|Tue 24th March 2020||
Contingencies Fund Bill
Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
|21 interactions (2,649 words)|
Contingencies Fund Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Sir Edward DaveyMain Page: Sir Edward Davey (Liberal Democrat) - Kingston and Surbiton)
Department Debates - View all Sir Edward Davey's debates with the HM Treasury
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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.
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.
Break in Debate
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Break in Debate
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.
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.