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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 693: debated on Tuesday 27 April 2021


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Levelling-Up Fund

How his Department determined the criteria for assessing bids to the levelling-up fund; and if he will make a statement. (914815)

The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund will invest in local infrastructure that has a visible impact on communities across the United Kingdom. It has been jointly designed by the Treasury, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport.

Having waited so long, I really hope that the levelling-up fund will boost infrastructure in south Wales. I have already written to the Chancellor about the improvements that are needed for the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff line, to help young people especially to get to work, so can the Minister assure me that this investment will finally be seen through?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to boost infrastructure in south Wales, and he is quite right to focus on young people getting to work, given how impacted they have been by the pandemic. He knows that his area in particular has received additional funding for capacity, and this will enable it to bid for the levelling-up fund to address the issues that he highlights.

Fiscal Framework Agreement

What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of the 2016 fiscal framework agreement between the Government and the Scottish Government. (914810)

The existing fiscal framework sets out the arrangements for a review following the Scottish elections. This will allow a settlement in the light of a Parliament’s-worth of experience, which is consistent with the Smith commission’s expectations that there will be effective operation of the fiscal framework and that it should not require frequent ongoing negotiation.

The reality is that the powers of the Scottish Government are not adequate to deal with the pandemic. There are too many constraints on borrowing powers for the Scottish Government; the reality is that councils can borrow more easily under the prudential borrowing code. Does the Minister not agree that it is time the Scottish Government had more flexible borrowing powers?

The Smith commission set out the conditions, and they already give substantial borrowing powers. That is why there is up to £450 million of annual capital borrowing, £700 million in the Scotland reserve and up to £600 million for resource borrowing in relation to forecast error, and of course that comes on top of the share of UK Government borrowing provided through the Barnett formula.

Living Standards

The Government are committed to supporting household living standards during this difficult time for our country. That is why we announced an unprecedented package of support to protect people’s jobs and incomes and to help those most in need.

It is approaching two years since this Government said that they would review the way in which dying people were treated through social security. Meanwhile, Marie Curie and many other campaigners for change estimate that as many as 6,000 people have died while waiting for a decision on their claims. This Government have repeatedly promised to end the six-month rule, which is currently forcing terminally ill people to prove how long they have left to live before they can access fast-track support, so can the Chancellor confirm that this long overdue reform will be in the Queen’s Speech?

It would be wrong for me to pre-empt the Queen’s Speech—I know that colleagues will understand that—but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that my right hon. Friend the Work and Pensions Secretary keeps all these matters under review, and of course we want to ensure that our welfare system is compassionate and effectively supports those who need our help.

My goodness, what a disastrous week for the UK Government. While they have been mired in scandal and slithering through sleaze, the SNP has committed to doubling the Scottish child payment and carers allowance and to introducing a new winter heating payment. Does the Chancellor accept that these are more noble social objectives than enriching well-placed cronies?

What I believe to be a more noble objective is to focus on the day-to-day concerns of the Scottish people at this difficult time, which involves making sure that the economy recovers, that the vaccines are rolled out and, of course, that our children receive the education they deserve. These are the issues that I know the Scottish people will care most about in the coming weeks.

Due to the increasing concentration of wealth in older generations, the value of the average inheritance received by younger generations is becoming significantly greater through time. Does my right hon. Friend recognise this trend and the fact that it means that living standards will increasingly be determined not by skill, entrepreneurship and hard work but by chance, which will have a detrimental impact on social mobility? While it is absolutely right that families can pass on wealth to their loved ones, does my right hon. Friend none the less recognise the strong trend here, and if so, what steps might he consider taking to address this?

I would say two things to my right hon. Friend. First, he will know that in the Budget we recently froze the inheritance tax thresholds for four years, which will provide some alleviation on the concern that he mentioned. Secondly, I believe that the best way to drive social mobility in our society is to provide everyone with the skills and education they need to make a better life for themselves, which is what this Government are committed to delivering.

The Tories’ two-child limit, and the rape clause, which stands part of it, are having a devastating impact on living standards, with the Child Poverty Action Group and the Church of England estimating that 350,000 families and 1.25 million children have been affected so far. Scrapping the two-child limit would be the easiest and most cost-effective way of reducing child poverty in the UK, so will the Chancellor scrap it or will he push more families into poverty?

Since 2010, over 1 million fewer people are now living in poverty, thanks to the actions of this Government and the coalition, and 300,000 fewer children are living in poverty. That is something to be celebrated, but of course there is work to do and we remain committed to making those improvements.

It is interesting that the Chancellor ignores the findings of the Church of England and the CPAG, which tell a very different story from that which he is willing to tell. In Scotland, the Scottish National party is committed to doubling the Scottish child payment, a new benefit described as a “game changer”, to £20 a week; providing free school meals to all primary children; and extending wraparound childcare. All of those are a huge help to the families that this Tory Government choose to ignore. Does this not demonstrate the choice of two futures: more austerity and more child poverty under the Tories, or a Scotland working hard to be the best place for a child to grow up?

I am glad that the Scottish Government are able to use the over £3.5 billion of Barnett consequentials that have been provided by the UK Government over the next year. Child poverty is of course an important issue and one that we remain committed to, which is why initiatives such as the troubled families programme are making an enormous difference to those families. Crucially, we also know that children growing up in a workless household are five times more likely to be in poverty, which is why this Government are committed to helping people find work and find well-paid work. That is something we have an excellent record of doing.

David Cameron said that Greensill had

“the mandate for the UK Government”.

Greensill said that it was the

“sole provider of…supply chain finance”

across Government and that it had a model that brings several benefits to the UK public sector. Does the Chancellor still believe that he was right to bring in real-terms pay cuts for public sector workers, while allowing David Cameron and Lex Greensill to target their pay packets and giving them the run of Whitehall?

With regard to public sector pay, I do believe it is right, at a time of extraordinary strain on our public finances—when those in the private sector have seen more than 1 million jobs lost, hours cut, wages cut and many millions furloughed, with the impact that that has on them—to take a fair and proportionate approach to public sector pay. That is why this Government have said that those on the lowest pay will see a pay rise this year, as will those in the NHS. Combined with all the other pay progression, this means that a majority of people in the public sector will see their pay increase this year, despite the difficult circumstances. Of course, the national living wage is also being increased ahead of inflation, making sure that those on the lowest incomes see an uplift in their take-home pay.

Beer Duty

What steps his Department is taking to differentiate the rate of beer duty for on-trade and off-trade sales. (914812)

The Treasury is considering the merits of differentiating products based on their place of retail as part of its alcohol duty review. We are currently analysing responses provided by stakeholders to our recent call for evidence and will provide further updates in due course.

I thank my hon. Friend for her answer. It is all very well conducting calls for evidence and creating reports, welcome though they may be, but we live in extraordinary times that require extraordinary measures taken quickly. I implore the Minister to press her Department to act on this matter now. Hospitality in general, and pubs in particular, are facing closure every day. Will she act?

I know that my hon. Friend is a fierce advocate of pubs and brewers, and he has been proposing a duty differential for several years. I should stress that I am personally very interested in this proposal, but there are a number of complex issues associated with it, including how producers and wholesalers would account for and manage their stock of beer; how to ensure that any reduced rate is not exploited fraudulently; and how any differential would interact with the existing small brewers relief scheme. However, I would like to reassure him that we are looking closely at the proposals he has put forward.


At the Budget, I announced the location of eight freeports in eight regions of England following a highly competitive process. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is now leading a cross-Government effort to support the winning bidders to establish their freeport, and we expect the first freeports to open later this year.

My right hon. Friend authored a report in 2017, which found that freeports could easily create up to 90,000 jobs if they were as successful as the US foreign trade zone programme. Does he agree that, by voting against our Finance Bill and the setting up of freeports earlier this month, such as the Solent freeport near my constituency, the Labour party has shown that it has no interest in creating jobs and levelling up opportunity across the country, as this Government are committed to doing?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I congratulate everyone involved in the Solent freeport bid. This Government are using freeports to boost jobs, investment, trade and growth. Local communities, from Merseyside to Teesside, Humber and indeed the Solent, all agree with us and it is a shame that the Labour party does not support their aspirations.

UK Steel: Government Infrastructure Projects

What steps his Department is taking to increase the amount of UK steel used in Government infrastructure projects. (914814)

There are global challenges in the steel industry, with vast overcapacity and supply outstripping demand. However, the Government have supported the steel sector extensively, including providing more than £500 million in recent years to help with the cost of energy. Our unprecedented package of covid support is still available to the sector to protect jobs and ensure that producers have the right support during this challenging time.

Steel is central in terms of good jobs, national security and combating climate change. There can be no post-pandemic economic recovery without a strong and healthy steel industry. Will the Chancellor therefore commit today to recognising the pivotal strategic importance of the steel industry by using the power of the Treasury to reduce the exorbitant electricity prices faced by our steelmakers—currently 82% higher than in Germany—so that our steel industry can compete on a level playing field?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that that is something that we are doing. As I mentioned in my earlier answer, we have already spent £500 million across the sector specifically to deal with that point. Further, we are taking a number of steps to support the decarbonisation of the UK steel industry. For example, we announced the £250 million clean steel fund to support the decarbonisation of the steel sector, including its transition to new low-carbon technologies and processes.

Jobs in the steel industry are crucial to the people of Hartlepool. In June, the first instalment of the EU research fund for coal and steel will be returned to the UK. Are the Government planning to ring fence that money to support the decarbonising and modernising of the industry, given the vital importance of protecting steel jobs for the future?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I mentioned in my answer to the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) the steps that we are taking to decarbonise the UK steel industry. As I said, there are global challenges in the industry and we have been supporting various companies. For example, last year, we provided a £30 million loan to Celsa, safeguarding a key supplier to the UK construction industry and securing more than 1,000 jobs, including more than 800 positions at the company’s main sites in south Wales. The Government will continue working with businesses to understand the issues that they are facing, including continuing to engage business sectors that are affected by covid and our changing relationship with the EU.

Retraining and Upskilling

What fiscal steps his Department is taking to support the (a) retraining and (b) upskilling of workers. (914817)

What fiscal steps his Department is taking to support the (a) retraining and (b) upskilling of workers. (914821)

What fiscal steps his Department is taking to support the (a) retraining and (b) upskilling of workers. (914836)

Our plan for jobs supports retraining and upskilling by tripling the number of traineeships, expanding sector-based work academies, incentivising apprenticeship hiring and providing funding for new, free, advanced technical courses and digital skills bootcamps under the lifetime skills guarantee.

People across Birmingham, Northfield remember only too well the impact that an economic shock can have on livelihoods and jobs in the community following the collapse of MG Rover many years ago. Does my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agree that things such as the lifetime skills guarantee will allow many adults to to train and retrain to get back into work so that they have the security of a pay packet as we ease out of lockdown and build back better following the coronavirus pandemic?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Across our nation, over 10 million adults do not have a level 3 qualification. Thanks to this Government’s lifetime skills guarantee, they will now be able to get one, and we know what that will do: it will boost both their employability and their earnings, providing them with the opportunity of a better future.

No matter where in the country people are from, everyone should be able to get the experience and knowledge they need to get the job they want. Does my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agree that the new flexi-job apprenticeships that he announced last month will boost opportunities in sectors key to Rother Valley, especially in high-end manufacturing, creating more chances for people to experience the life-changing opportunity that an apprenticeship can bring?

My hon. Friend makes a really important point. We were delighted to announce at the Budget a £7 million fund to create and expand flexi-job apprenticeship schemes, which enable people who need to work across multiple projects with different employers still to benefit from the high-quality, long-term training that an apprenticeship provides. That is particularly important in the industries of high-end manufacturing that he mentioned. I know that this will make a difference in his constituency.

Young people have been particularly affected by the pandemic, including in my Bridgend constituency. Can my right hon. Friend outline to the House what support he is putting in place to help young people get back into work and to boost opportunities?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of our focus on young people. More than half the jobs that have been lost since the start of the pandemic have been of those under the age of 25 and their rates of furlough are much higher than others. That is why, acting very early last year, we created the kickstart programme, which is creating hundreds of thousands of jobs across the country, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I urge all Members to talk to their local businesses to get them excited and joined up to the kickstart scheme, and to provide young people with the chance of a brighter future.

Small and medium-sized enterprises are often referenced as the beating heart of the UK economy, employing the largest number of people. That is certainly the case in my Dudley North constituency and across the west midlands, so will my right hon. Friend commit to working with colleagues in the Department for Education, the Department for Work and Pensions and with business to ensure that we improve engagement with small businesses, in particular in the design and funding of apprenticeship schemes, as they need providers to deliver much more at foundation level 2, which the current funding framework is less able to deliver? This would help to bring about the retraining revolution that our brilliant Mayor Andy Street talks about.

The brilliant Mayor Andy Street is right to talk about the retraining revolution that we need and that he is implementing in the west midlands. My hon. Friend makes an important point about the flexibility of the system to support SMEs. I am pleased to tell him that starting this August we are implementing a new scheme to allow SMEs to link with larger, levy-paying businesses through a new matching and levy transfer service that will help SMEs to access that funding and to provide the level 2 or 3 apprenticeships that he rightly identified as being important. He should also know that that scheme was based on, I think, a pilot programme that was launched in the west midlands.

Covid-19: Support for Businesses

Throughout the pandemic, the Government have sought to support businesses across the UK. To do this, we have put in place a package of economic support for businesses and individuals worth £352 billion since the start of the pandemic. The Office for Budget Responsibility and the Bank of England have highlighted that without this intervention the UK economy would be significantly worse than it is today.

What additional financial assistance can my hon. Friend give the all-important tourism sector in Cornwall to ensure that it is fully ready to greet the G7 in June?

Cornwall hosting the G7 is a fantastic opportunity. I know that my hon. Friend has welcomed this chance to showcase all that Cornwall has to offer. Many organisations in the broader tourism sector have benefited from business grants of over £34 million provided to her constituency of South East Cornwall, as well as business rates holidays and a temporary reduction in the rate of VAT. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has recently announced the £56 million welcome back fund to support safe local trade and tourism as economies reopen.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and particularly welcome the support being offered in the form of extended business rates relief. Looking to the future and with reform of business rates in the pipeline, what discussions have taken place with Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy colleagues about the potential to balance the need to secure the correct revenue to support vital local government services and boosting high streets like mine in Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner through the reform of business rates?

My hon. Friend brings a great deal of expertise and experience to this matter. The Government have committed to over £16 billion in business rates support for eligible retail, hospitality and leisure property since April last year. When combined with small business rates relief, this means that three quarters of a million retail, hospitality and leisure properties in England will pay no business rates for the 15 months from 1 April last year. The Government are, however, undertaking a fundamental review of the business rates system and have invited stakeholders to contribute their views and ideas for reform. I know that my hon. Friend will also be very pleased to see the £16.9 million of business grants that his constituents have received.

Warren Buffett once said:

“What we learn from history is that people don’t learn from history.”

With a 50% rise in the number of companies in significant financial distress, to prevent repeating the historical mistakes of post the last financial crisis, inflicting all that scandalous treatment on SMEs, will my hon. Friend consider working with the banks to extend the very fair and sensible provisions of the pay as you grow scheme and bounce bank loans, and also transfer that into CBILS—coronavirus business interruption loan scheme—loans?

The Treasury has, as my hon. Friend will know, amended the CBILS rules to allow lenders to extend loan terms from six to a maximum of 10 years, and that would assist borrowers in that repayment. CBILS term extension will be offered at the discretion of lenders, unlike pay as you grow options for bounce back loans, because they are different in terms of the guarantees that the Government have offered. Extensions are limited to those borrowers that lenders assess are in difficulty and will benefit from that extension, and only for the duration required. That customised approach, as I am sure he would understand given his vast business experience, is appropriate given the nature and scale of that different intervention.

When Lex Greensill was given his No. 10 business card, he had no contract and no job description, and there have now been reports that during the pandemic, the financial empire that he built may have lent Government-backed money based on invoices to companies that had never done business with his client, GFG, some of which say they had no intention of doing so. Will the Minister look into the issue of how this financing was structured and ensure that hard-working British steelworkers do not pay the price for Greensill’s collapse?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I can assure him that this Government are fully committed to examining all those matters through the review process and complying with all requests for information in order to get to the bottom of this matter.

Covid-19: Support for Self-employed People

The Government announced at Budget 2021 that the self-employment income support scheme, or SEISS, will continue until September, with the fourth and then the final fifth grant. This provides certainty to business as the economy reopens, and it means that the SEISS will continue to be one of the most generous schemes for the self-employed in the world, and one of the few where support is committed until September.

Is it not the case that under this Chancellor the Tories have gone from being seen as freelancer-friendly to the party of sleaze with their selective texts and promises of favours for their pals? If not, can they fix— their expression—the situation for up to 3 million people who have been excluded from all the grants the Minister mentioned, and from universal credit, and have been forced into bankruptcy, debt and worse, with 19 self-employed suicides in the past year? What are they doing about it?

The hon. Lady will know that the SEISS is one of the most generous schemes of its kind. The range of overall measures that the Government have taken is one of the most comprehensive of its kind in the world. I think she also knows that I personally and my officials have leant in as hard as we can to understand and to work with those groups to see whether we could extend the schemes. It has not been possible, because of features of the design of the tax system, but we have absolutely spent every effort possible to try to make it so.

More than 900,000 people who were self-employed at the start of the crisis, including many in the creative industries sector, now say that they are having to leave the sector as the crisis comes to an end. Does the Minister agree that the lack of support for the self-employed, who are not covered by the existing schemes, risks damaging the recovery we so desperately need?

A very large majority of the self-employed are, of course, covered by the schemes, and therefore I think that the hon. Gentleman’s concern is misplaced. Of course there will always be change in employments of different kinds, and in a dynamic economy such as ours, that is to be expected. If we can get through this desperate crisis—the worst for 300 years—with anything like any of the projected outcomes, that is something we can all, self-employed or not, be profoundly grateful for.

In a recent letter to me, the Financial Secretary admitted that 710,000 freelancers who receive a portion of their income from dividends have missed out on covid support schemes. He recognised that most people are honest in their dealings with HMRC, but said that concerns over fraud meant

“it has not been possible to support everyone in the way they might want”.

The Government have had a year to put in place a process with adequate safeguards. Why have they given up?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Of course, there was no admission of any kind. He asked me a question, and I responded comprehensively and fully to the question he put. The fact of the matter is that many of the people we are talking about have other forms of income. They may have pension income. They may have dividend income. They may have property income. What we have tried to do is use all the sources of information that we have that are properly assessed and certified in order to get schemes up and running—as fast as anywhere in the world, and that is an astonishing achievement. We continue to use those schemes, and we continue to work with groups to see whether others can be included.

VAT Reduction: Tourism and Hospitality

What assessment his Department has made of the effect of the temporary reduction in VAT for businesses on the recovery of the (a) tourism and (b) hospitality sectors from the covid-19 outbreak. (914822)

The temporary reduced rate of VAT aims to support the cash flow and viability of around 150,000 businesses and to protect more than 2.4 million jobs. As was announced at the Budget, the Government extended the temporary reduced rate of VAT to 31 March 2022, with a phased return to the standard rate. This relief alone is estimated to be worth more than £7 billion to the tourism and hospitality sectors. Applying it permanently would come at a very significant cost to the Exchequer, and that would have to be balanced by increased taxes elsewhere or reductions in Government spending.

The past year has clearly illustrated just how important the hospitality and tourism sectors are not only to our economy, with the jobs and businesses they support in the supply chain, but to our overall wellbeing and the contribution they make to social mobility. As the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for hospitality and tourism, I know just how important this cut in VAT has been in supporting those businesses, but will the Treasury take another look at the merits of making this reduction permanent to further support the sector and the growth in jobs that it can create?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that this has been an incredibly challenging period for the tourism and hospitality sectors, and it is also right to recognise that many organisations within these sectors have benefited from the measures that I have described, including the extensions to the employment schemes, business rates holidays and the VAT reduction, as well as the very important wider restart grants and the additional restrictions grant. As these restrictions are lifted and demand for goods and services in these sectors resumes, temporary reliefs are being phased out and in time will be removed. Bridging that transition to a standard rate by applying a temporary 12.5% rate will help businesses to manage the change. We should want them to get back to normal trading and the support that they offer through that to their communities and the economy.

Aviation Sector: Financial Support

What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on providing sector-specific financial support to the aviation sector. (914823)

We speak to our colleagues on a regular basis about a range of matters. The Department for Transport is in regular contact with the Treasury regarding the challenging circumstances facing the aviation sector as a result of covid-19.

Furlough ends in September, which is of no help to the aviation sector and airport communities, which will take months to recover even partially as we wait for the world to unlock. Many aviation businesses are on the edge financially, and they employ staff in safety-critical roles where there is a risk of skill fade if they cannot be supported. They are seeking longer-term support, as are communities such as ours in Hounslow, where tens of thousands of people depend on the airport for their livelihoods. Will the Treasury address the specific challenge of the aviation sector and airport communities well before the furlough scheme ends in September?

The Government recognise the challenging circumstances facing the aviation industry, which the hon. Member described. The industry can draw on the package of measures announced by the Chancellor, including not just the furlough scheme but schemes to raise capital, flexibilities with tax bills and employment support. The aerospace sector and aviation customers are being supported with over £11 billion made available through loan guarantees, support for exporters, the Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility and grants for research and development. In addition, the renewed airport and ground operations support scheme, which the Chancellor announced in his Budget, will provide support for eligible businesses in England with their fixed costs for a further six months up to the equivalent of their business rate liabilities for the first half of 2021-22.

Business Investment

Stimulating private sector investment will be key to our economic recovery. The recent Budget announced multiple policies to help achieve that, including freeports, the Help to Grow programme, the future fund breakthrough, the life sciences investment partnership, consultations on reforming R&D tax credits and, of course, our radical new super deduction to support business investment as we recover from the coronavirus.

I thank my right hon. Friend and the whole Treasury team for the extensive package of support and investment incentives over the past year; I know that businesses and employees in Yeovil are incredibly grateful for that. There is a very welcome focus in the defence review on local prosperity in procurement decisions. Will he work with me to ensure that Leonardo and our wonderful local supply chain for the helicopter industry can take full advantage of that into the future?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the advice and support he has provided for me and the team over the past year as we have sought to develop policies that will help businesses, including Leonardo in his constituency, which I know he champions. He is right to highlight the opportunities of better procurement, particularly for our defence supply chain, and I look forward to working with him and colleagues to ensure that we can support his local businesses and many others across the United Kingdom.

Small Businesses: Customs Paperwork

What assessment he has made of the effect on small businesses of the requirement to complete customs paperwork for export to the EU. (914825)

The Government have put in place a number of measures to facilitate trade with the EU, including publishing comprehensive guidance on the new arrangements. HMRC has produced step-by-step guides, videos and webinars for small businesses that may be new to customs processes. The Government have also provided a £20 million Brexit support fund to assist small and medium-sized businesses in adjusting to new customs procedures, questions of rules of origin and VAT rules when trading with the EU.

Just over a month ago, the Paymaster General told me that she would follow up on my invite to Bedfordshire chamber of commerce to hear the widespread concerns of businesses that are really struggling to overcome the new and complex operational challenges around her Government’s Brexit deal. I have heard nothing. Will the Minister attend a meeting with the chamber of commerce to hear about how customs paperwork is impacting viability, or would the Treasury also prefer to ignore the problem?

The Paymaster General is always happy to take inquiries from businesses, as am I, so if the hon. Member wishes to write to me, I am perfectly happy to respond to his questions.

Steel Industry and Green Manufacturing Jobs

What steps he is taking to (a) maintain jobs in the steel industry and (b) create new green manufacturing jobs. (914828)

The Government have supported the steel sector extensively, including providing over £500 million in recent years to help with the costs of energy. At the summer economic update, the Government announced an ambitious £3.05 billion package for housing decarbonisation designed to cut carbon, save people money and create jobs. Alongside that, our covid support package is still available to the sector to protect jobs and ensure that producers have the right support during this challenging time.

My constituency is home to Liberty Pressing Solutions, part of the Liberty Steel Group. The threat of the company’s collapse risks losing good, skilled, unionised jobs in Coventry and across the country. This would be a disaster for the city and for British manufacturing, so rather than waiting for the company to go bust before taking action, risking workers’ jobs, terms and conditions, will the Government step in now, with all options on the table, including bringing the business into public ownership, guaranteeing its future and retaining the skills we need to rebuild and to tackle the climate emergency?

It would not be appropriate for me to comment on the details of individual companies, due to commercial sensitivities. We are monitoring developments around Liberty and continue to engage closely with the company, the broader UK steel industry and trade unions. I recognise that reports around Liberty cause worry and uncertainty to the affected workers and their families. What I would say to the hon. Lady is that there is a lot of stuff that the Government are doing that will help her constituency. For instance, we are helping to create new green manufacturing jobs by providing support to drive the electrification of the UK automotive sector, supporting thousands of high-quality jobs in the west midlands.

Helping Young People into Work

Our plan for jobs will help young people find employment opportunities, including through our youth offer and the £2 billion kickstart scheme, where 180,000 kickstart vacancies have already been created.

I appreciate that the Government are helping to create those jobs, but it is important that young people have the confidence to learn and master a skill after leaving formal education, so how will my right hon. Friend ensure there are funds for people to do that in my constituency, including in Sittingbourne, which is the largest town in Kent that does not have its own further education facilities?

I agree with my hon. Friend that young people should have access to the skills and training opportunities they need to access great jobs. That is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has provided £126 million for traineeships in England to enable an additional 40,000 places over the next academic year, and why he has incentivised apprenticeships, with up to £3,000 for employers who hire new apprentices of any age.

Measures such as the kickstart scheme are a fantastic way to help young people into work and reduce the risk of long-term unemployment. Many young people will have taken part-time or casual work to support themselves through the pandemic, such as in Fylde’s hospitality and leisure sector, and may not be claiming universal credit. What steps will my right hon. Friend be taking to help young people get the skills and industry experience to help them move from casual employment and launch full-time careers?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and that is why, as well as the fantastic kickstart scheme, which he points out, the plan for jobs also expands existing programmes with proven employment outcomes, including traineeships, sector-based work academies and incentivised apprenticeship hiring. At the spending review, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced £138 million for the lifetime skills guarantee to fund free advanced technical courses for adults without A-levels or equivalent and to expand employer-led skills bootcamps.

Coronavirus Business Support Schemes

What steps he is taking with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure the equitable distribution of coronavirus business support schemes. (914834)

The Government have provided £25 billion in cash grants for businesses, and that includes the £5 billion of funding allocated at the March Budget for restart grants and the discretionary additional restrictions grant fund. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has been working closely with local authorities to ensure that these grants are delivered as swiftly as possible and directed towards the businesses that have been most impacted by the pandemic.

It is clear that equitable distribution of covid business schemes is not a priority. Only those on this Treasury Bench would have the gall to claim fairness when the Chancellor and his Ministers were consumed with pulling out all the stops to support their friend the former Prime Minister on behalf of Greensill, while 3 million people were excluded from support schemes, some so distraught that they took their own lives. So to clear this up once and for all, can the Minister explain what news did Treasury officials report at a meeting on 24 April that made Greensill representatives “very pleased”?

As I have said previously, the Government are committed to co-operating fully with all reviews on these matters. I do not accept what the hon. Lady has said with respect to the schemes that the Government have put forward over the past 14 months. Her constituency has had £16.7 million in business grants and 1,206 bounce-back loans totalling £30 million. In addition, 12,700 of her constituents have benefited from the furlough scheme, and 2,000 have benefited from the self-employed income support scheme. That is a significant contribution to help her constituents.

Loan Charge: Prosecutions

How many promoters and operators of schemes subject to the loan charge have been prosecuted for promoting and operating those schemes. (914837)

Promotion or enablement of a tax avoidance scheme is not, in and of itself, a criminal offence, as we have regularly debated in this House. However, there have been numerous cases in which Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made arrests or prosecuted people in relation to fraud, and particularly in relation to disguised remuneration loan-busting schemes.

My understanding is that very few promoters of these schemes have been prosecuted. Is it not rather shocking that so many people who were mis-sold the schemes on the basis that they were perfectly legitimate are being pursued so relentlessly, while the promoters are in some cases being allowed to continue their work unhindered?

The suggestion that promoters are being allowed to do just anything is quite wrong. If my right hon. Friend had looked closely at the current Finance Bill, he would have seen a range of measures in that Bill alone aimed at preventing the promotion of tax avoidance schemes and at the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes, as well as other measures. HMRC takes such issues extremely seriously, and that is why the avoidance tax gap fell from £3.7 billion in 2005-06 to £1.7 billion in 2018-19—a fall of more than 50%.

Topical Questions

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.