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Topical Questions

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 29 November 2007

The Treasury’s aim is to raise the rate of sustainable growth and to achieve rising prosperity and a better quality of life with economic and employment opportunities for everyone.

As the Chancellor has just said, the Treasury’s aim is to raise the rate of sustainable growth and to improve quality of life, but, given that Britain is three times richer but no happier than it was 50 years ago, does he think that it is time to look beyond the crude measure of gross domestic product and to monitor other indicators of well-being?

I am willing to consider a Liberal Democrat happiness index, although I am not sure how happy the hon. Lady can be at the moment, given that most of her colleagues appear to be out on the campaign trail. Over the past 10 years, we have seen our economy grow in every quarter. We have had 10 years of uninterrupted growth, which has resulted in fewer people being out of work, more people being in work and historically low interest and mortgage rates. That has led to our country’s growing prosperity. Our job is to ensure that that prosperity continues and, above all, to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate in it.

T2. Unemployment in Wrexham has fallen by more than 36 per cent. in the past 10 years, and by 3.5 per cent. in the past year. How much money has the Exchequer saved by not pursuing the Tory policy of paying the cost of wasted lives? (169055)

My hon. Friend is quite right. We are spending about £5 billion less on unemployment benefits than we were 10 years ago. One of the advantages of having a strong economy with more people in work is that money is not wasted on unemployment benefits, as it was as a result of the high levels of unemployment that we saw 10 or 15 years ago. Also, we are paying less in debt interest because the level of borrowing and debt that the Conservatives ran up meant that that was the first call on a lot of the extra money that was spent.

T3. Notwithstanding the so-called credit crunch, high street banks with commission-hungry staff are still aggressively selling credit to the hard-up and the desperate, with the resulting unrepayable debt too often chased by bullying or unprincipled collectors. What action is planned to strengthen and enforce the voluntary banking code and the Office of Fair Trading’s debt collection guidelines, both of which seem to be routinely flouted by a section of the financial services industry that is still rather too lightly regulated? (169056)

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns about aggressive credit selling. That is one of the reasons why we are supporting the growth of the credit union sector, which can provide affordable credit to those who need it. An independent review of the voluntary banking code has recently been completed, and the banks published the review’s recommendations and their response last week, on 22 November. That confirmed that the banks will strengthen and enhance the code in key areas, including the provision of more support for people in financial difficulty and the introduction of enhancements to responsible lending practices, involving the rigorous assessment of borrowers before loans are made, which I hope will help. In addition, the Government have made extensive changes to consumer credit legislation to strengthen consumer protection.

May I ask the Chancellor a question about what the Governor of the Bank of England has just told the Treasury Select Committee? He said that “the short-term outlook” for the economy is “uncomfortable” and “highly uncertain” with slowing growth and rising inflation. Is that assessment shared by the Chancellor and what impact does he think it will have on public borrowing this year?

The hon. Gentleman is right that the Governor spoke to the Treasury Committee this morning and said that there is continuing uncertainty in the financial markets—something that I have said on a number of occasions over the past few weeks. We do not yet know the full extent of that uncertainty, particularly in the United States, which is important because of the size of the US Government.

The Governor said today that he expects the economy to slow down, which is exactly what I said in the pre-Budget report when I revised downwards our growth expectations. The Governor also said today that inflation has come down since the peak in March this year, but the Monetary Policy Committee will keep that under review.

Perhaps the Chancellor could answer my question on borrowing when he gets up again. Will he also deal with the point that the Governor has announced an emergency five-week facility over the year-end because of what he calls

“the fragility in the banking system”?

Clearly, the tripartite arrangements set up by the Government did not work as expected in September, which the Government have explicitly acknowledged in setting up a review of those arrangements. What assurances can the Chancellor give the House now as we approach this difficult year-end period that measures are in place to ensure that the tripartite arrangements will work much better if there is a problem in a particular bank? Will we know who is in charge in a liquidity crisis?

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman asked about borrowing. I set out my forecasts in the pre-Budget report and I will keep the House updated. For the past 10 years borrowing generally has been very substantially lower than we have seen in the past.

I said in reply to an earlier question that the Governor has announced additional facilities to be put into the system, which is the right thing to do, especially having regard to the present uncertainty. The House will know that a number of banks are due to report, although the Governor made the point in his remarks this morning that what banks have been able to report has reassured the markets in respect of individual institutions. I assure the House that the Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority and the Treasury are keeping these things under constant review and that we will take whatever action is appropriate. Today’s announcement by the Bank of England, putting money into the system, will be welcomed. It is entirely the right thing to do. Indeed, the US Fed and the European Central Bank have taken similar action over the past few days.

T4. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the success of renewable obligation certificates in ensuring investment in onshore wind farms. Has he given consideration to what further can be done so that our fiscal regime ensures the speedy development of other forms of renewables? (169057)

The Government are committed to meeting their share of the EU renewables target and the energy White Paper set out a range of measures that we are taking forward, which will triple the amount of renewable energy in the UK. That includes—in direct response to my hon. Friend’s question—a planning reform Bill that will speed up issues, allowing both offshore and onshore wind farms to be brought to bear and to generate electricity in that renewable form much more quickly than would have been the case before the reforms.

Of all the problems that we face at the moment, I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman could have come up with a better question than that.

T6. As my right hon. Friend probably knows, over the last few years I have been pressing for action on sports taxation issues in particular. I remind her that I have written about the need for work to be done to ensure that in this sporting nation—in the build-up to 2012, and following the disaster of England’s recent football performance—joined-up thinking must include examination of the way in which we deal with tax and sport, and the contribution of sport to the economy. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me as soon as possible to discuss some of the smaller issues, on which we could make progress fairly quickly, and also some of the bigger issues, such as corporation tax and VAT, which might require more long-term work? (169059)

Of course I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the wide range of tax issues that he wishes to raise, involving the way in which we support athletes and sports organisations in the United Kingdom. He will know, however, that in partnership with the lottery the Government have already committed themselves to significant funding for our elite athletes in particular in the run-up to the Olympic games, as well as support to encourage sportsmen and women to put something back into grass-roots sport and inspire young people.

T7. Is an early solution envisaged to the inequitable problem of the damping mechanism in local government financing, which has a very bad effect on councils such as Wirral? (169060)

As I said earlier, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will make a statement on the provisional local government settlement for the next three years very shortly, and my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to comment further then. However, I am sure that the Secretary of State and her colleagues have noted his points about damping. The challenge is to ensure that there is enough stability in the local government system, while at the same time making progress towards equity and conveying funds where the needs are greatest. That is the balance that must be struck.

In the comprehensive spending review, will the Chancellor ensure that there is a balance between money given to schools in rural areas and money given to schools in urban areas? Is he not disappointed that after 10 years, and despite all the money that the Government have invested in reading in schools, the school reading age figures are the worst ever?

Standards have improved, partly because—as was pointed out a few moments ago by my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary—we have been increasing spending in schools. As for the balance of spending in rural and urban schools, it will be taken into account by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families. However, the hon. Lady must face the fact that if we are to improve skills, particularly reading skills, we must be prepared to put the necessary money into schools as well as reforming them. So far, the Conservatives show little appreciation of that.

T8. Apprenticeships are very important in my constituency and it is great news that the number has trebled over the past 10 years, but can my right hon. Friend assure me that we will have the resources to double the current number so that my constituents’ families can develop world-class skills? (169062)

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. There is a target of 400,000 apprenticeships in England; we have 250,000 today, and my hon. Friend’s constituency is getting its fair share. I also note that over the past 10 years of economic success enjoyed under this Government there has been a welcome increase in the number of people there who are economically active there, from 37,000 to 46,900.

Can the Chancellor put the record straight? Last week, during business questions, the Leader of the House said of the measures the Chancellor was taking in relation to Northern Rock:

“we are concerned to ensure that no Northern Rock shareholder, employee or saver loses out.”—[Official Report, 22 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 1347.]

Is that actually the policy?

I set out our approach to Northern Rock in my statement on 19 November. I said then that the Government’s priorities were first to ensure that the money lent by the Bank of England was returned, secondly to ensure that we protected the interests of depositors, and thirdly to ensure the wider stability of the financial system. Those are and remain the Government’s objectives, and I think everyone is aware of that.

Is my hon. Friend aware that according to a recent report commissioned by the Union of Construction, Allied Trades and Technicians, bogus self-employment in the construction industry is losing the Exchequer £2.5 billion? Will he take measures to deal with that?

The recent estimates that we have made of the money lost to the Exchequer from bogus self-employment in the construction industry is closer to £360 million, but I assure my hon. Friend that I am looking into what we can do on that difficult and complex area of construction.

For each pound that the public sector has lent to Northern Rock, how much specific security has the Bank of England taken for the taxpayer?

As I have said on many occasions, all the lending made by the Bank of England is secured against Northern Rock’s assets. That remains the case and, as I said a few moments ago in reply to the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), one of my three central objectives in relation to getting a solution is to make sure that the money is repaid.

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the notorious NatWest Three’s decision yesterday to plead guilty to conspiring with Enron staff to defraud NatWest of $19 million. Does he agree that that vindicates the changes that the Government made to our extradition rules with the US, and that Opposition claims that—

Like many Members, I heard that news this morning on the radio, but I do not have the details so I cannot comment on them. I believe, however, that our country has the right extradition arrangements, and that we will always act in the best public interest.