Levelling-up Agenda — [Mrs Maria Miller in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:38 pm on 15th June 2021.

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Photo of James Murray James Murray Shadow Financial Secretary (Treasury) 3:38 pm, 15th June 2021

It is a pleasure to speak in a debate that you are chairing, Sir Edward. I congratulate Bob Seely on securing this debate. In his opening remarks, we heard about the very full set of interventions that he believes are needed to fix challenges in his constituency, including jobs, transport, education, housing, long-term economic development and so on.

The hon. Gentleman rightly highlighted the decade of under-investment and the impact that that has had. I know he said that he would not speak later in the debate, but I wanted to ask him who he thinks is responsible for that decade of under-investment and whether he can see in this room a Minister from the party that has been in charge for the past 11 years—because meeting those challenges will need a level of sustained investment in devolution that goes well beyond the one pot of money that is currently on offer in the form of the levelling-up fund. One pot of money will not undo the 11 years of real-terms cuts to public services, stagnating real wages and inadequate investment in the future. One pot of money will not change our country when decisions will still be taken in Westminster by Conservative Ministers, rather than democratically in our communities by locally elected politicians.

As my hon. Friends have set out, far more comprehensive change is needed. My hon. Friend Stephanie Peacock explained how local government must be in the driving seat and have the resources it needs, and my hon. Friend Emma Hardy set out the importance of having real determination to invest in the future of all people in this country. It is also telling that as we engage in this debate, my hon. Friends the Members for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) and for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) are in the main Chamber right now, pressing the Chancellor and the Treasury to come clean on why they blocked the comprehensive plans put forward by Sir Kevan Collins, the Prime Minister’s appointment as education recovery commissioner. The truth is that the Government’s decisions on education recovery are very far from achieving anything that looks like levelling up.

When the chips are down—and after months of school closures, the chips are very much down for the children of this country—the choices that Governments make betray the reality behind the rhetoric. We are in no doubt that the Government have chosen to betray a generation. Their expert commissioner set out plans that matched the scale of the challenge, focusing on extending the school day, improving teaching and targeted tutoring. In February the Prime Minister promised that no child will be left behind, and Sir Kevan’s proposals sought to make that a lived reality for our children in the years ahead. Drawing on research from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the proposals were informed by the knowledge that urgent, sustained and multi-year expenditure on children’s educational recovery has the biggest impact on those who are furthest behind.

That would indeed have been levelling up. Instead, the plans that have been announced are but a truly pale shadow of the programme we need. The money announced is a tiny proportion of the money invested for the same purpose in the Netherlands and the United States, and I and my colleagues refuse to believe that Dutch and American children are five or 10 times more deserving of sustained Government support than British children.

As the Financial Secretary is due to speak shortly, I want to pick up briefly on a discussion that he and I had yesterday in the main Chamber relating to the G7 communiqué, which Mrs Miller mentioned and which I believe is also relevant to this debate. A key part of any levelling-up agenda for our country must include the Government doing all they can to create a level playing field for British businesses that pay their fair share of tax, by preventing them from being undercut by a few large multinationals that do not.

I asked the Minister and his colleague three times yesterday to explain why the UK Government’s position has been to push for a global minimum corporate tax rate of 15% rather than to back the ambitious 21% proposed by President Biden. The Minister said it was

“completely inappropriate for a Minister to comment”.—[Official Report, 14 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 50.]

However, the Exchequer Secretary, who I think spoke after the Minister had left the main Chamber, seemed quite happy to defend the Government’s backing of 15%. She said that it was settled on because it would leave

“appropriate room for countries to use corporation tax as a lever”.—[Official Report, 14 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 70.]

There we have it: an admission that the UK Government supported a lower rate thanks to a desire to keep alive the possibility of a future race to the bottom.

This is a once-in-a generation opportunity for an ambitious global deal to prevent large multinationals from avoiding paying their fair share of tax, but our Government are letting it slip away. That is a shocking failure. Had they supported an ambitious 21% deal, that would have brought in an extra £131 million a week for public services in this country, while preventing a few large multinationals from undercutting British businesses that pay their fair share of tax. That would have been levelling up.

Lastly, I want to ask Conservative Members why they think this country needs levelling up. It has been 11 years since a Labour Prime Minister left Downing Street, and 11 years since a Labour Budget spread power, income and opportunity across the country. For 11 long years, spending decisions in this country have been under the control of the Conservative party, leaders chosen by Conservative Members, and Conservative Chancellors.