Contingencies Fund Bill

(2nd reading: House of Commons)
(Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons)
(Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons)
Tuesday 24th March 2020

(6 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Hansard Text Bill Main Page
HM Treasury

Second Reading

Dame Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton) - Hansard

I wish to inform Members that under the Order of the House of today, notices of amendments, new clauses or new schedules to be moved in Committee of the whole House may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a Second time. In order to be eligible for selection, Members should table amendments within the next five minutes.

Jesse Norman Portrait The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jesse Norman) - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:06 a.m.

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

As the House knows, we are living in unprecedented times. The Government have made it clear that they will do whatever it takes to mitigate and limit the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on the United Kingdom. To that end, we have a coherent, co-ordinated and comprehensive plan to support public services, equipping our doctors, nurses and other essential staff with the tools they require on the frontline in support of their work. It is a plan to protect businesses, jobs, wages and incomes through this difficult and uncertain period for the economy. At the heart of the Bill is a recognition that the Government must act swiftly and boldly to provide the resources necessary to limit, and ultimately defeat, the virus.

As the House knows, Parliament provides the Government with the authority to expend resources, capital and cash via the supply process. The process is begun with the publication of the main supply estimates, which we debate in this Chamber, and then the introduction of a supply and appropriation Bill. It is only once that Bill receives Royal Assent, usually in July, that Governments get the bulk of their resources, capital and, most importantly, cash to carry out their approved functions. Until the supply Bill passes, typically in July, Departments live on what is described as “vote on account” money. This money usually represents about 45% of the departmental spending on services from the previous year. It allows Departments to start spending from 1 April, and it normally provides sufficient funds to tide them over until the balance is delivered via the supply Act in July, as described. However, as events have been unfolding, it has become clear that additional departmental spending will be needed compared to last year, and for good reason. The scale and spread of the virus mean that we must act now to safeguard lives. The Government cannot afford to wait. No one in this House would want us to wait until July to deliver the resources that Departments need for the next financial year.

Sir Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne (New Forest West) (Con) - Hansard

The Bill is necessary because the economy has come to a halt; we have effectively halted it in order to put an end to this virus. There is a narrative that actually we could have toughed it out, and that we have sacrificed the economy for healthcare. That never really was a realistic alternative, was it?

Jesse Norman Portrait Jesse Norman - Hansard

The Government have not had any time for that narrative, nor has there been any decision in our mind other than to act as decisively, effectively and comprehensively as we can to defeat this virus and to protect livelihoods, businesses, jobs and wellbeing. That is what we are seeking to do. I do not agree—if I may say so to my right hon. Friend—that the requirements that this Bill seeks to address would or could have been accommodated in any other economic circumstances. To move at the speed at which we are moving to offer the support we are offering demands the cash movement that this Bill is designed to achieve.

Ed Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD) - Hansard

Can the Minister confirm that the amounts that we are talking about in this Bill relate to departmental spending that may need to happen over the next few months, and that they do not relate to the balance sheet of the Bank of England or any of the lending facilities that have been made available to business?

Jesse Norman Portrait Jesse Norman - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:03 a.m.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. This legislation, as I will go on to describe, relates to departmental spending. It as an advance against departmental spending that will be properly ratified, accommodated and acknowledged within the estimates process, as one might expect.

Departments—this goes straight to point just made by the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey)—need money from 1 April, and they need more than the House has already allocated to them via the vote on account. The Government cannot afford to wait until July to deliver the resources needed for the next financial year, and the Bill seeks to close that gap.

The House has long recognised that the Government sometimes need to act without recourse to the normal processes, which is why Parliament has historically provided for the existence and use of a contingencies fund. But Parliament has wisely limited the amount that can be issued from the fund to 2% of the previous year’s cash spend. For 2020-21, that amounts to some £10.6 billion, which would be more than adequate in a normal year. But, as we have discovered, we do not live in normal times. These times are without precedent in the modern era. Through this Bill, the Government therefore ask the House temporarily to raise the limit on the amount that sits in the contingencies fund to 50% of that expended last year; I should be clear that that is approximately £266 billion.

Let me go further and say—again, this is a response to the point made by the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton—that this is not new spending and it is not a blank cheque. All advances will have to be repaid once the main supply estimates are voted on in the summer, when the House will have the opportunity to scrutinise and debate where the resources have been allocated in the normal way. Nor does this represent additional Government borrowing. The Chancellor has said that he will update the Debt Management Office’s financing remit in April to reflect his recent announcements.

Quite simply, this Bill is about cash flow and the need to deliver the support we have announced without delay. It allows the Treasury to provide cash advances where they are urgently needed, and it provides for a safety net between supply estimates. This is an exceptionally short Bill, but it is an exceptionally important one in that it allows the Government to deliver the extraordinary package of support announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. It solves a cash timing issue arising from the current process, and balances the need for an urgent response to the unfolding crisis with the necessary parliamentary scrutiny and oversight.

This Bill is yet another demonstration of the Government’s commitment to fighting the threat from covid-19—protecting businesses, jobs and, most importantly, our fellow citizens, from the ravages of this deadly disease. I wholeheartedly commend it to the House.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab) - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:04 a.m.

May I start by assuring the Treasury Bench that the official Opposition will support this Bill? I support the Government throughout, obviously, but as the Minister might expect, we will be constructively critical as well throughout the process.

This Bill, as the Minister says, will enable the Government to access the resources to tackle the crisis. I have to say, there is a sense of irony here, because only three months ago I hoped to be bringing forward a Bill for about £250 billion as well, for long-term investment in our infrastructure—but that is another story. It probably would have been supported as well, because it was infrastructure spend. Anyway, we will support this Bill, but we have the opportunity to raise some issues on the way in which the resources will be applied—forgive me if I do that.

We recognise that this is the gravest crisis facing our country that any of us in this House has known. We are debating matters of life and death, and the proposals that we make now and the decisions that we need to take in the coming months obviously deserve scrutiny, and that scrutiny should be welcomed on all sides. Last night, the Prime Minister was right to call for people to stay at home to protect our NHS and to save lives. We called for enforcement measures yesterday morning, and the Mayor of London and many others have been making private representations for greater clarity and greater action.

Clear and detailed guidance to employers and workers is needed on which workplaces should close. As we saw in the earlier response to the statement, a lack of clarity remains about certain operations, particularly within the construction sector. We have received reports from unions, particularly those representing construction workers, that there is utter confusion on the ground at the moment about what operations should be maintained and which workers should be on site. For anyone who has been anywhere near the construction industry or worked on site at any time in their lives, things have not changed that much in recent years. These workers also work in some of the most insanitary conditions, so we have to ensure that they are properly protected.

The Chancellor and the Government must act immediately so that every single worker has a protected income. We discussed that earlier today. We want to ensure that every single household is secure in their home, whether they rent or mortgage, so that no one who makes the right choice to stay at home faces hardship. Last week, the Chancellor set out an unprecedented scheme to underwrite 80% of the wages of all workers “furloughed”—as he put it—promising that no redundancies or lay-offs were needed and that the Government would do, “Whatever it takes”. Today is the time to deliver, with clarity and security for everybody, including our most vulnerable, whatever it takes to keep them protected and safe. That is why we are supporting this Bill to enable the resources to be available.

Last night, the Prime Minister effectively shut down every non-essential business. I want the Chancellor and Treasury Front Bench to make it clear now that every single worker, in every single one of those businesses, will be covered by the 80% income protection scheme, and that if, as a result of that 20% cut in incomes, they fall below the thresholds for universal credit or housing benefit, they will be eligible for top-ups. I ask the question, will the Government consider setting a national minimum wage floor for the income protection schemes? That would protect the lowest paid, because 80% of low pay might result in some people being paid below the national minimum wage.

Will we now get more clarity on exactly when the income protection scheme will be operational? Will the Government also condemn employers such as Wetherspoon that have now stopped wage payments and told employees that those will not resume until the end of April? Some senior members of the Government have an influence over that particular employer, so we would welcome the Government making it clear to that employer that that he should pay his staff and that he should close so that that company can play its part in protecting the health of our community.

The Government cannot act only for workers who are furloughed. They must also step up for the many who will be having their hours reduced but not stopped altogether, by topping them up to at least 80% of their regular wage, or through some other scheme. When the Minister responds, will he clarify what will be the protection for workers who have been put on short time?

Sadly, many workers have already been laid off as a result of this terrible virus. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was extremely candid and honest last week when he said that he could not live on the £94.25 per week statutory sick pay. I do not think any of us can. How can the Government expect entire families to afford a week’s shop on that sort of income? Will the Government therefore increase the appallingly low level of statutory sick pay and ensure that all workers are eligible for it? So many are not at the moment. Will they also increase the £73 rate of jobseeker’s allowance and employment support allowance for disabled people? Will they also look at the even lower rate of carer’s allowance? Carers are expected to live on £66 a week.

As we discussed earlier today, there are 5 million self-employed workers in this country, many of whom cannot work from home. We desperately need a scheme that will be ready for them soon. It needs to guarantee them the 80% of income that others have been guaranteed. Whether it is a cabbie, a childminder, an actor or a plumber, there are battalions of self-employed out there who need their security. We need confirmation that a scheme will be brought forward not within days but within hours, to give them that assurance.

We also urge the Government to work with the construction industry and the trade unions to find a solution that covers the particularities of that sector—we have pointed them out before—with workers employed through payroll companies and umbrella companies. Most of them are forced into self-employment, and often exploitative self-employment of the worst sort.

I turn to housing. We welcome the moves to protect mortgage holders, with payment holidays now put in place for mortgagees, but we need the same security for renters and for the Government to understand the difference. For a renter, a rent holiday is not the same as a mortgage holiday. Rent is paid continuously during a tenancy, while mortgages have a fixed term, meaning that repayment terms can be simply extend. It is therefore important that the Government act to ensure that rents are paid, not merely that payments are suspended for this period.

We are extremely disappointed by the legislation published yesterday. Frankly, many believe that the Prime Minister has broken his promise to the country’s 20 million renters in 8.5 million households. It was not an evictions ban, as the Prime Minister promised. That legislation will not stop people losing their homes as a result of the virus; as my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said, it just gives them some extra time to pack their bags. To be frank, it is just not good enough. The Government must look again; we urge them to look again.

There are also wider problems. Over recent years, austerity cuts have lessened the value of support available via housing benefit. The Government must immediately suspend the benefit cap and rid us of the bedroom tax that has affected so many families. We welcome the moves announced last week on local housing allowance, but the Government must go further and restore the local housing allowance from the 30th percentile back to the 50th percentile of market rates, as it was before 2010.

People will have made rental decisions based on their incomes, and they should not be penalised by the unforeseeable impact of the coronavirus, when we are asking people to lock themselves away. Now is not the time for families to be downsizing or sofa surfing with parents, grandparents or friends in cramped conditions. Many of us represent constituencies where overcrowding has become the plague of modern existence.

May I briefly pay tribute to the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan? His team has worked tirelessly and creatively in securing hotel accommodation to get London’s rough sleepers off the streets, though we would like to know more about the duration and the cost of the deal that the Government have procured with hotels. It is important that the Government act to keep households in their homes so that that attachment to work, school and study can continue seamlessly at the conclusion of this extraordinary period. We cannot have a situation in which, at the end of this, tenants have either depleted all their savings or, worse, have amassed large and unpayable bills. If this is the case, the Government will be deferring evictions only a few months down the road, so the suspension of evictions for private and social tenants should be extended, we believe, from three months to six months. Shelter has estimated that as many as 20,000 eviction proceedings are already in progress and will go ahead over the next three months unless the Government take action to stop them, and they must be stopped. When the Financial Secretary to the Treasury rises to his feet, he must be clear that there will be no evictions of any kind during this period.

In addition, we also believe it necessary to suspend all bailiff proceedings for the same period. Practically speaking, there are clear health and safety issues about bailiffs entering the homes of families who may be self-isolating. Furthermore, what measures is the Chancellor proposing for suspending payments of household utility bills? That was raised in the discussions this morning and we will support measures that are brought forward. During this period, we cannot have bailiffs and we cannot have disconnections of water, energy or internet.

What are the Government doing about those without internet access? Many people in our communities rely on libraries to access the internet, but now those libraries are closing. What measures will the Government bring in to ensure that people can get online, whether for benefit services or to maintain some form of social contact? These are huge demands being placed on the civil service, and I pay tribute to all those public servants throughout our public administration who are working day and night to establish these schemes. They are not often praised, but they are in this situation.

The civil service has been depleted by a decade of austerity. As extra demands are placed on, for example, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions, other civil servants are being redeployed. Are those recently retired or made redundant from the service being asked to come back to assist, just as we have invited other professionals to come back into the NHS?

Will the Minister also confirm that the current round of HMRC office closures and redundancies will at least be paused, if not reversed, at this stage? What adaptations have been made for those working in the mass call centres of HMRC and the DWP? Is the telephony technology there for them to work at home? Is there greater social distancing within the call centres themselves? We all know that universal credit cannot cope now, but its roll-out was again delayed in the Budget. Millions more households are becoming eligible for universal credit, housing benefit and other payments, so are the Government confident that the system can cope with this increased demand, because the feedback that we are getting from our constituents on the frontline is that they find it impossible because of the long waits to get through and have their case dealt with successfully. No one is blaming the civil servants; it is about resources and investment.

What are the Government doing to encourage businesses to take up business interruption loans, when some businesses see loans as less effective than grants for keeping them afloat? Is there potential for increasing the level of grants and extending their range? Have the Government considered our proposal that such loan agreements should include job retention clauses, which would mean that when businesses receive a loan, they can give workers the security they need in the knowledge that they will not lose their jobs? It is not much to ask of a business receiving financial support from the Government in this way that they work towards our overall objectives.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con) - Hansard

The difficulty with what the right hon. Gentleman suggests is that most businesses do not know the extent of this crisis and the impact it will have on them. It is impossible at this point to determine exactly how long this will last or how deep a recession might be. Is he not asking the impossible of businesses?

John McDonnell - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:01 a.m.

In the real world, that is exactly why trade unions have asked that when loans are given or support is provided through the jobs retention scheme, there is a requirement for businesses to sit down with their trade unions and work through a plan for the future. In that way, security could be given to workers, because they would be involved in determining that, and judgments can then be made at different stages of the business development process. We are looking for some form of assurances that will give wider security than there is at the moment. If a company is being supported by a loan or the job retention scheme, it is not much for them to sit down with their workers to work honestly and fairly on a plan for the future to see how they can work together to secure those jobs.

Consideration has been given to extending grants to many small businesses that cannot afford to take on additional debt. We would welcome information on how the Government will extend coverage by extending the range of eligibility criteria, to make the grants more flexible.

We also need clarity for workers beyond the retail sector—those on construction sites in particular, but also in factories, call centres, warehouses, distribution and other settings. What are essential workplaces? What is the clear definition? I think that many of these issues can be dealt with fairly readily in the discussions that the Government are having with the trade unions, but they need to be more detailed and on a more permanent, structured basis.

The NHS was promised budget increases over the next five years. We suggest that the Chancellor brings forward the funding for years two, three and four into year one. Can the Minister assure us that we will not have another weekend when doctors and nurses working in intensive care have to go on the media to beg for personal protective equipment and clothing? There were instances over the weekend, and we have heard assurances from the Government, but action is needed rapidly. Can he also assure NHS workers that they will get not only the equipment they need but the tests they need? The World Health Organisation has made it clear from the start that its advice is test, test, test. The scale and the speed of testing need to be addressed.

Can the Minister assure the House and the public that everything is being done to procure more critical care beds? I welcome the news that 7,500 recently retired staff have returned to the NHS, and I pay tribute to each and every one of them. The Government have begged retired NHS staff to return. We believe that the same must happen with social care staff. Chronic low pay in the care sector, with many paid just the minimum wage, means that staff have left for less stressful jobs in retail and other sectors. Those workers need to be brought back. They need the appropriate personal protective equipment and clothing, and they need proper recompense.

Many will have seen the devastating news from the Oaklands nursing home in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), where 16 of the 20 residents and seven staff have coronavirus symptoms. I was most concerned about the reports that, despite pleading for it, the home has been unable to source the proper protective equipment. Just yesterday, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Minister for social care, my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley), demanded an urgent action plan for social care—a system that looks after those most at risk from the virus. As the Chancellor said, our social care system needs whatever it takes. Whether that is residential care, domiciliary care or family carers caring for loved ones in their own home, the resources have to be there now. Can the Minister tell us how much has been allocated immediately to councils and care providers?

Let me turn to local government. I welcome the sectoral consultation that is taking place and the dialogue with trade unions across all departments. Councils have a key role to play as the guarantor of social care provision, but they too have been devastated by cuts and now have the responsibility of the hardship funds to administer. Will the Minister be clear what extra resources are being made available to local councils, especially as many are likely to start seeing drops in council tax and business rates revenue? What extra funding is being made available so that councils can extend council tax support schemes in this period as well?

Although we fully back the measures outlined yesterday, there are unfortunately some households where these measures could mean more abuse and even risk to life. This is where domestic abuse takes place. For victims of domestic abuse and for others, this home isolation will be terrifying. We need the police, refuges, mental health services and other social services to have all the resources and capacity they need. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, who has raised these issues repeatedly. We need a positive Government response that is backed by sufficient resources and full consultation.

Others, like me, have raised the issue of the charity and voluntary sector. Many charities whose work is essential in filling the gaping holes in our public services and our safety net are desperately worried about their finances. Charities dealing with the immediate response to the coronavirus and its effect on the most vulnerable need access to enough grants to allow them to scale up their operations. Others need to be assured that they can access the same level of support that small businesses are rightly getting so that they can suspend some of their operations without having to lay off their hard-working staff and can restart once the crisis passes. Can the Minister tell us what reassurances have been provided by the Government to the charity and voluntary sector? Will the Government work with the sector to find suitable reliefs in these unprecedented times and can the Government outline what schemes are available now to charities struggling with the loss of revenue?

On schools and education, I understand that schools remain open to the children of key workers and to vulnerable children, but only if no safe alternative is available. As for the universities sector, may I ask the Minister about the fees that will have been paid by students in further and higher education and what refunds and deferments will be available? Many students—in fact most students these days, because of tuition fees—work in term-time and during holidays, and that work will no longer be available to them. May I ask the Government immediately to reduce the interest rates on student debt to zero for the duration of this crisis to assist those students?

On transport, what provision has been made by Her Majesty’s Treasury to refund lost revenue for transport authorities, whether that is Transport for London or those that run bus services across the country? On railways, I echo what my hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Transport has said: we back the measures that will keep key workers and freight moving on our railways during this crisis, which has exposed, as he says, the fundamental weaknesses of the franchise model. May I also thank all the railway staff and bus workers who are keeping the essential parts of our country moving? Will the Minister assure us that all public facing railway staff will also have the appropriate personal protection equipment and clothing that they need? Can the Minister tell us whether any consideration has been given to making public transport free for key workers who are risking their lives every day? NHS staff are receiving free rail travel in Wales and a similar move is being rolled out in other countries, such as New Zealand. We would welcome that in this country.

Prisons were understaffed and overpopulated before this crisis. This is not just a question of resources but of safety. I welcome moves to escalate prisoner release schemes for those who do not pose a threat to our society, but the probation service was in crisis before this virus hit us and the lockdown announced yesterday complicates matters even further. Can the House be assured that the police and the probation service will have every resource possible to keep people safe and to monitor those who need supervision? I welcome the moves last week to release detainees from detention centres due to health and safety concerns. Can the Minister be clear about what extra resources are going in to protect people’s health overall?

I was brought up a Catholic. Our local parish priest optimistically calls me a lapsed Catholic, so I welcome any sinner who repents. I therefore reach across the divide and pay tribute to the hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay (Steve Double), who yesterday said that

“many people who we considered to be low-skilled are actually pretty crucial to the smooth running of our country”.—[Official Report, 23 March 2020; Vol. 674, c. 17.]

I also echo his call to the Home Secretary. The point has been made repeatedly by the shadow Home Secretary and many of our Members on the Opposition Benches. The hon. Gentleman asked for the new points-based immigration system to be reviewed, in his words,

“to reflect the things that we have learnt during this time”.—[Official Report, 23 March 2020; Vol. 674, c. 17.]

Have the Government given any consideration to temporarily suspending no recourse to public funds, which is blighting so many people’s lives, or to allowing temporary access to benefits for non-UK nationals so that they can survive this period? That is important at a time when more and more people are out of work and unable to travel.

As a public service to all Conservative MPs, I say that the market does not distribute wages fairly or efficiently in a capitalist society, and there is no correlation between pay rates and the social value of many jobs. If there is one lesson that we learn from this crisis, maybe that will be the one that lasts the longest.

Just three weeks ago, I asked the Government to take a lead internationally in tackling this virus. It is vital that we are engaged in all global health and political forums and that we learn from best practice and share solutions, because this virus respects no borders. By helping others globally, we help ourselves. By neglecting others, we neglect ourselves. Will the Minister assure the House today that extra resources are being made through the international development budget to aid the poorest countries in combating this virus?

I think we will look back at this period as an unprecedented moment in our lifetimes. I know that this is already a tragic time for so many, and all of us will be hurt by this, but I want us all to be able to look back with pride about what we did in this period—to be able to say, “We widened who was covered by our safety net when we had to. We protected people and their jobs and wages. We cared for people around us. We provided all the support that was needed and, as a result of that, we came through this all the stronger.”

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con) - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:01 a.m.

This Bill, as the Minister said, shows decisive leadership by the Government and, indeed, by the whole House. It is supported by the Opposition parties. As the Minister explained, this is really a cash flow Bill. It is not a provision at this juncture for the extra £266 billion of Government spending for Departments; it is an advance to those Departments.

The first question I ask the Minister is, bearing in mind the advance, what is the Treasury’s current estimate of how much extra it thinks it will be borrowing when we come to estimates in July? That is something the House would like to consider and start thinking about.

Another point related to the fiscal and monetary management of this crisis, which I think this Government have done admirably, is whether the Treasury has done any thinking about the Government balance sheet, and in particular the balance sheet that will be looked at by international sovereign investors. Bearing in mind that this crisis is affecting every country in the world, have they done any thinking with our partners on whether money spent relating to this particular crisis may be somehow itemised differently on the balance sheet, rather than just being lumped in with all the other Government spending that may have taken place? If we could somehow delineate crisis spending and normal spending, that may well help investors, this House and anybody else in the future in trying to assess the fiscal health of this country and others. I think that is something the Treasury should consider.

However, there is a broader issue here. This is obviously thought about as primarily a global health crisis, but many people think about the economic impacts, and that is indeed correct. However, the health crisis and the economic crisis are intertwined, and I will focus, as so many in the House have today, on the self-employed, although this issue does not relate just to them.

This virus requires us to do social distancing, which is a phrase all of us have become so familiar with, although I do not think any of us knew it existed up until two to three months ago—all I can say is, bring back Brexit. To save lives, we are having to shut down major parts of the economy, and for people to save their own lives and the lives of others, they are having to shut down their personal economic activity. These people have families, houses and responsibilities; if they do not feel that they can meet those responsibilities, some may choose to take the path we have asked them not to take. Some may choose to do the risky thing and not what they know to be right, because they are caught in this difficult conflict between health and wealth. The job of any Government in a responsible society—indeed, this Government have met this challenge—is to make sure nobody is faced with that choice. I think that principle has underpinned all of the response from the Treasury and should continue to underpin it when the Treasury comes out with its proposals for self-employed workers.

I have a couple of specific questions for the Minister. I have been contacted by many constituents who are trying to use the business interruption loan scheme. Could the limit on unsecured lending be extended above £250,000? Many constituents have told me that they have been asked for personal guarantees above that threshold by the banks. Quite understandably, many are not willing to provide personal guarantees. Indeed, one asked me, “Bim, would you give a personal guarantee on a £500,000 or £1 million loan?” I said I could not say in all honesty that I would. Will the Minister consider extending that threshold for unsecured lending above £250,000—perhaps to £500,000 or £1 million?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake - Hansard

That is an interesting point. The position is not clear on the website, and it does need clarification, but I think that loans over £250,000 are ones that businesses could not get security for. This is the Government standing behind businesses that do not have other forms of security. I think that below £250,000 is where people can ask for reasonable security. However, my hon. Friend’s point about a personal guarantee is key, because it will deter many people from applying for these loans.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:05 a.m.

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. More broadly, the key question for the Minister is whether the Treasury is willing to adapt the scheme over the coming days and weeks as we hear more about the distinct problems and difficulties that there may be with it. That is not to quibble with the fundamentals of the scheme; it is a good scheme, and we need to recognise—indeed, I want to put on record—the fact that it was put together in record time. That is an incredibly difficult thing to do, and we need to give officials and Ministers credit for what they have managed to achieve, but let us try to improve the scheme so that it can be useful to more people, and addressing the issue I have raised is one way of doing so.

The final point I want to make is about tech start-ups—early-stage businesses. These are not necessarily all over the country; they tend to be concentrated in certain parts of the country. Indeed, I have several people who work for them in my constituency. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) cannot be here today, but I have been speaking with her, and there are many of these companies in her constituency. The nature of the support package that has been outlined is not particularly helpful for this type of company, because typically an early stage tech start-up deliberately incurs up-front losses as a result of heavy investment in research and product development. Such companies tend to rely on equity rather than debt funding, so the package that has been put in place is less helpful to them. The investors that back them usually back several dozen such companies and do not have enough cash to put into all their portfolios or their portfolio businesses. There is, therefore, a problem—a specific problem, but an important one, because although the number of the jobs in the sector is about 6,000 to 10,000, these are the companies that drive innovation and will drive the creation of tens if not hundreds of thousands of jobs in the future. Bearing in mind the Government’s ambition for the country, we need to safeguard these businesses as much as we can.

I have been discussing with many in the sector a proposal to join with the British Business Bank to put together a £300 million not-for-profit fund—not a fund that will take management fees or try to make any money—to invest in roughly 600 start-ups, to provide working capital for nine or more months. I ask the Financial Secretary or one of his colleagues to consider meeting me and industry representatives to see whether we can get that sort of thing going. It is a specific sector of the economy, but an extremely important one.

Everyone recognises the enormity of the challenge. Everyone recognises the speed and complexity of what we have to do. The money in this short Bill is critical, but in the coming days—especially if Parliament is to rise by the end of this week—we need to do what we can to improve the schemes as much as possible. Once Parliament is out and does not sit for however long it may be, it will be much harder for Members to do that. I ask the Minister to take those points into account.

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson (Gordon) (SNP) - Hansard

As many have said in the course of several of our debates this week, it is vital that we continue to work across party lines in response to the crisis. I reiterate here and now my party’s support for the Chancellor’s economic package for firms and workers that was announced on Friday.

Our attitude as individual Members to Government and what they should do, or even which Government should do it, determines in large part where we choose to sit in this Chamber, but the debates taking place now are very much subordinate to the task of deciding how to use our collective legitimacy and authority to guide, to direct and to steward the resources we are able to make available to protect the citizens we were elected to this place to represent. These are quite unprecedented times, the likes of which none of us has seen in our lifetime and which we all earnestly hope we will never see again in this or any other lifetime, but these extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. We all know all too well that lives and livelihoods are at stake. Significant policy changes in terms of support for the economy have already been announced, and yesterday this House took further important steps to protect the public by passing the Coronavirus Bill. Having made those changes to governance and policy, it is necessary also to make provision to support those changes in terms of supply through the Contingencies Fund. My party fully supports the steps that we are about to take to do that.

Although economic activity in the country will, of necessity, be curtailed for the duration of our response to the crisis, we need to maintain demand as far as it is possible to do so, and to be able to meet that demand where we can. We also need to make sure that we are laying the foundations of recovery, so that it can take place as soon as the scientific advice is consistent with doing so. To that end, I commend to hon. Members the work the Scottish Government have undertaken, particularly pledges of grants to support business and the offer of various business rates reliefs.

The economic measures we take must give people the security to follow the very clear public health advice that has been given by all the Governments on these islands, and we very much welcome the distance the Chancellor has already travelled in introducing measures to allow that to happen. However, we must recognise that, notwithstanding all that has already been done, not everyone either has or feels that they have the financial security to stop working or, in many cases, the agency to tell an irresponsible employer that they will follow the Government’s clear advice to stay at home.

On the further support we can offer, we need to be doing something and more to support those on zero-hours contracts. We must also provide support for those who have seen their hours reduced and are not involved in the Government’s furlough scheme. The Chancellor and his team have been questioned closely today, including by me, about support for the self-employed. We must take the Chancellor and the Government at their word that they are examining the details of a package and striving to present it to us as quickly as they can.

There are 330,000 self-employed workers in Scotland. Although they may not always feel that they have the ear of Government or that they are as visible as some of the larger corporate entities in the business landscape, they remain the backbone of our economy, and they must not be left behind in the responses to this crisis. We will certainly watch very closely to ensure that they are not.

Despite the Chancellor’s answers earlier, the SNP continues to believe that using the tax and welfare system to put money directly into people’s pockets through a universal basic income would be the simplest and most straightforward way of getting crucial individual financial support exactly where it needs to go.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami - Hansard

Does the hon. Gentleman regard universal basic income as not desirable for the longer term and advocate doing it only for a set period, or does he want it for the longer term?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:05 a.m.

I happen to believe that it would be the best way to ensure that we deliver money to those who need it over the longer term. I do not view it as a Trojan horse; I believe its merits would speak for themselves. But whether we believe in it ideologically or not, from a pragmatic perspective, it would certainly reduce much of the red tape in getting financial resources where they need to be. I do not think the issue of whether it should exist in the long term needs to divide us; I think we could agree that it is how we can best deliver support over the period ahead of us.

There are other areas of the economy that require our attention. Although support for buy-to-let landlords is welcome—I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests; I rent out a small flat myself—it would be more welcome if that financial support went directly to tenants, which would allow them security of tenure and keep that cash circulating in the economy. Other potential measures include increasing statutory sick pay to the EU average, strengthening welfare protections, removing the bedroom tax and removing the rape clause.

When it comes to our transport infrastructure, we need to protect capacity. We saw yesterday welcome interventions in the rail industry and the train operating companies. My constituency contains Aberdeen airport, and the companies responsible for the ground operations there have been in touch with me. Support for the airlines is no doubt important, but so too is support for the airports and the people who work on the ground to ensure that the activity can continue. Our airports will be crucial in getting the country moving again once we are through this crisis. We need to prepare for the contingency of repatriations to the UK in the event that commercial airlines are not able to carry out that task. We also need to be prepared to cover those whose insurers will not pay out for coronavirus-related claims, whatever activity they relate to.

Those measures represent just some of what will be necessary, but we need the resources in place to take them.

Patrick Grady Portrait Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP) - Hansard

It is right that the Government are bringing forward a whole range of support packages, and my hon. Friend is right to raise the other kinds of support that are needed. Does he agree that there is also a responsibility on employers to engage constructively with this and to look after their staff? It might be understandable that people placed on furlough receive an 80% cut in their salary, but I am hearing reports from some of our colleagues who are not physically present with us today that, for example, Newsquest publishers is preparing to cut the salaries of staff who are not being furloughed by between 15% and 20%. Does he agree that that kind of practice by businesses that are going to benefit from the Government support is a very worrying practice?

Richard Thomson Portrait Richard Thomson - Hansard

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. People will be watching very closely to see how companies behave in this crisis and how they react to the support that is there. It is very clear that while some companies have behaved very responsibly, with a real social conscience and with a sense of duty towards their staff, others are not behaving as creditably. I am sure we will hear of more examples of that as time progresses.

All the measures that have been outlined come at a considerable commitment, but the costs—in financial terms, but, more importantly, in human terms—of doing nothing are very much greater to us than the costs of intervening. The response to covid-19 is one that will need all of us to make our own contribution. On behalf of my party, I pay tribute to the public servants, the charities and the many volunteers who will be working around the clock to keep people safe and comfortable over this period. I thank those in the private sector who are working so hard to keep other essential activities in the supply chain under way, and all involved in all spheres and tiers of government—local and national—who will be helping to co-ordinate that activity in the days and weeks ahead.

I will draw my remarks to a close by saying that it was important this week that we gave all those in those spheres and tiers of government the political permission to act as they need to in pursuit of the greater good. This Bill provides the resource to underpin those permissions, and subject to good choices being made with the resource that is now available, it will also give us the ability to support businesses and families through this most trying of times. The Bill has our support.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con) - Hansard

I am delighted to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), who made some salient points. I endorse his tribute to the NHS and to all our public sector workers. I do not know if anybody has seen the news recently, but a terrible tragedy has happened in Spain, where elderly people in care homes were abandoned and left to die in their care homes by the staff. I cannot believe that would ever happen in the UK, and I think it shows how brave many of the people working in our public sector are when faced with these terrible crises.

I should first draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I always do on these occasions. As well as being a Member of Parliament trying to stand up for the interests of my constituents—many businesses have contacted me over the last few days and weeks—I look at these matters from a business perspective. I have been involved in that business for 30 years, and when we had a board meeting on Friday, the first conversation we had—I guess like many businesses—was not about cuts to the number of people we employ, but about how much we could cut our salaries as board directors by. I think most board directors have an appropriately sensible approach to this. We all know this is going to be a very difficult crisis for many businesses. I pay tribute to the Treasury, the Chancellor and the Financial Secretary for putting together a package of support that is unheralded—not just in its size, but in its comprehensive nature and the speed with which it has been delivered.

The job retention scheme in particular was a massive relief to many business people. Back in 2008, we were faced with taking our workforce down from 200 people to 65 within 12 months, as the bottom fell out of our business and out of the market. The most destructive aspect of that—aside from the terrible human cost of sitting down with people with whom one had worked in some cases for decades and telling them that the business could no longer afford to employ them—was that it cost a huge amount of money to make them redundant. That puts the business in a critical condition, which means that more people have to be made redundant. I do not begrudge anybody the redundancy payments that were due, but for a private business that is a very difficult thing to have to do.

The job retention scheme insulates many businesses from that, because instead of having to lay people off or make them redundant, the business can say to them, “You can stay at home at the moment. You’ll continue to be paid a fair amount to get you through this short-term crisis, then we’ll bring you back into the fold.” That eases the financial pressure on the business in an important way. It is a really excellent scheme. There are of course some missing details, which I know we will get in good time, in particular whether earnings will include things such as commission and whether the Government payment will include things such as national insurance. Many businesses have questions that I am sure will be answered in good time.

The other element of the package is the business rate grant scheme, which many businesses have welcomed. Of course, many self-employed people, including sole traders and freelancers, are outside the scheme—a point that I will touch on in a second.

I want to raise one or two points about the business interruption loan scheme. Obviously we want as many businesses as possible to take advantage of the scheme, but one big concern is about security. The scheme is based on the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which included personal guarantees. I understand that the new scheme will not include them—I have been told that from the Dispatch Box today on an urgent question—but it would be helpful if the British Business Bank website said clearly that that is the case. It does not say that at the moment, which could deter some people from applying in the first place. All it says is that security can be taken

“At the discretion of the lender”.

I have had personal guarantees for most of my business life, and I think most people would expect a business person to have some skin in the game, but this is a different situation. It is very difficult to quantify the impact of this crisis on a business. The Government have rightly stated that there will be no personal guarantees, which I assume means that people’s family homes should not be put up for security either. That being the case, it would be helpful to clarify that point, because that would increase demand.

The other point is that at the moment the banks eligible for that scheme number about 40, but there are many outside it. Those not eligible for the previous British Business Bank scheme, the EFG, will not qualify for access to the current scheme. Therefore, customers of OakNorth, Aldermore or one of the many alternative providers in the marketplace today cannot access the scheme. The normal process for applying for that scheme is somewhere between six and 18 months, which is clearly far too long. I think that the Treasury has committed to try to accelerate that process—or the British Business Bank has—but it will still take a matter of weeks, and businesses cannot wait weeks for this money. They need it in a matter of days.

It is absolutely essential that we get that support to businesses now, so I politely ask the Minister whether he will look at that and perhaps get the Bank of England to set up a new scheme directly with some of those lenders, many of which are very bona fide lenders. Of course, the right checks and balances have to be in place, but these are authorised, regulated banks, so it would be good to ensure that all lenders can get finance to all customers.

The other thing about how business will view this crisis is how long it is likely to last. Businesses are much more likely to take a loan, from anywhere, if they think they can get through this and quantify the losses or how long their revenue will be affected. I worry about the current situation, because we are telling people that they can go to work as long as they cannot work from home and as long as they socially distance themselves when they get there. I think that was one reason for the confusion and why Filey in my constituency and many other beautiful market towns were packed out with visitors, who felt they could go to those beautiful places and socially distance themselves while they were there, which clearly they cannot if there are too many people there. It is the same in a workplace environment. I can see that, because of the uncertainty about who can actually go to work—we have not restricted it to key workers or essential workers, to my understanding—lots of people are building houses on construction sites and whatever else they are doing. They are going to work because they cannot work from home and they feel they can socially distance.

From a business point of view, I would personally prefer to have a complete lockdown for 30 days. We know that, in China, after a full lockdown for 14 days, cases peaked, and after 30 days, cases stopped, and all the coffee shops, Starbucks, Apple and the car dealerships opened again. That gives us hope that we can tackle and defeat this virus within 30 days, if we do the right thing. If we are equivocal about it and it is confusing, people will continue to go to work and continue to spread the virus.

From my business perspective, a short, sharp shock is much more appealing. I would know that, if I applied for a business loan from the new scheme, I could quantify how much I would need, if I had the confidence that the timescale would be limited in that way.

I have a couple of other points that I think would be useful. Ideally, the Government should not have to step in to support businesses at any point in time. The markets should deliver that themselves, with finance coming from banks or investors through to businesses. Venture capital trusts have limits on how much they can put into businesses—up to £5 million on an annual basis and £12 million as a lifetime limit into a particular business. Because of the unprecedented nature of this crisis, it would be useful to double those limits so that venture capital trusts, which invest in many good businesses, can see those businesses through a tough time. Otherwise they will not be able to get the extra money into those businesses that they need. It could be a temporary change, and it would potentially save many businesses.

On the self-employed, we have understandably heard lots of calls for more help for the sole trader. Many different people in my constituency have contacted me. They desperately need some help, and I do understand that. Within that cohort are some very vulnerable people, including mortgage prisoners. I have corresponded with many mortgage prisoners, as have other hon. Members, and many are self-employed. They are in a particular situation in that their earnings are being very badly damaged now, and they have been paying huge mortgage rates for too long. Many of the mortgage prisoners’ loans have been sold to non-UK lenders—inactive lenders—and the regulatory oversight of those lenders is much reduced compared with UK lenders. In my view, it is an absolute disgrace that we allow UK mortgage customers’ loans to be sold to a foreign entity, over which we do not have the same oversight, so we cannot properly control the activities of those lenders. We need to bring all those lenders within the same regulatory scope. Some of those mortgage prisoners are on very high standard variable rates of around 5%, and even up to 6%. It is simply unfair . A year or two ago, we brought in a standard variable rate cap in the energy sector. I wonder whether the Minister could look to do the same thing in this sector to ensure that those people are treated fairly.

I do a lot of work with the all-party group on fair business banking. Most bankers do the right thing—the vast majority of banks and bankers I meet and have banked with over more than 30 years in business have looked after my business fairly. Clearly, that does not always happen, given the 2008 scandal in small business banking. It is time now for the banks to do the right thing and to work with the Government on the business interruption scheme.

Another issue is that the rates that banks charge on personal loans and overdrafts are not coming down, despite the reduction in base rate—in fact, quite the opposite. The Financial Conduct Authority, in its wisdom, decided that everyone who had an overdraft should pay the same whether it was an authorised overdraft or an unauthorised overdraft. It told the banks that they could not penalise people for unauthorised overdrafts, so everyone has to pay the same. The rate for authorised overdrafts used to be somewhere between 3% and 15%, and unauthorised overdrafts used to have a fixed daily charge and a much higher rate. So the banks made them all the same, and here are the rates being charged today for authorised and unauthorised loans: First Direct, 39.9%; HSBC, 39.9%; Lloyds Banking Group, 39.9%; Nationwide, 39.9%; and NatWest, 39.5%. It is simply disgraceful. Everybody is paying the higher rate. It smacks of a cartel, as well as profiteering and overcharging.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP) - Hansard

Last Friday, four or five businesses in my constituency came to see me, looking for help because of the coronavirus. The first constituent told me that he had asked for his loans to be reduced, but the bank—I will not say which one it was—said, “No, what we’ll do is charge you £100 for each amount of money that you’ve borrowed, and then we’ll charge you interest at 6% on top of that.” Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in these difficult times, that is totally outrageous? The banks should be there to help, not to take advantage.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake - Hansard

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution, and indeed for all the work he does on the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking and for the many speeches he has made on the matter. I absolutely agree. The two best things that I have heard the Treasury say over the past two weeks—and there have been many—are, “We will do whatever it takes” and, “We are all in this together.” The banks should take that approach as well. I and many other Members of the House will be watching to make sure that this time the banks do the right thing and restore their reputation.

John McDonnell - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman has done some sterling work on this, so would he like to comment on the figures that are coming out on 6 April and the interest rates for overdrafts from HSBC, First Direct, M&S Bank and TSB? Nationwide have already gone there, with an increase from 9.99% to 39.9%. What does he think about that?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake - Hansard

I think it is an absolute disgrace. I do not think that the FCA saw it coming, which is one of the flaws of the regulator. The FCA has been criticised many times in this place, including by the right hon. Gentleman. It told the banks, “Right, you’re not going to charge anybody any more than anyone else is.” But that let them all put their rates up to the highest level. It is exploitative and absolutely outrageous.

The banks need to look at this as a sector and start to treat their customers fairly, which of course is a basic requirement of the principles of banking, so the FCA should step in and look at this. In fact, I think it should be the subject of an inquiry by the Competition and Markets Authority. The fact that the rates are not just high, but all the same, smacks of directors getting together in a room and agreeing a figure. It cannot be a coincidence that all the rates are exactly the same in this supposedly competitive market.

On commercial loans, it is right that the Government have negotiated with the banks to give mortgage holidays, which of course have to be paid back but nevertheless give borrowers vital breathing space. I think the same is true of some commercial loans, but the banks are saying, “We’ll give you a holiday only on the payment of the principal, not the interest.” Those paying for a commercial loan are paying much more on the interest than they are on the principal, which again seems grossly unfair if we are all in this together.

We are going to work together to try to get through this, so I call on the banks to look at this again, to be fair and to rebuild their reputation. The final way they could do that is by suspending legal action, certainly in relation to residential repossessions but also for repossessions against businesses. They should show forbearance and use the business banking resolution service—I am one of the people who have been working on that in recent months—which will be like a super ombudsman for banking disputes. They should defer any issues they have with their customers until that service is properly established, so that those complaints can be resolved fairly—fair to the bank and fair to the customer.

Ed Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD) - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:09 a.m.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake). He made two points with which I wish strongly to agree. First, I agree on the need for clarity on people who can go to work: who are the essential workers? The issue is causing huge concern. If there are too many people on public transport because we are not leaving it for the essential workers, that is bad for the whole public objective of stopping the virus spreading. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right on that. The bad news is that people are almost going to be forced to stay at home anyway because business is collapsing. Let us take the construction industry, which the hon. Gentleman talked about. I am getting messages telling me that because mortar supplies are basically collapsing, people will not be able to do any construction. That shows Members how dramatic is the impact of what is happening out there. There should be clarity from the Government on that because leadership is important.

The second thing on which the hon. Gentleman is right—I really want to impress this upon those on the Treasury Bench, and we have heard other colleagues talk about it already—is the genuine accessibility of the loans that have been made available via the Bank of England. The Government trumpeted their announcement and we all welcomed it, but I keep hearing stories of small businesses that find that, if they can get through to the bank—by the way, it is taking quite a long time, although that is not a complaint, because of course a lot of people are contacting the banks and I expect they are extremely busy—they have to give personal guarantees. At a time when it is very difficult for people to know how their business is going to pan out—how can they know that in such an uncertain certain time?—no one their right mind would give those sorts of personal guarantees. It is just not realistic for them to put their house and the whole family’s income and savings on the line. The Government are going to have to think again about the terms of the loan guarantee scheme. These are unusual times and the Government have made money available; rather than just giving a guarantee to the financial institution, they will have to find a way to transfer that guarantee to the business concerned. I know there are huge moral hazards with that—I get that—but if they do not, it is not going to work.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami - Hansard

On that point, has the right hon. Gentleman come across the same thing as I have? I have found that the people who have been asked to give personal guarantees are often the ones with the lowest debt—indeed, no debt—in their businesses, and the people who have found it easier are those who already have a big debt facility with a bank that can be easily extended. It is almost a double punishment for those who have been prudent in managing their small businesses so far.

Ed Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:02 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is that old saying, “If you borrow a lot, you are able to borrow more,” whereas those people who have run things prudently are finding it a problem. This is a really crucial issue and the Government must give it some urgent attention. In the exchanges on the urgent question that I asked earlier on the self-employed, there were some welcome statements about the loans being available to sole traders and the self-employed more widely, but I do not think they will be able to access them, because they will not be able to give those sorts of personal guarantees. Given that cash-flow is going to be king, certainly until the Government come up with a solution for the self-employed, they will have to have access to some money. If that is just a loan on their personal bank account, with the interest we have been talking about, that is not going to work for people. People are going to be in real trouble. I welcome what the Government have done, but they need to look at how it is operating in practice—and look at it fast.

People out there remember what happened in the financial crisis. They remember that this House said, across party lines, that we must bail out the banks—that the banks could not collapse and the financial system had to keep going. They were pretty upset, because a lot of them took cuts in their own income and then saw that although some bankers lost their jobs—we knowledge that—many did not, and the banking system sort of recovered and looked like it was treated with quite a lot of generosity through our taxpayers’ money. When we hear stories now about ordinary people who have put their lives into building their businesses not getting help from the banks because the banks are getting in the way, I have to tell the banks that they have to sort themselves out, because this House will not be able to resist the political pressure. We need the banks in our society, right? No one is suggesting that they do not play a critical role, but if at this stage, after we helped them out 10 years ago, the banks do not come to the rescue of small businesses, sole traders, the self-employed and ordinary people, they will reap a whirlwind. I really worry about that, because I believe in the banking system, but the banks have got to step up to the plate.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami - Hansard

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Is it not also important to recognise the nature of the schemes—that is, that they were put in place by the Treasury, the banks and the Bank of England all working together? The terms on which the banks are operating were agreed by all of them, so we need to ensure that all those parties—the Treasury, the Bank of England and the banks—collectively realise what needs to happen, rather than us necessarily saying that it is just the banks that are making it difficult; the structures and the terms are actually very important.

Ed Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:02 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes a really important point, and backs up the thrust of what I am trying to say. The banks have been given access to free money. They are being looked after by the Bank of England through this extension of the Bank of England’s balance sheet, so they are doing okay. So why are they not stepping up to help the rest of the economy? There are some really quite serious questions on this issue. I hope that the Government say in response to this debate that they, the Bank of England and the Financial Conduct Authority are going to look at this situation, because it is just not good enough. I want to work on a cross-party basis on this issue, as the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) said; this is vital to all of us, and we need to send a message to those who are running the banks that we are expecting them to step up. It is time that they did their duty, right?

I actually want to come to my speech, because that was just a response to the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami). I want to talk about the Bill in front of us—I know that is a bit unusual—as well as the supply process of which it is a part, and then I will give some thoughts on the economy.

On the Bill, will the Minister tell us why the Treasury chose to change the percentage limit of the contingencies fund, which is normally set at 2% of total authorised expenditure in the preceding year, to 50% until the end of 2020-21? In absolute figures, the amount before this Bill would have been £10.7 billion. That has gone up to £266 billion. I hope that the Minister can explain why. It does not seem unreasonable, given the pressures on Departments, but it is quite a big change. I am not against it—let me be clear that I will be supporting the Bill today—but it would be good to put on the record, for the House and for history, why that figure has been chosen. When people look at this situation in the future, they will need to know why that decision was taken.

The Minister said in his opening remarks that this was not an increase in expenditure. Well, I hope that he meant to say that it is an increase in expenditure in that it takes account of commitments that the Chancellor has made both in the Budget and since the Budget. If I have understood correctly, there is a big increase in expenditure because we need one—for the health service, our social care system and other parts of our public services that need the cash now.

I have another question for the Minister. If these contingencies are being given to Departments so that they have the cash they need, is the money also being given to local authorities? I want to underline this point: local authorities are on the frontline now, and they are having to spend money all the time on a whole range of things that are completely unbudgeted for. They are confused about the proposals for business rates, whether they are going to get any income in, what money they have to give out and all the rest of it. Local authorities are slightly unclear about what is happening. I hope that there will be genuine desire and action on behalf of the Treasury to get some money out—on account, if you like—to them so that they have the cash flow to ensure that they can provide the extra services that they are being asked to provide. It is essential that we hear that local authorities are getting the support that the Whitehall Departments seem to be getting.

I said that I also wanted to talk about the supply process. This legislation is part of the almost anachronistic supply process in this House. I am afraid that I am a bit of a geek on this. In 2000, I wrote a pamphlet called “Making MPs Work For Our Money: Reforming Parliament’s Role In Budget Scrutiny”. It is a cure for insomnia, so I do not necessarily suggest people read it, but in it I tried to argue that this House does not really have sovereignty over the Budget. We look at these Bills when they come along and we nod them through, but our processes of examining draft budgets and estimates are shocking. In my pamphlet, I made the comparison with all the OECD countries, and this House has the worst processes for examining draft budgets and measures such as this Bill—that is worrying. I do not wish to resurrect the Brexit debate, but it was supposed to be about parliamentary sovereignty and I used to say, “I wish we had some.” That is because this House rarely, if ever, looks at the estimates properly, analyses them in Select Committees and makes proposals about draft spending decisions. Other Parliaments do those things quite easily—the Swedish and New Zealand Parliaments are good models. Our approach undermines the value for money and undermines what we are here for, and we really need to look at the estimates procedure.

That is why this Bill looks so weird in many ways; it is called the Contingencies Fund Bill and we are not used to doing this sort of thing, because we have given up control over supply—it is just nodded through. The last time MPs voted against a spending request of the Government was in 1919, more than 100 years ago We have given up properly controlling the draft estimates. Although I will be supporting the Bill tonight, because it is really important that we let this one through, I just want to say to the Minister that I hope we can reflect on this. I raised this issue when I was in government and tried to get the then Chancellor to look at it. There was a flurry of excitement and then the dead hand of the Treasury said, “No way, we are not giving up control.” That was the wrong move, because control can be exercised with greater transparency. I hope that that may be one thing that comes from this experience in this emergency situation.

Let me end with some reflections on the economy, where we are at and the lessons we are taking. I talked about the importance of the banks really delivering, given the agreement with the Government and the Bank of England. That is probably the most essential message from me tonight. There are some longer-term things and possibly some relatively short-term things to address, one of which is the way we do the Bank of England’s quantitative easing. That is monetary policy, where we are, in effect, printing money and sending it out. That happened after the 2008 crash and it is happening now. I am not against it, but I just say that the way it works is not some sort of technical, politically neutral, value-neutral system; it has implications for economic equality in this country, because the money tends to go to people in the City—the financial institutions. It does not go to ordinary people and ordinary businesses. So if we are going to get things right this time and have quantitative easing, I urge the Minister to let us have a debate about how those mechanisms actually work, because in crises we do not want economic inequality worse; we want to make it better. These technical things sound as though they are available only for pointy-heads in the Treasury, but quantitative easing is a political issue and we have not debated that. It has massive social and economic consequences, and we need to make sure that there is democratic accountability on them, and that they are properly understood and work in the interests of society.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake - Hansard

Has that not been solved to some extent with the job-retention scheme, because the Government will issue bonds to fund that scheme, they will be bought by asset managers and the QE will buy those assets off the asset managers? That is the circular nature of that scheme. So this time round, as the Prime Minister said a few days ago, the support would be directed at the people, in terms of keeping them in work and in pay, rather than simply funding the banks. To a certain extent, this time QE does support jobs and real people.

Ed Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman has a point and he is right to take me up on that. I think that there is an improvement, but I do not think we have debated this in the context of QE and the monetary side of the policy response. I think we need to do that, because we need to unpick some deep issues here and I do not think this House has understood that. Although I am a big fan of the independent Bank of England, and I do not think we should interfere with the setting of interest rates, I do think QE raises some political questions which are not technical and require accountability.

Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami - Hansard

On QE and how that would be done, we must make sure that it does not become too inflationary, that being the problem if we have a distribution network straight to the real economy without mediating it through banks.

Ed Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey - Hansard

I half agree with the hon. Gentleman, but I do not think inflation is going to be the problem; people have not got any money. This form of QE is often called helicopter money and perhaps that is the right move now, and we need to be debating it.

I have a final comment to make and then I will sit down. When we reflect in a few months on this crisis and what has gone on, we will have to look at some of the underlying assumptions of our economic models. I am not saying that we should rip them up—I do not believe that at all—but how the state underpins and works with the market is really important. What I mean by that is that there is an assumption that the market can do it all, that the market is fantastic and that Governments should come out of the way, but markets only exist because of Governments. Regulations and laws make markets and there have always been those.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, midnight

indicated dissent.

Ed Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey - Hansard

The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head. Without rules and regulations on competition, on fair play for employees and on consumer protections, markets will not work. Where there is no consumer protection, consumers do not have faith in the products and services being provided, so the markets cannot work. I absolutely think that we need to reflect on that, because I do not think that the model has been working well enough. I will end on that comment, because I hope that we will learn from this and have a proper debate about how our economy will work in future.

Derek Thomas Portrait Derek Thomas (St Ives) (Con) - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:02 a.m.

I rise to speak on the Contingencies Fund, not least because the Isles of Scilly transport system—I have mentioned this once already today—is desperate for a contingencies fund. I will set out why, and then how, local departments and Government Departments might help with their own contingencies fund.

The Isles of Scilly is 28 miles off Land’s End; 2,200 people live there and depend on the transport system for everything they need. The transport system is entirely run by private operators, with no help from the state—we have been working to try to address that. The community on Scilly rely on this transport for absolutely everything, including, in some cases, non-emergency medical travel.

Much of the transport serves the remote population all year round. There is aviation, freight transport and inter-island transport, which includes the school bus and transport for free bus pass holders and everybody else who needs to move between the five inhabited islands all year round. That is made possible only by the vibrant, successful tourism sector, which ordinarily starts with vigour this week. Many Members tell me, “I have just been on my holidays on the Isles of Scilly”. They will understand how remote but how precious this set of islands are.

As we expected, the demand for tourism has collapsed dramatically, and rightly so, but so far in all the measures that have been announced, very few actually help. For example, the help with wages is based on the figure for the previous month. As we start the tourism industry on Scilly now, there is no record of wages for the previous month. If we lose these people, who have the right kind of skills and tickets to operate on these boats, the boats and vessels cannot continue to work, even when we get past the coronavirus outbreak.

I listened very carefully to the Chancellor’s response to a question I raised earlier, knowing full well that the measures so far do not really help with any of the issues faced by the transport operators on Scilly. He suggested that local authorities are in a position to help, and that is welcome. This is where I get on to the issue of a contingencies fund for Government Departments. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Council of the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall Council and the Department for Transport have a contingencies fund to underwrite the running costs of each of the operators serving Scilly so that they can survive this difficult period and be there to be part of the recovery, once we have beaten coronavirus? The truth is that if any of these operators collapse, the state will have to step in, and it is not for the state to run these essential services, in my understanding. It is far better to enable them to survive these three or four months, or however long it may be.

This is a critical issue for very many families and business owners, and more clarity is needed from a Government who have rightly said—I have supported them from the outset—that they would do whatever is needed, and whatever it takes. Will the Minister please take this to the Treasury and find out what can be done quickly to ensure that these businesses last even beyond the end of this month? The situation is critical.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab) - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:09 a.m.

I want to touch briefly on the situation of charities and their funding in the context of coronavirus. I am aware that charities have already been in conversation with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about funding to allow them to assist in responding to the crisis. So many people face huge need and social isolation. Just some of the factors affecting those people are funding for food banks, which is falling because of the current situation, as are donations; funding for listening services; and funding for care services, which are needed more than they have ever been.

Charities face huge challenges, and they, too, need contingency funding measures if they are to survive and assist our communities as we face this challenge. Many of them are losing income because of the need to close their charity shops and the cancellation of fundraising events. Will the Minister confirm that charities should be eligible for the same business interruption measures as other business organisations? Will he look again at the trading income threshold, which, as I understand it, requires 50% of income to come from trade?

Charities need a stabilisation fund to help them to stay afloat and assist our communities, and I hope that that will be made available to our charities in the context of this contingency funding. Will the Minister confirm that they will be eligible for support to pay their staff, as other employers are? It is vital that we retain the infrastructure of our charities if we are to get through this situation and survive into the future.

There must be emergency funding for frontline charities that are supporting the response to coronavirus to ensure that they can remain afloat and provide that service. I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) has written to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about that, and I hope he will respond thoughtfully and positively to the points that she has made.

We face a huge issue as we move, quite rightly, into greater social isolation. Charities such as Age UK Gateshead, which covers my constituency, and Samaritans have a real and positive role to play in countering the mental strain of loneliness and isolation, which many people will undoubtedly face in this situation. I ask the Minister to ensure that charities are given the funding that they need.

While I am on my feet and I have, I hope, the Minister’s ear, I put in a plea for funding for the self-employed, particularly those in what I would call microbusinesses—the dance schools, the musicians, the driving instructors and the pest controllers—who are contacting me, even as I have been sitting here, to say, “I just don’t know what I am going to do.” They not only have no income, but they do not qualify for the various grants and loans. They are left trying to claim universal credit, but the huge backlog of claims means that, with the best will in the world, no payments will be made quickly. So many of them have contacted me in desperation in the last couple of weeks. They have lost not only their main income but their future business, and they will have to rebuild from the start. Can the Minister press the Chancellor to provide funding for that group of people?

Finally, I want to flag funding for transport services. The coronavirus has produced a huge change in the usage of our transport systems, which are vital for the future. I know that many transport authorities are looking at how they can maintain transport services, but it is important that we work sympathetically and flexibly to maintain our public sector transport system.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab) - Hansard

I want to start by echoing the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friends, and particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). The urgent need for provisions to support the self-employed gets greater by the day, and my concern is that desperation is turning to anger. The “What about us?” sentiment will be driving that anger, understandably, and making the situation a whole lot worse. I urge Ministers to bring that support forward.

We are also promised support for renters in both the social sector and private rented sector. That has not happened yet. Again, as days and weeks go by, the desperation and uncertainty become greater, and I urge Ministers to bring that forward. My right hon. Friend was right about the Government apparently going back on a commitment to bring forward provisions to ban evictions. If someone is evicted, where are they going to go at the moment? There is no reason at all why that provision should not be brought forward. If we are serious that people have to stay at home, let them stay at home by making sure that they are not evicted. It shows either misjudgment in making the promise in the first place, or misjudgment and bad faith in breaking that promise. I urge Ministers to take that back to the Prime Minister and ask him to make a change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) was absolutely correct in what she said about charities. In Cheshire West and Chester, we have brought together Cheshire West and Chester Council, West Cheshire Voluntary Action and lots of charities and church groups to try to provide a co-ordinated service to all those who need support at the moment. But as my hon. Friend said, the charities are running out of money because their commercial activities are running down, which is affecting their income. That is calling into question their ability to deliver services to the most vulnerable, which they do much of the time and which is often taken for granted. Right now, with everyone expected to stay at home, the ability of charities to deliver those services is perhaps limited anyway, but as this situation hopefully gets better, we will look to charities to get those services up and running straightaway. At the moment, without the support for charities, their ability to do that is diminished.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake - Hansard

May I take the hon. Gentleman back to his point on rented accommodation? He is right that at the moment, all landlords should show forbearance when people are in difficult financial circumstances, and the Coronavirus Bill will increase the notice period to end an assured shorthold tenancy from two to three months. He is a fair man, so does he agree that we must be fair to both sides? If a tenant is unfairly withholding rent from a landlord, and it takes eight months to get a case to court at the moment, that is not very fair on the landlord. We have to be fair to both sides.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:09 a.m.

I do accept that, but that would be the case in normal circumstances anyway. We are talking about giving people peace of mind during this national crisis and ensuring that people do not even have to live with the worry of being chucked out on the street or into temporary accommodation. That is my concern.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington reflected on his childhood in Liverpool and on his priest considering him to be a lapsed Catholic. That reminded me of my mum and dad, who also grew up in Liverpool, albeit a couple of decades or more before my right hon. Friend. The formative period of their childhood was the second world war, when they were both young children, suffering the bombings in Liverpool and the uncertainty of the war. We all know that the second world war in Europe ended formally on 7 May 1945, but my mum and dad did not know that—they had no idea when the hostilities would end and things might start to get better. Listening to my right hon. Friend, I reflected that that is the situation in which we find ourselves now.

We have no idea how long this crisis is likely to last. That uncertainty drives desperation, anxiety and as the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) and my good friend the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) said, business uncertainty. That is why it is essential that the Government are clear in their statements and oblige other businesses—we have talked about the banks; I want to consider insurance companies—to ensure that they play their part. If we cannot plan ahead, we will not know how to address the problems, and it cannot simply be down to the Government.

I make that point because insurance companies are not living up to their obligations. I know of businesses in Chester that have been told that their business contributions to insurance do not apply because coronavirus was not a notifiable disease at the time of the outbreak or because the Government had only suggested, as was the case last week, that events did not take place rather than saying that they must not take place. As I mentioned at Question Time, for events, conferences and sports that have a long lead-in time to prepare, it would help if the Government were clearer now that those businesses could not get back up and running for four or six months and that insurance companies should ensure that their policies kick in.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Ind) - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:01 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the future and how we recover and rebuild after the crisis has passed, but does he agree that things have changed utterly and that footing the bill for covid-19 in the years ahead cannot fall to the people, and that the banks certainly should not be rewarded, as the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) suggested, with quantitative easing? It is important that we get this right. When we start to rebuild, it is important that people and organisations that have avoided and evaded tax are called to pay their fair share.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:01 a.m.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. The world will change, but only if we lead and make that change ourselves. As regards quantitative easing, which the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) mentioned, I would be happy to give all that money to local authorities and let them spread it out to places that really need it.

The hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton, who is a good friend, and has respect across the House for his work on the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking, is right to talk about the banks, not only now, but in the future, when this is all over. We must ensure that they do not get up to the same games by looking at businesses and saying, “Your income’s declined, so we’ll start foreclosing on some of your assets.” That has happened before. I call on Ministers to give close attention to the way that banks operate, not only now, but afterwards, and ensure that they play their part.

In this crisis, there will be heroes and villains. We will remember the heroes and we will also remember the villains. I call on employers such as banks and insurance companies not to make their staff go to work if they are in a vulnerable group. I am getting complaints from constituents that they are being forced to go to work. Mike Ashley and Mr Wetherspoon should not flout Government advice just because their bottom line might be affected. We will remember the villains. I say, “Don’t be a villain at the end of this” because hopefully, those companies and corporations will receive the short shrift they deserve.

Bill Esterson Portrait Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab) - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:04 a.m.

Desperation was the word used a number of times by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and, prior to him, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). It sums up the feeling of many people for many reasons. I think it also underpins what the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) did. I wish he was two metres from the Minister to demonstrate good social distancing in this place. He was right. This debate is about improving the schemes as far as we are able to do so, as part of our contribution to scrutinising the Bill.

My first point, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), is about construction sites. We have all seen the pictures, and some of us have passed examples today, of construction workers working in big numbers in close proximity. That cannot be right and it is certainly not what was intended by the Prime Minister’s guidance. Perhaps the Minister can take that point on board and consider how that situation might be prevented. It is a very serious matter, not just for those workers but in terms of spreading the virus elsewhere. We must all remember that, even if we are fit and healthy and do not become sick ourselves, it is not about the individual, but who we pass it on to.

On banks and loans, the problem, as has been stated by a number of Members, is that loans mean debt which cannot be repaid without the certainty of an income. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester just made the point about us not knowing the end date. If people do not know the end date, they will not be able to plan to pay the loans back. That is a real problem. If we then add on the uncertainty of having to provide personal guarantees, it becomes extremely problematic for many businesses to take advantage of the loan scheme. The suggestions made by Members for how the loan scheme might operate are really important, and it is really important that the Government go away and look into them.

On the behaviour of banks, in other debates we have heard descriptions of pharmacists and food retailers hiking up prices. The banks are doing exactly the same thing with interest rates. That cannot be allowed to continue. I thought the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) was going to suggest nationalising the banks as a way forward. He was at one stage channelling his inner Marxist for the benefit of some in the Chamber. [Interruption.] There is agreement from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington on the Front Bench. The point is that the taxpayer bailed out the banks. People paid the money back through higher interest rates in the financial crisis. They are now about to repeat that behaviour at a much more dangerous and difficult time in our history. There has to be intervention by the Treasury, in whatever shape or form, to prevent that and to ensure that the banks behave responsibly, provide support and do not put apply onerous terms, whether through personal guarantees or ultra-high extortionate rates of interest.

There is also the trust issue. Businesses do not want to borrow because of their past experiences. During the financial crisis when I was running a business, I had the experience of having my overdraft facility recalled overnight. We were lucky that we were able to cover that out of personal savings, but very many businesses were not able to do so and went to the wall. People suffered grievously—some took their own lives. We have debated that many times in this Chamber, and we do not want a repeat of that over the coming months and years after the immediate crisis has passed. I therefore urge the Government to intervene now to get that right.

As well as taking advantage of the Government’s employee retention scheme, businesses will need to pay additional costs such as rents and insurances. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester made the point that businesses are being told that they do not qualify for business continuity insurance. The same applies to income protection for the self-employed and small business owners, because this disease did not exist when their policies were written. Those issues need attention. The vast sum of money that the Government are making available provides the opportunity to look at some of the other costs for businesses to see whether there can be help beyond that suggested for employees. Grants are certainly a part of that. Given how long this situation might last, the size of the grants will need to be constantly reviewed so that they are sufficient.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:08 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about grants. The biggest grant, of course, is the job retention scheme—that is a grant. It is Government funded, and there is no requirement for employers to pay anything towards it unless they want to do so, and they can top it up to that 20%. Therefore, will he concede that the scheme is a very important initiative by the Government and that it will be welcomed by many businesses?

Bill Esterson Portrait Bill Esterson - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:09 a.m.

Absolutely. It is important, and I certainly welcome it. None the less, there are some challenges with it. The fact that it is not available for the March payroll is a big problem for many businesses. We have already seen a significant number of businesses close and many workers laid off who will not now be eligible to be part of that scheme. The Government, totally understandably, have used examples of furlough schemes elsewhere in the world, but it will be difficult for the scheme to deal with the nature and the scale of this crisis.

John McDonnell - Hansard

What we were trying to establish in our discussions with the Government last week was equality of sacrifice. Yes, workers and the Treasury have realised that there will have to be some sacrifice, but we were expecting some contribution from employers themselves. An hour ago, 400 workers at Tristar in my constituency were laid off. Those 400 drivers were told that they will get paid 80% of their wages by the Government and they have been laid off for three months. We expected the employers to contribute to that 20%, but, in this case, that will not be paid. The crisis is falling on the shoulders of workers, rather than on businesses. There is no equality of sacrifice in a number of these companies, some of which are being ruthless.

Bill Esterson Portrait Bill Esterson - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, 12:02 a.m.

My right hon. Friend highlights the fact that some employers do not behave in a way that we should be able to expect them to behave given the nature of the crisis. We have heard other examples of large companies behaving in a way that is irresponsible and, frankly, downright wrong.

In addition to what my right hon. Friend says about employers not paying the 20% element of the wage replacement scheme and taking advantage of it, it is also the case that, for employers who wish staff to go on to short-time or part-time working, or reduced hours of some sort, the scheme does not apply. There is a real challenge for businesses in those categories, too.

That brings me on to the self-employed and this point about desperation. People are desperate now. We have debated that a number of times today and over the past few days as well. I just do not get the sense of urgency in this place. We are in here, and away from the real world. The same applies with Whitehall. I just think that, sometimes, people here do not have a sense of just how desperate things are when two members of the same household are both self-employed and have no money. They cannot put food on the table. When the Chancellor says, as he did this morning, that he is worried about the scheme for self-employed going to wealthy people, I say, as indeed did the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton in his urgent question, let us not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Let us get a scheme in place and let us make it comparable with what the Government have offered to employees.

I want to say just a word or two about food supply and how the fund might apply there. There will be challenges around security of food supply; obviously, given the closing down of international transport links, that will be a challenge. We heard about the pressures on supermarkets. Some of the behaviour in supermarkets has been completely unacceptable, and the same applies to pharmacies. I hope that some of this money will go to ensuring security of deliveries, to protecting retail workers, to making sure that food and medicine get to those who most need it, and to helping pay for deliveries. The same applies to the supply of PPE, which hon. Friends have spoken about.

The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is right to raise the issue of helicopter money; at some point, that is something that the Treasury should consider. Any scheme, whether on PPE, food or access to funds, is only as good as the information out there, the awareness of the scheme, and the immediacy of access to it. The Government need to do much more to ensure that people know what is available in all those areas. The gov.uk website will carry that information, but lots of people and businesses do not know that it is there.

There is a real imperative on the Government to work much harder on the information that is getting out there, and on access to what is being offered. Television and radio will lose their commercial advertising; there is a great opportunity to replace it. I can give an example of the power of really good advertising: the video put together by the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust respiratory department. It was one of the most powerful pieces of advertising about the need for people to stay at home that I have ever seen. The BBC showed it; I think Sky might have, too; and it had viral attention on social media. The Government need to produce advertising of that quality to demonstrate what is available in a range of areas across society. Some of this money can be used to deliver on that agenda. Information and proper access will ensure the most effective use of this enormous necessary injection of funding.

The debate has been an opportunity to bring together the issues. I hope that the Financial Secretary will take them to all his colleagues across Government, as appropriate. It is interesting that the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said that 1919 was the last time there was this sort of scrutiny; that was the year of the Spanish flu pandemic. We will not vote against the measure this time, but let us hope that, this time, it is effective, and that the money gets through as quickly as possible.

Anneliese Dodds Portrait Anneliese Dodds (Oxford East) (Lab/Co-op) - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, midnight

This has been a very wide-ranging debate on a Bill that, though very short, is of course critically important, so it is important that we talk about its different elements. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) set out, the official Opposition support the Bill, but it elicits substantial questions. The first is about the different aspects of the expenditure; the second is about the process for delivering it; the third is about the process for overseeing it; and the fourth is about the Bill’s role in relation to the rest of the financial decision making cycle. I will try to touch on those aspects briefly.

First, we have had a wide-ranging debate on the measures. I will be very brief, so I will not be able to pick up on every issue that was covered. There has been discussion of NHS and social care spending. We still require more transparency about the additions to that spending, particularly around the targeting of PPE and testing. As the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) said, there are still many issues on social security. For example, we have no clarity about exactly what the hardship funds provided by local authorities will be spent on. Will it be just council tax relief, or will it be more? We really feel the lack of the social fund here.

Of course, the problems for renters continue, as was rightly pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson). As my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) said, many issues faced by charities are not dealt with by the sources of support that have been announced recently. I hope that the Minister listened to her recommendations and will take them up.

We have had a lot of debate about self-employment. We need those measures put in place as soon as possible. There was discussion about the scope of the measures, and the idea of not funding those self-employed people who already have resources. We seem to have one approach for the goose and another for the gander. For example, the system of loans is not conditional, whereas in some other countries it has been conditional on certain activities undertaken by the firms. We need to be fair.

On salary support, as the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) said, it is essential that we keep as many people in work as possible. My party strongly agrees with him and has pushed for this measure. It is terrible for people if they lose their job, and terrible for the company because of all the associated costs and disruption. We need responsible behaviour from companies. We do not want to be talking about the villains after they have committed their villainy; we need the Government to call them out and to act. The Health Secretary did so eventually in relation to Sports Direct, but we need action much more quickly.

We need more clarity about vulnerable workers. We still have pregnant women and people with severe asthma being told they have to go to work, they do not have any choice. Clear guidance is needed on that and on insurance.

We need clarity on support for specific industries, as the hon. Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) said, talking about transport and the travel industry in the Scilly Isles. He is right that that is a critical problem. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Sir George Howarth) said, talking about the construction industry, we need more pressure from Government on the critical issue of safety at work. What we are seeing all around us is immensely disturbing.

Again, we need more clarity on the business interruption loan scheme. Are personal guarantees required or not? If they are, when are they required? We have to ensure that a clear message comes through on that and on the British Business Bank and how quickly new banks are being brought into a relationship with it. Before, I heard days, not weeks. Which is it? We need this to be sorted out as quickly as possible. The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) asked a number of pertinent questions about the banking system that we need to look at here.

There are big questions not just about elements of the spending but about its delivery. As my hon. Friends have said, many organisations that were already fragile are having to spend resources without knowing exactly how those resources will be backfilled. Such organisations include local authorities, NHS trusts, schools or groups of schools, multi-academy trusts, transport providers and charities. I am very concerned that we have seen organisations stepping into the breach to deal with areas where there is not appropriate central Government support—or was not initially—and not being appropriately recompensed. For example, district councils have stepped into the breach and tried to co-ordinate volunteering, support food banks and so on. Will they receive the support they need to backfill those costs? It is not clear, and it should be.

Regarding the process for this Bill, I want to make it clear that the official Opposition will continue to offer to work with Government on these measures, but it vital that we have continued accountability. The hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) talked about the pause in accountability that could occur after Parliament rises. I believe we need to ensure that accountability is continuous. We have some good cross-party working and cross-party discussions; issues have been placed on the agenda not just across parties, but by different Members within the Conservative party. It is important that continues, so I hope that there will be mechanisms to ensure that.

We will need further revisions to the package, at the very least by July. There will be lasting costs as a result of the crisis that are not provided for in the Bill, such as the costs of all the medical procedures that are postponed, the reduced tax revenue for local authorities, and of course the human cost, which is enormous. What will be the impact on children’s education? We must take an earlier look at those matters than necessarily what would occur during the normal financial cycle. These medium-term costs have to be dealt with.

Above all, in future Budgets we need to focus on building resilience. Currently our response to the crisis is more expensive because of the lack of resilience in our society and our economy. Take all the debate about people who are self-employed: a big part of that arises because our social security system is so unfit for purpose that it simply cannot support people’s incomes, not just in terms of its parameters, some of which to do with housing costs have been changed while many have not, but because of the infrastructure—the enormous waits for universal credit and the fact that so many families and individuals in our country, after a long period of income stagnation, simply do not have the resilience to cover any last-minute costs. The salary support system is taking so long to deliver at least in part because of HMRC’s lack of capacity. We really need to get a grip on many of the developments in the labour market over recent years that are making the response more difficult—not least the growth in bogus self-employment.

Many people are sacrificing an enormous amount to try to deal with this crisis and ensure that its impact is lessened as much as possible. It has been an unequal sacrifice. We need to ensure that we are never in this situation again, and that means a longer-term approach to our public finances than we have had over recent years.

Jesse Norman Portrait Jesse Norman - Hansard

With the leave of the House, I will speak again. I am grateful to all Members who contributed to what, as the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) said, was a very wide-ranging debate. In fact, it was so wide-ranging that it barely focused on the measure before the House. However, I commend those who discussed the Bill. It is a very important piece of legislation, and—let me say this very straightforwardly—I am very grateful for the expressions of cross-party support from the Opposition parties. That has been crucial to the way the Government have thought about and framed our response to this crisis.

The Bill is another key element in shoring up the very wide package of measures to fight the covid-19 outbreak and, as the House has recognised, it represents a proportionate legislative response to recent events. Of course, it is proportionate in part because it will last only for one year; it is not designed to run longer than that.

I will start with the comments by the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey), because he addressed the topic of the Bill; I am grateful to him for that. He made a series of important points. On whether the banks are really stepping up, as the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) said, we will know by the end of the process who have been villains and who have been heroes. I do not think the public will be shy in reaching conclusions of their own, and I am sure there will be plenty of quantitative bases for that when the moment comes.

The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton asked why the number we will vote through today has been raised to 50% from 2%. That is a very important question. The reason is an anticipated escalation in the need for cash under—this point was made widely by colleagues across the House—conditions of radical uncertainty. It is also fair to say that it is not clear beyond any peradventure when the House will reconvene, and we have to accommodate the possibility of a delayed restart. As one might imagine, no assumption is made, but that possibility has to be contemplated.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked whether this constitutes an increase in spending. This is not a spending matter; it is a cash matter, and he needs to be aware of that. To reassure him on the question of local authorities, this does include spending that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will make as part of the usual estimates process.

The right hon. Gentleman described his work examining processes for reviewing and considering Budgets, but this is not a Budget, so it does not fall under that. However, it is worth saying that we have an evolved system. It is a system that involves a lot of scrutiny— repeated days of looking at main estimates and supplementary estimates—but of course it is also a system that gives considerable authority to the majority party at any given time, and that is what constrains the ultimate outcome.

Ed Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey - Hansard

I hope the Minister is right on the banks, but my main point is about the estimates. Actually, we have only three days to debate the estimates. I have attended estimates debates in this House over the last 20 years; when we have estimates days, we never debate the estimates. That is my point.

Jesse Norman Portrait Jesse Norman - Hansard

That is a different point. My point is that Parliament has plenty of opportunity to scrutinise spending. If it does not do that, that is a choice that it makes.

The right hon. Gentleman’s final point was about whether this Government believe, or any Conservative Government have ever believed, that markets can do it all. Let me assure him that no Conservative Government have ever believed that, and this one certainly do not believe that. At the risk of invoking one of my great heroes, Adam Smith, the position is that commercial society is a dynamic evolution in which forms of property are supported and recognised in law and then used to become the basis of profitable market development. That is how our system has evolved over many decades, and the state is integral to that process for all the reasons the right hon. Gentleman has described, so this is a way of agreeing with him.

May I turn to the comments made by the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell)? Again, I thank him for his support for the Bill, and I think that constructive attitude is important. He is right to call this the gravest crisis we have known, certainly for this generation. A strong theme in his speech and those of others was the need for more communications; it was also mentioned by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). Of course, we understand that on the Government Benches. During the debate, the House will be pleased to know, I got a text from gov.uk referring me to the coronavirus website. That is a direct intervention of a kind I am not sure I would approve of outside the context of a national crisis, but one that is very welcome in that context. It shows evidence of and bears testimony to the belief we have in this very important response and in the need for communications.

Bill Esterson Portrait Bill Esterson - Hansard

I am very grateful to the Financial Secretary for highlighting the issue that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) and I raised about communication. The point about the gov.uk website is that not everybody knows about it, and a further point is that not everybody has access to the internet, particularly some of those most at need—older and more disadvantaged people—and that is where some of the other routes for getting information out there are so important.

Jesse Norman Portrait Jesse Norman - Hansard
24 Mar 2020, midnight

I thank the hon. Member for that point, and he is absolutely right. One role that every Member of this House can have is to spread the word among constituents to make sure that this is widely understood.

The right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington talked about the importance of consulting the trade unions. He will know that there have been consultations with Frances O’Grady and other trade union leaders, as well as with the Mayor of London, to try to build public understanding and a shared view of these issues.

A final point I would make about what the right hon. Gentleman described is that we have had statements on the Government’s response, two urgent questions, an Opposition day—we have one tomorrow—and two pieces of legislation in the last two days alone, so there has been every opportunity for parties across the House to question and interrogate us. As colleagues have been kind enough to point out, the Government have been working at tremendous pace, with every hour of the day being exploited for the purposes of trying to get the right outcome, and where we have imperfection, as it were, we will try to make this as good as we can over the next days and weeks.

Let me, if I may, move on to my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami). He asked what extra the Treasury will be borrowing as a result of this, and the answer is that this is a cash item, as he will recall. The debt management remit will follow, and we will set out the Government’s borrowing plans. He raised an interesting question about whether money spent in response to this crisis could be itemised differently in the national accounts. That is an interesting idea, and I thank him for it. He highlighted the impact of tech start-ups, and he is absolutely right.

I thank the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) for supporting the Bill. I think he is absolutely right to talk about the need for business recovery. We do not share his excitement about a universal basic income, in part because it does not actually hug the need across the population as well as a well-functioning benefit system, and that is what we have tried to do. It is a live argument on both sides. Of course, there are parts of the spectrum, notably those on the state pension, where we have something close to a universal income already in place, although not necessarily at the level that people would have expected.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) persuasively and interestingly illustrated the choices faced by Government and businesses through his own business, and I thank him for that. My understanding of the personal guarantee issue touched on by many is that the circumstances for the business loans are to be agreed between the lender and the individual. There might be some element of personal guarantee, but not as relates to the primary residence. The desire is to build the flexibility and potential availability that comes with that, but without compromising people’s ultimate wellbeing.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Derek Thomas) for his comments. Through his speech today and in his remarks in Treasury questions, he has registered his intense concern on this issue, and I thank him very much for that.

Let me wind up by saying that this is a proportionate legislative response to the crisis and that it seeks to close an important gap in cash flow in the estimates process. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time; to stand committed to a Committee of the whole House (Order, this day).

Further proceedings on the Bill stood postponed (Order, this day).

Contingencies Fund Bill (Money)

Queen’s recommendation signified.

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Contingencies Fund Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to the Act in the sums to be issued out of, or paid into, the Consolidated Fund which is attributable to increasing, in relation to any time before 1 April 2021, the percentage specified in section 1(1) of the Contingencies Fund Act 1974 to a percentage not exceeding 50%.—(Eddie Hughes.)

Question agreed to.