A positive and welcome event this week is the reopening of schools for all pupils. This is super news. Our local schools and colleges have all worked incredibly hard to prepare for this return. The heads, teachers and staff deserve huge thanks. As I have experienced, COVID testing has generally worked well and the pupils are back with face to face contact with their teachers and their friends. Everyone has done their upmost to deliver learning from home but we are now, rightly, returning to the best education setting. I hope that by Easter, it can be demonstrated to those more cautious, that face coverings are no longer needed in the classroom. Speaking to pupils, it’s clear that this is an impediment to learning. We need to be helping pupils to achieve, not putting new obstacles in their way.
When the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, rose to give his first Budget speech last March, nobody could have forecast the sheer sale of economic intervention that we would see over the next twelve months. During the biggest economic emergency we have faced during peacetime, the Government has pumped in over £400 billion to support businesses and families to cope with the devasting COVID pandemic and resultant lockdown.
Delivering his second Budget last week, the Chancellor rightly announced a continuation of this support as we begin the process of reopening our economy. The 100,000 adults and children I represent in the constituency will still need this support whilst lockdown continues. As at the end of January, 6,500 were furloughed. Of those self-employed, 4,400 were claiming the equivalent grant. Almost 3,000 were benefitting from the extra £20 weekly uplift in Universal Credit. The Chancellor has added incentives for businesses to reopen. Many of these, such as keeping VAT at 5% for hospitality, will benefit our local economy given we are reliant on tourism and hospitality.
Whilst restarting and recovering our economy is crucial, the Chancellor was also absolutely correct to level with the British people about the immense and severe impact of the pandemic on our public finances. Indefinite expenditure at current levels is not sustainable and would leave us struggling to retain the confidence of the markets.
This Government financial support has brought a level of borrowing comparable only to that during the two World Wars. A record budget deficit for 2020/21 will dwarf the previous record from the 2008 financial crash.
Our national debt now stands at an eyewatering £2trillion; the equivalent of £30,000 for every man, woman and child in the country. An increase of just one percentage point across all interest rates will add an extra £25billion a year to the Government’s cost of servicing the national debt. There is no justification in paying endless billions of pounds servicing our debts, burdening future generations with this generation’s debt, and diverting investment away from vital areas such as education and infrastructure.
So, with regret, I understand the need for a five-year personal tax allowance freeze, Corporation Tax increases to 25% from 2023 on the most profitable corporations, and other tax raising measures. Public spending will also have to be cut across the board. I’m deeply disappointed that we are reducing our international aid spending. It would also be good to be able to increase pay for those who supported us on the frontline over the last year. In the stark circumstances I have set out, keeping any level of aid funding, and granting any pay rises to NHS staff, where the rest of the public sector will see no increases, is some form of modest achievement.
As we expect the economy to unlock and people to return to work, it’s vital that Parliament reopens fully. Since the March 2020 lockdown, I have been in Parliament virtually every week because I chair a Select Committee. We can still work virtually of course; as I write this I am at home preparing for the first monthly meeting with 15 other Select Committee chairs as we jointly scrutinise the Government’s hosting of the United Nations Climate Change Conference. Through the work I am leading my committee on in Smart Motorways, Transport Infrastructure, Reform of Public Transport after the pandemic, Decarbonising Transport, Rolling out Electric Vehicle infrastructure, Road Pricing and a National Buses Strategy, I hope that I am continuing to hold the Government to account and make positive recommendations for better policy and implementation. Like pupils in the classroom, which regrettably MPs are sometimes compared during PMQs, I will be able to do my job more effectively when Parliament gets back to how it always has been.