Support for People and Businesses in Wales: Covid-19 — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:00 pm on 21st October 2020.

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Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development) 3:00 pm, 21st October 2020

It is pleasure to speak in this debate under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Evans on securing it.

I, too, believe that the decision that the Welsh Government have taken is absolutely right and necessary to bring the virus under control and to provide certainty to many of the businesses and organisations in my constituency that are deeply worried about the prospect of open-ended periods of restrictions that will cause them much more difficulty than a defined, albeit very difficult, period of restrictions. Many of them are telling me that the confusion, particularly from the Prime Minister, that has been reported in the UK media filters through into Wales and depresses demand and the willingness of people to go out and use local hospitality, for example. It is clear that, with the virus rising in the way that it is, and with the potential impact on the NHS and the potential for even stricter measures to be put into place, this is the right decision at the right time.

It is disappointing that the UK Prime Minister has not taken the same approach despite calls for him to do so. There has been a stark contrast in approach between that taken by Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, and Ministers in Wales, and what we have seen from the Prime Minister. I have similar stories of helpful engagements with the Economy Minister, Ken Skates, when I have brought him concerns on behalf of individual businesses and sectors. However, I will be generous to the Minister and the Secretary of State, who is not with us today, because of the support that they have provided in a number of cases, particularly in the case of the steel industry in my community. Unfortunately, it requires the whole UK Government to be working in concert, and such support has not been forthcoming in a number of other areas. That is disappointing. However, I acknowledge the support the Minister has personally provided on a number of issues, and it is right to acknowledge that.

We have the most comprehensive, nuanced and generous package of financial support, beyond the support from the UK Government, and it has protected 100,000 jobs in Wales. The package of support that was announced at the same time as the proposed measures is crucial in bringing together clarity on public health restrictions with economic support and making sure that the support gets through to businesses. Ken Skates has announced a £300 million support package for businesses and, although it contains multiple aspects, I should just mention that it provides individual payments to those who, for example, benefit from small business rate relief and—of particular concern to my constituency—those small and medium-sized enterprises in the leisure and hospitality sectors that receive individualised payments.

I wish to raise a few specific issues. I have already mentioned the wider implications of confusion. Despite the welcome BBC Wales broadcasts and coverage of statements from the First Minister, the Economy Minister and other Ministers, much of the media reporting on what is happening in England and on the chaos and confusion that we have seen in recent days filters across into Wales. Many businesses and individuals regularly come to me to talk about the tiers and the decisions that have been taken for England. I have raised that point since the start of the crisis, and I know that the Secretary of State for Wales has made attempts to try to be clearer, but that is not often matched by the Prime Minister and others getting up at UK Government press conferences to put information out there. That causes huge confusion not only for businesses and individuals along the border but for others who pick up news from England. There needs to be a real step towards greater clarity on the decisions—whether people agree with them or not—that have been made and why they have been taken. Anything that the Minister and the Secretary of State for Wales can do to help provide clarity, even if there are differences and disagreements, would be helpful. The decisions are taken in Wales, and businesses should know that there is that certainty and clarity about what is happening.

I have raised this many times, but I want to raise again the situation facing many freelancers and those in the excluded groups who have fallen through the gaps in different programmes and packages. Again, I want to praise the Welsh Government for the approach they have taken, particularly on freelancers working in the arts and creative industries, in setting up a freelancer fund. Individuals are not able to benefit in the same way from the large sums that the Chancellor keeps trumpeting as having been given to the arts and creative industries, but the freelancer fund is of course welcome. That package supports many venues and arts and creative businesses in my constituency, but individuals—often the lifeblood of our creative industries—are not eligible in England, although they are Wales, but the demand is huge. If evidence is needed about the hurt and pain going on out there, one has only to look at how quickly people have applied to the freelancer fund scheme in Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan in recent days. There have already been two phases, and I am arguing for a third. Many people are struggling and are absolutely desperate for payments to help get them through the next few months. The problem is not related to the lockdown that starts on Friday; it has been going on for months, and we have heard again and again from those who have fallen through the gaps.

I also want to raise the issue of the bureaucracy that businesses face and the fact that the Chancellor has not responded to the very reasonable request from the First Minister to bring forward the job support scheme package. Businesses now have to apply for the furlough scheme at its tail end and then apply for the job support scheme. I know there is a difference in approach and there are different views, and I know that politics is involved, but I am talking about plain common sense for businesses. It would have made a lot more sense for the Chancellor to have brought the scheme forward. If businesses have to continue to apply for the two separate schemes, I urge the Minister to ask his ministerial colleagues to bring forward the funding for the tail end of the furlough scheme as quickly as possible, because we all know that, for many businesses, cash is king. Many are really struggling with their cash flow, and they need the money as soon as possible.

I want to raise a related issue. I am being contacted by many constituents and others facing delays at the UK Government-run testing sites in Cardiff. I have raised the issue with the Department of Health and Social Care. The site is run as part of the Lighthouse lab system. I have had multiple cases come in over the past few weeks of people not getting tests and then having to self-isolate. They are unable to go to work, which is causing financial strain and worry for them, their families and the businesses that they work for. I have raised the matter with the DHSC Parliamentary Private Secretary and others. I urge the Minister to look into that specific case because it relates to the UK Government-run site, not the Welsh Government.

We have seen a methodical, measured, science-led and consultative approach from the Welsh First Minister, our Economy Minister and others in these very difficult circumstances. I will continue to stand available to support all of my businesses and all those who are struggling at the current time. I will continue to make sure they get the right information and access to support. I hope that we see a more measured, methodical, clear and consultative approach from the UK Government going forward. We are going to get through this only if everybody works together and if we take some of the politics out of it. We need to support our residents and our businesses and not make the cheap jibes that we have heard in recent days from the leader of the Welsh Conservatives and their health spokesperson, Andrew RT Davies. It is not helpful, it is deeply damaging, and it is not in line with the facts on the ground.