovič had recently agreed to meet businesses across communities and civic society in Northern Ireland to hear directly from the people who are being affected by some of the issues that we are seeing, particularly the impact that the EU’s decision to invoke article 16 had in terms of compounding these issues and of undermining cross-community confidence. That is why we will take forward some further temporary operational steps, which I will outline in the written ministerial statement, to ensure that people in Northern Ireland are able to continue to have access to products in the way that the protocol envisaged.
May I take this opportunity to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for her years of service on the Front Bench? I know that she will continue to champion the people of Northern Ireland from the Back Benches.
While we will study the detail that the Secretary of State is set to announce in his written ministerial statement, any more time will be welcomed by businesses across Northern Ireland which simply were not prepared for the changes that took place on 1 January. He admitted last week that he did not envisage the disruption that we have seen as a result of the protocol, despite businesses shouting from the rooftops for months. Given this lack of awareness and the shambolic preparation for the end of the transition period, what confidence can the Secretary of State give to businesses in Northern Ireland that this extension will be used properly to prepare businesses for the changes to come?
I join the hon. Lady in her thanks to her colleague the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) for the work that she has done. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker) and I have worked with her and know that her compassion and her passion for the issues of the people of Northern Ireland are without question, and huge credit goes to her for that.
On the issues that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) has just raised, I would say to her that, genuinely, we have been working with businesses and across communities in Northern Ireland over the past year on the development of the guidance notes. In fact, we have been working with businesses since the end of the transition period to ensure that things are delivered in a way that works for them. Our work is informed by businesses so that we can deliver what they need on the ground to deliver for their customers and our constituents right across Northern Ireland.
Any extra time will of course be welcome and is important, but it is not the long-term solution that businesses and the people of Northern Ireland need. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he is demanding within Government practical solutions, such as a veterinary agreement, that would reduce the barriers down the middle of our Union that his Government insisted on?
The hon. Lady will have seen the correspondence between the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the EU Commission outlining some of the things that we are looking at implementing. I point out that it is worth all businesses looking at and taking advantage of the Trader Support Service and the movement assistance scheme, which are specifically there to help businesses and to support them entirely at the cost of the UK Government. We have put several hundred million pounds of support into those businesses through those schemes, and they are working exceedingly well. Some businesses are hugely positive about the impact they will have.
As we approach the end of the three months’ grace period under the Northern Ireland protocol, many businesses and individuals in Northern Ireland are very concerned about what this will mean for them, in particular in relation to their ability to order goods and receive parcels from suppliers in Great Britain. Without further disruption to this trade, what will the Secretary of State and the Government do to address these concerns?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. As has been the case since January, our focus will remain on supporting the effective flow of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, avoiding any unacceptable disruption to the critical flow of goods on which lives and livelihoods rely. I absolutely agree that it is important that businesses and citizens across Northern Ireland do not see their lives or their livelihoods unacceptably disrupted as they adapt to new requirements. I can advise him that further guidance will be provided later this week on parcel movements from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response. He will also be aware that agrifood businesses and others in Northern Ireland are very concerned about the potential imposition of charges on goods that are brought into ports in Northern Ireland at the behest of the European Union. This will add significantly to the cost of doing business with the rest of the United Kingdom. Again, what does the Secretary of State intend to do to ensure that businesses in Northern Ireland are not required to pay these additional charges?
I know that the right hon. Gentleman, along with the First Minister and other party colleagues, have been strong in their determination to highlight this and other issues associated with the protocol—I absolutely recognise that. I can confirm today that it is our intention that no charging regime is required for agrifoods, and I will be outlining that in the written ministerial statement later today.
May I echo the thanks to the hon. Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) and welcome the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) to her Opposition Front-Bench duties? I welcome the general attitude of the Government towards resolving the issues on the protocol: they are right, and the Secretary of State will have our support as he goes forward. However, I urge him to really put some pressure on the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to better explain to GB businesses what they need to do, how they need to do it and when they need to do it in order to sell their goods into the very welcoming market that is Northern Ireland?
I thank my hon. Friend for outlining this issue. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is very keen to ensure that GB businesses have all the information they need. My hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that a number of the issues we have found relate to companies in Great Britain not appreciating what they can do in order to continue their smooth supplies to people in Northern Ireland. We want to ensure that that is the case. I encourage businesses to engage particularly with the trader support service, which is there to help businesses and, as I say, has phenomenal response and success rates in helping them to ensure that they can deliver. We as a Government will continue to fund it to ensure that it is there to support business and the people of Northern Ireland.
There is considerable anecdotal evidence from food producers that exports continue to be below pre-Brexit levels. With the retailers’ grace period ending this month, export health certificates will be required for imports of chilled and processed meats. How do the UK Government plan to ease specific concerns of the agrifood industry over this requirement ahead of the end of that grace period?
As the Secretary of State knows, we did not want Brexit, but we do have the protocol and the protocol is here to stay, despite what anybody else might say. It does give us a competitive advantage. Will he work with me to make the most of that competitive advantage by getting rid of the maximum student numbers cap and the historical under-provision of university places for Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point that is worth highlighting. We have two great universities in Northern Ireland that are globally leading, with one of them recently winning the award for the most entrepreneurial university and one of them being among the best nursing provision universities in the UK. That is something we should be proud of. We should look at how we can develop and grow that work for the benefit of the universities, the wider economy and their phenomenal input, and the huge competitive advantage, that, yes, Northern Ireland has, not least because of the amazing skill sets across Northern Ireland. I am happy to work with him to ensure that we develop, promote and take advantage of that for the benefit of people in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland Protocol
The Government are committed to meeting our obligations in a proportionate way, taking account of the Belfast-Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions—north-south and, of course, east-west. As I stated in previous answers, we have heard the concerns raised by people and businesses in Northern Ireland, and we are sensitive to the economic, societal and political realities of Northern Ireland. While we have made good progress in line with this pragmatic approach, we will be taking forward a series of further temporary operational steps, details of which, as I say, will be in the WMS that I will lay later today.
My focus is on ensuring that colleagues across Government ensure that we are able to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland in the most effective, efficient, flexible and fluid way. It was good, as I said, that Vice-President Šefčovič met businesses and civic society in Northern Ireland and has committed to continuing to do that so that he can hear directly on the ground the impact that some of this is having, not least the action that the EU took in its movement towards activating article 16 and the impact felt across communities regarding people’s confidence around that. It is right that the EU understands the impact this has on people’s everyday lives in Northern Ireland.
Many businesses in Warwick and Leamington and across the country have already opted out of supplying to Northern Ireland due to the complexities. Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government’s denial over the reality of an Irish sea border has actually hampered efforts to prepare British businesses for trade with Northern Ireland and led to the disruption we are seeing today?
What I would say to businesses is that I would encourage them to engage with the trader support service that the Government have put in place and which we are funding. It works for businesses, and the businesses that have used it have had great success in continuing to be able to move their products, with advice, smoothly and fluidly. We have worked with businesses continually through the process—as we were in the transition period and since we have left the transition period—to ensure that businesses across the United Kingdom can trade across the United Kingdom, but I recognise there have been issues in how the protocol has been implemented since the end of the transition period, and that is why we will be outlining measures in a written ministerial statement later today.
Hard-liner Back Benchers in the Secretary of State’s own party want to tear up the deal they voted for and place our border on the island of Ireland. Will the Secretary of State today publicly reject the demands of the European Research Group, with all the damage and instability those demands could cause?
The hon. Gentleman may well have voted for the deal as well. I will be very clear with him: my focus is on ensuring that we deliver exactly what the protocol said, which is to ensure that it does not disrupt the everyday lives of people in their communities in Northern Ireland. We have to make sure that is the case. That is what the protocol set out to achieve. We have also got to make sure that it respects all the peace and prosperity that has been found in Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, and that means respecting not just north-south relations, but east-west relations as well.
Trade groups say that the trader support service is simply not good enough for the 12,000 traders who need its help. Businesses report that the scheme is providing confusing and conflicting advice. Why on earth is the Northern Ireland Secretary saying that disruption was not envisaged? The problems with the trader support service were known about well before the end of transition, including by the then Department for Exiting the European Union, which warned of problems with additional documentation as long ago as October 2019.
At the end of the hon. Gentleman’s question, he was talking about a period of time before the transition period ended and before the trader support service was outlined and in place. What I would say is that the trader support service now has more than 34,000 registered users. On average, calls to the service are handled in six seconds and 98% of declarations are processed within 15 minutes. That sounds like a pretty good record of success to me.
If the hon. Gentleman has some examples that are different from that, I will very happily engage with him directly if he wants to let me know, but that is a track record of success that the people involved in the trader support service should be proud of. More businesses can engage with that service and benefit from it, for the benefit of those businesses and the people of Northern Ireland.
Even with the grace periods in place, which give exemptions from many of the EU checks that will eventually be required in Northern Ireland, there has been massive disruption of trade as a result of the implementation of the protocol. Does the Secretary of State accept that if the Prime Minister’s promise and the protocol’s assurance that there will be unfettered trade between GB and Northern Ireland are to be delivered, something more than an extension of the grace periods is required? Really, there needs to be a reset or a rethinking of the agreement so that we have an alternative arrangement, such as the mutual enforcement of regulations, that would exempt Northern Ireland from being subject to EU laws and from the European Court of Justice making judgments about this part of the United Kingdom.
I respect the right hon. Gentleman, who has been consistent in his views on this issue at all times. I have also been very clear: we were always determined to ensure that we were able to deliver unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the rest of the United Kingdom, and we have done that. We have also been very clear that we want to ensure that free flow and flexible trade across the United Kingdom so that GB businesses can trade into Northern Ireland properly, while accepting and acknowledging the reality of the single epidemiological unit of the island of Ireland, as the sanitary and phytosanitary situation does. That has been there, as I said before, in some form or another since the 19th century. It is something that was acknowledged long ago, and I absolutely accept, as we have always outlined, that it does have an impact.
The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that we have to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland can continue to enjoy products, their commercial activities and their day-to-day lives in the way that they always have done as members of and part of the United Kingdom.
If businesses had had their voices listened to over the last year, disruption could have been avoided. The joint consultative working group offers a real opportunity for businesses, civic society and politicians in Northern Ireland to have their voices heard, but at the moment, all we know about it is that it merely exists. This is a missed opportunity, so will the Minister commit to giving these groups a formal role and an input into how the protocol works? Without them, there can be no decision about Northern Ireland.
I join others in welcoming the hon. Lady to her new role. I am sure she will be able to fight the case for the people of Northern Ireland with great strength and passion, and I look forward to working with her, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr Walker).
I have been working with businesses throughout this process, including through the business engagement forum, which will meet again shortly. We engaged with businesses with Vice-President Šefčovič a week or so ago, to have that direct input. Ultimately, I am a democrat, and I believe in the democratic system and the way in which Parliament and the structures we have in place work. I know that businesses have a full voice within that, and we have ensured that at every stage of the process.
Northern Ireland Protocol: Implementation
The co-chairs of the UK-EU Joint Committee met last Wednesday to discuss the set of issues with the protocol that need to be addressed to protect the vital links between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. These engagements are supported by regular official-level contact, including via the Northern Ireland/Ireland specialised committee, which met last Tuesday, to ensure that the protocol operates as intended, with minimum impact on the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland. We will continue to discuss all our implementation efforts through the withdrawal agreement structures, including in giving effect to the commitments made at December’s Joint Committee, and there will be an informal meeting with the EU and Vice-President Šefčovič later today.
Some Northern Irish companies have been boasting about their dual access to both the British and EU marketplaces for trade purposes. Will the Secretary of State confirm that Northern Ireland businesses do indeed have great opportunities and that this also creates a relative disadvantage for businesses in Scotland?
As I outlined in response to an earlier question, Northern Ireland businesses have a huge opportunity and a huge competitive advantage, not least because of the amazing skillsets across Northern Ireland in technology, hydrogen and advanced engineering. There are a wide range of things that businesses in Northern Ireland have to promote, with the advantage they have in promoting around the world, to develop business and more jobs for Northern Ireland.
Administrative Burdens on Businesses
In my engagements with businesses, I have heard directly about the importance of ensuring that processes are streamlined to the maximum extent, and we are working with businesses to ensure that we are delivering on that. More than £200 million has been put into the trader support service, the movement assistance scheme and the UK trader scheme to support those businesses. The newly established digital assistance scheme, when fully operational, will provide a simplified digital process for the certification and verification of goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. We will continue to address issues that arise, and that will be part of the subject of my written ministerial statement later today.
Businesses also need stability and legal certainty. In the past few days, we have seen the Northern Ireland Agriculture Minister stress that he may unilaterally breach commitments under the protocol. Can the Secretary of State give an assurance that the UK Government, as a sovereign party to the withdrawal agreement, will, in the last resort if necessary, ensure ongoing legal compliance and that any changes to the protocol are agreed with the European Union?
As I outlined earlier, I can confirm that our intention is that no charging regime is required for agrifoods, and my written ministerial statement will confirm that later today. At all times we will be focused on ensuring that we are acting in a fully legal manner and delivering for people in Northern Ireland.
World Rally Championship
This Government will always do what they can to champion Northern Ireland tourism, which in normal times includes major sporting events. I know that the Northern Ireland Economy Minister was giving consideration to hosting the world rally championship, for which the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) has been a strong champion in the House. The Government will happily support the Executive should they decide to proceed with funding the event, but ultimately, this is a matter for the Executive.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. The United Kingdom proudly sits at the heart of global motorsports, having hosted a round of the world rally championship virtually every year since its inception in 1973. Does my hon. Friend agree with me that it is important that the UK continues to host a round of that championship, and will he do everything possible to work with the Northern Ireland Executive and all parties involved to see a round of the WRC hosted in Northern Ireland in the coming years?
I wish my hon. Friend a happy birthday, and I welcome the points he makes about the UK’s leadership in the space of motorsports. I think Northern Ireland would produce an excellent backdrop for hosting an event of that sort, and I would be very happy to continue to work to support the Executive in that regard with any future bids.
Great Britain-Northern Ireland Tunnel
The Secretary of State and I have regular conversations with ministerial colleagues regarding transport connections, which are particularly important for Northern Ireland given its unique position. Connectivity across the UK is vital to fuel Northern Ireland’s economic recovery and strengthen the Union. The Prime Minister commissioned a Union connectivity review to consider these important connections, including the feasibility of a fixed link between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
In those discussions, could the Minister not get together with the Department for Transport and point out the huge cost, the geological problems and the inconvenient reality that Britain and Ireland operate on a different rail gauge? Is it not time to dump this project at an early stage, along with the garden bridge, into the bin and save a lot of money, effort and probably a few column inches in articles?
The Prime Minister was asked—
It will be three years tomorrow since a chemical weapon was deployed by Russian military intelligence on the streets of Salisbury. All our thoughts remain with those affected, their families and loved ones, and we will continue to seek justice for them. I am sure this House will want to pay tribute to the people of Salisbury and Amesbury, and wish them well for the future.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.
Liverpool is a welcoming city, with the oldest Chinese community in Europe, but in 1946 the British Government ordered the forced repatriation back to China of thousands of Chinese seamen who were living in Liverpool with their British families, causing lasting emotional trauma. Many of their descendants still live in my Liverpool, Riverside constituency. Will the Prime Minister take steps to acknowledge these events, and provide the descendants with a formal apology and the justice they deserve?
I have happy memories of my own visits to Liverpool, and I can tell the hon. Member—[Interruption.] I can tell her that we are certainly very grateful across the country to the Chinese community for their amazing contribution. Her message has been heard loud and clear.
Of course, I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for what he says. He will hear more in just half an hour or so—let us try to keep it to half an hour, Mr Speaker—from the Chancellor about how exactly we intend to make sure we build back better across the whole of this country and unleash the tremendous potential of the whole of the United Kingdom, including of course Carlisle, which he so well represents.
The trouble is that, while President Biden has suspended arms sales that could be used in Yemen, the UK has not. In fact, we sold £1.4 billion-worth of arms to Saudi Arabia in three months last year, including bombs and missiles that could be used in Yemen. Given everything we know about the appalling humanitarian cost of this war, with innocent civilians caught between the Saudi coalition and the Houthi rebels, why does the Prime Minister think it is right to be selling these weapons?
The UK is part of an international coalition following the UN resolutions, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman will know well and which are very clear that the legitimate Government of Yemen were removed illegally. Those are the resolutions that we follow, and we continue scrupulously to follow the humanitarian guidance—among the toughest measures anywhere in the world—in respect of all arms sales. He talks about humanitarian relief, and actually I think the people of this country can be hugely proud of what we are doing to support the people of Yemen: almost £1 billion of aid contributed in the past five years.
The Prime Minister says the system is very robust in relation to arms sales. It cannot be that robust: the Government lost a court case just two years ago in relation to arms sales. The truth is that the UK is increasingly isolated in selling arms to Saudi Arabia, despite what is happening in Yemen, despite Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, and despite the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi—a murder the US has concluded was approved by the Saudi Crown Prince. So I have to ask: what will it take for the Prime Minister to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
We condemn the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. We continue to call for a full independent investigation into the causes of his death, and indeed we have already sanctioned 20 people in Saudi Arabia. I repeat the point that I have made that the UK Government continue to follow the consolidated guidance, which, by the way, was set up by the Labour party.
To make matters worse, the Government decided this week to halve international aid to Yemen—to halve it. The United Nations has said that Yemen faces the worst famine the world has seen for decades, and the Secretary-General said on Monday that cutting aid would be a “death sentence” for the people of Yemen. How on earth can the Prime Minister justify selling arms to Saudi Arabia and cutting aid to people starving in Yemen?
It is under this Government that we have increased aid spending to the highest proportion in the history of our country, and, yes, it is true that current straitened circumstances, which I am sure the people of this country understand, mean that temporarily we must reduce aid spending, but that does not obscure the fact that when it comes to our duty to the people of Yemen we continue to step up to the plate: a contribution of £214 million for this financial year. There are very few other countries in the world that have such a record and that are setting such an example in spending and supporting the people of Yemen.
This week the Government halved our international aid to Yemen. If this is what the Prime Minister thinks global Britain should look like, he should think again, and if he does not believe me—if he does not like it from me or the UN Secretary-General—he should listen to his own MPs. Just this morning, the Conservative MP the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) said:
“Cutting support to starving children is not what Global Britain should be about. It undermines the very idea of the UK as a nation to be respected on a global stage.”
The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said this was “unconscionable”. Will the Prime Minister now do the right thing and reconsider this urgently?
I repeat: we have given £1 billion since the conflict began; we are in support of UN resolutions; this year we are contributing another £214 million to support the people of Yemen. There are very few other countries in the world that have that kind of record. In these tough, straitened circumstances, bearing in mind the immense cost of the covid epidemic that has affected our country, I think the people of this country should be very, very proud of what we are doing.
Britain should be a moral force for good in the world, but just as the US is stepping up, the UK is stepping back. If the Prime Minister and Chancellor are so determined to press ahead with their manifesto-breaking cuts to international aid—cutting the budget to 0.5%—they should at least put that to a vote in this House. Will he have the courage to do so?
We are going to get on with our agenda of delivering for the people of this country and spending more than virtually any other country in the world—by the way, spending more, still, than virtually any other country in the G7—on aid. It is a record of which this country can be proud. Given the difficulties that this country faces, I think that the people of this country will think that we have got our priorities right.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot work out what his priorities are. One minute he is backing us on the road map; the next week he is turning his back on us. He cannot even address a question on the issues of the hour. He could have asked anything about the coronavirus pandemic; instead, he has consecrated his questions entirely to the interests of the people of Yemen. We are doing everything we can to support the people of Yemen given the constraints that we face. We are getting on with a cautious but irreversible road map to freedom, which I hope that he will support. Very shortly, Mr Speaker, you will be hearing a Budget for recovery.
I thank my right hon. Friend, and of course we will support all civil servants. By the way, I thank them for the work that they have done up and down the country throughout the pandemic. I think everybody in this House would agree that now is the time, really, for our civil service to focus on working together to build back better together, rather than on measures that might divide our country.
May I associate myself with the remarks of the Prime Minister on the terrible atrocity three years ago in the town of Salisbury?
The situation in Yemen has been called the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. One hundred thousand people have been killed, 16.2 million are at risk of starvation, and 2.3 million children, Prime Minister, are at death’s door, facing acute malnutrition. The UK Government’s response is not one of compassion; instead, it is to impose cuts. That is what you are doing, Prime Minister—a 50% cut to international aid to Yemen, a move that the UN chief, António Guterres, has described as “a death sentence”.
Since the start of the war, the Tories have shamefully backed the Saudi regime through billions of pounds of arms sales and support, despite evidence of war crimes and of the targeting of civilians. Will the Prime Minister confirm that today’s Budget will force through the devastating cuts to international aid?
I think anybody listening to this debate will have heard me say that this country—this Government—in the last five years has given £1 billion to support the people of Yemen. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, in case he thinks there is any diminution of our efforts, that on Monday we are going to provide cash support to 1.5 million of the most vulnerable Yemeni households, support 400 health clinics and treat 75,000 cases of severe malnutrition. That is the continuing effort of the British people and the British Government to help the people of Yemen.
The reality is a 50% cut to Yemen aid at a time of a global pandemic. The coronavirus has hit poor and vulnerable countries the hardest, threatening decades of hard-won gains while exacerbating existing inequalities. During his leadership race, the Prime Minister made a commitment to stand by 0.7% for aid spending, a position he reaffirmed in June last year at that very Dispatch Box. What followed was yet another U-turn—another broken promise. Why is the Prime Minister breaking his own manifesto commitment, and why are his Government breaking the promises they made to the world’s poorest?
I think most people in this country will know that the Government have given £280 billion to support the people, the economy, the livelihoods and the businesses up and down the whole of the United Kingdom. That has, as you will hear from the Chancellor, Mr Speaker, placed strains on our public finances. In the meantime, we continue to do everything we possibly can to support the people of Yemen, including, by the way, through a massive vaccination programme, to which the people of this country have contributed £548 million—the second biggest contributor in the world.
We are now in the third month of the Northern Ireland protocol and we are fast approaching the end of the three-month grace period. The Prime Minister will be aware of the disruption the protocol is causing to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the damage it is doing to the stability of the political institutions established under the Belfast agreement. What action does the Prime Minister intend to take to deliver on his promise to protect Northern Ireland’s position within the UK internal market and provide us with unfettered access to goods from Great Britain?
The position of Northern Ireland within the UK internal market is rock solid and guaranteed. We are making sure that we underscore that with some temporary operational easings in order to protect the market in some areas, such as food supplies, pending further discussions with the EU. As I have said to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, we leave nothing off the table to ensure that we get this right.
My hon. Friend is completely right. I thank her again, by the way, for her amazing service in the NHS in Wrexham and in returning to the frontline. It was at Wockhardt in Wrexham that I met young female scientists who are helping to make the vaccine that will not only free our country, we hope, from the captivity of covid, but help to liberate the entire world. It was wonderful to see it happening in Wrexham. We want to see many more young female scientists growing up in that part of the world.
With great respect to the hon. Member, what the country needs are councillors who charge you less while delivering better services. If we look across the country, we can see that it is overwhelmingly Conservative-run councils that do that. The right hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) laughs. Westminster has kept council tax low. In Camden where he lives, it is three times as high. That is the difference.
I sympathise very much with Luke’s family and his friends, and there is nothing I can say that will alleviate their loss. But what we are doing is recruiting many more police officers to fight crime, rolling up the county lines drugs gangs wherever we can and setting out plans to keep serious sexual and violent offenders behind bars for longer. I can tell the House that we now have 6,620 of our target extra 20,000 police already recruited.
I was delighted to hear a sort of acceptance there that the hon. Gentleman is running a nationalist party, if that is what he was saying, because I am afraid I agree with that; they are not in respect of the whole of this country. But I think that most people will think it extraordinary that they are talking about another referendum—the Labour Chief Whip is nodding quite rightly—when, actually, what the people of this country want to see is us working together as one United Kingdom without further constitutional upheaval, to get through the pandemic and build back better.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her campaign. It was great to be in Accrington and I hope that she will be hearing even more shortly from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor about what we can do to support the towns fund and other measures to help Accrington and places across the whole country.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and I would like to thank you and Members across the House, including the Prime Minister, for your well wishes during my illness.
The Prime Minister previously guaranteed that there was no threat to the Erasmus scheme as a result of Brexit. We now know that charities such as STAND International in my constituency that participate in the programme are set to lose 96% of their funding as a result of the UK Government’s decision to pull the plug on Erasmus+. Can the Prime Minister guarantee that charities will receive match funding under the new Turing scheme, and will he agree to meet me and representatives from STAND International to ensure that no young person in East Dunbartonshire gets left behind as a result of Brexit?
I am sure I speak for everybody when I say how much I welcome the hon. Lady back to PMQs—it is great to see her back. I do give her that assurance, and I think the Turing scheme will be better and will deliver exactly what she wants. If there was a criticism of the Erasmus scheme, it tended to favour higher-income households. We will do everything that we can with the Turing scheme to reach out to give opportunity to people from disadvantaged backgrounds. That is what we intend to do.
My right hon. Friend is completely right to continue to raise the case of Harry Dunn, and we sympathise deeply with his family. It is a case that we continue to raise with the highest level, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has only just raised it with Tony Blinken, the US Secretary of State.
Rhondda Cynon Taf, where my constituency is located, has the third highest covid death rate in the UK, due mainly to inequality, poverty and chronic underfunding. This UK Government have an appalling record on providing Wales with even a fair share of UK spending, let alone the funding needed to level up. Eleven years of Tory austerity cuts have destroyed the capacity of our public services to withstand the pandemic, and now they plan to bypass the democratic structures in Wales. My constituent Lyndon has a question for the Prime Minister. What will it take for him to stop ignoring the south Wales valleys?
I am afraid I disagree profoundly with the implication of what the hon. Lady is saying—and indeed with what her constituent Lyndon is, by implication, asking—because this Government continue to give massive support through the Barnett formula and elsewhere. I think through Barnett alone it is £2.4 billion, and there is now more coming through the levelling-up fund and other means. It is thanks to the UK Government that the furlough scheme has supported 3,400 jobs in her constituency alone. That is one of the advantages of the United Kingdom.
Prime Minister, in an interview with Sophy Ridge broadcast on 8 December 2019, you pledged that there would be no checks on goods going from NI to GB or from GB to NI. While this has proven more challenging to deliver in practice, would you wish to take this opportunity to encourage Ministers in Northern Ireland to do all they can—
My humble apologies. Can the Prime Minister make this aspiration a reality and ensure that they act in accordance with section 46 of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which stresses the importance of facilitating the free flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?
HS2 reduces journey times from Manchester airport to London from two hours 24 minutes to 59 minutes. With the carbon capture that we would generate and the increased capacity to the west coast main line, what prevents the Government from putting shovels in the ground in the north now?
Ways and Means
Before I call the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I remind hon. Members that copies of the Budget resolutions will be available from the Vote Office in Members’ Lobby upon the Chancellor’s statement being finished, and of course online. I also remind hon. Members that interventions are not taken during the Chancellor’s statement, nor during the replies of the Leader of the Opposition and the leader of the Scottish National party. British Sign Language interpretation will continue until the end of the speech of the leader of the Scottish National party, and it is available to watch—quick advert here—on parliamentlive.tv.
Madam Deputy Speaker, a year ago, in my first Budget, I announced our initial response to coronavirus. What was originally thought to be a temporary disruption to our way of life has fundamentally altered it: people are still being told to stay in their homes, businesses have been ordered to close, thousands of people are in hospital. Much has changed, but one thing has stayed the same. I said that I would do whatever it takes. I have done and I will do so. We have announced over £280 billion of support, protecting jobs, keeping businesses afloat, helping families get by.
Despite this unprecedented response, the damage that coronavirus has done to our economy has been acute. Since March, over 700,000 people have lost their jobs, our economy has shrunk by 10%—the largest fall in over 300 years—and our borrowing is the highest it has been outside of wartime. It is going to take this country, and the whole world, a long time to recover from this extraordinary economic situation. But we will recover.
This Budget meets the moment with a three-part plan to protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people. First, we will continue doing whatever it takes to support the British people and businesses through this moment of crisis. Secondly, once we are on the way to recovery, we will need to begin fixing the public finances, and I want to be honest today about our plans to do that. Thirdly, in today’s Budget we begin the work of building our future economy.
Today’s forecasts show that our response to coronavirus is working. The Prime Minister last week set out our cautious but irreversible road map to ease restrictions while protecting the British people. The NHS, deserving of immense praise, has had extraordinary success in vaccinating more than 20 million people across the United Kingdom. Combined with our economic response, one of the most comprehensive and generous in the world, this means that the Office for Budget Responsibility is now forecasting, in its words, a
“swifter and more sustained recovery”
than it expected in November. The OBR now expects the economy to return to its pre-covid level by the middle of next year, six months earlier than previously thought. That means growth is faster, unemployment lower, wages higher, investment higher, household incomes higher.
But while our prospects are now stronger, coronavirus has done, and is still doing, profound damage. Today’s forecasts make it clear that repairing the long-term damage will take time. The OBR still expects that in five years’ time, because of coronavirus, our economy will be 3% smaller than it would have been. Before I share the detail of the OBR’s forecasts, let me thank Richard Hughes and his team for their work.
The OBR forecasts that our economy will grow this year by 4%, by 7.3% in 2022, then 1.7%, 1.6% and 1.7% in the last three years of the forecast. The OBR has said that our interventions to support jobs have worked. In July last year, it expected unemployment to peak at 11.9%. Today, because of our interventions, it forecast a much lower peak: 6.5%. That means 1.8 million fewer people are expected to be out of work than previously thought. But every job lost is a tragedy, which is why protecting, creating and supporting jobs remains my highest priority.
Let me turn straightaway to the first part of this Budget’s plan, to protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people through the remaining phase of this crisis.
First, the furlough scheme will be extended until the end of September. For employees, there will be no change to the terms. They will continue to receive 80% of their salary, for hours not worked, until the scheme ends. As businesses reopen, we will ask them to contribute alongside the taxpayer to the cost of paying their employees. Nothing will change until July, when we will ask for a small contribution of just 10%, and 20% in August and September. The Government are proud of the furlough, one of the most generous schemes in the world, effectively protecting millions of people’s jobs and incomes.
Secondly, support for the self-employed will also continue until September, with a fourth grant covering the period February to April, and a fifth and final grant from May onwards. The fourth grant will provide three months of support at 80% of average trading profits. For the fifth grant, people will continue to receive grants worth three months of average profits, with the system open for claims from late July.
But as the economy reopens over the summer, it is fair to target our support towards those most affected by the pandemic, so people whose turnover has fallen by 30% or more will continue to receive the full 80% grant. People whose turnover has fallen by less than 30% will therefore have less need of taxpayer support and will receive a 30% grant. I can also announce a major improvement in access to the self-employed scheme. When the scheme was launched, the newly self-employed could not qualify because they had not all filed a 2019-20 tax return. But as the tax return deadline has now passed, I can announce today that, provided they filed a tax return by midnight last night, over 600,000 more people, many of whom became self-employed last year, can now claim the fourth and fifth grants. Over the course of this crisis we will have spent £33 billion supporting the self-employed, one of the most generous programmes for self-employed people anywhere in the world.
Thirdly, we are also extending our support for the lowest paid and the most vulnerable. To support low-income households, the universal credit uplift of £20 a week will continue for a further six months, well beyond the end of this national lockdown. We will provide working tax credit claimants with equivalent support for the next six months. Because of the way that system works operationally, we will need to do so with a one-off payment of £500.
And over the course of this year, as the economy begins to recover, we are shifting our resources and focus towards getting people into decent, well-paid jobs. We reaffirm our commitment to end low pay, by increasing the national living wage to £8.91 from April—an annual pay rise of almost £350 for someone working full time on the national living wage.
My right hon. Friends the Education Secretary and the Work and Pensions Secretary are taking action to give people the skills they need to get jobs or get better jobs. The restart programme—supporting over a million long-term unemployed people. The number of work coaches —doubled. The kickstart scheme—funding high-quality jobs for over a quarter of a million young people. The Prime Minister’s lifetime skills guarantee—giving every adult the opportunity for a fully funded level 3 qualification. And we want businesses to hire new apprentices, so we are paying them more to do it.
Today, I am doubling the incentive payments we give businesses to £3,000—that is for all new apprentice hires, of any age. Alongside investing £126 million of new money to triple the number of traineeships, we are taking what works to get people into jobs and making it better.
One of the hidden tragedies of lockdown has been the increase in domestic abuse, so I am announcing today an extra £19 million, on top of the £125 million we announced at the spending review, for domestic violence programmes to reduce the risk of reoffending and to pilot a network of respite rooms to provide specialist support for vulnerable homeless women.
To recognise the sacrifices made by so many women and men in the armed forces community, I am providing an additional £10 million to support veterans with mental health needs.
On current plans, the funding to support survivors of the thalidomide scandal runs out in 2023. They deserve better than to have constant uncertainty about the future costs of their care, so not only will I extend this funding with an initial down payment of around £40 million; I am today announcing a lifetime commitment, guaranteeing funding forever. I thank the Thalidomide Trust and my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare) for their leadership on this important issue.
As well as supporting people’s jobs, incomes, the lowest paid and most vulnerable, this Budget also protects businesses. We have been providing businesses with direct cash grants throughout the recent restrictions. These grants come to an end in March. I can announce today that we will provide a new restart grant in April to help businesses reopen and get going again. Non-essential retail businesses will open first, so they will receive grants of up to £6,000 per premises. Hospitality and leisure businesses, including personal care and gyms, will open later, or be more impacted by restrictions when they do, so we will give them grants of up to £18,000. That is £5 billion of new grants on top of the £20 billion we have already provided, taking our total direct cash support to business to £25 billion. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) for highlighting the particular needs of the personal care sector.
With my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary, we are making available £700 million to support our incredible arts, culture and sporting institutions as they reopen: backing the UK and Ireland’s joint 2030 World cup bid; launching a new approach to apprenticeships in the creative industries; and extending our £500 million film and TV production restart scheme.
Even with the new restart grants, some businesses will also need loans to see them through. As the bounce back loan and coronavirus business interruption loan scheme programmes come to an end, we are introducing a new recovery loan scheme to take their place. Businesses of any size can apply for loans from £25,000 up to £10 million through to the end of this year, and the Government will provide a guarantee to lenders of 80%.
Last year, we provided an unprecedented 100% business rates holiday in England for all eligible businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors—a tax cut worth £10 billion. This year, we will continue with the 100% business rates holiday for the first three months of the year—in other words, through to the end of June. For the remaining nine months of the year, business rates will still be discounted by two thirds, up to a value of £2 million for closed businesses, with a lower cap for those who have been able to stay open—a £6 billion tax cut for business.
One of the hardest hit sectors has been hospitality and tourism: 150,000 businesses that employ over 2.4 million people need our support. To protect those jobs, I can confirm that the 5% reduced rate of VAT will be extended for six months to 30 September. Even then, we will not go straight back to the 20% rate; we will have an interim rate of 12.5% for another six months, not returning to the standard rate until April of next year. In total, we are cutting VAT next year by almost £5 billion.
The housing sector supports more than half a million jobs. The cut in stamp duty that I announced last summer has helped hundreds of thousands of people buy a home and supported the economy at a critical time, but due to the sheer volume of transactions that we are seeing, many new purchases will not complete in time for the end of March. I can announce today that the £500,000 nil rate band will not end on 31 March; it will end on 30 June. Then, to smooth the transition back to normal, the nil rate band will be £250,000, double its standard level, until the end of September, and we will return to the usual level of £125,000 only from 1 October.
Even with the stamp duty cut, there is still a significant barrier to people getting on the housing ladder—the cost of a deposit. I am announcing today a new policy to stand behind homebuyers: a mortgage guarantee. Lenders who provide mortgages to home buyers who can afford only a 5% deposit will benefit from a Government guarantee on those mortgages. I am pleased to say that several of the country’s largest lenders, including Lloyds, NatWest, Santander, Barclays and HSBC, will be offering these 95% mortgages from next month. I know that more, including Virgin Money, will follow shortly after. This is a policy that gives people who cannot afford a big deposit the chance to buy their own home. As the Prime Minister has said, we want to turn “generation rent” into “generation buy”.
So, the furlough—extended to September; self-employed grants—extended to September; universal credit uplift—extended to September; more money to tackle domestic violence; bigger incentives to hire apprentices; higher grants for struggling businesses; extra funds for culture, arts and sport; new loan schemes to finance businesses; kickstart, restart and a lifetime skills guarantee; business rates cut; VAT cut; stamp duty cut; and a new mortgage guarantee. This is the first part of a Budget that protects the jobs and livelihoods of the British people.
And, Madam Deputy Speaker, as you can see, we are going long, extending our support well beyond the end of the road map to accommodate even the most cautious view about the time that it might take to exit the restrictions. Let me summarise for the House the scale of our total fiscal response to coronavirus. At this Budget, we are announcing an additional £65 billion of measures over this year and next to support the economy in response to coronavirus. Taking into account the significant support announced at the spending review, this means that our total covid support package this year and next is £352 billion. Once you include the measures announced at the spring Budget last year, including the step change in capital investment, total fiscal support from this Government over this year and next amounts to £407 billion.
Coronavirus has caused one of the largest, most comprehensive and sustained economic shocks that this country has ever faced, and by any objective analysis, this Government have delivered one of the largest, most comprehensive and sustained responses this country has ever seen.
We are using the full measure of our fiscal firepower to protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people, but the damage done by coronavirus, combined with a level of support unimaginable only 12 months ago, has created huge challenges for our public finances. The OBR’s fiscal forecasts show that this year, we have borrowed a record amount: £355 billion. That is 17% of our national income—the highest level of borrowing since world war two. Next year, as we continue our unprecedented response to this crisis, borrowing is forecast to be £234 billion, 10.3% of GDP—an amount so large it has only one rival in recent history: this year.
Without corrective action, borrowing would continue at very high levels, leaving underlying debt rising indefinitely. Instead, because of the steps I am taking today, borrowing falls to 4.5% of GDP in 2022-23, 3.5% in 2023-24 and then 2.9% and 2.8% in the following two years. While underlying debt rises from 88.8% of GDP this year to 93.8% next year, it then peaks at 97.1% in 2023-24 before stabilising and falling slightly to 97% and 96.8% in the final two years of the forecast.
Let me explain why this matters. The amount we have borrowed is comparable only with the amount we borrowed during the two world wars. It is going to be the work of many Governments, over many decades, to pay it back. Just as it would be irresponsible to withdraw support too soon, it would also be irresponsible to allow our future borrowing and debt to rise unchecked. When crises come, we need to be able to act, and we need the fiscal freedom to act—a freedom that you only have if you start with public finances in a good and strong place. The only reason we have been able to respond as boldly as we have to covid is because 10 years of Conservative Governments painstakingly rebuilt our fiscal resilience.
When the next crisis comes, we need to be able to act again. While our borrowing costs are affordable right now, interest rates and inflation may not stay low forever, and just a one percentage point increase in both would now cost us over £25 billion. As we have seen in the markets over the last few weeks, sovereign bond yields can rise sharply. This Budget is not the time to set detailed fiscal rules with precise targets and dates to achieve them by. I do not believe that would be sensible, but I do want to be honest about what I mean by sustainable public finances and how I plan to achieve them.
Our fiscal decisions are guided by three principles. First, while it is right to help people and businesses through an acute crisis like this one, in normal times the state should not be borrowing to pay for everyday public spending. Secondly, over the medium term, we cannot allow our debt to keep rising, and given how high our debt now is, we need to pay close attention to its affordability. Thirdly, it is sensible to take advantage of lower interest rates to invest in capital projects that can drive our future growth.
The question is how we achieve that—how we balance the extraordinary support we are providing to the economy right now with the need to begin the work of fixing our public finances. I have been and always will be honest with the country about the challenges we face, so I am announcing today two measures to begin that work. Let me take each in turn.
Our response to coronavirus has been fair, with the poorest households benefiting the most from our interventions, and our approach to fixing the public finances will be fair too, asking more of those people and businesses who can afford to contribute and protecting those who cannot. So this Government are not going to raise the rates of income tax, national insurance or VAT; instead, our first step is to freeze personal tax thresholds. We have nearly doubled the income tax personal allowance over the last decade, making it the most generous of any G20 country. We will of course deliver our promise to increase it again next year to £12,570, but we will then keep it at this more generous level until April 2026. The higher rate threshold will similarly be increased next year to £50,270 and will then also remain at that level for the same period. Nobody’s take-home pay will be less than it is now as a result of this policy, but I want to be clear with all Members that this policy does remove the incremental benefit created had thresholds continued to increase with inflation. We are not hiding it; I am here explaining it to the House, and it is in the Budget document in black and white. It is a tax policy that is progressive and fair.
I will also maintain at their current levels until April 2026 the inheritance tax thresholds, the pensions lifetime allowance, the annual exempt amount in capital gains tax, and for two years from April 2022 the VAT registration threshold, which, at £85,000, will remain more than twice as generous as the EU and OECD averages. We will also tackle fraud in our covid schemes, with £100 million to set up a new HMRC taskforce of around 1,000 investigators as well as new measures and new investment in HMRC to clamp down on tax avoidance and evasion. The full details are set out in the Red Book.
The Government are providing businesses with over £100 billion of support to get through this pandemic, so it is fair and necessary to ask them to contribute to our recovery. So the second step I am taking today is that in 2023 the rate of corporation tax paid on company profits will increase to 25%. Even after this change the United Kingdom will still have the lowest corporation tax rate in the G7, lower than that of the United States, Canada, Italy, Japan, Germany and France.
We are also introducing some crucial protections. First, this new higher rate will not take effect until April 2023, well after the point when the Office for Budget Responsibility expects the economy to have recovered, and even then, because corporation tax is only charged on company profits, any struggling business will, by definition, be unaffected. Secondly, I am protecting small businesses with profits of £50,000 or less by creating a small profits rate maintained at the current rate of 19%. This means that around 70% of companies—1.4 million businesses—will be completely unaffected. And thirdly, we will introduce a taper above £50,000 so that only businesses with profits of £250,000 or greater will be taxed at the full 25% rate. That means only 10% of companies will pay the full higher rate. So, yes, it is a tax rise on company profits, but only on the larger, more profitable companies and only in two years’ time. I wanted to announce this now, because I think that, for business, certainty matters. For the next two years, I am also making the tax treatment of losses significantly more generous by allowing businesses to carry back losses of up to £2 million for three years, providing a significant cash flow benefit. This means companies can now claim additional tax refunds of up to £760,000. And because of the current 8% bank surcharge, the implied overall tax rate for banks would be too high. So we will review the surcharge to make sure the combined rate of tax on the UK banking sector does not increase significantly from its current level, and to make sure this important industry remains internationally competitive.
These are significant decisions to have taken: decisions no Chancellor wants to make. I recognise that they might not be popular, but they are honest. And let us consider the alternatives. The first is to do nothing: to leave our deficit problem untreated, our debt problem for someone else in the future to deal with. That has never been the way of a Conservative Government, and nor do I believe it can be the way of a responsible Chancellor. Another alternative would be to try and find all the savings we need from public spending. But when we said at the last election that we were the party of public services, people believed us—and they were right to believe us. And when we said we would be the party that invests in new infrastructure, they were right to believe that too. The only other alternative would be to increase the rates of tax on working people—but I do not believe that would be right either. So I believe that our approach, while bold, is compatible with our duty as a fiscally responsible and business-friendly Government. This is the right choice and I am confident it will command public assent.
I have one final announcement on business tax. With the lowest corporation tax rate in the G7, and a new, small profits rate, the UK will have a pro-business tax regime. But we need to do even more to encourage businesses to invest right now. Business investment creates jobs, lifts growth, spurs innovation and drives productivity. For decades we have lagged behind our international peers. Right now, while many businesses are struggling, others have been able to build up significant cash reserves. We need to unlock that investment; we need an investment-led recovery. So today I can announce the super deduction. For the next two years, when companies invest, they can reduce their tax bill not just by a proportion of the cost of that investment, as they do now, or even by 100% of the cost, the so-called full expensing some have called for; with the super deduction they can now reduce their tax bill by 130% of the cost. Let me give the House an example. Under the existing rules, a construction firm buying £10 million of new equipment could reduce their taxable income, in the year they invest, by just £2.6 million. With the super deduction, they can now reduce it by £13 million. We have never tried this before in our country. The OBR has said it will boost business investment by 10%—around £20 billion more per year. It makes our tax regime for business investment truly world leading, lifting us from 30th in the OECD to first. And, worth £25 billion during the two years it is in place, this will be the biggest business tax cut in modern British history: bold, unprecedented action to get companies investing, creating jobs, and driving our economic recovery.
Let me now turn to duties. This is a tough time for hospitality, so I can confirm that the planned increases in duties for spirits such as Scotch whisky, wine, cider and beer will all be cancelled. All alcohol duties frozen for the second year in a row—only the third time in two decades. And right now, to keep the cost of living low, I am not prepared to increase the cost of a tank of fuel, so the planned increase in fuel duty is also cancelled.
This Budget protects the jobs and livelihoods of the British people. This Budget is honest about the challenges facing our public finances and how we will begin to fix them. And this Budget does one other thing: it lays the foundations of our future economy—the third part of our plan. If we want a better future economy, we have to make it happen. We have to do things that have never been done before.
The world is not going to be any less competitive after coronavirus, so it is not enough to have some general desire to grow the economy; we need a real commitment to green growth. It is not enough to have some general desire to increase productivity; we need a real commitment to give every business, large or small, the opportunity to grow, innovate and succeed. It is not enough to have a general desire to create jobs; we need a real commitment to create jobs where people are and to change the economic geography of this country. And we cannot strengthen our domestic economy without remaining a global, outward-looking nation. This future economy will not be created in any one Budget, but today we lay the foundations.
Our future economy needs investment in green industries across the United Kingdom, so I can announce today the first ever UK infrastructure bank. Located in Leeds, the bank will invest across the UK in public and private projects to finance the green industrial revolution. Beginning this spring, it will have an initial capitalisation of £12 billion and we expect it to support at least £40 billion of total investment in infrastructure. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) will particularly welcome the location of this new institution.
Offshore wind is an innovative industry where the UK already has a global competitive advantage, so we are funding new port infrastructure to build the next generation of offshore wind projects in Teesside and Humberside. In November, I announced that we would launch a world-leading sovereign green bond. Today, we are going further, announcing a new retail savings product to give all UK savers the chance to support green projects, as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) has campaigned for.
We have also asked Dame Clara Furse to establish a new group to position the City as the global leader for voluntary, high-quality carbon offset markets. Underpinning all this will be an updated monetary policy remit for the Bank of England. It reaffirms its 2% target, but now it will also reflect the importance of environmental sustainability and the transition to net zero.
Our future economy will also address our productivity problem and support small business. Too often, smaller firms do not have the time or resources to acquire the extra skills and training they need to be more efficient, more digital and more productive. Thanks to Be the Business, we have made a good start at supporting these firms. Today, the Business Secretary and I are going further, with a new set of UK-wide schemes, Help to Grow.
First, Help to Grow: Management will help tens of thousands of small and medium-sized businesses get world-class management training. Dozens of business schools across the UK will offer a new executive development programme with mentoring and peer learning, and Government will contribute 90% of the cost—a real commitment to learn more, make more and earn more.
Secondly, Help to Grow: Digital. With the pandemic, many businesses have moved online. This has been a challenge, but we want to turn it into an opportunity. We are going to help small businesses develop digital skills by giving them free expert training and a 50% discount on new productivity-enhancing software worth up to £5,000 each. Both programmes will commence by the autumn, and I would urge interested businesses to register today on Gov.UK/HelpToGrow. That is a real commitment to help over a hundred thousand businesses become more innovative, more competitive and more profitable.
A future economy requires us to be at the forefront of the next scientific and technological revolutions. Becoming a scientific superpower is something we can be; I do not think that is hubristic or unrealistic. Our incredible vaccination programme has shown the world what this country is capable of, so I am providing an extra £1.6 billion today to continue the roll-out and improve our future preparedness.
I want to make the UK the best place in the world for high growth, innovative companies, so I am launching two wide-ranging consultations today to make sure our research and development tax reliefs—and our enterprise management incentives—are internationally competitive.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary knows that a scientific superpower needs scientific superstars, so together we are announcing ambitious visa reforms aimed at highly skilled migrants, including a new, unsponsored points-based visa to attract the best and most promising international talent in science, research and tech; new, improved visa processes for scale-ups and entrepreneurs, and radically simplified bureaucracy for high skilled visa applications.
As well as support for innovation and access to talent, high-growth firms need access to capital. To do that, we are taking steps to give the pensions industry more flexibility to unlock billions of pounds from pension funds into innovative new ventures; launching a new Future Fund Breakthrough to help fill the scale-up funding gap; and changing the rules to encourage more companies to list here. Let me thank Lord Hill for leading this landmark review. The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will shortly be consulting on his proposals.
Our future economy depends on remaining a United Kingdom. Millions of families and businesses in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have contributed to and benefited from our coronavirus response. Central to that has been a Treasury that acts for the whole United Kingdom. That is not a political point; it is an undeniable truth. The majority of today’s Budget measures will apply directly to people in all four nations of the UK. I am taking further specific steps with three accelerated Scottish city and growth deals in Ayrshire, Argyll and Bute, and Falkirk; three more in north Wales, mid-Wales, and Swansea bay; funding for the Holyhead hydrogen hub, the Global Centre of Rail Excellence in Neath Port Talbot and the Aberdeen energy transition zone, as well as the global underwater hub and the North sea transition deal, along with the first allocations of the £400 million new deal for Northern Ireland.
Through the Barnett formula, the decisions I am taking in this Budget also increase the funding for the devolved Administrations by £1.2 billion in Scotland, £740 million in Wales, and £410 million for the Northern Ireland Executive.
Our future economy demands a different economic geography. If we are serious about wanting to level up, that starts with the institutions of economic power. Few institutions are more powerful than the one I am enormously privileged to lead—the Treasury. Along with the other critical economic Departments, including the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the Department for International Trade and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, we will establish a new economic campus in Darlington. I know my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) will particularly welcome this announcement.
Redrawing our economic map means rebalancing our economic investment. I have already revised the Treasury’s Green Book, and set out the highest sustained levels of public investment across the UK since the 1970s. But we can go further. I am announcing today over £1 billion for 45 new towns deals, from Castleford to Clay Cross, Rochdale to Rowley Regis, and Whitby to Wolverhampton. I pay tribute to local leaders—like the brilliant Mayor for the West Midlands, Andy Street—who are making the case for investment in their area.
We are creating a £150-million fund to help communities across the UK take ownership of pubs, theatres, shops or local sports clubs at risk of loss, putting more power in the hands of local people. I am also launching the first round of the levelling up fund today, inviting applications from local areas across the United Kingdom. I am grateful to my right hon. Friends the Transport Secretary and the Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary for their support on this crucial initiative.
I have one final announcement that exemplifies the future economy. It is a policy on a scale that we have never done before—a policy to bring investment, trade, and, most importantly, jobs, right across the country, to replace the industries of the past with green, innovative, fast-growing new businesses, to encourage free trade and reinforce our position as an outward-looking, trading nation that is open to the world, and a policy that we can only pursue now that we are out of the European Union: freeports. Freeports are special economic zones with different rules to make it easier and cheaper to do business. They are well established internationally, but we are taking a unique approach.
Our freeports will have simpler planning to allow businesses to build; infrastructure funding to improve transport links; cheaper customs with favourable tariffs, VAT or duties; and lower taxes, with tax breaks to encourage construction, private investment and job creation. It will be an unprecedented economic boost across the United Kingdom. Freeports will be a truly UK-wide policy, and we will work constructively with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Administrations.
Today, I can announce the eight freeport locations in England: East Midlands airport; Felixstowe and Harwich; Humber; Liverpool city region; Plymouth; Solent; Thames; and Teesside. That is eight new freeports in eight English regions, unlocking billions of pounds of private sector investment, generating trade and jobs up and down the country. I commend Members across the House for their campaigning, but in particular my hon. Friends the Members for Redcar (Jacob Young), for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and for Great Grimsby (Lia Nici), as well as inspiring local leaders like Ben Houchen, the Mayor of Tees Valley.
Let us take just one of those places—Teesside. In the past, it was known for its success in industries like steel. Now, when I look to the future of Teesside, I see old industrial sites being used to capture and store carbon, vaccines being manufactured, offshore wind turbines creating clean energy for the rest of the country—all located within a freeport with a Treasury just down the road and a UK Infrastructure Bank only an hour away. I see innovative, fast-growing businesses hiring local people into decent, well-paid, green jobs. I see people designing, manufacturing and exporting incredible new products and services. I see people putting down roots in places that they are proud to call home. I see a people optimistic and ambitious for their future. That is the future economy of this country.
And so, while this last year has been a test unlike any other, that which we are, we are. The fundamentals of our character as a people have not changed: still determined, still generous, still fair. That is what got us through the last year; it is what will guide us through the next decade and beyond. This time last year, we set out to deliver on the promises we made to the British people. But the most important promise was implicit and, in truth, is made by every Government, irrespective of their politics—and that is to do what must be done when the danger is imminent and when no one else can.
Today, we set out a plan to protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people, but the promises that underpin that plan remain unchanged from those we pledged ourselves to 12 long months ago: to unite and lead; to level up; to create a world-class education system; to keep our streets safe; to keep our NHS strong; to support the most vulnerable; to reform and improve public services; to grow the economy; to spread prosperity; to extend the awesome power of opportunity to all corners of the United Kingdom; and, yes, to be honest and fair in all that we do.
An important moment is upon us, a moment of challenge and of change: of difficulties, yes, but of possibilities too. This is a Budget that meets that moment and I commend it to the House.
Provisional Collection of Taxes
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 51(2)),
That, pursuant to section 5 of the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968, provisional statutory effect shall be given to the following motions: —
(a) Repeal of provisions relating to the Interest and Royalties Directive (motion no. 31);
(b) Stamp duty land tax (housing co-operatives etc) (motion no. 44);
(c) Annual tax on enveloped dwellings (housing co-operatives) (motion no. 45);
(d) Customs duty (removal of steel to Northern Ireland) (motion no. 52).—(Rishi Sunak.)
Question agreed to.
We now come to the motion entitled “Income Tax (Charge)”. It is on this motion that the debate will take place today and on the succeeding days. The questions on this motion and on the remaining motions will be put at the end of the Budget debate on Tuesday 9 March. I call the Chancellor of the Exchequer to move the motion formally.
Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation
Income Tax (Charge)
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That income tax is charged for the tax year 2021–22.
And it is declared that it is expedient in the public interest that this Resolution should have statutory effect under the provisions of the Provisional Collection of Taxes Act 1968.—(Rishi Sunak.)
After 11 months in this job, it is nice, finally, to be standing opposite the person actually making decisions in this Government. The trouble is that it is those decisions that have left us with the mess we find today: the worst economic crisis of any major economy in the last 12 months; unemployment at 5% and, as the Chancellor said, forecast to rise to 6.5%; and debt at over £2 trillion. I am sure this Budget will look better on Instagram. In fact, this week’s PR video cost the taxpayer so much I was half-expecting to see a line in the OBR forecast for it, but even the Chancellor’s film crew will struggle to put a positive spin on this.
After the decisions of the last year and the decade of neglect, we needed a Budget to fix the foundations of our economy to reward our key workers, to protect the NHS and to build a more secure and prosperous economy for the future. Instead, what we got was a Budget that papered over the cracks rather than rebuilding the foundations, a Budget that shows the Government do not understand what went wrong in the last decade or what is needed in the next. The Chancellor may think that this is time for a victory lap, but I am afraid this Budget will not feel so good for the millions of key workers who are having their pay frozen, the businesses swamped by debt, the families paying more in council tax and the millions of people who are out of work or worried about losing their job. Although the Chancellor spoke for almost an hour, we heard nothing about a long-term plan to fix social care. The Chancellor may have forgotten about it, but the Labour party never will.
The British people will rightly ask, why has Britain suffered a worse economic crisis than any major economy? The answer is staring us in the face. First are the Chancellor’s decisions in the last year. This is the Chancellor who blocked a circuit break in September. Ignoring the science, he told the British people to “live with” coronavirus and “live without fear”. A few weeks later, we were forced into an even longer and more painful lockdown. Whatever spin the Chancellor tries to put on the figures today, as a result of his decisions, we have suffered deeper economic damage and much worse outcomes.
That is nothing compared with the decade of political choices that meant that Britain went into this crisis with an economy built on insecurity and inequality. The Chancellor referred to the last 10 years. As a result of those 10 years, we have an economy in which 3.6 million people are in insecure work, wages have stagnated for a decade and over 4 million children are living in poverty. Critically, we went into this crisis with 100,000 unfilled posts in the NHS and after social care had been ignored and underfunded for a decade. Government Members voted for all that. Today’s Budget does not even recognise that, let alone rectify it.
It is clear that the Chancellor is now betting on a recovery fuelled by a consumer spending blitz. In fairness, if my next door neighbour was spending tens of thousands of pounds on redecorating their flat, I would probably do the same. [Laughter.] But the central problem in our economy is deep-rooted insecurity and inequality, and this Budget is not the answer to that. The Chancellor barely mentioned inequality, let alone try to address it.
Rather than the big transformative Budget we needed, this Budget simply papers over the cracks. If this had been a Budget for the long term, it would have had a plan—a plan to protect our NHS; a plan to fix social care. I can tell the House this: a Labour Budget would have had the NHS and care homes front and centre. But this Budget is almost silent on those questions. If this had been a Budget to rebuild the foundations, it would have fixed our broken social security system. Instead, the Chancellor has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into extending the £20 uplift in universal credit, but only for a few months—once again, deferring the problem. As a result, insecurity and the threat of losing £1,000 a year still hang over 6 million families. [Interruption.] They ask what we would do. We would keep the uplift until a new, fairer system could be put in place.
If this Budget was serious about rebuilding our shattered economy, it would have included a credible plan to tackle unemployment. The Chancellor said very little about the kickstart scheme, no doubt because—
The Prime Minister says, “Rubbish.” That is no doubt because the kickstart scheme is helping only one in 100 eligible young people—rubbish is the right word, Prime Minister. In six months, it has supported just 2,000 young people, yet youth unemployment is set to reach 1 million. Like so much of this Budget, the Chancellor’s offer is nowhere near the scale of the task.
Of course, the biggest challenge for this country is the climate emergency. The Chancellor just talked up his green credentials, but his Budget stops way short of what was needed or what is happening in other countries. This Budget should have included a major green stimulus, bringing forward billions of pounds of investment to create new jobs and new green infrastructure. Instead, the Government are trying to build a new coalmine, which we now learn might not even work for British Steel. If anything sums up this Government’s commitment to a green recovery and jobs for the future, it is building a coalmine that we cannot even use.
If the Government were serious about tackling insecurity and helping those most at risk from covid, this Budget would have fixed the broken system of statutory sick pay and, at the very least, filled the glaring holes in isolation payments. This is not difficult to fix. The Government should just make the £500 isolation payment available to everyone who needs it. That would be money well spent, and, a year into the pandemic, it is a disgrace that it is not made available.
If the Government were serious about fixing the broken housing market, they would have announced plans for a new generation of genuinely affordable council houses. Instead, 230,000 council homes have been lost since 2010, yet the Chancellor focused today on returning to subsidising 95% of mortgages. I know what Members are thinking: “I’ve heard that somewhere before.” Perhaps it was because the Prime Minister announced it five months ago in his conference speech? No, I do not think anybody heard that. I remember now: it is what Osborne and Cameron came up with in 2013. What did that do? It fuelled a housing bubble, pushed up prices, and made owning a home more difficult—so much for generation buy! I have been saying for weeks that this Budget will go backwards, but I did not expect the Chancellor to lift a failed policy from eight years ago.
This Budget fell far short of the transformative change that we need to turbo-charge our recovery for the decades to come. There was no credible plan to ease the burden of debt hanging over so many businesses, which is estimated at £70 billion. This Budget asks businesses to start paying that money back whether they are profitable or not. That affects millions of businesses. It will hold back growth, because businesses will have to pay back money they never wanted to borrow, instead of being able to invest in their futures and create jobs in their local areas. It is both unfair and economically illiterate.
This Budget also falls far short of what was needed to support the self-employed and freelancers, unless, of course, they are one of the Chancellor’s photographers. After a year of inaction, we will look at the details of what the Chancellor announced, but, from the figure of 600,000 that he mentioned, it certainly looks like millions will still be left out in the cold.
The Chancellor’s one nominally long-term policy was in his references to levelling up, but what does that actually look like? It is not the transformative shift in power, wealth and resources that we need to rebalance our economy. It is not the bold long-term plan that we need to upskill our economy, to tackle educational attainment or to raise life expectancy. It certainly is not a plan to focus Government resources on preventive services and early years. For the Chancellor, levelling up seems to mean moving some parts of the Treasury to Darlington, creating a few free ports, and re-announcing funding. That is not levelling up; it is giving up.
Instead of putting blind faith in free ports, the Chancellor would be better served by making sure that the Government’s Brexit deal actually works: for Britain’s manufacturers, now facing more red tape when they were promised less; for our financial services, still waiting for the Chancellor to make good on his promises; for the small businesses and fishing communities, whose goods and produce are now left unsold in warehouses; and for our artists and performers, who just want to be able to tour.
Turning to other parts of the statement, we will wait for the detail about the so-called super deduction, but it is unlikely to make up for the 10 years when the levels of investment growth have trailed so many other countries. Of course we welcome the creation of the national infrastructure bank, which is something for which we have called for years, although it would have been better if the Government had not sold off the Green Investment Bank in the first place. We also welcome the introduction of green saving bonds. I have to say what a good idea it is to introduce a new set of recovery bonds.
The trouble is that the scale of what the Chancellor announced today is nowhere near ambitious enough. The long-overdue commitments to extend furlough, business rate relief and the VAT cut on hospitality are welcome, but there is no excuse for holding the announcement of that support back until today, and of course we will look at the detail.
There are very few silver linings in this Budget. The IMF and the OECD have said that now is not the time for tax rises. We are in the middle of a once-in-300-years crisis. Our economy is still shut and our businesses are on life support, so it is right that corporation tax is not rising this year or next. In the long run, corporation tax should go up. The decade-long corporation tax experiment by this Government has failed, but no taxes should be raised in the teeth of this economic crisis, so it is extraordinary that the Chancellor is ploughing ahead with a £2 billion council tax rise affecting households across the country. Why is he doing that when every economist would tell him not to? Perhaps we find the answer in this week’s Sunday Times, which quoted a source saying that the Chancellor’s argument was:
“Let’s do it all now as far away from the election as possible.”
The Telegraph on 27 January reported:
“Raising taxes now means they can be reduced ahead of the next election, Rishi Sunak tells Tory MPs”.
The Mail in September reported that the Chancellor was to hike taxes and then lower them before the next election. Let me be crystal clear: the proper basis for making tax decisions is the economic cycle, not the electoral cycle.
Behind the spin, the videos and the photo ops, we all know that the Chancellor does not believe in an active and enterprising Government. We know he is itching to get back to his free market principles and to pull away support as quickly as he can. One day, these restrictions will end. One day we will all be able to take our masks off, and so will the Chancellor, and then we will see who he really is. This Budget sets it up perfectly, because this is a Budget that did not even attempt to rebuild the foundations of our economy or to secure the country’s long-term prosperity. Instead, it did the job the Chancellor always intended: a quick fix, papering over the cracks.
The Conservatives spent a decade weakening the foundations of our economy. Now they pretend they can rebuild it, but the truth is that they will not confront what went wrong in the past and they have no plan for the future.
I broadly welcome this Budget, although I say that being aware that the devil is always in the detail of Budgets. We very much look forward to welcoming my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to the Treasury Committee on Thursday next week to look at that detail in more detail.
I totally applaud the measures that the Chancellor has taken in extending the bridge of support—the bridge between the crisis and the recovery. I think the measures he has taken around furlough, support for the self-employed and the extension of the VAT reduction, business rate relief and so on are all most welcome. I also very much welcome, as I and the Treasury Select Committee have been pressing for them for some time, the targeted elements that he has introduced.
As we come through this recovery, there is no doubt that certain parts of the economy will pick up quicker than others. Some businesses will do better than others, so I welcome the 30% turnover threshold that my right hon. Friend has introduced, so that he can more accurately target the relief where it is needed. That goes also for what I understand of his announcements on grants, and of course the VAT reduction extension that will help particularly hard-pressed sectors. I also welcome the investment that he has announced in areas of the country, many of which will have suffered particularly during the crisis. I think that is also welcome targeting.
If I could turn briefly to the so-called excluded—those who have fallen through the gaps of support hitherto—I am a little disappointed not to have heard something by way of support for those directors working through their own limited companies, paying themselves by way of dividend, yet not having those dividends counted towards their entitlement for furlough. There have been new ideas explored by the Committee, and I would hope, even at this late stage, that the Chancellor will consider some of those ideas with the Committee next week. I was, however, extremely pleased to see that the new self-assessment tax information that has been taken on board—right up until, I think the Chancellor said, last night—will be taken into account in helping many of those who would otherwise have fallen through the gaps in support, some 600,000 in total.
I want to focus on three important areas for business and jobs, and comment on what the Chancellor had to say in that respect. The first is corporate debt. The situation is that the data shows that larger businesses have a great deal of cash in the bank, and it is perhaps not surprising that they have been cautious, that they have received quite a lot of support from Government and, of course, that a lot of them have not been investing. However, among small and medium-sized enterprises the picture is less clear. I have a concern that many of those businesses will struggle with the level of the debt that they have, that they will not be growing when we want them to be creating the jobs of the future and that they will be focusing on de-leveraging their balance sheets. I would like to see something from the Chancellor as to how that particular problem might be addressed. If it is not, the risk is that many of these SMEs will go out of business and markets will become more concentrated and less competitive as a consequence.
Secondly, on investment, I was hugely encouraged by what my right hon. Friend said about the super deduction. My own view was that there should be an increase in the annual investment allowance. It seems to me that this goes significantly beyond that. The devil will be in the detail, but certainly, if the kind of projections for investment that he has just outlined by way of the OBR’s figures are correct, as I understood them, this will be a huge shot in the arm for corporate UK and very welcome. I welcome the three-year loss carry-back arrangements—also something the Committee has pressed for.
My third point is around skills. I have been very impressed with all the announcements that have been made around encouraging apprenticeships, and there was more in the Budget statement just now. On the kickstart scheme, it is imperative that we get this right and that we maximise the efficiency of the transfer of parts of the labour force from those parts of the economy and businesses that are contracting to those that are expanding. I think the Treasury needs to play a very proactive role in making sure that those schemes are successful.
One of the big tests I set in my mind for my right hon. Friend’s Budget was to what degree he navigated successfully the requirement not to put up taxes too early and choke off growth, but at the same time making it very clear to the markets that he and the Government are serious about dealing with the deficit and debt in the more medium term. I have to say that, once again, I have been pretty impressed with what I have heard. I want to see the detail. However, it seems to me that the tax increases and the threshold freezes that my right hon. Friend has announced do not kick in straightaway but he has charted a clear road map for how those taxes and thresholds will be dealt with between now and the end of this Parliament.
If I could just say, on the issue of corporation tax, that it is quite a hike from 19% to 25%. However, we still will remain internationally competitive, and I believe that President Biden, during his campaign for the presidency, suggested US rates might rise from 21% to 28%. So I think, on balance, this is a reasonable move, given that none of the possibilities is particularly palatable, and I welcome the carve-out for small businesses through the small profit rate.
It was pleasing to hear from my right hon. Friend that the OBR’s current projections have improved, and that we are hopefully going to get back to pre-pandemic levels of economic output six months earlier than was thought in November. But of course we still, as he has identified, face a huge challenge going forward, not just around covid, but with the issue that we will have a smaller economy and less taxes that will be able to be raised. Of course, we have demographic pressures going way into the future, with an increasingly elderly population and the pressures that will put on our finances. My right hon. Friend knows that it is critical that we deal with these pressures in a timely manner, or interest rates will rise—and, as he has stated, a 1% rise would mean an eye-watering £25 billion increase in the cost of servicing our debt.
That brings me to the principles that my right hon. Friend has set out today: not borrowing to fund day-to-day expenditure at some point in the future; and having an eye to seeing the level of debt as a percentage of GDP decreasing over time. Those are welcome signals from my right hon. Friend.
I want to turn briefly to an issue that I think is an underestimated threat that has not been discussed enough in an economic context: a return of inflation. Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s chief economist, has pointed to this risk recently. We know that if inflation increases and spikes, the Bank of England would need to tighten monetary policy to try to keep inflation under control. We would have bond markets in which the Government and the Bank of England were potentially both sellers, with increased upward pressure on interest rates and all that would follow.
Inflation might come through increased friction in global trade, and we have seen increased friction in trade with the EU27 as a consequence of Brexit. It could come through the exchange rate, although recent movements have been in a positive direction, as the virus is being clamped down on and our prospects have improved relative to other economies. Inflation could also come through increases in energy costs and the price of oil, or indeed the unwinding of some of the tax cuts, for example those relating to VAT.
But inflation could also come through the interplay between the supply and demand sides of the economy as we recover. On the supply side, it remains uncertain how quickly companies will bounce back. We know that many of them have been severely damaged. On the demand side, it is also the case that we will not know at this stage the extent to which consumers will re-engage with the economy in the way they did before the pandemic, even though the virus is diminishing. We also do not know what will happen to the huge amount of effectively enforced savings as people have been unable to engage in the economy in the usual fashion—perhaps up to £200 billion or £300 billion by the summer, the Bank of England has suggested. If a lot of that goes back into the economy quickly, it will have a huge stimulus effect. If very little does, clearly the opposite will be the case.
It is therefore absolutely right that my right hon. Friend is ready and prepared to use the fiscal levers as appropriate over the coming months. If he comes back to the House of Commons many times to do so, I think that should be seen as a position of strength, rather than weakness. I wish him well. The Treasury Committee will continue to be critical of him where appropriate, but also supportive in our common endeavour of putting the economy back on track.
In conclusion, I broadly welcome this Budget. It comes against the backdrop of one of the worst economic crises outside of wartime. Yet there is hope that springs from the past, and the strength that we held going into this crisis, of strong and stable financial institutions, record levels of employment, and hard-won improvements in our public finances. But now hope springs also, it seems to me, from the future: from the thousands of men and women—our scientists, health workers and volunteers—who appear to be on the brink of little short of a miracle, the wholesale turnaround in our country’s fortunes due to vaccination. Therefore, in broad terms I welcome my right hon. Friend’s Budget today, but I conclude by supporting each and every one of them.
Before I call the leader of the Scottish National party, I should give a slight warning that there will be an initial time limit on Back-Bench speeches of seven minutes, but that will quite soon be reduced to five minutes, and quite soon after that to three minutes, if we are to have a chance of allowing everyone to speak. For the moment, it will be seven minutes.
I should thank the Chancellor for advance sight of his statement but, of course, much of it—against the usual protocol—has already been leaked to the media. It is perhaps worth stating that what is contained in the Budget should be announced in this House and should not be pre-announced in the media.
The Budget comes at a critical moment—a moment when people right across these islands can have faith that the end of the pandemic is finally in sight. Just as millions of people are now being injected with the hope of the vaccine, this Budget should have injected the economy with the stimulus package that it desperately needs.
The Institute for Public Policy Research advised the Government to “boost...like Biden”, to generate an investment-led recovery. Instead, the Chancellor has produced a Budget that offers people the bare minimum— a Budget that completely fails to take responsibility for the bollocks that they have made of Brexit. Indeed, when we look at the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts and the years 2023, 2024 and 2025, we see a forecast of 1.7%, 1.6% and 1.7% growth. Where is the ambition? This is a Budget that has a poverty of ambition.
When we contrast the response of the US Administration in that fiscal stimulus of President Biden and put that in a historical context, what we see, over the course of the last decade, is that US GDP growth has been 10% greater than that of the UK, and it is that failure to deliver growth that is imperilling our national finances. It is that lack of ability to deliver growth that holds back tax receipts. It is that lack of ability to deliver growth that constrains the opportunities for people, that holds back the growth in productivity, that holds back the growth in wages, that leaves so many of our people living in poverty.
Between the lines of the statement today, there were also the surest of signals. The conversion of this Prime Minister and this Chancellor to increase public spending was only ever temporary. Today, we have a Tory Chancellor returning to type. He is clearly itching to turn off the state spending taps. This Budget is carefully laying the ground for more Tory austerity, a decade more of Conservative cuts, because the Tories do not regret—[Interruption.] I can see the Chancellor shaking his head, but he had the opportunity today to continue the £20 uplift to universal credit and make it permanent—and not just make that permanent to give some hope for those who depend on universal credit, but to extend it to legacy benefits. What did we get instead? We got a commitment to contain it—to leave it in place—for a further six months. In other words, when the restrictions on lockdown have come off, the £20 uplift to universal credit comes off as well. Where is the compassion and dignity for those who need that support? They will continue to need that support right after we come out of this crisis. That is the Tory party that has reverted to type.
Of course, the Tories do not regret the austerity that they have inflicted over the last decade. They are nostalgic for it. We are told by the Chancellor that there have to be cuts to spending. We are told that there have to be tax increases, but we know that he is deliberately setting out a false choice, because we heard nothing today about the need not just here, but right around the world to create the circumstances for investment-led growth. Where is the agenda that the UK is going to take to the G7 to make sure that we work collectively to deliver a better future for everybody out of this pandemic? Every credible economist knows that to protect and secure the public finances, we must create the circumstances for recovery for growth and that this has to be investment-led.
As we look forward to the months ahead, we need to deliver a vision of a better future and we need leadership to do this. So, for the people of Scotland this Budget comes at a critical moment of choice. Post-Brexit and post-pandemic, Scotland now has a choice of two futures: the long-term damage of Brexit and more Tory austerity cuts, or the opportunity to protect our place in Europe and to build a strong, fair and green recovery with independence. This May, every citizen will cast their democratic decision on who they trust to rebuild our society and our economy in the wake of the pandemic. It will be a clear choice: Scotland’s future in Scotland’s hands, or in the hands of the Tories and this Prime Minister and Chancellor. Let’s just say that we are looking forward to the verdict of the Scottish people.
Let me turn to the immediate priorities that this Budget should have dealt with. I am sorry to say that the Chancellor stood up today and doubled down on exactly the same mistakes that he has been making throughout the pandemic. Temporary extensions and temporary support can only ever mean a temporary reprieve for those millions who have been crippled by uncertainty for months. The Chancellor’s temporary timelines for pandemic financial support completely contradict his own Government’s policy. On the one hand, the UK Government rightly tell people that they will follow data not dates when it comes to public health, but when it comes to financial support, Tory policy is defined by dates, deadlines and cliff edges.
Businesses and workers on furlough needed certainty last March and last autumn, and they need it now. Frankly, Chancellor, to expect businesses that have been closed to make increasing contributions to furlough is simply unacceptable when they do not have the cash flow to pay for it. More temporary extensions and the tapering off of furlough fall well short of what businesses need. The Chancellor should make the commitment that full furlough support at 80% wage support will remain available to businesses as long as restrictions remain in place—no deadlines, no dates, no ifs and no buts. That is one clear commitment that would immediately stabilise support for every struggling sector.
The cut-off date for entry into job retention schemes should also be revised, ensuring that support is available to the growing numbers who have started new jobs since the end of last October. We welcome the VAT cut, but it should have been retained at 5% for much longer, and it should be extended to businesses such as hair and beauty businesses, which also need the support. While we welcome the ongoing support for rates relief, it does not go as far as the Scottish Government have in providing 100% rates relief for the calendar year across the retail, hospitality, leisure and aviation sectors.
One of my biggest criticisms of this Budget is that it completely fails to recognise the sheer scale of the other pandemic our communities are suffering—the poverty pandemic. After a decade of underinvestment and Tory cuts, the last year has deepened the UK’s poverty crisis and widened gaps in inequality. Yes, many have been in a position to save and build up financial deposits during these lockdowns, but Chancellor, millions more are literally struggling to survive. Some 14.2 million UK adults are now categorised as having low financial resilience. That is an increase of 3.5 million since the beginning of the pandemic. Let me take an example from my own constituency. In January 2020, the community food bank in south Skye and Lochalsh delivered 25 food parcels in one month. In December 2020, that same food bank was delivering 200 bags of food per week.
Last year, this Government were forced into providing a £20 uplift for universal credit. It was literally a lifeline for millions. It was needed then, and it is needed now. Six million people are now claiming universal credit—a 98% increase since the pandemic began. Today, this Tory Chancellor is telling those 6 million people not to get too comfortable with that lifeline, and that in a matter of months it will be gone. Where is the compassion, Chancellor? Where is the support for people? Does he really think that this is good enough and that it is acceptable that so many people—so many families and so many children—have been left in poverty? He can avert his eyes and look away because he does not want to know the harsh reality. The Chancellor does not understand what it is like to be poor in Boris Johnson’s Brexit Britain. Chancellor, do the right thing. This should never be temporary; it should be permanent, and let us make sure, out of this Budget, that that policy is changed. Making the £20 universal credit uplift permanent must also extend to legacy benefits. And Chancellor, while you are at it, finally abolish the cruel benefit cap and end the two-child limit.
The Chancellor should also be using this Budget to support those most impacted throughout the pandemic. The Women’s Budget Group found that women were twice as likely to be key workers as men but are far less likely to be eligible for statutory sick pay. It also found that young women were disproportionately likely to work in the sectors that were hardest hit by previous lockdowns. The Chancellor could support these women by finally introducing a real living wage and a liveable sick pay for all.
We know that after a decade of Tory decisions, child poverty has risen to alarming levels. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and baby bank charity Little Village found that 4.2 million children are living in poverty, including 1.3 million babies and children under the age of five. This is supposed to be a civilised society. It is supposed to be a caring society. The Chancellor has just congratulated himself on his Budget. Chancellor, where is the plan to get these 4.2 million children and their families out of poverty? Where is the plan to get these young children and babies out of poverty? Where is the sense of responsibility from a Government? What we can see is a Chancellor who is not even prepared to engage; he is looking away—and no wonder, because this Chancellor should be embarrassed by what he has done. This Government need to wake up to the scale of the child poverty crisis, and they could start by matching the Scottish Government’s game-changing £10 child payment.
While we are on the subject of fighting poverty, let me say how disappointed I was by the failure of the Labour shadow Chancellor at the weekend to state her party’s clear support for making the universal credit uplift permanent. In the space of a week, Labour told us that its position on wasting billions on Trident nuclear weapons on the Clyde is non-negotiable but cannot even say what its position is on keeping this lifeline for struggling families. We know we are living in strange times when George Galloway pledges his support for the Tories and the Labour party sits on the fence when it comes to Tory cuts. We would nearly feel sorry for the new Scottish Labour leader, severed at the knees by his Westminster bosses before he even gets started.
Not only does this Budget signal the return of Conservative cuts; it also confirms that the Chancellor continues to snub the excluded. In time, when people reflect back on this period, it will be a damning indictment of this Tory Government that they were prepared to coolly ignore 3 million of their own citizens during a pandemic.
Well, well, well, Prime Minister—try telling that to the 3 million people who have had no financial support from your Government over the course of the last year. You should be utterly ashamed of the dereliction of responsibility from a Government who are supposed to provide leadership to all their people. So much for putting your arms around all the people of the United Kingdom! Three million people have been ignored and abandoned by a Prime Minister and a Chancellor who could not care less.
Well, the hon. Lady should listen to those who have not had financial support.
On the BBC on Sunday, the Chancellor said that his Government had reacted “generously and comprehensively”. Chancellor, tell that to the 3 million freelancers and self-employed who have been left behind without a penny. Not a penny, Prime Minister, of support. A quick search of Hansard shows that the 3 million excluded have been raised in the House around a thousand times since last March. Their plight has been ignored by Ministers on 1,000 occasions in the House and it is a disgrace that the Chancellor has chosen to ignore them today.
I acknowledge and welcome the fact that the newly self-employed have now finally been covered by the scheme, but a whole community of people remains ignored and forgotten by the Chancellor. Yes, 600,000 will now be included, but what about the other 2.4 million who have been discarded, written off and ignored by the Chancellor and the Prime Minister?
The Budget’s failure to stand by and support those who have suffered most during the crisis goes to the very heart of the economic choices made. It should have been the Budget that kickstarted a strong, fair and green recovery. That is precisely why the SNP has been calling for a substantial stimulus package—5% of GDP; at least a £98 billion package of investment, which would give us the opportunity to emerge from the pandemic with investment-led growth. That would follow President Biden’s lead and provide a fiscal stimulus that boosted business, protected jobs and stimulated sustained economic growth. Instead, the Budget falls painfully short of that level of ambition. Instead, the Chancellor wants to drag us back to business as usual, back to the same old failed economics of a decade ago.
There is plenty of evidence that Tory austerity cuts are already making a comeback. In November, the UK spending review set out plans to reduce non-covid-related spending by up to £13 billion a year. There is already a public sector pay freeze, including for those key workers who have protected us through the crisis. That is the thanks from this Government.
There has already been a reduction by Westminster in Scotland’s capital budget. The Tory choice to impose austerity is also holding back opportunities to truly build back better beyond the pandemic. A huge number of those opportunities are in the green economy, whether in energy, housing, transport or waste. I acknowledge the £27 million announced for the energy transition zone in Aberdeen, which matches financial commitments that the Scottish Government made in June 2020, but it still falls well short of the wider £62 million energy transition package from Holyrood. Let us not forget that the North sea oil industry has contributed a massive £350 billion to the Exchequer in the last few decades.
The Tories have reneged on promises to support carbon capture schemes in the past, so the Chancellor will forgive oil and gas sector workers in the north-east of Scotland who have developed a healthy scepticism about Tory promises. Chancellor, to really stimulate the green economy, you need finally to reform contract for difference to deliver support for wave and tidal generation and guarantee that Scottish suppliers will be used.
The Chancellor and the Government need to give Ofgem a strategy objective to support the delivery of net zero. Transitioning to net zero is an economic imperative, but it is also a moral imperative. Last week, the United Nations Secretary-General warned that
“2021 is a make or break year to confront the global climate emergency.”
I genuinely say to all hon. Members that COP26 in Glasgow this November offers the chance to unite around an ambitious agenda to tackle the climate crisis.
It is possible for us to look forward to those opportunities only because of the actions of those who have protected us through the last 12 months. Our NHS has been on the frontline in the fight against covid-19. Our workers have been nothing short of heroes with their efforts to save people’s lives and provide care. If we are truly grateful for those efforts, we must secure the financial future of the NHS by introducing long-term investment and rewarding those who work for it. A good start would be matching the Scottish Government’s £500 thank-you payments and making them free from tax and benefit deductions. That also means matching Scotland’s current per head funding for the NHS, which would deliver an extra £35 billion for the NHS in England and £4 billion for NHS Scotland in Barnett consequentials. That, Chancellor, would be a fitting tribute to the institutions and the people who have bravely led us through the worst days of this pandemic.
This is the second Budget delivered by the Chancellor, and it is also very noticeable how little reference he made to Brexit compared with the first. Brexit is now the mess that the Tories and the Labour party dare not speak of, and it is little wonder why. The bad Brexit deal that the Prime Minister forced through the House in the final days of December is already proving more disastrous than predicted, and Scottish businesses, from fishing to farming, are losing millions of pounds every day as a direct result of red tape. This threatens to get worse, with grace periods and some food exports ending in April. Instead of taking responsibility for the Brexit mess they have made, the Tories have washed their hands and walked away.
The same is true for this Budget, which fails even to recognise that the very survival of thousands of food and drink exporters is now at stake. In December, the EU put in place a compensation package for those countries most affected by Brexit. Ireland alone got €1 billion. Chancellor, where in this Budget is a similar compensation package for Scottish businesses that are losing out every single day? Where in this Budget is a guarantee that the so-called shared prosperity fund will match the loss of EU structural funds? Today’s Budget gives no commitment, no clarity and no compensation. It only adds to the ever-growing list of broken Brexit promises.
Of course, the real agenda behind the Brexit betrayal is now emerging. For a year now the Tories have been in panic, privately planning for an independence referendum that they publicly say will not happen. The purpose of the internal market Bill, the Union unit and, now, the so-called levelling-up fund is crystal clear: they are all an attack on devolution.
The Chancellor is undermining our Parliament and centralising resources and decision making at Westminster. It is a naked power grab to bypass the devolved Parliaments and take control of funding in devolved areas. Oh, the irony: take back control. They are taking back control from our Scottish Parliament. That is not only the opinion of the SNP; it is the verdict of the former First Minister of Wales—[Interruption.] We hear Tory MPs representing Scotland chuntering away. They are supporting this power grab against the people of Scotland and, frankly, they should be ashamed of themselves. They are showing themselves up for what they have always been: the anti-Scottish Tory party.
Carwyn Jones said that the failure to apply Barnett to the new levelling-up fund would
“divert money away from Wales, Scotland and NI and give a greater proportion to England.”
Of course, the Prime Minister has form, because he talked about doing that in days gone by.
These attacks on devolution show what is now fundamentally at stake. As I said at the beginning of this speech, post Brexit and post pandemic, Scotland has a choice of two futures. At the heart of that choice is a simple question: who is best placed to lead Scotland’s recovery and build a better future? Is it Westminster Governments we did not vote for or independent Scottish Governments, of whatever party, chosen by us and with Scotland’s best interests at heart?
As we look ahead, we have every confidence in what is possible if we take our future into our own hands. We have the resources. We have the wealth. We have the talent. As an independent country, we can decide how best to use all those resources, all that wealth and all that talent. We will be the decision makers. We will be able to chart our own course and build our own future. The Tories can try to deny democracy all they like, but the inalienable right to self-determination cannot and will not be subject to a Westminster veto. There is no Boris veto on Scottish independence. We keep faith in the right and the power of the people to bring about democratic change. That choice is in the hands of Scotland’s people. It is they, and they alone, who will now decide that future.
It is tempting to say that I will not waste time on the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), but I think I will. He excited us all by the way in which he put down his beaker of water; we were not sure whether it was going to survive his speech, as he got over-excited. We enjoyed what he read, but he did not have time to look at the Office for Budget Responsibility, whose headline reads:
“Budget extends rescue measures, stokes economic recovery, and begins fiscal repair job”.
“The economy is set to rebound thanks to rapid vaccine rollout, getting back to its pre-pandemic peak by the middle of next year. Extending rescue measures takes support for households, businesses, and public services to £344 billion. Generous tax incentives for business investment stoke the recovery over the next two years. Then medium-term tax rises and cuts to spending plans all but balance day-to-day spending with revenues and see underlying debt fall relative to national income. But risks remain from the virus, legacy costs for public services, and future interest rates.”
I think that balances what was said by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, the leader of the SNP in this House.
I have not had time to read all the Budget documents, but I think I am right in saying that there is no mention of leasehold, commonhold, cladding, cladding loans or ways of coping with the excess property insurance premiums being faced by leaseholders. There has been no attention yet to the Association of Residential Managing Agents, who asked for a scheme to cover the excess costs. With premiums going up by 400% to 600%, action is needed.
May I just interrupt myself to take an opportunity to pay tribute to Canon Jane Sinclair, the first woman rector of St Margaret’s in Parliament Square, who died in January? She was greatly loved in this House. She worked to re-establish the parliamentary links with the Speaker’s Chaplain, and had a reputation for liveliness, humour and effectiveness. I understand that she was once nominated to be the Rotherham businesswoman of the year. We miss her, and send our sympathy to her partner, Gillian Cooper.
Returning to the Budget, I am glad that the Chair of the Treasury Committee, my right hon. Friend the Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), spoke about the dangers of inflation. The Chancellor will be aware of this. There are two groups who matter a great deal when considering this, besides the question of who can get jobs.
By the way, it would have been kind if the SNP and the Leader of the Opposition had welcomed the news from the Chancellor that the number of people who were out of work did not rise to the levels predicted at the height of the pandemic. This is in part a reflection of Government measures, but in large part because of the way that people buckled down and got on with life as much as they could, and because of the Government’s courage in keeping things such as the construction industry open, which made a great deal of difference to the supply side as well.
Mortgage holders are one group affected by inflation, and the second are the elderly, many of whom are on fixed incomes. Although their incomes during the pandemic may have kept up, in real terms they will drop if inflation returns, so I hope that we do not get to the 2% inflation that is part of the Government’s instructions to the Bank of England.
Let me turn to leaseholders. I believe that, under the coronavirus powers, the Government should put a temporary stop to forfeiture of residential leaseholds. During that time, they ought to make sure that any substitute arrangements do not let the landlord—or freeholder, as it may be—take the whole of the equity in a forfeited lease.
That is scandalous. It is going back to William I in the worst possible feudal way. If a home or a leasehold has to be repossessed, any excess equity should and must in justice go to the person who is losing their home. I hope that officials will take note of that, discuss it among the Government and take action.
As the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber said, we all recognise that the Government have done more to bring some of the self-employed into the support schemes, but it is not enough. I do not want to use all my time reading out all the points made on the website of ExcludedUK, but I do recommend that website to people.
In the same way, in the hospitality sector, I commend the website of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, which asked for a number of things that the Chancellor has given in whole or in part, and we are grateful to him for that.
I know that motorists will be grateful for the fact that, with the cost of petrol and diesel going up, the Chancellor is not adding to that with extra taxation at the moment. As someone who drinks—I try not to do it when I am driving—my prediction is that the revenues from spirits, wine and beer are likely to go up. I believe that freezing duty rates is therefore a better way to get in extra revenue.
We ought to pay attention to what the tax rate is as well as what the tax take is. This is one of the curiosities of our national economic discussion. My former supervisor Professor Sir James Mirrlees—I was his worst pupil—did a calculation of what he thought the appropriate tax rate was: when he was young, he thought it was around 27%; by the time he got older, he had become a bit more socialist and thought it was around 33%. We are now running at 38%. Both the level of taxation and the rate of taxation deserve better public discussion, and I hope that the Chancellor can encourage forums for doing that.
One of my constituents suggested that the Chancellor should consider having separate tax codes for different key workers, as a way of recognising their contribution. I said, “You will always have a boundary problem, but then you always have a boundary problem, whatever you do in life.”
On one particular matter, my constituents have been my eyes and ears. A couple who ran a hospitality business on a river had to pay high fees to the Environment Agency for the ability to run their business. They do not pay business rates, but the Environment Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have not yet managed to discover who can say that they can have a rebate on the licence fees because they have not been able to use their business for most of the past 12 months. Just because someone does not have a shop front, that does not mean that there are not costs that could be waived by the Government or by Government agencies.
I know that many people want to speak in this debate, so I shall finish by making the point that if we can recognise the contributions that people are making in their enterprises, we are more likely to have a hospitality sector in particular in which landladies and landlords, who have put their hearts into their businesses and broken their hearts by throwing away stocks and gallons of beer twice in the past 12 months, will be able to come back into operation. I ask all my constituents not to have a drink on me but to go out and have a drink, whether alcoholic or not, with their friends when they can and put this country back on its feet in respect of our social lives as well as our business lives.
I welcome parts of this Budget because if it works, it will prop up the system for a bit longer, but I am worried that we have seen announcements about the extension of furlough, for example, at a point at which many workers will have already been hit by decisions taken by employers who were worried that such an announcement would not be made today.
The country is crying out for change. It is in debt and there is an uncertain future for many individuals and businesses. Brexit, which I do not think I heard mentioned in the Chancellor’s speech, is hitting businesses and individual consumers very hard and proving costly to the economy, certainly in the short term. The bit that was missing from the Budget is the vision for a country that should be supporting people into decent, affordable homes; that should be properly tackling net zero, on which I will touch in more detail; and that should have a plan for social care, the sector that was abandoned in the early stages of covid.
We should also be tackling the challenging issues in respect of different employment statuses that have caused so much difficulty for so many. In my constituency is represented everything from zero-hours contracts to IR35, self-employment, people employed for tax purposes and people on short-term contracts. Covid has had different impacts on different groups of people.
The Chancellor said he will do whatever it takes but, structurally, the inequalities remain. The poorest get a welcome prop-up with the extension of the uplift to universal credit, but only to September. I am not sure that I can see—I am sure the Chancellor would agree that he does not have a crystal ball—what will suddenly change in September that will mean that people do not need the extra £20 a week.
Structurally, there are real issues. A few figures have been announced today on green initiatives—I have not had a chance to go through the detail in the Red Book—but there is no clear plan. We have targets on net zero and other environmental targets, including on things such as electric or net zero cars, yet there are not enough milestones along the way to the targets, which are coming upon us really fast. I will look in detail at the little bits of money announced today, as my Committee, the Public Accounts Committee, is examining issues relating to the green economy in a series of inquiries.
I welcome the fact that there is finally a bit more support for some of the self-employed people in my constituency—we need to see the detail on that—but it is a whole year late. Like many Members, I have constituents who have lived for a year without a penny of income and did not qualify for universal credit, and sometimes they were in exactly the same position as somebody else who lost their job only a day later. Lives have been put on hold and future plans shredded, and there is no prospect of work for many people in many sectors for many months.
I welcome investment in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions to look at fraud and error. These are small amounts. But it was this very Government who pushed bounce back loans through, as the National Audit Office has said, with very little regard to risk. A slight delay of 24 or 48 hours would have put less risk on the taxpayer for the guarantee on those loans. With regard to some of the furlough schemes, at the early stages it was right to get this out the door, as my Committee has acknowledged, but later, more safety mechanisms could have been put in place. That money is good money chasing bad, in many respects. The risk appetite was high.
The hon. Lady mentions the risk in bounce back loans. Her Committee—our Committee—has done sterling service over the years on the whole question of tax evasion and the investigation of that. Does she have anything to say to the Chancellor about that, because it is a very large, lucrative area that the Government could pay attention to?
I have hopes for some of the £100 million that HMRC has been given. In fact, having scanned the Red Book, I see that other money is being added to HMRC. As a Committee—as the right hon. Gentleman, a former Chair of the Committee, will know—we are very keen for HMRC to get money because with every £1 it gets for compliance it brings back a lot more to the Exchequer. We need to look closely at this because there is a challenge in the tax system—for example, as regards high street businesses versus online businesses. It is a complex matter and no one should imagine that there is a simple solution; I know he does not think it is simple. It is something we need to continue to engage with.
On housing, once again we have seen a focus on fuelling demand, not increasing supply. The Chancellor seems to have got off the hook on leasehold issues for constituents of mine, and those around the country, who had dangerous cladding by taking the announcement from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government last week as though that is the matter closed.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about leaseholders, as did the Father of the House, and she knows that many are affected in my constituency. Does she agree that it is absolutely crucial that we get clarity from the Chancellor as soon as possible about the consequentials for Wales—he talked about funding across the Union—of those announcements? There needs to be work with the Welsh Housing Minister to sort out the issues around the levy and the tax that have been proposed that are supposed to fund dealing with these fire and building safety issues. It is absolutely urgent that that is done as soon as possible.
I completely agree: it is absolutely urgent for the people living in those homes whose lives are on hold, but it is also important for the Exchequer. If the Chancellor’s announcements do fuel demand for buying housing, that is stymied by the fact that so many people are stuck in homes that are unsaleable and worth nothing, so they are mortgage prisoners. The whole supply system is not working and the demand system is being fuelled in the wrong direction. We have seen homes in my constituency that were being sold at just below the last threshold for this.
My Committee has looked at the Government’s housing policies over many years now. One million new homes in England were promised between 2015 and 2020 and 500,000 more by the end of 2022. Even taking into account the pandemic, we saw, for example, the starter homes project fail completely after nearly £200 million was spent on land remediation alone, with £2.3 billion in total set aside for that in the 2015 spending review. Yet this did not happen because the Government did not even manage to enact the secondary legislation necessary to get it off the ground. Five years later, they finally announced that it was the end of the starter homes project and introduced First Homes, a discount for first-time buyers, and now we are seeing a loan guarantee on 95% mortgages. It is a very muddled policy. I cannot yet see who will benefit, and we will be looking at this in detail.
On net zero and the environment, the Government are setting big targets, but our detailed work in the Public Accounts Committee raises many concerns. This is on top of failures on the green deal, the privatisation of the green investment bank, three competitions for carbon capture and storage—one more was recently announced, but so far the first three have failed—and real inertia on developing proper, long-term commitments to really tackling climate change.
I will not give way as I have already taken two interventions.
It is easy to make announcements; it is much harder to get the system to deliver on them. There is a will in this House, I think, to deliver on this, but the Government have to stop making cheap headlines.
On jobs, only one in 100 young people aged 16 to 24 is benefiting from kickstart. Again, it is a nice headline, but unless it delivers for our constituents, it is not working. We need to act now on making sure that further education is properly funded so that it can plan ahead as, hopefully, we come out of lockdown and into more normal life, and make sure that people are able to be reskilled.
Finally, I welcome the movement—as far as I have read the detail, which is not in full yet—on visas for tech entrepreneurs. This has been a brake on progress in Shoreditch in my constituency. However, we have young people in this country who were brought up in the UK, for whom it is their home and the only country they know, and they are struggling to buy citizenship at over £1,000 apiece, because families cannot afford it. They may pay for citizenship for the main householder, but not for the family. This is something that I feel is viscerally unjust. We have these talented people in our communities, in our constituencies, in our country, who are essentially British but priced out of citizenship. So if we are going to have visas for tech entrepreneurs at an easy rate, why not do that for the young people already in our country who are willing, able and capable of contributing?
Over the course of the past year in countries not too dissimilar to our own, people have been asked to choose between protecting their livelihoods and protecting their lives. That has not been the case in our country, and for that we have my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to thank. He said, right at the very start of this pandemic, that he would do whatever it takes to protect jobs, to protect businesses and to protect public health, and he has delivered on every count, and this nation has rightly given him its gratitude.
Despite his success, the Chancellor will be in no mood for a victory lap. Comprehensive support, as he has said today, has come at unprecedented pressure on our public finances. To date, as we have heard, the Government have already spent more than £300 billion, every penny of that borrowed. While low interest rates have certainly helped, we cannot expect such a benign lending environment to last forever. With national debt already close to national output, as we have heard, just a 1% rise in gilts would mean an additional yearly cost in debt servicing of £25 billion by 2024. That is more than half of the annual defence budget. Indeed, we are already seeing rising pressure, especially because of rising global inflation expectations, so we cannot allow the inflation tiger to prowl unchecked.
The faster our economy can bounce back, the easier it will be to manage our debt in the future. Thankfully, I believe that our prospects for a sharp, strong recovery look very promising. Thanks to the Government support, the vast majority of businesses are ready for the shutters of the economy to be lifted. The Bank of England has shored up confidence with monetary easing. Households are sitting on some £100 billion of excess savings and, unlike in wartime recessions, there has been no physical destruction of capital. Above all, the Government are delivering on their vaccination programme—a programme that is the envy of Europe and that will lead this continent out of the lockdown. For these reasons, I am very optimistic about the recovery, and I think it will happen rapidly.
My right hon. Friend was of course part of the legacy that has put us in a strong position to make the support packages of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. Does he agree with me that small businesses are the absolute lifeblood of our recovery, and that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has brought forward, in the Help to Grow package today, two really insightful schemes that will support the nation’s smallest businesses?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and I very much agree with that. I think there are actually more than two schemes, if we are honest. There are a number of schemes that will help businesses, not least the speed and the scale of the recovery that I have talked of. I especially welcome those measures, but also the super deduction and the support through grants for businesses.
In the medium term, we will put our country back on to a firmer financial footing by tackling some of the systemic issues that were around long before this pandemic hit, such as low productivity and regional inequality. That is why I also welcome the Chancellor’s emphasis on infrastructure investment. Not only will this provide an immediate increase in economic activity, but it will drive long-term productivity improvements and will make sure that growth is even better distributed across the entire United Kingdom.
However, I would urge the Chancellor not to take his eye off delivery. Successive Governments have had a poor history of delivering infrastructure projects on time and on budget. I therefore hope my right hon. Friend will consider complementing his very welcome changes to the Green Book and the new national infrastructure investment bank with a comprehensive cross-government delivery strategy.
While grants and support schemes have been consumed by our generation, they will be paid for by the next. That is why the Chancellor was absolutely right to level with the British people and to set out so candidly the pressure on the nation’s finances. While slamming the brakes on spending now would be self-defeating, the Government should be drawing up medium to long-term plans to manage debt. That is why I welcome many of the initiatives the Chancellor set out today, including his commitment to try to avoid borrowing for day-to-day spending. That commitment starts with new fiscal rules. The Chancellor should ensure that those rules are in place by year end, ideally alongside the next Budget and the comprehensive spending review. Having run four spending Departments and the Treasury, I am left in no doubt that a fiscal anchor is essential to control spending and to control debt.
Lastly, in the long term, putting the country back on a firm financial footing means that we need to build resilience against future disasters, as the Chancellor recognised in his Budget speech. Of course, not every disaster is a black swan and it would be foolish to prepare for crises we cannot foresee while we ignore those that we can. In terms of their potential impact on the future economy, few crises are more existential than climate change and declining biodiversity. That is why, as Chancellor, I set Professor Dasgupta very ambitious terms for his independent review on the economics of biodiversity. It makes clear that biodiversity is declining faster than at any other time in human history. If we continue to undermine the resilience of the natural world, we will introduce new sources of serious financial uncertainty, not least the increased spread of infectious diseases. While of course it will take time for the Treasury to digest Professor Dasgupta’s review, the Treasury should make a start on one of his most central recommendations: the need to recognise the value of the natural world in our national accounts. I urge the Chancellor to formally ask the UK Statistics Authority to review how that might be done. The Office for National Statistics is one of the most widely respected economic institutions in the world. If it can lead by example, it can make such a difference in trying to persuade other countries and financial institutions to do the same. We can lead on this, not least because of our chairmanship of the G7 and the COP26 conference this year.
This has been a long hard winter and we have all been hibernating for many months, but, as case rates fall and the vaccination programme continues at pace, the frost has begun to thaw and we are beginning to see the first signs of spring. The Government have been given a precious opportunity not just to resurrect our economy but to reinvigorate our entire country. I am in no doubt that the Chancellor will rise to the occasion with the energy that this moment requires and the sense of purpose that history demands. I am pleased to say that his Budget is the first step to doing just that.
I am delighted to be able to speak in this Budget debate, but sadly this Budget does not reflect the reality of people’s lives. Just this morning I have come from a local food bank where people were queuing up to try to get enough food to get by. They are people who thought they would always be okay and have enough money to live on, but they do not and they therefore rely on food banks. To the tens of thousands of people who have volunteered in mutual aid groups all over the country, I think we should say a huge thank you. They have contributed, in a way that the Government have not, to the lives of so many people who would be in such great difficulty if those food banks were not there.
The Chancellor talks about extending the furlough scheme and protecting people on those wages. I point out to him that the scheme includes no floor and that 80% of minimum wage is a lot less than the money people need to live on. It was my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) who proposed a year ago that we should have a furlough scheme. He sent substantial papers to the Treasury in order to bring that about. Sadly, I do not believe that the Chancellor read all of them.
The scheme proposed by my right hon. Friend would have guaranteed everybody’s income and jobs, it would have had a floor, and it would have gone on to protect people’s conditions and wages, as well as those of people in all aspects of self-employment, including in the artistic sector. There are many people in work at the moment who are being threatened with fire and rehire, and there are companies trying to dismiss the whole workforce and rehire them on lower wages and with worse working conditions. British Gas and British Airways tried it on, and so many other companies are trying to do the same thing. Where is the protection for people’s living standards and jobs in this Budget? Sadly, it is desperately missing.
On public sector pay, many are going to be hit by the pay freeze and by a stealth income tax rise through the freezing of the tax allowance. I remind the Chancellor that a previous Government—a Labour Government in the 1970s—came a cropper on that one when the Rooker-Wise amendment was passed to prevent the Chancellor from the freezing the tax-free allowance.
Millions of public sector workers have contributed so much to dealing with the covid pandemic. Those working in our national health service, our care services and our local government have made super-human efforts to try to help people get through a desperate time, helping people through the mental health crisis and so much else. Their reward is going to be frozen pay and, for those working in local government, a continued underfunding of local government services.
For pretty well everyone across the country, there will be a 5% rise in council tax, as local councils desperately try to balance the books and deal with the increased demands on their services because of the covid pandemic. I hope that the Chancellor will recognise that we need a proper funding formula for local services across the country, and not just claps for the NHS, the care service and delivery workers, but actual pay increases to recognise the massive contribution that they are making to our society.
The Budget said a great deal about corporation tax and other business taxes, but it did not say very much about tax evasion or tax avoidance. From the Government’s statements, they propose to raise around £2.2 billion between now and 2025—in the next four years—from tax avoidance and tax evasion, yet the real figure is that something over £30 billion a year is lost to our public services through tax avoidance and tax evasion. If the Government were serious, they would have included measures in the Budget to deal with tax avoidance and tax evasion.
I hope, by contrast, that the Government will recognise that not increasing statutory sick pay while at the same time doing nothing about tax evasion and tax avoidance says it all about Tory priorities. Statutory sick pay is £95 per week. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care himself said he could not live on that; I do not think that any Member would want to try to live on that, so why are we expecting anybody else in our society to do so? It has to be increased, and we need a guarantee of at least the £20 rise in universal credit, which at the moment is still a temporary measure.
The Chancellor had obviously read quite a lot of the proposals made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington before the last election, in which he pointed out that he wanted to move jobs to the north and ensure that the increase in public spending that we were proposing would help people across the north. The Chancellor made a big deal of about 750 jobs going to Darlington. Sadly, all that is cancelled out by the huge number of job losses in transport authorities across the north of England, particularly in Greater Manchester and Merseyside City Region. That is because the Government have not provided them with the funding package to support transport systems that they have in London and other places. This degree of unfairness between the north and the south will continue, and the degree of unfairness between the richest and poorest in our society will increase under this Budget.
Towards the end of his speech, the Chancellor managed to provide a great deal of greenwash for his proposals. Of course, we all support a green industrial revolution. It was central to Labour’s manifesto at the last election, but where is the commitment to net zero emissions by 2030? Where is the commitment on protection of biodiversity to protect us all for the future? This Budget is such a lost opportunity. At the end of it, our society will be more divided than it is at the present time, there will be greater stress and uncertainty in so many people’s lives because of this Budget. We can, should and must do much better than this.
Last year, I asked the Prime Minister, on behalf of the good people of South Ribble, to throw the kitchen sink at supporting the British people through this awful pandemic. Today, this Conservative Chancellor has continued to do just that: kitchen sinks are being thrown. The scale of the financial support that we are offering is massive. We are extending our spending to help people and businesses right through to September and beyond, which is much further than many expected. We are helping businesses to survive with furlough and VAT cuts and supporting them to get back on their feet with restart grants. Costing £407 billion, it is a lot of money to help this country in its time of need.
It was the Conservatives who spoke a decade ago of getting the nation’s finances sorted. We were fixing the roof while the sun was shining. Well, this once-in-a-century global pandemic is the weather equivalent of it raining stair-rods. Cats and dogs have fallen from loaded dark grey clouds on the British people during this pandemic. Businesses have been forced to close, or to work in different ways, to save our lives. Our existential British right to talk a load of nonsense down the pub on a Friday night with friends and strangers has been curtailed, not to mention what has happened to the brilliant people who run these businesses. This Chancellor and Government know what they are doing. We get that we could not have a situation where people lost their jobs or their hard work for businesses just because some bat in China got a nasty cough a couple of years ago. That is not their fault, and this Government have done eye- wateringly massive things quickly to protect people, their families and their work from the consequences of bats and biology.
It is also honest to say that this help has cost us a fortune. This Conservative Government have been fair in protecting people when the awful things happened, but the sums of money required are—wow—massive. It is our money. When I say that it is costing us a fortune, I do mean “us”. It is not Government money or some nebulous concept; it is our money raised by our taxes on our hard work and our business innovation. At some point, we will have to pay this massive support back— not all in one go and not at any price. I commend the Chancellor’s honesty today in setting out two broad themes on how to keep us on an even keel with our money and the nation’s finances.
As individuals, we will have to push back some potential gains to future years, such as freezing salaries, paying a bit more tax, and asking the bigger businesses to contribute a bit more without making us as a country too different from our international peers in the G7. As the Government, we will have to continue to be careful about how we spend our money, but when we do spend money, we should spend it to invest. This statement shows that we will focus on areas that will help us grow our businesses and our communities. We are putting in place the foundations for a future economy to boing back, never mind bounce.
Today’s announcements of investments, super deductions and capital investment plans will boost business investment by enormous sums with world-leading measures. This Government are supporting people to invest to grow their business, creating good jobs across the country. Measures today such as the UK infrastructure bank in Leeds—it is the wrong side of the Pennines, but still amazing—and the levelling up fund will make the UK and Lancashire the best place in the world for innovative businesses to set up and grow. Freeports will help us get our goods to the world, and Help to Grow is brilliant. It will give everyone access to new skills and technologies and boost their businesses, no matter how small they are. I would have run with open arms to these measures when I was running my business.
On a personal note, the people of Leyland want me to thank the Chancellor hugely for the announcement today of the £25 million investment in our town. For too long, Leyland has not seen its fair share of investment. Recently, local businesses, local officials, elected people like me and experts from the Government have been working really hard together in the town board to put a bid together to transform our town centre. I am so chuffed it was successful. Thank you. We cannot wait to get spades in the ground and get started.
It is also important to note that I have the honour in today’s debate of following the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), if only to point out where his crazy spending plans would have put us in the middle of this crisis—in short, a mess. The plans, which the Opposition Front Benchers supported in their manifesto, would have dug a black hole bigger than this pandemic has done in our nation’s finances, which the pandemic would have then deepened. The Labour party is just not being honest or straight with the public when it suggests we can just borrow our way out of this. When Labour Members are a bit vague about what they would actually do to fix this problem, that is because they are not being honest about the consequences of having too much debt for the safety and security of our country.
Not committing to anything and being a bit vague is fine as a political strategy, but it is not the way to do the right thing by the great British people. This Chancellor and this Government are doing the right thing to support us—responsible, grown-up, practical and fair. They are being honest about what we have been facing and are still to face. They are looking to the future and investing for growth in Leyland’s town centre, in Lancashire’s businesses and across the nation. It is what we need to build back better, and I support this Budget wholeheartedly today.
It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for South Ribble (Katherine Fletcher). I think we all appreciate that the Chancellor’s statement today comes at a time when the covid-19 virus has had far-reaching and, in some cases, life-changing and even life-ending consequences for far too many of our constituents. People have seen the well-planned, well-financed future they had built for their families swept away by the virus. Businesses are now on the brink because they followed responsibly the rules laid down by the Government. While there are some steps in the Budget that I am sure will be welcomed, it does not go far enough for the many who have suffered the most, such as those on lower incomes, for whom the freeze on the tax threshold will mean a real- terms loss in their income.
Today, a million small businesses and small-business owners who have been fighting desperately to stay afloat and protect jobs and livelihoods were looking to the Chancellor to extend a lifeline—something to get them through the next few months and out on the other side of this pandemic. While there will be changes to corporation tax in two years’ time, that is two years’ time. What about tomorrow, next week and next month? I am sorry, but what we have heard today falls far short of what those small businesses needed. We need to get shops, tradesmen, hairdressers and florists, who are the backbone of our economy and the heart of our communities, through the next few months and they needed changes now. They have lost income and revenue to pay the rent costs, which are building up, and they are accruing debt.
Five billion pounds for small businesses is not enough. What the Chancellor has announced does not even touch the sides of the problem. What we need, and what Liberal Democrats have been calling for, is a £50 billion recovery fund to help small businesses meet their costs and replace their lost revenue until they are able to trade properly again, until the economy is open—£25 billion over three months, totalling £50 billion. We have seen in Germany that it can succeed.
We have also called on the Chancellor to implement a zero business rates policy for all small businesses in 2021-22. While maintaining the VAT cut for hospitality is essential, we would have liked to see that stay in place until the end of the financial year, not just until September, and not just for hospitality but for all businesses. VAT deferral would allow them to free up capital to invest in their business.
The extensions to furlough, to self-employment support and to the universal credit uplift all needed to go much further. Furlough should be extended for as long as we need it, and all the self-employed and excluded should be brought into it. Too many people who have been left out will remain so after this Budget. There are 3 million people who have had no financial support at all in this crisis, and only 600,000 of them, according to the Chancellor’s own figures, will be helped. The gaps in support all-party parliamentary group gave the Chancellor a plan that would have helped those left out. Why did he not take it?
As for the universal credit uplift, even with it, the UK still has one of the least generous social welfare systems in the OECD, and one that we all know is seriously flawed. The uplift is due to end when unemployment could rise again, as the furlough scheme, which has kept it down, comes to an end. Therefore, when will the Government listen to the voices across the country, and from all political parties, that are calling for pilots and trial schemes of a universal basic income, which would have meant that nobody fell through the cracks during this crisis?
Now we all look to September and wait for the Chancellor’s next batch of patches. I am left today with far too few answers and too many questions. Why is our economic performance so much worse than those of other countries? Why is support for small businesses and the self-employed so little, especially for those so hard hit by Brexit? There is no long-term reform of business rates. Why is there nothing on social care and carers? Why so unambitious on our future green industries? There are no tax incentives for transitioning away from a carbon economy, and there is nothing to replace the green homes grant. But there is a tax hike on the lowest paid, by freezing the threshold next year. Simply mitigating the problems caused by covid will not repair the economy or provide the investment for the growth that we need for recovery.
Small businesses, families and self-employed people up and down this country were watching today, hoping for something to repay their commitment and their sacrifice in fighting this pandemic—a fair response from the Government, not self-congratulations on having done so well. The Chancellor, at the beginning of his statement, promised us a Budget to meet the moment. I am afraid that I do not think he has fulfilled that pledge.
May I start by associating myself with the comments of the Father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), on ExcludedUK and helping them, and on the leaseholder issue, which also requires help? I also associate myself with those on both sides of the House who have called for the uplift in universal credit to be rendered permanent, which I think in due course will prove sensible.
When I applied to speak in this debate a few days ago, given the headlines in the press I thought that I might be challenging head-on the Chancellor’s strategy, in view of my concern that sudden tax increases would crush any recovery. It is therefore a pleasure today to find that that is not the case, and that I can be much more supportive of my right hon. Friend.
Obviously covid-19 has led to incredibly difficult economic circumstances. The country has suffered the worst peacetime economic shock ever. Indeed, we have the worst outcome in the G7, and the deficit is the worst since 1944—a date that I will come back to—which, in and of itself, is extraordinary. The Chancellor faces quite remarkable economic problems that are worse than any Chancellor has faced in peacetime history, and he has handled it with remarkable sensitivity in the way he has put his policies together. I have a question about one or two, but broadly speaking, he has met this economic challenge of enormous magnitude with great skill.
What do these numbers mean? These billions and trillions that are casually thrown about by supposedly expert commentators are incredibly difficult for ordinary people to understand. In my view, they are best understood when looked at in terms of the impact by household or by wage earner, because that gives a better idea of what they mean. For example, the latest deficit figures published before today were £394 billion a year. That is £14,000 per household—that is the size of the black hole we have to fill. Just looking at the size of the number tells us that no tax policy can solve it. The idea of imposing £14,000 per household of taxes is nonsense; it would be designed to destroy any economic recovery. Only a recovery policy designed to restore the tax base and remove the need for subsidies will close that gap, and I am pleased to see that the Chancellor has essentially adopted that strategy.
The most recent estimate of the debt is well over £2 trillion and may be £3 trillion. Some £2 trillion or thereabouts amounts to £77,000 per household. I remember only a few days ago a BBC commentator talking about paying off the overdraft. I do not have an overdraft of £77,000. This is a big mortgage that is not paid off in one year. To pay off such a debt rapidly would be crippling. Again, the size says it all. It has to be paid off in the very long term—as the Chancellor said, over decades.
Since this is the worst debt and deficit combination since 1944, we should treat it in the same way as they did then: with a 50-year time horizon on the loan—a war loan, if you like. Both the world war one and world war two debts were paid off this century, within the last 20 years, so that gives us an indication of what needs to be done. I have heard a number of people say, “The interest rates might go up.” To a large extent, two things are happening here. Every single country in the world has this issue, and therefore every single Government in the world has an incentive to hold interest rates down, and they now have the mechanisms to do it—they have done it time and again with quantitative easing, even before today.
To close that £14,000 per household deficit, we need to increase growth, increase employment and increase wages. All those things will increase the tax base. The Chancellor said—and I am glad to hear him say it—that his first priority is employment. That is the centre of those aims, and that is exactly right. That requires higher domestic investment to achieve it. It requires higher foreign inward investment to achieve it. It requires higher new company formation and higher research and development, and it will, in turn, generate higher aggregate demand. Tax increases help none of those things.
The issue of tax increases is not a Tory ideological issue; it is about what delivers the recovery. Income tax increases, whether direct or stealthy, reduce aggregate demand; they reduce the amount of money people can spend. Corporation tax increases suppress investment. Capital gains tax increases deter both domestic investment and foreign investment. The one thing I am worried about in this Budget is the proposal to go to 25% corporation tax in a couple of years. That will have precisely the deterrent effect I worry about with respect to inward investment. I am looking at my Northern Irish friend the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who is nodding at me, because of course in the Province that is absolutely a central issue for us all. We have to worry about tax increases from that point of view.
I was very pleased to hear the Chancellor’s emphasis on what he called the science superpower strategy, and, as he said, it is not hubristic; we are the country with the highest number of Nobel prizes per capita in the world and should be able to marshal something out of that. We have already had an announcement on setting up our equivalent of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the Advanced Research and Invention Agency; we have new strategies and new funding for science, and new tech visas. All those things will help as all—the whole kingdom—in improving our growth rate.
What is a growth strategy worth? It is very difficult sometimes, particularly dealing with the Treasury, which is very difficult about dynamic taxation and indeed does not seem to understand it, despite the fact that the British Treasury under Nigel Lawson created the best dynamic tax demonstrator in history.
First, may I welcome the Budget, and welcome the reminder that the Chancellor gave at the very end of his speech that this Budget, and indeed the actions taken by the Government over the past year, demonstrate the value of the Union? We can look at the details in the Budget paper: in Northern Ireland, over a quarter of a million people are having their wages paid through the furlough scheme; 200,000 self-employed people are having their income supported as a result of the scheme; £1.5 billion in loans has been made available to businesses in Northern Ireland; and the Northern Ireland Executive have benefited by over £3 billion in Barnett consequentials, which has enabled them to put in place bespoke schemes in Northern Ireland. For anyone listening, this debate serves as a good reminder that being part of the fifth largest economy in the world has economic benefits, and they are economic benefits which cannot be replaced through any other arrangement.
The second thing I want to say is that I welcome many of the measures in the Budget. It is a difficult time for the Chancellor to present a Budget, but I am glad that many of the measures that we as a party had written and spoken to him about have been reflected in the Budget. The hospitality industry, which is very important in Northern Ireland, lobbied heavily for the 5% VAT rate to be maintained, and I am glad to see that it is being maintained, albeit not for the whole year. I represent a rural constituency, and many of my constituents were concerned about the impact that an increase in fuel duty would have on the cost of living, so I am glad to see that duty has again been frozen. Many businesses looking at their overheads wanted to ensure that they would not be subjected to rates again; the business rates relief is important for them.
However, there are many challenges as to how we pay off the debt, and the Chancellor was upfront about that. He made it clear that some painful choices would have to be made. The Budget papers illustrate how painful some of those choices will be. For example, by freezing the thresholds for income tax, over the next five years the amount of money taken from people across the United Kingdom in income tax will go up by 25%. Some of that will be as a result of the 3% increase in employment, but much of it will be through a stealth increase. As thresholds are not moved up, there are inflationary increases on wages, and people pay more.
Like the last speaker, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), I am worried about the impact of the corporation tax increases. While the Chancellor has indicated that they will not come in immediately, over the period for which we have figures the corporation tax take will increase by 112%. That will have an impact on investment, although we hope that the allowances that have been granted will ensure that some of the profits will be ploughed back.
That is a real worry. We have had promises that we will become the Singapore of Europe. If we are going to become the Singapore of Europe, it is important that we become a most attractive place for investment, and I believe that low corporation taxes are one of the ways of doing that.
I am also concerned about aviation, which is an important industry for Northern Ireland because of our limited links with the rest of the UK and the importance of international links for Northern Ireland, which is an exporting area. There was no specific mention of the aviation industry today, but I note that, even in the midst of the crisis the aviation industry is facing, the take from air passenger duty is going to go up by 50% over the next year, and by 300% over the period of the Budget figures. If the Chancellor is really aware of the difficulties being faced by the aviation industry, he needs to look again at the whole area of air passenger duty and at how we improve connectivity and improve, sustain and support that industry, which has been one of the hardest hit, after hospitality, by the coronavirus restrictions.
A point I want to make in conclusion is that there are opportunities for tax increases that will not actually hurt businesses or individuals in the United Kingdom. As a result of Brexit, we now have the opportunity to tackle those people who have been avoiding taxes wholesale. I am thinking of the Amazons and the Googles, who use the Irish Republic as a place where they can locate and take all their profits to. They load all their costs into GB and the United Kingdom and then avoid our taxes. I believe that there are important opportunities that the Chancellor needs to take. I am disappointed that, even with the announcement of additional inspections for tax fraud, the amount is so small. We do not just need new inspectors; we need new policies, and we should be getting on with that. But all in all, I think that many people in Northern Ireland will recognise this as a good Budget for the Union, a good Budget for individuals and a good Budget for recovery.
I want to welcome the Budget on behalf of my constituents in Moray and of people across Scotland. There is a lot of good news in what the Chancellor had to say today. First, however, I want to pick up on a few remarks in the speech made by the leader of the Scottish National party, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). He accused members of this Government of not understanding what it was like to be poor. That is quite an incredible statement from someone who earned his fortune as an investment banker in the City of London before he rediscovered himself as a humble crofter.
The right hon. Gentleman went on to say that this Budget lacked ambition, but I thought there was ambition weaved throughout the Chancellor’s statement. It has ambition for individuals, families and businesses in the weeks and months ahead, and ambition for our country in the years ahead. If the leader of the SNP at Westminster wanted to see a statement that lacked ambition, he should have looked at Nicola Sturgeon’s statement last week on her partial route map out of lockdown restrictions for Scotland. That was a document and a statement that lacked ambition, hope and clarity and one that we are seeing unravel at the moment as people in Scotland expect more from their Government.
The final point I want to focus on from the right hon. Gentleman’s speech is his comment about how in Scotland there has been an extension to the freeze on business rates for a further year. That is true, but that further freeze, for another 12 months, was made possible and accepted by the SNP Finance Minister only because of an additional £1.1 billion of support from the UK Government to the Scottish Government. Kate Forbes stood up in Holyrood and said that she was able to do this only because of additional support coming from the UK Government to Holyrood, to the Scottish Government, so that is why we have the extension for a full year of business rates in Scotland.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that newspapers were also covered. Of course, the SNP had to be forced to include newspapers in the business rates relief. A vote by the Scottish Conservatives in Holyrood, which the SNP was against to begin with, forced a U-turn. I will leave it to others to speculate why the SNP at this time would not want to support the newspaper industry in Scotland.
Throughout the last year, in dealing with this pandemic, the UK Government have delivered unprecedented support for Scottish families and businesses: the furlough scheme and the self-employed income support, protecting 930,000 Scottish jobs; loans to over 90,000 Scottish businesses and an extension of the reduced rate of VAT for hospitality, leisure and tourism; the £20 a week uplift for universal credit to help those in our society who need it most, which is something I have been calling for since October last year; and £9.7 billion of additional funding for Scottish public services. With this Budget, the Chancellor is continuing those vital lifelines, extending furlough and the self-employed income support until September.
Just as this pandemic has gone on longer than any of us could have imagined back in March last year, so, too, has the broad support delivered by the UK Treasury to the people of Scotland. Yet this is not just a Budget to help the Scottish economy to survive the pandemic. It is also a Budget for our recovery, with investments to support the economy in the north-east in its transition towards green energy, an acceleration of the transformative funding for Scottish growth deals to bolster the local economies in Ayrshire, Argyll and Bute, and Falkirk, and a freeze on the fuel duty to back Scottish drivers, which is crucial to our remote and rural areas. Just look at how that contrasts with the SNP Scottish Government lobbying for an increase in fuel duty. It has gone widely unreported that the SNP is calling for an increase. When we look at the options for fuel duty, how will that go down with voters in rural Scotland in a few weeks’ time? And, of course, as the MP for Moray, representing more Scotch whisky distilleries than any other MP in this place, I warmly welcome the freeze on spirits duty. That is hugely important to the distilleries in my constituency and alcohol producers more widely in Scotland and across the UK.
The Budget shows that the UK Government have a plan to rebuild Scotland’s economy after the immediate health crisis is over, to create jobs and opportunity in every part of our country as we pull together to deliver our recovery. The Chancellor said that the majority of these measures apply across the United Kingdom. We have a further £1.2 billion of spending going to the Scottish Government. We need to see the Scottish Government ensuring that that gets to the services and businesses that need it most. On the stamp duty freeze, we now see that holiday continuing in England until September, but in Scotland it has now ended. We need to see action on that in Scotland as well.
Yet SNP Members cannot welcome this plan—they could not support the Budget because they would rather focus on another divisive independence referendum than our recovery from coronavirus. They say that they want to bring this referendum forward at the earliest opportunity, just when people are renewing their ties with friends and families and businesses are beginning to reopen. Their plan would damage not only our Scottish recovery, but that of the whole of the United Kingdom. That is the last thing we need right now. What families and businesses across Scotland want to hear from the Scottish Government is a full route map for ending restrictions, not a route map for separation. As I said earlier, they are looking for certainty and for hope. This Budget has delivered that by extending the vital lifelines that Scottish families and businesses are relying on. It is now time for the Scottish Government to do the same.
The Chancellor has set out an ambitious programme that will not only secure the survival of many jobs and businesses in Scotland, but provide the basis for our economic recovery in the future. There was just one point that I agreed with the leader of the SNP on. He said that Scotland has a choice of two futures—we do. In the coming Scottish Parliament election, voters will decide whether they want the focus of all the politicians and all the parties within the Scottish Parliament to be on another independence referendum or on rebuilding Scotland from coronavirus. Let us not choose more damaging division. Let us instead rebuild Scotland and the whole of the UK together. Today’s Budget will help us do that.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The extension of furlough and the maintaining of the universal credit uplift are a relief. Cutting universal credit at this time would have been unthinkable and I thank everyone who joined Labour in making that point. The Chancellor should have announced that sooner. Last-minute changes and U-turns have become the hallmark of this Government, and we now face the worst economic crisis of any major economy.
The Government U-turned last week on the £500 test and trace support payment so that parents who stay at home because their children have to self-isolate are not forced to go without pay or to take annual or unpaid leave. Today, without explanation, the Chancellor has failed to extend the uplift to those on legacy benefits, including many people with disabilities.
The pandemic has exposed a lack of resilience in our economy, in family finances and in our institutions. We have witnessed the struggle of a weakened and poorly equipped NHS and social care system after 10 years of the Conservatives.
Even before the pandemic, a quarter of households had less than £100 in savings. StepChange has said that 1.2 million people now face severe problem debt. That figure has doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. My local food banks are struggling, with stories of children turning up without clean clothes to wear. We need to plan now so that we do not emerge less equal as a society. We saw nothing today that will help with that. There is no pay rise for social care workers; instead, there is a forced rise in council tax.
The increase in the national minimum wage seems to be a U-turn on the 49p an hour promised last March. The increase in apprenticeship incentives comes on the back of widespread criticism of the apprenticeship levy, with millions unspent.
There is a gender impact, too. Before the coronavirus pandemic, women, especially low-paid, disabled and minority ethnic women, were more likely than men to be in debt. Sixty-one per cent. of those getting into debt to purchase everyday necessities are women.
The Chancellor’s speech failed to mention children. Before the pandemic, 4.2 million children were living in poverty—nine in a classroom of 30. Removing the two- child limit and the benefit cap would lift hundreds of thousands of children out of poverty, but the Chancellor chose not to do so.
Half a million people are behind with their rent due to the pandemic. Mortgage prisoners—those trapped with their existing lender on high interest rates—are paying hundreds of thousands of pounds a year extra in mortgage payments to vulture funds and inactive lenders. Forbearance measures are still urgently needed, and a plan to tackle child poverty.
The jobs crisis is hitting the youngest as well as the oldest hardest. Around 600,000 young people are without work, and we risk having a lost generation. Even before the pandemic, there were around 800,000 people aged 50 to 64 not in work who wanted to be. We need a plan for employment to match the scale of the crisis. It is therefore inexplicable that, at the height of the pandemic, work coach hiring almost stopped, with fewer than 15 work coaches hired from April to June, as case loads more than doubled to over 280 people per work coach last summer.
The Chancellor’s kickstart scheme has been more of a false start, with only 2,000 placements to date, and Restart has not started at all. That is why we need Labour’s new jobs promise to guarantee young people aged 16 to 24 who have been unemployed for over six months a training or jobs placement, and to extend the same guarantee to those aged over 24 who have been unemployed for more than 12 months.
We need investment and green growth across every region and nation of the UK. As we recover from the pandemic, we must invest at speed for growth. A jobs recovery needs a green recovery. “Labour’s Green Economic Recovery” report would have been a good read for the Chancellor, with plans to spread job creation across the country, including 400,000 green jobs, with many for young people. Just as Britain led the world in the first industrial revolution, swift and targeted Government investment and co-ordination with the private and voluntary sectors is needed to stimulate the economy and jobs now.
On good jobs, the Mayor of London’s new good work standard represents the kind of thinking we need to tackle the scourge of low-paid, insecure work, along with flexible recruitment and workplace wellbeing plans. We should invest in community-led co-ops, and the employment Bill should come before Parliament.
On aviation, we urgently need a better sector-specific deal, to support jobs, to help airports, airlines and those in the wider supply chain—the ground handlers, caterers and other businesses —critical for aviation and for our economy and trade. Employment in aviation communities like Feltham and Heston has been hit very hard and needs much stronger leadership from the Government right now. We should lead the way in the world on zero-carbon aviation, but this means accelerating R&D investment to support innovation in the future of green transportation and logistics, and for new technologies to be contributing to greater productivity for businesses in our supply chains.
Today’s Budget needed to put in place the strong foundations to support businesses and to give security to all our families, building a base for resilience, a competitive future and shared prosperity for all. Sadly, it fell far short.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker—and thank you to Simon.
I have to say that I was interested listening to the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) talk about the value of the Union as if no other country in the world was investing in businesses and people at this very difficult time. Of course they are doing it in the Republic of Ireland in a very generous way as well. I know he is no longer in his place, but I have heard a proposal, for after a new Ireland comes into place, for a statue to be erected to him for all the work he is doing to encourage the people of Northern Ireland to vote for a very different constitutional future. I look forward to cutting the ribbon on it, and maybe Sammy will join us.
I found it interesting to hear the Chancellor speaking earlier about whatever it takes, and taking lots of credit for the necessary and essential furlough scheme. I do not know if anyone else can, but I can remember him being dragged, kicking and screaming almost, to extend the furlough scheme at Halloween. That left businesses confused and not knowing what they were going to do, and people lost their jobs as a result of it. It is good, of course, that it has been extended, but there should never have been any doubt about that in my view.
I also note very little mention of the B-word: Brexit was hardly talked about in the Chancellor’s speech. I wonder if that is because the OBR has said today that there will be a reduction of 0.5% in GDP in the first quarter alone because of Brexit. Many people, myself included, warned of the impact of Brexit. That was not heard, and pretending that the sunny uplands are coming as a result of Brexit is just beginning to be proven wrong with every passing week. There is that, plus the millions—millions—of pounds of funding from the European Union that is being stripped from the people of Northern Ireland and not replaced at all; not one penny replaced by this Government. It just shows us where this Government’s priorities lie when they relax the rules for the City of London and strip the people of Northern Ireland of unreplaced funds.
We have heard, and I think this will be proven to be fairly empty, a lot of talk about levelling up for the north of England, but where is the levelling up for the north of Ireland? We know that the protocol, despite what some people want to allege, is a benefit to us, as a result of a very hard Brexit, because it allows our businesses to trade into the British market and into the European market unencumbered. That is a competitive advantage that nowhere else on these islands has. Where is the effort to maximise that competitive advantage? Where are the investment hubs, with incentives in places like Derry, which has been stripped and starved of funding from Governments and is at the worst end of all the economic league tables? Where is the support to maximise that benefit and to sell the benefits of the protocol around the world, instead of listening to some of the nonsense we have heard from some of my colleagues about how damaging the protocol is? It is just not the case.
I also note that there is nothing in the Budget on the skills gap in Northern Ireland. We send thousands upon thousands of people away from our shores to study elsewhere, and they do not come back. That strips our communities, our families and our economy of very highly skilled people.
I am not somebody who would normally support low corporation tax, but the fact of the matter is that in Donegal, just across the border, corporation tax is 12.5%. In Derry, a mile away, it will soon be 25%. We take advantage of the protocol, and then we harm it by having a corporation tax double that just across the border. We know that small retailers are on their knees, and there is no mention of a windfall tax on Amazon, which is making an absolute fortune at the expense of those retailers.
The Chancellor says that the NHS is deserving of immense praise. The people in it do not want his praise; they want more money. They want more money in their pockets and they want more money in the system. In Northern Ireland, our population is 30 times smaller than England’s, but our waiting lists are 100 times longer. Where is the investment in our health service to get us through covid and to begin to allow people to get proper access to the health service they deserve? The Northern Ireland Executive have announced a £500 million thank you payment for those workers. Waive the taxes on it and allow them to keep the money for themselves.
Thank you for coming back to me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I hope my internet holds up now.
It is incredible to think that the Budget last year did not even contain the word “furlough.” Twelve months ago, the focus was on levelling up. Now, quite rightly, it is on recovery and how that recovery can drive growth in communities like mine across the country. The scale of Government support is simply staggering: £65 billion in this Budget alone, and close to £407 billion in total. All of us in this place have perhaps become too used to the idea that, if we make the right case, financial support will flow from the Treasury.
Of course, in these challenging times, it is not difficult to find people and organisations who are worthy of support, and that is why I believe this is a truly bold Budget. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor is being honest with the British people about the difficult decisions that lie ahead, while maintaining a clear focus on supporting people through covid and on jobs and growth as we move to recovery.
I hold my hand up and acknowledge that I have been one of those asking, Oliver-like, for a little bit more, please, sir. This has no doubt been wearing at times, and I thank my right hon. Friend and his fantastic Treasury team for being open to colleagues with ideas, and for listening with good grace to those of us with our bowls out. It is that spirit of generosity that rings through this Budget: extending furlough through to the end of September, and ensuring that a further 600,000 self-employed people get support as access to grants is widened. This is the response of a Chancellor and a Treasury team who understand what a lifeline these schemes are and how crucial they will be to recovery and to retaining jobs as we emerge from this pandemic.
Similarly, the extension of the universal credit uplift is very welcome. The uplift has helped so many people through the extreme challenges of this pandemic. Its continuation is not cheap, but for the many people who have been pushed into the category of just about managing in this crisis, it is a lifeline. This hand-up to those who need it is yet another policy compassionately delivered in the face of incredibly challenging circumstances.
Taken together, these measures will protect livelihoods across the UK and provide peace of mind and the ability for firms and families to catch their breath as we leave lockdown.
A person walking down Dalton Road in Barrow cannot get away from the visible signs that our high street is struggling. My local business owners campaigned hard to gain support. They very much want to be part of the recovery, and I am delighted that my right hon. Friend has recognised the important role they have to play. The combination of generous restart grants for retail businesses and greater support still for hospitality and leisure, which have been particularly hard hit by coronavirus restrictions, is very welcome.
If we in Cumbria want to boost tourism, we need our pubs, bars and restaurants to weather this storm. Restart grants, extending the VAT cut and a freeze in alcohol duty will make all the difference. The 100% business rates holiday last year provided a safety net for so many. Seeing that continue, with the vast majority of businesses receiving a 75% cut next year, will help our high streets play the part they want to play in this recovery.
I was elected to represent a community that felt left behind and felt that it had not seen investment for decades. In the past year alone we have seen the corner turned, with £25 million awarded for the town deal and a bypass funded at Grizebeck. I am incredibly grateful to colleagues in the Treasury and across the Government for enabling that.
I am delighted that there is even more in the Budget for Barrow and Furness and communities like mine. The £150,000 of levelling-up capacity funding for Barrow will enable my local council to put forward a good bid for the levelling-up fund, and winning that will make a tangible difference to our town.
Similarly, the £20,000 community renewal fund granted to Barrow will help us to pilot new approaches to tackle some of the most difficult issues that we face, supporting new approaches to tackling poverty and reinforcing our community as a place where people want to live, work and visit.
The huge capital allowance bonus for manufacturing is an incredible boon for the north and will allow us to unlock some of the latent investment that we know is out there for communities like ours with strong manufacturing bases in everything from defence to subsea and with everything from world-class LED lighting firms to global exporters.
This is a remarkable Budget for the north and for the whole of the UK. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, not only for his honesty about the scale of the challenge that we face but for his determination to support people and businesses through this storm.
It certainly has been a year like no other, and when we look back at this point we will of course reflect on the direct consequences of the pandemic—the impact on livelihoods and the loss of life—and the incredible efforts of the NHS, the military and indeed volunteers in getting us through it. We will also look to see how responsible we were in supporting and protecting jobs, businesses and skillsets, carefully anesthetising so much of our economic activity so that it could be revived once it was safe to do so.
With plans to gradually ease lockdown about to start, the Budget has two simple objectives: first, short-term fiscal support that will assist our workforce until June, when the lifting of any final covid restrictions will take place; and secondly, the introduction of responsible measures designed to begin to rebalance the books after a year of record borrowing.
I very much welcome the Chancellor’s announcement of further economic support relating to the pandemic—for example, the extension of the furlough scheme, the continuation of the business rates holiday, the extension of the VAT cut and the freeze on alcohol duties. All will be appreciated in my constituency of Bournemouth East, where tourism and hospitality are critical. There are calls from people who want to see the easing of lockdown move faster, but no general would commit to a date—beyond the aspirational—to achieve the next phase of battle until set conditions were met in order to advance. That is exactly what the Prime Minister is doing now.
Let me turn to the longer-term measures that the Chancellor has announced, some of which have been criticised in relation to the manifesto commitment not to touch the big taxes—income tax, national insurance and VAT—but that commitment was made before this once-in-a-century event. We would be storing up problems for the future if we did not take initial steps to deal with the scale of borrowing that is currently taking place.
We are just starting to lift our heads above the parapet in relation to this pandemic—to think that we can go beyond survival and repair and about what post-covid Britain will look like—so I very much welcome the initiatives in the Budget on national infrastructure programmes, green investment and support for veterans’ mental health. The digital roll-out is also important for services, as digital is taking over from roads and rail in linking businesses together.
I thank the Chancellor for the £21 billion of town deal investment to help regeneration in Boscombe in the core part of my constituency. The council and I have been lobbying on that for a number of months, so we are very grateful.
I mentioned digital, and I do not apologise for raising what has been referred to as the Rockefeller question. Of course, J. D. Rockefeller was the owner of Standard Oil, the company that dominated the oil market in the 1920s. It took the will of President Theodore Roosevelt, the one person more powerful than Rockefeller, to see Standard Oil’s monopoly challenged and subsequently dismantled. I am glad to see the Financial Secretary to the Treasury in his place. We have seen a clash between Google and the Australian Government. With the likes of Google, Facebook and so forth dominating the digital world, and now earning 80% of the advertising market, there are big questions as to how personal data is harvested, how fairer competition is supported, and—pertinent to today—the levels of taxation that are paid. I hope that this can perhaps be raised at the G7 discussions this year.
My final point is in relation to China and the scale of the impact that this economic powerhouse is having on areas of interest that we have across the world. It is a superpower, and there is a geopolitical challenge in the long term as it ensnares many countries in trade deals, and infrastructure and security programmes, that they can ill afford. This is in direct challenge to the very areas that we want to do business with. Again, that is something for the G7 to discuss.
We must recognise that, as we come out of the pandemic, the world is looking very different from when we went in. Our economic security depends on our national security and vice versa. I hope that the forthcoming integrated view will give clarity as to what global Britain means. We have become a little risk-averse in the past few years when it comes to challenging potential threats at source. I hope that the tough economic decisions taken today will lead us out of this unfair and unprecedented financial shock, and that we can appreciate that we now need to address the unstable international context that we face.
Almost exactly a year ago on 28 February, Wales recorded its first case of coronavirus. Covid-19 would go on to turn countless lives, livelihoods and communities upside down. In my Ogmore constituency, many families have faced unimaginable loss in unprecedented circumstances. It has not just been the loss of loved ones, often without being able to say goodbye, or of the precious time with friends and family. There has also been a previously unimaginable scale of financial loss, with small businesses destroyed, seemingly overnight, disappearing jobs, reduced hours and some people—the excluded—simply falling through the gaps in support and receiving nothing, even after their income vanished before their eyes. Of course, I welcome the changes that the Chancellor has announced today to support some of the excluded, but there are still far too many people who are missing out on Government support and who have simply been bypassed again by this Conservative Government.
The emotional scarring of the pandemic will be with us for years to come, and we must do all we can to provide the support for mental health and wellbeing that people need. I am very proud that the Welsh Labour Government have already identified the need for this, and have begun to implement this support as they seek to move Wales forward. But we need to recognise that, alongside the emotional burden, there is also an economic burden; and, as so often during this pandemic, the Chancellor’s plans to tackle it are simply not up to the job.
Figures show that 4,415 people in Ogmore are currently furloughed and 2,705 people are claiming unemployment-related benefits. Months ago, I and my Labour party colleagues called on the Chancellor to end the speculation and uncertainty surrounding the continuation of this support and pledge that he would extend the £20 uplift beyond April. I was proud to do the right thing and vote for the £20 a week uplift to universal credit, as I have seen the difference that it has made in people’s lives across my constituency. While Labour was taking action, the UK Government decided to sit on their hands and pretend that no vote was going on. It will come as no surprise that I find it appalling that I have heard Conservative MPs today saying how important the uplift is, when they chose to pretend that there was no vote going on just a few months ago. They are now praising the uplift as if the Chancellor has ridden in on his white steed and rescued those people who receive universal credit.
The Chancellor could have stopped this speculation many months ago. Even this Sunday, he was asked by the press if he would end this cliff-edge approach to people’s incomes, but again he refused to relieve the anxiety that surrounds families’ household budgets. I am pleased that the Chancellor has finally listened and followed Labour’s lead, but I have to ask: why on earth has it taken him this long to make the decision? Has he perhaps been waiting for a new graphic for his social media? Does his Instagram account take some time to change these things? Meanwhile, families across my constituency have been living with this uncertainty, and it simply is not acceptable.
The difference between the Chancellor’s reluctance to extend the support, and the actions of a Welsh Labour Government straining every sinew to support Welsh families, is glaring. From the get-go, Welsh Labour ensured that the full force of our Government was used to support families, businesses and jobs, be that through: the barriers grant, giving up to £2,000 towards the essential costs of starting up a business; the restrictions business fund, giving businesses grants of between £6,000 and £10,000; or releasing £117 million, through rate relief for premises over £500,000, back into the economy. Welsh Labour has targeted everything towards protecting jobs in our communities.
This Budget is about not just tackling the challenges of the present, but laying the foundations for the future. The Welsh Labour Government understand that and have done that in their work every day over the last 10 years of continuous budget cuts. The Minister and the Chancellor have spent the past 10 years cutting, cutting and cutting the essential foundations of the economy; how do they expect now, with very little planning or ideas, to progress and build an economy back for the future? With such limited expectations and hopes for growth, the Budget is hardly the inspiring one that was being briefed daily for weeks before today.
The scale of the challenge we face as we seek to rebuild after this dreadful pandemic is immense. Our Welsh Labour Government recognise that, and have set out the bold and visionary policies we need to move Wales forward. Today’s Budget is sadly lacking in ambition and in the compassion required by the Chancellor and his colleagues. Families in Ogmore and across the UK have made enormous sacrifices in a collective effort to tackle covid-19 and keep each other safe. They need a plan for a recovery that matches the scale of that sacrifice, but they will not find it in today’s Budget.
The first thing I want to say, reflecting on the Chancellor’s excellent Budget speech, is that in an emergency—that is what we have faced over the past year—it is right for the state to use its fiscal firepower to support the people of our country and protect jobs and livelihoods. That will be welcomed across the country, but particularly in my constituency. Listening to the Chancellor set out the more than £400 billion-worth of spending that has been put in place to support jobs and livelihoods, we can see the pay-off. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility now thinks that the level of unemployment we will reach at the peak is considerably lower than it was forecasting just last November. That reduction in the level of unemployment and the jobs that have been protected will be welcomed in my constituency and across the United Kingdom.
I also welcome the specific help in the Budget for my constituency. I particularly welcome the £150,000 to help my local authority put in place the capacity to bid for money from the levelling-up fund. As Members of Parliament are integrally involved, I look forward to working with it to put in place an ambitious plan to help improve economic conditions in my constituency. I also welcome the continued reduction in VAT for hospitality and tourism businesses, and the extension of the business rates holiday. I know that that will be incredibly welcome to those businesses in my constituency that are raring to go to get back into business but are not yet enabled to do so.
We have had a big, one-off amount of borrowing to get us through this crisis, so we need to get the public finances back in shape. The Chancellor set out very clearly why that is essential. First, if debt continues to rise, we are very vulnerable to a rise in interest rates. A 1% rise in interest rates, modest by historical standards, would mean our having to find £25 billion a year in debt interest. That would mean making very significant savings elsewhere from important public services. Secondly, we have to get the public finances in good shape to prepare us for the inevitable future crisis. As the Chancellor set out, it was only the difficult decisions that we took on tax and spending from 2010 onwards that allowed him to have the fiscal firepower and borrowing capacity to get us through this crisis. It is right that he wants to leave the public finances in shape, either for himself in the future or for a potential successor, to deal with any crises to come. It is important that that cannot happen immediately, but over time.
I am pleased to see in the independent forecast that we will get the Budget back into balance by 2025-26, by three mechanisms. The first is growing the economy faster, and I welcome the mechanisms that the Chancellor set out today to increase investment, to get businesses firing on all cylinders. However, secondly, it also requires controlling the growth in spending, and I am pleased to see controlled growth in public spending in the numbers. That will mean some difficult decisions in the spending review, and I say to Members on both sides of the House, especially my colleagues, that it will mean making choices, setting priorities and deciding what we think is important. We cannot spend money on absolutely everything we want; as Conservatives, we have to live within our means and make those difficult decisions. I hope that, as those decisions are made by ministerial colleagues and our Treasury colleagues later this year, we can all support them.
Finally, it also means an increase in taxes, which is uncomfortable for someone like me who wants to see lower taxes. I do not think we are undertaxed, because the tax rises in this Budget will leave us with the highest tax burden in my lifetime. However, I hope that they will be temporary and that, once we have got the public finances back into shape, the Chancellor—as he says, he is a low-tax Conservative—will be able to look to continue increasing public spending in line with the growth of the economy, but also to reduce taxes so that people can keep more of their hard-earned income, which is central to being a Conservative.
This is a very well-judged Budget that gets the public finances back into shape, deals with the crisis—the emergency —we have faced, prepares us for growth in the years to come and leaves us in better shape than the Chancellor found the Treasury. I commend it to the House.
I believe that today’s Budget is good news for my constituency. We still need to focus on defeating the pandemic, and the continuing support for local people and businesses is most welcome.
Thousands of people in my constituency have benefited from the furlough scheme and the self-employment scheme, but I have lobbied particularly hard to persuade the Chancellor to retain the £20 uplift on universal credit so that the most vulnerable people in my constituency and elsewhere receive the support they need. I also lobbied for a VAT cut for the hospitality industry, which so many local businesses were in touch with me about, and that will make a real difference to them as gradually they are allowed to reopen.
The Chancellor announced a range of other measures to help businesses in England. We need to see the equivalent delivered here in Scotland, unlike previously, when the Scottish Government have sat on money that they have received from the UK Government and failed to distribute it quickly to businesses.
I have always argued that a car is a necessity, not a luxury, in our rural communities, and haulage fuel costs contribute so significantly to the cost of living locally. That is why I have always opposed rises in fuel duty, so I am delighted that the Chancellor agrees and has frozen fuel duty yet again.
In the very short time that I have, I shall focus on the issue of access to cash. It was announced this morning that contactless payments would be increased to £100, which I am sure will be welcomed by many, but the Chancellor did not reference this year, as he did in his last Budget, the operation of the UK cash system and his plans to legislate on access to cash.
Our system of cash faces three big issues: the ongoing issue of access; the inverse issue of depositing cash, and the increasingly pressing problem of acceptance of cash. The issue of acceptance of cash has been made more acute by the pandemic. The Bank of England noted in its quarterly bulletin that 42% of people had recently visited a store that would not accept cash, and Which? conducted a survey that found that four in 10 of those who had experienced difficulties paying with cash had left empty-handed when trying to buy groceries.
It is therefore essential that the Government come forward with legislation and plans on this issue. Without that, we risk crashing into a cashless society, where some 17% of adults in the UK—about 8 million—would struggle. Those struggling most would be the elderly, the vulnerable and economically excluded, and those in rural communities such as my Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale constituency.
The Chancellor failed to mention that, with 123,000 deaths, the UK has the highest coronavirus death rate in the world and the deepest recession of the G7. He also failed to mention the bungled Brexit that has led to a two-thirds cut in our exports since the new year. The Budget simply continues to increase inequality, which will itself reduce the rate of growth. Although it pumps money into the economy, it will mean council tax rises, pay freezes for public sector workers, benefit squeezes and service cuts, all of which will further increase inequality.
What we need is a healthier, fairer, greener future. We only have to look to the Welsh Government to see how to do that. In England, excess deaths associated with covid over the five-year average are at 20%, while in Wales, the figure is only 13%. If that rate had been applied in England, there would have been 36,000 fewer deaths. That could have been achieved through a more cautious approach to social distancing, travel limits, earlier lockdowns and, of course, contact tracing in public hands rather than in the hands of sponsors of the Conservative party. We are also rolling out vaccinations very quickly.
In Labour-run Wales, we have seen the Government using their money where it is most needed, not to support council tax relief for food superstores, which are making exceptional profits, and not for stamp duty for people buying second homes for their holidays. Instead, we have a £2 billion resilience fund, and the Development Bank of Wales investing in small businesses to secure 141,000 jobs. This is successful devolution, but we do need the tools to do the job, and we only get 2% of the money for rail investment for 5% of the population. We need a high-speed link between Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea and west Wales to help connect the Union. We need the shared prosperity fund to be spent in Wales, for Wales and by Wales. We need the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon that was promised, and we need electrification of the railways. There is much that we need, but we are not getting our fair share and we did not hear anything about that in the Budget.
We need a fairer future in Britain. There are 6.6 million people who are hungry and in food insecurity each day. We need to double the number of co-operatives. We need to target investment to smaller companies, particularly those that are committed to net zero, with local jobs that reduce inequality. We need to invest in children from poorer backgrounds who have lost out the most in terms of education, and we need to invest in sustainable transport. After all, 64,000 people a year are dying prematurely from toxic air. Again, there was nothing about that.
Labour increased the size of the economy by 40% in the 10 years to 2008 and in so doing doubled the health service and the education service. We need a Labour Government to have inclusive growth and to balance the books, and we will not get one until the next election.
Today, the Chancellor has been dealing with the economic cost of coronavirus. Coronavirus is a zoonotic disease and, just like SARS and Ebola, it has come about as the result of the increasing stress that human activity has put on the natural world. As a result of coronavirus, the Chancellor admitted borrowing a record £355 billion, and for the first time in more than 50 years public debt has risen above 100% of GDP. Let me say it again: coronavirus is a zoonotic disease; there will be others.
Our species is grappling not just with one global pandemic, but with the two global emergencies of climate change and the destruction of nature through biodiversity loss. Today should not just be about the allocation of money; it should be about the management of our assets. Once we understand that our economy is bounded by nature, natural capital, we will perhaps understand the need to stop consuming each year goods and services that the planet takes 1.6 years to reproduce. Economists call this living beyond our means. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is clear that we need urgent and unprecedented transformational change. If this Budget had adopted the principles of the Dasgupta review, we would have got that change. It would have set out the basis of a green industrial revolution, full investment in low-carbon infrastructure and the greening of our economy. It could have created a million new jobs.
Protecting jobs and maintaining incomes through furlough is only a baseline. Alongside it, the Chancellor should have put in place incentives for companies that spread employment through job sharing while using non-employed hours engaged in a new, paid national retraining scheme for the zero-carbon industries of tomorrow. That would have been transformational and given people currently in old industries hope and security for the future. Yes, set targets for electric vehicles, but retrain the mechanics. Yes, bring in more solar and wind arrays, but train the new generation of engineers. Yes, retrofit our homes, but where is the skilled workforce to carry out the work?
On the super deduction of 130% tax reliefs on investment, the Chancellor should have said that this could be used only for sustainable green investment, and not to subsidise what could be environmentally damaging infrastructure by oil and gas corporates. No wonder it took him until precisely 37 minutes into his speech before he even mentioned the word “green”—and that, ironically, came just after saying there would be no fuel duty rise. I welcome what he said about changing the remit of the Bank of England to consider environmental sustainability and net zero, but a transformative Budget would have mandated both climate and nature-related financial disclosures by listed companies. He patted himself on the back and said that he would be ready when the next crisis comes. The truth is that the next crisis is already here: it is called the climate catastrophe and environmental destruction, and this Budget has not prepared us to meet it.
I welcome this Budget. It has five core purposes: to balance the books; to help people through covid; to cut the cost of living; to champion education, skills and apprenticeships; and to build back better.
The fundamentals of levelling up must be about cutting the cost of living. Too many of my Harlow residents are working long hours for low pay. That is why the fuel duty freeze, for the tenth year, is such good news. The national living wage rise to £8.91 in April will mean that households are £5,200 better off compared with 2010, and cuts in taxes have put £1,205 more in the average worker’s pocket. The six-month extension to the uplift in universal credit will incentivise work and reduce the welfare poverty trap.
Covid-19 has been a national disaster for education. The Government’s £1.7 billion catch-up fund is a huge step forward. Just as the NHS has a 10-year plan, there should be a long-term plan for educational recovery, investing in early years, establishing family hubs in every town, reforming the pupil premium to give more help to the long-term disadvantaged, and having longer school days, with civil society helping with extra sports, mental health and academic catch-up. I hope the Treasury will hypothecate £150 million raised from the sugar tax to finance school breakfasts in disadvantaged areas. Evidence shows that this increases educational attainment by two months.
The £2 billion kickstart programme for businesses and the lifetime skills guarantee will rocket-boost apprenticeships and jobs. I urge apprenticeship levy reform to benefit companies that invest in the skills our country needs and ensure that those from disadvantaged backgrounds climb on to the apprenticeship ladder of opportunity.
Of course, levelling up means renewing infrastructure. The new hospital plan for Harlow is hugely welcomed by residents, as is our new £81 million junction 7A and planned regeneration funding of up to £76 million. The expected move of Public Health England to Harlow will provide thousands of jobs, boosting skills, health science and economic opportunities across the east of England. The Health Department has already spent over £270 million for the relocation, and this investment shows the Government’s commitment to Harlow.
Building back better must also mean genuinely affordable housing. One million children live in overcrowded accommodation. The £12.2 billion announced by the Communities Secretary is welcome. The Government could incentivise housing associations through a flexible grant rate and making more land available for social housing. Of course Conservatives are for home ownership. The mortgage guarantee is superb, but we should also be the party of quality, affordable housing.
I commend this Budget. I urge the Prime Minister and the Chancellor to ensure that supporting workers, and championing social justice and the ladder of opportunity, continue to be at the heart of Government decision making.