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Topical Questions

Volume 523: debated on Tuesday 8 February 2011

The core purposes of the Treasury are to ensure the stability of the economy, promote growth and employment, reform banking, manage the public finances and generally clear up the mess left by the Labour party.

Will the Chancellor update the House on the progress made in making us one nation in pensions, so that people in the private sector do not have to pay for public sector pensions that they can only dream of receiving themselves?

We are seeking a more equitable balance. Lord Hutton is due to produce his final report just before the Budget, and we await that. However, we have already made it clear that we need to see savings for the taxpayer. Those were set out in the spending review, and, as I said, we are committed to them. However, in conversations with trade unions, I have been prepared to enter into discussions with them on an extended time frame—to June—about exactly how those savings can be found across schemes and different pay scales.

T2. The Chancellor of the Exchequer will be aware of the statement made by the Northern Ireland Justice Minister yesterday. Will he explain the reason for the continued failure to make a decision? (38645)

I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the request for additional support for the security situation in Northern Ireland. It is a request that I have taken very seriously, and we are interrogating the request properly—[Laughter.] I know that it comes as a complete surprise to Labour Members that the Treasury should actually interrogate spending requests from Departments, but we have decided that there is new management in charge at the Treasury, and that we should start doing that. We will treat the request with due diligence, but I am clear that security comes first. That will be my priority.

T3. Is my hon. Friend aware of recently passed US legislation—the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act—that obliges oil, gas and mineral extraction companies listed on US stock exchanges to declare how much they pay directly to a Government for the rights to mine those resources? This has a huge impact in Africa in tackling corruption, increasing transparency and stopping the backhanders that end up being given to Heads of State. Would he agree to meet me to see whether we can introduce such legislation here in the UK? (38646)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question. Indeed, last week I had a meeting with representatives of leading non-governmental organisations on this matter, and the Government are actively engaged at a European Union level to see how we can progress it. He raises a fair point.

T7. The Chancellor referred to the need for the regulator to have good judgment. Do Ministers think that the same regulator is using good judgment in all aspects of the retail and mortgage reviews? (38651)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important question about the continued work load of the Financial Services Authority and its work on financial services. He and I would agree that we want better consumer outcomes from retail financial services, and that means that these areas should be reviewed very carefully. However, I am also certain that the outcome of the mortgage market review should take into account the stability of the housing market.

T4. The 2010 North East Research and Information Partnership annual jobs report shows a net increase in employment in the region of about 1,300 jobs over the past year. What are the Government doing to ensure that the private sector recovery in the regions continues? (38647)

The Chancellor announced measures in the Budget on corporation tax and national insurance breaks, particularly for companies in the regions. We have set up local enterprise partnerships, which enable local authorities and businesses to work together to promote their own economic interests, and in due course we will announce the first round of decisions on the regional growth fund, which will help to support exactly the sort of initiatives the hon. Gentleman is concerned about.

Does the Chancellor agree that any credible strategy for growth must include proposals for a fully capitalised, properly independent green investment bank? Will he assure the House that the Treasury has ceased to act as a roadblock to the creation of such a bank?

We are absolutely committed to creating the green investment bank. Indeed, we set aside money in the spending review to achieve that, and we will have an announcement in due course.

T5. As the rising cost of motoring and fuel has such a significant effect on rural constituencies such as mine, can my right hon. Friend update the House on any consideration he is giving to mitigate such problems as part of next month’s Budget? (38648)

I completely understand the pressure that motorists in my hon. Friend’s constituency and others are facing, partly due to the increase in the oil price. We have a proposal, in the Budget introduced by the last Labour Government, for an increase on 1 April. As I have said, we are looking at that. We are also considering the case for a fuel duty stabiliser, and we will have announcements on this, potentially at the Budget.

Does the Chancellor understand the anger that thousands of people in Nottingham feel when they are losing their jobs as a result of his policies, whereas the bankers who caused the credit crisis will be getting huge pay-outs and he has done nothing to stop them?

The reason difficult decisions are being taken is because of the policies of the Labour party. Until the Opposition—and in particular the man who had greater influence over Labour’s economic policy than any other—face up to that, they will not be a credible alternative. We are clear that we need to put in place steps to deal with the budget deficit and to ensure that the banks lend more, including in Nottingham, and pay less in bonuses than they did when Labour was in government. We expect to have announcements on that in the next week, but we need also to reform the way we help people who are unemployed, and that is what the Work programme will do.

T6. Given the astronomical levels of debt left to families in my constituency, can the Chancellor confirm that the planned cuts for this April that he inherited from Labour were just £2 billion less than those of the Government? (38649)

I can indeed confirm that, and this is one of the great paradoxes at the moment. The plan, which the previous Government all appeared to have signed up to, including the shadow Chancellor—that is, the plan put in place by the last Chancellor of the Exchequer—starts in eight weeks’ time and involves billions of pounds of cuts, amounting to just £2 billion less than what we are planning this year. We have not had any proposals from the Opposition; they have eight weeks to come up with a plan.

In Leeds we will lose 11 citizens advice bureaux debt advisers next month because of the cancellation of the financial inclusion fund. Where would the Minister suggest that my constituents who are struggling with debt and excessive and escalating charges from doorstep lenders go for advice?

The hon. Lady will be aware that the financial inclusion fund, which was set up by the previous Government, was coming to a close at the end of March. Other sources of debt advice are available. For example, the Consumer Credit Counselling Service is an effective provider of advice, while the Money Advice Trust provides advice over the phone. There are sources of advice out there, but as I said in response to a question from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe), the Consumer Finance Education Body, which was set up by the previous Government and which we proposed, will reach out to the most vulnerable people in society to ensure that they get access to high-quality advice.

T8. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the decision by Moog Aircraft, which is based in my constituency, to invest millions of pounds in a new site to replace its old factory, securing 400 jobs in South Staffordshire? After 13 years of Labour’s decline in manufacturing, is this not a further sign that we are now seeing a manufacturing recovery? (38652)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I join him in congratulating the company on its announcement. Under the last Labour Government the share of the economy taken by manufacturing halved; under this Government we are seeing a manufacturing revival.

Further to his answer to the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), will the Chancellor please confirm for the House that what the Minister for Justice in Northern Ireland has actually requested is not additional funding, but simply that the Treasury stands by the negotiated financial agreement that led to the devolution of policing and justice in the first place?

As I said to the hon. Member for Ealing North, we are carefully considering the request. I am clear that security comes first. Of course the Treasury has to apply due diligence to any request from a Department or devolved authority, but she should take it from me that we put security first.

Our mountain rescue teams are staffed by outstanding volunteers doing professional work, but outrageously they have to pay VAT and vehicle excise duty on life-saving equipment. Is it not time that this Government put an end to this and refunded that VAT?

My hon. Friend is quite right to celebrate the work of the mountain rescue teams. Of course they face additional equipment costs, and that is why we allocated funds in the spending review to help to support mountain rescue teams with those costs. The Department concerned, the Department for Transport, will make an announcement on this in due course.

It is extremely important that the Government are seen to act on the recommendations of the Independent Banking Commission, when they come out, in the national interest rather than in the interest of any particular sector. Does the Chancellor think that it is wise for the Minister, the noble Lord Green, an immediate former chair of the British Bankers Association, to sit on the Cabinet Committee that makes decisions on such matters? He joined that Committee last month, just two months after leaving the chairmanship of HSBC, a bank for which he worked for more than 25 years and which will be profoundly affected by the decisions that the Committee makes.

First, I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the creation of the Independent Banking Commission. I hope that all hon. Members have an open mind about the recommendations that it will make, and that they agree that we should not close off any options until we have heard from John Vickers. He is doing an excellent job, and we await his final report later this year. The hon. Gentleman is ungenerous in his remarks about Lord Green, who brings enormous experience to the job of Trade Minister. I would just point out that he has replaced Lord Davies, who was appointed by the Labour Government at a time when he was chief executive of Standard Chartered, so it is not as though bringing top bank chiefs into the Government is an innovation.

In the light of the recent appalling press about Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ problems with PAYE and, now, with national insurance contributions matching, is the Minister as concerned as I am about the imminent introduction of online filing for companies, many of which have said that they simply lack the preparedness to deal with it?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concerns about online filing. It is the case that one of the providers has been unable to meet the timetable that HMRC set out, although a number of other software providers have been able to do so. We are seeking to ensure that we implement this in a way that is sympathetic to businesses, but we want to stick to the original timetable. Those businesses that have delivered should not be punished because of the failures of another.

Manufacturing has undoubtedly been helped a lot by the depreciation of sterling, which took place under the last Labour Government. That was only possible because Labour wisely kept us out of the euro. There is now a possibility that interest rates might rise. Will the Chancellor be putting pressure on the Monetary Policy Committee not to raise interest rates?

The Monetary Policy Committee is independent of this Chancellor—and, indeed, of previous and future Chancellors—and that is how we intend to keep it. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the devaluation of the currency, I would just observe that it is incredibly important that the manufacturing industry makes itself even more competitive, and it could use the devaluation as an opportunity to do that. Some Government policies—on taxation and on employment law, for example—will also help in that regard, but the thrust of his question is right: we should not rely solely on the devaluation to make our manufacturing industry globally competitive.

The Chancellor is entirely right to emphasise the need to be careful with public money. Will he therefore please explain his role in approving the deal to make the UK taxpayer liable for billions of pounds to bail out the euro under the European stabilisation mechanism? Will he respond to my freedom of information request, and publish the advice that he was given on the agreement on assuming office?

First, I will look at my hon. Friend’s FOI request, because I have not seen it. The broader point that I would make is that my predecessor as Chancellor, in the weekend between the general election and the creation of the new Government, agreed to the creation of the European stability facility. That involves a UK commitment which takes place on the basis of qualified majority voting; we do not have a veto. I made it clear to the previous Chancellor at the time that I did not support what he had done. However, it has happened and we have to live with the consequences.

In a speech to the City in 2008, several months after the collapse of Northern Rock, the then Leader of the Opposition—now the Prime Minister—complained that the City had been subjected to too much regulation and to “excessive bureaucratic interventionism”. He also said that

“government needs to do less taxing and regulating”.

Can the Chancellor tell us what he meant?

I am reminded of the speech in the City made by the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), when he said in 2006:

“In my first speech as City Minister at Bloomberg in London, I argued that London’s success has been based on…light-touch…regulation”.

He also said that he hoped the City would take comfort from the way the Labour Government had responded to new risks and to events. That is the Bloomberg speech that he likes to forget.

There is a lot of public disquiet about alleged enormous sweetheart deals done with major public companies—Vodafone and others—in the last five years. Three or four months ago, I tabled a question asking how many of these deals had been done, costing more than £100 million at a time. The answer I received was that the information requested was “not readily available” and could be provided “only at disproportionate cost”. I received a similar blocking answer this morning. When is the Minister going to tell the House what HMRC has been up to?

The National Audit Office has investigated and examined that as a matter of course. There is no question of sweetheart deals. The reality is that HMRC is seeking to recover as much tax as is due. That is what it has done in a number of cases. I am not going to comment on individual cases. That is a matter of confidentiality; I do not get to see the details. None the less, I think wild allegations have been made against HMRC, for which there is little or no evidence.

I was just checking and realised that the Government’s own business planning projections show that the proportion of young people on the dole by the end of this Parliament will be reduced by less than 1%. Will the Chancellor explain what his plan is to increase the number of jobs made available to those young people?

This country has a problem with youth unemployment that has been apparent for a decade. Even in the boom years during the middle part of the last decade, youth unemployment was increasing and a whole generation was being left behind. I hope that we can achieve some kind of cross-party consensus on trying to reform our welfare system so that people do not get trapped in poverty and work always pays. We are reforming the new deal and replacing it with the Work programme so that we are more effective at giving young people the training they need and the opportunities that have been lacking for the last decade.

Following on from the question from the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), many of us will have seen—and some of us, myself included, will approve of—the demonstrations organised by UK Uncut outside certain high street well-known names. What are the Government doing to tackle corporate tax avoidance schemes by some large corporates; and what is the Chancellor going to do to make sure that the actions of some well-known and popular figures, such as premiership football stars and grand prix drivers, are also tackled?

The fact is that over the spending review period, £900 million is devoted specifically to HMRC for improving the capability of tackling tax avoidance and tax evasion. We take the issue very seriously and we announced proposals in December to reduce the tax gap further.