Contingencies Fund Bill Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Contingencies Fund Bill

Kevin Hollinrake Excerpts
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
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John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab)
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May I start by assuring the Treasury Bench that the official Opposition will support this Bill? I support the Government throughout, obviously, but as the Minister might expect, we will be constructively critical as well throughout the process.

This Bill, as the Minister says, will enable the Government to access the resources to tackle the crisis. I have to say, there is a sense of irony here, because only three months ago I hoped to be bringing forward a Bill for about £250 billion as well, for long-term investment in our infrastructure—but that is another story. It probably would have been supported as well, because it was infrastructure spend. Anyway, we will support this Bill, but we have the opportunity to raise some issues on the way in which the resources will be applied—forgive me if I do that.

We recognise that this is the gravest crisis facing our country that any of us in this House has known. We are debating matters of life and death, and the proposals that we make now and the decisions that we need to take in the coming months obviously deserve scrutiny, and that scrutiny should be welcomed on all sides. Last night, the Prime Minister was right to call for people to stay at home to protect our NHS and to save lives. We called for enforcement measures yesterday morning, and the Mayor of London and many others have been making private representations for greater clarity and greater action.

Clear and detailed guidance to employers and workers is needed on which workplaces should close. As we saw in the earlier response to the statement, a lack of clarity remains about certain operations, particularly within the construction sector. We have received reports from unions, particularly those representing construction workers, that there is utter confusion on the ground at the moment about what operations should be maintained and which workers should be on site. For anyone who has been anywhere near the construction industry or worked on site at any time in their lives, things have not changed that much in recent years. These workers also work in some of the most insanitary conditions, so we have to ensure that they are properly protected.

The Chancellor and the Government must act immediately so that every single worker has a protected income. We discussed that earlier today. We want to ensure that every single household is secure in their home, whether they rent or mortgage, so that no one who makes the right choice to stay at home faces hardship. Last week, the Chancellor set out an unprecedented scheme to underwrite 80% of the wages of all workers “furloughed”—as he put it—promising that no redundancies or lay-offs were needed and that the Government would do, “Whatever it takes”. Today is the time to deliver, with clarity and security for everybody, including our most vulnerable, whatever it takes to keep them protected and safe. That is why we are supporting this Bill to enable the resources to be available.

Last night, the Prime Minister effectively shut down every non-essential business. I want the Chancellor and Treasury Front Bench to make it clear now that every single worker, in every single one of those businesses, will be covered by the 80% income protection scheme, and that if, as a result of that 20% cut in incomes, they fall below the thresholds for universal credit or housing benefit, they will be eligible for top-ups. I ask the question, will the Government consider setting a national minimum wage floor for the income protection schemes? That would protect the lowest paid, because 80% of low pay might result in some people being paid below the national minimum wage.

Will we now get more clarity on exactly when the income protection scheme will be operational? Will the Government also condemn employers such as Wetherspoon that have now stopped wage payments and told employees that those will not resume until the end of April? Some senior members of the Government have an influence over that particular employer, so we would welcome the Government making it clear to that employer that that he should pay his staff and that he should close so that that company can play its part in protecting the health of our community.

The Government cannot act only for workers who are furloughed. They must also step up for the many who will be having their hours reduced but not stopped altogether, by topping them up to at least 80% of their regular wage, or through some other scheme. When the Minister responds, will he clarify what will be the protection for workers who have been put on short time?

Sadly, many workers have already been laid off as a result of this terrible virus. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care was extremely candid and honest last week when he said that he could not live on the £94.25 per week statutory sick pay. I do not think any of us can. How can the Government expect entire families to afford a week’s shop on that sort of income? Will the Government therefore increase the appallingly low level of statutory sick pay and ensure that all workers are eligible for it? So many are not at the moment. Will they also increase the £73 rate of jobseeker’s allowance and employment support allowance for disabled people? Will they also look at the even lower rate of carer’s allowance? Carers are expected to live on £66 a week.

As we discussed earlier today, there are 5 million self-employed workers in this country, many of whom cannot work from home. We desperately need a scheme that will be ready for them soon. It needs to guarantee them the 80% of income that others have been guaranteed. Whether it is a cabbie, a childminder, an actor or a plumber, there are battalions of self-employed out there who need their security. We need confirmation that a scheme will be brought forward not within days but within hours, to give them that assurance.

We also urge the Government to work with the construction industry and the trade unions to find a solution that covers the particularities of that sector—we have pointed them out before—with workers employed through payroll companies and umbrella companies. Most of them are forced into self-employment, and often exploitative self-employment of the worst sort.

I turn to housing. We welcome the moves to protect mortgage holders, with payment holidays now put in place for mortgagees, but we need the same security for renters and for the Government to understand the difference. For a renter, a rent holiday is not the same as a mortgage holiday. Rent is paid continuously during a tenancy, while mortgages have a fixed term, meaning that repayment terms can be simply extend. It is therefore important that the Government act to ensure that rents are paid, not merely that payments are suspended for this period.

We are extremely disappointed by the legislation published yesterday. Frankly, many believe that the Prime Minister has broken his promise to the country’s 20 million renters in 8.5 million households. It was not an evictions ban, as the Prime Minister promised. That legislation will not stop people losing their homes as a result of the virus; as my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government said, it just gives them some extra time to pack their bags. To be frank, it is just not good enough. The Government must look again; we urge them to look again.

There are also wider problems. Over recent years, austerity cuts have lessened the value of support available via housing benefit. The Government must immediately suspend the benefit cap and rid us of the bedroom tax that has affected so many families. We welcome the moves announced last week on local housing allowance, but the Government must go further and restore the local housing allowance from the 30th percentile back to the 50th percentile of market rates, as it was before 2010.

People will have made rental decisions based on their incomes, and they should not be penalised by the unforeseeable impact of the coronavirus, when we are asking people to lock themselves away. Now is not the time for families to be downsizing or sofa surfing with parents, grandparents or friends in cramped conditions. Many of us represent constituencies where overcrowding has become the plague of modern existence.

May I briefly pay tribute to the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan? His team has worked tirelessly and creatively in securing hotel accommodation to get London’s rough sleepers off the streets, though we would like to know more about the duration and the cost of the deal that the Government have procured with hotels. It is important that the Government act to keep households in their homes so that that attachment to work, school and study can continue seamlessly at the conclusion of this extraordinary period. We cannot have a situation in which, at the end of this, tenants have either depleted all their savings or, worse, have amassed large and unpayable bills. If this is the case, the Government will be deferring evictions only a few months down the road, so the suspension of evictions for private and social tenants should be extended, we believe, from three months to six months. Shelter has estimated that as many as 20,000 eviction proceedings are already in progress and will go ahead over the next three months unless the Government take action to stop them, and they must be stopped. When the Financial Secretary to the Treasury rises to his feet, he must be clear that there will be no evictions of any kind during this period.

In addition, we also believe it necessary to suspend all bailiff proceedings for the same period. Practically speaking, there are clear health and safety issues about bailiffs entering the homes of families who may be self-isolating. Furthermore, what measures is the Chancellor proposing for suspending payments of household utility bills? That was raised in the discussions this morning and we will support measures that are brought forward. During this period, we cannot have bailiffs and we cannot have disconnections of water, energy or internet.

What are the Government doing about those without internet access? Many people in our communities rely on libraries to access the internet, but now those libraries are closing. What measures will the Government bring in to ensure that people can get online, whether for benefit services or to maintain some form of social contact? These are huge demands being placed on the civil service, and I pay tribute to all those public servants throughout our public administration who are working day and night to establish these schemes. They are not often praised, but they are in this situation.

The civil service has been depleted by a decade of austerity. As extra demands are placed on, for example, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions, other civil servants are being redeployed. Are those recently retired or made redundant from the service being asked to come back to assist, just as we have invited other professionals to come back into the NHS?

Will the Minister also confirm that the current round of HMRC office closures and redundancies will at least be paused, if not reversed, at this stage? What adaptations have been made for those working in the mass call centres of HMRC and the DWP? Is the telephony technology there for them to work at home? Is there greater social distancing within the call centres themselves? We all know that universal credit cannot cope now, but its roll-out was again delayed in the Budget. Millions more households are becoming eligible for universal credit, housing benefit and other payments, so are the Government confident that the system can cope with this increased demand, because the feedback that we are getting from our constituents on the frontline is that they find it impossible because of the long waits to get through and have their case dealt with successfully. No one is blaming the civil servants; it is about resources and investment.

What are the Government doing to encourage businesses to take up business interruption loans, when some businesses see loans as less effective than grants for keeping them afloat? Is there potential for increasing the level of grants and extending their range? Have the Government considered our proposal that such loan agreements should include job retention clauses, which would mean that when businesses receive a loan, they can give workers the security they need in the knowledge that they will not lose their jobs? It is not much to ask of a business receiving financial support from the Government in this way that they work towards our overall objectives.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake (Thirsk and Malton) (Con)
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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?

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Bim Afolami Portrait Bim Afolami (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con)
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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 Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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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 Portrait Bim Afolami
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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. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (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.

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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.

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell
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The hon. Gentleman has done some sterling work on this, so would he like to comment on the figures that are coming out on 6 April and the interest rates for overdrafts from HSBC, First Direct, M&S Bank and TSB? Nationwide have already gone there, with an increase from 9.99% to 39.9%. What does he think about that?

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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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.

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Ed Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey
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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
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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.

Ed Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey
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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.

Ed Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey
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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
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indicated dissent.

Ed Davey Portrait Sir Edward Davey
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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.

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Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson (City of Chester) (Lab)
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I want to start by echoing the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friends, and particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). The urgent need for provisions to support the self-employed gets greater by the day, and my concern is that desperation is turning to anger. The “What about us?” sentiment will be driving that anger, understandably, and making the situation a whole lot worse. I urge Ministers to bring that support forward.

We are also promised support for renters in both the social sector and private rented sector. That has not happened yet. Again, as days and weeks go by, the desperation and uncertainty become greater, and I urge Ministers to bring that forward. My right hon. Friend was right about the Government apparently going back on a commitment to bring forward provisions to ban evictions. If someone is evicted, where are they going to go at the moment? There is no reason at all why that provision should not be brought forward. If we are serious that people have to stay at home, let them stay at home by making sure that they are not evicted. It shows either misjudgment in making the promise in the first place, or misjudgment and bad faith in breaking that promise. I urge Ministers to take that back to the Prime Minister and ask him to make a change.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist) was absolutely correct in what she said about charities. In Cheshire West and Chester, we have brought together Cheshire West and Chester Council, West Cheshire Voluntary Action and lots of charities and church groups to try to provide a co-ordinated service to all those who need support at the moment. But as my hon. Friend said, the charities are running out of money because their commercial activities are running down, which is affecting their income. That is calling into question their ability to deliver services to the most vulnerable, which they do much of the time and which is often taken for granted. Right now, with everyone expected to stay at home, the ability of charities to deliver those services is perhaps limited anyway, but as this situation hopefully gets better, we will look to charities to get those services up and running straightaway. At the moment, without the support for charities, their ability to do that is diminished.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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May I take the hon. Gentleman back to his point on rented accommodation? He is right that at the moment, all landlords should show forbearance when people are in difficult financial circumstances, and the Coronavirus Bill will increase the notice period to end an assured shorthold tenancy from two to three months. He is a fair man, so does he agree that we must be fair to both sides? If a tenant is unfairly withholding rent from a landlord, and it takes eight months to get a case to court at the moment, that is not very fair on the landlord. We have to be fair to both sides.

Christian Matheson Portrait Christian Matheson
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I do accept that, but that would be the case in normal circumstances anyway. We are talking about giving people peace of mind during this national crisis and ensuring that people do not even have to live with the worry of being chucked out on the street or into temporary accommodation. That is my concern.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington reflected on his childhood in Liverpool and on his priest considering him to be a lapsed Catholic. That reminded me of my mum and dad, who also grew up in Liverpool, albeit a couple of decades or more before my right hon. Friend. The formative period of their childhood was the second world war, when they were both young children, suffering the bombings in Liverpool and the uncertainty of the war. We all know that the second world war in Europe ended formally on 7 May 1945, but my mum and dad did not know that—they had no idea when the hostilities would end and things might start to get better. Listening to my right hon. Friend, I reflected that that is the situation in which we find ourselves now.

We have no idea how long this crisis is likely to last. That uncertainty drives desperation, anxiety and as the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) and my good friend the hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) said, business uncertainty. That is why it is essential that the Government are clear in their statements and oblige other businesses—we have talked about the banks; I want to consider insurance companies—to ensure that they play their part. If we cannot plan ahead, we will not know how to address the problems, and it cannot simply be down to the Government.

I make that point because insurance companies are not living up to their obligations. I know of businesses in Chester that have been told that their business contributions to insurance do not apply because coronavirus was not a notifiable disease at the time of the outbreak or because the Government had only suggested, as was the case last week, that events did not take place rather than saying that they must not take place. As I mentioned at Question Time, for events, conferences and sports that have a long lead-in time to prepare, it would help if the Government were clearer now that those businesses could not get back up and running for four or six months and that insurance companies should ensure that their policies kick in.

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Bill Esterson Portrait Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab)
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Desperation was the word used a number of times by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) and, prior to him, my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Liz Twist). It sums up the feeling of many people for many reasons. I think it also underpins what the hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami) did. I wish he was two metres from the Minister to demonstrate good social distancing in this place. He was right. This debate is about improving the schemes as far as we are able to do so, as part of our contribution to scrutinising the Bill.

My first point, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), is about construction sites. We have all seen the pictures, and some of us have passed examples today, of construction workers working in big numbers in close proximity. That cannot be right and it is certainly not what was intended by the Prime Minister’s guidance. Perhaps the Minister can take that point on board and consider how that situation might be prevented. It is a very serious matter, not just for those workers but in terms of spreading the virus elsewhere. We must all remember that, even if we are fit and healthy and do not become sick ourselves, it is not about the individual, but who we pass it on to.

On banks and loans, the problem, as has been stated by a number of Members, is that loans mean debt which cannot be repaid without the certainty of an income. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester just made the point about us not knowing the end date. If people do not know the end date, they will not be able to plan to pay the loans back. That is a real problem. If we then add on the uncertainty of having to provide personal guarantees, it becomes extremely problematic for many businesses to take advantage of the loan scheme. The suggestions made by Members for how the loan scheme might operate are really important, and it is really important that the Government go away and look into them.

On the behaviour of banks, in other debates we have heard descriptions of pharmacists and food retailers hiking up prices. The banks are doing exactly the same thing with interest rates. That cannot be allowed to continue. I thought the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) was going to suggest nationalising the banks as a way forward. He was at one stage channelling his inner Marxist for the benefit of some in the Chamber. [Interruption.] There is agreement from my right hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington on the Front Bench. The point is that the taxpayer bailed out the banks. People paid the money back through higher interest rates in the financial crisis. They are now about to repeat that behaviour at a much more dangerous and difficult time in our history. There has to be intervention by the Treasury, in whatever shape or form, to prevent that and to ensure that the banks behave responsibly, provide support and do not put apply onerous terms, whether through personal guarantees or ultra-high extortionate rates of interest.

There is also the trust issue. Businesses do not want to borrow because of their past experiences. During the financial crisis when I was running a business, I had the experience of having my overdraft facility recalled overnight. We were lucky that we were able to cover that out of personal savings, but very many businesses were not able to do so and went to the wall. People suffered grievously—some took their own lives. We have debated that many times in this Chamber, and we do not want a repeat of that over the coming months and years after the immediate crisis has passed. I therefore urge the Government to intervene now to get that right.

As well as taking advantage of the Government’s employee retention scheme, businesses will need to pay additional costs such as rents and insurances. My hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester made the point that businesses are being told that they do not qualify for business continuity insurance. The same applies to income protection for the self-employed and small business owners, because this disease did not exist when their policies were written. Those issues need attention. The vast sum of money that the Government are making available provides the opportunity to look at some of the other costs for businesses to see whether there can be help beyond that suggested for employees. Grants are certainly a part of that. Given how long this situation might last, the size of the grants will need to be constantly reviewed so that they are sufficient.

Kevin Hollinrake Portrait Kevin Hollinrake
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The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point about grants. The biggest grant, of course, is the job retention scheme—that is a grant. It is Government funded, and there is no requirement for employers to pay anything towards it unless they want to do so, and they can top it up to that 20%. Therefore, will he concede that the scheme is a very important initiative by the Government and that it will be welcomed by many businesses?

Bill Esterson Portrait Bill Esterson
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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.