Meg Hillier – 2021 Speech on the Budget

The comments made by Meg Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, in the House of Commons on 3 March 2021.

I welcome parts of this Budget because if it works, it will prop up the system for a bit longer, but I am worried that we have seen announcements about the extension of furlough, for example, at a point at which many workers will have already been hit by decisions taken by employers who were worried that such an announcement would not be made today.

The country is crying out for change. It is in debt and there is an uncertain future for many individuals and businesses. Brexit, which I do not think I heard mentioned in the Chancellor’s speech, is hitting businesses and individual consumers very hard and proving costly to the economy, certainly in the short term. The bit that was missing from the Budget is the vision for a country that should be supporting people into decent, affordable homes; that should be properly tackling net zero, on which I will touch in more detail; and that should have a plan for social care, the sector that was abandoned in the early stages of covid.

We should also be tackling the challenging issues in respect of different employment statuses that have caused so much difficulty for so many. In my constituency is represented everything from zero-hours contracts to IR35, self-employment, people employed for tax purposes and people on short-term contracts. Covid has had different impacts on different groups of people.

The Chancellor said he will do whatever it takes but, structurally, the inequalities remain. The poorest get a welcome prop-up with the extension of the uplift to universal credit, but only to September. I am not sure that I can see—I am sure the Chancellor would agree that he does not have a crystal ball—what will suddenly change in September that will mean that people do not need the extra £20 a week.

Structurally, there are real issues. A few figures have been announced today on green initiatives—I have not had a chance to go through the detail in the Red Book—but there is no clear plan. We have targets on net zero and other environmental targets, including on things such as electric or net zero cars, yet there are not enough milestones along the way to the targets, which are coming upon us really fast. I will look in detail at the little bits of money announced today, as my Committee, the Public Accounts Committee, is examining issues relating to the green economy in a series of inquiries.

I welcome the fact that there is finally a bit more support for some of the self-employed people in my constituency—we need to see the detail on that—but it is a whole year late. Like many Members, I have constituents who have lived for a year without a penny of income and did not qualify for universal credit, and sometimes they were in exactly the same position as somebody else who lost their job only a day later. Lives have been put on hold and future plans shredded, and there is no prospect of work for many people in many sectors for many months.

I welcome investment in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions to look at fraud and error. These are small amounts. But it was this very Government who pushed bounce back loans through, as the National Audit Office has said, with very little regard to risk. A slight delay of 24 or 48 hours would have put less risk on the taxpayer for the guarantee on those loans. With regard to some of the furlough schemes, at the early stages it was right to get this out the door, as my Committee has acknowledged, but later, more safety mechanisms could have been put in place. That money is good money chasing bad, in many respects. The risk appetite was high.

Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con)

The hon. Lady mentions the risk in bounce back loans. Her Committee—our Committee—has done sterling service over the years on the whole question of tax evasion and the investigation of that. Does she have anything to say to the Chancellor about that, because it is a very large, lucrative area that the Government could pay attention to?

Meg Hillier

I have hopes for some of the £100 million that HMRC has been given. In fact, having scanned the Red Book, I see that other money is being added to HMRC. As a Committee—as the right hon. Gentleman, a former Chair of the Committee, will know—we are very keen for HMRC to get money because with every £1 it gets for compliance it brings back a lot more to the Exchequer. We need to look closely at this because there is a challenge in the tax system—for example, as regards high street businesses versus online businesses. It is a complex matter and no one should imagine that there is a simple solution; I know he does not think it is simple. It is something we need to continue to engage with.

On housing, once again we have seen a focus on fuelling demand, not increasing supply. The Chancellor seems to have got off the hook on leasehold issues for constituents of mine, and those around the country, who had dangerous cladding by taking the announcement from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government last week as though that is the matter closed.

Stephen Doughty (Cardiff South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point about leaseholders, as did the Father of the House, and she knows that many are affected in my constituency. Does she agree that it is absolutely crucial that we get clarity from the Chancellor as soon as possible about the consequentials for Wales—he talked about funding across the Union—of those announcements? There needs to be work with the Welsh Housing Minister to sort out the issues around the levy and the tax that have been proposed that are supposed to fund dealing with these fire and building safety issues. It is absolutely urgent that that is done as soon as possible.

Meg Hillier

I completely agree: it is absolutely urgent for the people living in those homes whose lives are on hold, but it is also important for the Exchequer. If the Chancellor’s announcements do fuel demand for buying housing, that is stymied by the fact that so many people are stuck in homes that are unsaleable and worth nothing, so they are mortgage prisoners. The whole supply system is not working and the demand system is being fuelled in the wrong direction. We have seen homes in my constituency that were being sold at just below the last threshold for this.

My Committee has looked at the Government’s housing policies over many years now. One million new homes in England were promised between 2015 and 2020 and 500,000 more by the end of 2022. Even taking into account the pandemic, we saw, for example, the starter homes project fail completely after nearly £200 million was spent on land remediation alone, with £2.3 billion in total set aside for that in the 2015 spending review. Yet this did not happen because the Government did not even manage to enact the secondary legislation necessary to get it off the ground. Five years later, they finally announced that it was the end of the starter homes project and introduced First Homes, a discount for first-time buyers, and now we are seeing a loan guarantee on 95% mortgages. It is a very muddled policy. I cannot yet see who will benefit, and we will be looking at this in detail.

On net zero and the environment, the Government are setting big targets, but our detailed work in the Public Accounts Committee raises many concerns. This is on top of failures on the green deal, the privatisation of the green investment bank, three competitions for carbon capture and storage—one more was recently announced, but so far the first three have failed—and real inertia on developing proper, long-term commitments to really tackling climate change.

Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con) rose—

Meg Hillier

I will not give way as I have already taken two interventions.

It is easy to make announcements; it is much harder to get the system to deliver on them. There is a will in this House, I think, to deliver on this, but the Government have to stop making cheap headlines.

On jobs, only one in 100 young people aged 16 to 24 is benefiting from kickstart. Again, it is a nice headline, but unless it delivers for our constituents, it is not working. We need to act now on making sure that further education is properly funded so that it can plan ahead as, hopefully, we come out of lockdown and into more normal life, and make sure that people are able to be reskilled.

Finally, I welcome the movement—as far as I have read the detail, which is not in full yet—on visas for tech entrepreneurs. This has been a brake on progress in Shoreditch in my constituency. However, we have young people in this country who were brought up in the UK, for whom it is their home and the only country they know, and they are struggling to buy citizenship at over £1,000 apiece, because families cannot afford it. They may pay for citizenship for the main householder, but not for the family. This is something that I feel is viscerally unjust. We have these talented people in our communities, in our constituencies, in our country, who are essentially British but priced out of citizenship. So if we are going to have visas for tech entrepreneurs at an easy rate, why not do that for the young people already in our country who are willing, able and capable of contributing?