The speech made by Steve Barclay, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in the House of Commons on 9 September 2020.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “House” to the end of the Question and add:
“welcomes the Government’s response to Covid-19 which has already protected the livelihoods of over 12 million people through the eight-month long Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and Self-Employment Income Support Scheme; acknowledges the support for hundreds of thousands of businesses up and down the country through unprecedented loan schemes, business grants and tax cuts; further welcomes the help to support, create, and protect jobs through measures such as the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, a temporary cut to VAT and stamp duty, increased incentives for apprenticeships, and the new Kickstart Scheme, as set out in the Government’s ‘Plan for Jobs’ policy paper published in July; and further acknowledges that any deviation from this Government’s proposed plan will cause damage to the United Kingdom economy.”
The House needs no reminding of the scale of the economic challenge facing our country. Recent GDP figures confirm that we have entered an acute recession on a speed and scale that we have never seen before. An economic crisis on this scale means that whatever the Government do, jobs will be lost, businesses will close and, as the Chancellor said last month, “hard times are here”. We should not underestimate the challenge ahead, but neither should we underestimate the Government’s resolve or that of the British people.
From the outset of this pandemic, the Government have acted decisively to protect people’s livelihoods, with one of the most generous and comprehensive packages of support anywhere in the world. We are doing everything we can to recover our economy, support businesses and give everyone the opportunity of good and secure work. Our economic response is moving through a careful, co-ordinated plan, in three phases: first, the immediate response, which started with the Budget in March; secondly, the specific plan for jobs announced in July, to protect, create and support jobs; and thirdly, rebuilding, on which we will say more in the autumn Budget and the comprehensive spending review. Let me take this opportunity to thank the many people—including Members from all parties—businesses and other organisations that have brought forward ideas and suggestions to help us to shape that plan.
I put on the record my thanks for all that the Government have done through the schemes that have helped many of my constituents. One thing needed to make this situation work is the co-operation and help of the banks. Will the Minister consider extending freezes on cards and loans for businesses, especially those in the retail and hospitality sectors? Discussions with the banks and credit card providers are critical to help companies to get over the line. We should extend that period to help them to recover.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury has regular discussions with the financial institutions; he will have heard the concerns set out by the hon. Gentleman and will be happy to take them forward in terms of how the banks respond. In some of the other measures the Government have taken—for example, on mortgage holidays—we have seen a recognition of and response to the concerns we have heard about from our constituents.
Yvette Cooper (Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) (Lab)
Haribo in Pontefract has announced that it is consulting on over 200 redundancies and proposing to move some of its production back to Germany. This is devastating for the hard-working workforce. Will the Chief Secretary urge Haribo to work with the GMB trade union and Wakefield Council to look at alternative plans to prevent huge job losses in the middle of a recession, and will the Government stand ready to help them to do so? Does the Chief Secretary accept that manufacturing industry needs support if we are to prevent deeply damaging mass redundancies?
I absolutely share the concern set out by the right hon. Lady. From conversations that we have had in previous roles, I know how much she advocates for her constituency, and I support that business engaging with her, the council, trade unions and others. I will come on to a number of measures that the Government have taken, and some further measures that we will take, regarding our wider support package to the business community.
This should be set in the context of the three-phase approach. In the first phase of this crisis, the Government introduced measures to halt the spread of the disease. That included protecting our public services with more than £49 billion of funding for the NHS, schools, local authorities and other front-line services. The Chancellor said that he would do whatever is needed to support our NHS, and that is what he delivered. Our plan supported people, with the furlough scheme supporting nearly 10 million jobs—jobs that might otherwise have been lost.
The self-employed scheme provided 2.6 million people with £7.6 billion of support, and mortgage and credit payment holidays helped 1.9 million people to manage their finances—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referred to that earlier. For those who are out of work, we made welfare support more supportive and easier to access, and we introduced a hardship fund to help up to 3 million of the most vulnerable people. Of course our plan backed business, because we know that only by supporting businesses can we create sustainable jobs.
Caroline Lucas rose—
Sustainability is an issue dear to the priorities of the hon. Lady, so of course I will give way.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I pay credit to the Government because they have supported a number of different groups very well. There is, however, one group who they have not supported: the self-employed, who are falling between the gaps. He will have heard about the very real hardship that they are facing right now. They, and the Excluded UK all-party group, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), have been asking for a meeting with the Treasury team, but they have not heard back. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree to meet them and hear directly about the scale of the difficulties they are facing?
I am very familiar with this issue. We covered it in my appearance before the Treasury Committee some months ago, and the Chancellor has repeatedly addressed it. As the hon. Lady will know, the shadow Chancellor referred to part of those concerns, and just yesterday there was discussion in the media about concerns regarding fraud in other Government schemes. Part of the challenge and the constraints on this issue is concern about the level of fraud. We have already set out the Government’s position on the issue. I do not think there is further to add in that respect, because those concerns have been well articulated.
Several hon. Members rose—
I will make some progress.
In addition to our support for businesses, we have provided nearly £40 billion of support through the tax system, with tax cuts, tax deferrals and the time to pay scheme. We have provided direct cash grants of £10,000 and £25,000 for small businesses and an extensive range of loan programmes, including dedicated investments for innovative tech firms through our Future Fund, and 100% Government guaranteed loans for the smallest businesses through the bounce back loan scheme. The shadow Chancellor said that she wanted the Government to listen, and bounce back loans are a good illustration of how the Government listened to concerns and changed the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme to include that additional measure. That scheme has benefited 1.1 million businesses. The House does not need to take just my word for it, because the chief economist at the CBI described the Chancellor as
“standing shoulder to shoulder with small businesses to help them through this crisis.”
Joanna Cherry (Edinburgh South West) (SNP)
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the CBIL scheme, but many medium-sized and larger businesses in my constituency have struggled to get the loans they require. Lloyds Banking Group in particular has been poor at making positive lending decisions. What are the right hon. Gentleman and his Government doing about that?
I can give a clear and direct answer to that because, together with UK Finance, my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury has discussed bounce back loans, CBILS and larger business interruption loans. Those were targeted at up to £200 million for that mid-tier category of businesses, and I know from discussions with colleagues that a lot of regional businesses in that mid-tier category have been particularly impacted. The point is that this is about the package of Government schemes. Where there are individual constituency cases, we are, of course, always happy to look at them and UK Finance does a very good job in terms of its response.
I have set out the first phase. The second phase of the extraordinary support given relates to our plan for jobs. As part of protecting jobs, we have temporarily applied a reduced rate to VAT for tourism and hospitality, supporting over 150,000 businesses and protecting 2.4 million jobs. I do not know whether you, Mr Speaker, had an opportunity to benefit, but you will be familiar with the popular eat out to help out scheme, which has been a real success. The latest figures—only the one course, clearly, Mr Speaker—show that 100 million covers have been claimed, helping to support 130,000 businesses and protect almost 2 million jobs in a sector which, very seriously, has been particularly acutely hit by the covid pandemic.
Our plans also create new jobs, injecting new certainty and confidence in the housing market by increasing the stamp duty threshold to £500,000 for first-time buyers. That will drive growth and support across housebuilding and property sectors. It also builds on other schemes, such as creating green jobs through a £2 billion green homes grant, saving households hundreds of pounds a year on their energy bills, and through our £1 billion programme to make public buildings, including schools and hospitals, decarbonised. Together, they are all a part of the £640 billion capital investment in economic recovery, job creation and revitalising our national infrastructure over the next five years.
Earlier, my right hon. Friend pointed to the success of bounce back loans. There is no doubt that they have been a huge success, but some businesses who have taken out those loans will hit trouble in terms of making repayments. Will he support a programme of best practice across the banking sector to ensure that those businesses have every chance of getting through this, perhaps with different payment plans?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. From other parliamentary campaigns he has been closely involved in, I know how much he values best practice in the financial services sector. As a former financial services Minister, I share that objective, which is why I am so grateful for the work he has been doing to ensure that best practice is followed to address the specific issue he brings before the House. Of course, the best thing to enable businesses to pay loans back is to get the economy as a whole motoring. That is why we are redoubling our efforts to get on with that now and why the Prime Minister announced that £5 billion of capital investment will be brought forward as part of giving a boost to businesses, so they can indeed meet the requirements of those loans as they arise.
Our plan supports jobs, creates jobs and protects jobs. That supporting of jobs is really the third component. It includes the announcement of the £2 billion kickstart scheme set out by the Chancellor, which will subsidise hundreds of thousands of high-quality jobs for unemployed young people, allowing young people to gain experience that will improve their chances of going on to find long-term and sustainable work. We are also investing a total of £1.6 billion in scaling up employment support schemes, training and apprenticeships to help those of our constituents who are looking for a job.
Gavin Newlands (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (SNP)
The Chief Secretary will be aware that companies such as British Airways have used the furlough scheme to facilitate mass redundancy programmes for their staff. In fact, BA has also implemented the firing and rehiring of its remaining 30,000 staff, often on massively reduced wages. Does he think that that is fair?
That is exquisite timing, because I was just about to turn to the point that the hon. Gentleman raises about that use of furlough and the question that the shadow Chancellor raised about whether the scheme should be extended. I want to address head-on the concerns I have heard about that decision.
Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I was just going to answer the question, but I will give way.
The Chief Secretary is very gracious for giving way. This is possibly not the intervention he expects. When we get through all this, and when we have time and peace and quiet, may I urge him and the Chancellor to carry out some sort of audit of how the furlough scheme worked? There have been newspaper stories of inappropriate furloughing of employees, and for any Government of any colour, we need to get to the bottom of that when we have time to do so.
Having been Brexit Secretary over the previous year and Chief Secretary during this economic challenge, I can say that we will come through this, as the Chancellor has set out, and we will come to a time when we can look at the scheme in the way that the hon. Gentleman refers to.
The scheme has protected up to 10 million jobs. The shadow Chancellor raised the duration of the scheme, and I understand those concerns. It has been one of the most difficult decisions that the Government have taken, but it is the right one. I remind the House of the extent of the support that we have offered. First, the furlough is already over eight months. It is one of the most generous schemes in the world, and we have been contributing at a higher rate of people’s wages than in Spain. We are supporting a wider range of businesses than in New Zealand, and our scheme will run for twice as long as in Denmark.
I remind the House that our support for furloughed employees does not end in October, as has been suggested in some interventions. In the Chancellor’s summer statement, he announced the new job retention bonus, which will pay employers £1,000 for every employee still in post by the end of January. For an average employee, that is a subsidy worth 20% of their salary—nearly double the amount of subsidy that a cut in employer’s national insurance would have provided, which I know some people were calling for prior to the Chancellor’s announcement of the bonus. I further remind the House that most people on furlough are employed by very small businesses where £1,000 is a significant and welcome boost.
While we will continue to support furloughed employees through the job retention bonus, it is right that the main scheme comes to an end. We need to focus now on providing people with new opportunities, rather than offering false hope that they will always be able to return to the same job they had before. It is in no one’s long-term interests for the scheme to continue, least of all those trapped in a job that only exists because of the furlough scheme.
To those calling for a new targeted or sector-based furlough, I simply pose three questions that I have still not heard answered satisfactorily today. First, which sectors would we not provide support for? Secondly, what would we do about the supply chains of those sectors on furlough, which can reach across the whole economy? Thirdly, most observers have accepted that the furlough cannot last forever, so how long would we extend it for? Without being able to answer those questions, any proposal for a sector-specific furlough cannot be seen as a serious one—
Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab) rose—
But perhaps we have an answer to the three questions coming—I will happily take the intervention.
The Chief Secretary is being generous in giving way; I thank him for that. He will be disappointed to hear that I do not have the answer. However, I want to ask him a simple question. Germany has a much more advantageous scheme, which lasts until 2022. It has been described by industry bodies in the automotive sector and elsewhere as giving them a competitive advantage. Does he agree with that?
The German scheme sits within a very different landscape. It is not actually administered by the Government. It is a long-standing scheme; it has not been set up as a response to covid specifically. I just gave some illustrations of where the UK’s furlough measures stand internationally. This needs to be seen as part of the wider package of support that the Government have set out. Again, the UK package as a whole stands comprehensively as one of the best international schemes on offer.
Darren Jones (Bristol North West) (Lab)
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, because I am conscious that a lot of Members want to speak in the debate.
It is important to note that providing such a comprehensive and decisive economic response has, in common with every advanced economy in the world, dramatically increased public borrowing and debt. In the short run, that has been the right strategy, so that we can protect jobs and incomes, support businesses and drive the recovery. Indeed, the OBR has said that if we had not provided the financial support, the situation would have been far worse. But over the medium term, it is clearly not sustainable to continue borrowing at these levels. Yes, clearly, interest rates right now are at historic lows, which means our cost of borrowing is cheap, but with the Government debt exceeding the size of the UK economy for the first time in more than 50 years, even small changes in interest rates would have a very big impact on our public finances.
Thankfully, we were in a strong fiscal position coming into this crisis, which allowed us to act quickly to support jobs and businesses, but having seen two supposedly once-in-a-generation economic events in just 10 years, we are reminded once again that we cannot know what is around the corner. We will need to return to a position of strong and sustainable public finances.
Let me make one further point this afternoon. While we have made great strides in tackling coronavirus, it may continue to be necessary to take targeted local action to keep the virus under control. We know the impact these local measures have on people and businesses. Since 1 September, we have been trialling support for individuals in Blackburn with Darwen, Pendle and Oldham. Eligible individuals who test positive with the virus will receive £130 for their 10-day period of self-isolation, with higher payments of up to £182 for members of the household or other contacts who need to self-isolate.
Today, I can announce further new measures to support businesses. The Government will provide direct cash grants to businesses that have been ordered to close.
Closed businesses with a rateable value of £51,000 or less will receive a cash grant of £1,000 for each three-week period they are closed. For closed businesses with a rateable value higher than £51,000, the grants will be £1,500. The grants will cover each additional three-week period, so if a small business is closed for six weeks, it will receive £2,000. This new support will give closed businesses a lifeline through the difficult but temporary experience of lockdown—an important next step in our economic plan to protect jobs and businesses against coronavirus. I am grateful for everything my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has done to develop this scheme, and he will bring forward further details shortly.
Let me close with one final observation. In the first phase of our economic response to coronavirus, we supported people, businesses and public services, with support totalling £190 billion. In the second phase, our plan for jobs is protecting, supporting and creating jobs, and as we enter the third phase our economic policy will be driven not just by responding to the immediate crisis, but by ensuring that we level up, spread opportunity, tackle climate change and make sure our response to the pandemic is not just about recovery but renewal. I commend the amendment to the House.