Renovations at Downing Street
Downing Street is an historic working complex containing several buildings and two ministerial residences. The Government is legally required to maintain Downing Street buildings to standards appropriate to their Grade I and Grade II listed status. As I am sure you can imagine, their status as well as security and other factors, can lead to a significantly increased cost for maintenance and repairs.
Prime Ministers across successive governments have been provided with an allowance of up to £30,000 a year to contribute to the maintenance and furnishing of residency in the Downing Street estate. The cost of the wider refurbishment you mention has been met by the Prime Minister personally.
At all times, the Government and Ministers must act in accordance with the appropriate codes of conduct. There are now three separate inquiries into this matter, including by the Electoral Commission, and we must await the outcome of their findings. Subject to advice from the new Independent Adviser on Ministerial Interests, Lord Geidt, the Prime Minister will be making any necessary declaration in line with the requirements of the Ministerial Code.
The overriding aim throughout has been to reduce the need for taxpayers’ money to fund the works and maintain a listed building owned by the nation. Matters concerning current works to the Downing Street estate, including residences, more broadly are covered in the Cabinet Office annual report and accounts.
Public Sector Pay-Rises: NHS Staff
I believe that the passion, commitment, and specialist knowledge of our NHS staff is part of what makes our NHS so special. In particular, I recognise the sacrifice, commitment and dedication of our NHS workers over the past year. I believe it is important to honour this, but I know that pandemic has had real consequences on public finances which cannot be ignored.
I have been assured that what the Government has tried to do with its recommendation for a 1 per cent pay rise for NHS wage bill is to give NHS staff as much as it can at the present time. It is also worth seeing this in the broader context - all but the lowest paid workers across the public sector have had their pay frozen for 2021/22. Across the private sector, many workers have suffered really substantial pay cuts this year. All the job losses arising from the pandemic are among private sector workers. Pay across the public sector on average is already above pay in the private sector, and that is before taking into account pension provision.
In addition, we should not forget that over one million NHS staff also continue to benefit from multi-year pay deals agreed with trade unions, including a pay rise of over 12 per cent for newly qualified nurses, with the average nurse pay now £34,000 per year, and that junior doctors' pay has been increased by 8.2 per cent.
I know that the Independent Pay Review Bodies will make recommendations in late Spring, when they will be considered by the Government. It is right that the Government does not pre-empt these recommendations. I also welcome the investment that the Government has already made in the NHS workforce, including £513m in professional development and increased recruitment, £30m on staff mental health support including wellbeing hubs and occupational health support, and the new bursary programme giving at least £5,000 each year to new nursing, midwifery, and Allied Health professional students.
I will, of course, continue to monitor this issue closely.
Mandatory Delivery Charges: Online Deliveries
I note there have been some media reports that consideration is being given to introducing delivery charges for online orders, and I do appreciate your concerns about this as a potential policy.
If such a policy were to be formally brought forward, I would of course look into it very carefully, and in doing so take into account the points you raise.
What is clear is that more broadly we need to reduce congestion and vehicle emissions in towns and cities across the country in order to improve air quality, and so that the UK can meet its ambitious target of reaching net zero by 2050. I understand that my Ministerial colleagues work closely with experts as they consider how best to go about achieving this.
I am very sympathetic to all couples who had their wedding plans derailed last year due to the pandemic. I can only imagine the expense, frustration and difficulty postponing and rearranging nuptials must be.
I am pleased that the Prime Minister has set out clear goals for weddings in his roadmap out of lockdown. At each step, restrictions on weddings will be loosened until the summer, where the hope is that weddings will finally be able to go ahead as normal and with no limits on number of guests.
Step 1: no earlier than 8th March - weddings continue to be limited to six attendees
Step 2: no earlier than 12th April - weddings of up to 15 people are allowed.
Step 3: no earlier than 17th May - weddings of up to 30 people are allowed, coinciding with groups of 30 being able to gather outdoors.
Step 4: no earlier than 21st June - weddings return to normal, with no limit on attendees.
I hope this has provided you with some reassurance that the Government has a plan when it comes to allowing weddings and that it hopefully won’t be much longer until you are able to tie the knot.
I share the concern about the future of pubs and the hardship caused by the coronavirus outbreak. It is clear the economic effects of fighting the virus last longer for businesses than the duration of any given restrictions, and we need to go further with our support.
I welcome the Prime Minister's announcement on the roadmap to reopening our country, which has endured difficult but necessary restrictions to save lives. I know just how eager pubs are to reopen and many will be disappointed that the easing of restrictions on hospitality will take place no sooner than April.
It is nonetheless encouraging that pubs will be able to reopen outdoor table service, with no requirements for a meal to be served with alcohol or a curfew in place. Under Step 3, which is expected to begin on 17 May, indoor hospitality can once again take place as well. In June, all restrictions on social distancing are scheduled to be removed. This cautious approach provides businesses with a sense of certainty for lifting restrictions over the spring months.
One-off top-up grants were previously announced, worth up to £9,000 per property, to help businesses through to the spring. For those businesses not eligible for the grants, a £594 million discretionary fund is being made available by the Government as a matter of urgency. The new one-off grants come in addition to billions of pounds of existing business support, including grants worth up to £3,000 for closed businesses, and up to £2,100 per month for impacted businesses once they reopen.
In addition, to protect jobs, the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been extended until April in response to restrictions, and to give people and businesses across the whole United Kingdom the certainty they need. Under the extension, the Government will pay 80 per cent of wages up to a cap of £2,500, with employers paying employer National Insurance Contributions and pension contributions only for the hours the employee does not work. Flexible furloughing will be allowed in addition to full-time furloughing.
I am pleased that a robust package of support has been introduced since the start of the pandemic. No pub or other business in the hospitality sector will be required to pay business rates in 2020-21. HMRC has made it easier to claim back the duty on any beer thrown away as a result of pub closures. I also welcome that the temporary reduction of VAT to 5 per cent has been extended by a further three months to the end of March 2021. Additionally, the Chancellor will defer VAT repayments through a new scheme until March 2022.
I appreciate that there have been calls for a specific additional support package for pubs. I am very hopeful that the existing support provided will be enough, but evidence continues to be collected on the impact of the pandemic on the hospitality sector generally, and on pubs specifically, and I will keep this under review. Should the need arise, I will press Ministers to step in with further support for our pubs.
Unpaid Carers & Government Support
I recognise the valuable contribution made by carers of all kinds - residential, domiciliary, paid, unpaid - many of whom spend a significant proportion of their life providing support to family members, friends and neighbours. I totally agree that carers must receive the right support to help them carry out their caring roles. A tenth of adults in the UK provide unpaid care for a friend or family member, and these people should be supported in the invaluable work they do.
I know that the Government is committed to supporting the 5.4 million unpaid carers over the winter months. Funding has recently been extended to Carers UK’s support phone line until March 2021 to cover the winter period, and the Department for Health and Social Care is also providing free flu vaccines for unpaid carers. In addition, the Department for Education has launched the ‘See, Hear, Respond’ service in partnership with Barnardos to support young carers through this challenging time. I am assured that cross-departmental work is ongoing to scope further support options for young carers.
Existing support will remain available including the Carer’s Allowance, as well as through NHS volunteers who can provide support by going shopping or collecting prescriptions. Ministers have committed to regularly updating and bolstering the online guidance for unpaid carers, and I will continue to monitor progress in this area, speaking up for unpaid carers in Parliament.
Cut Beer & Alcohol Duty - Spring Budget 2021
I fully understand how difficult the last year has been for pubs and, as pillars of the community, I am supportive of all the measures the Government has put in place so far to assist them and ensure they survive during this tricky period, including the decision made in the Spring 2021 Budget to freeze beer and alcohol duty.
I also welcome the temporary cut to VAT from 20 per cent to 5 per cent for all food and non-alcoholic drinks, which initially applied from 15 July 2020 to 12 January 2021, but has been extended to 31 March 2021. This will continue to support restaurants, pubs, bars, cafés and similar premises across the UK. The Eat Out to Help Out scheme has supported thousands of businesses and help protect the jobs of over a million employees. Pubs, restaurants and others that participated will be fully reimbursed for the discount by the Government.
In 2013, the Government took the decision to end the beer duty escalator, and beer duty has been frozen or cut several times since then. Duty on spirits has been frozen over the past two years. As a result of these changes, a typical pint is cheaper than it would have been had these measures not been introduced. I share your concern about the future of pubs and the hardship caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The steps taken by HMRC to make it easier to claim back the duty on any beer thrown away as a result of pub closures were a timely and sensible intervention.
I welcomed the announcement that for only the second time in 20 years every alcohol duty has been frozen, meaning that this freeze covers duty on spirits, beer, wine, and cider.
I want to see the Government continue to support pubs and keep costs down for consumers. Any decision to modify alcohol duty in the future is a matter for the Treasury. I have ensured my colleagues are aware of the points you raise and reminded them of the importance of local pubs in our communities. There is a broad recognition of the need to reform the current duty system to support the alcoholic drinks and pubs sector in the longer term, and on 1 October, a call for evidence for reform of Alcohol Duty was published.
I look forward to doing my own personal bit to support the pubs of South Camrbridgeshire when Coronavirus restrictions allow.
Supporting Shopping Local
It is interesting to read that some companies in our constituency have experienced a shift towards customers buying products from local businesses during the pandemic. I share your enthusiasm for buying products or services that are locally sourced. It is no exaggeration to say that small businesses power our economy and our communities.
This pandemic has seen many of our small businesses, which make up 99 per cent of all UK businesses, face significant challenges. I am pleased that the Government has taken action in the form of the support schemes, such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the Bounce Back Loan Scheme, to enable these businesses to stay afloat and to reopen. Pubs, shops, and hotels will pay no business rates for 12 months; eligible businesses which have legally been required to close will receive one-off grants of up to £9,000; eligible closed businesses also receive monthly grants of up to £3,000; and businesses that cannot pay their rent because of coronavirus will be protected from eviction.
I note that the Keep it Local campaign organised by the National Office Products hopes to change buying habits by building on the trend they have identified and by demanding further support from the Government which they hope would thereby help to grow local economies.
While in principle I support this, as I would love to see more businesses thriving in our constituency, I do not think the Government should interfere with consumer buying habits but let them develop organically. Of course, the Government will do all it can to continue to support small and local businesses and put them in the best possible position to thrive. I know that the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government is acutely aware of the need to support businesses trading on the High Street and I welcome the £3.6 billion Towns Fund which will support the regeneration of high streets, town centres and local economies.
The State Pension - End The Frozen Pension Campaign
I have long thought this situation is anomalous and unfair for those living abroad and their state pension, and will push for a change.
The UK State Pension is payable worldwide and is uprated abroad where there is a legal requirement to do so. In most overseas countries, however, there is no agreement with the UK for securing the social security rights of people moving between the two countries. As a result, pensioners who move to these countries still receive the State Pension but do not have their payments uprated as UK residents do. The Department for Work and Pensions endeavours to make this clear to those thinking of moving abroad and publishes guidance on its website.
Although the current policy on the State Pension overseas is the long-standing and unchanged position of successive Governments, I am aware of the report which the APPG on Frozen British Pensions has produced and will make sure to read its findings and recommendations, and bring to the attention of ministers.
Financial Support for Independent Cinemas
I recognise the immense value that entertainment venues, such as cinemas, bring to local communities. They provide much needed social interaction for people across all ages, so it is regrettable that the current national lockdown prohibits them from opening. I am determined that as many as possible are able to reopen their doors when the pandemic is passed.
Since the start of the pandemic, a broad range of support has been made available to the hospitality and leisure sectors, including for cinemas. This includes a one-year business rates holiday worth over £10 billion as well as a temporary reduction to VAT. I also warmly welcome the fact that 42 cinemas from across England have received a cash boost worth £650,000 from the £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund in the first awards made by the British Film Institute. This is the first tranche of money from the £30 million fund for independent cinemas.
I am also delighted with the Chancellor's recent announcement that £4.6billion has been made available in new lockdown grants to support businesses and protect jobs. Businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors are to receive a one off grant worth up to £9,000 per property to help them through to the Spring. Furthermore, a £594million discretionary fund has been made available to support other impacted businesses. This comes in addition to £1.1billion further discretionary grant funding for Local Authorities, as well as Local Restrictions Support Grants worth up to £3,000 a month.
Financial Support for Pubs
No one wants to see further restrictions and I understand that many pub landlords have concerns about the new lockdown measures. However, in light of the rapid spread of the virus across the country and the current transmission rates, these measures are regrettably necessary to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.
The closure of pubs has been difficult to bear, and the Government is rightly providing significant support for hospitality businesses. It is reassuring that the Chancellor has unveiled further economic support for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses, including pubs, in light of the new lockdown restrictions. New one-off top-up grants have been announced, worth up to £9,000 per property, to help businesses through to the spring.
For those businesses not eligible for the grants, a £594 million discretionary fund is being made available by the Government as a matter of urgency. The new one-off grants come in addition to billions of pounds of existing business support, including grants worth up to £3,000 for closed businesses, and up to £2,100 per month for impacted businesses once they reopen.
I understand that pubs have been subject to debilitating restrictions for a long time, and I hear requests for a longer-term sector-specific package of support. While I take account of your concerns, and will bear them in mind, I welcome that pubs have had access to unprecedented levels of support throughout the pandemic. Ministers have been forthcoming in unveiling support grants, business rates relief, Government-backed loans and access to schemes such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. As a package, these measures worked to support publicans and I know that Ministers will continue to respond to developments as they happen.
I welcome that the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme has been extended until April in response to new national restrictions, and to give people and businesses across the whole United Kingdom the certainty they need over what will be a difficult winter. Under the extension, the Government will pay 80 per cent of wages up to a cap of £2,500, with employers paying employer National Insurance Contributions and pension contributions only for the hours the employee does not work. Flexible furloughing will be allowed in addition to full-time furloughing.
Despite this, I am glad that evidence continues to be collected on the impact of the pandemic on the hospitality sector and we must look forward to the easing of restrictions as soon as possible. South Cambridgeshire is home to some excellent pubs, and it would be devastating to lose them. In a lot of cases, pubs are a pillar of the community and I have been making representations to Ministers at every opportunity for continued support for this sector.
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