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House of Lords Hansard
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Covid-19: Levelling-up Agenda
08 September 2020
Volume 805

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to deliver on their levelling up agenda in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

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My Lords, the Government have responded to the challenges of Covid-19 through unprecedented support for business and workers across the country. At the summer economic update, the Chancellor announced the Government’s plan to support jobs in every region through upgrades to local infrastructure, boosting skills and new employment support schemes.

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I am grateful to my noble friend for that response, but what will the Government do to help the north-west of England to support it through the economic impacts of Covid-19?

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Investing in the regions is a key part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda, and my noble friend will be pleased to know that the plan for jobs announced in the summer confirmed over £300 million for priority local infrastructure projects in the north-west. I am also pleased to tell him that more than 7 million meals were claimed as part of the Government’s Eat Out to Help Out scheme in the region.

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My Lords, in 2019, the Social Mobility Unit called for a new joined-up approach from government to overcome failures in delivery of the social mobility programme. How will the Government avoid such failures with the levelling-up agenda at the difficult time of Covid? Will the taskforce insist on joined-up approaches which consult local communities about necessary action?

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My Lords, I am afraid I do not have details of the Social Mobility Unit’s work before me, but the Government are doing a huge amount on this agenda. I point to the introduction of the kickstart scheme this week, which is particularly focused on young people at risk of long-term unemployment as a consequence of this pandemic.

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Poor areas exist not because they have large numbers of poor people but because they have limited opportunities for people to skill up and get good paid jobs, so how can levelling-up become a reality when a report out this week shows that the UK has slipped from first to fourth place of OECD countries on the proportion of funds it spends on education and training?

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The Government are doing a huge amount to respond to the challenge of education and training and provide opportunities for young people. As I just mentioned, there is the kickstart scheme, where those aged 16 to 24 will have the national living wage paid by the Government for job placements lasting up to six months.

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My Lords, in some areas where employment was low, the pandemic has produced greater than average damage. What steps are being taken to mitigate this further damage?

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In addition to the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, which has been running for more than six months, we are providing more support to businesses to take on new trainees, with more than £111 million to triple the scale of traineeships available.

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My Lords, evidence from the Midlands Engine Observatory highlights the barriers to growth in the Midlands economy, leading to a gross value-added gap with the rest of the UK of around £76 billion. Will the Government confirm their commitment to back the work of the Midlands Engine partnership and support its calls for targeted investment to deliver on its policy of levelling up for almost 11 million people in the region?

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My Lords, every place in the UK has a role to play in driving growth and the Government absolutely support the work of the Midlands Engine partnership. I am pleased to say that 30 places in the Midlands Engine region have been shortlisted for the next stage of the £3.6 billion towns fund to develop towns deals, and at Budget 2020 we announced £20 million development funding for the Midlands rail hub.

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My Lords, earlier this year, the IFS Deaton review warned that the Covid economic shock would highlight and potentially worsen existing inequalities, with people on lower incomes thought most likely to work in sectors impacted by lockdown and least likely to be able to work from home. Does the Minister believe enough is being done to prevent a widening of inequality, and how does she envisage the Government delivering on their levelling-up agenda in those circumstances?

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My Lords, the Government are completely committed to avoiding any widening of inequality during this pandemic. That is why, during the summer, we announced our plan for jobs. It contains three elements: protecting jobs, such as by cutting VAT for the tourism and hospitality sectors, which have been particularly affected, until January next year; creating new jobs, including through the £2 billion new green homes grant, which will create new job opportunities; and supporting jobs through measures such as the kickstart scheme.

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Lord Greaves? I call the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft.

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The Government pledged to move policymakers into what Michael Gove termed

“overlooked and hitherto undervalued communities”,

yet many Civil Service jobs are now being advertised as remote working. These are not just junior roles but £60,000 and £70,000-a-year jobs, which would help level up communities. Can the Minister assure the House that when government departments move, the civil servants will have to go with them?

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My Lords, the Government are committed to having more parts of government represented across the UK. That has worked very successfully with DfID, which is now part of the FCO —its office is in Scotland. We will embrace new opportunities for flexible working, but there will always be a need for in-person working as well.

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In a recent campaign, Rethinking Local, the Local Government Association called for an approach to economic development that ensures that councils can continue to support businesses in their communities through place-based budgets and a locally led approach in areas such as skills and lifelong learning.

What commitments can the Government give to reassure the House that upcoming announcements, such as the comprehensive spending review and the devolution White Paper will take a localist approach, where devolving power and funding to local areas becomes the default position?

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I reassure my noble friend that the Government are absolutely committed to devolving powers to local communities. During the pandemic, we have provided £3.7 billion in additional funding to councils that has not been ring-fenced. As my noble friend noted, we will be providing more information and detail on our plans for further devolution in the devolution and local recovery White Paper, which will be published this autumn.

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My Lords, with the levelling-up agenda appearing to focus on the red wall seats, how do the Government propose to ensure levelling up across the whole of the country, especially with regard to non-reserved matters, such as education and health?

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One of the important measures that we have announced on education is a catch-up tutoring programme, which has funding that goes to schools across the country, and particularly targets funding on those children who need most support. That will ensure that, although children have missed time at school this year, they will be able to catch up on it in future years.

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My Lords, does the Minister not realise that we are dealing not just with the effect of the Covid pandemic but with 10 years of Tory austerity, and so a great deal of levelling up is needed? Specifically, can she tell me what the Treasury is doing to make sure that the money allocated for Scotland is spent by the Scottish Government on the purposes that it was intended for, and not used as a sort of nest-egg to give to their friends?

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My Lords, I will not try to overturn the devolution settlement in answering the noble Lord’s question. However, I can confirm that, during the pandemic, we have provided over £8.9 billion of funding to the devolved Administrations, which includes £4.6 billion for Scotland.

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I call the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. No? As all supplementary questions have been asked, we now move on to the next Question.