Covid-19: Support for UK Industries

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:11 pm on 25th June 2020.

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Photo of Stephen Hammond Stephen Hammond Conservative, Wimbledon 3:11 pm, 25th June 2020

It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Theresa Villiers and I absolutely agree with her sentiments about opening up the economy.

May I say right at the outset that I think what the Government have done in terms of this unprecedented economic support—the support for businesses and for workers against the economic consequences of the pandemic —has been truly extraordinary, and the speed at which those programmes were put in place was particularly impressive?

In my constituency alone, 10,000 jobs were furloughed under the job retention scheme—10,000 incomes. With that support through the crisis, people have a chance of a job in the future as the restrictions ease. I am very pleased that the scheme has been extended and that there is the ability to part-time furlough. That flexibility has to be right; the businesses want that as they gradually reopen.

However, I would point out to my hon. Friend the Minister that there are a number of issues with the scheme, which, with a little bit of tinkering, could easily be put right. He will be aware that one particular problem is that eligibility is based on a real time information submission to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. The problem for a lot of small businesses is that they had agreed with HMRC that they would make an annual return and, therefore, not being required to make the RTI return, they are ineligible for support. A brief word with the chief executive of HMRC would sort that problem out.

The self-employment income support scheme is very welcome. It is estimated to help 4,000 people in Wimbledon, but I have been contacted by a number of people who, because they became self-employed last year, do not qualify. They feel they have fallen through the cracks. Will the Treasury look at that? A number of the people affected are starting businesses for the first time and are likely to be the lifeblood of the economy as we recover; a little help now would work. Of course, the same applies to directors of small limited companies. If they were put on the same footing as the self-employment income support scheme, that would mean a grant, which, in some cases, would save their businesses. With that minor tinkering, the scheme could be even better than it already is.

The hospitality, retail and leisure industry is obviously at the forefront of the economic costs, having been unable to open until 4 July—as my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet said, we look forward to that date. The support for the sector has been outstanding, but the Minister will know that in some parts of the country the £51,000 rateable value limit is relatively small compared with the sums the businesses are transacting. On future economic packages, I say to the Minister that it would be really helpful if the Government would recognise that there are some quite major regional imbalances in rateable values when businesses are broadly of the same turnover and this would be a huge benefit.

While there has been extraordinary help to the retail, hospitality and leisure chain, inevitably a lot of the suppliers to those industries have not been able to get any help at all. What has been seen to be a postcode lottery has been developing on the basis that the Government have given advice on what qualifies as a retail, leisure or hospitality business. It is pretty specific, although the Government do say that the list is not exhaustive. The trouble is that different councils are choosing to interpret it in wildly different ways and it is having a major impact on suppliers to these industries.

I pick up the events industry in my constituency, with White Light and Oxygen Event Services being two companies that may not be able to reappear in the way they were before this pandemic hit the country, and that would have a huge impact on the concert, festivals and hospitality industry. May we have a bit of Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government guidance to councils, that industry and also language schools, which are huge providers to local economies, particularly in Wimbledon? I have seven language schools that provide consumer expenditure into the local economy from the students, jobs for teachers and support for local families who house these students. Again, a postcode lottery has developed: in some places these businesses and schools are getting help and in others they are not. Again, if the MHCLG could be more prescriptive about exactly what should be allowed to be available for business rate relief, that will help.

There are a number of other industries I could comment on, but finally, can I just say that, as a London MP, I am proud of the culture and the arts in this city? I want to see that arts and culture not just in the west end, but across constituencies. I have the New Wimbledon theatre and the Polka theatre. On what such venues need to survive, can I ask the Government to really look very hard at this? A number of people working in these industries have had no income or access to help since the pandemic struck. I know there are various packages that the Arts Council funds, but we need a specific performing arts financial package, so that all theatres and concert venues can survive and the people who work in that industry will be there to make sure that, when they reopen, arts are being performed in them. That would mean that the culture in this country would survive, which is so vital to our future, alongside the economy and our health.