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Budget Statement - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:02 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Leigh of Hurley Lord Leigh of Hurley Conservative 5:02 pm, 18th March 2020

My Lords, I welcome my noble friend to his new role. I was one of those who called out in private discussions with previous Chancellors and in public for this House to have a Treasury Minister, and it is appropriate that the Treasury has a direct line to the wealth of experience and expertise in this House, as this debate shows.

This Budget and subsequent statements needed to be about two things. First and foremost, it was about survival. Our economy, our businesses and our people were threatened as they have not been since the Second World War. Fear stalks the market even as it does the supermarket aisles, so now is not the time to talk about missed fiscal targets. This was a moment for the Chancellor to do whatever it takes to get us through this crisis. He could do so because our economy is in so much better shape than it was in 2010, given the mistakes made before then.

It is true that this crisis is unlike financial crashes that I have witnessed from 1972 to 2008, in that it is not driven by an endemic and systemic failure of our economic system. This could mean that the recovery is rapid. However, that depends on what is left once Covid-19 has passed. I am talking in particular about small businesses. We are confident that this will run for months, not years, but those will be long months for many businesses short on working capital, supplies and customers. Whole swathes of our economic and social life are being shut down in the name of prevention and control. In every one of those businesses, jobs are under threat, and many will not survive. On all sides of the House, we hope that the measures announced will be successful, and we are so grateful to see such a competent person in the role at this time.

Access to working capital is vital. I am, however, concerned about the ability of the British Business Bank and commercial lenders to combine quickly enough to provide the needed liquidity. It will take time—time we do not have. Each loan still has to be assessed by a bank official. Make no mistake: these loans will not be given and will not save the people who work in businesses which are just not able, in the opinion of the bank’s loan officers, to pay them back. Even if 80% of these loans are underwritten by government, the bank is not going to want to lose its 20%. Therefore, cruise businesses and those in travel, leisure and gaming and all their suppliers, and many others in a similar climate, will be deemed non-viable and will not get the loans.

I further suggest that the Chancellor considers more direct measures, as has been discussed here: emergency loans but delivered through the tax system via PAYE or VAT. This would be so much more direct for businesses which need it. If the directors of a business determine that it can survive, we need to help that business keep as many people as possible, so a PAYE holiday this month, to be recouped over the next six months, would save a lot of redundancies. We must also be aware that the £10,000 given as a grant to businesses which are eligible for small business rate relief, subject to the important point the Minister made, could be a rogues’ charter, but it is a price we will have to pay.

It is true that we have a significant package of measures designed to get us through the next year intact. However, our current insolvency laws are not helpful for this unique crisis. Currently, directors of limited companies, who must be mindful of their responsibilities to creditors and to avoid personal liability, are almost pushed to call in the administrators. This is a disaster when in fact a business has just a short-term liquidity crunch. Indeed, it may be that the Chancellor produces more rescue help in the next day or so, but that may be a day too late. A director does not know what is going on but he or she knows that administration will protect them. We urgently need a relaxation of the insolvency laws, which I gather Germany is doing right now, for some sort of Chapter 11 or other interim moratorium. It is needed immediately and it should last for the next few months. I cannot emphasise enough how urgent this is. I have been in touch directly with Ministers in BEIS but perhaps my noble friend and his colleagues can address this issue later today.

On the Budget itself, I am very glad that the Government will not pay for extra borrowing with changes to either business property relief or IHT, or by the mooted mansion tax, but I am very disappointed that they have chosen to reduce the lifetime limit for entrepreneurs’ relief from £10 million to £1 million. This flies in the face of what is otherwise a commendable Budget for innovation. The idea is that entrepreneurs who are not salaried but risk their own capital should keep more of the proceeds if they succeed. HM Treasury claims that this will net an extra £2 billion or so a year, but that assumes that entrepreneurs will not change their behaviour at all—of course they will. In my line of work—I disclose to your Lordships’ House my registered interests—I already know of entrepreneurs who are planning to start up their next business in Singapore or to emigrate to avoid, legally, capital gains tax. It was a short-sighted and counterproductive move. If we want entrepreneurs to take big risks, as we do, we have to allow them big returns. I know that people in the Treasury and the Resolution Foundation do not like it but I say to them: get over it. I hope in future Budgets the £1 million figure will be raised.

I ask my noble friend whether his officials will provide clarity on the extra funds to be provided to SMEs for apprenticeships to support an increase in the number of high-quality apprenticeships in the 16 to 18 range. Given the 47% drop in those apprenticeship starts, what plans are in place to recruit and fund 16 to 18 year-olds into apprenticeships? One start might be to ban MBAs from being covered by the levy.

I also repeat the plea made regularly by myself and my noble friend Lord Lucas for online marketplaces to be liable for the collection and remittance of VAT—Amazon being the prime example. This is taking place in most of the USA and many other countries. The UK’s competitors are cracking down on this evasion but we have not, thus making the UK increasingly attractive to VAT fraudsters. All we seem to have done is to pursue with a vengeance the one whistleblower who has revealed the scope of the problem: a Mr Richard Allen. This matter is costing our country substantially in lost VAT and really does need action from the Government.

All that I have said and asked for should not take away from a Budget from a Chancellor who has risen to the occasion. British businesses and citizens were crying out for an almighty show of fiscal force and that is exactly what they got.