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Budget Statement - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:19 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Finn Baroness Finn Conservative 6:19 pm, 18th March 2020

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today. It is humbling to follow so many experienced, knowledgeable and very learned noble Lords. As others have mentioned, it is far from business as usual; as we have watched this crisis build ominous momentum, so we have waited to see the Government’s fiscal response. Of course, it is too early to say, but I sincerely hope that this is indeed the Chancellor’s “whatever it takes” moment.

On Monday, the Prime Minister rightly told the nation not to frequent bars, theatres or clubs, with a massive effect on those businesses and many more. However, on Tuesday they heard from the Chancellor that the Government would support them with £330 billion in loan guarantees to give firms access to cash. I very much welcome the package outlined by the Chancellor and appreciate that this is a fast-moving and uniquely challenging situation. However, I echo many other noble Lords in urging him to provide much-needed clarity and to consider additional measures to support the self-employed and businesses in the service, hospitality, retail and entertainment sectors.

No Conservative would want to see good money thrown after bad to support a failing industry, but that is not the situation we face. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of perfectly viable and profitable businesses which risk going under because of an act of God. The first duty of a Government is to protect their citizens, but they must also intervene now to reassure businesses that they will stand behind them. This cannot be just through loans; they will need tax holidays, cash injections and relief from PAYE and other pressures. The message must be clear to business owners: keep your staff on your books, the Government will support you. As a country, we will get through this terrible virus. However, if ever there was a role for government, it is here and now. We must ensure that our economy is strong and vibrant on the other side.

This extraordinary backdrop should not overshadow what I hope will be a critical change in measuring return on public investment—a rewriting of HMT Green Book rules. I welcome what my noble friend the Minister said about this. For years, this outdated Treasury methodology, which was intended to guarantee the best return for government investment, has perversely done more to widen economic disparities, depress productivity in poorer parts of Britain and deepen the gulf between north and south. We cannot continue to count every pound spent in terms of narrow cost-benefit. This Budget shows a welcome break from orthodoxy to ensure that funds are now allocated on the basis of how much they will improve well-being and social cohesion in the areas targeted.

The first indicator is the approach to spending on infrastructure. It seems that the Government are minded to go even further than the feted £100 billion. The Chancellor said that, by the end of this Parliament, public sector net investment would be triple the average over the last 40 years in real terms. This money must be spent on projects that have sustainability and productivity at their heart, so I am pleased that, as well as roads and railways, we have significant outlays for improving 4G networks such as the £5 billion for gigabit broadband. As the eyes of the world will be on the UK in Glasgow later this year, it is good to see the Government committing to building electric charging infrastructure. The commitment to carbon capture and storage technology will be vital if we are to meet our commitment to be net-zero on carbon emissions by 2050.

One former casualty of the outdated Treasury methodology is the Swansea tidal lagoon project. I have mentioned this many times; it has the potential to be the prototype for world-leading exportable technology. Could my noble friend the Minister commit to looking at this again? Our uniquely powerful tidal flow is an enormous competitive advantage that it would be a crime to ignore.

When it comes to investment, we cannot do better to boost our productivity than to invest in our people, so I commend the £2.5 billion new national skills fund. In this time of profound economic change, it is vital to support people as they upskill and reskill on their journeys to future-facing careers. Such a fund should give our high-growth, innovative firms access to a stronger pipeline of talent. I was disappointed—as were many others, including my noble friend Lord Leigh —to see a stringent reduction in the lifetime allowance for entrepreneurs’ relief. I declare an interest as the co-founder of a start-up company. We must mitigate the reputational damage this shift could do to our hard-won entrepreneurial culture. Access to talent, domestically and globally, will go some way to offsetting this, as it remains the No. 1 concern for start-up businesses.

This was a Budget about a crisis, but it was also about sowing the seeds of recovery. This pandemic has been a reminder that we are a truly global society, so we must build a workforce, infrastructure and ideas that can compete and succeed globally. On that measure, this Budget holds much promise.