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Covid-19 Support Schemes: Ineligible People

Volume 685: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2020

[Relevant Documents: e-petition 310515, Coronavirus Support Package for Directors / Shareholders of small Limited Co’s, e-petition 319899, One-off Grant To Be Paid To Anyone Who Has Not Benefited From A Covid-19 Scheme, and e-petition 310471, Provide COVID19 income support for the newly self-employed, without HMRC records.]

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered support for people ineligible for Government covid-19 support schemes.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees.

“Feelings of betrayal, hopelessness, abandonment and not belonging have caused me immense anguish over the last 9 months”.

Those are the words of Lisa from London, who spent 34 years as a pay-as-you-earn taxpayer and was newly self-employed in April 2019.

I am incredibly grateful, as are the many thousands of people who have been in touch—both directly and indirectly—to share their stories with me, to have been granted this very important debate, which also addresses three petitions. I am aware that many Members were unable to make the crowded call list today.

It is 261 days since the furlough scheme was announced and 258 days since the self-employment income support scheme was announced, yet those very welcome schemes had gaping holes in them. We know that some 3 million people—approximately one in 10 of the workforce—fell through those gaps. Often, they were ineligible for universal credit, so they were left without a penny of Government support over the past nine months. Their plight has been raised time and again in this place, and the largest all-party parliamentary group has been formed to champion their cause. Yet the Treasury has repeatedly refused to do anything to address this glaring injustice.

Those who have been excluded span many different categories of workers, including, but not limited to, employees who were denied furlough or were ineligible for it, which includes new starters; the self-employed, including those newly self-employed; those over the £50,000 threshold; those who earn less than 50% of their income from self-employment; directors of limited companies who are paid annually or via dividends, or directors of such companies that are not yet in profit; PAYE freelancers; those on zero-hours contracts; and new mothers. These 3 million individuals are from all walks of life, from beauticians to builders, teachers, driving instructors, taxi drivers, lawyers, those working in our world-leading creative industries, and many, many more.

I will address up front some of the misrepresentations that exist, then touch on the impact of this injustice and, importantly, refer to some of the solutions that have been proposed. To date, the responses that we have had from the Government include, “It is too difficult and complex to include these groups.” I am afraid that, nine months on, that just does not wash. I understand that the schemes were set up at speed, but there has been ample time to work through and implement solutions. Another response was that the schemes were targeted where help was most needed. It is clear from the thousands of case studies received and the surveys conducted by the House of Commons digital engagement team, the Organise group and ExcludedUK that that is simply not true. There are heartbreaking stories of desperate need, including the use of food banks and people not being able to switch the heating on this winter.

There has, at times, been a suggestion that some of the excluded are highly paid and dodging tax in some way, especially those paid via dividends. My constituent, Fraser Wilkin, who runs a travel company in Twickenham, pays himself by dividends because of the huge fluctuation in annual income due to events outside his control, such as the coronavirus. If he had drawn a regular salary through the year, he would have been unable to fulfil his statutory and contractual obligations to his clients, in terms of prompt refunds when their holidays were cancelled due to the pandemic.

Universal credit is cited as the fall-back. A survey of more than 3,000 individuals found that almost three quarters were unable to access universal credit. Let us face it: we all know that universal credit is not meaningful support. Otherwise, the Government would not have felt the need to create the furlough scheme or the self-employed income support scheme.

We know that the mental health impacts on many of those excluded from support have been stark. There have already been eight reported suicides, and one respondent to the House of Commons digital engagement team said that she almost took her life several times, and one week spent every day in contact with the Samaritans.

The Centre for Mental Health has said that covid-related unemployment has caused an additional almost 30,000 people to request services for depression. Those mental health impacts spread well beyond the 3 million individuals to their families and support networks. Many report having to move back in with elderly parents and rely on their pensions. Marriages and relationships have been strained or ended. Parents of young children talk about the stress it is putting on their children. An anonymous respondent from the north-west said:

“my mental health has plummeted and my family are anxious too, so much so my teenage daughter is getting counselling for her anxiety”.

Personal debt is rising. Rachel from the south-east says:

“I am selling my house, cannot get a mortgage, selling my personal belongings just to put food on the table. Getting into so much debt. Never been so scared in my life. I’m also a single parent and it’s heart-breaking telling my daughter that Santa can’t afford much this year”.

In terms of the wider economic impact, those businesses and entrepreneurs, who are natural risk-takers, are the wealth creators and the lifeblood of our economy. Retaining their skills and health, and stopping their businesses going to the wall are critical to our post-covid economic recovery. It is incredibly short-sighted to cast them aside in this way.

Moving on to solutions, many proposals have been put forward by a number of groups, such as the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed, the Treasury Committee, the Federation of Small Businesses, the gaps in support all-party parliamentary group and the various representative groups for those who have been excluded.

I have limited time today, but some of the solutions include using HMRC data to support claims for those with PAYE income history; widening the accepted evidence for demonstrating proof of employment; extending cut-off dates; looking at the two specific schemes that have been put forward for directors of limited companies; removing the 50% rule; removing bereavement payouts and carers’ allowance from the calculation of PAYE income; and extending the criteria for discretionary business grants. Many of those solutions just require imagination and will. Plenty of experts stand by to help make them implementable.

I want to conclude by sharing from a children’s book sent to me by Kev Payne, who was a teacher and became an illustrator in 2018. He is ineligible for support because of the 50% rule. He wrote a story to try to explain how he feels. In it, the mice are the taxpaying workers and the bear is the Government. A storm hits and the bear provides food and shelter for all the animals, but the mice are left out and told that there is no space for them:

“‘But I gave you my food’, said Mouse. ‘You said you would help me.’

‘I cannot help you now,’ said Bear. ‘I will see you when the storm is over.’

‘But…’ began Mouse. Bear glared and growled at Mouse. It turned its vast back against her.”

My plea to the Minister is to listen to how these hard-working, tax-paying people are feeling and to look at the long-term impact of his policy. The Chancellor does not have to be the big, bad bear; he can be Santa Claus this Christmas.

I will start the winding-up speeches at 5.10 pm. There are lots of Members who want to speak, so I am afraid we will have to have a time limit of two minutes.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this important debate. I am delighted to co-chair the gaps in support all-party parliamentary group. We are all here today bringing the case to this House.

Blue Collar Conservatism, of which I am a founder member, set up the campaign asking for supermarkets to return their covid business exemption, specifically with the purpose that that money would be redirected to those who have had no support during this period. We met with Tesco, Asda, the British Retail Consortium and others. They have done the right thing, stepped up to the plate and committed to returning that money. I pay tribute to those who have done so.

My message to the Minister is that that campaign specifically aimed to redirect that money to those who have not had any money. Having spoken to those firms, that was the basis on which they have handed the money forward. I hope the Minister will act in the same faith and spirit as those supermarkets that handed over that money and support for those people.

I want to mention two big supermarkets that have not yet committed to give that money forward: Iceland and the Co-op. I ask the shadow Minister to tell the shadow Chancellor, who is a Labour and Co-operative Member, to speak to her friends to ensure that the Co-op pays that money back, unless it thinks it is more in need than others. We think it should do the right thing, join in with the other supermarkets and hand that money back.

I think we should start by thanking the Government for what they have done to support people through a very difficult time. The Government have spent some £210 billion in dealing with the pandemic. That is an unprecedented fiscal response. We should put on record our thanks for the scale of that intervention towards people who are in more regular employment.

The scale of that generosity brings into question its allocation, when people in so many groups have not received the same scale of Government funding as people in PAYE employment. It is not just about individuals. I have spoken about the events industry before and the exhibition industry. I spoke with the British Events Industry Coalition earlier this week. In the weddings industry, I think of Eggington House in my constituency.

In terms of individuals, we are talking about people who work with a construction industry scheme card, directors who pay themselves through dividends and the newly self-employed. I had a letter today from a driving instructor. He only set up in October 2018. That was not his fault. He has done everything he has been asked and he pays what he should, but he is left out. This affects beauticians, freelance musicians and so many more.

The Office for Budget Responsibility, in its July 2019 fiscal risks report, put the tax reduction for someone on £70,000 being paid through dividends at 11.6 percentage points. That is slightly less tax, but those people are getting very much less than 11.6 percentage points lower than what people are getting through the furlough scheme. I ask the Treasury to look again—it has clever people—and to please remember these 2.9 million people who have been left out so far.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees.

Yesterday I chaired a meeting of the gaps in support all-party parliamentary group, during which we heard from Andy Burnham, Dan Jarvis and Steve Rotheram about how the metro Mayors are working to support businesses in their areas to plug the gaps left by Government.

Dan Jarvis, the Mayor of Sheffield, explained that an estimated 68,000 people are excluded from support in Yorkshire. At 13.1%, Yorkshire has the highest proportion of new starters in the UK, but because of a fluke of timing they have been thrown into poverty and homelessness, joining the 1 million freelancers now in debt, according to IPSE. Entrepreneurs, business people, creatives and strivers who have worked with their employers and been paid in any way the employer deems more convenient are now paying a heavy price for that flexibility.

I will share a couple of stories. Nicola is 46 and a single mum of two girls in West Yorkshire. She is on a zero-hours contract with a publicly funded charity, working in the supported living sector and paid the minimum wage. She asked to be furloughed but was told that she could not because her job was publicly funded, and was then told that there was enough work. Her application for unemployment benefits was refused as she was still under contract and had received a wage. Nicola was not just excluded from support; she was refused support and had to live on child benefit, going deep into arrears.

Sadly, as Steve Rotheram said yesterday, “whatever it takes” has turned into “whatever we will give you”. Andy Burnham said that it is up to politicians to stand up for people against the machine of Government and to mitigate risk. This is now an opportunity for the Government to listen to the solutions that they have heard this afternoon and put them in place to support the millions who are excluded and who face the hardest and harshest of winters.

I want to make a few brief remarks. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate.

I recognise the massive effort made this year to provide broad support right across the economy. In its recent assessment of the UK’s economic response, the International Monetary Fund praised our Government’s actions as

“one of the best examples of coordinated action globally”,

saying that they had

“helped mitigate the damage, holding down unemployment and insolvencies.”

I take my hat off to the Chancellor. His policies mean that many more jobs will be saved and our economy will experience a faster bounce back.

I also have a lot of sympathy, however, for specific businesses and sectors in our economy that have missed out, often through no fault of their own. For some, the types of support were not relevant or they had unfortunate timing issues. This includes a number of my constituents, and I want to give just three examples.

First, Jo from Brackley runs a building maintenance company. She has received only £550 a month since lockdown and has lost thousands of pounds’ worth of work. Secondly, Shirley runs a small, independent clothing business. She has received no income for herself or her business and is having now to sell all her stock at a loss as well as make her staff redundant. Thirdly, Mark and Louise are, along with so many other wedding and event organisers, unable to operate at all. They have experienced almost 100% cancelled bookings and a total collapse in income.

I think that most people in the country would agree that this Government have gone further than any other Government to protect livelihoods as well as lives. I agree with other hon. Members, however, that now is the time to consider those left behind and see what we can do to help them survive into 2021. If we do that, they can start to rebuild their businesses and to create new jobs, as they have done so successfully in the past.

It is pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Rees, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this debate.

I have repeatedly called on the Government to listen to the concerns of people who were not covered by the self-employment income support and job retention schemes. There has still been nothing beyond social security for those who have been excluded from support from the start, and many self-employed people remain cut out from social security support for measly reasons.

My postbag has been full of real-world examples caused by the Government’s callous neglect in recent months—from photographers to driving instructors, events organisers and wedding planners. My constituent Simone is a prime example of those who have been repeatedly allowed to fall through the net. She started out as a self-employed driving instructor very recently, so she does not qualify for the support scheme. She also cannot receive universal credit, as her partner is employed. Although she was able to start working again between the first and second lockdown, the latest restrictions mean that she finds herself unable to earn and without the ability to access support.

The Chancellor said he would do “whatever it takes” to support people and businesses through the economic impact of the pandemic, but millions across the country, including many in my constituency, know that he has not delivered on that promise. That has left those affected in Portsmouth feeling like “collateral damage”, as my constituent described it, abandoned by the Government in the face of unprecedented uncertainty. That is also economic illiteracy.

We are all asking the same question: when will the Government finally support my constituents and those across the country who have been allowed to slip through the safety net for far too long?

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on calling this important debate. We must applaud the vast scale of financial support provided to many millions since March. It is unprecedented and rivals that of any western country, but there have been exclusions that have caused distress and suffering for many—the self-employed, freelancers, zero-hours workers and entrepreneurs who have taken huge risks to start new businesses and create jobs and opportunities. Those people have worked hard, but when they were most in need of support, they found themselves left behind.

On Small Business Saturday at the weekend, I visited businesses in Frome and met Liz Huband, the owner of Badger House Leather in the town’s fantastic Black Swan arts centre. Liz started her business two years ago, self-funding all of it. Her business was growing, but when the pandemic hit, she had to stop trading. In order to keep funding it, she worked half time supporting social work education. Because of that, she became ineligible for the self-employed income support scheme. The support system has entirely let her down; it has forgotten her. I have other examples, as I am sure we all have, but in two minutes I do not have the time to mention them. Some 3 million people are unable to reach meaningful support, which is a catastrophe for so many lives and livelihoods.

With vaccinations starting this week, there is an end in sight to the pandemic, but in rebuilding our economy, we will need entrepreneurs such as Liz to drive the recovery. I urge the Minister to look again urgently at ensuring that support is allocated fairly and proportionately to all those who have felt, until now, entirely left behind and forgotten.

It is always a pleasure, Ms Rees. Like others, I am angered by the Government’s blinkered obstinacy in denying the existence of 3 million people—people such as my constituent Chris Anderson, a self-employed filmmaker for 37 years, who has been denied support and is surviving on limited benefits and dwindling savings. John Powell is from a family of showmen based in Ocean Beach Pleasure Park, who have been in the business since 1847 and are now being forced to sell some of their fairground equipment just to get by. Their business survived two world wars, but I am fearful that they will not survive this Tory Government.

In March, my constituent Neil Jelly lost 80% of his business revenue overnight. He has had to turn to universal credit and is seeking advice on how to close down his business. He said to me that this year has been a mental and emotional struggle—a year ending with him trying to explain to his young children that their dad failed in his business and Christmas will be different this time. Of course, Neil has not failed. He has been failed by an uncaring Government.

Universal credit is not the answer; not everyone is eligible. Every single time I hear a Minister speak of how wonderful it is, I am more convinced that they have literally never met anyone who claims universal credit. Being on universal credit is a miserable and soul-destroying experience. It is no coincidence that the rise in UC claims and the refusal of claims is matched by empty food bank shelves up and down the country.

Poverty and debt affect individuals, and local and national economics. It makes no sense at all to continue denying people support. The all-party parliamentary group and the Treasury Committee have provided solutions. I sincerely hope that the Minister will not revert to his script today and close his ears, as the rest of Government have, to this appalling scandal.

Since the start of the pandemic, the Treasury has implemented a suite of support measures that have been nothing short of extraordinary. For most people and most small businesses, money was received in a timely manner, and proved vital in protecting businesses and the employees they support. However, a large number unfortunately fell through the cracks. Earlier in the year, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury accepted that certain individuals were unintentionally excluded from the Government’s financial support measures, but highlighted the difficulties of assessing those on a case-by-case basis.

We are nine months on from March, and a growing number of individuals have not received support throughout the pandemic, despite paying their taxes. One example in my constituency is testament to that. Graham Whitehead, a project manager in the arts and culture sector, left his full-time employment in January 2019 and decided to become self-employed. As he became self-employed in January, he did not have the required tax returns over a three-year period and did not meet the threshold of 50% self-employed income for the tax year. As of 10 July 2020—127 days after the industry was closed—he had received a total of only £6.27 in universal credit from the state.

There are many cases across the country like Graham’s—cases of individuals who have bravely taken a leap, spurred on by their entrepreneurial desire to forge their own path. Those excluded are the risk-takers who this Conservative Government should be encouraging. That is deeply unfair. They feel let down by the absence of support.

Over the past few weeks, support provided by Her Majesty’s Government has been returned to the Treasury from Tesco, Sainsbury’s and other large supermarkets. These funds should be repurposed and directed towards those who have yet to receive adequate support. Her Majesty’s Government have taken many truly unprecedented steps to protect lives and livelihoods throughout the pandemic. However, we should endeavour to ensure that no one is left behind.

We are here yet again to make a plea for our constituents in Greater Manchester, 130,000 of whom have fallen through the gaps—people like three of my constituents. There is Luana, who runs a small interior design company; Shan, who is a sound engineer—we make the best sound engineers in the world, and Shan tells me he is really worried that there will not be a live music industry to come back to; and Zena, who runs festivals. They were all recommended to pay themselves through dividends because they have irregular income. They are not people who invested in companies to make a profit. This is their income and their wages, and they are really struggling. Can the Minister look at the proposal from the Federation of Small Businesses for something like a director support scheme? The evidence can be based on trading profits. If we do not support such directors, their businesses will fail, and the people who work for them and with them will fail as well.

There are solutions out there for the various types of people who have fallen through the gaps, including the newly self-employed, the 50% limit people, the self-employed with a profit cap limit and pay-as-you-earn freelancers. There are potential solutions if the Government will just look at them. We are tired of making these arguments, and I am sure the Minister must be tired of hearing them. I know he is a decent guy. Will he commit today to looking at those proposals, including those from Prospect and the Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union? I am sure he will have received their paper, which proposes a number of solutions for those people.

The constituents who are coming to us are hard-working, decent people. Some of them are looking at selling their houses and moving back in with their parents, or selling their possessions. They are really struggling, and the Government appear not to want to listen, so I ask Minister today to please listen.

I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing the debate.

It is true that where the Government schemes have worked, they have worked well. It is also true that Government schemes are not an entitlement, but a use of very scarce taxpayers’ money. If we are honest with ourselves, many of those 3 million people are probably not high on the list of those who are in greatest need, because they earn a lot of money, or because a large proportion of their income comes from other areas. Notwithstanding, some specific areas need focus.

It is depressing that too often the Treasury looks like a wholly owned subsidiary of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, rather than having a broader view of the economy as a whole. I want to focus on company directors, because that group, as other hon. Members have said, has the grit and determination that will be so crucial to our recovery.

Becoming a company director is often a moment of pride. It says, “I’m going to do something. I am going to make something happen.” It is a tangible moment that defines why someone is going to contribute to society. As the hon. Member for Twickenham has said, as we emerge from the recession, these are the risk-takers whom the Government need to support.

My hon. Friend the Minister needs to find a standard reporting event. He needs to ensure that people can demonstrate a negative impact on their business and can confirm they have not received any benefit from Government under any existing schemes. Within those three parameters, it should be within the wit of man or woman—certainly within the wit of the Treasury—to find something, perhaps along the lines of the forgivable loan suggestion of Professor Francis Green of Edinburgh University, or the directors income support scheme supported by others.

This is a group on whom we will rely. I urge the Minister to ensure we do all we can to see if there are ways to support them with the scarce taxpayers’ funds available.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing this important debate. Covid-19 does not discriminate, but for the 3 million people who find themselves with no support, it must sometimes seem like the Government do. I—and I am sure they—acknowledge that many millions of people have been helped by successful Government schemes, but that is not enough. It is no consolation to them that someone else has been helped by the Government. It does not help them feed their children. One of the things I find most surprising is that many of the people suffering are the very people whom successive Conservative Governments have rightly described as the backbone of our economy: the self-employed, the innovators and those in the creative sector. And no, it is not easy for ballet dancers to retrain in IT.

I was contacted recently by a woman—a make-up artist—who had used her husband’s pension to set up a small business to provide for her and her two children, but she cannot work and she is getting no support. I get calls every week from constituents who built up successful businesses that they are now losing through no fault of their own because they are following Government rules, and the Government are not helping them. They are distraught; they are at their wits’ end.

I know what it is like to build a career, and I am sure many on the Government Benches know—or think they know—what it is like to have it ripped away for following the Government’s rules. In many cases, these are people who voted for the Government. Yes, many of them are the people we will depend on to rebuild our economy, but to do that, they will have to depend on the help they get now. We want our west-end theatres to be alive again and our TV industry to thrive, and in my city, we want our world-famous festival to regrow, but they all need help now. Covid-19 might not discriminate, but we know how to be fair; this Government could do so.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I extend my congratulations to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson). Two minutes does not give hon. Members much time to comment on the issues raised with them, but I thank the Chancellor, who took the time to speak to me last week specifically on the newly self-employed, who we know—it has been mentioned in the debate—have been among the hardest-hit groups.

I pay tribute to the Chilbolton and Wherwell small business group, which set up as a self-help group for many small businesses in those villages to find ways to support one another. It has come to me with tales of company directors who are not eligible for support, of microbusinesses set up from home that do not pay business rates and therefore are not eligible for those grants, and of very new businesses—the newly self-employed. I reiterate the pleas for help for them.

I will mention three cases from my constituency. First, Jo, from the events industry, tells me that she and her husband have been forced to sleep in friends’ spare rooms so that they can Airbnb their home. Secondly, there is the lady trying to live on child benefit because her husband earned more than £50,000 last year but nothing this year, giving them an income of just £25,000 a year over two years. Thirdly, I hesitate to use the word “pensioner”, but my constituent Susan is drawing a small pension of £11,000 a year and supplementing it with self-employment. However, because less than half her income comes from that, she is not eligible for the self-employment income support scheme. She says she needs to augment her pension, but she is really struggling to get by.

There are tales of real hardship where mortgage holidays have come to an end and loan repayments are having to be made again. These people are really struggling. I know that my neighbour the Minister, who will be familiar with many of the places I mentioned, will do his best to listen and respond, but the argument every Member has made is that people need help now. Christmas is coming; please give them some hope.

I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), and declare my interest as a director of two limited companies. As I have said countless times before in the Chamber, and in Westminster Hall, the Government’s economic response to the pandemic has been unprecedented. As we promoted Small Business Saturday over the weekend, I was pleased to note that almost 1,500 businesses in my constituency have benefited from bounce back loans, and 3,500 people have kept their jobs because of the furlough scheme. As I made clear three weeks ago, it is time for the Government to provide support for directors of limited companies.

Being a limited company has some small benefits with regard to national insurance payments, although much of that is negated by the payment of corporation tax. The main reason for being a limited company is, as is indicated by the name, to limit one’s liability as an individual. To be penalised because one is a director and takes remuneration through a dividend seems harsh.

A week is a long time in politics; three weeks, it seems, is a lifetime. On 18 November I stood in the Chamber along with many of my colleagues and called for large supermarkets to return the rate relief they had received from the Government, as they had not been hit financially by covid. I am pleased to say that since then £1.8 billion has been issued back.

With this in mind, I call on the Minister to do three things: ensure that those businesses and sectors that were not in financial trouble return the moneys gained through rate relief; give businesses the option to tick an opt-out box to ensure they do not receive unneeded support in the first place; and, most importantly, listen to the concerns and recognise the plight of the self-employed directors. We are receiving funds back from supermarkets and other businesses; now is the time to use this money wisely to allow businesses to stay afloat as we begin to reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

I am pleased to be able to sum up in this debate for the Scottish National party. I commend the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate, and everyone who has contributed. As others have said, we could have filled this Chamber four or five times over with hon. Members who would have liked to take part, but realised there would not be space. I cannot be the only person who has noticed that today, again, nobody has defended the Government’s failure to support these 3 million people.

I also commend the campaign groups that are helping to make sure that this scandal will not go away—not this year, not next year, not any year—until it is addressed. I am sorry there is not time to mention by name all my constituents who have contacted me and asked for their plight to be publicised, let alone the people from outside my constituency who have been in touch over the past few days specifically because I was going to speak in this debate.

The first and most important point that must be made—it is one that the Government sometimes try to fudge—is that this is a deliberate policy decision. It is not that the Government could not have helped these people by now, had they wanted to; it is that, frankly, they do not seem to care enough to try. It has to be the UK Government who address the problem. None of the devolved Administrations has borrowing powers that would come anything close to the amount the UK Government are borrowing to fund their covid support package. By 2025, UK Government debt will be somewhere in the region of £2 trillion to £2.5 trillion. The devolved Administrations are not allowed to borrow money to this extent; if they were, I am sure that at least one, and possibly all three, would.

To the many harrowing stories we have heard today and in other debates, I can add that of my constituent Gemma, who moved from being employed to being self-employed early in 2019. For 2018-19, her PAYE income was higher than her self-employment income, and she did not qualify for support. She has now submitted her tax return for 2019-20, the period ending shortly before lockdown was imposed. Deliberate policy from the Government is that they ignore her accurate tax return for 2019-20 as evidence of what she was earning—what she would have earned this year. However, HMRC is happy to use the same tax return as evidence that she now owes them £9,000.

There was good reason why 2018-19 tax returns were used as a basis for the first scheme when it was announced last year, but now that the Government again have a scheme open for self-employed support applications, there is no excuse whatsoever to continue to exclude people simply because their 2018-19 tax return significantly understated their self-employment earnings.

There are some cases, such as that of Joanna in my constituency, where alleged employed earnings were significantly overstated. Joanna still runs a small business. Her family ran another business that failed because a serious accident befell a close family member who was involved in the business. To cope with that, they cashed in their pensions at exactly the wrong time in 2018-19. This meant that their pensions were counted towards her earned income. Had it been a few months earlier or later, it would not have counted, and Joanna would qualify for covid self-employment support. Now, they get nothing. Just like Gemma, Joanna’s tax return for 2019-20 will give a much more accurate picture of her earnings but it will be ignored by the Government. Again, of course, HMRC will quite happily use it as a basis for the tax she is due to pay them.

It would be easy just to say that this is happening because the Government do not care, but even if it was true that they genuinely could not care less about the plight of these 3 million people and their families, surely they care about the damage to the economy if these people disappear from wealth creating in the future. Let us not forget that this time last year all those people were working in their businesses, creating wealth and providing valued services to the local communities and beyond. Some were giving jobs to other people in the community. All were paying taxes into Government coffers. That is what they were doing this time last year. This time next year, or maybe even earlier, every one of them wants to be doing exactly the same—to be part of a post-covid shared economic recovery. To do that, they need support this time, this year.

I say to the Minister, even if the Government’s approach to these people is as callous as it sometimes appears, surely it is in our shared interest to help all those who want to be in business after covid to get into business or to stay in business. It is not about charity; it is simply about parity.

It is a pleasure to see you in the chair, Ms Rees. I appreciate that we are slightly pushed for time. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for securing such an important debate on a timely issue. For nine long months now, many workers have had no support whatsoever from the Government due to glaring gaps in the Government’s various schemes and wider provisions—inadequacies that the Opposition have highlighted time and again. Many of these problems could be fixed with political will, but the Government so far have chosen to do nothing. Those problems have festered and worsened, and today they are endangering our economic recovery.

I pay tribute to the Members we have heard from, whose contributions showed the impact that being shut out of support has had on many of their constituents right across the United Kingdom, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan) and for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), who made such passionate cases on their constituents’ behalf. Like many Members, I have also heard from constituents who find themselves in this position. One constituent, newly self-employed after starting his own business, told me:

“I am from a working class background. I’ve worked and paid taxes since leaving school, funded my own retraining. I’ve not claimed any benefits at all during this time. I’ve worked hard to earn everything that I have achieved. I admit to feeling disappointed and let down, that due to a quirk of timing and dates, I won’t be afforded the same level of Government support.”

I have also heard from many of the unions representing working people in this country: Community, Equity, the Musicians’ Union, the Writers’ Guild, Prospect and the GMB about how many of their members are in similar situations. I have also heard from the Federation of Small Businesses. Across professions, the same issues come up time and again: the exclusion of the newly self-employed, the 50% threshold, and people who are not eligible for universal credit despite a huge drop in income. We also know that, despite some recent welcome changes, there is ongoing discrimination against women who have taken maternity leave.

I have said before, and will say again, that the Opposition accept that it was difficult to get everything right when the Government set up these income support schemes back in March—but we are months into this pandemic now. We know where the gaps are. We have pointed them out repeatedly and Members have made the case here today. I ask the Minister, again, what is being done to sort out these issues? No doubt he will list the schemes the Government have already made available, but surely he must understand that this will be cold comfort for those still unable to access support. Does he have anything new to say today?

The Government’s failure to address these issues is also storing up problems down the line. There are many self-employed people who have put money aside into savings accounts to pay for end-of-year tax bills. In many cases, these savings trigger an end to their universal credit eligibility or they can only claim at a reduced rate. This means that not only are they going without support for longer, but that they will face even greater financial difficulties when required to pay their end-of-year tax bill. As we have heard today, Government inaction risks the very economic recovery we all desperately need and want.

Entrepreneurship is the backbone of our economy. A dynamic economy needs people who are willing to take risks, become self-employed and start their own businesses. After all, after the 2008 financial crash, it was SMEs that spearheaded economic recovery and gave people hope and work. Now, however, when so many self-employed people are in need, the Government are not there to help.

Self-employed people have seen how the Government have treated them, and I worry that they will be wary of taking steps that could help to drive our recovery. As we have heard today, many people who are already self-employed are considering giving up on their careers and their businesses. That is of particular concern among women, those from low-income backgrounds, and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

We should do everything we can to ensure that an economic recovery benefits everyone in our country, and we should give the self-employed the confidence to keep going, not leave them to sink or swim. If we do not, we will face a much slower and less inclusive recovery. That is in the Minister’s hands. It is not too late to listen; it is not too late to act.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Rees. I congratulate the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) on securing the debate, and I thank the 14 Back-Bench Members for their contributions—I listened very carefully to each—which spoke powerfully to the many cases of hardship that I recognise exist throughout the country.

I acknowledge the article written by the hon. Member for Twickenham for The House magazine today, and the briefing by ExcludedUK, which was made available yesterday for the debate. I have looked at that carefully and shall take back the three-stage approach, and we will continue to see if we can move forward. I recognise that there is a sensitivity about Ministers standing up and listing all the measures that have been put in place so far, so I will go through some of that only briefly, but I will then move on to the context and rationale behind some of our decisions, and address some of the points that have been raised.

Clearly, the pandemic has profoundly affected the lives of countless people. As a Government, we have a moral obligation to protect jobs, livelihoods and our country’s economic capacity, a point that has been made and acknowledged by many Members during the debate. We have spent £280 billion on what has been one of the most comprehensive responses, including the job retention scheme, which protected 9.6 million jobs; the self-employment income support scheme, which provided grants to 2.7 million people; affordable loans for businesses, which we have adapted over time; extra help through the welfare system; bespoke interventions for different industries, such as the £1.57 billion for the creative industries; as well as other support, such as income tax time-to-pay arrangements, payments to those asked to self-isolate and grants for businesses required to close.

We have striven, as a Government, to provide support for as many individuals and businesses as we can, as rapidly as possible. That has meant taking some difficult decisions, however. I will set out the rationale for some of those decisions, particularly in relation to the self-employed, before moving on to how we have adapted our support schemes so far.

To give some context, when we designed those schemes, we had to keep some guiding principles in mind. First, the help must be targeted at those most in need. To achieve that, we obviously had to set clear rules. That is why we have said that those eligible to claim from the self-employment income support scheme must have made profits of no more than £50,000 from self-employed activity. I recognise that for those on the upper side of the £50,000 cut-off, that must feel unfair, but we did have to draw a line somewhere, and wherever we had drawn it, we would have had the same challenge.

According to HMRC data, those in that category had an average income of between £100,000 and £200,000. We have also said that support from that scheme must go to people whose main income is from their self-employed trade. That is why we also said that to claim, workers should make at least half of their income from self-employed activity. HMRC analysis shows that typically for those who make less than 50% of their income from self-employed sources, their profits are on average between £1,800 and £3,500 per year. That strongly suggests that self-employment is not their primary income source.

I now come to the second principle that we have used, which is the need to balance the Government’s duty to support individuals with our responsibility to protect taxpayers. Colleagues will be aware of the wide concern about fraud that continues to be, rightly, something that is raised in Select Committees and by those commentating on what we have done. To verify claims through the self-employment income support scheme, we needed to use data from an individual’s tax returns, and that means using returns from the year 2018-19. That has meant that people who became self-employed in 2019-20 have been unable to access the scheme, because HMRC does not yet hold complete tax return data to check their details.

We are listening closely to individuals who pay themselves through dividends, but that presents another challenge, which is that there is no practicable way of distinguishing between dividends derived from an individual’s own company and those from other sources.

I know that the past months have been very difficult for many people in the groups that I have mentioned, but I want to stress that we have not taken a dogmatic opposition position to any particular group and we continue—

I am grateful to the Minister for letting me intervene. It is patent nonsense to suggest that we cannot tell the difference between shareholders who are directors of a small company and shareholders who are anonymous investors in a big company that they know nothing about. Companies House holds all those records. Why, nine months later, have HMRC and the Treasury made no attempt to do a data-matching exercise between what HMRC holds and what Companies House holds?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Of course, one of the challenges that we had to come to terms with was the need to deliver a scheme as quickly as possible, and to as many people as possible, within the context of a finite number of individuals who could verify that data. Short of introducing a scheme whereby people would need to manually go through and verify those different data sources—

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but that, practically, was the challenge that we, working with officials, had to overcome. We had to make a judgment as to how to reconcile those two realities.

I want to reiterate that we are not adopting dogmatic opposition to any particular group, or contribution or idea that could move this forward. We need to protect the taxpayer, but that has not overridden our determination to provide support and we will continue to think about how we can improve the way the schemes that I have mentioned are targeted.

We have adapted already. We extended the cut-off point by which workers needed to be on their company’s payroll to be eligible to be furloughed, allowing more workers to receive those payments, and that potentially includes freelancers paid through PAYE. Some workers may be able to benefit from the recent changes that allow employers to re-furlough workers who left their jobs between 23 September and 30 October. And since July, employers have been able to bring back previously furloughed workers while still claiming from the Government for any hours not worked. We have adapted the self-employment income support scheme to help new parents who have taken time out of work, along with self-employed armed forces reservists, who were previously not covered.

I would like to add that people who are ineligible for one scheme may still be able to get support from one of the many other sources that I mentioned earlier, and that was not an exhaustive list.

I recognise that many people in the groups that we have talked about today fully intend to continue in their current jobs. However, we are investing to help those who decide to seek new opportunities. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer recently announced a £2.9 billion restart programme, which will provide intensive and tailored support to help people to find work.

I listened to the range of contributions from constituents across the country. It is very, very challenging for us to provide support for every single group that is struggling at this time, but I reiterate our willingness to continue to work with groups, including IPSE, the relevant APPG, the FSB and others, that bring forward proposals. My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is engaged in many of those conversations. As we move through into the new year, we will continue to look at the new schemes.

Our overriding goal has been to provide as much support as we can to people and businesses, and as rapidly as possible. We acknowledge that we have not been able to help everyone in the way that we would ideally want to, but that has not been a wilful disregard for their situation; it is based on the challenges of verifying. It is not attributing any blame to them either. We have succeeded in supporting millions of people and businesses through this intensely difficult time, and we will continue to do our very best until we have beaten coronavirus.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who contributed so powerfully to the debate. We have heard so many stories and about so many sectors, many of which, such as the live events industry and the weddings industry, will be among the last to return because of the nature of coronavirus.

I gently say to the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) that, yes, undoubtedly some of the 3 million are high earners, but the stories we have heard today, and a lot of the surveys, show that a many of those people are struggling to get by. Believe me, I know some of the freelancers who work in the creative industries and who now live from hand to mouth. I know that the Minister and, indeed, Conservative Members, are keen to recognise what the Government have done—I am sorry if that did not come through strongly enough in my speech. I said the coronavirus job retention scheme and self-employment income support scheme are very welcome, and they have been important lifelines for millions of people, but we are asking for parity for those who have been left out.

I will pick up a couple of points of detail that the Minister gave us about the £50,000 threshold and the average for people over that threshold. If the Government are worried about that, why not look at a taper? If they were worried about people who do not necessarily need support and who are high earners, why did they not put a similar threshold in place for the furlough scheme? It is quite possible that two employees earning £100,000 got furlough payments, but somebody who earned £51,000 through self-employment got no support. How is that fair? The Treasury Committee actually pointed out that example.

The Minister also talked about people who get less than 50% of their income from self-employment—they get a minimal amount through that source. As I and others have said, they often earn through PAYE, but some of those are short-term contracts. All that data is with HMRC, and, as we have heard, it is not beyond the wit of some of the very intelligent officials to work through those solutions.

I am grateful that the Minister confirmed that he will look at some of the solutions, and I am very grateful that, finally, after months of asking, a Minister—the Financial Secretary to the Treasury—is meeting officers of the APPG and representatives of the various excluded groups. Hopefully, they will look at some of the really detailed solutions that have been put forward, beyond those that the Minister referred to. I also welcome the great campaign of the right hon. Member for Tatton (Esther McVey) on supermarkets. If some of that money can be ploughed in to fill the gaps, that would be fantastic.

If Conservative Members will not listen to Opposition Members, there are many other Conservative Members who have made the case. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) that many affected people are Tory voters. In fact, Iain Dale said to me on LBC a few months ago, “Munira, I don’t understand; these are Tory supporters. Why isn’t this Government helping them?” I said, “I don’t know. Go and ask your friends in the Tory party.”

If the points that I made about mental health are too emotive, and if the arguments around fairness do not cut through with Ministers, they should look at what makes economic sense, as the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), said.

If the Minister will indulge me, I will return to my fantastic storybook in the 40 seconds I have left. After the storm ended and Bear recognised the talents of all the hard-working mice who were left out, he apologised to all the mice and promised that they will never be ignored again: “Mouse was so happy that she painted a special picture and when it was sold, Mouse made not one, not two, but three piles of food—one for her, one for Bear and this time a much, much bigger one for all the mice to share.”

That is an allegory about the economic benefits of helping those who have been excluded. I look forward to hearing a slightly different response the next time we come back to this debate. Hopefully, there will not be a next time—the Minister will solve it before Christmas.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered support for people ineligible for Government covid-19 support schemes.

Sitting adjourned.