Contingencies Fund – No Choice Between Health & Wealth

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Last week before the Treasury delivered its package to help the self-employed, I spoke about the importance of making sure nobody has to make the choice between health and wealth during this difficult time.

— Contingencies Fund Parliamentary Transcript Below —

Bim Afolami: 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: 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: 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. 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 Gordon Thomson: 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: 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 Gordon Thomson: 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.

…later…

Bim Afolami: 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.

Edward Davey: 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: 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.

Edward Davey: 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 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 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: 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.

Edward Davey: 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: 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.

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