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Topical Questions

Volume 511: debated on Tuesday 8 June 2010

The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability of the economy, promote growth and employment, reform the banking system and manage the public finances so that Britain lives within her means.

Whether the amount lost by tax avoidance or tax evasion is £100 billion or £40 billion a year, it is a lot of money which could go a long way to tackling the deficit. Will the Chancellor tell his ministerial colleagues sitting next to him to give a higher priority to tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance so as to make sure that those who are most able to pay the costs of the deficit do so, rather than those who are least able to pay?

T6. At a time of low investment returns, which mean that many people in the private sector are struggling to fund a pension for their retirement, what steps will be taken to tackle the ballooning public sector pension bill? (949)

The Government will establish an independent commission to look at public sector pension provision. We will make an announcement on that in due course.

T3. Has the Chancellor yet had a chance to have a one-to-one with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to discuss the thing that would most affect the structural nature of the deficit: early intervention with our babies, children and young people to ensure that we do not accumulate massive costs of failure that need to be met much later? If he has not done that, will he undertake to do so, please? (945)

I have had several conversations with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on this issue and on the broader issues of welfare reform. I broadly agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman makes—he made it forcefully in the last Parliament—that support for children in the early years can yield real results later on. We will bear that in mind as we conduct our spending review.

T2. While the Chancellor is reviewing the projects agreed by the previous Government since 1 January, may I commend to him the Better Healthcare Closer to Home programme and the plans that it has for St Helier hospital? May it draw it to his attention that the plans were very enthusiastically endorsed by the new Secretary of State for Health when he visited my constituency just a couple of days before the general election? (944)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and pay tribute to his assiduous campaigning on the issue over many years. He will know that we are carefully reassessing the projects agreed by the previous Government between 1 January and the election, and we will make an announcement shortly. He will also know that it is right that we are making sure that each and every one of the many projects that were announced is affordable and represents value for money.

T5. I was disappointed to see no mention of the credit union movement in the coalition agreement. Although I admit that I have not yet got my head around what the big society is, I hope that there is a role in there for the credit union movement. When can we expect the Legislative Reform (Industrial And Provident Societies and Credit Unions) Order 2010 to be laid before the House? (948)

We do support credit unions. In fact, one of the first things that the new Secretary of State for Wales did on her appointment was to visit her local credit union in Wales. We have said that we want vibrant, sustainable credit unions. We are looking at the legislative reform order to which the hon. Lady referred and I hope that we can come back with some further dates in the next few weeks. As she can imagine, the focus right now has been on the emergency Budget, but I am aware of the order and officials are talking to me about the time lines for it.

T4. There was great relief in the tourism sector when the furnished holiday lettings rules were scrapped just before the election in the wash-up. What will the Government do to ensure that the rules are EU compliant, but do not disadvantage tourist operatives in the way that it was feared that the old rules would do? (947)

My hon. Friend raises a very good point, and what was proposed on the furnished holiday lettings rule would have caused great difficulties. There is an issue with the EU law, but I can assure him that we are working hard on the matter and we hope to be able to say more in the next few weeks.

T8. The Chancellor will be aware of the public and cross-party support given to the proposal to turn British Waterways into a sort of national trust for the waterways of the UK. That was given official endorsement in the last Budget. Can the Chancellor confirm his intention to pursue this proposal, and perhaps give an idea of the time scale within which it might be brought about? (951)

If the right hon. Gentleman will allow me, I will look into the details of the proposal to which he refers and write to him.

T7. In 2008-09, our contribution to the EU was £2.5 billion. This year it will be £6.4 billion. Why does every budget have to be cut except the EU’s, which can increase by 150%? Is it not a case not of ring-fencing, but of gold-plating? (950)

I am sure that my hon. Friend will be glad to know that in my first ECOFIN I proposed to the Council that we freeze the EU budget, and there was support from other countries around the table. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is supporting an increase in the EU budget, he should tell the House.

I welcome the Chancellor and his team to their new posts. As part of the consultation on cuts that is being announced today, would he be prepared to visit Dudley, so that we can discuss the importance of maintaining investment in education and training as our No.1 priority, so that we can bring to the area the new industries and jobs on which our future prosperity will depend? While he is there, I can take him to Priory road, and he can see the devastating impact that his decision to cut spending on housing is having on that community.

I am always very happy to visit Dudley. I have done so many times in the last three or four months—which was half successful.

We have found additional money to support social housing. We discovered that the housing commitments made by the Labour Government just before the general election were completely unfunded. We have found money to fund additional social housing, which during the past 13 years the previous Government almost completely failed to do.

T9. Further to excellent question of the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), can the Minister who was briefed to answer the excellent Question 25, in my name, now give a more substantive answer? What will the Government do to support credit unions such as the excellent one in Colchester? (952)

The best thing that we can do to support credit unions is make sure that they are on a sustainable footing. When I talk to Conservative Members, many of them say that they want to see their credit unions merge. We need to ensure that credit unions can offer a broader range of products to local people, and we need to look at how credit unions operate. Interestingly, although complaints to the financial services ombudsman are broadly increasing, when it comes to credit unions they are falling. The most recently released statistics show that just one in 66,000 complaints related to a credit union. The hon. Gentleman is right to ask how we can support credit unions. The Prime Minister has been supportive of them and we look forward to seeing what more we can do to support them over the coming months.

If everybody has to share the burden of cutting the budget deficit, will the Chancellor start at the very top, and call upon the royal family to tell them that under no circumstances will they get a single penny of the £7 million increase that they are demanding in the civil list?

We will be making an announcement on the civil list in due course, but if the hon. Gentleman is looking for cost savings, perhaps early retirement is something that he could consider. [Interruption.]

Does not part of the contribution to the EU budget result from the surrender of the UK rebate in 2005 by the previous Government, which will cost taxpayers in this country up to £9 billion over six years and was given in return for nothing? Should we not add that to the Chief Secretary’s list of waste by the previous Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The former Prime Minister Tony Blair gave away the UK’s budget rebate in return for absolutely nothing. We were promised at the time that it would give us leverage over CAP reform, which never arrived, and I am afraid that that is just one of the many decisions that the previous Government got wrong.

Growth throughout the UK economy has often been geographically uneven. Has the Chancellor considered what help a rural fuel derogation might bring to the highlands and, in particular, the islands of Scotland; and can I volunteer my own constituency, Na h-Eileanan an Iar, for any pilot project?

The Government are well aware of the benefits that a rural fuel derogation might bring to remote parts of the economy. We are examining that issue, which is contained in the coalition agreement, and we note the hon. Gentleman’s interests from his own constituency.

Under the previous Government, unemployment in Harlow was the highest in west Essex. Do the Government agree that a low-tax, low-debt economy is the best way to bring jobs back to Harlow?

May I say how particularly pleased I am to see my hon. Friend in the House? His victory was one that I found particularly satisfying on election night.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the ambition of a low-debt, low-tax economy is one to which people who care about the long-term economic future of this country should aspire. The key challenge, of course, is getting there, and that means dealing with the 11% budget deficit.

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the budget deficit at the time of the Budget was £22 billion less than was predicted four months earlier in the pre-Budget report, showing that the major engine for reducing the deficit is economic growth. Will he give an undertaking that the cuts that he intends to make will not cut the capacity for economic growth in Britain, thereby increasing the deficit?

May I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his return to the House, as we both served on the Public Accounts Committee when I first arrived in the House? I make this point: he makes an original observation that somehow the British budget deficit is low, when, actually, of course, it is an 11% budget deficit and we are borrowing £156 billion—[Interruption.]

Order. Can I just remind right hon. and hon. Members of the basic principle of “Erskine May”: good temper and moderation in parliamentary exchanges at all times?

Mr Speaker, you are absolutely right.

I make this point to the hon. Member for Swansea West (Geraint Davies). The serious observation that he makes about investment in productive economic assets is one that is reflected in the document that the Treasury produced this afternoon.

A Select Committee in the other place found that reform of the Barnett formula could lead to a reduction in the budget deficit. In terms of the imperative of achieving that, will not the Treasury team look once again at that Select Committee report?

I am happy to look at the report, but as I said in answer to earlier questions, we made it clear in the coalition programme for government that, although we recognise those concerns, the priority must be to address the budget deficit, and that is what we are going to do.

The ambition, of course, is to try to get unemployment falling, but it is rising at the moment. That is the situation that we inherited—as is inequality, which we inherited too.

Is the Chancellor aware of the recent Institute for Fiscal Studies report which showed that, going into the recession, the budget deficit in the UK was already one of the highest in the developed world?

I am absolutely aware of that report, because my hon. Friend drew it to my attention about three months ago, for which I thank him.

Everybody is assuming that the budget cuts are based on the Canadian model, which itself was based on 3% growth and not least on strong growth in the American economy. I want to ask the Chancellor something in all seriousness. If there is not equivalent strong growth globally and within the eurozone, will that not mean that we get all the pain and none of the gain?

There does seem to be collective amnesia on the Labour Benches. They were in government for 13 years, they ran up the largest budget deficit in the European Union and they handed over office to us after an election in the middle of a eurozone crisis. The threat to the British economy is what will happen if we do not deal with this budget deficit. Let me say to the hon. Gentleman and all Labour Members that until they have their own proposals to deal with the problem that they have bequeathed the new Government, they are not going to be taken seriously.

I ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to outline to the House exactly what not tackling the deficit would mean for my constituents in Elmet and Rothwell and for their mortgages.

Unfortunately, my hon. Friend would have to tell his constituents that interest rates would start to rise and international investor confidence would be lost. Today, one of the credit rating agencies has published a report that makes the observation that the UK’s deficit reduction plan is particularly weak. That is the situation that we have inherited, and we are going to put it right.

A range of announcements will be made in the Budget across a whole range of issues, but as the Chancellor has said repeatedly, one of the key tests of measures is fairness, to ensure that we do not repeat the mistakes of the previous Government in allowing inequality to widen and in missing child poverty targets.

Does my right hon. Friend intend to continue using the very expensive PFI funding for future capital investment in the NHS? The most expensive to date has been in Wythenshawe hospital, where the NHS will pay back 16 times the original capital value. More prudent borrowing in the past would have delivered the investment without adding to the deficit.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good observation about the hidden costs of PFI liabilities. After the Office for Budget Responsibility creates an independent set of national economic forecasts, it will go on to look at PFI liabilities. The deficit and national debt that we have been talking about are, of course, only half the story; there is the hidden iceberg of the PFI liabilities that the Labour party ran up over 13 years as well.