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Finance Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:10 pm on 27th April 2020.

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Photo of Bridget Phillipson Bridget Phillipson Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 9:10 pm, 27th April 2020

I would like to begin by thanking all the staff who have worked so hard to put arrangements in place so that parliamentary scrutiny can continue. I would also like to extend my thanks for the efforts made by key workers across the country, for which all of us in this House are grateful.

We have had a good debate today in what are difficult and unusual circumstances. My hon. Friend Rushanara Ali made a passionate appeal for the Government to avoid the mistakes of the last decade, highlighting the pressures faced by local councils, as did my hon. Friend Meg Hillier, who underlined the real challenges we face around housing, with far too many families forced to live in overcrowded and cramped conditions.

My right hon. Friend John Spellar was right to emphasise the importance of businesses and trade unions working closely together at this time and the tremendous work of the TUC, particularly in recent weeks. I hope the Minister will take heed of the point my right hon. Friend made about the role for Government in stimulating demand as we emerge from this crisis.

My hon. Friend Mr Sheerman is a tireless campaigner for children and young people, and he used his speech to press for greater opportunities for them, following this difficult time for so many families. My hon. Friends the Members for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) and for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) called on the Government to look carefully at gaps in existing provision and the urgent need for a social security system that properly supports families through this crisis and beyond. My hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams also picked up that point, reminding us that far too many children—including those in working families—are already growing up in poverty.

We heard a great number of speeches from Members on both sides of the House highlighting the acute pressures faced by businesses. My hon. Friends the Members for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and for Islwyn (Chris Evans) emphasised the real difficulties in accessing lending for business, but they were also clear about the additional support that the Labour Government in Wales are providing at this time of crisis.

My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) and for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) stressed just how difficult it is for many firms—especially small businesses—to access the cash that they need to stay afloat. In Committee, I hope we will be able to discuss in more detail the concerns that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood rightly raised about the inadequacies of the proposed digital services tax.

My hon. Friend Apsana Begum drew our attention to the disproportionate impact of coronavirus on black and minority ethnic communities, which will only serve to exacerbate the existing social and economic injustice that those communities face. We heard from my hon. Friend Kate Osborne about pre-existing regional inequality and the fact that the Government must do all they can to limit unemployment in areas such as the north-east, where the current level is already too high. Finally, the speech that we just heard from my hon. Friend Ian Byrne reminded us all of the debt that we owe to our incredible key workers.

Those contributions highlighted the scale of the challenge that our country faces today and the responsibility that the Government have to ensure that we as a country can overcome them. That is why the Opposition have sought to take a constructive approach at this time of national crisis, encouraging the best possible response from Government and pressing for the support announced to work effectively.

That brings us to the context of the Bill—whether it does enough to help those at the sharp end of the current crisis, to put our tax system on a fairer and more progressive footing and to shape our economy for the rather different world of the future. The changed circumstances and the new personnel on the Government Front Bench should not fool any of us about where this Budget comes from or which party is responsible for the underlying weaknesses in the shape and nature of the economy going into this crisis. The Conservative party has now been in power for 10 years. The inadequacies of our tax system and of our society, and the structural weaknesses in our economy, are its responsibility.

Labour’s economic priorities for the current crisis are straightforward, as the shadow Chancellor, my hon. Friend Anneliese Dodds, set out again today. We want to keep people in work, and the schemes that the Government have laid out are welcome but need improvement, especially as circumstances change in the months ahead. We want to get cash to struggling businesses, and we are concerned that, as we have heard today, too many firms are not getting the support that they need. We want to make our social security system sufficient to provide proper support to families, because we know that for too many it simply is not enough—and the current crisis is making things worse, not better.

The Budget focuses on maintaining the status quo and delivering limited reforms, rather than the ambitious reforms that we need. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that the tax measures announced in last month’s Budget look

“piecemeal…it is not clear they are part of any long term thought through strategy.”

The dire forecasts made by the Office for Budget Responsibility about the state of public finances owing to the covid-19 outbreak show how grave the challenge is likely to be, and they have already rendered the predictions included in the Budget out of date.

Our concern is that the Bill, even in a time of national crisis, is not enough. It is not enough to solve the immediate financial and economic problems that the covid-19 outbreak presents. It is not enough to solve the searing inequalities in our country, inflicted by 10 years of Conservative government. We need a more ambitious approach to making our tax system fairer and building a society and economy fit for the future—an approach that recognises that the consequences of covid-19 and the lockdown are being felt most by those who can ill afford it: those on low pay, those with insecure employment and those who face additional costs to access public services.

Too many of the people on whom our country’s response to the virus depends have seen their true worth to our society ignored for far too long. Too many are today among the poorest in our society and risk being the worst-affected by the coming recession. Others, such as those joining the labour market for the first time and lower earners, are likely to feel the impact for years to come.

We accept that much of the Bill was drawn up before the current pandemic, and we know that Ministers do not have a crystal ball with which to make policy, but they must know, as the country knows, that the Bill was an inadequate starting point even when it was drafted and that it fails to respond to the deep-seated problems of our country. Far more needs to be done to clamp down on tax avoidance, individual and corporate, which deprives our public services of the funding that they need, but there is little in the Bill to suggest that the Government have the appetite for pursuing that at the scale that is needed.

It is welcome that the Government maintain corporation tax at 19%, rather than cutting it to 17% as initially planned. Perhaps that suggests that Ministers have accepted the arguments made by many Opposition Members for many years that whittling down the rate, which is already among the lowest in the G20, is not the best approach. It has not given us a productivity miracle. It has not tempted companies to set up shop here on a scale adequate to balance the flow of companies moving away as a result of Brexit. What it has given us is overstretched public finances and underfunded public services. Instead, we should be asking that profitable companies, especially those for which the current situation has provided an unexpected windfall, contribute more to help to provide our public services with the funding that they need.

The digital services tax is a long-overdue step to make the tech giants pay their fair share. We welcome the intent behind it, but like so much of the Bill, it does not go nearly far enough. The tax and spend trade-offs that have been forced on us by the covid-19 pandemic cannot be put off for long, and when Ministers come to these decisions, they should learn from the mistakes of the past. The Labour Government’s immediate response to the 2008 financial crisis showed the good that Government can do, but since 2010, a decade of Conservative cuts has made the economic damage from that crisis fester.

Too many in our country have seen little improvement in living standards for a decade now. The Bill, and the further fiscal measures that the Government are likely to have to bring to the House in the months to come, should be about ensuring that the burden of current costs and the benefits of the recovery to come are fairly shared across our society. This Bill is not that. It is very far from being the basis on which our country can draw a social contract fit for the future. From these Benches, we will continue to call for a better settlement for today and a better plan for tomorrow.