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Budget Statement - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 18th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton Minister of State (HM Treasury), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 7:30 pm, 18th March 2020

My Lords, we have had an insightful debate today and I am most grateful for the many contributions that have been made. I draw some comfort that, in these difficult times, our great democracy shows itself at its best, with some innovative ideas. I hope to tease out some of those in my response.

I will come to the points raised in turn. Many of course related to the coronavirus, so it is right to quickly restate our response. Coronavirus will, in the short term, have a profound impact on this country and, as the Chancellor said yesterday, it is an economic emergency as much as a medical and health emergency. Inevitably, workers will have to leave work to recover, businesses will struggle to access some goods, and consumer spending will slow. Supply and demand will both take a hit. This is an enormous economic shock and it sets a challenge that we must all rise to.

In the Budget, the Chancellor laid down an initial £30 billion package, and this week, in response to the fast-moving situation, he went further, supplementing that package with a range of extraordinary measures, including £330 billion of loans to help firms cope with their cash-flow problems. The Budget we have debated will likely for ever be remembered as the coronavirus Budget. But it was a Budget of more besides: one that laid down a blueprint for a new decade of infrastructure and scientific investment. This will lead to an improvement in productivity, which is the soundest way to improve living standards in the long term.

I turn to some of the points raised by noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, and several other noble Lords asked whether we are going far enough. Can we go further, and should we? They included the noble Lords, Lord Northbrook, Lord Stevenson and Lord Oates, and my noble friends Lord Lamont and Lady Finn. I thought it might be useful to quote some of the comments made by the Chancellor of the Exchequer last night, because I hope they will give some reassurance. He said:

“I want to reassure every British citizen, this government will give you all the tools you need to get through this. We will support jobs, we will support incomes, we will support businesses, and we will help you protect your loved ones. We will do whatever it takes.”

The noble Lord, Lord Oates, asked about grants for small businesses—only those that were already paying rates. Matters like this will be put under urgent consideration. It is my understanding that they will not be restricted, but I will certainly write to him to confirm that, and put a copy in the record.

The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury raised a number of issues. Perhaps the most important and relevant one, given the announcement that has come during this debate, was that of school closures. I do not have any more detail on that, other than on the one area of free school meals. I have been given a statement, which says simply that we will give schools the flexibility to provide meals or vouchers to children eligible for free school meals. Some schools already doing this, and we will reimburse the costs. I hope that that will provide some reassurance.

On the most reverend Primate’s comments regarding small towns and the decline of retail there, they have been hit particularly hard.

I think we all understand that retail has gone through the most extraordinary revolution over the last 15 years. Part of the levelling-up programme and the commitments in our Budget were to try to get out to some of these poor communities and to inject some more energy and infrastructure into them. One of the initiatives which I am personally involved in is encouraging civil servants to move out of London over the next seven to 10 years. This is an enormous opportunity, because we have a staff turnover rate of about 10% to 12%, and indeed it is higher in London, so there is a real opportunity to do this. I am also the Minister for the Government Property estate, so one of the things I have done is to ensure that break clauses are activated on London leases so that we do not have foot-drag by some departments that do not really want to move out of London. However, I can assure your Lordships that this is an important personal commitment because it is a win for everybody, and it will help some of these towns. For example, I live near Yarmouth, which is a classic example of an area of deprivation.

The noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, brought forward the most dramatic proposals today, supported by the noble Lords, Lord Razzall, Lord Bruce, Lord Adonis, and Lord Desai, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett—whether you call it “people’s QE” or “minimum basic income”. These are all dramatic ideas, and I am sure that we will hear a lot more about them over the next days and weeks. We have to acknowledge that already in this country we have moved quite a long way towards a minimum basic income, when you think of the minimum wage and what it was even 10 years ago. Indeed, I would say, to the discredit of my own party, that we objected to the introduction of the minimum wage back in 1997, but I believe it was one of the best things that the Labour Government of the day ever did. We have accelerated the increase of the minimum wage over the last few years. In particular, there will be a 6% increase in April. Therefore, that is the start of the journey towards a minimum basic income. We already have working tax credits and, while I know that universal credit is not loved in this Chamber, it is trying to give that kind of opportunity and safety net to those on lower incomes.

However, we also have to remember that all this has to be paid for, as the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said. We already have the top 1% of earners paying something like 29% of all income tax, and we just have to square the circle. Therefore, while I very much recommend and encourage the debate that the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, suggests, we have to work out how it will work. Maybe, as he suggests, it will be for a few weeks, so that people have that certainty—but, again, one of my other concerns is the hoarding of the cash.