Contingencies Fund Bill Debate

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Department: HM Treasury
Committee stage & 2nd reading & 2nd reading: House of Commons & Committee: 1st sitting & Committee: 1st sitting: House of Commons
Tuesday 24th March 2020

(4 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts Amendment Paper: Committee of the whole House Amendments as at 24 March 2020 - (24 Mar 2020)
Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
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I am delighted to speak in this debate and to follow the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), who made some salient points. I endorse his tribute to the NHS and to all our public sector workers. I do not know if anybody has seen the news recently, but a terrible tragedy has happened in Spain, where elderly people in care homes were abandoned and left to die in their care homes by the staff. I cannot believe that would ever happen in the UK, and I think it shows how brave many of the people working in our public sector are when faced with these terrible crises.

I should first draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I always do on these occasions. As well as being a Member of Parliament trying to stand up for the interests of my constituents—many businesses have contacted me over the last few days and weeks—I look at these matters from a business perspective. I have been involved in that business for 30 years, and when we had a board meeting on Friday, the first conversation we had—I guess like many businesses—was not about cuts to the number of people we employ, but about how much we could cut our salaries as board directors by. I think most board directors have an appropriately sensible approach to this. We all know this is going to be a very difficult crisis for many businesses. I pay tribute to the Treasury, the Chancellor and the Financial Secretary for putting together a package of support that is unheralded—not just in its size, but in its comprehensive nature and the speed with which it has been delivered.

The job retention scheme in particular was a massive relief to many business people. Back in 2008, we were faced with taking our workforce down from 200 people to 65 within 12 months, as the bottom fell out of our business and out of the market. The most destructive aspect of that—aside from the terrible human cost of sitting down with people with whom one had worked in some cases for decades and telling them that the business could no longer afford to employ them—was that it cost a huge amount of money to make them redundant. That puts the business in a critical condition, which means that more people have to be made redundant. I do not begrudge anybody the redundancy payments that were due, but for a private business that is a very difficult thing to have to do.

The job retention scheme insulates many businesses from that, because instead of having to lay people off or make them redundant, the business can say to them, “You can stay at home at the moment. You’ll continue to be paid a fair amount to get you through this short-term crisis, then we’ll bring you back into the fold.” That eases the financial pressure on the business in an important way. It is a really excellent scheme. There are of course some missing details, which I know we will get in good time, in particular whether earnings will include things such as commission and whether the Government payment will include things such as national insurance. Many businesses have questions that I am sure will be answered in good time.

The other element of the package is the business rate grant scheme, which many businesses have welcomed. Of course, many self-employed people, including sole traders and freelancers, are outside the scheme—a point that I will touch on in a second.

I want to raise one or two points about the business interruption loan scheme. Obviously we want as many businesses as possible to take advantage of the scheme, but one big concern is about security. The scheme is based on the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, which included personal guarantees. I understand that the new scheme will not include them—I have been told that from the Dispatch Box today on an urgent question—but it would be helpful if the British Business Bank website said clearly that that is the case. It does not say that at the moment, which could deter some people from applying in the first place. All it says is that security can be taken

“At the discretion of the lender”.

I have had personal guarantees for most of my business life, and I think most people would expect a business person to have some skin in the game, but this is a different situation. It is very difficult to quantify the impact of this crisis on a business. The Government have rightly stated that there will be no personal guarantees, which I assume means that people’s family homes should not be put up for security either. That being the case, it would be helpful to clarify that point, because that would increase demand.

The other point is that at the moment the banks eligible for that scheme number about 40, but there are many outside it. Those not eligible for the previous British Business Bank scheme, the EFG, will not qualify for access to the current scheme. Therefore, customers of OakNorth, Aldermore or one of the many alternative providers in the marketplace today cannot access the scheme. The normal process for applying for that scheme is somewhere between six and 18 months, which is clearly far too long. I think that the Treasury has committed to try to accelerate that process—or the British Business Bank has—but it will still take a matter of weeks, and businesses cannot wait weeks for this money. They need it in a matter of days.

It is absolutely essential that we get that support to businesses now, so I politely ask the Minister whether he will look at that and perhaps get the Bank of England to set up a new scheme directly with some of those lenders, many of which are very bona fide lenders. Of course, the right checks and balances have to be in place, but these are authorised, regulated banks, so it would be good to ensure that all lenders can get finance to all customers.

The other thing about how business will view this crisis is how long it is likely to last. Businesses are much more likely to take a loan, from anywhere, if they think they can get through this and quantify the losses or how long their revenue will be affected. I worry about the current situation, because we are telling people that they can go to work as long as they cannot work from home and as long as they socially distance themselves when they get there. I think that was one reason for the confusion and why Filey in my constituency and many other beautiful market towns were packed out with visitors, who felt they could go to those beautiful places and socially distance themselves while they were there, which clearly they cannot if there are too many people there. It is the same in a workplace environment. I can see that, because of the uncertainty about who can actually go to work—we have not restricted it to key workers or essential workers, to my understanding—lots of people are building houses on construction sites and whatever else they are doing. They are going to work because they cannot work from home and they feel they can socially distance.

From a business point of view, I would personally prefer to have a complete lockdown for 30 days. We know that, in China, after a full lockdown for 14 days, cases peaked, and after 30 days, cases stopped, and all the coffee shops, Starbucks, Apple and the car dealerships opened again. That gives us hope that we can tackle and defeat this virus within 30 days, if we do the right thing. If we are equivocal about it and it is confusing, people will continue to go to work and continue to spread the virus.

From my business perspective, a short, sharp shock is much more appealing. I would know that, if I applied for a business loan from the new scheme, I could quantify how much I would need, if I had the confidence that the timescale would be limited in that way.

I have a couple of other points that I think would be useful. Ideally, the Government should not have to step in to support businesses at any point in time. The markets should deliver that themselves, with finance coming from banks or investors through to businesses. Venture capital trusts have limits on how much they can put into businesses—up to £5 million on an annual basis and £12 million as a lifetime limit into a particular business. Because of the unprecedented nature of this crisis, it would be useful to double those limits so that venture capital trusts, which invest in many good businesses, can see those businesses through a tough time. Otherwise they will not be able to get the extra money into those businesses that they need. It could be a temporary change, and it would potentially save many businesses.

On the self-employed, we have understandably heard lots of calls for more help for the sole trader. Many different people in my constituency have contacted me. They desperately need some help, and I do understand that. Within that cohort are some very vulnerable people, including mortgage prisoners. I have corresponded with many mortgage prisoners, as have other hon. Members, and many are self-employed. They are in a particular situation in that their earnings are being very badly damaged now, and they have been paying huge mortgage rates for too long. Many of the mortgage prisoners’ loans have been sold to non-UK lenders—inactive lenders—and the regulatory oversight of those lenders is much reduced compared with UK lenders. In my view, it is an absolute disgrace that we allow UK mortgage customers’ loans to be sold to a foreign entity, over which we do not have the same oversight, so we cannot properly control the activities of those lenders. We need to bring all those lenders within the same regulatory scope. Some of those mortgage prisoners are on very high standard variable rates of around 5%, and even up to 6%. It is simply unfair . A year or two ago, we brought in a standard variable rate cap in the energy sector. I wonder whether the Minister could look to do the same thing in this sector to ensure that those people are treated fairly.

I do a lot of work with the all-party group on fair business banking. Most bankers do the right thing—the vast majority of banks and bankers I meet and have banked with over more than 30 years in business have looked after my business fairly. Clearly, that does not always happen, given the 2008 scandal in small business banking. It is time now for the banks to do the right thing and to work with the Government on the business interruption scheme.

Another issue is that the rates that banks charge on personal loans and overdrafts are not coming down, despite the reduction in base rate—in fact, quite the opposite. The Financial Conduct Authority, in its wisdom, decided that everyone who had an overdraft should pay the same whether it was an authorised overdraft or an unauthorised overdraft. It told the banks that they could not penalise people for unauthorised overdrafts, so everyone has to pay the same. The rate for authorised overdrafts used to be somewhere between 3% and 15%, and unauthorised overdrafts used to have a fixed daily charge and a much higher rate. So the banks made them all the same, and here are the rates being charged today for authorised and unauthorised loans: First Direct, 39.9%; HSBC, 39.9%; Lloyds Banking Group, 39.9%; Nationwide, 39.9%; and NatWest, 39.5%. It is simply disgraceful. Everybody is paying the higher rate. It smacks of a cartel, as well as profiteering and overcharging.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Last Friday, four or five businesses in my constituency came to see me, looking for help because of the coronavirus. The first constituent told me that he had asked for his loans to be reduced, but the bank—I will not say which one it was—said, “No, what we’ll do is charge you £100 for each amount of money that you’ve borrowed, and then we’ll charge you interest at 6% on top of that.” Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in these difficult times, that is totally outrageous? The banks should be there to help, not to take advantage.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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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.