Sir Edward Davey contributions to the Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Act 2020

Tue 24th March 2020 Contingencies Fund Bill (Commons Chamber)
Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
21 interactions (2,649 words)

Contingencies Fund Bill

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

(6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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HM Treasury
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.

Sir Edward 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.

Break in Debate

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.

Sir Edward 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.

Sir Edward 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.

Sir Edward 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.

Sir Edward 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.

Sir Edward 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.

Sir Edward 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.

Break in Debate

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.

Sir Edward 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 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.