Finance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:47 pm on 27th April 2020.

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Photo of Charles Walker Charles Walker Chair, Administration Committee, Chair, Administration Committee 5:47 pm, 27th April 2020

The chief medical officer has said that we will have to learn to live with covid-19 for perhaps the next 18 months. I have received scores of emails from constituents who are fearful of losing their business, their employees and ultimately their homes because of the current crisis, so living with covid-19 also has to mean working with covid-19.

This is not a lives versus the economy argument, as some have disgracefully suggested. Most hon. Members know that the economy is lives and that the two march hand in hand. As each day passes, fractures in supply chains and the onward routes to market grow deeper and will therefore take longer to repair. If producers do not have the raw materials to produce, they do not produce. That is a real problem, so it is no good suggesting or thinking that in two or three weeks, in two or three months or in six months we will be back to work and everything will be fine. It will not; supply lines will take time to gear up again, and I hope that the Finance Bill will take that into account. Without cement and without plaster, it is very difficult to build homes.

I hope that the Bill will address the following concerns. Will it look again at the business interruption loan scheme? It is just not sensible for banks to ask desperate businesses, “Can you give us a cash forecast for the next nine months?” Of course they cannot; nobody can. The Government cannot give a cash forecast for the next nine months, let alone a business.

Can we look again at extending the £25,000 grant scheme to all businesses that have rates assessed at £51,000 or less? There are many good businesses not directly involved in leisure, tourism or hospitality, for example, who are nevertheless feeling the pain of this crisis and fear for their futures and that of their colleagues.

Can we also look at dividends? In my constituency, PB plumbing has been in business for 30 years. It is a great little family business that supports the pub trade in the constituency and surrounding constituencies. The founder/owner of that business pays himself with dividends, mostly—he is not a greedy man. This is the way that he structured his business but he is really not now eligible for any form of support, and I think that that needs to be addressed.

We heard this afternoon—Anneliese Dodds mentioned this during the statement earlier—that there needs to be some flexibility in furloughing. It would be really useful for many businesses to be able to have a member of staff in for one or two days a week, just to keep things ticking over and going during busy periods. I know the Government say that this is a very difficult thing to achieve, but lots of things are very difficult to achieve and this Government are the Government to achieve them. I say this very generously: the Government are getting things right. They just have to get things even more right, if that is possible.

We have a fantastic Treasury Minister here today, and we need a dedicated Treasury Minister responsible for filling in the gaps. I sometimes think that the media have better access to Ministers not only than I do, but, more worryingly, than my constituents do, so let us have a consultation with all colleagues. How can these schemes be made better? There are these Downing Street statements every evening, where the media get to ask questions. I think there are some fabulous people in the media. There are a few moderate ones, but there are some very good ones. However, let us allow small businesses—they are the engine of our economy—to ask questions.

In my remaining minute, I will focus on one constituency business, called Kupros Dairy. It makes fabulous, award-winning cheeses, which it was selling to 200 great restaurants in London and a few specialist food shops. All of these restaurants are no longer open, so its market has entirely disappeared. Supermarkets will not take specialist cheeses in the main, because they cannot stock them from Land’s End to John O’Groats—by the way, the supermarkets have done a simply fabulous job in rising to this challenge. Could the Minister get in touch with Dave Lewis of Tesco and others and ask them to have a dedicated aisle, or part of an aisle, for local produce? That would save Kupros Dairy and allow it to start making cheese again, stay in business and employ people and pay mortgages.