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Topical Questions

Volume 513: debated on Tuesday 13 July 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.

Many small charities are extremely worried about the rise in VAT. Does the Minister think it is fair that charities be hit in this way?

The hon. Lady is right to raise the issue of charities; in fact it is an issue in which we have taken a great interest coming into government. I hope she will welcome the fact that we are continuing with the gift aid forum, which brings together a range of people interested in charities and charity tax to look at how we can stimulate gift aid and make it more effective over the coming years. The hon. Lady is also right about the impact of VAT on charities, but we have to sort out the economic mess the last Government left us, and the best way to sustain the funding of charities is to make sure people have jobs and money in their pockets that they feel they can donate.

T2. Does the recent experience of changes in VAT rates support the assumption of both the Treasury and the Institute for Fiscal Studies that there will be full pass-through of the proposed increase in VAT, or might we reasonably hope that large retailers will shoulder some of the burden? (7718)

The assessment set out in the Red Book is that it is likely that two thirds will be passed on immediately and most of the rest will be passed on over the course of the next 12 months. In some cases retailers may bear some of the increase themselves, and we will obviously be studying the matter very closely.

Does the Chief Secretary, in the Chancellor’s absence, agree that the independence and credibility of the OBR are absolutely paramount? Sir Alan Budd said to the Treasury Committee this morning that the numbers he released two weeks ago

“were not an appropriate basis for attempting to estimate the effects of the June Budget on general government employment”,

and the Prime Minister was quite wrong to claim that they were. Would it not be better for the OBR to be more accountable to this House, with its appointments being subject to confirmation hearings by the Treasury Committee, and for its deliberations to be completely open and transparent? What we have at the moment is a good idea strangled at birth by the way in which this Government have been treating it.

The independence of the OBR is not in question. That was made clear by Alan Budd in his evidence to the Treasury Committee today. This is a good idea that was brought forward by this Government, and it will be established in legislation. I do not think it was even part of the former Chancellor’s secret plans before the election, alongside a rise in VAT, a cut in corporation tax and a cut in income tax. Those are measures he should be supporting in this Budget, because he came up with them in the first place.

T4. When the Exchequer Secretary answered the hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr Love) earlier on capital gains tax, he quite properly justified the increase in CGT on the basis of a dynamic model of both income tax and CGT. Will he publish that model and its supporting evidence? (7720)

If I may help my right hon. Friend, at the time of the Budget we did publish our Budget policy costings, setting out the exact details. That information is available to him, and it was, indeed, touched on in last night’s debate.

T3. The Chief Secretary justifies massive cuts to the public sector through fears of a sovereign debt crisis as the credit rating agencies downgrade our debt, but those same agencies were giving triple A ratings to junk financial instruments right up to the crash. Can he explain whether credit rating agencies, discredited as they are, or Tory ideology is driving these cuts? (7719)

The measures we have taken in the Budget are necessary to tackle the mess that the previous Government left. The degree of denial that the Opposition are in about the mess they created, the huge debt they built up and the fact that this country has the largest deficit in the European Union outside Ireland never fail to surprise me, although they probably should not surprise me. The measures we are taking are necessary to clean up that mess and to establish jobs and growth in the future.

T5. I am sure that Ministers can understand the disappointment of my constituents when Cadbury’s new owners stated their intention to move mass production abroad from the Summerdale plant near my constituency. In the light of this and of the dramatic decline in manufacturing employment over the past 13 years—down from 4.7 million jobs in 1997 to 2.6 million jobs now—what steps are they taking to support manufacturers in this country? (7721)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the fact that we live in a globalised world and that businesses can choose where they locate their activity. That is why we are introducing substantial cuts in corporation tax, from 28% to 24%. I was delighted to read this morning that the previous Chancellor was an enthusiast for reducing corporation tax—although we did not see so much evidence of that when he was in power. The fact is that the Budget proposals will benefit all sectors of society, including manufacturing, and we will see £13 billion more investment over the next few years as a consequence of those measures.

Many businesses in the north-west saw the value of regional development agencies and were very much opposed to their abolition. What consultation was carried out with business leaders on the proposal to abolish RDAs?

Of course we have invited groups involving local authorities and local businesses to submit proposals for the establishment of local enterprise partnerships in the hon. Gentleman’s area and across the country to replace the regional development agencies. Local businesses will be very involved in those and will help to lead them. To judge from the earlier exchange involving other Members from the north-west, it seems there has been a positive welcome for those steps.

T6. In view of the importance of this issue to Opposition Members and their colleagues in the other place, can the Minister confirm that there are no plans for the Government to introduce VAT on the sale of hardback books? (7722)

I can assure my hon. Friend of that, and that newspapers—there was a very interesting one this morning—will not have VAT imposed on them either.

Mums in my constituency who work part time in the public sector and earn, say, £11,000 or £12,000 a year are telling me that their pay is to be frozen, so far from low-paid workers being protected, as was promised, it seems they are going to be hit the hardest, because that pay freeze is pro rata. Can the Chief Secretary confirm that and tell me how many low-paid part-time public servants will be affected?

We have announced a pay policy that involves a pay freeze for people earning above £21,000 a year. People earning below £21,000 a year will have a pay rise of at least £250.

That pay rise will be pro rata, but people will benefit from the changes to tax credits, for example, and the significant increase in the child tax credit for those with children. That will help to ensure that many of the people with children in the hon. Lady’s constituency whom she is describing will not be driven into poverty, as they were in many instances were under the previous Government.

T7. I and I am sure many other Members have received many representations from Equitable Life policyholders who felt very shabbily treated by the last Government. Can the Minister give me some assurance that under the new coalition Government, they will treated a little more equitably? (7723)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. A large number of Equitable Life policyholders are very angry about how they were treated by the previous Government. We have committed to setting up an independent, fair and transparent payments scheme, further information on which will be presented to the House later this month.

The Economic Secretary, the Chief Secretary’s Front-Bench colleague, referred to the establishment of the Office for Budget Responsibility as a welcome step forward for transparency. In the interests of transparency, could the Chief Secretary tell me precisely when he saw the revised unemployment figures produced by the OBR?

The revised unemployment figures were published by the OBR on the Wednesday morning. The figures were circulated in the normal way, as happens with the Office for National Statistics, the day before in the Treasury. That is when I saw the documentation that was published. The requirements for confidentiality that apply to ONS figures also apply to OBR figures.

T8. The Chancellor took the difficult decision to increase VAT to deal with the dire economic legacy of the previous Labour Government. Will the Minister commit to reviewing the increase in VAT once this coalition Government have dealt with the deficit and got the economy back on its feet? (7724)

I can tell my hon. Friend that he is right; this decision was necessary and unavoidable. The intention is to get the public finances under control over the course of this Parliament. We will debate what we do at the end of that process nearer the time, when we will work out what we will do with the proceeds of growth.

In a speech last night to the bankers, the Financial Secretary referred to the Government’s proposals on a financial activities tax. Is it the Government’s intention that that sort of proposed legislation is just in reserve in case the bankers are too generous with themselves with bonuses, or are the Government determined to introduce such a tax? Why not go further, with a full financial transactions tax?

The Government are committed to tackling unacceptable bonuses in the financial sector, and we have put forward a series of proposals on that. We have talked about increasing the disclosure of remuneration, we have asked the Financial Services Authority to examine ways in which the link between risk and remuneration can be investigated, and we are taking forward work on the financial activities tax. Also, we have today published a consultation on a bank levy, which will raise an extra £2.5 billion in revenue from the banks.

T10. Average wages in my constituency are below the national average, so the rise in the income tax threshold announced in the Budget was most welcome. Can the Minister please give an assurance that he will maintain a focus on increasing the personal tax threshold, as the prospect of being taken out of tax altogether is far more appealing than the prospect that the previous Government offered, which was the non-stop filling in of forms to claim back just a fraction of the money that people had already earned? (7726)

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that it remains our long-term objective to raise the income tax threshold to £10,000, and we have made significant progress.

Can the Chief Secretary tell the House whether he thinks it is completely ethical for the definition of “unemployment” to be changed just before Prime Minister’s Question Time and for that be made public without telling the media that that was the case? Would he comment on the fact that the person who did this was seconded from a hedge fund and is therefore not independent? Will the Chief Secretary therefore confirm that that was the reason why this person had to resign and bring scorn—

The Office for Budget Responsibility is wholly independent. Decisions of the sort that the hon. Gentleman has described are a matter for the OBR to take on its own initiative—that is what having an independent body means.

The issue of business start-ups and supporting small companies has been mentioned this afternoon, but many of them are finding it very difficult to access bank financing. I was wondering how the Budget proposals will assist them, because growing the private sector is essential to improving our economy.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the importance of banks being in a position to lend in order to encourage the recovery. That is why in the Budget we announced an extension of the enterprise finance guarantee scheme by a further £200 million to enable the banks to lend to small businesses. We will be publishing a paper later this month on business finance, which, again, will put forward ideas about how we can continue to sustain the recovery by ensuring that the banks are in a position to lend.

Does not the revised forecast from the International Monetary Fund demonstrate yet again that the coalition’s Budget will hit growth and therefore jobs?

The consensus among international bodies is that growth will grow over the coming years based on the Government’s plans and that unemployment will fall. The hon. Lady might not yet have seen the OECD’s report on our economy today, which describes our Budget measures as “courageous and appropriate” and as “an essential starting point” for restoring growth and jobs in this economy. That is a position that the whole House should welcome and not criticise.

I am delighted that the shadow Chancellor believes in transparency in Government. Is my right hon. Friend minded to publish the position papers prepared by the Treasury in respect of the previous Government’s plans to increase VAT before the election?

It is striking that the one party that had a plan to increase VAT before the election—to 18% or even 19%, according to the account in one book serialised today—did not say so at the election. I am not sure that it would be appropriate for us to publish documents that were worked up for the previous Chancellor—I am not sure that that would be in line with the conventions—but the hon. Gentleman has made his point very effectively.

Has the Treasury done a calculation of the number of construction jobs that will be lost as a result of not building 700 schools? Does that not prove that public sector cuts equal private sector misery? Get that into your head.

The thing I have got into my head is that the plans laid down by the previous Government for this programme, particularly in the Department for Education, were among the most irresponsible financial planning carried out by that Government in their entirety. When that Government were planning to cut capital spending in half and increase the spending on this programme, taking no account of the pressures in primary schools, for example, that was pure irresponsibility. My friend the Secretary of State for Education has made the right decision on this matter. I know that it is painful in many constituencies, but this is one of many things that the Opposition should be apologising for, not criticising.