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Topical Questions

Volume 525: debated on Tuesday 22 March 2011

The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability of the economy, promote growth and jobs, reform banking and manage the public finances so that Britain finally starts to live within her means.

More than 1,500 people in Sutton will be taken out of paying income tax altogether from next month as a result of the increase in the tax threshold. What estimate has the Chancellor made of the number of people who will be taken out of paying tax altogether in 2015, when the tax threshold is increased to £10,000?

I think my hon. Friend is getting a little ahead of himself. The commitment is to a real-terms increase in the personal tax allowance in each and every year. People will have to wait for the Budget tomorrow. The increase of £1,000 in the personal tax allowance has taken 900,000 people of out of tax.

T4. Writing in The Independent at the end of 2009, the then shadow Chancellor said:“If I become Chancellor, the Treasury will become a green ally, not a foe.”Will that pledge be reflected in tomorrow’s Budget? (47946)

T2. The Financial Services Authority’s mortgage market review stated:“Our existing regulatory framework has been shown to be ineffective”and that“regulatory reform is needed to reduce the probability and severity of future financial crises”.Does the Minister agree? (47944)

My hon. Friend is right. The mortgage market needs reform, but it needs stability as well, which is why I welcome the statement by the FSA today. It says that it will not introduce reforms this year and will take into account overall economic stability before it introduces any further changes. It has also made it clear that lenders should not pre-empt any conclusions from its review.

T5. Can the Chancellor confirm that between 1990 and 1997 the proportion of tax paid on a litre of fuel rose from 59% to 75%? Can he also confirm that the proportion of tax paid then fell by more than 10% between 1997 and 2010? (47947)

What I can confirm is that Labour left us with six duty rises. Now they are wriggling desperately to find some excuse to get off the hook they put themselves on.

T3. Can the Chancellor tell me when the Treasury’s detailed investigation of the feasibility of incorporating a general anti-avoidance rule in British tax law will conclude? (47945)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the matter. We have asked Graham Aaronson QC to undertake a study on the matter and he will report in the autumn.

T6. Following the announcement last week by Lloyds of more job cuts, many of them in my constituency, to a work force who have showed total loyalty to the company, and as the Government own a large percentage of the company—a company that made more than £2 billion profit last year—will the Chancellor intervene to protect people’s jobs and livelihoods, and stop the constant drip-feed of job losses by Lloyds? (47948)

Of course we are concerned when people lose their jobs, including in the banking sector, but what Lloyds is undergoing is the process of merging HBOS with Lloyds bank, which was waved through by the previous Government.

T7. I have had the privilege of talking to the Chancellor about a charter for entrepreneurs that I drew up, based on discussions with entrepreneurs in and around Cambridge. I am sure he will not want to pre-empt what he will say tomorrow, but can he say that he has looked carefully at some of those issues, in particular reforming the enterprise investment scheme and enterprise management incentives, and making research and development tax credits easier for small companies? (47949)

I have a copy of the hon. Gentleman’s document here. He has some excellent ideas on promoting enterprise and entrepreneurs. He will have to wait until tomorrow to see how we respond to them.

T8. Can the Chancellor not see that the figures —current and forecast—for inflation, unemployment, growth, borrowing and even the deficit are all way off his target? Can he not see that the plan is not working, or is it a sad case of him not wanting to see? (47950)

What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is this: we inherited a record budget deficit and there was no credible plan to deal with it. We put a plan in place and it is supported by the international community. The result of all this is that we have interest rates that are closer to Germany’s, despite having been left a deficit that is bigger than Portugal’s or Greece’s.

Will the Chancellor make every effort to keep the House informed about the cost of our operations in Libya by providing an estimate at the earliest opportunity? Will he also tell us whether those costs will be funded from the Ministry of Defence budget or drawn from the Treasury reserve?

My hon. Friend alerted me to the fact that he might ask this question. The House will understand that it is too early to give a robust estimate of the costs of the operations in Libya, but I can say that they should be modest compared with some other operations, such as Afghanistan. The MOD’s initial view is that they will be in the order of tens of millions of pounds, not hundreds of millions. I can tell the House today that whatever they turn out to be, the additional costs of operations in Libya will be fully met from the reserve.

T9. The Chancellor said on Sunday that the present financial difficulties were the result of “a decade of overspending”, so can he tell the House why in July 2008, 11 years into a Labour Government, the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, told the CBI conference“we are sticking to Labour’s spending totals”? (47951)

What we did on coming into office was set out a credible plan to reduce the budget deficit that has moved this country out of the financial danger zone. One month ago, the shadow Chancellor told his entire Front-Bench team not to make any spending commitments, and after that they committed to more than £10 billion of spending commitments. They have opposed £50 billion of the cuts. It is completely incredible, and that is why they cannot find any reputable organisation in the world to agree with them.

How high would inflation need to be before we halted further quantitative easing, stopped printing money and raised interest rates?

The Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee is of course independent. It is set a target by the Chancellor, and I expect the Bank to pursue that target.

T10. Contact a Family and the Children’s Trust have been campaigning for a change to the current rule that suspends disability living allowance payments for children under 16 once they have spent 84 days in hospital. The cost of this is around £3 million, compared with the overall deficit reduction measures of £80 billion. As this is a financially driven measure, will the Chancellor undertake to discuss the funding issue with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions so that some of the most severely disabled and sick children and their families continue to receive the financial support required when they need it most? (47952)

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is bringing forward proposals to reform the disability living allowance system and replace it with a new personal independence payment. I am sure that he will have heard what the hon. Gentleman said and will be very happy to discuss the matter with him.

The previous Government’s beer duty escalator was damaging to pubs, ill-considered and did not raise the revenue that it should have done. Considering that the Prime Minister has said that he wants this to be a pro-pub Government, will we get some good news for pubs tomorrow?

The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until tomorrow’s Budget, but he will recognise that in the emergency Budget last year we left beer duty frozen.

The Chancellor knows that the long-term solution to the spikes in fuel prices is a stabiliser or a regulator, and hopefully we will hear about that tomorrow. However, is he aware that the price rises in fuel over the past four of five weeks equate to an additional £1,000 a year for running every truck in the country? Does he not agree that that is hugely inflationary and utterly unsustainable?

Of course, the very sharp rise in the world oil price has posed a challenge to lots of economies—all but the oil-exporting economies. That is one of the headwinds currently facing the global economy. Specifically on fuel duty and other issues, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the Budget.

Will my right hon. Friend undertake very carefully to consider improving the diversification of financial services provision in the way that United Kingdom Financial Investments Ltd divests itself of taxpayers’ shareholdings in the banks?

I am very happy to consider a number of ideas that have been put forward, but we have not yet reached that stage. If we sold the bank shares today, we would still be making a loss as a nation. That is an indication of the scale of the banking crisis. When we come to put those banks back in the private sector, I am sure that there will be a healthy debate in this Parliament and elsewhere about how we treat the proceeds.

Ministers will be aware that there is a sunset clause in the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Act 2010, which comes into effect in June. Does the Treasury have a view about renewing this important landmark legislation, which tackles the worst abuses of vulture funds?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking that question. That legislation will remain on the books and—I do not think we have announced this formally before—we will put it on a permanent footing.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Governor of the Bank of England confirmed to me recently in the Treasury Committee that without the current austerity measures, our international borrowing rates would be some 3% higher?

Of course, the Governor of the Bank of England is one of many people who have pointed out that there was no credible plan when we came into office and that we have put a credible plan into place.

The Chancellor and other Ministers have cited investor confidence as the reason why they cannot revise their original plan for fiscal consolidation, but Jonathan Portes, the immediate former chief economist at the Cabinet Office, said:

“This is not a justification, economic or otherwise, for”

not changing policy. He said that

“it relies on an odd view of market psychology, one that says markets have more confidence in governments that never adjust policy, even when it is sensible, from an economic perspective, to change course.”

Why is he wrong?

Our country’s credit rating was on negative watch when we came to office and as a country we did not have a credible plan to reduce the budget deficit. Since that plan has been put in place we have been able to see the effects because our market interest rates and our spreads over bunds have come down. We have interest rates that are closer to Germany’s despite, as I have said, having a budget deficit left to us that was higher than either Greece’s or Portugal’s.

Would my right hon. Friend the Chancellor like to inform the House which organisations have made representations to him that the deficit should be halved over the course of this Parliament?

The Chancellor might know that my constituent, Jenifer Herald, employs 40 people in Northern Ireland in a number of Subway cafés. The chief executive officer of that company has written to the Chancellor to say that inconsistent VAT policies for toasted sandwiches are damaging the growth of that industry. Does the Minister intend to review how VAT applies to toasted sandwiches and does he, like me, want to get his toasted sandwiches at a reasonable price?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I, too, have received many representations on this point. Of course, we keep VAT under review within the restrictions that exist.

Is the Minister aware that according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, if we only halve the deficit rather than close it completely over the lifetime of this Parliament, we will spend an extra £10 billion on interest? Does he think that that is money that would be better spent on schools and hospitals in this country rather than foreign investment bankers?

I certainly do. This country is spending £120 million a day on debt interest, which is now one of the largest items of Government spending. These are taxes we raise from people and money we borrow to pay debt interest. The truth about Labour’s plan is that it would mean billions of pounds more in debt interest—something that will become clear later in the Parliament.

I am sure the Chancellor and his Front-Bench colleagues will be aware of the recent Scottish Affairs Committee report on the computer games industry in the UK, which states that there are “compelling reasons” for introducing tax relief. Will he tell me, the House and people in my constituency, where the industry is very important, just what progress has been made?

That industry, like other industries, will benefit from the policies that we have introduced to ensure that we grow more strongly and have pro-business policies. On video games tax relief, we looked at it and did not feel that it achieved good value for money for the taxpayer.

May I welcome the recent visit by the entire Cabinet, including of course my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, to the city of Derby, near my constituency? Manufacturers and wealth creators have been waiting for a long time for some support in the east midlands, and I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend could set out what plans are in place to assist that important area.

At that meeting at Rolls-Royce, John Rose made a very compelling case for how little we had done as a country to support our manufacturing sector. We will set out policies tomorrow to assist, and we have already, as I said, put in place four annual reductions in the corporation tax. More broadly, we have to get away from a model of growth that was pursued over the last decade—based on excessive debt, and growth in one sector, the City of London, in one corner of the country, the south-east. We must have more balanced and sustainable growth in the future.

Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer recall saying at the end of 2007:

“Today I can confirm for the first time that a Conservative Government will adopt these”—


“spending totals…to…the year 2010-11”?

Does he regret calling the article, “Tories cutting services? That’s a pack of lies”?

The Chancellor has a strong commitment to open and transparent government. Will he therefore ask his officials to look again at the number and value of special severance payments paid by foundation trusts, which must be reported to his Department but which his Department is not currently willing to disclose?