Budget Debate

12th March 2020
Alok Sharma speaks on behalf of the Government in the Budget debate.
 

I thank the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) for his opening remarks. I think we can all agree that we need to demonstrate a unity of purpose across the whole House, particularly at this time. As I go through my remarks, I will address some of the points he raised, but I will just say this in candour and with the hand of friendship. When I entered the House in 2010, he had already been here for a number of years. In 2010, the economy was absolutely on its knees. [Interruption.] We had the highest, biggest deficit in peacetime at over 10% of GDP. When George Osborne delivered an emergency Budget, there were siren voices on the Labour Benches—I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was one of them—who said that as a result of those policies we would lose 1 million jobs and the economy would be decimated. That is not what has happened. Ten years on, we have record levels of employment and we are able to make the investments the Chancellor set out yesterday precisely because we took the right decisions in terms of fixing the public finances.

Is the Secretary of State not prepared to concede that within a year of that emergency Budget George Osborne actually had to reverse many of the capital cuts he had made, because of the damage he was doing to the economy?

I do not have to look back. I can look at the present, which is record levels of employment. As I go through my speech, I will highlight some of the Government’s other achievements.

Let me talk a little bit about the Budget. The Budget the Chancellor set out yesterday delivers security today and lays the foundation for prosperity tomorrow. The right hon. Gentleman said that all commentators were somehow against the Budget. That is not the case, as he knows full well. The Federation of Small Businesses called it a “pro-small business Budget”. The CBI said:

“It’s a bold Budget at scale…which will help people and business through tough times.”

The British Chambers of Commerce said:

“There’s much to welcome in this Budget for business communities across the UK.”

This is, of course, a Budget delivered in challenging times. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that point and for supporting many of the measures the Chancellor put forward yesterday. I know that many people are concerned about the impact on investment, cashflow and the future of their businesses as a result of covid-19. The Government, as the House knows, announced a £12 billion package for public services, individuals and businesses whose finances are being affected. Support for businesses includes a £1 billion coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, delivered by the British Business Bank, which is already supporting over £7.2 billion of finance to over 93,000 SMEs.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that there was nothing in the Budget to support our aviation industry? Indeed, air passenger duty was increased as a result of yesterday’s Budget. Many airlines face difficulty. A number have sadly gone out of business in recent weeks and other household names may well go out of business as a result of covid-19. Will he put in a request for air passenger duty to be waived for six months? Otherwise we could see a number of British airline brands go under as a result. They are deeply suffering.

I will talk about the discussions I have had with business groups and business representatives, including those from the aviation sector. The Chancellor was very clear yesterday that this is a start. We will keep the situation under constant review and where support is required, we will look to see what we are able to provide.

Returning to the business interruption loan scheme, this is a temporary scheme that will help small businesses to access much needed finance. Yesterday, the Chancellor also announced £2.2 billion of support for about 700,000 businesses which are in receipt of small business rate relief or rural business rate relief. We want to ensure that every single eligible business gets their £3,000 at the earliest opportunity. We will work with local authorities to make sure that that happens. We will also refund businesses with fewer than 250 employees which pay qualifying statutory sick pay to people who are absent from work due to self-isolating for up to two weeks. We are providing vital tax relief, temporarily abolishing business rates for retailers whose premises have a rateable value of less than £51,000 and expanding the discount to include leisure and hospitality businesses. From creating jobs to supporting communities, small businesses are absolutely the backbone of our economy and this Government will always stand by them.

Yesterday, my Ministry colleagues and I heard from the Bank of England’s chief economist, who stressed the vital action that the Bank is taking to help banks to provide additional credit to businesses. Banks must absolutely be part of the solution and we are already seeing signs of that. Earlier this week, NatWest and Lloyds launched funds of £5 billion and £2 billion respectively for small and medium-sized enterprises directly affected by the impact of covid-19. NatWest also pledged to defer customers’ mortgage and loan repayments for three months. I want to see more lenders stepping forward and supporting our businesses through these challenging times.

As Business Secretary, I regularly speak to the business community, and in the light of covid-19, I have ramped up that engagement. Last night, I spoke with business groups and trade associations, including those from the aviation sector, to discuss the measures in the Budget and to reassure them of the Government’s commitment to support them. As I said, we will keep our response under review as the situation develops, but let me be very clear: this Government will always be on the side of business, entrepreneurs and innovators, because they pay the taxes that fund our brilliant public services.

Although I started my remarks by discussing our short-term measures to fight covid-19, it is worth reflecting what Conservatives in Government have achieved with the economy since 2010—I know that the shadow Chancellor will want to hear this. Employment is at a record high. The unemployment rate is at its lowest since the 1970s. A record number of women and a record number of people from ethnic minority backgrounds are in work. Over 1 million more people with health conditions and disabilities are in work now than five years ago, and youth unemployment has almost halved since 2010. Employment is higher in every nation and region of the United Kingdom than in 2010.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the acid test of how productive an economy is and how well it is doing is its ability to attract investment from global investors who could deploy capital anywhere in the world? In that context, does he agree that it is a sign of success that the United Kingdom attracts more direct investment than France and Germany combined?

My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. He has had a very successful business career and knows all about attracting inward investment, and he is absolutely right: the UK has been, and will continue to be, a beacon under this Government for foreign inward investment.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned 2010. I had a look back at the Red Book from 2010, which warned that if nothing had been done and the previous Government’s policies had carried on, then by 2014-15, we would get debt still rising up to 74.4% of GDP. What actually happened was that in 2014-15, debt carried on rising up to over 80% of GDP. Was the Chancellor not right yesterday to have completely repudiated previous Tory policy?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have a huge amount of respect for him—we have had very good discussions in other roles that I have had. He will know that in 2010, when the Conservatives took over in Government, we were on the brink—the economic precipice—and I do not think that, in private, he would disagree with that. We also had a record deficit, and that is now down to less than 2%. The shadow Chancellor talked about the impact on real people. What I am laying out is the precise impact that the Government’s policies have had on real people by improving their employment prospects and their earnings.

The absolute imperative was to eradicate the deficit by 2015. Today, the right hon. Gentleman is boasting that it is down to 2% five years after that.

I am a modest man. I do not like to boast—I just like to state facts, and the fact is that we have record levels of employment in our country.

Let us talk about what has happened for businesses. Since 2010, we have seen corporation tax come down by 9% to be the lowest in the G20. Business registrations are up by over 60%, with nearly 150,000 more firms registered in 2010. Wages growth has been outpacing inflation for 23 consecutive months. The UK is in the top 10 countries in the World Bank’s ranking for ease of doing business and in the top five of the Global Innovation Index. [Interruption.] I do not know—maybe the shadow Chancellor finds that funny, but I do not. I think it is something that we should be very proud of in this country.

I certainly am delighted to be part of the most business-friendly Government ever, and of course, we want to go even further. We are extending the British Business Bank’s start-up loan scheme for a further year, supporting up to 10,000 loans. We are providing another £200 million for life sciences and more funding for growth hubs. In short, we are on the way to making the United Kingdom the best place in the world to start and grow a business.

Of course, the best businesses need the best ideas. Research and development drives up productivity, which leads to high-value, high-wage employment and an increase in exports. That is why I am delighted, as I know Government Members are, that we are committing to spend £22 billion a year on research and development by 2024-25. This is the fastest and largest increase in Government R&D spend ever and there is a multiplier effect, for every pound of public R&D spend delivers around £7 of economic benefit for the country as a whole.

Britain is home to four of the world’s top 10 universities. We are a world-leading nation when it comes to winning Nobel prizes. The UK has produced around 14% of the world’s most impactful research. UK researchers and businesses are cutting carbon emissions, curing genetic diseases and pushing the frontiers of artificial intelligence. Ours is a country that gave the world penicillin, the steam railway and the worldwide web, and we are turbo-charging this tradition of invention and discovery by establishing a brand-new research funding agency, letting researchers pursue high-risk, high-reward projects. We are betting big on Britain’s pioneers and problem solvers as they seek to transform every aspect of our lives, from the journeys we make to the medicines we take.

We have already seen how public R&D funding can create centres of excellence right across the United Kingdom. In Coventry, the UK Battery Industrialisation Centre will soon be developing new ways of scaling up factory production for electric vehicles. In Manchester, the Graphene Engineering Innovation Centre is helping to make cutting-edge composites for affordable electric vehicles. In Harwell near Oxford, our Satellite Applications Catapult is working on applications to remove space debris from orbit. In Scotland, we are backing a world first medicines manufacturing innovation centre, which will help new drugs to reach patients faster. In Northern Ireland, our Digital Catapult is providing mentoring and advice to help cyber-security firms to scale up and succeed. In Wales, we are backing the first compound semiconductor cluster anywhere in the world—a technology that could underpin everything from wearable health sensors to autonomous vehicles in the years ahead.

I am determined that as the UK forges a path as a science superpower we use that opportunity to level up centres of excellence across our whole country. As part of that, my Department, with the Treasury, is committing to creating a northern campus, but I want to be clear that levelling up and having staff across the country has always been part of my Department’s agenda. Some 84% of its partner organisations are already based outside London, while BEIS itself already has sites across the UK, including in Aberdeen, Birmingham and Cardiff.

In the coming years, we will need to make the most of ideas, innovations and solutions from each and every corner of our United Kingdom. The shadow Chancellor will agree that nowhere is that more true than in tackling climate change. Part of my Department’s mission is to deliver clean energy and to lead on the path to net zero emissions by 2050. Since 2010, as a result of the actions we have taken, the United Kingdom has cut its carbon dioxide emissions by around 30%. Driven by investment in renewables, 99% of the UK’s solar photovoltaic capacity has been deployed since 2010. Today, the UK has more installed offshore wind capacity than any other country in the world.

Our contracts for difference auctions have helped to reduce the price of offshore wind by two thirds in the last five years. The UK already has more than 460,000 jobs in the low-carbon sector spread right across our country. From Siemens in Hull to MHI Vestas on the Isle of Wight, we have seen hundreds of new jobs making turbine blades, and last year Ørsted launched the world’s largest offshore wind operations and maintenance facility in Grimsby.

In yesterday’s Budget, the Chancellor announced that he would more than double R&D spend in the energy innovation programme. The Budget backed nuclear fusion to develop and build the world’s first commercially viable fusion power plant by 2040. It backed low-emission vehicles, including with funds to support the roll-out of a fast charging network for electric vehicles, and it will fund a new heat network scheme and put £800 million behind two or more carbon capture and storage clusters, one by the mid-2020s and a second by 2030. [Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) chuntering, if I may call it that—I do not mean to be rude—from a sedentary position. I hope he will appreciate that carbon capture and storage will have to be part of the mix going forward, which is why we are investing almost £1 billion in it.

The Humber is one of the areas that have been put forward for the carbon capture pilot. As the Humber is the highest emitter of carbon in the United Kingdom, we believe that we should be the first to enjoy some of that £800 million. I wonder if the Secretary of State might want to back the Humber in that proposal.

In the spirit of bipartisan friendship, I would be very happy to sit down and talk with the hon. Member about her proposals. I make no promises at that Dispatch Box, but, as I hope colleagues will know across the House, I am always happy to talk to colleagues and get their input.

Thanks to the industries I discussed earlier, we aim to have up to 2 million green jobs in our economy by 2030. The UK economy has grown by 75% since 1990. At the same time, we have cut emissions by 43%. We have demonstrated that green growth is possible. We have the opportunity to turn climate change into a green growth opportunity for the global economy. As the shadow Chancellor noted, this November, COP26, the UN climate conference, which will be the biggest summit ever organised by the UK, will take place here. Whether globally we live in the south or the north, the east or the west, we share one life-giving but fragile planet. All our futures are indeed intrinsically linked. COP26 can be where the world comes together to ramp up momentum towards a zero carbon economy. It can send out a message of ambition and hope that decarbonisation is the future, with huge opportunities for those who are willing to act now.

In conclusion, the Budget delivers for our businesses, innovators and entrepreneurs. It is a Budget to power pioneers and problem solvers right across our country. We are a one nation Government committed to levelling up investment, growth and opportunity across the whole of our United Kingdom, and I commend the Budget to the House.

Hansard

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