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Topical Questions

Volume 688: debated on Tuesday 26 January 2021

Throughout this crisis, our overriding economic priority has been to support people’s jobs and businesses through a range of measures worth more than £280 billion, including the furlough scheme, tax cuts, tax deferrals, loans and grants. There will be a Budget on 3 March, when we will set out the next steps in our economic response to coronavirus.

Last week the Chancellor received a detailed and costed policy proposal for a targeted income grant scheme, written by Rebecca Seeley Harris and supported by the gaps in support all-party parliamentary group. That scheme would be a vital first step in giving meaningful financial support to many of the millions who have been locked out of the current schemes and who are desperate, after nearly a year of the covid pandemic. Can the Chancellor tell us today whether he plans to progress with that proposal, or does he have another scheme in mind for the millions in need of support?

I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury met the authors of the report back in December and is considering it alongside all the other submissions that we receive at the Treasury.

What will my right hon. Friend do to make the UK a more attractive destination for investment and capital formation, to encourage the jobs and opportunities of the future that people rely on the private sector to provide? (911411)

My hon. Friend is right about needing the private sector to drive growth and create jobs. I am pleased to tell him that the Prime Minister and I chaired the first meeting of the Build Back Better Business Council, where we outlined our plans to invest in infrastructure, innovation and skills alongside businesses. We have also established a new Office for Investment, led by Lord Grimstone, which is charged with securing high-value investment opportunities, and I look forward to hearing from him ideas that we can productively take forward.

In recent days, the Treasury has been at loggerheads with the Department for Work and Pensions, insisting on taking £20 a week from the pockets of 6 million families. It has also been at loggerheads with the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, by claiming that financial hardship is not inhibiting self-isolation. Why is the Treasury putting our economic and health recovery at risk in this way?

The hon. Lady should not believe everything she reads in the newspapers. The Treasury and this Government have put in place a comprehensive and generous set of support to help people get through this crisis, and the results show that we have protected those on the lowest incomes the most.

I was actually following the words of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and of SAGE, but I appreciate the Chancellor’s response. The kickstart scheme was much heralded, but yesterday we learned that it appears to be missing out around 99 of every 100 young jobseekers. What does the Chancellor say to them today?

I am not entirely sure I know the figures that the hon. Lady is referring to. What I can say is that, since this scheme was announced at the beginning of July and opened for applications in September, it has created over 120,000 jobs for young people. That is, I think, an extraordinary achievement. I pay tribute to the team at the DWP for doing that. I am grateful to the thousands of businesses that are taking part in the scheme. They are working with us to provide hope and opportunity to a generation of young people so that they are not scarred by coronavirus, but can look forward to a brighter future.

With the lockdown or some form of restrictions set to continue well into the spring, will the Chancellor please give some certainty to those businesses and individuals struggling financially by announcing an early extension to his various support packages, including help with VAT, business rates and stamp duty, the self-employment scheme and, of course, the universal credit uplift? (911413)

My hon. Friend will I hope appreciate that the various things he just mentioned total about, I think, £20 billion or £30 billion, so he will understand it is reasonable that we consider all these things in the round at Budget, when we will set out the next stage in our economic response to coronavirus.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that HMRC will forgo around £800 million in customs income and VAT over the next year. Some is deferred, but much is forgone. Will the Chancellor tell us what he is doing to make sure that that number shrinks and that revenue comes in at a time when the Exchequer needs it really very badly?

I will have to go and check the exact figures, if the hon. Lady will forgive me for not knowing the specific paragraph that she refers to. In general HMRC is providing easements over the next few months as we transition to a new set of trading relationships, but she can rest assured that we are always mindful of the impact on revenue and intend fully—very much so—to have a robust set of mechanisms in place. As she will know, there is a phased response for getting to that point between now and July, and hopefully we can work with her to make sure that that path is as seamless as possible.

The Chancellor has been widely praised for his work in recent months, but he has also been honest about difficult decisions ahead. I have had constituents raise concerns with me about capital gains tax. He will know that the current rates were set to optimise revenue from the tax. I know he cannot comment on individual measures, but can I seek his assurance that he will not take any steps to raise taxes without doing a proper assessment of the Laffer curve principle that higher rates do not always lead to higher revenues? (911417)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, which tempts me into indiscretion. He may be aware of this, but HMRC publishes annual estimates to illustrate the impact of changes in tax rates in a document sexily entitled “Direct effects of illustrative tax changes”. It is worth saying, however, that these estimates are themselves uncertain, because of different levels of behavioural response to tax changes, the potential for wider macroeconomic impacts and, of course, the interaction with other measures.

The pubs and hospitality sector so far has done everything that has been asked of it during the pandemic, but so far 46% of pubs have not received local restrictions support grants for November, let alone December, and 74% of pubs have yet to receive the Prime Minister’s Christmas bonus of £1,000, so what will Ministers be doing to speed up these payments and when will the pubs and hospitality sector get its money? (911410)

It is absolutely right that businesses get the funds as quickly as possible. What I would say is that central Government have disbursed that funding to local councils across the country, so it is actually for businesses to take up with their local authority why they have not received the money. There are two sets of grants: there are of course our monthly grants, which have been going for a while now, and the one-off payments of up to £9,000 that we announced earlier this year. But the hon. Gentleman is right to urge urgency. I know my colleagues in the Business Department are doing exactly that with local councils, but ultimately the responsibility will lie with individual councils.

Teesside is on the up. It is a place with untapped potential, skills and expertise, and a place with boundless ambition that will play host to the biggest economic success story of the next decade. Can my right hon. Friend think of anywhere better to host Treasury North than one of the country’s first free ports? (911419)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a doughty champion for his region and he should know that we remain focused on the commitment we made at Budget 2020 to have 750 roles across the economic campus by the end of the Parliament. The Treasury is still considering a range of location options for the new campus. We want to ensure that the chosen location supports our wider levelling up agenda, but we will certainly take his comments and representations into account.

The Government claim that their central economic mission is to level up. Can the Chancellor assure me that his Government will deliver HS2 in full, including the whole of the eastern leg, because this will be the litmus test of their real commitment to levelling up? (911412)

The hon. Lady is right to draw attention to the commitment the Government have made to infrastructure, including in the forthcoming integration infrastructure plan, but the levelling up is not just about rail, as the Chancellor said; it is also about the £4 billion levelling up fund and, most importantly, about the review of the Green Book. As Lord O’Neill and others have commented, that ensures that a whole range of projects better address the levelling up alongside the significant investment in rail and other transport infrastructure.

Wrexham is a town partly founded on brewing. It is home to four breweries and 64 pubs; the figure pre-covid. The industry supports nearly 1,700 jobs and generates £11 million in taxes. While hospitality businesses such as the Magic Dragon Brewery Tap tell me that the UK Government’s furlough scheme and wider support packages have been a lifeline, their future remains bleak as the pandemic rolls into a second year. Will my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in his forthcoming Budget consider deferring business rates and VAT payments even further, so pubs can have a fighting chance of pulling another pint and keeping the ales in Wales? (911421)

The Government understand that this is a very challenging time for the UK hospitality sector, and we are constantly reviewing the package of covid-19 support. In order to ensure that decisions are made to meet these challenges, we will outline plans for 2021-22 business rates relief early this year, but my hon. Friend should let her constituents know that for existing tax liabilities the VAT deferral new payments scheme will allow businesses with deferred VAT to spread their payments over up to 11 equal payments to 31 March 2022 interest-free.

During the global health pandemic, it is worth noting that paid leave following a bereavement is entirely at the discretion of employers. Leave experienced by employees costs the UK economy £22 billion a year and the Treasury nearly £8 billion a year, with those in lowest-paid jobs much less likely to have paid bereavement leave. In his upcoming Budget what consideration will the Chancellor give to statutory paid bereavement leave for all workers who lose a close family member? (911414)

I am happy to look at the specific question the hon. Lady raises, but she will know that in the last Budget we introduced a manifesto commitment to bring in neonatal leave, which was warmly welcomed and many had campaigned for, and I know will make a difference to families up and down the country.

We have heard many times this morning about the very welcome support the Chancellor has provided to hospitality businesses required to close during the pandemic. However, suppliers to the sector are dependent on its success, and many have seen dramatic falls in sales. Ahead of getting hospitality up and running again, is there any additional support he can provide at this particularly challenging time? (911422)

My hon. Friend raises a point mentioned by several Members about the difficulties businesses in the hospitality sector and their supply chain have faced during the pandemic. He can tell his constituents that £1.6 billion is being made available for local authorities to support businesses that are ineligible for closed business grants but that may still be impacted by restrictions, and local authorities have discretion to determine how much funding to provide to businesses and the flexibility to target local businesses that are important to their local economies, which could include businesses in the supply chains for retail, hospitality and leisure.

Some small businesses in my constituency cannot access the support they need to continue to employ staff and survive. The Government’s incomplete guidance to local authorities has left that gap in support. Will the Minister fix that flaw in the system and commit to help small businesses today? (911416)

The hon. Gentleman can write to me with the specific issue he has with the guidance, but in general the grants have been functioning, I think, very well and local authorities are getting them out to businesses. They also have access to discretionary funding. As the name suggests, although there are broad guidelines, ultimately that funding is to be at the discretion of individual local authorities.

The support packages that my right hon. Friend has made available to the hospitality and tourism industries over the course of this pandemic have proved invaluable to thousands of businesses in Blackpool; but as we look to reopen those sectors later on this year, will he commit to extending the reduction in VAT for tourism, hospitality and leisure businesses to help maintain thousands of jobs in my constituency? (911423)

As my hon. Friend says, and I thank him for it, the temporary reduced rate of VAT was introduced to support the cash flow and the viability of over 150,000 businesses and to protect 2.4 million jobs in the hospitality and tourism sectors. It was extended in September and extended again, and will now run until 31 March of this year. But the relief comes at a significant cost, and while the Government keep taxes under review, we have no current plans to extend it further. I remind my hon. Friend that there are many other aspects of our financial support that may be of assistance to his constituents.

The Eat Out to Help Out scheme was seen by many in the hospitality industry as a lifeline for the survival of their business after the lifting of restrictions last summer. Will my hon. Friend assure me that his Department will carefully consider reinstating the scheme or something similar once we come out of lockdown? (911424)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Across the pandemic, the Government have created a number of innovative responses, like Eat out to Help Out. We will continue to examine very carefully what package of measures we need to intervene with, and the Chancellor has indicated that he will be coming forward at the Budget with an update to the House on that package in due course.

Given the current imperative to forge new trade deals worldwide, and also to make the new EU trade deal work, what incentives are being considered by the Treasury to both attract new companies to the UK and retain those that are already here?

As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out a moment ago, the Office for Investment, led by Lord Grimstone, is focused on exactly that issue, working in tandem with the Build Back Better Business Council, which the Prime Minister and the Chancellor chair.

Order. I now suspend the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.