Covid-19: Support for UK Industries

Theresa Villiers Excerpts
Thursday 25th June 2020

(3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Dame Rosie Winterton Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Rosie Winterton) - Hansard

This is a very, very well-subscribed debate and I also want to accommodate a maiden speech. Until the maiden speech is finished there will be a time limit of six minutes, including for the maiden speech. However, I must warn colleagues that if everybody who is down to speak actually turns up—I suspect they will—it is likely that we will have to put another three-minute time limit on in order to accommodate as many people as possible. I strongly discourage interventions, because they will prevent others from speaking. That is how I intend to conduct the debate.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con) - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:06 a.m.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered e-petitions relating to support for UK industries in response to covid-19.

As we have heard already today, the volume of signatures on parliamentary petitions has been huge in recent weeks, reflecting the immense public anxiety about the health emergency we have been living through. I thank every one of the 641,986 people who signed the five petitions that reached the 100,000 threshold and that we are considering today. They are on support for the events industry; for the arts, theatre and music; for zoos, aquariums, and rescue centres; for nursery and childcare providers; and for aviation. I also thank the 74,735 people who have backed seven other petitions that are also relevant. Those petitions are on help for performers and creators; for pubs and hospitality; for early years providers; for wholesalers; for health businesses; and for small businesses.

There is no escaping the devastating impact the covid emergency has had on our economy. That is unavoidable when vast swathes of business activity are shut down. But the Government have listened and have heard the calls to intervene, from the 12 e-petitions and from millions of other people afraid for their livelihoods and their future, including many in Chipping Barnet, and I thank the Government for their intervention. At immense speed, the Government put in place the biggest package of help for jobs, livelihoods and businesses in our nation’s history.

Through the furlough scheme, the Government are paying the wages of more than 9.1 million workers, providing £20.8 billion to more than 1 million employers. More than 2.6 million people have received grants from the self-employed income support scheme, which is one of the more generous in the world. More than 863,000 companies have received bounce-back loans—these have been worth more than £26 billion.

Some £10 billion has been lent to 49,000 firms under CBILS—the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. Small businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sector have received cash grants of up to £25,000 and been given a 12 month business rates holiday. A £1.25 billion package is available for start-ups, and £30 billion of VAT payments have been suspended for three months. Some 68,000 businesses have benefited from the deferral of other taxes, and smaller businesses have received help with funding sick pay.

Without that bold and radical intervention by the Government, and the speed at which it has been delivered, our situation today in this country would be far, far worse, as the Office for Budget Responsibility, the International Monetary Fund, the OECD and the Bank of England have all confirmed. Unemployment would have rocketed and thousands of businesses would have gone bust, both in the sectors highlighted in the 12 e-petitions and in many others. There has been extensive backing for what the Government have done, including from Len McCluskey, of Unite, who said of the furlough scheme:

“We recognise that these are huge decisions for any government, and especially for a Conservative government, but they have listened to the calls for action and have acted appropriately. Rishi Sunak’s wage support measures are a historic first for this country, but are bold and very much necessary…This will definitely be some relief amid all the fear in households across the UK this evening.”

However, were it not for the difficult decisions taken by Conservative-led Governments since 2010, we would not have been able to respond in this way or on this scale. It is only if you fix the roof while the sun is shining that you have the resources and the balance sheet to intervene aggressively to provide the kind of action called for in these petitions. Sadly, we all know from our inboxes that, even with the scale of what we are doing, there are gaps in support. In an economic disaster as great as this one—possibly the worst for 300 years—there are inevitably still many people facing hardship and uncertainty about their future. I hope that the Minister will consider whether any further help is possible for the sectors highlighted in the 12 e-petitions.

Jeff Smith Portrait Jeff Smith (Manchester, Withington) (Lab) - Hansard

The right hon. Lady is making a fine speech. I welcome the support that the Government have put in. Does she agree that people in the concert and festival industry, in particular, are facing a double whammy? Not only will they be among the last industries to get back to anything like normal, but many of them are self-employed and, for various reasons, fall through the gaps in the self-employed scheme. Does she agree that we need sector-specific support for the concert and festival industry?

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, midnight

I do agree with the hon. Gentleman on that. They are more heavily impacted and I hope it will be possible to have a sector-specific scheme for them.

I was about to turn to exactly that point—the arts, events, theatre, performance, musicians, actors and creators. With no date set for the resumption of events and performances in theatres or music venues, this crucial part of our economy could be the hardest hit of all of them. The future of our regional theatres in particular looks perilous. Adrian Vinken, chief executive of the Theatre Royal, Plymouth, wrote in the Daily Mail today:

“The entire performing arts industry is…facing oblivion. This is not only a human and economic disaster—it is a cultural catastrophe.”

As we heard from the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) , the insecure and sporadic nature of jobs in the industry means that many workers fall within the gaps in the Government’s covid intervention package. This includes, typically, freelancers who get part of their income through PAYE and part of their income through self-employment. They may not have been in their PAYE contract at the right time to be furloughed, and they may not earn enough of their income from self-employment to qualify for the self-employment income support scheme. As well as considering further funding support for those workers and sectors, we must have a clear plan to get theatres and venues open and to get events starting again, as has been managed in countries such as South Korea.

It is also really important to reflect on aviation, which, as the petitions highlight, is also hard hit. We need the air bridges in action. Blanket quarantine requirements will make it a hundred times more difficult for aviation to recover, and it is hard to understand the need for quarantine for people coming from places that have fewer covid cases than we do. I appeal to the Minister for a risk-based approach on quarantine so that travel can start up again and we listen to the petitioners who are demanding help and support for aviation.

Our nurseries and childcare are also mentioned in the petition. I welcome the extension of the business rates holiday, directly implementing one of the demands of petitioners, but Ministers need a firm and funded plan to support the sector in the long term. The early years stage of education is crucial in determining life chances, and if we are to deliver on our promises on social mobility and respond to legitimate concerns on equality of opportunity, we need to help nursery and childcare providers through this crisis and ensure that they are on a stable footing for the long term, including restoring funding for maintained nursery schools.

Rushanara Ali Portrait Rushanara Ali (Bethnal Green and Bow) (Lab) - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:03 a.m.

Does the right hon. Lady agree with me and the Treasury Committee that the Government, unfortunately, have left out more than 1 million people through the job retention scheme who are struggling? Many of them are freelancers working in the theatre sector and others—there are new starters who are suffering. We need to make sure that they get support they need, alongside the many things that she is talking about.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers - Hansard

I certainly acknowledge that the Treasury Committee identified gaps in provision. Unfortunately, a number of my constituents fall into those gaps, so I hope that there may be further help, but more importantly, we have to get the economy opened up again so that people can start earning a living in a normal way.

On zoos and aquariums, I welcome the grants of up to £100,000 offered by the Government to get them through the crisis, again responding directly to the e-petition. I pay tribute to the dedicated work of zoo staff, many of whom went the extra mile to look after the animals in their care, despite lockdown.

Whether it is zoos or nurseries, theatres or airports, hospitality or wholesale, the best shot in the arm the Government can give all these sectors is to let them open for business again. It was, therefore, an immense relief to hear from the Prime Minister that the 1 metre rule, with safeguards, will be introduced in England from 4 July. I have been advocating this for weeks as the only way to save our pubs and hospitality, travel and tourism businesses—and the only way to save the summer holidays.

The multiple schemes I have set out have provided vital life support for the economy and are protecting the livelihoods of millions upon millions of the constituents who vote for us to serve them in this place. They have protected people who would otherwise be facing great hardship and adversity, but their eye-watering cost means it is inevitable that they are time-limited. The only way to put the sectors highlighted in the 12 petitions on to a sound and successful footing for the long term is to let people out of their homes, back to work, back to the shops, and back to the pub. That is starting to happen and I very much welcome the news that 4 July will truly be our independence day as we take the next cautious steps in lifting lockdown and moving on from the covid emergency.

Stephen Hammond Portrait Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con) - Hansard

It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) and I absolutely agree with her sentiments about opening up the economy.

May I say right at the outset that I think what the Government have done in terms of this unprecedented economic support—the support for businesses and for workers against the economic consequences of the pandemic —has been truly extraordinary, and the speed at which those programmes were put in place was particularly impressive?

In my constituency alone, 10,000 jobs were furloughed under the job retention scheme—10,000 incomes. With that support through the crisis, people have a chance of a job in the future as the restrictions ease. I am very pleased that the scheme has been extended and that there is the ability to part-time furlough. That flexibility has to be right; the businesses want that as they gradually reopen.

However, I would point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that there are a number of issues with the scheme, which, with a little bit of tinkering, could easily be put right. He will be aware that one particular problem is that eligibility is based on a real time information submission to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The problem for a lot of small businesses is that they had agreed with HMRC that they would make an annual return and, therefore, not being required to make the RTI return, they are ineligible for support. A brief word with the chief executive of HMRC would sort that problem out.

The self-employment income support scheme is very welcome. It is estimated to help 4,000 people in Wimbledon, but I have been contacted by a number of people who, because they became self-employed last year, do not qualify. They feel they have fallen through the cracks. Will the Treasury look at that? A number of the people affected are starting businesses for the first time and are likely to be the lifeblood of the economy as we recover; a little help now would work. Of course, the same applies to directors of small limited companies. If they were put on the same footing as the self-employment income support scheme, that would mean a grant, which, in some cases, would save their businesses. With that minor tinkering, the scheme could be even better than it already is.

The hospitality, retail and leisure industry is obviously at the forefront of the economic costs, having been unable to open until 4 July—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet said, we look forward to that date. The support for the sector has been outstanding, but the Minister will know that in some parts of the country the £51,000 rateable value limit is relatively small compared with the sums the businesses are transacting. On future economic packages, I say to the Minister that it would be really helpful if the Government would recognise that there are some quite major regional imbalances in rateable values when businesses are broadly of the same turnover and this would be a huge benefit.

While there has been extraordinary help to the retail, hospitality and leisure chain, inevitably a lot of the suppliers to those industries have not been able to get any help at all. What has been seen to be a postcode lottery has been developing on the basis that the Government have given advice on what qualifies as a retail, leisure or hospitality business. It is pretty specific, although the Government do say that the list is not exhaustive. The trouble is that different councils are choosing to interpret it in wildly different ways and it is having a major impact on suppliers to these industries.

I pick up the events industry in my constituency, with White Light and Oxygen Event Services being two companies that may not be able to reappear in the way they were before this pandemic hit the country, and that would have a huge impact on the concert, festivals and hospitality industry. May we have a bit of Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government guidance to councils, that industry and also language schools, which are huge providers to local economies, particularly in Wimbledon? I have seven language schools that provide consumer expenditure into the local economy from the students, jobs for teachers and support for local families who house these students. Again, a postcode lottery has developed: in some places these businesses and schools are getting help and in others they are not. Again, if the MHCLG could be more prescriptive about exactly what should be allowed to be available for business rate relief, that will help.

There are a number of other industries I could comment on, but finally, can I just say that, as a London MP, I am proud of the culture and the arts in this city? I want to see that arts and culture not just in the west end, but across constituencies. I have the New Wimbledon theatre and the Polka theatre. On what such venues need to survive, can I ask the Government to really look very hard at this? A number of people working in these industries have had no income or access to help since the pandemic struck. I know there are various packages that the Arts Council funds, but we need a specific performing arts financial package, so that all theatres and concert venues can survive and the people who work in that industry will be there to make sure that, when they reopen, arts are being performed in them. That would mean that the culture in this country would survive, which is so vital to our future, alongside the economy and our health.

Break in Debate

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:02 a.m.

I thank the hon. Lady for her passion. That passion is shared by Ministers at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and elsewhere, and conversations are ongoing about further support.

Hon. Members will appreciate that, given the time constraints, I am unable to respond to many of the other specific points and questions that were raised today relating to multiple Government Departments and other bodies. However, I will make sure that relevant Ministers are aware of all the points that have been raised in this debate.

I cannot mention individually everyone who has contributed to today’s debate, but I thank everybody for their thoughtful and constructive comments. In particular, I would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet; my hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), for Buckingham (Greg Smith), for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), for Dudley South (Mike Wood) and for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher); the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami); and the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for mentioning tourism, hospitality and leisure—and, of course, aviation. Obviously, that sector is very close to my heart.

I would also like to thank those who have mentioned many other sectors, including my hon. Friends the Members for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), and for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), and the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who raised issues about the arts, technology, zoos and many other important sectors.

Before I conclude, I want to praise my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry), who made a very eloquent maiden speech. He talked with passion and pride about his work, about his West Indian heritage, about this land of opportunity and about his 26 years in the RAF. That is particularly timely this week, which is Armed Forces Week. He is rightly proud of his family, and he has done his family proud. His constituency can be equally proud to have an MP of his calibre as their representative in this place.

It has been a great pleasure to participate in today’s debate, and I thank everybody for their contributions. This debate has been extraordinarily valuable, and I am sure that the dialogue will continue.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:05 a.m.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making possible these first debates from the Petitions Committee on the Floor of the House. I thank all who have contributed. Above all, I would like to thank once again those who created and supported the e-petitions. The e-petitions were started by Matthew Rakowski-Goreta, Miles Croxford, Oliver Tooley, Evgenia Galinskaya and Anand Limbachia, who can all be assured that their voices have been heard by the Government in the support package and by Members in this House this afternoon.

As others have done, I commend the Government for a package of support that has saved the livelihoods of so many millions of people. It was delivered at phenomenal speed. My experience in Government makes me think that it is so difficult to get even the smallest thing done at speed. The speed of the reaction was essential. I ask the Government to reflect on those gaps in provision that have been identified, particularly by the Treasury Committee: the newly employed, the newly self-employed, directors of limited companies, and freelancers on short-term contracts. I also echo the strong points that were made about securing the future of aviation and, of course, of the performing arts and culture, where the need for support and for a plan for reopening is urgent.

I close by echoing the comments, praise and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry). It was a great honour that he made his maiden speech in the debate for us all to hear. It was a heart-warming story, and I wish him well with his tenure in the House.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing) - Hansard
25 Jun 2020, 12:02 a.m.

This is rather extraordinary, because we are ending a couple of minutes early. We all encouraged people to speak so quickly and to be so brief that those who spoke latterly were so disciplined in the way they did it that we end up with a couple of minutes, as it were, to spare. But there is never time to spare; there is always something else to do in this House, so I shall put the Question.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House has considered e-petitions relating to support for UK industries in response to covid-19.

Royal Assent