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Topical Questions

Volume 693: debated on Tuesday 27 April 2021

This Government have supported our economy through coronavirus with more than £350 billion to protect jobs, families and businesses. As we approach the next phase of our road map out of lockdown, our support continues to ensure that we emerge from the pandemic stronger and more united.

The Financial Conduct Authority has asked John Swift QC to investigate the mis-selling of certain business loans to small businesses, as well as their response to complaints about that mis-selling. The review has refused to take into account any loans that were settled with non-disclosure agreements between the businesses and the banks, giving a skewed view and a skewed outcome. Will the Chancellor speak to the FCA and ask John Swift to ensure that all evidence is taken into account, so that we get a proper review of the FCA’s dealings?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, which is on an important matter. I welcome the conclusions of the Swift review, and I hope he will appreciate that it would not be appropriate for me to comment or intervene on the scope of that review, as it was set up to be completely independent of Government. That said, we have always been clear that the mis-selling of interest rate hedging products is wrong, and nothing that the redress scheme does means that businesses cannot still go to the FCA, the Financial Ombudsman Service or the courts if they wish. If he wishes to raise particular circumstances with either the FCA or the Swift review, he can do that directly.

Brexit is a great opportunity to turbocharge global Britain, but unfortunately it has not worked so far for fishermen in my beautiful constituency of Hastings and Rye. Had it not been for Mr Keith Chapman setting up an export hub in Rye for local fishermen, many might not have survived. He did that at his own expense, and he has not been eligible for any of the Government funding made available to the fishing industry. What further support can be provided to assist entrepreneurs such as Mr Chapman when exports are hit by the double whammy of covid and Brexit? (914872)

Fishing is at the heart of many of our coastal communities, and I pay tribute to Mr Chapman and my hon. Friend for their commitment to the sector. I am happy that the Government are also championing and committed to the sector, and we have announced a £100 million fund to modernise our fleet and infrastructure. That is on top of £32 million that will replace EU funding this year, and £23 million that was made available earlier to support the sector, while adjusting to new export requirements.

A year ago, the Chancellor personally announced the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme, or “our loan scheme for large companies”, as his Department put it. Allowing Greensill Capital access to that scheme put hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and thousands of jobs at risk. The Prime Minister said he would publish every personal exchange related to covid contracts. Has the Chancellor published his every communication relating to Government business on Greensill, including with David Cameron—yes or no?

We have actually responded to all the requests that I have been asked and, indeed, gone above and beyond in providing disclosure. I would say a couple of things to the hon. Lady. First of all, I am very happy to co-operate fully and constructively with both the independent Boardman review and the Treasury Committee inquiry, and those processes have begun. Secondly, on the substance, it is important to remember what was going on. We were in the midst of a financial crisis and we were keen to explore all avenues to support small and medium-sized businesses. We have heard in the House today that there are still challenges, so it was right to examine all avenues to do that. This was just one of many strands of work that the Treasury and I conducted, rightly and appropriately. It is important to notice that, in the end, we rejected the taking forward of any proposals on supply chain finance.

I will take that as a no. It appears that the Chancellor is less committed than the Prime Minister himself to transparency. That is not what I would call levelling with the British public. Let us see if he can level on another significant Government failure: the delay to imposing restrictions last autumn, which cost lives and our economy dear. In late October, when I asked the Chancellor if he was blocking a circuit breaker, he said,

“I agree with the Prime Minister”—[Official Report, 20 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 889.]

Now it is being suggested that he sided with others against the Prime Minister. We have grown used to the Chancellor chopping and changing his mind, but can he explain whether this change of heart is driven by science and the needs of our economy, or by the internal politics of the Conservative party?

The hon. Lady is confusing multiple things. She has asked me previously about circuit breakers. At the time there was a debate, appropriately, about whether a national intervention was right at a time when the epidemiology across this country was incredibly varied. That is something that the deputy chief medical officer himself spoke about at a press conference, and he said it would be inappropriate at that time to take forward national interventions. That is what I was referring to.

To go back to the shadow Chancellor’s previous comment about transparency, in fact I voluntarily published extra messages to aid the transparency of this process for people. I am fully committed to working constructively with the inquiry, both the Boardman review and the Treasury Committee inquiry. It is worth reminding the shadow Chancellor of something she herself wrote last April in The Daily Mirror:

“The ‘Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme’ seems to be stuck in the banks, and not getting to small businesses in particular, where cash flow is desperately needed.”

Well, the Government were also looking at how to get cash flow to small businesses, and I am sad and disappointed about what a conveniently short memory she has.

I wonder whether the Chancellor would order an investigation into the management of contracts between Skanska and Somerset County Council. There is evidence emerging of lazy council practices which are costing millions and millions of pounds in overpayment. We need to get to the bottom of this, and we cannot get the local county council to do it. Will the Chancellor please not only investigate, but suggest how we as MPs can force the issue before we have a complete disaster on our hands? (914873)

In my previous job as Minister for local government, I enjoyed many conversations with my hon. Friend about local government matters. He will know it is not for the Chancellor or indeed national Government to implement redress processes. There are established redress processes, which I would be happy to write to him about, so he can seek redress for his particular concerns.

As we emerge from the coronavirus crisis, our high streets need more support to survive than ever before, especially in former industrial areas in Rother Valley such as Dinnington, Maltby, Swallownest, Kiveton and others. Does the Minister agree that the levelling-up fund presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to inject much-needed investment into our beleaguered high streets in Rother Valley and across all our nations, returning them to their former glory? Does he agree that Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council should put in a good strong bid to get that money for our high streets? (914874)

I agree with my hon. Friend. The Government are committed to levelling up opportunities across the UK, including in Rother Valley. The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will invest in infrastructure that improves everyday life across the UK, including by regenerating town centres and high streets, upgrading local transport and investing in cultural and heritage assets. I look forward to working with him for his local area.

Will the Minister guarantee the future of the steel industry in Hartlepool? [Interruption.] Anybody will do. (914871)

As I said in answer to earlier questions on this issue, the Government are providing unprecedented support to the steel industry. If the hon. Gentleman has something specific to bring to my attention about the steel industry in Hartlepool, I am happy for him to write to me and I will look at the issues, but I have already answered the question and talked about the measures of support that are in place.

On 31 January, in answer to the debate on justice for Equitable Life policyholders, this House was assured that all records were being retained and would be available in the event of their being needed. Equally, we were assured that there were no plans to destroy those records. I was therefore shocked that the Public Accounts Committee, in its hearing last week, was informed by Treasury officials that the records had been destroyed and would not be available. That makes getting justice for Equitable Life policyholders more expensive, so will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and a small delegation of the all-party parliamentary group for justice for Equitable Life policyholders, so that we can get to the bottom of how we can move this long-running saga forward? (914875)

There has been no change in the Treasury’s position since I updated the House in January 2019. The relevant records—the data relating to all payments made under the scheme—are retained, and will continue to be so for as long as that is legal. Contrary to the press reports, there are no plans to destroy records. There is a complaints process provided by the scheme, and those who are not satisfied may take their case to the independent review panel which resolved such cases before closure. Further to the oral evidence session to which my hon. Friend referred, the permanent secretary to the Treasury will be writing to the PAC to provide similar reassurance and clarification. Since the scheme has now closed, there will be no further funding on this matter.

The Association of Accounting Technicians has published its response to the consultation opened by the Treasury on its plans to reduce air passenger duty, in which it argues that a reduction would be wrong, as it “contradicts and greatly weakens government policy on seeking to reach ‘net zero’ by 2050”. Why does the Government’s tax policy not support their net zero goals? (914876)

I am not sure exactly what reduction in air passenger duty the hon. Lady is referring to. We are increasing air passenger duty in this year’s Finance Bill.

A band C home in Coalville in my constituency has a higher council tax charge than a band H property in Westminster. The Chancellor, in his former position as a Minister in the Department for Housing, Communities and Local Government, told the House that the Leicestershire fairer funding model had a lot to commend it and would be used in consultation. Given that that was three years ago, will he look at an updated report by Leicestershire County Council entitled, “Putting right the years of wrong”? (914878)

Of course I would be happy to look at the report to which my hon. Friend refers. He knows that addressing future local authority resourcing is a matter for future spending reviews and the local government finance settlement. However, I would remind him that at the spending review 2020 we provided an estimated 4.6% cash increase in core spending to local authorities. That is on top of the largest real-terms increase in their core spending at the spending review 2019, and that is in addition to the about £11 billion of support that has been provided as part of the covid response.

That the Prime Minister said that he would rather see the bodies piled high than enter another lockdown is utterly despicable. My mother and parents-in-law were not bodies; they were my family, my loved ones. Grieving families like mine deserve better. We deserve a place to remember those we have lost. That is why the covid memorial wall is so important. Has the Chancellor estimated how much it would cost to make this wall of hearts permanent? If not, will he now do so? (914877)

I am very sorry for the hon. Gentleman’s loss, and I know the whole House will join me in passing on those condolences. I am not aware of the particular proposal that he mentions, but if he writes to me, I will be happy to take a look at it.

The Government’s commitment to the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures highlights the importance of transparency in investment portfolios. Does my hon. Friend agree that more can be done to improve transparency and prevent the exposure of investments by financial services companies to modern slavery? (914879)

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. On modern slavery, the landmark provision in section 54 of the Modern Slavery Act 2015 includes institutional investors that fall within the scope of the requirement and meet the criteria requiring them to publish an annual statement.

With the Prime Minister apparently determined to keep the VIP tax-break hotline open, and as questions remain over the No. 10 refurbishment and concerns over Government procurement are still not addressed, will the Chancellor explain whether he thinks it is time for an independent inquiry into the misuse of public funds? (914880)

The Prime Minister has appointed Nigel Boardman to conduct an independent review of these various matters. With regard to covid in general, the Prime Minister has also said that at the appropriate time there will be all the necessary lessons to be learned.

One of my constituents who is self-employed has received no Government support in the past year. Unlike others, she did not have the Chancellor’s number to raise issues with him, so I wrote to him on her behalf. In the response I received this month, the Department acknowledged that there are people who have missed out on support because of what they call “practical reasons”. What urgent steps is the Chancellor taking to fix a system that is leaving many self-employed people facing destitution? (914885)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he will know, we have covered this quite extensively in this debate so far. The self-employed scheme is very wide ranging and comprehensive. We have worked very closely with groups representing those who believe they have been excluded from the schemes—I have personally met many of them—and we have tried everything we can to incorporate them. We continue to engage with them, and we take the issue very seriously.

The borough of Gedling has received more than £105,000 in welcome back funding to help its high streets reopen safely and successfully as restrictions lift, and I will be out visiting businesses in Gedling on Friday to encourage them to apply for restart grants. Would my right hon. Friend join me in not only welcoming those lifelines for businesses but in encouraging businesses to apply for all the help available so that they can get back on their feet as we start to get back to normal? (914883)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I salute the people of Carlton and I rejoice in the businesses of Mapperley. I encourage businesses across the constituency of Gedling to take advantage of the Government’s unprecedented package of support, including the £5 billion-worth of grant support that the Chancellor announced at Budget, which is providing a lifeline for businesses as they relaunch their trading safely.

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

Sitting suspended.