The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Debt Level (GDP)
1. What assessment he has made of potential trends in the level of debt as a proportion of gross domestic product to 2014-15. (60772)
This Government inherited plans that had Government debt rising as a share of GDP in 2014-15. Thanks to the credible plan that we have put in place, debt is now forecast to be falling in that year.
Would the Chancellor of the Exchequer like to take this opportunity to explain why the Office for Budget Responsibility now says that the Government will need to borrow £46 billion more than was estimated a few months ago? Would he also like to take this opportunity to accept that, by cutting too far and too fast, we will fall into a vicious circle that will make it more difficult to pay off the deficit in the long term?
The public finance figures are out today, and they show that the British economy and the British Government are on track to reduce the budget deficit, as we forecast in the Budget. On a day like this, in a week like this, for the Opposition to suggest that we should abandon our credible deficit reduction plan shows how out of touch they are with what is going on in the world today.
Will the Chancellor confirm that national debt as a proportion of GDP was 36.5% in 2007-08, before the global crisis, which was significantly lower than the 42.5% that we inherited from the previous Government, and lower than in America, France, Germany and Japan?
There is this myth on the Opposition Benches that we inherited a golden economic legacy. It is not a myth believed in by the International Monetary Fund, the OECD or the CBI, nor is it a view shared by Tony Blair or the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), both of whom have identified—since the general election, of course—the fact that Labour was running into spending problems in 2007 and that the structural deficit was starting to build before the global economic crisis that the hon. Lady mentioned.
My hon. Friend draws attention to the completely ludicrous policy put forward by the shadow Chancellor last week—it was mentioned just on that Thursday, and has not been repeated by any Labour politician since—for a £13 billion unfunded tax change, or £51 billion over the Parliament. The policy is totally incredible, and was rejected by every serious economic commentator on the day. It just shows how far those on the shadow Front Bench have to go to make good for the mistakes that they made in office.
Given the large amount of state bank debt still on the balance sheet, will my right hon. Friend consider a scheme to make an early transfer of shares in the state-owned banks to taxpayers for free, on condition that, as and when people sell, they send money back to the Treasury to represent the Treasury cost of those shares?
I am always happy to discuss the ideas of my right hon. Friend or other Members on how we dispose of those bank shares. The House will know that we announced last week that we are putting Northern Rock up for sale—the good bank in Northern Rock, of course; the state will hold on to the bad bank for many years to come. We want to exit from our shareholdings in RBS and Lloyds in due course, but we do not judge now to be the right time.
I am very much looking forward to our debate on the economy tomorrow, on the anniversary of the Government’s first Budget. I do hope that the Chancellor is looking forward to the debate too, but today let me ask him about another matter of great importance to our economy, our national debt and our wider national interest. Three months ago the Chancellor told the House that the cost of the intervention in Libya, which the Opposition support, would be
“in the order of tens of millions of pounds, not hundreds of millions.”—[Official Report, 22 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 850.]
That was followed the next day by headlines—which would have been read by the Gaddafi regime—saying that the Chancellor and the Government thought that the campaign would be over in a month. Does the Chancellor now accept that that was a mistake? Will he tell the House how much has been spent so far? Will he also give the House his latest estimate of what the full cost of the campaign is likely to be and what its impact on the national debt will be?
I see that the shadow Chancellor is following his former master’s habit of straying from the direct area of his brief, but there we go. Let me deal directly with Libya. What I told the House at the time was that the cost estimated at the time by the Ministry of Defence was in the tens of millions of pounds, and the Ministry of Defence is planning to provide an update to the House on the full costs, I think within the next week.
This is a Treasury matter. It is about Treasury spending from the reserve, and it has a direct bearing on the national debt as well as on our national interests. It seems rather odd that, at the outset of the campaign, the Chancellor was happy to give a detailed answer, yet he now says that he cannot do so. Does he not know, or is he not prepared to do so? Just a few weeks ago, the White House provided the US Congress with a 34-page document giving details of the costs up to 3 June and the likely costs up to September. Will the Chancellor now agree to provide this House with similar information on the cost of Britain’s involvement in Libya, and to make a full Treasury statement to the House?
If the right hon. Gentleman had been listening, he would have heard me say that the Ministry of Defence was going to provide an update on the costs within the next week. I know that, when he was in the Treasury, everything was a Treasury matter, but in this Government we let the Ministry of Defence talk about defence operations, just as we let the Department for Education talk about schools and the Department of Health talk about the NHS. The Ministry of Defence will provide an update on the costs within the next week. The costs come from the special reserve, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, and I can tell him that they are very much lower than those of the ongoing operations in Afghanistan.
13. What assessment he has made of the likelihood that the growth outturn will meet or exceed the forecast for 2011 made by the Office for Budget Responsibility in June 2010. (60784)
The Office for Budget Responsibility’s latest economic forecasts were published in March. The whole purpose of creating the OBR was to have forecasts that were independent of the Chancellor, so for me to give a running forecast would completely undermine the institution. To strengthen its independence, I am today announcing the appointment of Lord Burns and Kate Barker as the new non-executive members of the OBR. They were posts that the Treasury Select Committee recommended that we create. I am also announcing today the new appointment of Michael Cohrs as a non-executive director of the Court of the Bank of England, along with the re-appointment of Sir Roger Carr, Lady Susan Rice and Harrison Young—
A year ago at the Dispatch Box, the Chancellor said that, in his judgment, we would have sustained economic growth, even in the face of the cuts agenda that he is pursuing. Does he now believe that the 1.7% economic growth that the OBR has forecast will be met, or will we face a fourth period of downgrading its growth forecasts?
The OBR is a new institution that I think we all agreed should be established and put on a statutory footing. It is independent, and it makes independent forecasts. If the Chancellor of the day started giving a running commentary on those forecasts or making his own forecasts, that would completely undermine the OBR. The institution was introduced in order to give more credible independent information to Parliament. It is interesting that, in the acceptance speech that the former Foreign Secretary would have given if he had become the Labour leader, one of his central points was that Labour should embrace the OBR as an idea that it should have had while in office and that it should support in opposition.
I think the hon. Gentleman will find that the Government changed a year ago. I would say to the hon. Lady that the economy is now growing, and that in the past year more than 500,000 private sector jobs net have been created, which the Opposition should welcome. Exports are up 13%, investment is up 5.8% and manufacturing is up 4.2%—[Interruption.] Well, we remember when that lot were in a couple of years ago and the economy was tanking. Now it is growing and, as the public finance figures show today, we are getting the budget deficit down, dealing with our borrowing problem and restoring stability to the British economy. That is why the plans that we have put in place have been welcomed by so many independent organisations.
The Office for Budget Responsibility is scoring the value of most asset sales other than banks at zero in the forecast, on the grounds that it cannot estimate their value. Will the Chancellor provide every assistance possible to the OBR, so that an estimate can be incorporated in its assessment of long-run sustainability, which it is due to publish in three weeks? Is that not an early issue for the newly appointed non-executives to take up?
I am certainly aware that the Treasury Committee and the Office for Budget Responsibility are in discussions over privatisation receipts and other asset sales, but I do not think that it would be right for me to intrude in that discussion. I can give my hon. Friend the commitment that we will certainly provide the OBR with any information it asks for.
In reaction to this year’s Budget, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said that, if the Chancellor is to meet his borrowing targets, he will be
“now even more dependent on a bounce back in the rate of economic growth from 2013”.
Borrowing has already been £1.5 billion higher in the first two months of this financial year than it was in the same period last year, as the Chancellor’s tax rises and spending cuts kick in. If growth outturns fail to meet the forecasts, will the Government change their plans on borrowing?
When the director of the IFS was asked this month:
“Have things changed so much in the past 12 months that you would expect the Government to change course now?”
he replied, “No”. In fact, the advice of the IMF is also that now would be the wrong time to adjust macro-economic policies, while the Governor of the Bank of England at Mansion house said that we should not adjust the macro-economic mix. The truth is that the Labour Opposition, who got us into this mess, have absolutely no answers for getting us out of it. Is it not striking that the shadow Chancellor gave a speech last week with his big new economic policy, and not a single Labour MP has mentioned it yet?
UK Economic Policy (IMF)
The IMF completed its article IV assessment of the UK economy this month. Its recommendation could not have been clearer. When asked whether it was time to adjust macro-economic policies, its answer was no.
I am delighted that the IMF has confirmed that the Chancellor is pursuing the right strategy to clear up the mess left by the last rotten Labour Government. Will he explain why the yield on UK Government bonds is only 0.25% higher than in Germany, whereas in Portugal it is 8.5% higher?
The simple reason is that we have a credible deficit reduction plan. Even though we inherited a deficit higher than Portugal’s, our interest rates are closer to those of Germany. Indeed, the spread over Bunds—the difference between German and UK interest rates—has come down substantially over the last year, even though that gap has gone up in France, Spain and other European countries. The real monetary stimulus being provided to the economy by those low interest rates is anchored in the credible deficit reduction plan.
May I take up the point made by the Chancellor about the outstanding speech made by my right hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor? Why does the Chancellor have this touching, childlike faith in the views of the IMF when it got things dead wrong on the exchange rate mechanism, which it unfortunately imposed on this country the previous time it had the misfortune to have a Tory Government?
Is my right hon. Friend aware of the recent comments of the director general of the CBI? He said:
“Acting swiftly and decisively on the deficit has…laid a firm foundation for…growth.”
Who does my right hon. Friend think is more plausible: the director general of the CBI or the lone voice opposite?
I think the CBI’s view reflects those of almost the entire business community in Britain and almost all international commentators on the United Kingdom economy. When the CBI was asked explicitly what it thought of the Labour party’s plans, its chief economic adviser said:
“The economy would be weaker because of the impact of a loss of confidence in the markets.”
Since the Government came to power, the growth forecast for this year has been downgraded by 1%. The IMF has also said that the speed of Government cuts poses a risk of higher inflation, lower growth and rising unemployment. Does the Chancellor agree with the IMF, which he is keen to support, that if
“a prolonged period of weak growth”
—which we have at present—
is in prospect, “temporary tax cuts” should be considered?
First, the right hon. Gentleman has misquoted the IMF. Perhaps he will give the House the full quotation. The IMF did not say “at present”, which the right hon. Gentleman slipped into the quotation. [Interruption.] Perhaps he will take the opportunity to correct the record later. Secondly, the IMF said:
“Strong fiscal consolidation is underway and remains essential”.
The managing director of the IMF could not have been stronger in his endorsement through article IV.
I note that three Opposition Front Benchers have asked questions, and that not one has mentioned the new policy of the shadow Chancellor.
The Government consider a range of factors when making their assessment of the United Kingdom economy. The Office for Budget Responsibility is responsible for producing independent economic and fiscal forecasts. The OBR published a full analysis of recent developments and the prospects for growth and inflation in its forecast at the time of the Budget.
First, the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), said that he would have done the same. Secondly, a cut in VAT would do nothing to reverse the rise in global commodity prices, but would do a lot to reverse the Government’s hard-won credibility for getting the deficit down.
In the light of what the Minister has said, may I invite him to Tesco’s in Tottenham high road, where he will meet some of my constituents who must deal with higher food prices, rising electricity and gas prices and, now, redundancy and the loss of most of the services on which they rely?
I shall try to focus on inflation, Mr Speaker, but I think that it is important to the economy all round, in terms of inflation and of other factors, for us to maintain credibility. That is something that the Government have and the Opposition, I am afraid, do not.
The fact that global commodity prices are rising and that the UK experienced a significant devaluation under the last Government mean that we face an issue with inflation, but it is the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England that has responsibility for that. It is one of the few policies of the last Government that still has any credibility. Is the Labour party distancing itself from that policy as well?
Obviously, the Minister did not know that the answer is only two: Estonia and Turkey. He can huff and puff and blame world commodity prices all he wants, but is it not obvious that the Chancellor’s decision to put up VAT in January because he chose to cut too far too fast is causing real hardship to families throughout the country as they struggle to cope with the most vicious squeeze on living standards in generations? When is he going to realise that his economic policy is hurting and it is not working, and that the whole Treasury Front-Bench team is out of its depth?
For a moment, the hon. Lady got quite close to supporting the policy the shadow Chancellor announced last week, but she did not quite do so. The fact is that the Bank of England says the main causes of inflation are to do with the devaluation and rising global commodity prices. That is the truth; that is the reality—[Interruption.] Well, that is what the Bank of England says, and I suspect it has a bit more expertise than the hon. Lady.
The independent Office for Budget Responsibility published its latest forecast on the structural deficit in the March economic and fiscal outlook. The OBR forecast shows the structural deficit was 7.4% of GDP in 2010-11.
I thank the Minister for that answer. Does he agree that one of the main reasons we are experiencing financial difficulties and the large budget deficit is the simply that for a number of years prior to the recession the Labour Government were borrowing money while other, prudent economies were repaying debt, and that has exacerbated our problems now?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and he makes an important point. This country was running a structural deficit from 2002 onwards, so his analysis is exactly right. However, that was not the only problem with the previous Government’s policy, of course; another was their abject failure to regulate the banks and deal with the financial system. That is a further major cause of the problems we face.
Does the Chief Secretary accept that his and his Government’s macho approach of massive cuts and confronting the unions is reducing consumer confidence, which in turn is reducing investment, and that that is hindering growth and has led to the March deficit forecast being increased by £46 billion, which is almost £1,000 per person in Britain?
No, I do not. The decisions we have taken on reducing the enormous budget deficit we inherited from Labour were absolutely necessary to restore confidence in this country’s ability to pay its way in the world, and that is helping to deliver the low interest rates that are delivering a significant benefit to our economy. The hon. Gentleman should recognise that, too.
Will the Chief Secretary reassure the House that he will never behave as irresponsibly as The Daily Telegraph has revealed the last Government did? When faced with a massive structural deficit before the recession, they increased spending by £90 billion between 2007 and 2010, even though the Treasury told them to increase spending only in line with inflation.
I can certainly confirm that we will not repeat that mistake. We have all seen the document entitled, “We’ve spent all this money, but what have we got for it?” It is very important that this country maintains the spending plans we set out in the spending review, in order to deliver the deficit reduction that this country needs to establish confidence in our economy.
Bank Lending (Small Businesses)
Under Project Merlin, the banks loaned a total of £47.3 billion to UK businesses in the first quarter of 2011, including £16.8 billion to small and medium-sized enterprises. The Government are encouraged that banks are broadly on target to meet their overall commitments. However, it is disappointing that banks are behind schedule on SME loans, and they clearly need to do much more work to deliver on their commitments.
We must ensure that banks signal to businesses that they are open for business and that they have the capacity to lend to businesses. That is why we work with the banks to deliver Project Merlin, but, as I have said, there is more work for the banks to do to ensure they lend to small businesses, and we will continue to hold them to account on that.
Did Project Merlin also cover transparency in respect of the covenants banks require small businesses to put forward, and has that increased over the last three or four years? I ask because this seems to be one of the big barriers to small businesses taking out loans.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the relationship between banks and their customers and the transparency of that relationship. That is why the British Bankers Association business taskforce has introduced a range of measures to look at the relationship between banks and their customers and we will continue to monitor that work. It is important that banks are transparent with their customers about the terms on which loans are offered.
My constituent Ashlea Hassan came to see me last week with her idea for setting up a small business. Despite having been told by every bank she has visited that she has an excellent business plan, a brilliant concept and enough equity in her house, not one of them is prepared to lend her the £40,000 she needs to set up her business. What advice does the Minister have for my constituent?
I would encourage the hon. Lady to suggest to her constituent that she pursue the appeal route that each bank has to enable businesses to appeal against lending decisions. That is a very transparent process that would, one hopes, reach the outcome that her constituent wants. The hon. Lady could also encourage her constituent to approach business angels for investment. We announced in the Budget a review of venture capital trusts and enterprise investment scheme reliefs to encourage more investors to commit more money to small and medium-sized enterprises.
At the Budget this year we announced the most radical and generous series of charity tax reforms for more than 20 years. The measures were not just about improving support for gift aid and payroll giving—we also introduced new measures to improve the inheritance tax system so that we can encourage more bequests.
My hon. Friend is right to point out that we have taken a number of steps to improve the ability of gift aid to help charities. There are about 100,000 charities and community and amateur sports clubs currently registered for gift aid, all of which should be able to benefit in part or in entirety from these changes.
The reality of the Government’s approach to charities is that they have imposed a tax burden on charities by increasing VAT. If the Minister really wants to do something positive for charities, why does she not extend to them the same tax relief relating to VAT that is extended to local government?
I emphasise to the hon. Gentleman that the measures we came up with for the Budget were ones that we talked to charities about in order to pull together. Over this Parliament, the measures will encourage approximately £600 million more going to charities from donations, and I think that all hon. Members across the House should welcome that.
Banks operating in the UK make a significant contribution to the economy and public finances. However, as the financial crisis demonstrated, the sector also posed a potential risk to the wider economy and it is only fair for the banks to make an additional contribution to reflect that. That is why we have implemented a permanent levy on the balance sheet of banks, which will raise more than £2.5 billion each year.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but will he recognise the enormous feeling throughout the country that the banks need to fulfil their responsibility for the challenges we face? Will he therefore explain the stubborn refusal of the Government to repeat last year’s bonus tax, on top of the bank levy, which would generate the revenue to build 25,000 affordable homes and create 100,000 new jobs?
The corporation tax arrangements for banks are similar to those for other businesses. That is one reason why we have imposed the additional bank levy, which will raise more each year over this Parliament than the previous Government’s bank payroll tax did. It is important that the banks make a contribution to reflect the risk that they pose to the wider economy.
The unemployment rate has fallen recently: in the latest data, it was 7.7%—down from 7.9% on the quarter. The Office for Budget Responsibility assumed at Budget 2011 that the structural rate of unemployment was unchanged from its previous trends at 5.25%. In the medium term, unemployment is expected to fall as the economy recovers, supported by the action taken by the Government, including measures published in the Budget and “The Plan for Growth.”
Youth unemployment peaked in 1985 four years after the recession of 1981, with disastrous consequences for a generation of young people. When the Chancellor scrapped the future jobs fund he showed that he had not learned from what happened in the 1980s. Is not the truth that the Chancellor is out of touch with the realities of life for young people and is on course to repeat the same mistakes as the Tories made in the 1980s, with the same disastrous consequences?
If the hon. Gentleman was being fair, he would recognise that youth unemployment was growing substantially under the previous Government as well. The country has faced the problem for many years, which is why in the Budget we announced a £200 million package of support, including work experience placements for young people, skills training, guaranteed interviews and progression to apprenticeships. Including the measures in the Budget and the spending review, we will deliver at least 250,000 more apprenticeships over the next four years, compared with the previous Government’s plans.
Since this nightmare coalition came to power, the number of people out of work in my constituency has increased, and that is even before the cuts really start to bite. Is it not a fact that the Chancellor, like many Members on the Government Benches, still believes that unemployment is a price worth paying?
Certainly not. That is why in Merseyside, we have announced a new enterprise zone that will encompass the Liverpool Waters and Mersey Waters regeneration projects. The regional growth fund has announced several projects in Merseyside, and the Work programme in Merseyside will help to deliver support for people to get off benefits and into work; the second contractor got under way yesterday. I hope the hon. Gentleman agrees that is a serious programme to help people off benefit and into work in Merseyside.
Will the Minister confirm that the recent announcement of the sharpest fall in unemployment in a decade and the creation of 500,000 jobs in the private sector over the past year shows hope that things are going in the right direction for unemployment?
We always said that the economic recovery would be choppy, but it is none the less welcome that we have seen significant job creation in the private sector over the past year. That offsets some of the job reductions in the public sector that are necessary as part of our deficit reduction programme.
May I tell my right hon. Friend that since May last year unemployment in my constituency has fallen by 11%? That is due to fast-growing private companies, such as Pegasystems. Is not the key to reducing high unemployment sticking to the deficit reduction programme and removing barriers to growth?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have to stick to the deficit reduction programme, which is the essential underpinning for future economic growth in this country. We also need to take steps to ensure that that economic growth is balanced across the country, and the regional growth fund and the local enterprise partnership programme are an important part of ensuring that we have growth across the entire United Kingdom.
Job Creation (Private Sector)
Last week, the Office for National Statistics published private sector employment numbers for the first quarter of 2011. They showed that private sector employment has risen for five consecutive quarters by 560,000 in total. That is the largest increase recorded over five consecutive quarters since the ONS started to publish the quarterly series of private sector employment in 1999.
I welcome those figures, but—like other Members—I constantly meet in Lancaster and Fleetwood small and medium-sized enterprises that have orders and could take on new staff and deal with the unemployment situation, but are being frustrated by the banks. What further support can the Minister offer to those much-needed engines of private sector growth?
That is why we introduced Project Merlin. We have also taken other measures to encourage funding for small businesses. The banks have set up the business growth fund, which can invest capital in medium-sized businesses to help them grow. We have approved arrangements for business angels to invest more in small and medium-sized businesses. These are the measures we need to take to introduce a range of available finance so that small businesses and private sector employment can continue to grow.
When a constituent comes to my constituency surgery or writes to me, and I write to the Treasury because that is where their question should be answered, why, after a long process, is the Treasury now saying that I will not get a letter in reply because a circular was sent some months ago? The Minister now answering is the one who is responsible. Why is that practice happening in the Treasury?
Budget (June 2010)
As the House knows, the Government published huge amounts of analysis of the impact of the measures announced in the Budget of June 2010. The majority of the measures have now been implemented. The charts in the Budget book show that the most well-off households make the largest contribution to the fiscal consolidation, both in cash terms and as a proportion of their net income.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but has she seen the analysis produced by the House of Commons Library and my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) showing that the measures in the last Budget hit women three times as hard as they hit men? Why is that?
I do not accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question at all. As ever, what we have heard from the Opposition is a cheap political point-scoring jibe. They might be better advised to come up with an alternative plan for tackling the fiscal deficit. The hon. Gentleman had nothing to say to my response to him, which implied that it is the most well-off households in the country that are bearing the brunt of the fiscal consolidation.
A year ago, when the Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis found that the Budget was a regressive one, the Treasury objected to that analysis on the basis that the IFS had not properly considered the incentives to economic growth that the Budget contained, but given that growth is now flatlining and seems to be frequently downgraded, is the Treasury willing to accept that the IFS analysis last year was entirely correct?
The IFS analysis was very clear-cut that it was indeed the most well-off people in our country who were bearing the brunt of the fiscal consolidation measures. I draw the House’s attention to the need to look at the overall impact of not just the Budget 2010, but the spending review and the Budget this year. They show that the most well-off people in our country are bearing the brunt of the fiscal consolidation, whether that is measured in terms of their income or of their expenditure.
The incentives for job creation in the June 2010 and subsequent Budgets are to be welcomed, but given that for every 10 new jobs eight go to foreign-born workers, what more can be done to encourage the employment of the indigenous work force?
As my hon. Friend knows, one of the key aspects of the Budget this year was to launch “The Plan for Growth”. A key part of that was to provide for more apprenticeships and more work experience so that we can make sure that people have the right skills that companies in this country need.
Growth forecasts are for the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. In March it forecast the economy to grow by 1.7% in 2011, 2.5% in 2012 and 2.9% in 2013.
As I say, growth forecasts are a matter for the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. I am clear that the deficit reduction programme is essential to ensure that we have confidence in the UK economy. Given that the Opposition caused the mess we are trying to clear up, I hoped the hon. Lady would support that.
Does the Chief Secretary agree that one of the assessments that we can make on growth is that encouraging job creation in the private sector will see a reversal of the decline in the productivity experienced when the Labour party was in power, and is likely to see growth forecasts continue to rise?
The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to see the private sector lead the economic recovery. Many of the measures that we announced in “The Plan for Growth”, such as reforms to the planning system, the measures on regulation and some of the tax measures that we announced to support investment, will all help to encourage and support private sector businesses to lead the recovery that we all want to see.
Last Thursday we published “A new approach to financial regulation: the blueprint for reform”, which sets out the Government’s proposals to reform financial regulation in the UK.
With a permanent annual levy worth £2.5 billion, tough rules on bonuses, a new deal on lending and regulatory responsibility returned to the Bank of England and handed to a new Financial Conduct Authority, is not the coalition making good progress in creating a sustainable banking system?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we have made significant progress over the past year in getting the financial regulatory system back in good shape. Of course, the Opposition should remember that it was the shadow Chancellor who spent his time in office trumpeting the value of light-touch regulation across the world.
Will the Minister assure us that, in the context of his current work on regulation, the anomalous position of credit unions in Northern Ireland, which have much bigger memberships and funds than those in the rest of the UK but cannot offer the same range of services, will be addressed, along with industrial and provident societies in Northern Ireland, which are also in something of a regulatory black hole?
As set out before, the core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability of the economy, promote growth and jobs, reform banking and clear up the mess in the public finances that we inherited.
T4. Dr Adrian Steele, the managing director of Mercian Labels in Cannock, has just been named as one of the midlands’ most promising entrepreneurs. His company supplies labels and barcodes to the medical industry and employs 32 people. Does the Chancellor agree that it is small business entrepreneurs such as Dr Steele who will grow our economy back to strength, and will he continue to support manufacturers, who were shamefully neglected by the Labour party? (60800)
My hon. Friend is right. Manufacturing halved as a share of our economy under the Labour Government and financial services grew dramatically over that period. Since the last election, manufacturing output is up 4.2% and the private sector has created more than 500,000 new jobs net, which is all good news. The example he brings to the Chamber is just one of many companies that are investing and employing people, and despite a choppy recovery we should celebrate that.
T7. On 14 February the Governor of the Bank of England told the Chancellor that his VAT rise had caused inflation. On 16 May the Governor again told him that his VAT rise had caused inflation. Will he tell me how he is measuring the impact of his VAT rise on the rest of our economy and whether it was a rise too far, too fast? (60803)
The Governor of the Bank of England had his opportunity at the Mansion House to comment on the macro-economic policies pursued by the Government, and he said that
“to change the broad policy mix would make little sense.”
That is the judgment of the Governor of the Bank of England, and the hon. Lady may now find herself, like the shadow Chancellor, against the IMF, against the IFS, against the Governor of the Bank of England and against the CBI. It leaves the right hon. Gentleman completely alone, and it leaves the Labour party’s economic policy absolutely isolated in the world. Now, she is a new Member, and I know that she has been saddled with being the former Prime Minister’s private secretary, but she can break away from the nonsense being spouted by Opposition Members.
T5. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the shortest suicide note in history consists of just five letters—plan B? (60801)
T9. About 20,000 UK citizens, including some of my constituents, have lost their savings by investing in the fund management company, Arch Cru. Will the Chancellor step in and investigate the role of the Financial Services Authority in the failure of that company? (60806)
The hon. Gentleman may well be aware that today an announcement was made of a voluntary scheme that we have put together to make available £54 million of compensation to Arch Cru investors. That, together with a previous payment to consumers, means that they will have recovered about 70% of the value of their holdings in Arch Cru funds as of the date when the funds’ trading was suspended. That is a welcome move for Arch Cru investors, the FSA is continuing to look at the matter, and it would be inappropriate to make any further comment on it.
T6. Has the Chancellor had cause to regret a decision, made by one of his predecessors, to sell the UK gold reserves a decade ago at the bottom of the market, a decision that has cost this country just under £10 billion? (60802)
My hon. Friend is right: it is a decision of great regret. The gold was sold at £2.3 billion, and it would now be worth £12 billion, which as he says is a £10 billion loss. The Labour party, on the advice of the shadow Chancellor, managed to sell gold at its record low price. Indeed, gold traders now call it the Brown bottom. That is how they know the number, and it is yet another disastrous decision after which we are having to clean up.
The Chancellor will be aware of the recent Office for National Statistics finding that the regressive nature of VAT means that the UK tax system is doing almost nothing to prevent income inequality. In that context, will he pay particular attention to a Fawcett Society report, to be launched tomorrow, which shows that his fiscal policies, such as increasing VAT, cause particular harm to lone parents, 92% of whom are women?
May I also point out that our tax policies include taking hundreds of thousands of people out of income tax altogether? On the particular subject that the hon. Lady raises, of those taken out of income tax following the announcement in the Budget earlier this year, 56% will be women.
T8. Which does the Chancellor think is better for low-paid workers in Worcester: the Government taking 1 million of the lowest paid out of tax altogether; or the previous Government’s move to double their tax by scrapping the 10p tax rate? (60804)
As my hon. Friend points out, we have taken more than 1 million low-paid people out of income tax. We are committed to further such moves through this Parliament, and that is in stark contrast to the 10p tax raid in the previous Parliament. Of course, we now discover that, before the decision was made, the shadow Chancellor knew all about its impact on the poorest fifth in our society.
The Chancellor thought it proper in his Mansion House speech to give the bankers of the City first go on his views about the ring-fencing of banks. Apart from that being discourteous to the banking commission, which he set up, does he not think it discourteous to this House that he is prepared to give bankers that information but not to come and explain it to the House and take questions?
First, the announcement was made with the consent of the Independent Commission on Banking. Secondly, it is established that the Chancellor is able to give the Mansion House speech each year. I seem to remember that the last-but-one Chancellor announced the renewal of the nuclear deterrent at the Mansion House without coming to the House of Commons to do so. If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to say something about banking reform at the Mansion House in the years to come, I will therefore be grateful.
The spending review said that employee contributions to public sector pensions would need to increase in order to make the funds sustainable for the future. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that rate should not be applied uniformly in order to protect the lowest-paid public sector workers and encourage them to stay within public sector pension schemes?
I am grateful for the question. I agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, a similar point has been made by several trade union representatives in the very constructive talks that we are having at the moment, which will be going on over the next few weeks. In applying the increase in pension contributions, it is very important to protect the low-paid so as to minimise the risk of opt-out.
Repossessions are rising and are up by 17% on the last quarter. That is very reminiscent, sadly, of the conditions under the Conservative Government in the 1990s and the cost and misery caused to families. Will the Chancellor, and perhaps the housing Minister, tell us what direct action he is going to take to support those affected and to restore confidence to the housing market?
The hon. Lady is right to highlight the increased number of repossessions. We want to see a strong and stable housing market. The Government have taken action to support those who wish to stay in their homes through an extension of the scheme for mortgage interest support. We are continuing to make sure that advice is available to people who are facing difficulties in meeting their mortgage payments. The important thing, however, is to keep interest rates as low as possible for as long as possible so that families are not faced with an increase in their mortgage payments.
As my right hon. Friend will know, the supply-side reforms that were set out in the growth review, including the reduction in corporate tax rates, are key. At the same time, as banks’ balance sheets inevitably contract after the credit crunch and after the dramatic increase in the size of balance sheets over recent years, we need to ensure that we try to protect small and medium-sized businesses from the effects of that. That is why we concluded the Merlin deal with the banks.
The Minister will be aware that the claimant count has continued to rise in the past three months and that unemployment in many inner-city constituencies such as mine remains stubbornly high. Why will he not consider taxing the banks sufficiently to fund an inner-city youth jobs programme to help the young people on the estates in my constituency?
We have introduced a permanent bank levy that applies each and every year. There was a bank bonus tax for one year of the 13 years of the Labour Government; other than that, there were no charges on the banks. The former Chancellor of the Exchequer—my immediate predecessor—said that we could not repeat that because the bankers would find a way round it. We therefore looked to the advice of international bodies such as the IMF, and we introduced a bank levy that will raise more each and every year, net, than the Labour Government raised from the banks in any one year. That shows that we are asking the banks to make a decent contribution to the economy.
My hon. Friend is right to refer to the importance of the aviation sector. As he will know, the consultation on reform of air passenger duty closed last Friday, and we have received a number of different representations from stakeholders. He will be aware that this is partly about looking at what we can do to support regional airports, but we certainly do not want to do that at the expense of our other key airports in the south-east.
Several figures have been cited about the number of jobs created over the past 12 months. What percentage of those jobs were created before the spending review and are arguably attributable to the last Government, and what percentage have been created since?
I am happy to provide the hon. Gentleman with an exact breakdown based around the date of the spending review. What is clear, however, is that we said that we wanted the private sector to lead the recovery and that that was absolutely essential. That is the view of virtually every credible economist and business organisation in the country. He should be celebrating the fact that over 500,000 net new jobs have been created by the private sector in the past year.
Last week, I met development campaigners from Bradford-on-Avon at the “Tea time for change” rally. They welcome the Chancellor’s support for transparency in companies operating in developing countries. Will he press for effective legislation internationally, and for country-by-country, project-by-project financial reporting for companies in the resource extractive industries?
My hon. Friend raises a good point, which commands the support of MPs from all parts of the House. We want to see greater transparency in the extractive industries. I raised the matter at the G20 meeting in Paris earlier this year. We want measures to be introduced at a European level and shortly after that at a G20 level to ensure that they have the maximum possible impact around the world.
Diolch yn fawr, Mr Speaker. The Governments of Northern Ireland and Scotland will soon have greater financial autonomy. What requests has the Chancellor received from the new Welsh Assembly Government for similar job-creating levers?
The hon. Gentleman knows that we made a clear commitment that if the outcome of the referendum in Wales was a yes, we would set up a Calman-like process that would come to an agreed set of proposals—I hope they will be agreed across many parties, as was the case with Calman in Scotland—on greater financial responsibility for the Welsh Assembly. We are engaging in that process now. One reason why Calman has worked well—I know that we will come on to discuss the Scotland Bill later—is that at least three parties in the House of Commons, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, were able to agree on a set of proposals. I hope that we can achieve similar agreement in Wales.
I am sure my right hon. Friend is aware that if every small and medium-sized enterprise in the UK employed one additional person, we would have an employment surplus. What plans does he have directly to incentivise SMEs to take on additional staff?
First, we offer a national insurance tax break for new employees in new companies. We have cut the small companies tax rate, which was due to go up when I came to office. We are also cutting the headline rate of corporation tax by 2% this year and then by a further 3%, making it a 5% reduction over the course of the Parliament.
Is the Chancellor who now complains about a decade of over-investment by the previous Government related to the George Osborne who wrote an article in The Times in 2008 not just praising that Government’s spending plans, but promising to stick to them?
I think the hon. Gentleman has his years wrong, for a start. We fought the 2005 general election warning that Labour was spending too much and we fought the 2010 general election giving that warning. The British people listened to us, and realised that people like him had been supporting a Government who had brought our country to the brink of bankruptcy.