|Tue 24th March 2020||
Contingencies Fund Bill
Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
|13 interactions (4,204 words)|
Contingencies Fund Bill DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
John McDonnellMain Page: John McDonnell (Labour) - Hayes and Harlington)
Department Debates - View all John McDonnell's debates with the HM Treasury
Legislation Debates - View all John McDonnell's contributions to the Windrush Compensation Scheme (Expenditure) Act 2020
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.
The difficulty with what the right hon. Gentleman suggests is that most businesses do not know the extent of this crisis and the impact it will have on them. It is impossible at this point to determine exactly how long this will last or how deep a recession might be. Is he not asking the impossible of businesses?
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?
Break in Debate
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that contribution, and indeed for all the work he does on the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking and for the many speeches he has made on the matter. I absolutely agree. The two best things that I have heard the Treasury say over the past two weeks—and there have been many—are, “We will do whatever it takes” and, “We are all in this together.” The banks should take that approach as well. I and many other Members of the House will be watching to make sure that this time the banks do the right thing and restore their reputation.
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.
Break in Debate
Absolutely. It is important, and I certainly welcome it. None the less, there are some challenges with it. The fact that it is not available for the March payroll is a big problem for many businesses. We have already seen a significant number of businesses close and many workers laid off who will not now be eligible to be part of that scheme. The Government, totally understandably, have used examples of furlough schemes elsewhere in the world, but it will be difficult for the scheme to deal with the nature and the scale of this crisis.
My right hon. Friend highlights the fact that some employers do not behave in a way that we should be able to expect them to behave given the nature of the crisis. We have heard other examples of large companies behaving in a way that is irresponsible and, frankly, downright wrong.
In addition to what my right hon. Friend says about employers not paying the 20% element of the wage replacement scheme and taking advantage of it, it is also the case that, for employers who wish staff to go on to short-time or part-time working, or reduced hours of some sort, the scheme does not apply. There is a real challenge for businesses in those categories, too.
That brings me on to the self-employed and this point about desperation. People are desperate now. We have debated that a number of times today and over the past few days as well. I just do not get the sense of urgency in this place. We are in here, and away from the real world. The same applies with Whitehall. I just think that, sometimes, people here do not have a sense of just how desperate things are when two members of the same household are both self-employed and have no money. They cannot put food on the table. When the Chancellor says, as he did this morning, that he is worried about the scheme for self-employed going to wealthy people, I say, as indeed did the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton in his urgent question, let us not make the perfect the enemy of the good. Let us get a scheme in place and let us make it comparable with what the Government have offered to employees.
I want to say just a word or two about food supply and how the fund might apply there. There will be challenges around security of food supply; obviously, given the closing down of international transport links, that will be a challenge. We heard about the pressures on supermarkets. Some of the behaviour in supermarkets has been completely unacceptable, and the same applies to pharmacies. I hope that some of this money will go to ensuring security of deliveries, to protecting retail workers, to making sure that food and medicine get to those who most need it, and to helping pay for deliveries. The same applies to the supply of PPE, which hon. Friends have spoken about.
The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is right to raise the issue of helicopter money; at some point, that is something that the Treasury should consider. Any scheme, whether on PPE, food or access to funds, is only as good as the information out there, the awareness of the scheme, and the immediacy of access to it. The Government need to do much more to ensure that people know what is available in all those areas. The gov.uk website will carry that information, but lots of people and businesses do not know that it is there.
There is a real imperative on the Government to work much harder on the information that is getting out there, and on access to what is being offered. Television and radio will lose their commercial advertising; there is a great opportunity to replace it. I can give an example of the power of really good advertising: the video put together by the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust respiratory department. It was one of the most powerful pieces of advertising about the need for people to stay at home that I have ever seen. The BBC showed it; I think Sky might have, too; and it had viral attention on social media. The Government need to produce advertising of that quality to demonstrate what is available in a range of areas across society. Some of this money can be used to deliver on that agenda. Information and proper access will ensure the most effective use of this enormous necessary injection of funding.
The debate has been an opportunity to bring together the issues. I hope that the Financial Secretary will take them to all his colleagues across Government, as appropriate. It is interesting that the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton said that 1919 was the last time there was this sort of scrutiny; that was the year of the Spanish flu pandemic. We will not vote against the measure this time, but let us hope that, this time, it is effective, and that the money gets through as quickly as possible.