Rishi Sunak has vowed to help businesses through the cost-of-living crisis as he launches a scheme aimed at small firms that want to boost their technology.
In an exclusive interview with the Daily Mail, the Chancellor said he was ‘looking at lots of things’ to support companies and households as they battle with the soaring cost of energy.
Data released this week showed inflation hitting a 30-year high, and Sunak admitted that shortages of staff and rocketing prices were causing real issues for families and business owners around the country.
In an exclusive interview, Chancellor Rishi Sunak said he was ‘looking at lots of things’ to support companies and households as they battle with the soaring cost of energy
But he said he was ‘cognisant of the challenges’, and promised the Treasury was throwing ‘a boatload of cash’ at new initiatives designed to help companies find staff, ramp up their growth and give workers the chance to retrain in more lucrative industries.
Sunak’s promises to business came as he toured Stoke-on-Trent, meeting workers at a cinema and bowling alley complex in Uttoxeter and visiting the former Spode pottery works, which have transformed into a heritage centre with the help of Government funding.
Munching on a bucket of popcorn at 8.30am from the Cinebowl’s snack bar – ‘Probably the earliest I’ve eaten popcorn’ – Sunak said Britain was in a much healthier position than anyone had expected post-pandemic.
He also denied that ‘Partygate’, the series of lockdown-busting boozy events hosted by No 10, was detracting from the Government’s efforts to rebuild the economy post-Covid.
Business leaders were remarkably positive, he added.
‘There’s actually an enormous amount of optimism and positivity about the future – you can see that if you look at some of the investment or business surveys.
That’s a great sign of positive confidence in the economy and the future. Hiring intentions are very positive. That’s the backdrop.’
Sunak’s latest scheme, Help to Grow: Digital, is designed to ‘capitalise on that momentum’.
It will give small businesses employing between five and 249 people a £5,000 voucher to buy software that helps them manage their customer relations or handle their accounts.
He said: ‘We’re really good in this country at technology in aggregate. We’re less good at filtering it all down and helping companies make the best of it.
‘What we’ve seen through the pandemic is a huge step change in companies that had to become more digitally savvy. We saw this phenomenal opportunity to capitalise on that momentum and just help them even more.’
The scheme comes as the UK tries to solve its productivity problem. The UK currently lags behind the US, France and Germany and is roughly on a par with Italy in terms of output per worker.
One of the best ways to improve productivity is by updating businesses technology so that workers have the tools to be faster and more efficient.
But Sunak accepted that businesses have more pressing issues than technology. Access to labour and staff was the issue that had been raised the most, he said, adding that ‘we are looking actively at what we can do to make a difference there’.
He said: ‘The long-term answer to that is investing in people, investing in their skills, giving them the opportunities to get new skills and find new jobs, and we’re throwing a boatload of cash and new initiatives behind that. That won’t happen overnight but it will be very positive going forward.’
The Chancellor refused to be drawn on his ambitions for No 10, preferring to stick to issues concerning the economy.
‘That’s not what they want to talk to me about,’ he said.
But he did admit that inflation, or rises in the cost of living, were becoming a real thorn in the side of households and firms across the country.
Retail veteran Lord Rose, the former boss of Marks & Spencer, said that ‘inflation is the thing that’s looming over the horizon’.
Speaking on radio station LBC’s Nick Ferrari At Breakfast show, Rose said: ‘It’s the thing we need to worry about most. It is not going to be easy and I do believe it will last more than 18 months.’
Energy prices have been one of the biggest contributors to inflation, as demand spiked when factories and businesses returned to normal after lockdowns. The problem has been worsened by lower gas exports from Russia as tensions mount over Ukraine.
With the average family’s gas and electricity bill set to hit £2,000 a year from April, Labour has suggested VAT on energy be cut to zero, and the Government is understood to be considering making payments to energy suppliers to ease the burden on consumers.
Sunak declined to say what shape any support might take. But he said: ‘We’re looking at lots of different things, we’re talking to lots of different businesses.
‘For energy intensive industries it’s worth bearing in mind that we already have a set of support in place. But of course I’m cognisant of the challenges which is why we’re constantly talking to people and listening to them.’
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