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House of Commons Hansard
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Economic Outlook and Furlough Scheme Changes
16 June 2020
Volume 677

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer, if he will make a statement on the economic outlook for the UK and the Government’s strategy to protect jobs and the economy in light of upcoming changes to the furlough scheme.

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Before I start, may I join with all the words that have been said in praise of Jo Cox during the proceedings so far? I know that many more such words will be said today. One thing that colleagues may not know, amid all the many things that they have been told about her, is that she was very fond of visiting Symonds Yat in my constituency in Herefordshire. I look forward to the day when many other people can do that, following lockdown.

From the onset of this pandemic, the Government’s top priority has been to protect the NHS and to save lives, but we have also made it clear that we will do whatever is needed to support people, jobs and businesses through the present period of disruption, and that is what we have done. On Friday, the Office for National Statistics published its first estimate of April GDP and showed the economy contracting sharply by a record 20.4% on the month. It is clear that restrictions introduced during the lockdown, while necessary, have had a severe impact on output.

However, it is important to note that the OECD, the Office for Budget Responsibility and other external forecasters have all highlighted that the cost to the economy would have been significantly higher were it not for the swift and decisive action that the Government have taken. Measures such as the coronavirus job retention scheme—the CJRS—which has protected almost 9 million jobs and more than 1 million businesses, have helped to limit the adverse impact of the crisis. It is also important to note that the OECD forecast the UK to have the strongest recovery of all the large countries that it looked at, with an unemployment rate projected to be lower than that in France and Italy by the end of 2021.

As we are reopening the economy, the Government are supporting putting people back into work. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that the CJRS would be extended for four months, until the end of October. From July to October, employers currently using the scheme will be able to bring furloughed employees back part-time. That will ensure that the CJRS will continue to support all firms so that no employer faces a cliff edge.

This remains a very uncertain and worrying time for businesses and employees alike. The Government have set out separately the five principles that must be satisfied before we make further changes to the lockdown rules, which we based on advice received from Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies. However, I can assure the House that the thoughts, energies and resources of the Government are focused increasingly on planning for the recovery. We will develop new measures to grow our economy, to back businesses and to boost skills. I am confident that the United Kingdom can continue to thrive in a post-covid world.

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The OECD’s global outlook suggested that the reduction in GDP in the UK due to the current hit of coronavirus will have been the largest out of all developed economies. The enormity of the economic impact appears confirmed by the claimant count and other unemployment data out today. It seems that the slow and confused health response is being followed by a slow and confused response to saving jobs, despite the huge long-term costs of unemployment. Labour has called for an exit strategy, but what we seem to have is an exit without a strategy, including on jobs.

Will the Treasury change its one-size-fits-all approach to the furlough and self-employed schemes, which risks additional waves of unemployment? Will it act to encourage young people to stay in education and training, and out of unemployment? Will it build on previous schemes such as the future jobs fund to support the young unemployed, and provide tailored help for other hard-hit groups such as older workers?

Although more support for apprenticeships is desperately needed, it will not be enough. Will the Treasury act now to create the extra support that cannot currently be delivered by Department for Work and Pensions staff, who are occupied with huge numbers of extra claims? Will the Government catch up with other countries that have already announced their stimulus packages, given that many employers are deciding now on whether to retain staff? Will they apply conditions to Government investment to include requirements to promote upskilling and re-employment? Above all, rather than a limited Budget statement in July, will the Government set out the back-to-work Budget that we need, with a focus on jobs, jobs, jobs?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her questions and comments. Of course, the issues that she highlights are of great importance and receive an enormous amount of attention in the Government and in the Treasury, but I am a little surprised by some of the things that she said. I remind her that the OECD report, in addition to forecasting the strongest recovery, also highlighted the quick and comprehensive response that the Government put in place to deal with covid. It also noted the relative robustness of the UK’s public finances relative to those of other countries. Colleagues are entitled to decide whether they accept what the OECD says, but they cannot discount the bits they do not like and accept the bits that they do.

The hon. Lady refers to the Government’s response as “slow and confused”, but I find that very odd. She said to the CBI in April that “this scheme was about preventing mass unemployment”, and “undoubtedly it has prevented a worse situation, there’s no question about that”. She congratulated the Government, business and trade unions, and said that we saw with the job retention scheme “an excellent example of tripartite working”. I think she is right about that, but I do not think she can take the line she takes now and disavow those other things that she said, when Labour was being a bit more bipartisan than it is at the moment, in praise of the Government’s schemes.

Finally, the hon. Lady talks about the Government adopting a one-size-fits-all approach, but I would remind her of what she said in The Guardian on 20 May 2020:

“A more differentiated approach”—

that is, not a one-size-fits-all approach—

“would, admittedly, pose challenges for the government. Hard choices would need to be made, including how to deal with difficult boundary issues”.

She is right. It is also true that the Government have adopted a more differentiated approach than she gives us credit for, as witness all the work we have done with the hospitality and leisure industries.

So I am a little confused, but I do think it is important to focus on the positive achievements of the job retention scheme and the self-employment scheme, which, as the hon. Lady rightly notes, have prevented a much worse alternative and have been brought into place with great speed and ability by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

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My right hon. Friend will be aware that, yesterday, the Treasury Committee published its report into the gaps that there are in the Government’s support for the self-employed and those employed up and down our country. I do recognise the very considerable approach that the Government have taken to support people through these difficult times. However, there remain over 1 million people who should qualify for furlough or self-employed support who are not receiving it. Could I ask my right hon. Friend to look very closely at the recommendations of the Select Committee report, and to take action so that these hard-working self-employed and employed people up and down our country can get the support not just that they desperately need, but that they deserve?

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I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend the Chairman of the Treasury Committee both for what he says today and for his report. He will know, and he took considerable evidence on, the constraints that the Government were under in bringing the different schemes into play. I am the last person to decry the energy and the effectiveness either of the businesses that have been supported by the job retention scheme or the self-employed people and businesses that have been supported by the self-employed scheme. Of course, we will take very carefully into consideration the report that he gives, and any positive and constructive suggestions that are contained in that report about how we can improve matters, and we continue to review the situation within the Treasury.

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We now come to the SNP spokesperson, Alison Thewliss, with one minute.

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I thank the Minister for the comments he has made. While the support under the schemes, including the coronavirus job retention scheme, is welcome, many of the comments I made on 17 March and 27 April about those who have not been supported still stand. The Treasury Committee would agree that the 1 million who have been left out of this support have been left out of support because of the Government’s own choice—the Government have decided not to support these people—and further issues remain about maternity, the derisory 26p extra given to refugees and those with no recourse to public funds.

The Cabinet Secretary for Economy, Fair Work and Culture, Fiona Hyslop, has written to the Government, identifying tourism, arts and culture, oil and gas, childcare, retail, and rural and island communities as being particularly at risk, so will the Minister now accept that winding up the furlough scheme and putting the costs on to employers is a significant risk and will put people out of jobs? Will he extend it beyond October for sectors that are particularly pressed? Will he look at extending the self-employed support scheme, as many of those people will still require support on an ongoing basis because the work they did is no longer there? Will he look at VAT cuts to tourism and hospitality, which will support those sectors that have seen so much pressure and get them back on their feet at a time when they are really struggling? Lastly, does he agree with Lord Forsyth that there will be a tsunami of job losses, with 3 million people left without work?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. In the middle of a crisis, with emergency responses being brought out almost every other week, it would be a brave person who could commit to any sensible forecast with a degree of accuracy of what the future may bring. We have already seen astonishing changes to levels of GDP even in a month.

On the points the hon. Lady raises, I just remind her that the job retention scheme has so far supported nearly 9 million people—8.9 million people—and 1.1 million businesses. The self-employed scheme has supported 2.3 million individuals at a cost of £6.8 billion. Both schemes were brought in at record speed precisely to address the critical need to get the vast majority of people the support they would need, and to target that, wherever possible, on the most vulnerable. I do not think that those were mistakes. I do not think it would have been right to delay the process. I think it has been recognised by Opposition Members across the piece that a delayed response—which, on advice received from experts within HMRC and elsewhere, would have been the inevitable result—would have been a mistake and we took the view that we should proceed. I put it to the hon. Lady that the two schemes in question, together with a plethora of other support, have been extremely effective.

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Getting skills is the key to employment opportunities for the young. Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made encouraging noises about recognising the importance of apprenticeships. I propose that the Government shoulder the entire costs of the first year of all new apprenticeships awarded this autumn—[Interruption.]

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Order. The two Members—the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) and the hon. Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty)—cannot stand together. Richard Graham, please start again.

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I will start again. Skills are the key to employment opportunities for the young. Both the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have made encouraging noises about recognising the role that apprenticeships can play in that. My proposal is that the Government shoulder the entire first-year costs of all new apprenticeships awarded this autumn. The key point is that further education colleges, other trainers and businesses need to be able to plan ahead so that they can market those apprenticeships. Will my right hon. Friend today give some reassurance and commitment on the support the Government might give apprentices, so that bounce-back Britain’s new apprentices know there are lots of opportunities ahead?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am in awe of his ability, without notes, to recall exactly the same wording of his question when asked to give it a second time. That is magnificent. He was obviously an actor in a previous life.

Let me respond to the point my hon. Friend made. He is absolutely right about apprenticeships. He will know that, because he will know of all the work we are doing in Hereford to set up a new model in technology and engineering; a university combining higher education and further education specifically in order, in due course, to be able to extend to degree and degree apprenticeships. He will also know that the Budget—people have forgotten this—and the spending round before it have been very supportive of further education. That is a commitment of this Government. As he will know, the Education and Skills Funding Agency published guidance in this area, and the job retention scheme provides funding for businesses. We will continue to look closely at the issue he describes, and I thank him for his question.

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May I, like others, pay tribute to and remember our much-missed colleague Jo Cox?

Ministers hint that their recovery plan will at last see real climate action. Liberal Democrats advocate a massive green economic recovery plan and I hope the Government will match it. Will the Treasury Minister confirm that the Government are considering reversing their previous opposition to onshore wind farms in England and Wales, tidal power investment, zero-carbon homes regulation and the many other green economic policies advocated by my party and opposed, abolished and voted against by this Prime Minister and the Conservative party?

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I do not agree with that characterisation of the Government at all. We have done an enormous amount to support the green economy, but I do agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this provides an opportunity for a big recalibration—a big opportunity for all people across the country to think about whether there is more we can do in terms of green. Those of us with responsibility for the national infrastructure strategy are thinking very hard with colleagues in the Treasury about how we can improve green infrastructure, to go alongside all the measures we have taken to improve and support green businesses.

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Some 290,000 people in the theatre and performing arts are really struggling financially at the moment. Will the Treasury look at extending the job retention scheme at least until October, and at extending the self-employed income support scheme, which would particularly help those who have freelance work?

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My hon. Friend will be aware that the job retention scheme runs until October and the self-employed scheme covers that period as well. This is a source of great concern to us, and the arts have been well supported by the schemes so far. There has also been a separate package through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport specifically targeted at supporting arts and other organisations. We have this issue very much in our minds.

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May I first pay tribute to my late friend Jo Cox? We mark today not because of how she was taken and the hate that took her, but to celebrate her life and legacy that we all work towards every day.

May I press the Minister, in that vein, for support for the aviation sector? There will be a £1.6 billion impact on the south Wales economy if British Airways is to keep on cutting jobs across three sites in the region. The Chancellor and the Minister say they will do whatever it takes, so please Minister, for these highly skilled, well-paid jobs across the UK, announce a specific sector deal for the aviation sector, and please do it quickly.

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I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his warm remarks in relation to Jo Cox, which will be shared by everyone.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the aviation sector has already received quite a lot of support through the Bank of England’s covid corporate financing facility and through the large business loan scheme. Colleagues across the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy continue to engage closely with the sector. I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern both in terms of the strategic nature of the industry and also its relevance to his own constituency, and indeed the UK as a whole.

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The Government can rightly be proud of the rapid and effective steps they have taken to save so many jobs in constituencies such as Crewe and Nantwich, but there are some sectors and businesses that will not be able to open in the near or even medium term—for example, Good Time Charlies, a children’s play centre in my constituency, and Crewe Lyceum theatre. Will my right hon. Friend agree to look at whether some businesses and sectors will need more support in the medium and long term?

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That may well be true, but I would highlight and remind my hon. Friend that one scheme, the bounce back loan scheme, is specifically targeted at small and medium-sized enterprises, and indeed micro-enterprises. Those loans are on very concessionary terms and do not require personal guarantees up to a threshold, so the organisations that my hon. Friend mentions should be able to benefit.

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May I add my voice to many others in paying tribute to our much-missed colleague, Jo Cox?

The pandemic has further highlighted the deep connection between human health and thriving ecosystems, with the destruction of nature both increasing pandemic risk and driving climate change. With the news of record job losses, will the Minister prioritise the job creation potential of nature restoration at a national level and agree that not one single shovel-ready project will end up indiscriminately destroying nature? Secondly, will his Department establish a new taskforce on jobs for nature, to maximise the number of people employed in protecting the natural world, rather than destroying it? He says the Treasury will recalibrate whether there is more to be done on the green economy; I assure him that there is, and he just needs to get on and do it.

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Having been an energy Minister, I am extremely aware of the many good things that we have done and continue to do, but I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution.

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As my right hon. Friend will know, businesses in the hospitality and events sector—including wedding venues, bed and breakfasts and hotels, which are part of the lifeblood of this country and the economy—have been helped tremendously by the Government’s support and furlough scheme. As the furlough scheme winds down in the autumn, will he push for those sectors of the economy to be able to open fully as soon as it is safe for both them and their customers, to help us maintain Britain’s rightful place as one of the most attractive tourist venues in the world?

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My hon. Friend will know that we have put significant support in place already. I share—as the Government do, and as I suspect the entire Chamber does—her desire for us to emerge from lockdown as swiftly and safely as we can, so I certainly support what she said.

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I associate myself with the remarks that others have made about our colleague Jo Cox.

The Chairman of the Treasury Committee, the right hon. Member for Central Devon (Mel Stride), was right about those people who are missing out on the self-employed scheme. We recognise that the scheme was put together urgently. My hon. Friends and I on the shadow Front Bench were calling for the scheme, so of course we welcomed it. But alongside the 1 million people who are unable to work and are missing out on the scheme, the scheme also means that if people continue to work and are unaffected because of their self-employment, they are benefiting from the scheme, while others who need it are not able to. Would it not be sensible for the Government to accept the comments that have been made and scrutinise the scheme? Let us try to make it better and work together, rather than say that it does not need any improvement at all.

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Actually, we have not said that. We remain interested in positive, detailed suggestions for improvement of the scheme. We have received some that do not appear workable. I will remind the Chamber of what the problem is. Let us not forget that the £50,000 trading profit margin implies average sales of £200,000, so these are not that small businesses compared with many sole proprietorships around the country. With these businesses, it is impossible to tell by any rule-based system the source of any dividends that they are paying, what may be the pay component of them and what may be simply earned from other sources but routed through the company. It has not been possible to devise a system that could operate on this million-person scale or more in the time available, while meeting our central need to act comprehensively and swiftly.

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The Government have done a huge amount to support jobs in Peterborough, with around one in four workers protected through the furlough scheme. Peterborough remains a city on the up, with a new university, city centre regeneration and new businesses coming to us. With that optimism in the air, will the Minister assure me that he will continue to support businesses and workers in Peterborough as we move beyond the furlough scheme?

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I can of course give my hon. Friend that assurance. I suspect that there is not a Member of this House who, if they look down the lists, will not see the positive benefits of the CJRS and the self-employment income support scheme in support of employed people on furlough and self-employed people in their constituencies. That is a tremendous thing that we can all be proud of.

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As a Labour member of the class of 2015, may I echo the remarks made about Jo Cox? She is much missed, and was murdered in cold blood while doing an advice surgery, which we all do every week in normal times.

I must say that I am disappointed by the Minister’s response. I wrote to the Chancellor on 24 April identifying a number of holes in his safety net, including brand new start-ups, people on dividend pay and the forgotten freelancers in the arts. I have had a make-up artist and a BBC contractor write to me in the last couple of days. Initially, he was thought eligible for furlough pay, but now, as he is not an employee per se, he cannot have it, and he has too many savings to get universal credit. I had no reply—not a sausage. Does the Minister not agree with the OECD’s analysis that, with these overly ungenerous levels of social security support, he is just storing up productivity problems and record unemployment for further ahead?

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I am surprised that the hon. Lady should say that. As I recall, she and I have had two telephone conversations with colleagues in which we have discussed in detail the strengths and weaknesses and the potential to improve both the self-employed scheme and the job scheme. I do not recognise the view that she takes at all. It is in the nature of these schemes to seek to be as comprehensive and swift as possible, which, I think I recall, was exactly the language used by the OECD in describing the Government’s response.

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Scotland has benefited from the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom, with well over £10 billion of resources coming to Scotland to help fight this pandemic, from the furlough scheme to Barnett consequentials. Will the Minister commit to continue a UK-wide approach in tackling the pandemic, which will have to recognise that different parts of the United Kingdom will see recovery on different timescales and, of course, will see different sectors needing different levels of support?

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My right hon. Friend is right. I defer to no one in my admiration for Scotland as a country and for its history and people. It is true that in this crisis, as in the crisis of 2007-08, there has been enormous benefit to Scotland from being embedded within a wider Union, where the collective security and financial strength of all can be drawn on. In the case of Scotland, the self-employment scheme alone has 146,000 claims and the job scheme some 628,000 claims, and that amounts to an enormous package of UK Government support for the people in Scotland, and I am very proud of that.

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With more than 600,000 jobs lost between March and May, it would be nothing short of a social catastrophe to end the furlough scheme before businesses start rehiring. France and Germany are continuing their support for as long as it takes. With the right hon. Gentleman’s Government denying Scotland the borrowing powers to take her own action—powers that even councils have—can he now see why Scots are concluding that Britain is not working and why support for independence continues to rise and rise?

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I do not think that the Scots are concluding that at all. Any rational person looking at the position would understand that Scotland had been immensely strengthened by its relationship and its position within the United Kingdom, and rightly so, because of the hundreds of thousands of people who have been supported. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that there is a serious concern about the economic effects of the pandemic, but it is a concern, as the OECD and others have recognised, that we are squarely meeting, and Scotland has been a huge beneficiary and I am sure that it will continue to be so.

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I thank the Minister and all his colleagues for protecting 13,400 furloughed jobs in my constituency, as well as for the £27 million in grant funding to 2,261 businesses. Does he agree that the best way of getting the Lincolnshire economy back on track is to reopen as many businesses as possible as quickly and as safely as possible?

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My hon. Friend is of course absolutely right. The whole point of the strategy that we have adopted is to cushion the immediate shock, protect the vulnerable, and then move as swiftly and safely as we can towards economic growth. As he says, we need businesses flourishing, functioning and working together as effectively as possible. The quicker we get that, the more we can support people back into jobs. The tailored approach that we have taken is designed to help them do that.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that one thing all Members of the House could do is to encourage their constituents to support local independent businesses, such as those we have in Wantage, Didcot and everywhere else in the country, to give them the best chance of survival?

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Of course I agree with my hon. Friend on that. One of the great sadnesses of this has been the extent to which it is often the smallest and most local businesses—the most independent—that are most adversely affected by the coronavirus.

As he will know, between our job retention scheme, bounce back loans and reliefs and tax exemptions, we have given a huge amount of support in that area, and we will continue to do what we can to support it.

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In my constituency, around 25% of the population, aged 16 to 64, are being furloughed or are receiving universal credit. The additional support for people on the self-employment scheme probably takes the figure to 30%. We recognise, therefore, the scale of the Government’s intervention, but there are many freelancers on short-term contracts or on different ways of working for freelance industries who are not getting a penny, many of whom have a strong and detailed track record with HMRC, so the reverse engineering that took place with the main scheme could be applied to them. The Minister repeatedly keeps talking about the generosity of the scheme, which suggests no shift I assume. Will he be categoric now and tell us whether there is any hope for these forgotten freelancers?

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What I have said is simply that international and national bodies recognise the comprehensiveness and the relative generosity of our schemes—[Interruption.] They have done that, so that is the fact of the matter. The point that the hon. Lady raises is one on which we continue to reflect. As I have said, we take this very seriously. We want to support all sections of the economy, including self-employed people who have not been able to qualify. There are, of course, other ways in which they may be able to qualify for support within the wide package of support that we have given, but the self-employment scheme at the moment is not one, in some cases, that they are able to use, and that is something on which we will continue to reflect.

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The latest figures show that almost 9 million jobs have been furloughed, including 12,500 in my own constituency—jobs that would undoubtedly have been lost. As we begin to rebuild and reopen our economy, will my right hon. Friend assure me that he will continue to support both businesses and workers as they transition away from Government schemes?

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As my hon. Friend points out, we are working very hard to protect people in employment. That is what the latest numbers recognise, with the employment number as opposed to the unemployment number. But we must be realistic about this. We are in the middle of a pandemic crisis and there will be further losses; we have to understand that. The key thing is to make sure that we are as robust, energetic and inclusive as we possibly can be in supporting people in employment and supporting them back into employment when they come out of the jobs market.

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First, I thank the Financial Secretary very much for his help on many issues that we have brought to his attention. Will he further outline what steps have been taken to mitigate the scale of redundancies in manufacturing, with special reference to Bombardier and the aerospace industry? Will he agree to meet the working group to discuss this viable industry made up of many local businesses and suppliers, such as Bombardier in my own constituency of Strangford, to save thousands of jobs in the UK in the long term?

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I fully recognise the strategic importance of Bombardier in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and, indeed, in Northern Ireland. I have visited it myself, and that is well understood. It would not be appropriate for me to talk about specific companies in terms of the support and assistance that we offer. However, as he will know, across Government we are in constant negotiation and discussion with many different sectors on many different concerns that they have, and we will continue to do that.

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Like many small and medium-sized enterprises around the country, Copper Rivet Distillery in Medway transformed its business overnight during the crisis, working day and night to help with the provision of personal protective equipment, including sanitiser. Many of these small businesses will face economic hardship as the new normal arrives, with cheap and often subsidised imports. Will the Government be using their substantial buying power to consolidate our procurement spending on Britain’s SME sector so that it can invest and compete internationally?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the really heartening things about the early phases of the crisis was precisely the response from distilleries in producing hand sanitiser. I was delighted to be able to make very quickly the changes to the tax regime that supported that. As we go forward, we will continue to review and seek to address the concerns that he raises. It is not by any means a straightforward matter, but the key thing is to continue to push, on a very wide variety of fronts, as rapidly and forcefully as we possibly can.

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Many companies have used the job retention scheme to save cash while they planned redundancies, British Airways being one. BA has threatened over 40,000 staff with redundancy but about 30,000 would be rehired on vastly reduced terms and conditions. Last week I introduced a Bill to make that form of employment practice illegal to protect all employees. Does the Minister think it is fair that any employer should be allowed to make employees redundant from roles that are clearly not redundant and then rehire them on reduced pay— yes or no?

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I will refrain from commenting on a specific situation; the hon. Gentleman has identified one. But I will say, having not been aware of it, that I will look at his Bill with great interest, and I thank him for drawing attention to it.

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Bluewater in my constituency reopened its doors yesterday and did so in a cautious and responsible manner. It was fantastic to see so many shops there welcoming back customers for the first time. Does the Minister agree that centres like Bluewater should be praised not only for getting our economy back on track but for allowing us to get back to some form of normality?

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I absolutely do think that. I pay particular tribute to shops, malls and shopping centres that go the extra mile to be particularly safe and careful, within more than the spirit of the regulations, in ensuring that people can use them. I congratulate Bluewater on the extent to which it has done that. If that helps to communicate a wider sense of confidence in the ability to shop, then all the better.

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The Minister is actually giving quite comprehensive answers to most people in this Chamber, which makes it all the more striking how curt he was in replying to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). Let me have another try. Yesterday, 57 charities wrote to the Government urging them to pursue a green recovery, which could support at least 210,000 jobs, while a report from the Office for National Statistics has just said that vacancies are at a record low. I am not interested in hearing what the Minister did when he was an Energy Minister; I want to know what the strategy is now. What will he do now to ensure we build back better and that it is a green recovery?

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Of course I have no interest in being curt—the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion had discussed green issues and the green recovery just before and we were picking up from that. I and my colleague the Exchequer Secretary, who is the lead Minister on this in the Treasury, remain extremely interested in what we can do to ensure a green recovery. I am obviously not going to announce actions from the Dispatch Box in response to an urgent question, but I can reassure the hon. Lady that I and my colleagues are giving a great deal of attention to these issues.

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My right hon. Friend is correct that the job retention scheme and the self-employed scheme are two of the successes of the Government’s response to covid-19. He will also be aware that preserving as many of those jobs as possible when the schemes are withdrawn is a central and difficult economic task for the Government. To that end, can I urge him to put the full weight of the Treasury behind a move, as soon as it is as safe as possible, from a 2-metre to a 1-metre gap, because that is the single most important act we could take to preserve those jobs?

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My right hon. Friend will be aware that this is a topic of great topicality. The Prime Minister has launched a review of this and within weeks the matter will be decided. I cannot go any further than that, but he will see the direction of travel quite soon.

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I add my voice to those who are remembering Jo Cox today and continuing to celebrate her contribution.

I chair one of Britain’s precious theatres, the Theatre Royal Stratford East. Like theatres up and down the country, we are only surviving because of the furlough scheme. For as long as any social distancing measures are in place, theatres simply cannot put on performances. Even with a 1-metre distancing rule, only one in four seats can be either marketed or occupied. If we are not allowed to furlough beyond October, our theatres cannot survive and will close forever. What will the Minister do to save our theatres?

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I massively welcome the right hon. Lady’s support for and chairmanship of the Stratford East. It is a phenomenal theatre, as anyone will know who has acted in Joan Littlewood’s theatre workshop or “Oh! What a Lovely War”. It is a foundational place. She will be aware that many theatre companies have benefited from some of the schemes already launched and that the Government have already made a substantial commitment of support to this sector through the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, but of course we continue to look closely at it, and it is right that she raised the issue, on behalf not just of the Stratford East and other theatres but of performing art spaces more widely, because the problem with coronavirus is not just the safety aspect; it is also the fear aspect that goes with a pandemic crisis of this kind.

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Because of the UK’s support, 11,700 jobs in Moray were furloughed and 2,600 self-employed benefited from a share of £7.8 million, but a Scottish Government report has identified Moray as the area in Scotland potentially at risk of the highest number of job losses following this pandemic. What will the UK Government do with the Scottish Government to help businesses and individuals in Moray in the weeks and months ahead?

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As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have always taken Moray very seriously. We have made a significant investment in the oil and gas sector, from which it is a massive beneficiary, and have supported the city of Aberdeen. We have been very engaged indeed and will continue to look at the sectoral and geographical impacts of the pandemic, but I am grateful to him for highlighting the enormous impact in his constituency of our work so far.

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We remember our dear friend Jo Cox today and deeply miss her voice in this House. She was a powerful voice for those who desperately need our support.

Can the Minister commit urgently to support the 1 million people who have fallen through the gaps in provision? The provision that the Government have made is welcome, but we need a focus and a commitment to support the new starters, self-employed and freelancers, as identified by the Treasury Committee, and we need that commitment today. With the spectre of 9 million people facing unemployment, including 1 million young people, what assessment has the Minister made of the number of additional jobs that are likely to be lost with employers being required to pay 20% of employees’ wages?

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In response to the latter point, we think that a graduated return to employers paying for their own staff and being subject to the usual economic laws of supply and demand is an essential precondition for a proper economic recovery and, therefore, for the sustainability of not just jobs but the economy as a whole. In regard to the wider issues, it would be absurd for me to offer any response from the Dispatch Box to the Treasury Committee report that was filed yesterday, but as I have said to the Chair, we will look very carefully at it and the issues that it raises.

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I thank the Jo Cox Foundation for all it does.

My constituency is dependent on tourism and hospitality, a sector that was first to be hit by the crisis and is likely to be last to open up. Will the Minister confirm that his Department is looking at new additional measures to support businesses, such as Church Bay Cottages and Catch 22, that have worked so hard to support their community at this exceptional time?

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I thank my hon. Friend for bringing to the House’s attention and mine the delights of Ynys Môn. As a Herefordian, I am as acutely aware of the importance of tourism to many of our most beautiful areas as she is, but we continue to look at the sectoral inputs, as I have described. In fact, as she will be aware, tourism, hospitality and leisure have already received quite a substantial amount of additional support from the Government. We continue to keep the situation under review.

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[Inaudible.]

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Unfortunately, Jamie Stone is not audible, so I call Sir Graham Brady.

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As businesses get back to work, there is a cap on the number of employees who can be furloughed. Would it not make more sense to cap the number of hours or the total cost to the Treasury for each firm instead?

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I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Let me reflect upon it.

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We will try again with Jamie Stone.

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Further to the previous questions, when the highlands tourism industry eventually reopens, it is likely that very few businesses will make enough money to see them through the dark winter months. In the spirit of the Minister’s previous answers, would he agree to meet me to discuss how the furlough scheme and other support schemes can be fine-tuned to make sure that those businesses survive to next year?

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Nothing could silence the hon. Gentleman’s voice; I am glad to have been able to hear his question. I would be very happy to talk to him. I suspect that there are several hundred miles between us, but I will make sure that we find some way to talk to each other.

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I congratulate the Minister on getting through the entire UQ without making a single commitment, although he has made many observations. As a member of the Treasury Committee, I look forward to the Government’s formal response to our report on the 1 million people who are currently missing out on the Government’s schemes. Will he see if he can at least make a commitment before today’s UQ ends? What is he doing as a Treasury Minister to ensure that, as we move from the acute stage of the pandemic to furlough schemes beginning to end, the furlough scheme is not remembered as a waiting room for unemployment rather than the job saving scheme that it should have been?

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The hon. Lady will recall that the topic of the UQ is the job retention scheme and the self-employment scheme, and their relation to the UK economy in the face of covid, and that is what I have focused on. Of course, as a former member of the Treasury Committee myself for five years, I will take its report very seriously, as she suggests. In many ways, it may well be that people will look back on the job retention scheme and conclude, as the shadow Chancellor has, not only that it was considerably better than any possible alternative or inaction, but that it saved an enormous number of jobs.

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The figures released last week showed just how much of an impact the Treasury’s measures are having. In Hyndburn and Haslingden 11,200 people benefited from the furlough scheme and 3,300 claims were made under the self-employment income support scheme, saving so many jobs and livelihoods in my constituency. As we begin to reopen our economy, will the Minister assure me that he will continue to support both people and businesses in the difficult months ahead?

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Of course my hon. Friend is right that there will be difficult months ahead. There is no doubt about that. We specifically gave forward guidance on the two schemes in order to give people the reassurance that there would be that tailored support in place for a number of further months, and we will continue to keep the situation under review.

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As we know, regional disparities will occur as a result of this economic downturn. I am proud to say that Labour Mayors and local authorities, in Sheffield and up and down the country, are making regional plans to bring more people out of unemployment. They will not be able to deliver that if they do not have sufficient powers and resources. Has the Minister met local authority leaders, and will he make those powers and resources available?

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That is a very important question. Of course it is not just Labour Mayors; there are plenty of Conservative Mayors of cities who are—[Interruption.] Well, Andy Street for one. They have been taking a lead in this area too. One of the great things of which this Government and their predecessors can be proud is the extent to which devolution permitted those mayoralties to come into being. The hon. Lady is right about that. As she will be aware, we have made a significant amount of support available already to local authorities as spending bodies. It is for Mayors to work with them, as well as with the substantial amount of infrastructure money that was made available through things such as the transforming cities fund, to help to create an integrated response to the coronavirus crisis at local level.

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Given the amount of work that continues to take place on making workplaces covid secure, I wonder whether the Minister thinks that we need to revisit the “work from home if you can” message. Is that under review in the context of the furlough scheme being phased out through its taper? If so, on what sort of timetable does he envisage that being done?

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As a former Health Minister, my hon. Friend will understand very well the importance of this issue, and I thank him for raising it. This question is very much one that is being discussed across Government at the moment. One of the few silver linings to this crisis has been the understanding that, actually, the nature of work is changing as between home and work. One of the things that has not received much notice but I am intensely proud of is the way in which HMRC has been able to organise itself into much more of a disaggregated place in order to support from home all the services that it continues to deliver.

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I warmly welcome the Government’s U-turn a moment ago on school meals and any role the Treasury might have played in that decision. Given its devastating impact on jobs, the wider economy and, indeed, Treasury receipts, and as the rest of Europe is opening up, may we please have a U-turn on the Government’s ridiculous quarantine policy?

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I am afraid I am not qualified to comment on the ridiculousness or no of the quarantine policy. It remains in place in order to protect people, and it will be for colleagues to make a decision about that in due course.

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Under this Government we have record numbers of women in work in our country, and under the lockdown around 140,000 women—maybe more—will have become pregnant. We are already hearing that some businesses are routinely making pregnant women redundant, despite the law and the furloughing scheme. What message does the Treasury have for those businesses?

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Clearly, that is an abhorrent practice. My right hon. Friend is right to highlight it, to the extent that it is going on, and, as she says, it is illegal. I am very proud of the support the Government have given to women, as she has said, including through the national living wage and many other matters. I am also pleased that we have been able to make sure that the structure of the jobs scheme goes over enough years so that any impact on maternity is mitigated, so that those women are not affected, or are affected as little as possible, by the decisions they may have made—

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The economic outlook is predicted to be 10 times worse than the 2008 global financial crash. In this House, we all know the devastating impact that crash had, but this could be 10 times worse. What urgent measures can be taken to protect people in the creative sector, thousands of whom have been in touch with me, as the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green, desperate to save themselves from penury in the coming months?

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We do not know how much worse this will be than the 2007-08 crash, if indeed it is worse, and over what period of time we are talking about. We can be more precise about the causation, because the crash was caused by overleveraging in the banking sector and so the UK was hit harder by the crisis than other countries as a result. That was a result of Government inaction. We have touched on the position of people in the creative sectors and there is not much more I can add in the time available, but I am very supportive of the situation and we are trying to assist them.

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The Select Committee on Transport’s report on aviation has noted that British Airways is looking to make almost a third of its workforce redundant, while taking the job retention scheme for more than half of its employees and at the same time looking to invest £1 billion in a new airline. Will the Minister consider changing the job retention scheme so that companies cannot behave in this manner and rip off the taxpayer at the same time?

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My hon. Friend will know that I cannot possibly comment on any specific circumstances, but I recognise the work he has done in putting this so squarely in the public mind.

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I thank the Treasury team for the incredibly agile and decisive support they have given to workers and businesses during this pandemic—across my constituency, we are very grateful. As part of the transition to the new covid economy, will the Minister consider supporting a network of innovative technology accelerators, in Telford and across the country, to create jobs and new start-ups? Will he meet me to discuss this further?

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I am very interested in my hon. Friend’s suggestion. It is not squarely a Treasury matter—it is more an industrial strategy and Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy matter—but I would be delighted to meet her on the topic.

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May I associate myself with my many colleagues in remembering our dear lost friend Jo Cox today? On 11 May, the Prime Minister told us:

“If people cannot…get the childcare that they need, plainly they are impeded from going to work, and they must be defended and protected on that basis.”—[Official Report, 11 May 2020; Vol. 676, c. 29.]

A survey by Pregnant Then Screwed shows that 71% of women trying to return to work in the next three months cannot do so because of childcare. So will the Minister set out exactly what he is going to do to protect and defend those women from redundancy and discrimination in the workplace?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I have not seen the survey that she describes. but I will look at it and discuss it with the Minister for Equalities, my colleague the Exchequer Secretary. Of course there can be no shying away from this issue and if it is as the hon. Lady describes, we will look closely at it. I thank her for that.

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I thank the Minister and all his team for the extraordinary work they have done to support our economy during the first phase of this crisis. As we look towards the future and our recovery, may I ask him to continue to make bold and innovative interventions in our economy to protect as many jobs and businesses as possible, in both Basildon and Thurrock?

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I almost did not recognise my hon. Friend with his new coronavirus growth, but I very much accept and recognise the point he makes. I thank him for it, and we will continue to work hard in this area.

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Aviation and associated businesses create stable jobs and economic growth in Luton. Coronavirus will impact the industry for the foreseeable future and recovery is going to be much longer. Does the Minister recognise that replicating the French Government’s commitment to ensuring that short-term work schemes and support are available for longer—for, say, two years—would support those long-term affected sectors, retain key skills in those industries and avoid redundancies?

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We are of course looking closely at other countries to see if they are doing things from which we can learn and benefit. I would have some doubts about a scheme that went on as long as that precisely because we need to return businesses and people working in them to normality as swiftly and safely as we possibly can. This might have the effect of counteracting that, but the point is well made and we will continue to review these alternative arrangements.

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Many of my constituents, such as those working in the creative industries, navigate between self-employment and PAYE—working, yet not qualifying for either scheme. Given that we are extending our support schemes, will the Minister look into how we can support those who, due to nimble working practices as part of a flexible workforce, miss out on both schemes?

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I recognise that there are some people in that situation, and it is very unfortunate that they may not be able to qualify for either scheme. To be clear, that would mean that they could not have been on a PAYE scheme within the past three years, as described by the rules, or indeed qualify under the self-employment scheme for other reasons. However, we take the point that my hon. Friend makes. We have discussed this in detail and I have explained to the House, again in some detail, why it is hard to reach those people, but we continue to look at that very closely.

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Today’s unemployment data shows that 11,400 across Denton and Reddish are furloughed. There are 3,950 claimants— 2,000 higher than in March—and 800 of those are now under 24. In Greater Manchester, Diane Modahl has been appointed as chair of the new young persons taskforce, which will help to develop a young persons guarantee, but what more can the Government do nationally to help ensure that our young people are not left behind?

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Again, I almost did not recognise the hon. Gentleman—I congratulate him on his coronavirus hair growth. I think the point that he raises is absolutely right. We are of course looking at the differential impact of the pandemic across the age spectrum, as well as regionally and across other dimensions. It has been well recognised and recommended by many that energetic action in the labour market to support young people and those making a transition between one job and another, or going back into work, will be very much something for us to focus on over the next few years.

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Tourism businesses have been under immense pressure. In particular, smaller hospitality businesses, as in my constituency, need certainty to be able to survive. While I welcome the introduction of part-time furlough for workers, for these businesses to reopen on 4 July, some staff must be taken off furlough now. With part-time furloughing not starting until July, will my right hon. Friend confirm whether there is to be a phased unlocking of the industry, or can part-time furlough commence sooner?

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No, the rules are as laid out in the guidance on gov.uk. They have a start date at the end of the month and we are in the final three-week coronavirus job retention scheme period, but as my hon. Friend says, we are very much hoping for and working towards a much wider reopening after or around the first week of July. That will potentially be a critical move forward for the country in its response to the pandemic.

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The Chancellor stated that his priority was

“to support people, protect jobs and businesses through this crisis”,

yet businesses are on a financial cliff edge. Given today’s employment and vacancy rates, and the OECD prediction that the UK is likely to suffer one of the worst slumps in the developed world, does the Minister share my concern that ending support schemes too early will simply push many off a precipice?

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Of course we want to ensure that there is a phased return to normality. That is what the delay and the extension of the two schemes is designed to do, so we do recognise that concern. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the OECD has predicted the strongest bounce back for this country. That may well be because of our extremely flexible labour markets, from which I hope we continue to benefit as we come out of this dreadful situation.

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I am sure that the whole House will welcome the remarkably stable unemployment figures this morning, which are testament to the huge amount of support that the Treasury has put into retaining employment. May I urge my right hon. Friend to put the same amount of effort into creating jobs during the recovery, including encouraging inward investment and tech hubs—including some in Sevenoaks?

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Tech hubs in Sevenoaks are my regular reflection; I thank my hon. Friend very much for her question. Of course, she is absolutely right. As we think about a more sustainable, greener and more productive economy, we need to be thinking about how our whole industrial strategy and posture will change, and I have no doubt that it will involve continued investment and support for technology in all its manifestations across the UK.

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In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I will now suspend the House for five minutes.

Sitting suspended.