Covid-19: Support for UK Industries

Nigel Huddleston Excerpts
Thursday 25th June 2020

(10 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Matthew Pennycook Portrait Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab)
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25 Jun 2020, midnight

It is a pleasure to respond to this wide-ranging and well-subscribed debate on behalf of the Opposition. I start by thanking all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part in the debate today, and the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) for opening it. I also pay tribute to the initiators of each of the petitions under consideration and, by my calculation, the nearly three quarters of a million people who collectively signed them for making today’s debate possible.

As numerous right hon. and hon. Members referred to in their remarks, the debate takes place in the midst of a pandemic that is taking a severe toll on our economy. Barring a second wave of the virus, the worst may now be behind us, but the fiscal impact wrought, the dramatic rise in the unemployment rate and the prospect of many sectors continuing to operate at reduced capacity for some time point to the trials that lie ahead.

Let me underline for the record that the Opposition welcomed the unprecedented measures that the Government took, in essence, to put our economy on life support in the face of a near total shutdown. The fact that we are here today debating urgent petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people working in a range of industries is testament to the need to further refine those measures and build on them where necessary to protect as many people’s incomes, jobs and businesses as we can.

In the time available to me, I will pick up on three points that have been prominent during the debate. The first is the need for further improvements to the measures already introduced to support businesses and individuals. The second is the need for support packages for certain UK industries, tailored to their needs. The third is the need for a more strategic approach to the recovery than that which defined the rescue.

On the first of those points, the House needs no reminding that it is people who are the bedrock of the productive capacity that firms, and thereby industries, will need to bounce back now that the immediate crisis is subsiding. That is why we must continue to do what is necessary to protect their livelihoods, their jobs and their businesses through this difficult period. That is why we continue to press the Government to fix the gaps and deficiencies in the various financial support schemes that have already been established. There is still time to do so.

There is still time for the Government to revise the job retention scheme to cover employees currently shut out from it, and still time to revise the self-employment income support scheme to help those it currently excludes. There is still time to further reform the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, so that more companies can access finance and liquidity easily to make it through the crisis, as well as access more patient capital.

There is still time—this brings me to my second point—to revisit the one-size-fits-all approach that has underpinned the design of many of those schemes and appears to be dictating the Government’s approach to sectors and industries across the board. The various case studies raised by right hon. and hon. Members from all parts of the House are a vivid illustration that the pandemic’s economic impact has not been felt uniformly across different sectors, but also that the rate at which sectors can reopen and restart will differ markedly. If we are to successfully navigate the next phase of this crisis, logic dictates that a more differentiated approach is needed.

Such an approach will undoubtedly pose challenges for the Government, but if Ministers do not concede that established schemes will have to be redesigned so that they can enable a flexible sector-by-sector response, and if they do not concede that targeted support packages will be needed for the industries most in need, we risk many more firms going under and many more jobs being lost. There is, however, no real sense that the Government have accepted as much.

Taking three of the industries whose plight is the focus of the petitions we are considering today, the early years sector is under huge pressure, with many providers on the verge of ruin. As a report released this morning by the Early Years Alliance and Ceeda makes clear, the impact of collapsing relevant revenues from significantly reduced demand and the increased costs that come with making establishments covid-safe are falling on a sector that was already struggling financially before the pandemic took hold. It looks set to lead to significant funding shortfalls and mass closures. The industry needs more help.

As many hon. Members referred to in their speeches, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), the arts and creative industries, as well as the sectors heavily dependent on them, have been hit particularly hard. That sector will be one of the last to reopen because of the difficulty—in many cases, the impossibility—of operating theatres, live music, festivals and other events and performance in line with social distancing measures. The Culture Secretary told the Evening Standard on 8 June that a package of support was “imminent”, yet weeks later nothing has materialised. That industry desperately needs more help.

In powerful contributions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami) and my hon. Friends the Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) and for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) highlighted the fact that the aviation sector stands on the brink of devastation as a result of the pandemic, and several airlines have already announced plans for significant redundancies. Research from the New Economics Foundation and the TUC earlier this month warned that at least 70,000 jobs in the wider aviation industry are at risk before the end of the summer alone. The Opposition recognise that aviation must change to tackle runaway global heating, but current developments are chaotic and suggest the absence of any long-term strategy for the industry. It needs more help, as do so many others.

When the Minister stands up, I hope that he can give the House and all those watching our proceedings an indication of when sector-specific support packages, including access to emergency funding, will be forthcoming for these industries and others that are crying out for help, including hospitality, aerospace, the motor industry and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) pointed out powerfully, steel. If the Minister is unable to do that, will he at least provide some reassurance that the Government recognise the urgency with which such tailored packages are required by the industries in question and that Ministers accept the need to make changes to existing schemes, such as the furlough, so that their phasing out mirrors the pace at which industry is able to return to some semblance of normality?

That brings me to my final point—I will be brief in making it, Madam Deputy Speaker. As we look to ensure that our industries get the ongoing support that they need, we must plan strategically for the future. That means support, yes, to ensure that our industries do not fall behind their international competitors in the years ahead, but also support that is designed to achieve other important national objectives, not least responding to the environment and climate emergency. Our European neighbours are using this crisis as an opportunity to do just that, and the Government should look to match and even surpass their ambition by coming forward with support that will retain and create jobs, accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy and address a range of regional and wider inequalities—a point made very powerfully by my right hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali).

In conclusion, the Opposition recognise the scale of the challenge that the Government have had to confront, as well as the speed with which the current schemes had to be designed and implemented, but, as the OECD made clear, our country is on course to suffer the largest economic hit from the pandemic among major nations this year. In the face of such an emergency, we on this side of the House and the three quarters of a million people who signed these petitions are not demanding the impossible. We are simply asking the Government to act decisively and spend smartly to protect industries that contribute so much to our economy and our society, and on whom so many people rely.

Nigel Huddleston Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (Nigel Huddleston)
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It is a pleasure to contribute on the Government’s behalf to this debate, which comes as countries across the world continue to battle one of the worst public health emergencies in our history. I thank Members on both sides of the House for their valuable contributions, both in this debate and in the months and weeks before, and their work to highlight issues that I know we all care very deeply about.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Will the Minister give way?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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25 Jun 2020, 12:04 a.m.

It would not be a debate without an intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
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We discussed this this morning: can I request the Minister’s help for Bombardier in Belfast and Newtownards in my constituency, where 600 manufacturing jobs are under threat? Would he accept the letter from me with Bombardier’s 16-point plan and be so kind as to arrange a response?

Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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25 Jun 2020, 12:04 a.m.

I would be happy to take the letter and ensure that the hon. Gentleman gets an appropriate response from the correct Minister.

The importance of this debate is demonstrated by the fact that hundreds of thousands of people signed the petitions. Of course, we are in an unprecedented global crisis, and this Government have provided an unprecedented, wide-ranging level of financial support in response to protect jobs, businesses and incomes across the country. Under the coronavirus job retention scheme, we have supported over 10 million people and at least 1 million businesses. We have supported 2.6 million self-employed people and given out £26 billion in bounce back loans alone, not to mention the support in the form of grants for small businesses and for those in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors. Given the direct and acute impacts of the covid-19 pandemic on those latter sectors, the Government have also provided a business rates holiday for businesses in retail, hospitality and leisure, so that all eligible businesses will pay no business rates for 12 months. This support is worth almost £10 billion to those businesses.

Several Members, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers), asked about nurseries. We absolutely recognise the important role that nurseries play in young children’s lives at the very start of their education. Recognising that, we made sure that nurseries were also on the list for the business rate holiday.

On the broader financial package, when it became clear that more help was needed, the Chancellor announced in May that the furlough scheme would continue until the end of October, and in its current form until the end of July, supporting furloughed workers as they gradually return to work.

The Government have provided a wide and unparalleled level of financial support during the pandemic to help workers in every sector and in every region of the UK, but we knew that as we entered lockdown, as part of our battle against this disease we would need a number of targeted interventions to protect jobs and businesses in some of our most beloved and hardest-hit sectors, including those identified in the petitions. We have had a good and thorough debate about those sectors today. Working groups have been set up by various Departments to work on the path to recovery and to identify what further support may be required, and discussions with the Treasury are taking place.

Munira Wilson Portrait Munira Wilson (Twickenham) (LD)
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Will the Minister put it on the record that the creative industries contribute a huge amount to our economy and improve everybody’s mental wellbeing? Will he recognise that, welcome though the support schemes were, many freelancers and directors of limited companies, particularly in the creative industries in my constituency, have been left—

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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25 Jun 2020, 12:02 a.m.


Nigel Huddleston Portrait Nigel Huddleston
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25 Jun 2020, 12:02 a.m.

I thank the hon. Lady for her passion. That passion is shared by Ministers at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and elsewhere, and conversations are ongoing about further support.

Hon. Members will appreciate that, given the time constraints, I am unable to respond to many of the other specific points and questions that were raised today relating to multiple Government Departments and other bodies. However, I will make sure that relevant Ministers are aware of all the points that have been raised in this debate.

I cannot mention individually everyone who has contributed to today’s debate, but I thank everybody for their thoughtful and constructive comments. In particular, I would like to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet; my hon. Friends the Members for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), for Buckingham (Greg Smith), for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Fay Jones), for Dudley South (Mike Wood) and for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher); the right hon. Member for Alyn and Deeside (Mark Tami); and the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for mentioning tourism, hospitality and leisure—and, of course, aviation. Obviously, that sector is very close to my heart.

I would also like to thank those who have mentioned many other sectors, including my hon. Friends the Members for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew), for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher), for South Cambridgeshire (Anthony Browne), and for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), and the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), who raised issues about the arts, technology, zoos and many other important sectors.

Before I conclude, I want to praise my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry), who made a very eloquent maiden speech. He talked with passion and pride about his work, about his West Indian heritage, about this land of opportunity and about his 26 years in the RAF. That is particularly timely this week, which is Armed Forces Week. He is rightly proud of his family, and he has done his family proud. His constituency can be equally proud to have an MP of his calibre as their representative in this place.

It has been a great pleasure to participate in today’s debate, and I thank everybody for their contributions. This debate has been extraordinarily valuable, and I am sure that the dialogue will continue.

Theresa Villiers Portrait Theresa Villiers
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25 Jun 2020, 12:05 a.m.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making possible these first debates from the Petitions Committee on the Floor of the House. I thank all who have contributed. Above all, I would like to thank once again those who created and supported the e-petitions. The e-petitions were started by Matthew Rakowski-Goreta, Miles Croxford, Oliver Tooley, Evgenia Galinskaya and Anand Limbachia, who can all be assured that their voices have been heard by the Government in the support package and by Members in this House this afternoon.

As others have done, I commend the Government for a package of support that has saved the livelihoods of so many millions of people. It was delivered at phenomenal speed. My experience in Government makes me think that it is so difficult to get even the smallest thing done at speed. The speed of the reaction was essential. I ask the Government to reflect on those gaps in provision that have been identified, particularly by the Treasury Committee: the newly employed, the newly self-employed, directors of limited companies, and freelancers on short-term contracts. I also echo the strong points that were made about securing the future of aviation and, of course, of the performing arts and culture, where the need for support and for a plan for reopening is urgent.

I close by echoing the comments, praise and thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Darren Henry). It was a great honour that he made his maiden speech in the debate for us all to hear. It was a heart-warming story, and I wish him well with his tenure in the House.