Finance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:55 pm on 27th April 2020.

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Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee 7:55 pm, 27th April 2020

It really is a pleasure to be back in this place today. I welcome the bold steps that have been taken by the Government since the Budget, which seems like aeons ago, and the subsequent support in the Coronavirus Act 2020 and in the Chancellor’s settlement. I particularly welcome the support for start-ups, of which my constituency has many, especially in the Shoreditch part of Hackney South and Shoreditch. They will be the engines of the future economy, so the move is very welcome. None the less, some very big issues obviously exist, so while those bold steps were necessary—I pay tribute to the Chancellor, to the TUC and to so many others who have contributed to this thinking—we do need to have some answers to some very important questions. I want to rattle through some of them before touching on a couple of other very important issues around the Budget.

Will the Minister today confirm that the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme does not require a personal guarantee by businesses? Only today, I spoke to a business in my constituency, which has been hampered in trying to get this loan because the bank has asked for a raft of personal information about the financial arrangements of every director of that company. This is a company that has praised the Government for the furloughing scheme, but that is struggling on this point. We have heard that that personal guarantee is not necessary, but really clear guidance is needed from the Government to make sure that those banks that were bailed out in 2008, as Mr Bone highlighted, are going to support the economy now.

One of the big issues in my constituency relates to other forms of work. There are those who are self-employed, those who freelance and the many people on repeated short-term contracts who fall outside the employment support schemes. The self-employed and, in fact, most of those workers will often have an accountant or will have very clear financial records, so just as the PAYE scheme has been reverse-engineered to support furloughing, there must be a way that HMRC and the Government can work together with those people to make sure that there is a scheme in place to support them.

Many people are really scared. The emails in my inbox are not from people I normally hear from. They are from people who are about to lose their jobs. They are people who never thought that they would be in a position to have to consider claiming from the state, but they actually cannot even do that—they cannot even qualify for universal credit.

Another group caught up in this is sole directors, including those of personal service companies. I can relate an ironic example that really highlights this matter. An occupational therapist working in the national health service was told by the NHS that, for liability reasons, she had to set up personal service company. She is a frontline health worker supporting our NHS and yet does not qualify for any of the business and employment support schemes. That surely shows this up as a nonsense. The chickens are coming home to roost in this crisis: the economy has split in a different way, which means that people are working in different ways and that businesses are setting up in different ways. They are now being penalised because of a system that grew up like Topsy, with little thought for the consequences.

I want to touch on the huge demand on the hardship fund, which is the responsibility of local authorities. Those local authorities are already overspending on this. Everything that is not quite fitting has to come from the hardship fund, which is a huge problem. The overall cost to local government is enormous, with many councils now effectively bankrupt. Although the extra injection of cash the other week was welcome, it will not be enough. We may have to be very careful post-cv-19 to ensure that those very councils, which were going to be the engines driving the support that people will continue to need, are well resourced to do that.

I want to highlight an issue around housing. In 1992 and in 2008, under Governments of different political colours, money was given to housing associations to buy up unsold properties. In 1992, a housing market package was in place to buy up properties on the street, and in 2008, unsold properties from private developers were bought up. That money was there to buy those houses to create homes for homeless families. Many people in my constituency are living in severely overcrowded conditions, including a woman with a seven-year-old daughter who has had four years in a single hostel room with shared facilities, and a mother and daughter living with grand- mother—one family in one room and one in another. I have many other examples like that. Such a move would keep the housing market going and, crucially, give a fillip to the social housing market and give people a chance, in the long-term future we want to see, to support themselves.

The £1 billion announced in the Budget for cladding is about a tenth of what is needed, but will the Minister tell me when we will get the detail on how that £1 billion will be bid for? If not, perhaps the Treasury will write to me. It was supposed to come in June, but with coronavirus it is likely to be delayed. When we reach the day of reckoning on the pounds that we are spending now that will have to be paid back, that is just one of many issues that will need to be sorted. Many of my constituents are paying over the odds to support things such as waking watch while they wait for that money to come and, because of coronavirus, those who were already hit hard are being hit harder still.