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Volume 717: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2022

Small and medium-sized businesses are at the heart of our economy, creating jobs and prosperity across the UK. We continue to give substantial support to SMEs by raising the employment allowance; extending the £1 million annual investment allowance; providing business rates relief for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses; and with the Help to Grow programme.

A couple of weeks ago, I met people from a number of hospitality businesses at Nailcote Hall. They expressed not only their gratitude for the support the Treasury gave during the pandemic, but their concerns about the cost of living and about supply-chain costs, which they cannot necessarily pass on to consumers. What assurances can my hon. Friend give the businesses in my constituency, especially those in the hospitality sector, that the Government will keep them in mind in terms of future support?

It is good to hear that my hon. Friend has been speaking to the hospitality sector in his constituency, no doubt drawing on his expertise in those conversations. As he said, we provided substantial support to that sector during the pandemic. We recognise the ongoing challenges for businesses as we recover, which is why we are giving thousands of hospitality, leisure and retail businesses a 50% cut in business rates this financial year—worth up to £110,000 per business.

There are more than 7,000 businesses in my constituency, producing excellent products and services in a range of industries. I have held several informative high street walkarounds in towns across my constituency, hearing at first hand from local entrepreneurs, many of whom are worried about competition from online businesses. Will my hon. Friend explain what steps the Department is taking to support our high street businesses in the face of online competition?

I commend my hon. Friend for his campaign in his local high streets and for the work he is doing with local businesses. I agree with him on the importance of high streets and the businesses on them, which is why we are supporting high street businesses with our 50% business rate cut for thousands of retail, hospitality and leisure businesses; our freeze to the business rates multiplier; and funding through the community renewal fund, towns fund and levelling-up fund.

I hope the Minister is aware that one problem facing small and medium-sized employers in Cumbria and elsewhere, certainly in rural Britain, is a serious lack of workforce. Cumbria Tourism reported that 63% of its members last year had to operate below capacity because they could not find sufficient staff to keep going and so they missed out on vital demand. Does she agree that the two key areas are a lack of affordable housing so that people can live close to the place where they need to work in rural communities, and the fact that the Government have yet to come up with adequate visa provisions to allow employers to supplement a local workforce with an overseas one? What action will she take to support small and medium-sized businesses, especially in hospitality, in Cumbria and elsewhere?

There was a great deal in that question, but broadly it was about access to the workforce for businesses. We have a really successful story on jobs, with record numbers of people in payroll employment, but I also hear about the work that businesses are doing to fill vacancies. We are supporting businesses, for instance, with our successful Way to Work scheme and the investment we are making in people’s skills to ensure that they align to the vacancies that employers are looking to fill.

A big concern for small businesses in my constituency, especially those in construction and engineering contract work, is that they finish the job, the main contractor gets paid, but the people who did the work sometimes wait months to get paid. If the main contractor fails during that time, the money disappears with it. Will the Minister agree to meet me to discuss the possibility of making sure that those moneys are kept in a protective bond, so that if we cannot prevent the main contractor from going bust, we can at least stop it dragging down hundreds of small businesses with it?

I do have conversations with the construction sector and more widely about infrastructure investment in this country. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to talk about the specific suggestion he has to help the construction sector.

If the Chancellor really wanted to help British businesses, he would back Labour’s plan to scrap business rates and replace them with a fairer system. He could reverse his tax on jobs and scrap the national insurance hike, and he could use public procurement and other tools to buy, make and sell more in Britain. He has imitated Labour’s policies before: why not follow Labour’s lead again and help struggling businesses?

Business rates and national insurance are an important contribution to paying for public services, which I am sure the hon. Lady’s constituents, like mine, feel very strongly about. I remind her of the scale of support that we are providing to businesses, including a business rates cut worth £1.7 billion this year.

I appreciate that the Chancellor cut fuel duty by 5p per litre, but that did not really touch the sides. I urge him to be bolder and cut fuel duty by at least 20p per litre, as requested by FairFuelUK, which would make a huge difference to individuals and businesses in my patch, not least hauliers for whom the cost of running a single truck has increased by 17% in the past year.

I hear my right hon. Friend’s request. The combination of the freeze on fuel duty in the Budget and the cut in the spring statement is essentially a £5 billion tax cut. That is substantial support with the cost of fuel for businesses. As I have also said, we are taking further steps to support businesses with business rate cuts. I also remind her of our cut to national insurance, increasing the employment allowance by £1,000, supporting around 500,000 smaller businesses.

I call Clive Efford.

We have a slight problem. Can the Chancellor answer the question as if it has been asked?