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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 532: debated on Tuesday 6 September 2011


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Banking Industry (Taxation)

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs published details of total pay-as-you-earn and corporation tax receipts from the banking sector for the first time on 31 August. The official statistics show that tax receipts from the sector increased from £17.3 billion in 2009-10 to £21 billion in 2010-11. A number of other taxes are incurred by the banking sector that the Office for National Statistics did not include in the figures, including the new bank levy introduced by this Government, which we expect will raise an additional £2.5 billion net each year, which is more in each and every year than the previous Government raised in their one-off payroll tax.

I am grateful to the Chancellor for that answer, but the truth is that the High Pay Commission has just published a report demonstrating that high executive pay bears no relation to the performance of companies and that nowhere is this more starkly illustrated than in the banking sector. Meanwhile, youth unemployment is going up. Is it not time we made the banking sector pay its fair share in order to do something for the young unemployed in this country, as advocated by the Opposition?

That is why we introduced the bank levy, which Labour had 13 years to introduce but did not. It raises £2.5 billion. We are also taking action to clamp down on tax avoidance. We recently proposed a measure to tackle something called disguised remuneration, whereby high earners, often in the financial services sector, disguise their income to avoid tax, but the Labour party voted against the measure.

As we are discussing banking, may I again put it to the Chancellor that further delay in ring-fencing retail banking from investment banking can only perpetuate the appalling shibboleth that big banks cannot fail? Until we debunk that shibboleth, the capitalist system will remain at risk.

My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. We must learn the lessons of what went wrong in the regulation of our banking system and ask deep questions about how, as an economy, we underwrite that system. That is why the Government asked John Vickers and his fellow commissioners to look at the structure of the banking system and at how we can ensure that Britain can be home to global banks but, at the same time, the British taxpayer can be protected should those banks fail. Of course, John Vickers will publish his final report next week and I am sure that there will be plenty of discussion about it.

With the future jobs fund and education maintenance allowance abolished, Labour Members have been urging the Chancellor to repeat the bank bonus tax on top of the bank levy in order to get young people into work. The Chancellor claims that the economy is recovering, unemployment is falling and that such action is unnecessary, so will he tell the House how many more young people, compared with a year ago, are now not in education, employment or training?

The number of 16 and 17-year-old NEETs has actually come down, and more than 500,000 new jobs have been created in the private sector over the past year. The right hon. Gentleman talks about the bonus tax, and I will use not the advice I have been given by Treasury officials to respond, but the advice I have been given by the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer, someone we know he is very close to. The previous Chancellor said this of the bonus tax, and he after all is the man who introduced it:

“It will be a one-off thing because, frankly, the very people you are after here are very good at getting out of these things and... will find all sorts of imaginative ways of avoiding it”.

That is why he did not want it to be anything more than a one-off tax, and that is why we introduced a much more permanent and sustainable tax on the banks, which the right hon. Gentleman never introduced when he was City Minister. It is a permanent bank levy that raises more net every year than the one-off bonus tax did.

Unemployment is rising and the stock market is plummeting—it is no surprise that the Chancellor does not want to answer the question about youth unemployment. Let me tell the House that the number of young people between 18 and 25 out of work and not in education, employment or training has gone up in the past year by 18%: 119,000 more young people are unemployed. Let me tell the Chancellor what my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) said on “Newsnight” last night:

“The government, by going so fast, is really strangling the economy…if you go too fast you stall”—

Order. I think the shadow Chancellor will want to refer to taxation levels on the banking industry.

The argument that I am making is that the Chancellor is ignoring the case for repeating the bank bonus tax for a second year, even though youth unemployment has gone up by 18%—119,000 more. Let me ask him a second—

Order. I say to the shadow Chancellor that what we need now is a very brief question. We need to move on; there are a lot of questions to cover.

The question that people will be asking is if the Chancellor will not change his mind on the bank bonus tax, on VAT and on the pace of deficit reduction, why is he now changing his mind on stalling bank reform? He said that we were all in it together. Why is there one rule for the banks and another rule for everyone else?

Now we can see why the former Chancellor has said that the Labour party had no credible economic policy. The shadow Chancellor had all summer to think of that question, and the best he came up with was that we were not regulating the banks. He was the City Minister when the City exploded. We have taken action better to regulate the banks. We set up the commission that will report next week. As for downgraded numbers, the fastest falling numbers around here are his economic credibility numbers.

It would be good to get more tax out of RBS, a state-owned bank, but unfortunately it is still loss making. Will the Chancellor or a relevant Minister have an urgent meeting with its executives so that they can have a better plan for cutting risks, selling assets and making some money for the taxpayer?

My right hon. Friend is, of course, right that the British banking system has had its challenges—not least over the summer, with its share prices. We are in regular discussion with the banks about that, of course, and we will of course have many discussions about the future structure of banking. We need a profitable banking sector that lends to the real economy. We have in place targets to see an increase in lending to small businesses. But my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that a key part of the recovery is a return to health for the financial services industry and the financial system.

Domestic Energy Prices

2. What assessment he has made of the effects on the economy of recent trends in domestic energy prices. (69995)

The Office for Budget Responsibility is now responsible for independent economic and fiscal forecasts for the Government, and that includes taking account of trends in energy prices and their impact on the economy, including on inflation. The OBR will publish a fully updated forecast in the autumn.

Thousands of people in my constituency of Gedling and millions across the country will be disappointed by that response from the Minister. Consumer Focus has said that, on average, energy bills will go up by £200 a year, which means that this winter many people —pensioners and families—will be worried about switching on gas and electricity. Has the Minister met the energy companies to discuss that, and will she specifically outline some measures that she and her Government intend to take so that people are not afraid to switch on the heating this winter?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue because it is important. The challenge that we all face is to make sure that energy bills are affordable not just this winter—the point that he makes—but in winters in 10 and 20 years’ time. The problem that we have as a country is our dependency on fossil fuels. In the long term, we need to get ourselves off that dependency so that we are not so blown about by the international winds that see commodity prices go up and down. In the short term, we are taking steps to support the most vulnerable through the Warm Homes discount. Next year, we will introduce the green deal to help energy efficiency. The hon. Gentleman asks whether we have meetings with energy companies, and of course we do every day. I am sure that he will also—

The Minister will be aware of how rapidly fuel and energy prices have increased. Am I right in thinking, however, that if the Chancellor had not taken action in the Budget, fuel prices would be 6p a litre higher today?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The action that we took, which was part of a £1.9 billion package to support motorists, means that fuel duty was 6p lower than it otherwise would have been under the previous Government’s proposals.

The Minister will know that the rise of several hundred pounds in energy costs will hit businesses hard, and that on top of VAT and price and pay freezes it will particularly hit consumers and pensioners. What is her assessment of the level of that price rise? How many meetings has she had with energy companies about the price of energy? What does she intend to do about the price of energy other than freezing the level of winter fuel payments for pensioners?

I think I have answered those questions already; and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman should speak to his Back Benchers about their asking his question before he does. I know that it is his wedding anniversary today, and I hope that I do not upset him too much before he has dinner with his wife tonight. I can again assure him that we are absolutely committed to making sure that the Warm Homes discount scheme will support the most vulnerable people in our country so that they can afford to heat their homes.


3. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on inflation of the increase in the basic rate of VAT. (69996)

The Office for Budget Responsibility is responsible for producing independent economic and fiscal forecasts. The OBR published a full analysis of developments and the prospects for inflation in its forecast at Budget, and that can be found at its website. The Office for National Statistics estimates that the impact of the VAT rise on consumer prices index inflation was 0.76 percentage points.

The Minister has failed signally to answer the question. Will he tell the House why only three European Union countries—Estonia, Lithuania and Romania—have inflation higher than the rate in this country? Is it not true that the failed economic polices pursued by the Treasury and the decision to raise VAT have more than doubled the rate of inflation compared with the Government’s target? When is he going to accept responsibility for that and do something about it?

I am afraid that the hon. Lady might not have listened to my earlier answer. The fact is that the primary cause of the increase in inflation has been global commodity and energy prices. It is also worth pointing out that our currency depreciated in value quite significantly a couple of years or so ago. The VAT increase was necessary in order to reduce the deficit—a policy that was recognised by the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Did my hon. Friend inherit any work by the previous Government on plans to increase VAT if they had won the general election?

My hon. Friend will be aware that we are not privy to the advice that was given to previous Governments. However, I look forward to reading tomorrow confirmation that the previous Chancellor believed that it was a wise course of action to increase VAT.

Public Sector Borrowing Requirement

The July public sector finances release issued by the Office for National Statistics estimates that the out-turn for public sector net borrowing in 2010-11 is £142.7 billion, or 9.7% of gross domestic product—£14 billion lower than in 2009-10.

Citibank economist Michael Saunders recently said that

“the major risk to the UK’s fiscal outlook and credit rating would be if the coalition fails to stay the course on fiscal consolidation.”

Does my right hon. Friend agree?

Yes, I very much agree with that. As my hon. Friend will know, the need to tackle the enormous economic problems that we inherited from the previous Government, including the enormous budget deficit, was the founding purpose of this Government. It is a purpose that we intend to see through, and he can be reassured that we will stick to our plans.

Given the Government’s poor performance on growth, lower tax receipts and higher welfare spending, will the Chief Secretary repeat—a simple yes or no answer will do—whether the Government are still committed to their target of falling public debt as a percentage of GDP by 2015? Yes or no?


The financial crisis in the eurozone is extremely serious. Fortunately, Britain is not in the euro; unfortunately, however, we are not immune to the instability on our doorstep. The euro area must implement its policy commitments to address the crisis, made most recently at the July summit. As I have said, the euro area should follow the remorseless logic of monetary union with greater fiscal integration. We must ensure that we are not part of that integration and that our national interests are protected and promoted at all points.

I thank the Chancellor for that reply. Given that the crisis in the eurozone was caused by some member states having too much debt, would it not be a good idea—rather than increasing those debts with further bail-outs—for this country to press for the European treaties to be amended to allow a country to leave the euro while remaining in the European Union if it still wished to do so? As things stand, that is not possible.

As my hon. Friend knows, the treaty does not provide for a member state to leave at the moment, and there is no immediate prospect of major treaty renegotiation—something that the German Government have made very clear again this week. In other words, we need to focus on the task at hand, which is implementing all the agreements, communiqués and commitments made in recent months by the eurozone. That is absolutely crucial to the stability not just of the eurozone but of the wider global economy.

Is the Chancellor aware that under the previous Labour Government, of whom the current shadow Chancellor was a prominent member, a euro preparations unit with a staff of 17 worked for 13 years on 11,500 documents to prepare Britain for joining the euro?

Order. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), but his question bears no relation to the responsibilities of the current Government and we will therefore leave it there.

Would my right hon. Friend accept that the fact that the euro has strengthened as a currency indicates that the markets believe that the weaker countries will not be able to push water up hill for much longer and are bound to drop out of the euro before very long?

I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to comment directly on the value of the euro, but I would observe that we have a weak US dollar and that that may have had an impact on the value of the euro. As I said just now, it is important for us to focus on the task in hand, which is implementing the agreement most recently signed on 21 July by the eurozone. Of course we can and should have a discussion about the future of the euro and its governance arrangements—and that is important—but the euro is here to stay and we have to ensure that it works for Europe. I do not want Britain to be part of the euro, and there is no prospect of that happening—[Interruption.] Labour Members seem to forget that they are still committed in principle to joining the euro. This Government will not join the euro, but it is in our interests that the euro works.

Is the Chancellor aware that, with the exception of Portugal, growth among member states of the eurozone is higher than ours? If fiscal union is to take place, and there is to be a common euro bond, in which order does he think they should come?

As I have been saying in recent weeks, we need to follow the remorseless logic of monetary union. That was one of the reasons I was against Britain joining the euro—I thought it would lead to greater fiscal integration and common budget policies. There is obviously an active debate about what that might mean, and I would suggest that the first thing that the eurozone countries need to do is to implement the package agreed on 21 July.

May I correct the hon. Gentleman? It is not the case—sadly—that Britain has the slowest growth in Europe. Actually, the problem is that German growth in the last quarter was 0.1% and French growth for Q2 was zero. That is the challenge—a eurozone where growth is faltering, and the situation in the United States. We have to deal with these international problems as well as addressing the very serious problems that we inherited.

I am grateful to the Chancellor. We do not want the slowest growth, but neither do we want the slowest questions and answers.

The Chancellor has made it clear that he thinks that a monetary union requires a fiscal union. Can a credible fiscal union be put in place without a treaty change?

I think that we can take important steps towards greater co-ordination of fiscal policy by implementing, as I say, the agreements that the eurozone came up with before the summer. That is the task at hand now. Speculating now about major treaty change is unrealistic. It is not going to happen in the next few years. It would take several years to bring about such a major treaty change and get it ratified by all the national Parliaments, even if those Parliaments agreed to it. The challenge this autumn is to bring greater stability to the euro’s governance arrangement, which is what our colleagues in the EU want to do.

The Chancellor recently boasted that Britain is a safe haven from the problems in the eurozone, so will he tell us which EU countries have grown more slowly than the UK in the past 12 months, not in the last quarter?

As I said, this year, unfortunately, the German economy, the French economy and other major eurozone economies—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] If Opposition Members do not want to look at the most recent numbers, it is no wonder they have not got a credible economic policy. Until they get one, and take a view on the eurozone and what is happening in Germany, France and the United States, they are not going to be taken seriously, as the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), has reminded them.

I do not think that the Chancellor knew the answer to that question, but today’s euro figures have revealed that only two countries—Romania and Portugal—have done worse on growth than the UK in the past year. Only yesterday, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), said from the Dispatch Box that there is a crisis of growth in this country. Was not the Chancellor’s friend, the new head of the IMF, Christine Lagarde, right at the weekend when she said that

“growth is necessary for fiscal credibility… We know that slamming on the brakes too quickly will hurt the”

economy “and worsen job prospects”?

We know that he will not listen to us, but why does the Chancellor not listen to sound advice from his friends, including, we hear, on this weekend’s draft G7 statement, which aims to slow the pace of deficit reduction—

I can tell the House that Christine Lagarde will be in London on Friday. We will hear what she has to say then.

Government Budget Deficits

6. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on steps to reduce Government budget deficits. (69999)

At the last G20 summit, advanced countries committed to implementing clear, credible, ambitious and growth-friendly medium-term fiscal consolidation plans, differentiated according to national circumstances. I will further discuss fiscal consolidation plans in the G7, G20 and IMF meetings later this month.

Does the Chancellor agree with the IMF’s most recent assessment that strong fiscal consolidation remains essential?

That is, of course, absolutely what the IMF said in its recent article IV assessment—and we remember the article IV assessments at the end of the previous Labour Government. It asks explicitly whether the UK Government should change their policy, and it says no. That is the advice of the IMF. Last July, the Labour party voted against Britain paying its subscriptions to the IMF. Frankly, I do not think that Labour Members should talk about the IMF in Treasury questions until they agree with paying the subs.

If the Office for Budget Responsibility downgrades its forecast for growth for the fourth time when it reports later in the autumn, and revises up its forecast for Government borrowing, would the Chancellor regard that as a success or failure of this Government’s economic policy?

Of course, the Government want economic growth and prosperity. We want a stable international situation in which we can trade. We have to take account of the fact that major trading partners, such as Germany, France and the United States, have seen either no growth or very limited growth as well. That is the challenge we face. As the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) reminded us at the weekend, we can either have a credible economic policy that takes note of what is going on in the world or, as he put it, we cannot even be at the races.


7. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effects on consumer confidence of the change in the basic rate of VAT. (70000)

Sustainable public finances will support confidence in the medium term. Decisive action taken by the Government in the spending review and the June Budget, including the increase in VAT, will put the public finances and spending on a sustainable footing.

The Stirling constituency has a large number of jobs tied up in tourism and hospitality. On 1 July, the Irish Government introduced a temporary reduction in the rate of VAT on goods and services related to the hospitality sector, realising that such a reduction has the potential to kick-start economic growth; indeed, the rate is now 11% less than the VAT rate in the UK. Given stalling UK economic growth figures, does the Minister not accept that he, too, should consider a temporary change in the rate for the sector, and if not, why not?

I have had meetings with representatives from the tourism industry at which they have made their case. We will of course keep all taxes under review, but we have to bear in mind the state of the public finances, our limited room for manoeuvre and concerns about adding complexity to our VAT system. None the less, we will look at those arguments.

Business Costs

8. What fiscal measures he is taking to reduce the costs of businesses which employ less than 25 staff. (70001)

Small businesses play a vital role in the economy and the Government have taken a number of steps to support them. The Government have provided support for small businesses and employers by reversing the previous Government’s planned £3 billion tax on jobs, reducing corporate taxes and introducing a moratorium on new domestic regulation for micro-businesses.

Does the Minister agree that we should make it as simple as possible to set up small businesses in the UK and get rid of unnecessary regulations and red tape?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to reduce the burden of red tape to encourage small businesses to set up and to create more jobs. That is one reason why, for example, we introduced a moratorium exempting micro and start-up businesses from new domestic regulation for three years from 1 April 2011.

A year ago the Chancellor claimed that 400,000 small business start-ups would be assisted by the national insurance holiday in the regions. To date the figure is, I believe, 5,000. Will the Chancellor undertake to bring a report before the House saying how many new jobs have been created by those 5,000 new start-ups and what the cost to the Exchequer has so far been per job?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that HMRC is writing to all new businesses set up in the last 12 months to ensure that they are aware of the scheme and to encourage them to apply for it. It is important that they do so, but this is just one of a series of measures that we have taken to ensure that more new jobs are created in the private sector. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman welcomed the fact that over the last year there have been 500,000 net new jobs created in the private sector.

UK Economy (Supply-Side Reform)

“The Plan for Growth”, published alongside the Budget this year, sets out the Government’s plan to put the UK on a path to sustainable long-term economic growth. The second phase of the Government’s growth review will report later this year.

I thank the Minister for his answer. In the last decade the UK has fallen from 14th to 89th in terms of burden of regulation and from 14th to 95th in terms of extent of taxation. Does the Minister agree that we should be freeing up companies, rather than spending money that we do not have, to drive economic growth?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, it is part of the previous Government’s legacy that our competitiveness fell so far behind that of our international competitors. That is why we have taken action to reform corporation tax, for example, so that we have one of the best and most competitive regimes in the G20 and more businesses are encouraged to come to the UK. It is also why we are tackling regulation and red tape in the economy, which is why, as I said earlier, we have seen 500,000 net new jobs created in the private sector. That is three and a half jobs in the private sector for every job lost in the public sector, which shows the progress that we have made over the last year.

Both this Government and the previous one have taken an axe to tax allowances for investment on the supply side of the economy—for example, the abolition of the industrial buildings allowance under Labour and the reduction of the annual investment allowance of £100,000 to only £25,000. Have the Government turned their face away entirely from the reintroduction of tax allowances, or will they listen to representations that demonstrate the positive growth in investment on the supply side from such tax allowances?

The reforms to allowances were used to help to fund measures such as the reduction in corporation tax rates for large companies and the reduction in the small companies’ tax rate from the 22p proposed by Labour when it was in government to 20p. We are therefore seeing changes in the rate of tax paid by businesses of all sizes, which is helpful in encouraging economic growth and job creation.

Public Sector Workers

At the June Budget in 2010, we announced that public sector workers earning £21,000 or less would be protected from the two-year pay freeze and receive at least £250 in each year.

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, but not giving those workers a pay rise of £250 as the Government said they would is tantamount to their not getting it. Freezing pay is not an increase. What is he going to do about this? Is he going to honour the undertaking in the Budget last year to give those hundreds of thousands of workers £250 or not?

The £250 increase applies to all work forces under ministerial control, and it was introduced this year. It will be carried through again next year to ensure that people on low incomes in the public sector continue to receive a pay rise.

Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury assure us that, in drawing up plans on public sector pay, the Treasury has not been impeded by a brutal regime in No. 10 Downing street?

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend of that. Unlike under the previous Government, No. 10 Downing street and the Treasury work very well together on these issues.

Economic Growth

Our economic policy objective is to achieve strong, sustainable and balanced growth, more evenly shared across the country and between industries. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast, published at the Budget, takes full account of the policy measures announced in the spending review and in Budget 2011. The OBR forecast that the economy would grow throughout 2011, and in every year of the forecast. It will publish its updated forecast in the autumn.

As the level of economic growth over the past 12 months was lower in Britain than in the rest of the G7, is it not about time that the Minister had the courage to persuade his right hon. Friend the Chancellor to start work on a plan B?

It has been very clear, listening to all the international commentators talking about what is happening in the UK economy, that their advice has been to stick to the course and stick to plan A. That is the action that this Government are committed to—[Interruption.] This is interesting. We have one plan; the previous Government seemed to have more plans than they knew what to do with, and that is why they lost their credibility.

What does the Minister think is more likely to encourage growth: cuts in corporation tax or the increases in national insurance that Labour was proposing?

In our first Budget we were able to reduce corporation tax and set out a clear path to reduce it over the lifetime of this Parliament. We were also able to reverse Labour’s damaging jobs tax.

Will the Minister draw to the attention of the Chancellor the fact that economic credibility affects all Treasury Ministers in due course, and that in his case it is affecting him rather earlier than he might have thought? Can he not see that, with a lack of growth, he will not hit his deficit reduction target? Without hitting that target, he will not realise his plan, and without his plan—which is already in shreds—he will lack credibility, too.

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the loss of credibility for Treasury Ministers reflect his own experience.

Given how badly prepared the UK economy was for the financial crisis, does the Minister think that it was delusional to believe that its effects would be over in six months?

The previous Prime Minister thought that what we now know to have been the longest and deepest recession since the war would be over in six months. That demonstrates the degree of delusion that existed under the previous regime. We are taking the tough and necessary decisions to tackle the legacy that we have been left by our predecessors.

Public Sector Borrowing Requirement

13. What recent assessment he has made of the effects on the economy of the public sector borrowing requirement. (70007)

Sound public finances are essential for sustainable economic growth. The action that the Government have taken to reduce public sector borrowing will help to mitigate the risks to the recovery, underpin private sector confidence and help to keep interest rates low, which will help families and businesses.

Was it because of a high public sector net cash requirement that forces up interest rates, makes it more difficult for businesses to borrow, increases taxes and means that money spent on debt interest cannot be spent on public services that the outgoing director general of the British Chambers of Commerce said when he left on Friday that, in order to keep the economy going, it is essential that we stick to the Chancellor’s economic plan?

I am sure that that was part of his reasoning and I very much welcome his endorsement, alongside that of all the other business organisations in the UK that continue to back the deficit reduction plan we have set out. It is worth observing that the proposals put forward by the outgoing director of the British Chambers of Commerce and other proposals are also being taken forward by this Government. There is very strong alignment between small businesses and this Government.

At what point, though, will Treasury Ministers realise that this austerity programme is damaging growth and that what the Government should be doing is beating a track round the world to make sure that there is an international commitment to putting growth back into the economy? That is the way we will get rid of the deficit in our economy.

This deficit reduction plan is essential to restoring credibility to British public finances, which is critical to keeping interest rates low, as low interest rates help to keep people in their jobs and in their homes. That is the argument for the plan.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the borrowing and revenue figures are now completely independently audited by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility and are no longer the completely unreliable and overtly political forecasts that, as we now know, were forced on the previous Chancellor by the previous Prime Minister?

I can certainly confirm that the Office for Budget Responsibility is responsible for these matters and is independent. We certainly do not go in for the political fiddling of the figures that my hon. Friend described.


14. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effects on the rate of inflation of recent trends in domestic energy prices. (70008)

The Office for Budget Responsibility assesses the prospects for inflation, which of course factors in any changes in prices from Budget 2011. It will update its forecast this autumn.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but with rising energy prices, stagnating real-terms income and rising unemployment, I ask her again what specific actions will be taken to help the more than 4 million households in England and one in seven households in my constituency that will face fuel poverty this year?

We have already taken action in previous Budgets, not least by taking people out of paying income tax altogether by raising the personal allowance. As we have heard, we reduced fuel duty, in contrast to the previous Government’s plans to increase it. More than that, we are making sure that we target help at vulnerable people through the Warm Homes discount and next year, of course, we will introduce the green deal to help everybody to make their homes more energy-efficient.

Does the Minister agree that although policies to help people out of income tax at the bottom level will show positive results, it is important to maintain the pressure to provide new apprenticeships so that high-value exporting manufacturers, such as Severn Glocon in my constituency, can continue to generate significant foreign exchange benefits.

Order. The Minister will want to relate her answer to domestic energy prices. I feel sure that that is what she will do.

I shall try. I am sure that many of those apprenticeships will be in green industry, which is part of how we hope to get this economy back on its feet.

Business Costs

In addition to taking action to reduce the fiscal deficit, the Government are putting in place a number of measures to create the right conditions for businesses to grow. This includes reducing corporate taxes to encourage businesses to invest, establishing enterprise zones, and increasing the support that research and development tax credits provide to small and medium-sized companies.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the new enterprise zones will transform the fiscal situation for local businesses? As there is a new enterprise zone in Harlow, will he set out the tax advantages that we will gain and when they will start?

I am delighted that one of the two enterprise zones in the south-east local enterprise partnership will be in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Harlow; 100% of business rates collected on the Harlow site will be retained for 25 years and are to be spent on local economic priorities. This will be possible from April 2013, once the necessary legislation is passed. Businesses will also benefit from simplified planning and Government support to ensure that superfast broadband is rolled out throughout the zone.

One proposal subject to consultation, which has now finished, for reducing costs in Northern Ireland is the devolution of corporation tax so that the rate can be reduced for that part of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister assure us that the devolution of corporation tax will not be set at a price that makes it impossible for the impact on the economy to be positive?

As the hon. Gentleman said, the consultation process is now completed. I know we will be in contact with the Northern Ireland Executive to discuss the results. No decisions have been taken, but we have clearly made progress in this area. I look forward to having future conversations with the hon. Gentleman, including about the particular issue of cost that he mentions, but it is right for the cost as well as the powers to be properly devolved.

Economic Growth

16. What assessment he has made of the potential implications for the economy of the most recent figures for economic growth. (70010)

Our economic policy is designed to achieve strong, sustainable and balanced growth that is shared more evenly across the country and between industries. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that the economy will grow throughout 2011 and in every year of the forecast, and it will publish a fully updated forecast in the autumn.

Is the Chief Secretary aware of a survey produced this week by the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply? It shows the sharpest slow-down in growth in the services sector for well over a decade. If Britain is such a safe haven, why is that happening?

I am aware of the survey, and of course many businesses are experiencing difficulties, not least owing to the headwinds in the global economy that we—along with other countries—are encountering. That is why we are taking measures to help businesses such as those to which the hon. Lady has referred, through our plan for growth and in relation to regulation, the planning system and investment in the transport infrastructure. I am sure she agrees that constitutional uncertainty about independence in Scotland is causing serious damage to businesses and business investment there.

Is not the most important contribution that the Government can make to economic growth to be “united at the top” and to have “a credible economic policy”?

I agree very much with that. I believe that it is a quotation from the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling). We are united at the top and we have a credible economic policy, while the Opposition—if I may use the former Chancellor’s phrase—are “not at the races”.

Does the Chief Secretary—whom I fondly recall from the days when he was known as “Danny the euro”—agree that a big problem that we all face is the fact that the purchasing power of the pound internationally has sunk to an all-time low? Do we not have a real problem with the Osborne pound, which is now importing inflation, and do we not need to separate the two? We cannot get rid of the pound, because they will not let us, so do we not have to get rid of the Chancellor?

The right hon. Gentleman—I shall not tell the House what he was known as—should be aware that the reduction in the value of the pound took place under the previous Government, so he might direct his comments to them. He might also recognise, if he were being balanced, that that is having a beneficial effect on British exporters who are trying to sell into the eurozone, where the difficulties are, of course, affecting us as well.

Topical Questions

The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability of the economy, promote growth and employment, reform banking, and manage the public finances so that Britain lives within her means. I can also announce today that the Office for Budget Responsibility will publish its economic and fiscal outlook on Tuesday 29 November, and that I will make a statement to the House on that day.

Many hauliers in my constituency, like ordinary motorists, are concerned about the high price of fuel. Sadly, one Kent haulier went into administration during the recess, blaming diesel prices as a contributing factor. Can the Chancellor assure my constituents that he is listening to concerns expressed by fair fuel campaigners, and that he will do all he can to reduce the burden of high fuel costs on the motorist?

Of course I am well aware of the pain and burden that the big rise in the international oil price has caused to British businesses and, indeed, British families. That is why we took action in the Budget with a £2 billion reduction in fuel duty.

My hon. Friend mentioned hauliers in her constituency. The average haulier will benefit by approximately £1,700 this year as a result of the measures announced in the Budget, in comparison with the last Government’s fuel duty plans. Those measures were funded by an increase in tax on North sea oil companies, which was controversial and was opposed by the Labour party.

T2. The carbon price floor taxation policy within the electricity market reform is designed to push up the cost of electricity produced from high-carbon fuels such as coal. That could close what remains of indigenous coal production in this country, and also vastly increase the costs of energy-intensive industrial users such as steelmakers. Is the Chancellor prepared to look again at that policy, or consider compensating the industries that will fall foul of it? (70020)

We are looking specifically at the impact not just of the carbon floor price but of all the other environmental policies of recent years on energy-intensive industries. I hope, in the autumn forecast at the end of November, to give the House an update of what we propose to do to help.

T3. As we approach its first anniversary, is the Chancellor happy with the performance of the Office for Budget Responsibility? (70021)

Yes, I am happy with the performance of the OBR, because we have created a new institution in Britain that produces independent fiscal and economic forecasts. The absolutely astonishing revelation of the former Chancellor’s memoirs was how—[Interruption.] Let me tell Labour Members this: that book has not even been published yet, but they will be hearing a lot more about it in the months ahead, because it reveals the truth, not just about the last Government but about how the current shadow Chancellor operated in the last Government—the poisoned politics, the paralysed Government and the lack of a credible economic policy.

T5. Thousands of working-age households in my constituency and millions across the country are set to lose up to 20% of their council tax benefit from April 2013. What assessment has the Chancellor made of the impact of that policy on incentives to work? (70023)

We published our impact assessments at the time of the spending review, and, like other savings in the welfare budget, the policy the hon. Gentleman mentions is designed to deal with a welfare budget that was completely out of control. Just a few weeks ago, the Opposition said they were going to come forward with a credible medium-term deficit reduction plan. Well, where is it? Every single measure we have put forward, they have opposed.

T4. The Chancellor has stated his clear commitment to planning reforms, and local authorities are coming under increasing pressure to raise more locally than they receive centrally. Obviously, future developments are very attractive to them. Where in the planning reforms does the Chancellor assure the House there will be local democracy and a local voice? (70022)

We are giving a much greater role to local communities in determining their own local plan. We are also protecting the green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty—of which I am sure there are a number in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I would make this point: these are sensible protections for the countryside, but we must also allow economically productive development in this country. We have to simplify a planning system that is completely unintelligible to most citizens. That is precisely what we are doing and I hope we will be backed on both sides of the House.

T6. Will the Chancellor give a categorical assurance to the House that the Government will swiftly and robustly reject any proposal from the European Commission, the European Parliament or any other European institution for a trans-European revenue-raising measure? (70024)

T8. The Lowestoft and Great Yarmouth enterprise zone can play a vital role in promoting growth. Will the Chancellor accept an invitation from me and my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) to visit our constituencies to see for himself the area’s great potential and to hear from business and council representatives about the work being done to create new private sector jobs? (70026)

I certainly will visit Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft—and on a couple of occasions during this Parliament, I hope. I am delighted that the bid for an enterprise zone from Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft was successful. It was a very impressive bid, involving intelligent use of East Anglia’s offshore energy resources, and I look forward to seeing how work on that is progressing when I visit.

T7. Given stagnating economic growth in the UK, US and much of Europe, and with forecasts predicting slow to no growth, will the Chancellor acknowledge that his economic plans are hurting but not working, and can he now tell us what his plan B is for driving growth in the UK? (70025)

I think that question involved a contradiction in that the hon. Lady pointed out that there was either slow or no growth in the United States and Europe and then somehow blamed my economic policies for that situation. That points to a broader observation: until the Labour party has some cognisance of what is happening in the world and how our policies are protecting the country with the largest budget deficit in the G20 from being caught in the firestorm that some other European countries have found themselves in, frankly it is not going to be at the races.

Coming back to the crisis in some of the economies of the European Union, out of a crisis can sometimes come an opportunity. Will the Chancellor, next time he is meeting his fellow Finance Ministers, impress upon them the need further to deepen and reform the single market in order to promote trade and growth within the European Union?

I certainly will. I agree 100% with the point the hon. Gentleman is making, and on Friday we will be meeting as the G7, and then we have the ECOFIN meeting next week. He is absolutely right: as well as needing to tackle the fiscal policies and budget deficits, we need to make Europe more competitive. We need to make the whole of the European continent more competitive, and that involves supply-side reforms, deepening the single market and promoting free trade around the world, and I will be making that point today and in future.

T9. Given the latest data on manufacturing, construction, exports and retail, can the Chancellor explain to me exactly where we will see growth and jobs coming from, especially in an area such as Hull? (70027)

I hope the hon. Lady welcomes the decision we made to make sure that Humberside had an enterprise zone. The way that this and other countries are going to get growth is not by taking yet another fix of the debt-fuelled spending bubble that got us into the mess we are in at the moment; it is by becoming competitive and having successful private sector businesses and a tax and regulatory environment that allows them to compete with not just the rest of Europe but the rest of the world.

Like many of my colleagues, I want to thank the Chancellor for launching the enterprise zone and visiting—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Yes, in Sandwich. However, it is not just enterprise but trade and investment that need to come into the country. Does he believe that UK Trade & Investment is going to step up to the mark and ensure that we get the message across that Britain is open for business?

The short answer is yes. I was delighted to visit the new enterprise site in Sandwich with my hon. Friend, but we do need to promote exports. It is absolutely staggering that we export more to Ireland than we do to Brazil, Russia, India and China. That is the situation we inherited, and we have got to increase exports. The Chinese vice-premier will be in London on Thursday, and I hope we can fulfil our countries’ joint ambition to increase trade between the two countries.

T10. Given that increasing urban density increases economic productivity, and that countries with lax planning law such as Ireland, Greece and Spain are among the least competitive in Europe, why on earth is the Chancellor so intent on ripping up our planning system and destroying what makes England England? (70028)

I completely reject the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question. As I say, green belt and areas of outstanding natural beauty will be protected, but we need to allow economically productive development. I have to say that his question is particularly puzzling as he represents the city of Stoke. Stoke applied for an enterprise zone, and one of the features of such a zone was that we were going to relax the planning rules.

When the Eurostar is in France it is in a eurozone country, but when it comes through the channel tunnel into England’s green and pleasant land, the euro is not the sovereign currency. Last week, Eurostar refused to accept British money, even on the train in this country. Will the Chancellor make a robust complaint to Eurostar? [Interruption.]

The Opposition remind me of the very good election slogan that we had—although it was not particularly successful—which was “Save the Pound”. We have managed to save the pound on the Eurostar—or rather, the company itself has anticipated questions such as the one from my hon. Friend. I am glad to hear that, as he travels to and from Brussels and Paris, he will continue to be able to buy his meals in pounds sterling.

Before the Chancellor meets the head of the IMF on Friday, will he recognise that in warning that slamming on the brakes too quickly will harm the recovery, she has a point? Does not Britain’s experience illustrate that?

The point that the IMF has made consistently over the last two years is that countries with fiscal space can of course use it, but that Britain does not have that fiscal space. It made that point in its article IV assessment of the UK just a few weeks ago, and that is also the view of Christine Lagarde. As I say, she is coming to this country on Friday and we will hear what she has to say.

As the Chancellor has reassured the House that protecting the green belt is not incompatible with reforming the planning system, can he tell the House any more about how the Government can help to reduce the costs of the planning system for business?

Planning costs in Britain are among the highest in the world and planning delays are among the longest in the world. That is what we are seeking to deal with, so that we get economic development that is sustainable and protects our most cherished environments. That is what we are doing. What people are beginning to see, as this debate unfolds, is that we have to take some difficult decisions in this House if we are to have sustainable economic growth in a very competitive global economy. The planning reforms are part of that plan.

The massive increases in energy prices are hitting every family and business in this country. Before the general election, the Conservative party, and indeed the Prime Minister, promised to take direct action and curb excessive rises. What action does the Chancellor intend to take to cure this problem now?

What would happen to domestic interest and mortgage rates were Britain to lose its triple A status by relaxing its financial deficit reduction targets?

Of course the benefit of having a credible economic policy and a credible fiscal policy is having low market interest rates. Greece today has one-year bond rates of 82% and Italy’s bond spreads have gone out in recent days. We are borrowing money at 2.3%, and that is, in part, because we have a credible economic policy. If we did not have plans to deal with the largest budget deficit in the G20, we would find ourselves in a similar position to Italy or Spain.

The Chancellor will be aware that air passenger duty has a particular impact in Northern Ireland, particularly as it places pressure on business and discourages tourism. What action does he intend to take, and when, to ensure that we can maintain our links, particularly our transatlantic ones?

I am very aware of the issue relating to the continental flight from Belfast to the eastern seaboard of the United States, and I have spoken to Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister about it. I can see that there is a particular challenge because of the proximity of the airport in Dublin, and the British embassy in Washington has also been very active in dealing with the company in the United States. I can assure the hon. Lady that we are on the case.

There is still huge public anger that taxpayers have had to bail out the very banks whose cavalier and risky behaviour led to the global economic meltdown. Further to the eloquent question from the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Sir Peter Tapsell), when Vickers reports next week will the Chancellor ensure that he acts promptly to introduce any necessary legislation to implement the recommendations, in order to avoid a repeat of the financial crisis, and that he does not listen to the vested interests arguing for delay?

It was this coalition Government who established the Vickers report. Those questions were simply not asked by the previous Government—we are asking those questions. However, I am afraid that the hon. Lady will have to wait until Monday to hear the Government response to the Vickers report.

Harold Macmillan, the most successful Chancellor and Prime Minister that Eton has ever produced, once said that effective Governments need to adapt to “Events, dear boy, events.” Could the Chancellor, dear boy that he is, outline to the House the events that would warrant a change in his economic policy, or is he woefully negligent, blinkered and complacent?

I think the hon. Gentleman is being rather harsh on Hugh Dalton, who I think also went to Eton.

That is a brilliant plug for my hon. Friend’s new book. I am sure that the whole House will want to read it, because it will remind us of everything that went wrong under the previous Government.

Order. Time is up. I would love to call more hon. Members, as I enjoy nothing more than hearing my colleagues ask and answer questions, but I am afraid that we must move on to the ten-minute rule motion.