Finance Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Sir Edward LeighMain Page: Sir Edward Leigh (Conservative) - Gainsborough)
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My hon. Friend is so much more knowledgeable than me. Lots of my constituents cannot afford to buy their own home and are in rented accommodation, so that does not even apply to them. They are in beds in sheds—maybe I should not dob them in, but that is a phenomenon in the London Borough of Ealing.
Again, HMRC must accept responsibility for not communicating regularly with people. It could have acted sooner to avoid this sizeable group of people who went into these remuneration schemes having to pay back sometimes hundreds of thousands of pounds at a time. IR35 is being rolled out now, so the deferral is obviously welcome, because these things can be fixed in real time, as long as the deferral is not just pushing punitive measures further away. The Government need to urgently commit to a full review of tax reliefs.
While the debate is about job creation, I want to flag, as my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree pointed out, that the global pandemic we are in seems to be a bit of a cover for certain companies to behave badly. British Airways and Virgin spring to mind as using the coronavirus job retention scheme—the clue is in the name—to do the very opposite. Having accepted furlough funds from the public purse, they are now using coronavirus as a cover for restructuring plans—plans they were always itching to execute—while they believe the eyes of the world are diverted elsewhere. I say to the Minister that we need a sector-specific deal for aviation.
The situation is the same for the creative, cultural and arts sector. I represent many constituents who work in it. Not for nothing was Ealing long-called a BBC borough. The Questors theatre—the jewel in our crown—is the biggest amateur dramatic venue in the country and it has written to me. It is about to go under. Its rateable value is too high to get any of the reliefs. That is another plea to the Minister.
We were told that, when we left the EU, we would be world-beating on employment rights, and that our rights could exceed those of the bloc after Brexit, but now, with IR35, we are heading for zero employment rights. The Government always said that this would not be a race to the bottom, so they need to put their money where their mouth is. There is nothing like a global pandemic to concentrate the mind. We have heard slogans such as, “We’re all in this together”. To stop all these Government utterances from being just hollow words, we need action. Snappy slogans are not enough.
My right hon. Friend talks about tax loopholes and, yes, that is absolutely clear, but the thing about the loan charge is that HMRC itself was complicit in the process. It was advising and letting people believe that those charges were quite safe and reasonable. Then quietly, it came to the conclusion that they were not and did not make it clear to anybody. In effect, therefore, it is HMRC that has created the tax loophole and then failed to identify it and tell people that they were on the wrong scheme.
One of my constituents says that because he put in freedom of information requests to HMRC, on two occasions last summer, HMRC paid him a visit at his home. Is that the behaviour we expect from HMRC?
We are facing an employment crisis unlike anything we have seen in a decade. The impact of coronavirus will undoubtedly weaken much of our infrastructure, leaving many workers unemployed, and businesses on the brink of collapse. Unfortunately, when lockdown ends, the Government seem intent on a return to normality and business as usual, stuck in the past when they should be learning lessons and looking to the future. The Government’s slow reaction cost us as we entered this pandemic, and they cannot repeat that mistake as we emerge from lockdown.
In contrast, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) has proposed a back-to-work Budget that places jobs at the heart of the economic recovery. That does not mean a sticking plaster solution, however, or jobs with little or no protection for workers. The damage to our economy caused by this awful virus has been severe, but the economic structuring of society was already broken—skewed in favour of the wealthy rather than workers.
Over the last decade of Tory austerity, the Government have launched attack after attack on the rights and protections afforded to working people. Through the promotion of zero-hours contracts, ambiguity in employment status, low pay and lack of protection in the workplace, the Government have encouraged irresponsible employers and abandoned the country’s workers. Before lockdown, 9 million people living below the poverty line—3 million of them children—were in households with at least one person in work. The Government boast of record levels of employment, but they should be ashamed of the amount of in-work poverty. This economic model needs to end.
If this pandemic has shown us anything, it is that the people on whom society relies the most are those least rewarded in pay and respect. Whether it is the poorly paid nurse, the carer on a zero-hours contract or the retail and hospitality staff working shifts so long that they would not be out of place in Victorian society, the people of Britain deserve better. This pandemic has been devastating, but it provides us with an opportunity to shape the economy and society in a way that prioritises the environment and protects workers. That means better pay, shorter and more consistent working hours and job security. Workers need to be able to look ahead into the week knowing that they have work, that their wages will provide a decent standard of living and that their working hours will leave them the time and energy to live their life. The better the conditions and protection for workers, the better their quality of life and the greater their health, wellbeing and sense of worth—it really is that simple.
The pandemic has also exposed the lack of protections for staff in the workplace and how fragile health and safety standards are. The Government must begin to see employment law as a red line, rather than being advisory, and they must properly fund the Health and Safety Executive, so that safety in the workplace is properly enforced. When the Government finally begin to plan for our post-coronavirus society, they must accept that the status quo has not worked, and any attempt to return to business as usual will fail the public. The 33 million workers of Britain deserve more. When society needed them most during this pandemic, they delivered. It is time for the Government to do the same for them.