13 April 2021
Peter Aldous backs the Government’s Finance Bill as a framework for meeting the economic challenges resulting from the covid pandemic

Peter Aldous welcomes the Bill in general, but calls on the Government to look more closely at some of the detail, specifically the need to retain and reinvigorate enterprise zones, such as the one serving Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth, clarification as to why no places in Suffolk and Waveney have been given priority in the Levelling Up Fund and the UK Community Renewal Fund and the need for a strategic approach to welfare support which should include long-term funding for local welfare assistance.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con) [V]

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd).

In considering the provisions in the Budget presented by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 3 March and the ensuing Finance Bill, it must be borne in mind that they are being delivered against a backdrop of wholly unprecedented economic circumstances. The global economy has suffered a shock that has not been seen for almost 100 years. Set in that context, my right hon. Friend has generally struck the right balance in supporting people and businesses through the crisis, beginning the task of fixing the public finances and laying the foundation for an investment-led green recovery.

There are some very welcome initiatives: the extension of furlough to the end of September; two further grants for the self-employed, with an additional 600,000 people eligible; the restart grants; extending the VAT cut to 5% for a further six months, before tapering for another six; the extension of the business rates holiday for three months, before tapering for nine; the increase in corporation tax, but with a small profits rate retained at the existing level; the super deduction on capital investment; and the steps to promote pension fund investment in infrastructure.

From a Suffolk and Waveney perspective, the headlines in the Budget and the Bill are the Felixstowe freeport and the Lowestoft towns fund deal. These can be a catalyst for private sector investment. For the latter, where I sit on the place board, it is estimated that the £24.9 million of public funding will leverage in £350 million-worth of private sector investment. Previously, I was doubtful about freeports, concerned that they move business around, displacing projects rather than attracting additional investment. However, taking into account the unprecedented challenges of covid and the opportunities of Brexit, it is necessary to pursue policies that can help to attract footloose global investment, although, as we heard, the provisions of the policy will need to be looked at very closely.

A concern I do have is that the focus on freeports could lead to the abandoning of enterprise zones, introduced very successfully by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) in 2012. The Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth enterprise zone has worked very well. Its provisions need some changes, so that it is properly aligned with the exciting opportunities emerging in the maritime and port sectors. It is important that that and other enterprise zones continue.

The Finance Bill paves the way for the levelling-up fund and the UK community renewal fund. There are elements in the small print that cause me concern. With the former, the Lowestoft and Waveney area, where there are significant areas of poverty, is in the priority 2 category, while with the latter there are no priority places in Suffolk, yet there are in the surrounding very similar counties of Norfolk, Essex and Cambridgeshire. This appears illogical and not properly thought through. I am writing to the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government seeking clarification of the selection criteria.

Covid has hit hard the poorest in society. It was thus right that a year ago the Government moved quickly to introduce the £20 uplift to universal credit and to provide unprecedented levels of funding to local government for welfare support. I welcome the extension of the universal credit uplift to the end of September and the one-off payment of £500 to those receiving working tax credit. However, I am concerned that the impact of covid on the most disadvantaged will extend beyond the end of the summer and could well be heightened at the time that furloughing is scheduled to end.

The Government have put in place some very good initiatives, such as the kickstart scheme, the restart scheme and the lifetime skills guarantee, but there needs to be a strategic approach to providing people with a pathway out of poverty and there is a worry that some important stepping stones are missing. I urge my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to work closely with his Cabinet colleague and my constituency neighbour, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), to ensure that we have a welfare support system that is fit for the task ahead. This should incorporate proper long-term funding for local welfare assistance and synchronisation with the implementation of the national food strategy, and it should ensure that those on legacy benefits are not left behind.

In conclusion, the Bill provides the framework for meeting the biggest economic challenge in our lifetime, but there is a need to look more closely at some of the detail, whether the criteria for bidding to economic regeneration funds or the need for a strategic approach to welfare support. I hope that the Government will do that in the weeks ahead.