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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 690: debated on Tuesday 9 March 2021

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Self-isolation: Financial Barriers

What assessment he has made of implications for his policies of the financial barriers to people’s compliance with the requirement to self-isolate during the covid-19 outbreak; and if he will make a statement. (913154)

What assessment he has made of implications for his policies of the financial barriers to people’s compliance with the requirement to self-isolate during the covid-19 outbreak; and if he will make a statement. (913167)

What assessment he has made of implications for his policies of the financial barriers to people’s compliance with the requirement to self-isolate during the covid-19 outbreak; and if he will make a statement. (913169)

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the adequacy of financial support arrangements for people who are self-isolating during the covid-19 outbreak. (913182)

People who are instructed to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace and are on a qualifying means-tested benefit, unable to work from home and losing income as a result may be entitled to a payment of £500 from their local authority.

We need people to self-isolate to control transmission and ease restrictions, yet many are continuing to work as they cannot survive on £95.85 statutory sick pay per week. The Chancellor has been asked about this on numerous occasions, and it was disappointing that nothing new was announced in his Budget. Does the Minister agree that those who do not have access to occupational sick pay and cannot work from home should be eligible for the Test and Trace support payments?

The hon. Lady is right that many people —indeed, the majority of workers—will have support from employers above statutory sick pay, but it is for the reason she outlines that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor also announced that there will be a payment of £500 for those not qualifying for the means-tested benefit, paid through the discretionary scheme that was funded at the Budget and to be administered by local authorities.

Bradford Council has the highest demand for self-isolation payments in the country, reflecting the fact that most people in our city are unable to work from home. The standard scheme for people in receipt of certain benefits is fully funded, but the discretionary scheme, which the council must use for everyone else, is not. In fact, the funding for Bradford falls far short of demand, so will the Minister urgently look into this so that councils with a high demand can support all workers who need to self-isolate?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point, which is that there was a pressure on the scheme for local authorities. It is for exactly that reason that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in the Budget that there will be an increase to £20 million per month for the discretionary scheme. He also listened to representations from the hon. Lady and others about widening the scope of eligibility under that scheme.

The Government have now made available £20 million a month in discretionary self-isolation funding for local authorities, despite only making £15 million available for four months when the scheme first started, and because of this, hundreds of people in Blackburn have been denied support to self-isolate. Does the Minister now accept that initial allocations fell well below what was needed and contributed to the rise in cases, and does he think that that is fair on my constituents?

It is right that there was support in place, but it is also right that my right hon Friend the Chancellor has listened to points made by Members across the House, which is why the discretionary support has been increased and also why it has been extended to cover parents who are unable to work because they are caring for a child who is self-isolating and a number of other factors. I think that shows once again the willingness of this Government to respond to the path of the virus and to adapt our schemes to what is needed with, in particular, the extensive support that is now being offered and has throughout the pandemic been offered to local authorities.

In November, a constituent of mine was told to isolate via the NHS covid-19 app. She would have been eligible for the isolation payment, but as she was told to isolate via the app, she was never given an NHS Test and Trace account ID, and therefore her application could go no further. My constituent was affected financially as she could not work, and she has been going round in circles, even with my help, trying to access the payment. Can the Minister advise if my constituent can still access this payment retrospectively?

It is always difficult to comment without seeing the full facts of an individual case, and I know the hon. Lady is always an incredibly assiduous constituency Member and will ensure that the case is looked at. On the specifics, I would also point to the fact that there is a wider package of support as well. For example, in addition to the self-isolation payments, there is often eligibility for self-employed workers through the self-employed income support scheme. There is a wide range of measures, but obviously it will depend on the individual case.

Test and Trace has now been allocated £37 billion, but its head, Baroness Dido Harding, has told both the Public Accounts Committee and the Science and Technology Committee that the big struggle is to get people to isolate. So, although the Government have provided support for people to self-isolate, surely the Chief Secretary can go back and look again to ensure that what the Treasury is providing enables test, trace and isolate to be truly effective, or we are really not going to beat this pandemic?

The hon. Lady is right about the importance of Test and Trace; it is key to our unlocking the economy and to addressing the much more substantive costs in terms of the non-pharmaceutical interventions. As she will know as Chair of the PAC, while I as Chief Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will always look at the cost of Test and Trace, the bigger prize is getting our economy opened. On the substantive point the hon. Lady raises on the self-isolation payments, again I point to the fact that at the Budget my right hon. Friend the Chancellor increased the funding for discretionary support; that sits alongside the £500 itself, and is in addition to the wider support that the majority of employers provide.

The Government’s road map out lockdown says that self-isolation is critically important to halting the spread of disease, yet Baroness Harding has recently admitted that financial difficulties prevent people from self-isolating and a year ago the Health Secretary admitted he could not live on statutory sick pay of £94.25 a week. It is now £95.85 a week, so can the Minister explain why the Chancellor refuses simply to guarantee that anyone who has to rely on statutory sick pay or is unable to access even that should be eligible for the £500 payment?

I do not think the hon. Gentleman has actually read the Budget announcement made last week, because the discretionary element of the Test and Trace support payments applies even if people are not in receipt of means-tested benefits. So it does recognise the point raised by Members that it is important that there is an incentive for people to be tested; that is what the £500 payment through the Test and Trace system addresses. But in addition Members raised cases which were just outside the means-tested element of Test and Trace; that is the issue that the discretionary fund addresses, and it was dealt with in the Budget last week.

Covid-19: Support for Charity Sector

The Government have provided an unprecedented multibillion- pound package of support for Britain’s charities, including £750 million of dedicated funding that has helped more than 15,000 organisations across the country respond to the impacts of covid-19 and relieve the pressure on our NHS.

As we all know, yesterday marked International Women’s Day, a day when we celebrate and recognise the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. However, this pandemic has also shone a light on domestic abuse and the struggles of many women across the country, so will my right hon. Friend set out what steps he is taking to support charities in this field so we can ensure that victims and their children can access the support they need?

I join my hon. Friend in marking International Women’s Day yesterday, and he raises a very important issue. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor at the Budget last week committed a further £90 million of funding; that, of course, builds on the £125 million announced at the spending review and indeed the earlier £25 million that had also been provided, recognising the 65% increase in calls to the national domestic abuse hotline and the renewed focus within Government on this important issue.

Charities across these islands have done amazing work through the pandemic, so with the Finance Bill coming up will the Treasury reward the efforts of these charities and encourage the public to donate by temporarily increasing the rate of gift aid from 20% to 25% and expanding the small donations scheme to make gift aid much easier to claim?

I join the hon. Lady in recognising the huge contribution that charities have made. In respect of specific tax measures, obviously they were dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the Budget last week, but I remind the hon. Lady of the £750 million of dedicated funding that has been provided to date in recognition of that important work.

Regional Equity of Infrastructure Investment

What assessment he has made of the regional equity of infrastructure investment (a) in Wales and (b) throughout the UK. (913156)

Once in every Parliament, the National Infrastructure Commission publishes a national infrastructure assessment. The first assessment was launched in July 2018, and the commission operates UK-wide.

Wales has 5% of the population but it has had only 2% of the railway enhancement investment over decades, and it has the lowest household income. Given that HS2 will not pass through Wales, will the Minister and the Treasury look very carefully at providing a high-speed rail link between Bristol, Cardiff, Swansea and beyond—over 3 million people live there—in line with the Burns review, to help the agenda for levelling up and connecting the Union, and to give us our fair share of rail investment based on need?

I thank the hon. Member for his question. Of course, he will be aware that the benefits of HS2 are not, by any means, just restricted to the cities that are on its route; it is a national project of significance. More widely, Wales has done very well in the last Budget, if I might remind him more generally, with accelerated funding for the Swansea bay, north Wales and mid-Wales city growth deals, money for the hydrogen hub and, of course, £30 million towards the global centre of rail excellence in Neath Port Talbot. What I would say, though, is that of course we do now have a UK infrastructure bank, which will be looking at issues of infrastructure across the country, including in the devolved Administrations.

Covid-19: Support for Business

What fiscal steps his Department is taking to support businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (913157)

What fiscal steps his Department is taking to support businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (913158)

What fiscal steps his Department is taking to support businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (913164)

What fiscal steps his Department is taking to support businesses affected by the covid-19 outbreak. (913172)

The Government are providing over £407 billion-worth of support for the UK economy over this year and next. Contained within that is considerable support for business, through discounted loans, cash grants, VAT reductions and tax deferrals, all designed to help business get through this crisis and protect as many jobs as possible.

I very much welcome the £25 million that Ipswich will be getting through a town deal, and the creation of Freeport East. Some 6,000 of my constituents are employed, directly or indirectly, through the port of Felixstowe. The town deal will create a new tech campus and a maritime skills academy to feed jobs—high-skilled jobs—in the area. Therefore, does the Chancellor agree that both the town deal money and the new freeport, together, will be vital to the creation of new local skills in Ipswich and therefore crucial to supporting local business at this difficult time?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I congratulate him; he has long campaigned on the importance of a town deal for his local community and, indeed, a freeport. I am delighted that this Budget could deliver both of those for his constituents and I agree with him that it will deliver growth, jobs and prosperity to his local area.

I thank the Chancellor for his earlier response. The measures in the Budget provided a lifeline to high streets in my constituency, from Westerham to Swanley. In particular, the restart grants are much anticipated. Can the Chancellor confirm when local authorities will be able to begin distributing these vital grants?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must get support to businesses as quickly as possible. I am pleased to confirm to her that guidance will be published, hopefully by the end of this week, for local authorities, and that the restart grants, which are designed to take the place of our grant scheme that runs out at the end of April, will be distributed to local authorities in the first full week—the week commencing 5 April. I hope that is a reassurance to her and her businesses, and that local authorities can get the cash to them at this vital time.

The scale of support for businesses has been truly outstanding, but may I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to the coach industry? Pre-pandemic, it already found itself heavily indebted because of requirements that the state put on it, such as the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations 2000 and Euro 6 requirements, so will he look again at how the coach industry can be supported, given the level of debt it is already in?

I thank my hon. Friend for shining a spotlight on this important industry; he is right to do so. I know that he will be talking to the Department for Transport about regulations for the industry, but I can tell him that we will be providing local authorities with discretionary funding of around £425 million to sit alongside the restart grants. That money, at the discretion of local areas, can be used to support businesses such as coach businesses in their areas.

I just want to take this opportunity to thank the Chancellor for the way in which he has engaged with me and other Members representing coastal communities throughout the lifetime of the pandemic. I know the extensive measures he has put in place, particularly for the hospitality sector, will make a huge difference to those businesses surviving. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he will continue to monitor and work with me to ensure that local businesses get all the support they need for their continued recovery?

My hon. Friend has been instrumental in providing on-the-ground information to me and my team about the particular situation facing hospitality businesses in coastal communities like his. He is an absolute champion for them and rightly so. They are an important part of his local economy and I am glad that this Budget supported them. He has my assurance that we will continue to work with him and them to get them the support that they deserve.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that £27 billion-worth of loans made under coronavirus loan schemes will never be repaid. Why is the Chancellor insisting that banks pursue that as conventional business debt, when the circumstances that gave rise to those loans are anything but conventional? Would lifting the debt burden on businesses and turning it into a contingent tax liability not help to fire up the economy, set business free and really get Britain moving again?

What we have done is provide a scheme called Pay as You Grow to give businesses incredible flexibility and generosity in how they repay bounce back loans. Those loans at an instant can be turned automatically into 10-year loans, which reduces the monthly cash payment by almost 50%. Beyond that, there are opportunities for interest-only periods and payment holidays, all of which will support the cash flow of businesses. We also have to get a balance with the taxpayer in all of this, which is why we have taken the approach we have. I am sad that the right hon. Gentleman did not also welcome the £25 million of investment in his local community through a town deal in this Budget, which will help local businesses there as well.

The Save our Salons campaign presented to the gaps in support all-party group this morning. It remains hugely frustrated that the hair, beauty and holistic service industry has had no sector-specific support from the Chancellor, despite contributing £9.2 billion to the economy. Can the Chancellor explain why he has decided to ignore the calls from this largely female industry to chop VAT to 5%?

With regard to VAT, I am sure the hon. Lady knows that the majority of businesses in the personal care sector are below the VAT threshold, so they do not actually pay any VAT. What we did do is include that sector in the more generous restart grants, so, depending on their rateable value, businesses in that sector, like those in hospitality, will be able to receive grants of up to £18,000.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement in the Budget of the super deduction, which will definitely have a very positive impact on investment. Of course, it will primarily do that by pulling forward what would have been future investment into a more recent time period. What measures is my right hon. Friend looking to, to ensure that that increase in corporate investment in the shorter term is continued into the medium and longer term?

I am glad my right hon. Friend recognises the importance of the super deduction. He is right that it will bring forward investment, but I believe it will also increase the amount of investment as well, given the attractiveness of doing so. What I would point him to are a couple of other announcements in the Budget. One is a consultation to reform our research and development tax credits regime, which we hope to conduct over the course of this year to make sure of support for investment in R&D in a way that reflects current R&D practices. Secondly, our freeports agenda contains enhanced capital allowances, and structures and building allowances, which last well beyond the period of the super deduction and will serve as an incentive for capital investment in those areas for years to come.

Covid-19: Support for Job Retention

In July last year, the OBR forecast unemployment to peak at around just under 12%. Now, because of policy development, it has forecast a much lower peak of 6.5%. That means 1.8 million fewer people who are expected to lose their jobs. Whether it is through interventions such as the furlough scheme, we remain committed to protecting, supporting and creating jobs.

The furlough scheme has helped to protect 11.2 million jobs across the UK, including nearly 6,000 jobs in my Birmingham, Northfield constituency, so I take this opportunity to thank the Chancellor for the extension until September. Does he agree that this will give businesses the vital breathing space needed to be able to plan as we go along the Prime Minister’s road map?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of protecting jobs. The extension of the furlough scheme on generous terms beyond the end of the road map is designed to give his local businesses and others the reassurance that they need to reopen safely and confidently. I know he will be keen to protect as many of those jobs as possible in his local area and I am delighted that this Government can support him in doing so.

A SAGE—Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies —adviser is reported to have said:

“I thought the chancellor was in charge. He was the main person who was responsible for the second wave.”

Does the Chancellor accept that his refusal to follow the science by pitting public health against the economy led to worse outcomes for both?

I urge the hon. Lady to be a little bit careful about what she reads in the newspaper. At all steps in this crisis, we have indeed taken the advice of our scientific advisers. Let us go back to September, which I think is what she is referring to. At that time—as she knows from the SAGE minutes herself, which are published, rather than unsourced quotes in newspapers—the evidence was finely balanced and there were many things for Ministers to consider. The consideration at that point was that the tiered system was working and deserved to be given a chance.

UK Fiscal Policy: Living Standards (Scotland)

What recent discussions he has had with his Scottish Government counterpart on the effect of UK fiscal policy on living standards in Scotland. (913160)

What recent discussions he has had with his Scottish Government counterpart on the effect of UK fiscal policy on living standards in Scotland. (913162)

What recent discussions he has had with his Scottish Government counterpart on the effect of UK fiscal policy on living standards in Scotland. (913163)

I have frequent discussions with the Scottish Government Finance Secretary and spoke to her ahead of the Budget last week.

Despite furlough, high streets face devastation—first shops and now pubs, an even harder space to fill. Was the Budget not an opportunity to support what are community assets in urban as well as rural areas and where alcohol consumption is supervised and not unchecked? With supermarkets having made huge profits during lockdown, much of that through alcohol sales, is it not time to support the Social Market Foundation’s call to increase alcohol duty on off-trade to sustain the on-trade in our communities?

Many businesses across Scotland argued for the alcohol freeze, not least the Scottish whisky industry. They also argued for the fuel freeze, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor delivered. I am also surprised, when the hon. Gentleman talks of community, that he does not even recognise the extra capacity funding that his community received in the Budget. With all these things that impact the community, clearly, the additional £1.2 billion of funding received by the Scottish Government through Barnett consequentials at the Budget will again enable the Scottish Government to work with the UK Government to deliver better services in his community.

The poverty Chancellor has refused to make permanent the £20 universal credit increase and apply it to legacy benefits, with 75% of those affected being disabled. If he refuses to change course, 60,000 Scots, including 20,000 children, will be left in poverty and forced to decide between heating and eating. If the Minister was in their position, what would he choose: heating or eating?

First, as was set out in analysis published with the Budget, the measures that the Government have taken have supported the poorest working households the most. Secondly, the hon. Lady also failed to mention the additional capacity funding for her community that was announced at the Budget. Thirdly, the Scottish Government requested specific powers in respect of benefits and tax, and, of course, they have the option to use those powers that they said that they wanted.

As the Minister will be aware, the £20 uplift to universal credit has been a lifeline during the pandemic. Many families in my constituency are devastated that the uplift is set to end in September. With the Scottish Government committed to tackling child poverty, including through the game-changer Scottish child payment, the UK Government-imposed cliff edge could pose a significant setback. Does the Minister agree that plunging children and families into poverty, whether it is now or in September, is a callous act, and will he commit to a permanent uplift to universal credit?

We have managed to get a hat trick, because the hon. Lady also received capacity funding for her own area at the Budget but chose not to mention that funding, which will help the families she referred to. It is also slightly odd for her to talk about plunging into something when the Chancellor has announced an extension. Coupled with that, and the UK-wide measures that were set out at the Budget—including measures such as freezing fuel duty, which will help many families in her own constituency—there was an additional £1.2 billion of funding for the Scottish Government and the powers to which I referred in my previous answer. Therefore, many families have been helped, including 480,000 existing claimants in Scotland as well as new claimants, and the families helped through the £500 one- off payment that was announced at the Budget. There was a strong package of support for Scotland, none of which she chose to mention in her question.

Transport Connectivity

Improving transport connectivity across the UK is central to the Government’s levelling up agenda, and local residents across the UK will benefit from upgrades to infrastructure that improve everyday life as a result of the launch of the £4.8 billion levelling up fund. The Government have also maintained their commitment to already announced transport investment through the transforming cities fund and the roads investment strategy, and Budget 2021 confirmed capacity funding allocations for the £4.2 billion of intra-city transport settlements, so that the city regions receiving settlements can develop investment-ready transport plans to deliver on local priorities.

Politicians of all parties have been promising to build the Mottram bypass for more than 50 years. I am really pleased that Highways England and Balfour Beatty recently signed a contract to build the bypass, and a formal consultation has now been carried out on the detailed proposals, meaning that we are closer than we have ever been before to finally getting it built. Can the Minister assure me that the Government remain committed to building the bypass as soon as possible? The people of Glossop and Hadfield have waited long enough.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has been a vociferous supporter of this scheme and I can happily confirm that the Government remain committed to upgrading the A57 so as to improve connectivity between Manchester and Sheffield. The development consent order is on track to be submitted shortly and construction is expected to start in early 2023.

Investing in improved transport infrastructure is well recognised by this Government as a necessity for turbocharging our economy and levelling up. Beautiful Hastings and Rye has some of the most antiquated road and rail infrastructure in the country, which discourages new businesses from locating there and inhibits economic growth. Network Rail is currently finalising a strategic business case for HS1. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that funding will be available to finance such a vital project?

My hon. Friend will be aware that the strategic outline business case for the Kent and East Sussex coastal connectivity scheme includes proposals to extend HS1 services from Ashford International to Hastings and Rye. It is currently being taken forward by Network Rail and is due to be submitted to the Department for Transport in April 2021. It will then be reviewed by the Department and by stakeholders in Kent and East Sussex County Councils.

Improving road and rail connections across all four nations of the UK will improve the quality of life for our communities and I am really looking forward to seeing the Hendy review this summer. However, there is no doubt that it will take the aviation sector longer than most to recover from the crisis. Taxes, including air passenger duty, need urgent reform to help the industry to get back on its feet. What plans does the Treasury have to remove the double charging of domestic air passenger duty, a call backed by regional airports including Exeter in my constituency and Newquay, which particularly rely on domestic flights to all corners of the United Kingdom?

The Treasury is committed to consulting on aviation tax reform. As part of that, we will consider the APD treatment of domestic flights. Unfortunately, the consultation has been delayed in recognition of the rather challenging circumstances that the aviation industry is currently facing, but we will update the House on this in due course.

Car ownership in Maltby in Rother Valley is lower than the national average and buses provide a vital lifeline. However, our services are severely lacking. You cannot get a direct bus between Maltby, my largest town, and Dinnington, my second largest town and, if you do take public transport, that five-mile journey takes almost an hour. What fiscal steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that communities in Rother Valley are linked up, so that those without cars have the same opportunities to be economically active, to get to and from jobs and even to go shopping as those with cars?

It is no secret that bus services are close to the Prime Minister’s heart. The Government have committed to improving bus services and since the start of the pandemic have supported operators with more than £1 billion of funding, as well as with £120 million at the spending review for the delivery of new zero emission buses. The national bus strategy is due to be published soon and will start to set out this wider ambition. I am also pleased to note that Budget 2020 allocated £166 million to the Sheffield city region from the transforming cities fund to support local transport investment, including bus infrastructure.

To deliver transport connectivity in every part of the United Kingdom, we need long-term investment in infrastructure but, staggeringly, the OBR analysis reveals that the Chancellor has cut capital investment plans by half a billion pounds since last March. The Budget also made no mention of Northern Powerhouse Rail and slashed the Transport for the North budget by 40%. Can the Minister explain why the reality of the Budget on infrastructure investment is so far from this Government’s rhetoric?

I do not recognise the figures the hon. Lady has used at all. The facts are that this Government published the “National Infrastructure Strategy” in November, which set out plans for £300 billion-worth of public investment over the next few years, as well as supporting £300 billion of private investment. Since then, the Chancellor has announced the new UK infrastructure bank, which will further support the development of infrastructure and levelling up, and the development of our green infrastructure across the UK.

Covid-19: Debt Owed by Developing Countries

What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on requiring private creditors to cancel debt owed by developing countries during the covid-19 pandemic. (913166)

The Chancellor regularly engages with his international partners in the G7, G20 and the Paris Club on debt issues, including private sector participation in debt restructurings, and Treasury officials are also engaging with the private sector on this issue.

As the Government slash international aid, covid-19 could push up to 150 million people globally into extreme poverty, yet many banks and asset managers operating in the UK, including HSBC, BlackRock and J.P. Morgan, continue to demand debt repayments from developing countries, leaving them with less money to respond to covid-19. Will the Government urgently introduce new legislation to prevent developing countries from being sued in UK courts by banks, asset managers and vulture funds if they are unable to pay their debts as a result of the pandemic?

I note the hon. Lady’s long-standing interest in this subject, but I want to state clearly that the Government support the role of the low-income developing countries to be supported by the UK’s G7 presidency. We have made clear our expectation that the private sector and the firms she mentioned will offer debt treatment on at least as favourable terms as the official sector, under the common framework, as agreed by the G20 last November.

Covid-19: Ineligibility for Income Support Schemes

What fiscal steps he is taking to help support people ineligible for his Department's covid-19 income support schemes. (913170)

In order to support people through the next stages of the pandemic, the Government have extended both the furlough scheme and the self-employment income support scheme through to September, which will help millions of people up and down the country.

I thank the Chancellor for his answer. The Welsh Labour Government this week announced a further £30 million to support hospitality and tourism, and freelancers working in our creative sectors are going to get a further round of support worth £8.9 million—this is targeting support to fill gaps left by the Chancellor. I accept that many people have had welcome support, but huge numbers of people are coming up to a year of little or no support because they have been excluded from UK Government support over the past year. What will the Chancellor do for all those excluded, left out and left behind the curve over the past year?

I am glad the Welsh Government will receive more than £740 million in Barnett consequentials as a result of this Budget, which works for the whole United Kingdom. With regard to the self-employment scheme, what I can say is that we are now able to bring in those people who filed tax returns for the first time in the tax year 2019-20. That was something that many colleagues asked for. I am pleased that we were able to deliver that now that the tax deadline has passed, and it means that more than 600,000 more people will be able to benefit from this world-leading support for the self-employed.

Covid-19: Support for the Self-Employed

What assessment he has made of the potential merits of continuing support for the self-employed as covid-19 public health restrictions are lifted; and if he will make a statement. (913171)

What assessment he has made of the potential merits of continuing support for the self-employed as covid-19 public health restrictions are lifted; and if he will make a statement. (913185)

The Government have announced that the self-employment income support scheme will continue until September, with a fourth and a fifth grant. This provides certainty to business as the economy reopens and it means that the self-employment income support scheme continues to be one of the most generous covid-19 support schemes for self-employment income around the world.

That is welcome for those who qualify for it, but a year ago it was the Chancellor who said that he would do “whatever it takes” to protect people. There are still millions of self-employed people without any support since this crisis started and they will not forget that either. It is untenable. Why will Ministers not finally act and do whatever it takes to ensure that this important sector of the economy also has the chance to succeed post the pandemic?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Of course, we have put in place £407 billion-worth of support across the whole of the pandemic, which is an astonishing level of support for a very wide range of businesses and people across the country. In relation to the self-employed, he may not be aware, but I have bent over backwards to engage with different groups of the self-employed. Repeatedly, across different meetings, we have looked with the greatest care at the proposals that they have put forward to bring in people who may not be able to qualify at the moment. As the Chancellor mentioned, 600,000 people previously ineligible may now be eligible, including those newly self-employed in 2019-20.

The Government may well throw these figures about, but we know that 3.8 million self-employed people have had no financial support throughout this whole pandemic. Freelancers, small companies and other people across Bolton and this country want the Chancellor to recognise the fact that his continued silence is just not good enough.

In mentioning Bolton, the hon. Lady somehow neglected to mention the £22.9 million-worth of towns funding that Bolton has recently received. I thought that she might kick off with that. The answer that I gave was perfectly clear about the matter: we are bending over backwards to support people. We have leant into this issue as hard as we can and we will continue to do so.

National Living Wage

As the Chancellor reaffirmed at the Budget, the Government are increasing the national living wage by 2.2% from £8.72 to £8.91, an above-inflation pay rise. The Government remain committed to their ambitious target for the national living wage to reach two thirds of median earnings by 2024 provided that economic conditions allow. The Treasury will continue to work closely with Cabinet colleagues to ensure that we reach this target.

In welcoming the Government’s generous economic support packages and the increase in the national living wage, may I just ask the Minister to consider further increasing it ahead of inflation in the years ahead to help achieve our one nation agenda and ensure that work pays? I suggest that, combined with an effective and controlled immigration policy, that will also encourage businesses to invest in their workforce and in research and development generally, which will help to improve productivity.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He should know that the Government remain committed to ensuring that work pays and to helping to end low pay. As he knows, investment to raise productivity is vital for long-term sustainable growth in wages. I am sure that his request is one that we will consider, as always, in future Budgets. Taxes and minimum wages are always under review, but this Government are absolutely focused on levelling up. We have set out our plan to build back better, which will drive economic growth that levels up the whole of the UK through significant investment in infrastructure as well as skills and innovation.

Economic Recovery

Taking into account all the measures announced since last March, this Government are providing more than £400 billion of direct fiscal support to the economy over this year and next. That will rank as one of the most comprehensive and generous responses of any country anywhere in the world.

[Inaudible]—and the further support announced for businesses. The extension of the VAT and the business rates holiday, alongside the restart grants, are particularly welcome for businesses in my constituency of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, especially on our high streets. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these steps will support our short-term economic recovery, and ensure that businesses have the breathing space to protect jobs as they begin to bounce back?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Our priority economically is to protect, support and create as many jobs as possible, and the support that we have provided to businesses will help to do that. My hon. Friend talks about breathing space; he is right to say that measures to improve businesses’ cash flow in the short term will help give them the breathing space they need to drive our recovery as they begin to reopen in the coming months.

Topical Questions

Last week I presented to the House a Budget to protect the jobs and livelihoods of the British people, confirming more than £400 billion of support over this year and next, ranking as one of the most comprehensive responses of any country anywhere in the world. We also set out a fair and honest plan to begin fixing our public finances while also starting the work of building our future economy.

How are the crucial EU negotiations on the memorandum of understanding on financial services progressing? Given its importance to the UK economy—by comparison, for example, with fishing—why was it not included in the overall deal?

I cannot comment on ongoing negotiations; we remain committed to a constructive dialogue with our European partners regarding the memorandum of understanding, and I can confirm that those discussions are under way. With regard to financial services, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman saw the announcement of our listings review. I thank Jonathan Hill for his excellent work. We will take forward those reforms together with the Financial Conduct Authority to ensure that the UK remains one of the most attractive places anywhere in the world for companies to raise the finance they need to empower their future growth.

The food and drink wholesalers on whom the hospitality industry depends are still excluded from business rates relief, and the additional restriction grants—which do help some of them substantially—are awarded entirely at the discretion of individual local authorities. Can that particular postcode lottery be replaced by a directive to ensure much greater consistency in awarding these vital grants? (913126)

My right hon. Friend has raised this industry with me multiple times, and he is right to do so. Although some food and drink wholesalers have been significantly impacted, others—for example, those that predominately serve the public sector—have not been, so I do not think it would be fair to provide blanket support. He talked about a postcode lottery. The other side of that coin is empowering local government and local decision making, and I believe that is the right approach. We have announced £425 million of additional discretionary support to local authorities, but I am sure that his raising the issue in the House in this way will give his local council and others the steer they need to direct support to this important industry.

In 2017 the Chancellor asked a Member of this House whether Labour’s proposed increase in corporation tax

“would make it more or less likely that international investors would want to invest here in the UK?”—[Official Report, 12 September 2017; Vol. 628, c. 218WH.]

What’s the answer, Chancellor?

I am delighted that the hon. Lady is raising the topic of corporation tax at this Budget. I feel that we have had various different versions of the Labour party policy on this topic over the past couple of weeks. What I can say is that we are honest with the British people about the challenges facing our public finances, and we have set out a fair and honest way to address those challenges. This will remain one of the most internationally competitive places anywhere in the world to invest, to grow a business and to create jobs, and this Government will always deliver on that promise.

Last week, the Chancellor said he wanted to “level with” the public. He mentioned a moment ago that he wanted to take an honest approach. Well, the head of the NHS just confirmed that he budgeted for the 2.1% pay rise that nurses expected, so we need a straight answer now from the Chancellor: why do the Conservatives believe that our nurses are worth less now than they were before the pandemic?

I pay tribute to all those working on the frontline of our NHS and other public services. They are doing a fantastic job, and that is why this Government have supported the NHS with tens of billions of pounds of extra funding through this pandemic and will continue to do so. With regard to public sector pay, we set out a policy in November, but, given the situation, we were taking a more targeted approach to public sector pay to balance fairness and to protect as many jobs as possible. The hon. Lady will know that the NHS was exempted from that policy and NHS workers will receive a pay rise next year.

This morning I spoke to a roundtable of businesses from across the country, and there was much positivity for the restart grant and the business rates holiday, which will help to open up our high streets. However, many of the businesses I speak to still speak of the need for long-term reform of the business rates system, so will my right hon. Friend update the House on the outcome of the consultation that was carried out last year and what the long-term aspiration for business rates reform is? (913127)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this important issue, as he has done with me several times on behalf of his local businesses. He is right that we are reviewing business rates. We are in the midst of that process. The next stage will be to publish all the consultation responses that we have received, which will happen shortly, and we will take forward the policy process over the course of this year. We outlined many options for potential reforms in the paper. I look forward to receiving from him some ideas on what the reforms might be. In the short term, we are providing a £6 billion tax cut in business rates, delivering a 75% discount on business rates for the vast majority of small and medium-sized businesses as they emerge from this pandemic.

Every year of delay in integrated rail improvements in the midlands and the north means a missed £5 billion boost for our economy as well as delaying an additional 150,000 jobs. The Chancellor’s Build Back Better plan promises the long-awaited integrated rail plan within three months. Will he confirm that this is an absolute maximum, and will he or one of his Ministers meet me and regional businesses to hear more about our exciting plans for our community? (913125)

This Government are committed to record amounts of investment in infrastructure, both road and rail, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary earlier. The Budget announced upgrades for several stations in and around the midlands after representations that we heard from the fantastic Mayor, Andy Street, about the needs of his area. We remain committed to publishing the integrated rail plan in due course.

My right hon. Friend has rightly been open with the House and the public about the scale of the challenge to the public finances, but on a point of detail, further to the assumptions in the Red Book, does his Department plan to undertake dynamic scoring of the changes to corporation akin to the previous detailed CGE—computable general equilibrium —modelling since 2010, and will this be published in full? (913128)

What a fantastically niche question from my hon. Friend, and how delighted I am to be able to answer it. He will know that scoring is a matter for the OBR. As the Budget policy costings in the Budget 2021 document set out, the costing for corporation tax has been adjusted to reflect behavioural responses to an increase in the rate of corporation tax. It is important to be clear that dynamic scoring can include a number of potential behavioural responses, such as adjustments to reflect the impact on the incentive to incorporate, on profit shifting, and on investment. If he is so minded, he can find further detail on page 196 of the OBR’s “Economic and fiscal outlook”.

As some students return to campus this week, those studying in Northern Ireland will each receive £500 support. The Welsh Government have provided hardship funding equivalent to £300 per student. In Scotland, it is £80. For those studying in England, hardship funds equate to just £36, so does the Chancellor not accept the case for equal support across the UK? Students have lost vital income from part-time jobs, paid rent on unused accommodation and faced other costs, so will he meet the all-party parliamentary group for students to discuss our recommendations for hardship support and funding to make up for missed learning opportunities? (913130)

I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and discuss that matter in more detail. As he will recognise, one of the features of the Budget was the number of UK-wide measures, but at the same time he is quite right to point to the additional £2.4 billion of Barnett consequential funding that was allocated to the devolved Administrations, which has enabled them to apply further support as a result of the fiscal strength that is offered by the UK Treasury. I am of course happy to discuss the specific point with him in more detail.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor said the day after the comprehensive spending review that the Government were looking at when they will bring forward legislation on the 0.7% of gross national income target. Can he update us? What is the Government’s timescale for bringing forward the legislative proposals to reduce the annual target of spending 0.7% of GNI on aid to 0.5%? (913129)

The Foreign Secretary is continuing to look very carefully at the legislative requirements and will set out further detail in due course on how the Government intend to proceed.

If the Government are unwilling to support the licensed trade through varying duty rates, there is another fiscal policy to sustain hard-pressed pubs in our communities. Italy has reduced VAT and alcohol sales in pubs and restaurants. Should that not be replicated here, sustaining public revenue while supporting the consumption of alcohol on supervised premises and maintaining community assets in our towns and villages? (913131)

The hon. Gentleman will know we are carrying out an alcohol duty review that will look at all these decisions in the round, and I am very happy to speak to him in more detail specifically about any particular schemes or requests that he has.

If every working adult in Wolverhampton spent £5 a week extra with local businesses such as Mode Menswear and Tony’s Deli, it would boost the local economy by around £780,000 a week. What is the Chancellor doing to ensure that local independent shops and city centre businesses can bounce back from covid-19 in Wolverhampton? (913132)

The Government are supporting these businesses through new restart grants—a one-off cash grant of up to £6,000 per business premises for non-essential retailers in England—and up to £18,000 for hospitality and leisure businesses. They will also benefit from a five-month extension of the coronavirus job retention scheme, a further 12 months’ relief from business rates and a new UK-wide recovery loan scheme. Tony’s Deli, which my hon. Friend mentioned, and other businesses serving hot food can also enjoy a 12-month VAT cut at 5% until the end of September, and at 12.5% until the end of March.

Earlier this week, there was an attempt by the Health Secretary to justify the incredibly insulting 1% pay offer to our nurses by contrasting it with the Government-imposed pay freeze on our heroic essential key workers. That is a pay freeze on 2.5 million public servants. Can the Chancellor confirm when he will recognise their worth, do the right thing and announce the lifting of the pay freeze? (913133)

A majority of those working in the public sector will see an increase in their pay this forthcoming year as a result of our pay policy. Importantly, those earning less than the median UK salary will receive a £250 increase in their pay, because we want to protect those on the lowest incomes. Even at a difficult time, that is what this Government are committed to doing.

Treasury Ministers are no doubt aware of my support for a brand-new university for Milton Keynes, focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics and digital skills, so vital for our future economy. I wonder, though, whether they are aware that we are already home to the Open University, which is a pioneer of modular learning and is upskilling and reskilling—important for our future economy. The Budget last week announced support for further education and skills. Will that apply to institutions like the Open University? (913135)

We are committed to improving skills in the economy and levelling up productivity across England. That will be achieved through our lifetime skills guarantee and further reforms, which will create jobs and opportunity across the country, supporting us to build back better from the coronavirus pandemic. We will provide further detail and a full conclusion to the review of post-18 education and funding at the next comprehensive spending review. I thank my hon. Friend and the Open University for their engagement on this so far.

The disgraceful 1% pay rise for NHS workers is really a pay cut when inflation is factored in. The Prime Minister claims that it is all we can afford. The Government had no problem finding £37 billion for the private test and trace system, an extra £16 billion for the military budget, or hundreds of millions of pounds in dodgy covid contracts for the Health Secretary’s WhatsApp contacts. NHS workers have seen their pay fall by more than 10% in real terms in the past decade, so instead of handing out fortunes to mates and donors, will the Chancellor heed the calls of trade unions and NHS staff and give them the pay rise that they deserve, which is 15% to make up for a decade of lost pay? (913134)

With respect, the hon. Lady is simply wrong on the facts with her question. Under the Agenda for Change three-year award, the average increase this year was 2.5%, not the figure she alluded to. But of course, the Government have asked the pay review body to consider a number of factors and, as is normal practice, the Department of Health and Social Care has set out what is affordable within its budgets.

The Government recently confirmed the first eight sites to be awarded freeport status. That will provide great opportunities for prosperity in those areas. In my home constituency of Blyth Valley we have the only deep-water port in Northumberland, with investments in offshore wind, such as at the Catapult, as well as Britishvolt with the only gigaplant in the UK. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of granting a second round of bidding for areas such as Blyth that were not successful on this occasion? (913136)

Freeports will be national hubs for international trade, innovation and commerce and they will regenerate communities across the UK. The Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government led a fair, open and transparent selection process to determine successful freeport locations in England. Unfortunately, as with any competitive process, there will always be those that are unsuccessful, and I am afraid there are no plans to designate other freeports in England. Freeports are part of a wider package of UK Government support, which invests in skills, infrastructure and innovation at local, regional and national levels. As part of that package, Blyth was awarded £11 million through the future high streets fund in December and is also one of 101 towns eligible for up to £25 million funding from the towns fund.

With Doncaster missing out on its freeport bid, what other incentives does my hon. Friend believe there are for businesses to locate in the town? (913140)

The Government are committed to encouraging business investment in Doncaster and its surrounding area, and at the Budget we confirmed £23 million funding for Goldthorpe’s town deal—just due west of the town—and that will boost economic growth and encourage business investment in the area. MHCLG is currently assessing the remaining 49 towns fund bids, including those from Doncaster and Stainforth; we will make further announcements on those in due course.

I am suspending the House for a few minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.