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Covid-19: Economic Package

Volume 803: debated on Wednesday 13 May 2020


The Statement was made in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question given yesterday in the other place by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, the Government’s economic plan is one of the most comprehensive in the world. We have provided billions of pounds of grants and loans for businesses, tens of billions of pounds of deferred taxes, income protection for millions of the self-employed, and a strengthened safety net to protect millions of the most vulnerable people. These schemes speak to my and this Conservative Government’s values. We believe in the dignity of work and we are doing everything we can to protect people currently unable to work.

Yesterday, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister set out our plan for the next phase of the public health response, and today I can confirm the next stage of our job retention scheme. This scheme has been a world-leading economic intervention, supporting livelihoods and protecting futures. Seven and a half million jobs have been furloughed—jobs that we could have lost if we had not acted. Nearly 1 million businesses would have closed shop.

As we reopen the economy, we will need to support people back to work. We will do so in a measured way. I can announce that the job retention scheme will be extended for four months, until the end of October. By that point, we will have provided eight months of support to British people and businesses. Until the end of July, there will be no changes whatever, and from August to October the scheme will continue for all sectors and regions of the UK but with greater flexibility to support the transition back to work. Employers currently using the scheme will be able to bring employees back part-time. To change their incentives, we will ask employers to start sharing with the Government the cost of paying people’s salaries.

Detailed guidance will follow by the end of May, but I want to assure people today of one thing that will not change: workers will, through the combined efforts of the Government and employers, continue to receive the same level of overall support as they do now, at 80% of their current salary, up to £2,500.

I am extending the scheme because I will not give up on the people who rely on it. Our message today is simple. We stood behind Britain’s workers and businesses as we came into this crisis and we will stand behind them as we come through the other side.”

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Chancellor’s Statement. We welcome the extension of the job retention scheme, the additional flexibility provided and the fact that the Chancellor has listened to concerns by maintaining a level of support at 80%. Advance briefing to the media suggested that people need to be “weaned off” state support. I hope the Minister shares my concerns about the use of such language and agrees that nobody ever wanted to find themselves in this situation. The amount that firms will be asked to contribute must avoid triggering further redundancies, so could the Minister confirm when employers will be required to start making contributions, whether these contributions will be phased in and what level of contribution they will be asked to pay?

My Lords, all the details that the noble Lord has asked about are being worked out at the moment. That is why we will not be able to announce the full details until the end of this month. However, as was set out in my right honourable friend’s Statement yesterday, our overriding priority is to protect jobs in this country and to protect businesses. A balance needs to be struck to achieve those two things.

My Lords, I have just three very quick questions for the Minister. First, will the self-employment income support scheme also be extended in the same way that the furlough scheme is being extended for those who have been in employment, which is obviously a vital decision? Secondly, in the light of leaked Treasury documents today, will he confirm or deny that the Government are looking at a two-year pay freeze in the public sector to deal with what will be an extremely high deficit, estimated at £337 billion this year? Lastly, he will be aware that alternate funders are finally getting accredited to participate in the Government’s Covid schemes, but many banks are now cornering the market because only they can access cheap money from the Bank of England. Will the Government level the playing field and open up the Bank of England’s term funding scheme to all accredited funders and do so rapidly to limit the damage?

My Lords, the newly announced self-employment income support scheme, which opened today, will be kept open as long as it is needed. That is what we have said all along: we will do what is needed. We need to see how successful it is and how many people it gets to. I am not aware of any advanced thinking on a pay freeze on the public sector or any other measures. As my right honourable friend said yesterday, it is too early for us to be looking at these measures. We need to get through this stage of the crisis. On the noble Baroness’s third question, we have been increasing the number of lenders available on all schemes since they opened. I am sure that this will continue.

My Lords, I draw attention to my various business interests listed in the House of Lords register. I start by complimenting the Chancellor and his team. I am sure all noble Lords would like to thank my noble friend the Minister for his tireless efforts throughout this horrendous crisis. The programme of support for business has been far better than that in 2008. The pressure on banks, for example, to perform has been a very good thing and the furlough scheme has been an act of near genius. I also applaud the new scheme for the self-employed, launched today, which the Minister touched on a moment ago. Perhaps he can advise noble Lords of the applications received to date.

I urge caution, however, in announcing an extension to the furlough scheme until October. That will not only cost us £100 billion but will, I am afraid, support many businesses that were ailing before this crisis. I am also aware of a number of profitable and productive businesses that will continue to use it when they have strong enough balance sheets to support their activities without government support. Will the Minister assure us that steps are being taken to prevent malpractice?

I thank my noble friend for his supportive comments. The self-employment income support scheme opened today at 8 am, and by lunchtime we had had 110,000 applications, worth in aggregate some £360 million. HMRC has undertaken to do everything possible to get payments out within the next six working days.

On my noble friend’s other point about the furlough scheme being too generous, as the Office for Budget Responsibility has said, if we do not take these sorts of measures, the cost to our country and our society will be even greater. However, we will be vigilant to ensure that the scheme is not abused.

While the measures announced are welcome, does the Minister agree that more fine-tuning will be needed in the coming months to meet the needs of different parts of the country and different economies, for a fair and balanced recovery?

Will the Minister find ways of adding to the well-deserved clapping of hands for low-paid members of the NHS and staff in care homes with some degree of monetary reward, to emphasise how much their dedication —often at real risk to their own health—means to us all?

I assure the noble Lord that we are aware of the regional differences that will emerge in the aftermath of this crisis. It is worth reminding the House that the furlough scheme, for example, applies across all devolved regions.

On his comments on health sector and social care workers, I add my congratulations on, and respect for, the huge amount that they have done. We cannot at this stage commit to any future payments, because, as I mentioned, we will have an enormous financial hill to climb at the end of this crisis. However, I recognise the great work that they have done.

The extension of the JRS is extremely welcome. Here in the north-east, we have a worryingly high infection rate and among the highest average death rates per capita. Will Her Majesty’s Government consider taking a regional approach to phasing out the JRS, ensuring that the economic and social needs of each region are reflected adequately in the Government’s ongoing support?

To answer the right reverend Prelate’s question, what we have always done through this crisis over the past few months is take a flexible approach and respond as events confront us. If we see that different regions are suffering more than others, we will, of course, look on that as sympathetically as we can.

Could my noble friend explain in more detail what the Chancellor meant when he said he would ask employers to share with the Government the cost of paying people’s salaries under the furlough scheme from August? In spite of what he said, I hope he can give us an idea of some of the thinking going on. For many reasons, I support the aim of weaning people off government support, but businesses need to quantify this extra cost very soon to determine their route ahead.

In response to my noble friend, unfortunately I cannot give any more information at the moment, but businesses will be made aware within the next 10 days to two weeks.

Will the Minister bear in mind that, given the prospect of higher unemployment for a long time, universal credit and other arrangements will have to be enhanced for a considerable period? Have the Government budgeted for an increase in unemployment benefit and universal credit?

My Lords, we have improved the terms of universal credit since this crisis began by increasing payments by £20 a week. We have seen 1.6 million claims since the beginning of the crisis, and all new and existing claimants will benefit from the increased generosity of these payments.

Given that the Government have clearly not finalised the scheme as they cannot tell business how much they will contribute, will the Minister ensure that his colleagues take account of two figures that might cause perverse consequences? One is that individuals who need to be shielded and therefore cannot work, even if the business has work for them, are currently eligible for the furlough scheme. Clearly it is important that that continues, but it would be unreasonable and perverse if businesses found that they were financially advantaged by putting those people on statutory sick pay or even making them redundant when they cannot work. Businesses are being asked to support people in that situation, and it is important that they are fully protected on the furlough scheme cost. Similarly, there are businesses and charities that are not allowed to open by the Government and may still not be allowed to open. If they are not allowed to take people into employment, surely it is right that they should be fully covered for the cost of the furlough scheme, for the risk is that these businesses, which are bleeding money, will be forced to make people redundant.

My Lords, my right honourable friend in his Statement yesterday extended the existing terms of the furlough scheme until the end of July. I think we will have better knowledge of the disease and our ability to contain it by then, but I take on board the noble Lord’s comments and I will take them back to my colleagues in the Treasury.

My Lords, the time allotted for the Statement is now up. Today’s Virtual Proceedings are complete and are adjourned. Good night.

Virtual Proceeding adjourned at 8.29 pm.