Finance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:00 pm on 27th April 2020.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean 9:00 pm, 27th April 2020

The Financial Secretary, who opened the debate and is my constituency neighbour, made the point that the Budget seems like a very long time ago. It does to me too, having spoken in the Budget debate. The concerns we expressed then do not seem quite so present today, with the Government having to deal with the huge threat from coronavirus. I want to make several national points and then I want to raise with the Minister a couple of issues that are specifically relevant to my constituency.

My first point is that we have heard a lot of talk about how we exit lockdown, but I think it is much more relevant to talk about a recovery plan. We are going to be living with coronavirus until we either find a vaccine or until we have a successful treatment. It is possible—I hope it is not the case, but it is possible—that we never find a vaccine, so we need to think about how we enable the economy to operate with this virus. It is going to be with us for some time. I have one question for the Minister, relating to the fifth test, on how the Government wish to start easing restrictions. When it was first set out by the First Secretary, the Government said that they wanted to avoid a second peak in cases, which would overwhelm the NHS. We all, rightly, want to avoid that. However, in the slides published today, that caveat at the end about overwhelming the NHS had disappeared. It seems to me that that is a very important omission, because, as we relax restrictions, we will inevitably see more cases. The question for us is not whether we will see more cases, but whether we will see them at a level that is able to be dealt with by our fantastic NHS. I therefore hope the Minister can answer the question about exactly what that fifth test is.

The second point I wanted to raise is about openness and how we develop that plan. I am pleased that the Prime Minister, in his very welcome statement today on his return to Downing Street, confirmed that the Government would work as openly as possible as they set out their case. He said, for example, that they would look at bringing with them industry, constituents and Opposition parties as they develop their plan. I want the Minister, as we bring industry in, to think about the businesses that will have to change their business models to reflect the fact that social distance will be with us for some time, and to think about how we might help those businesses deal with the effects of coronavirus going forward.

My third and final national point, which was raised by a number of colleagues, is how we get economic growth to go sufficiently fast to deal with the debts we are going to have. We need to go back to the measures in the Finance Bill that were in the Budget relating to driving up research and development spend, and to driving up spending on education and skills. They will be critical.

The local points I wanted to raise have been raised several times in the debate already. They relate to the use of the rates system to qualify for grants. have a number of serviced offices and business parks, such as Vantage Point at Mitcheldean and the Newent business park, where individual tenants have rates rolled up into their rent. Because they are not ratepayers, they are not eligible for any of the grants that the Government are using to assist businesses in trouble. I urge the Minister to see whether there is a way that those small businesses can be helped with the valuable grants that have been raised.

My final point is again about the use of the rates system, with the £51,000 rate cut-off, which has already been mentioned in this debate. It means that some businesses in my constituency, particularly those in the leisure and tourism sector, find they are not eligible for any of the help that the Government have delivered, because there is a hard edge at that £51,000 cut-off. As others have said, if that could be tapered, it would be incredibly valuable and welcome. With those national and local points, I pay tribute to all those who have made this virtual sitting possible. It is fantastic to have been able to participate in this debate in the House from my Forest of Dean constituency.