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Topical Questions

Volume 527: debated on Tuesday 10 May 2011

The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability of the economy, to promote growth and employment, to reform banking and to clear up the mess in the public finances that we inherited so that Britain starts to live within her means.

The Chancellor will know that fraud and error have plagued the tax system since it was introduced. What measures is he taking to bear down on this and what financial impacts does he expect those measures to have?

I can today report to the House that in the past year Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has saved an additional £1 billion by tackling fraud and error in the tax credit system. For many years, the flaws in the shambolic administration of tax credits went completely ignored by the Labour party, causing misery for hundreds of thousands of families and costing the taxpayer billions of pounds, but we are now sorting out this mess.

T3. Has the Chancellor had an opportunity to note the findings of last week’s report from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which show the contraction in public and private demand since emerging from the recession to be higher in this country than in any comparable major economy? Does that not show that the Government are cutting too far and too fast? (54748)

First, the report recommends higher taxes and higher interest rates—perhaps that has become part of the Labour party’s official policy. I think it is worth looking at what the CBI has said this week. I have already quoted what it said when I was asked what the outcome would have been had Britain followed Labour’s plans—it said there would have been weaker economic growth—but its director general has also said:

“We are rock solid behind the chancellor’s plans to eliminate the structural deficit within a parliament”,

which are an

“essential part of putting the economy back on a stable footing”.

That is the voice of British business’s view of the deficit. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor says that is not true. A couple of months ago he was quoting the CBI across the Dispatch Box at me, but now that the CBI says that Labour’s economic policies would lead to weaker economic growth, he is in denial about that too.

T2. What financial stress test will the Treasury impose before allowing the Department of Health to authorise general practitioner or clinical consortia? (54747)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, which raises a very important issue. It is a key part of the Treasury’s engagement with this to make sure that the process for authorising GP consortia ensures that those organisations are fully financially capable, as well as clinically capable, of meeting their objectives before they are authorised on whatever timescale.

T7. Does the Chancellor recall his statement to the House in October, when he said:“I completely understand the public’s anger that the banks…should now be contemplating paying high bonuses”?—[Official Report, 20 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 955.]It is all very well being angry about that, but why do the banks continue to pay high bonuses to their high-ranking directors and why does he not do something about it? Why does he not repeat Labour’s bank bonus tax and reinvest the money in jobs, housing and many other things that the people of this country want? (54752)

Bank bonuses were higher when the hon. Gentleman was a Minister. There is complete amnesia among the Opposition about their having presided over the collapse of the British banking system and over bonuses that were billions of pounds higher in total than those being paid today, and they have no ideas about how to reform the banking system. The Chancellor who introduced the bank bonus tax to which the hon. Gentleman refers said that it would not work again. We have introduced a permanent bank levy which, I think, the Labour party continues to oppose.

T4. The economy of Hastings received a tremendous boost today when the Heritage Lottery Fund announced that it would support our bid for £8.7 million for the pier renewal but, sadly, seaside towns in general and we in Hastings suffer from bad transport links, high public sector employment and low wages. Will the Chancellor consider what can be done to support seaside towns under this Government? (54749)

I join my hon. Friend in celebrating the good news about the successful bid for the renovation of the pier. She is right to point out that there are specific issues associated with seaside towns across the country which are well known to the Members who represent them and well known also to the Government. We intend to come forward with proposals later this year to help those seaside towns.

T8. Household debt has been revised upwards by £300 billion, and my constituency, Gateshead, has one of the highest rates of personal insolvency in the country. What is the point of cutting the national debt, only to transfer the burden on to the personal finances of ordinary families? It is blindingly obvious that we are not all in this together—some of us are in this up to our necks. (54753)

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman misses two important facts. First, the most recent figures—within the past week—for personal insolvencies showed a welcome fall. Secondly, household debt reached a record level under the previous Government. As I said in response to the first question today, we are introducing a Financial Policy Committee to assess overall levels of private debt, including business debt, in the economy so that we do not allow dangerous unsustainable levels to grow. That will now be a judgment for the Financial Policy Committee and it will have the tools to do something about it.

T5. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on what discussions he has had about the likelihood of a further bail-out of the Greek economy and whether he has made any assessment of the UK’s likely contribution? (54750)

The answer is that we have not had discussions about a second Greek bail-out and we have not been asked to make a contribution. The question for Greece is whether it lives up to the commitments that it has entered into. There is currently an International Monetary Fund, European Commission and European Central Bank team in Athens assessing Greece’s progress against the plan that it committed to, and we should await the results of that assessment.

A year ago the Office for Budget Responsibility was projecting growth in the UK economy of 2.6% this year. Now the forecast is down to 1.7%. What has gone wrong?

As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, there are very significant global headwinds of the high oil—[Interruption.] I know that Labour Members live in a complete vacuum but, according to the most recent growth figures for this first quarter, the British economy posted a higher quarterly growth rate than the United States of America. Of course we have the high oil price and the ongoing problem in the eurozone, but what is required above all is a credible deficit reduction plan that keeps Britain out of the financial danger zone.

T6. Given that Plymouth is a low-skills, low- wage economy with 38% of the work force dependent on the public sector, can my right hon. Friend give me the timetable for the creation of enterprise zones? What role could green deal manufacturing play within that? (54751)

I know that my hon. Friend is a trenchant supporter of his constituency and a promoter of green industry there. He has raised the issue with me on a number of occasions. I know that Plymouth has put forward a bid for the second round of enterprise zones. An announcement will be made later this summer, in July, and I am afraid he will just have to wait until then, but as I say, he has certainly brought to my attention the potential for the green economy in the city that he represents.

May I offer my condolences to the friends, family and colleagues of David Cairns? He was a man who always argued his corner with intelligence and humour, and carried the rare gift of being liked and respected across the Scottish political divide. We will all miss him.

I am sure the House is pleased that both Santander and RBS have access to European Investment Bank funds to issue discounted loans into the economy—£150 million in the case of Santander, and a third tranche of £300 million in the case of RBS. Can the Chancellor confirm that this is new, additional money, or will it be rolled into the gross lending figures already agreed?

Let me write to the hon. Gentleman on the specific issue of the Santander loan and the application to the European funds. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Scottish National party on its victory in the Scottish parliamentary elections and say that we respect their outcome. As he knows, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister contacted the Scottish First Minister to congratulate him personally. I hope that we can work together in the next few months and years to deliver what we both want to see, which is jobs and prosperity in Scotland.

T9. US Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner, recently praised the Government’s fiscal reduction plans, saying that the Chancellor had locked the coalition Government into a set of reforms that were “very good”. What lessons has he drawn from this powerful endorsement? (54754)

Of course it is welcome to have the support of the US Treasury Secretary. It is interesting that we have been urged for some months by Labour to follow the US example. The Obama Administration, in the speech the President gave at George Washington university, set out a deficit reduction plan—it is not yet legislated for in Congress—that goes faster and deeper than the one we are promoting here in the UK. I suspect that we will not now hear the argument that we have heard for the past few months from the Labour party.

May I associate myself with the remarks about our much-missed colleague David Cairns that you, Mr Speaker, and others have made?

Recent commentators have suggested that it is possible that the Government will not meet their target to balance the cyclically adjusted current budget by 2015-16, by the end of this Parliament. If it becomes clear that Tory cuts are not working to reduce the deficit, at what stage will the Chancellor change course?

I have just been told by my hon. Friend the Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands) something about the hon. Lady that I did not know: she is the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the previous leader of the Labour party. It is presumably not a job with onerous responsibilities, but it sounds as though he may have written that question for her. The Office for Budget Responsibility is the independent body that assesses our ability to hit the fiscal mandate. The reason we set it up was because under the stewardship of the person to whom she is PPS all credibility for Treasury figures was lost.

It is incredibly important to try to increase the number of women who set up their own businesses. The Government have undertaken a number of specific initiatives, driven from No. 10 Downing street, and I will ensure that my hon. Friend is closely involved in them.

Yesterday, in a welcome move, the British banking industry abandoned its legal fight with the Financial Services Authority over the mis-selling of payment protection insurance. Does the Chancellor agree that this scandal, as a result of which millions of people in this country were fleeced by the banking sector on a large scale, was an absolute disgrace and that the banks involved should settle the claims that arise, immediately and without further delay?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the mis-selling of PPI. This happened under the regulatory regime that his colleagues set up when they were in government. One aspect of the reforms that we are introducing by setting up the financial conduct authority is to give the regulator more powers to intervene earlier to prevent that sort of scandal happening again.

Given the Chancellor’s concern for the use of taxpayers’ money, will he really allow members of GP consortia boards to be paid as much as £30,000 a year for just one day’s work a week?

As I said in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (John Pugh), one of the things we need to do as part of the listening exercise is hear the concerns about how consortia will work and ensure that the financial regime that is in place is sustainable and puts the maximum amount of resource to the front line.

The Chancellor did not answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), so I would like to give the right hon. Gentleman another chance. Will he repeat the bank bonus tax that was so successful last year and use that money to build the extra affordable homes, to rent and to buy, which are desperately needed by people in this country and by the construction industry, and which would be good for the economy?

As I was explaining to the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), the bank bonus tax was introduced by the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it was his judgment that it would not work for another year because the banks would find a way of avoiding it. That is why we introduced a permanent bank levy not just for one year, but for each and every year. In any one year it raises more than the bank bonus tax net, so that is what we have done. It is pretty striking: Labour Members had 13 years in government to introduce a permanent bank tax; they did not do so, and they cannot carp from the sidelines now.

The gold was sold, I think on the advice of the current shadow Chancellor, at $3.5 billion—a princely sum, except that it would now be worth $19 billion.