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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 541: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2012

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Working Tax Credit

1. What assessment he has made of the effect on families of the changes in eligibility rules for working tax credit to be introduced in April 2012. (97998)

4. What assessment he has made of the effect on the economy of changes to the working tax credit to be introduced in April 2012. (98001)

6. What assessment he has made of the effect on the economy of changes to the working tax credit to be introduced in April 2012. (98003)

7. What assessment he has made of the effect on families of the changes in eligibility rules for working tax credit to be introduced in April 2012. (98004)

13. What assessment he has made of the effect on families of the changes in eligibility rules for working tax credit to be introduced in April 2012. (98011)

The Government are reforming tax credits to ensure that support is targeted on those most in need and costs are controlled. The change to the working hours requirement for couples with children makes the system fairer by reducing the disparity between lone parents and couples. Lone parents have to work 16 hours a week to be eligible for tax credits, so it is right that couples should have to work more hours between them.

Some 730 families in Newport will be hit by the changes to tax credits, which means that they will either have to work more hours or face losing up to £3,800 a year. The Government have so far demonstrated no understanding of the difficulties faced by families in this position trying to find extra work. Will the Minister tell my constituents exactly where these mythical hours will come from?

I shall be precise. I can tell the hon. Lady that the number of vacancies was up by 11,000 in the last three months to January 2012, and 1.07 million people moved into employment in the last quarter.

I was interested to hear that response from the Minister because a representative of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers in my constituency told me that in one supermarket alone close to 30 employees had requested extra hours. Those extra hours just do not exist. Will she confirm that from April a couple with children on the minimum wage who cannot increase their hours to 24 per week will be £728 better off out of work?

I cannot comment on that particular set of circumstances, as the hon. Lady will appreciate, but the fact is that about 80% of households with children will see their tax credit awards rise. It was the previous Government who allowed nine out of 10 households with children to be eligible for tax credits. That was unsustainable and uncontrolled spending.

The Minister will remember that in an Adjournment debate last November I warned her about the devastating impact that the cuts would have, particularly because the hours were simply not available for people to increase the number they worked to meet the eligibility criteria. This week, a coalition of charities has written to the Government begging them to postpone these devastating changes. May I ask her and the Chancellor to meet some of the families affected so that they can understand what the impact will be on them from April?

Any elected MP will regularly meet constituents in their constituency and discuss a range of matters. I certainly do that, and when I have met those affected in my constituency—whether as a constituency MP or, most recently, as a Minister—I have explained the fairness of this measure, which is that it puts couples on a par with lone parents. Where is the Opposition’s concern for single mums and dads, who have always had to face that challenge?

The Minister knows fine well that in today’s economy part-time workers will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get the extra eight hours a week to keep their working tax credits. The lowest-income families will lose £3,870 a year, which would be crippling for any family, let alone the poorest. To accord with reality—something that the Minister should get back in touch with—what are this Government going to do about that?

This Government’s main priority, as the hon. Lady knows very well, is to reduce the deficit left to us by her party, for which her party shows no responsibility whatever. She will also know that the cumulative average loss for households from our measures next year will in fact be £310.

Last week a young woman constituent employed locally by the Stroke Association complained to me that as a result of the association’s funding being cut, her hours were being reduced from 28 to 20, so she loses eight hours’ pay and tax credits as well. What advice can the Minister give my constituent other than to stop work and go on benefits?

I would be sure that the hon. Gentlemen’s constituent in that case took a clear look around at the opportunities available throughout the economy. I refer him to my previous response, which is that vacancies were up in the three months to January 2012. There are jobs out there: hon. Members need only to hear, for example, this morning’s announcement from Nissan—somewhere near the hon. Gentleman’s constituency—to know that there is work available.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, according to the Office for National Statistics, there are currently 476,000 job vacancies? It should be possible for a couple, between them, to find an extra eight hours’ work. Does she agree?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. As I have said already, it is a question of fairness. This measure asks a couple to do what a lone parent has always had to do, and I think that is fair.

Can the Minister confirm that, under the current system, a single parent who is offered more than 16 hours’ work a week by his or her employer would face a marginal withdrawal rate of up to 97%, and that such anomalies will disappear with the change to the universal credit?

My hon. Friend makes a very fine point, and she is absolutely right that the reform paves the way for the universal credit, through which this Government are proud to be tackling the incentives that make work pay.

Should we not look at providing tax help for hard-pressed families in totality and in the round, in particular, through measures such as increasing the personal allowance to £10,000 for income tax?

I certainly agree, and my hon. Friend will know, just as other Members of this House do, that that measure would take more than 1 million low-income earners out of tax altogether, which is a healthy start and a step on the path to our economic recovery.

We have heard incredible complacency so far from the Minister about couples in receipt of working tax credit, who are desperately worried. Liz, a low-paid worker in Suffolk, told her union, the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, that

“two weeks ago my boss informed me that the likelihood of finding the eight extra hours I need was next to none, at least for another three months. I have been looking for another job to boost my hours, but so far have had no joy”.

What advice would the Minister give to Liz and thousands of families in her position, who stand to lose up to £4,000 in just a month’s time?

Liz from Suffolk might like to listen to Rachel from Leeds, who says that

“we must ensure we pass the test of fiscal credibility. If we don’t get this right, it doesn’t matter what we say about anything else.”

The Minister offers Liz cold comfort, especially as the Government’s own figures show that families are likely to be £728 better off out of work, rather than in work, as a result of these crazy changes. The Minister could not answer my last question, so let me ask her about another family. Let us imagine that a single mum with three kids who is earning £42,000 a year is offered a promotion that would take her pay to £43,000. If she takes the pay rise, she will lose almost £2,500 in child benefit—every single penny of it. What is the Minister’s advice to her? Should she turn down the promotion to keep her child benefit, or should she reduce the number of hours she works?

It is absolutely extraordinary that the hon. Lady is unable to deal with any aspect of her own challenge on fiscal credibility. May I ask her whether she voted for the welfare cap that highlights the average family’s earnings within the example that she just gave?

Child Care

The Government do not assume that high child care costs are an issue for women only, but we have increased the provision of free child care for three to four-year-olds to 15 hours a week, and extended that commitment to about 40% of two-year-olds by 2014-15. The Government support low to middle income working families directly through the child care element of working tax credits. We also provide support through employer-supported child care vouchers.

But what does the Minister say to young women who are professionals and managers and who, according to the Daycare Trust, face the double whammy of a 30% increase in the cost of nursery provision over the past four years and the loss of their child benefit? What does he say to those young women?

I say that the Government are increasing the entitlement to free child care for three and four-year-olds from 12.5 to 15 hours a week, and introducing a new entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds, so that 40% of two-year-olds will have 15 hours of free child care per week. That represents substantial support for those families, in addition to which there will be tax credit support—depending on income—and access to employer-supported child care vouchers, which were taken up by 500,000 people in 2011-12.

I welcome the free nursery places, but nursery care in constituencies such as mine is often so expensive that nurseries decline to offer the free places unless they are allowed to request a top-up. Will the Government please consider listening to those nurseries that would welcome parents being able to give a small amount so that they could offer the free places?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. She will also recognise that local authorities have a duty to maintain sufficient child care to meet the needs of working parents in their area. The Department for Education is to undertake a review to ensure that that is happening.

Many women facing high child care costs are low-paid workers in the public sector. We wrote to the Chancellor in January, calling on him to write to the pay bodies to ensure that by being tougher at the top, we can help to protect lower-paid workers in 2013 and 2014. Can the Chief Secretary to the Treasury tell us whether the Chancellor has taken that action, and whether he will deliver on his promise that, as he delivers pay restraint, he will do more for the lowest-paid public sector workers?

The hon. Lady will recognise that, during the pay freeze of last year and the coming year, we have provided a £250 pay increase for those earning less than £21,000 a year. The pay review bodies have been asked to provide advice in relation to the future pay remit, but she should also recognise that the increase in the income tax personal allowance, which will come through this April, will be worth £126 this coming year to precisely the people she is talking about. I hope she welcomes that.

Does the Minister share my absolute incredulity at hearing the Opposition talk about the cost of child care, given that it went up 50% during their term in office? Will he tell us how much this Government are spending to help hard-pressed parents with the burgeoning costs of child care?

I entirely share my hon. Friend’s sentiments; she expresses them very well. We will be investing £760 million a year by 2014-15 to extend free child care to disadvantaged two-year-olds.

Financial Services

In the Financial Services Bill, the Government are establishing a new financial conduct authority with additional powers to protect consumers and promote effective competition. On the day on which banks are writing to customers who were possibly mis-sold payment protection insurance, we are ensuring that banks will be open about any unarranged overdraft charges and interest payments on savings accounts.

I thank the Chancellor for his response. As families and individuals try to get on top of their debts, will the Chancellor outline whether the Government believe that new legislation is required to ensure that credit markets act in a responsible rather than predatory manner towards customers?

We are introducing legislation through the Financial Services Bill. It creates the financial conduct authority, which will have additional powers and will, I think, be a powerful champion of consumers. Rather than wait for legislation, we are taking action with the industry’s agreement to introduce a seven-day ban on store card retail incentives so that people cannot take out a store card and immediately get a special offer with it in the shop; and we are stopping excessive card charges being hidden on statements.

What is the Chancellor going to do about the exorbitant interest rates being charged to vulnerable consumers by pay day lenders, which are now so ubiquitous on our high streets up and down the country?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there are practices in that industry that we want to see stopped—and I would highlight two in particular. The first is the rolling over of loans, which we are working with the industry to stop; the second is the ongoing use of continuous authorities to take money out of bank accounts, which people might not be aware that they have granted to a pay day loan company or anyone else. We are dealing with those specific abuses and, as I say, we are creating a new powerful consumer champion in the financial conduct authority.

The Financial Services Authority agreed to publish a review of its own conduct in the run-up to the failure of RBS only after considerable pressure from the Treasury Committee. It really should not be that difficult to get some answers out of a regulator.

Does the Chancellor agree that accountability to Parliament would be better served if the Financial Services Bill were amended to require the new regulator, the financial conduct authority, to respond to similar such reasonable requests from the Treasury Committee?

Of course we will listen to any proposals put to us. Clauses 69 to 76 include a new requirement on both the new bodies we are creating—the prudential regulator and the financial conduct regulator—to make a report when a regulatory failure has occurred. That trigger will be set out in the legislation, so we are providing additional powers to require reports when things go so badly wrong, as they did a few years ago.

The financial service from which my constituents most need protection is high-cost lending. The Chancellor’s remarks so far go nowhere near far enough in protecting consumers. We need a range of caps and we need some properly enforced regulation of advertising. When is the Chancellor going to do something about this?

I completely understand the concern about excessive and very high interest charges, which have been a problem for many years. I think it is better to tackle the specific abuses. The Government are conducting a review of the cost of credit to consumers, but by tackling very specific abuses such as the roll-over of loans and the use of continuous authority, we think we are getting to the really hard cases and abuses that we want to see ended. I have to say—this was certainly the view of the previous Government, too—that although it could be worth looking at, simply introducing a cap might have the effect of pushing a lot of people into a completely unregulated black economy. I am not sure that any of us would want to see that.

I remind the Chancellor of the excellent suggestions in the Treasury Committee’s report on the objectives of the successor body to the FSA, as they would certainly help consumers. Will he take the opportunity provided by the current legislation to give effect to those recommendations?

As I have set out before, we have listened carefully to the Treasury Committee and made all sorts of amendments to the Bill to take account of its recommendations, including changing the FCA’s remit to include competition. The Joint Committee chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) also proposed similar recommendations. We have listened to Parliament; thanks to those suggestions, we have made changes that we think will improve the Bill; and the Bill is now before the House and soon to be debated.

VAT (Hospitality Industries)

5. What recent assessment he has made of the effect on tourism of differential rates of VAT in the hospitality industries in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. (98002)

The number of overseas visitors to Northern Ireland grew by an estimated 11% in the first half of 2011, compared with just 7% over the first 10 months in the Republic of Ireland. Building on that performance, marketing campaigns by the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Tourism Ireland are expected to draw 150,000 more visitors to Northern Ireland, create over 600 new jobs, and provide an additional £24 million in revenue for the economy in 2012.

The Minister is right to draw attention to the success that Northern Ireland has enjoyed as a result of the efforts of the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, given that tourism is so price-sensitive, will the Government think again about the potential offered by a VAT reduction? We are currently the only part of the European Union that does not support our tourism industry in that way. Will the Minister reconsider, so that we can try to maximise the potential and grow even more jobs in the sector?

As I have said, Northern Ireland tourism is doing well at present. Were we to pursue a relief along the lines adopted in the Republic of Ireland, it would involve a cost of some £8 billion, £9 billion or perhaps even £10 billion, which would have to be made up for by higher taxes or spending cuts elsewhere.

Tax Avoidance

The Government are determined to tackle tax avoidance and evasion and ensure that the tax system operates fairly for all. By closing down two aggressive avoidance schemes on 27 February, we have demonstrated that we are prepared to take bold action to counter avoidance. The Government’s commitment has been underlined by their reinvestment of £917 million in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which will bring in additional revenues of £7 billion a year by 2014-15.

The United Kingdom has the longest tax code in the world. It has 11,500 pages, and is 10 times longer than “War and Peace”. Does my hon. Friend agree that any simplifying measures would be welcome, as they would reduce tax avoidance and evasion and would prevent further ridiculous trials such as that of Harry Redknapp? I always thought that he was innocent, because he is such a good football manager,

I may be wrong, but I suspect that the hon. Gentleman should have declared himself to be a Tottenham supporter.

So he is an ex-Harry Redknapp fan.

Complexity in the tax code can provide opportunities for avoidance, but, equally, much of the complexity that exists is a consequence of attempts to crack down on avoidance. The Government have set up the Office of Tax Simplification, and we are determined to do what we can to simplify the code and address avoidance and evasion.

Stamp duty land tax avoidance schemes cost the Exchequer hundreds of millions of pounds a year, but my questions on the subject have been met with complete complacency by Ministers. I was told:

“HM Revenue and Customs… is aware of a number of marketed… schemes. HMRC considers that none of the schemes… is effective in reducing… liability”.—[Official Report, 17 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 708W.]

Now we hear that the Chancellor is going to crack down on such schemes. Which is it?

There are many marketed schemes that HMRC is convinced do not work, and that will be established in the courts. I suggest that those who are sometimes persuaded by claims that a particular scheme will work should treat them with caution. However, the Government are determined to crack down on stamp duty land tax avoidance. We took steps in the last Budget, we took steps in the autumn statement strengthening the disclosure regime, and there may well be more to come.

When the banks begin to make profits again, they will offset the losses that they made when they got us into a total mess, and will avoid paying tax. Whenever companies are paying tax on their profits, the banks will be avoiding tax on theirs. Will the Government look at that?

There are times when taxpayers engage in aggressive avoidance and we put a stop to it, as we did last week. However, the offsetting of losses is not novel—it is a long-standing element of the tax system—and, although of course we keep all such matters under review, the legitimate use of losses does not necessarily count as aggressive avoidance.

Given the Government’s attempts to cut the deficit, it would make sense to clamp down on tax evasion, so why are they cutting 10,000 staff at HMRC?

We are cutting down on tax evasion. Whereas under the previous Government tax evasion coverage was reduced—the number of staff dealing with tax evasion was reduced—it can be seen that the number of people working on tax evasion in HMRC is now increasing.

Economic Growth

9. What assessment he has made of the effect of fiscal policy on the level of economic growth in 2011. (98007)

Tackling the deficit is necessary for supporting sustainable economic growth. The Government’s credible consolidation plan has restored confidence in the UK’s fiscal position, helped avoid a rise in market interest rates, and allowed a more activist monetary policy to support the economy.

We know that this Government’s Ministers think they are always right and everyone else is always wrong, but how do they explain why growth in America, which took a more balanced approach to dealing with the deficit, was twice the rate here in the UK, and if it is, as they insist, all the eurozone’s fault, why was it only exports that prevented the British economy from lurching back into recession last year?

If the hon. Gentleman wants an explanation for the country’s current economic position, he need look no further than the Office for Budget Responsibility report published at the time of the autumn statement. It highlighted three factors: the problems in the eurozone; high inflation and commodity prices over the past year; and the depth of the crisis that was caused in part by the hon. Gentleman’s Government and the damage that did to the British economy. If he is looking for people who should be asked to apologise, he should look to himself, and perhaps he should apologise not least to the people of the west midlands, as that region fell behind the rest of the economy during Labour Government’s period in office.

Given the amount of Budget lobbying now going on, will the Chief Secretary remind those who want to add even more to our borrowing by proposing wholly irresponsible and unfunded tax cuts of the Institute for Fiscal Studies advice that

“there is a strong case for the Budget not to contain a significant permanent net giveaway”?

I would certainly remind them of that, and of the fact that the need to maintain the credibility of this country’s fiscal position should override any such considerations.

In the assessment the Chief Secretary is undertaking, will he let us know about the extent of the income tax and national insurance losses that will result from the sacking of between 7,000 and 10,000 public servants? Does he expect the benefit bill to go up, and if so, by how much?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have had to make some very difficult decisions in order to deal with the enormous Budget deficit left to this country by Labour. If his party had not left a mess, we would not have to clean it up.

One direct economic stimulus would be to allow people to keep more of their own money from the proceeds of work. The Government have already taken a great step forward in implementing the Liberal Democrat policy of raising the income tax threshold to £10,000. Will the Chief Secretary and the Chancellor seriously consider going further and faster in the Budget and achieving in this Parliament the goal of all our constituents having £10,000-worth of tax-free pay?

Such decisions are, of course, for the Chancellor to announce on Budget day, but, as my hon. Friend will know, the coalition agreement commits this Government to real-terms increases in the personal allowance every year in order to reach the goal of a £10,000 tax allowance, which the Liberal Democrats set out in our election manifesto. As a result of the substantial steps we have already taken, there will be a further tax reduction of £126 for all basic rate taxpayers in this country from April this year.

Job Creation (Private Sector)

We are making businesses more competitive by cutting business taxes, helping work pay by increasing the personal allowance and introducing universal credit, and helping unemployed people into work through our Work programme and work experience.

As someone who owned and ran a business, I welcome the reductions in corporation tax and the small profits rate already announced by my right hon. Friend, but a further area of taxation is business rates, where although the reliefs for small companies are very helpful, many businesses currently face a significant increase. Can anything further be done to help businesses in this respect?

I will not pre-empt any Budget announcements, but I will say that we have extended small business rate relief to 2013. We announced that in November, and it will help more than half a million small businesses, and we have also introduced a deferral scheme to help larger businesses with their cash flow, so we are doing other things as well as reducing corporation tax—a further reduction in corporation tax is planned for April, of course—and cutting the small companies tax rate, which was due to go up under the previous Labour Government.

The recent changes in research and development tax credits will provide a major boost for hi-tech manufacturing businesses based in my constituency and near it, such as Moog and Goodrich. What more can my right hon. Friend do to help generate more high-skilled, well-paid jobs in the manufacturing sector?

I have been very encouraged to hear about the success of companies in my hon. Friend’s constituency, including the two that he mentioned. We will provide further details later this year on the R and D “above the line” tax credit, on which we have listened to representations from industry and Members of Parliament. In the vicinity of my hon. Friend’s constituency, we also have the enterprise zone i54, which will start up in April. More generally, this is a week when 20,000 new jobs have been announced by Tesco and we have heard the great news that Nissan will produce a new car in the UK. There are some encouraging developments in the British economy.

Is the Chancellor not aware that his measures are not working? In the last quarter for which we have figures, set against a 67,000 drop in public sector employment there was a welcome but very modest increase of only 5,000 jobs in the private sector. Why not do something bold and positive in the Budget, such as taking one of our proposals, rather than rejecting it out of pride, to expand the national insurance holiday to cover all small companies that take on new employees, rather than just the relatively small number of new small companies?

I have noticed in the Budget representations from Labour Members that they are always very good at suggesting things we can spend money on but never have any ideas about how to save money, despite leaving us with the largest budget deficit in our peacetime history. They are all over the place: one week it is a tax cut, the next it is a spending increase. The truth is that we need economic credibility. The budget deficit is coming down but it is still far too high. Of course, we will not have the unfunded giveaways that got this country into a mess under the previous Labour Government.

At the budget a year ago, the Chancellor published his “Plan for Growth” with the rhetorical flourish that it would create

“a Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers.”—[Official Report, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 966.]

A year later, we can see that he has achieved less than half of the downgraded growth forecast made at the time. We had a shrinking economy in the last quarter with—and this is true—only one private sector job created for every 13 public sector jobs lost. Looking back at the past year, where did his plan go wrong?

We have secured for this country economic credibility and stability in the most intense global storm, with the eurozone crisis and rising oil prices. Of course it is difficult, but where is the credible economic policy from the Labour party? It is completely absent. Is it not striking that we have not had a single Labour MP get up and talk about the good news from Nissan today? The car is called the Invitation, but the only invitation the hon. Gentleman is interested in is one to the lasagne parties held by the shadow Chancellor.

14. Does the Chancellor agree that the national loan guarantee scheme has massive potential to help small and medium-sized enterprises grow? Does he also share my view, however, that we need a more enlightened approach from the banks in lending for growth, particularly to support start-ups, exporters and manufacturing? (98012)

We have introduced various tax changes, including our seed capital scheme, creating the most tax-advantaged start-up environment almost anywhere in the western world. Indeed, it is more attractive than that in the United States. On credit easing, I can confirm that subject to final EU state aid approval, which we expect to get in the next week, we will have the scheme up and running before the Budget.

Is the Chancellor aware that while fiscal policies are being used to create jobs, HMRC, through its hard-line attitude towards many small businesses with cash-flow problems, is driving people out of jobs and firms to the wall? What can he do to avoid the continuation of the situation in Northern Ireland, where 55% of bankruptcies in the past four years have been initiated by HMRC?

I think the figure that the hon. Gentleman cites, across the whole UK—I shall come back to him with the specific figures for Northern Ireland—has been roughly the same for many years. Many bankruptcies are ultimately caused by the taxpayer because the tax bills are the last thing that a company cannot pay, and that has been true in good times and bad. We have continued with the time to pay scheme, which was introduced by the previous Government during the recession, and we are making every effort to help viable businesses with their cash flow and to help them pay their taxes, which benefits everyone, in a way that keeps them afloat.

I am sure the Chancellor is aware that it is not just Nissan that we have heard good news about. Last week, Center Parcs announced that it had been able to secure £250 million-worth of investment to build a new Center Parcs in my constituency, creating 1,700 ongoing jobs and 1,500 jobs in construction. Does the Chancellor agree that tourism is an ideal way to attract inward investment into the UK and that it is an area we should be looking at to create jobs in the private sector?

The announcement was very welcome. I commend my hon. Friend for taking an enlightened attitude to development in her constituency, which is not always the case. When it comes to tourism, we have authorised a big increase in the advertising campaign that is currently going around the world to sell the UK in this very special year when we have the Olympics and the jubilee. We want a permanent increase in tourism as a result of those events.

Money Advice Service

The Money Advice Service is an independent body and the Financial Services Authority approves its business plan and budget. The service’s online health check was launched in June last year and received nearly half a million visits. More than half of those visits resulted in a personal action plan, providing thousands of visitors with a direct route to taking control of their finances.

The Minister will know that low-paid workers in my constituency are currently missing out on the discounts that utility providers offer to customers when they pay their bills by direct debit. What work is he doing with the Money Advice Service to increase the number of low-paid workers who pay their bills by direct debit?

It is important that people take as much advantage as they can of the discounts on offer. The Money Advice Service is there to provide advice to people at all levels of income. Encouraging more people to open bank accounts and to take advice on direct debit services is a key part of its role.

Budget Deficit

15. What assessment he has made of the effect of Government spending commitments on the budget deficit. (98013)

In the autumn statement, the Government announced their decision to continue the consolidation beyond the current spending review period in response to a deterioration in the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast. The Government’s plan has restored confidence in the UK’s fiscal position, protected the UK from the European sovereign debt crisis and kept low long-term interest rates.

Has the Chief Secretary seen the latest report by the International Monetary Fund, which shows that although the US had a fiscal contraction of 0.8% last year and Germany saw a 2.3% tightening of its fiscal policy, both those economies are still growing? Does he agree that this shows that those who have called for an increase in the deficit as a way to drive growth are completely wrong?

Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. When the coalition Government came into office the UK was forecast to have the largest deficit in the whole of the G20. It is necessary to stick to the Government’s consolidation plan to restore public finances to sustainability. At the same time, the Government are delivering a radical programme of supply-side reforms to lay the foundations for a stronger and more balanced economy in the future.

I think the Minister has studied some economics. Does he understand the mechanism by which going too far, too fast with cuts can make the budget deficit worse? Where did he and his colleagues go so wrong with their sums on the budget deficit?

There is a very simple mechanism going on in the economy: the hon. Gentleman’s party caused the mess and we are cleaning it up.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the report in today’s Times saying that on his appointment the shadow Chancellor apparently turned to the Leader of the Opposition and asked:

“What if George Osborne is right?”

Does not the news of the jobs in Nissan, along with the 500,000 jobs created in the economy and our low interest rates, prove that he is?

I have not seen that report, but I can tell my hon. Friend that it is not a question I have asked myself.

Gross Value Added

16. What steps he is taking to create greater equality in gross value added between the countries and regions of the UK. (98014)

Economic development policy is devolved, although the UK Government continue to work with the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as with the English regions, including on policies to maintain low long-term interest rates and provide 100% capital allowances in designated enterprise zones.

Latest European Union statistics indicate that GVA per head in inner London is £109,278 while the figure for the south Wales valleys is £10,654. Will the Chief Secretary include provisions in the forthcoming Budget to equalise wealth levels across the British state?

Budget announcements are a matter for the Chancellor, but I recognise very much the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. That is why we have asked the Silk commission to consider changes to the financial provisions within Wales—we look forward to its report—but he will also know that the autumn statement saw an additional £216 million of capital funding going as a consequence to the Welsh Assembly Government. I am sure that he, along with me, wants to press them to announce how they will use that money.

Ninety-three organisations in the north-east have been awarded almost £100 million from the regional growth fund. May I welcome the additional £1 billion being allocated to the fund, and will the Chief Secretary ensure that bids are supported that would route more of that money to small and medium-sized manufacturers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The regional growth fund is making an enormous difference across the country, particularly in those regions that are most affected by public spending reductions. Many of those projects are creating jobs and boosting the economy in constituencies such as his. He is right to say that we need to find more ways to get those moneys to smaller businesses, and of course the next round will invite programme bids that can do precisely that.

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, from now on, lives within her means.

Will the Chancellor join me in welcoming today’s report from the east Kent enterprise zone that nearly 1,000 jobs have already been created on the former Pfizer site? What assessment has the Treasury made of the positive impact of tax credits for video game production and high-end TV production in the UK to mirror the success of the film tax credit, which has helped to secure Britain’s place as one of the world’s leading creative economies?

With two weeks to go to the Budget, I shall not comment specifically on tax policy, but the industry to which my hon. Friend refers has made its representations to the Treasury. It already benefits from the reduction in the small companies tax rate—or, indeed, the corporation tax rate in respect of larger firms—as well as the reforms to research and development tax credits and the introduction of the seed enterprise investment scheme, which will help start-up companies in the creative sector, as elsewhere.

The Chancellor’s policy on child benefit seems to be that a two-earner family on £84,000 can keep all their child benefit, but a one-earner family on £43,000—whether that is a single parent, or where mum or dad stays at home to look after the kids—will lose all their child benefit, which is £2,500 if the family has three kids. What is fair about that? For the benefit of Labour Members, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Justice Secretary, the Prime Minister and Government Back Benchers, will the Chancellor tell the House what is today’s policy on child benefit?

What I would say to the right hon. Gentleman is that I think it is fair to ask those in the top 15% of the income distribution to make a contribution to the fiscal consolidation. I happen to think that that is fair. If we now have a Labour shadow Chancellor who thinks it is not fair to ask people in the top 15% of income distribution to make a contribution to cutting a 9% budget deficit, he has completely lost sight of his party’s values.

So on the comparison of £43,000 and £84,000, we are none the wiser. Let me ask the Chancellor another question about family finances. A year ago, he promised to get the economy growing and introduce a fair fuel stabiliser, which would cut fuel duty when petrol prices were higher. One year on, he is now indicating that he is going to press ahead with fuel duty increases, even though rising oil prices mean that pump prices have today reached a record high. How can he press ahead when petrol prices are 4p higher than they were in last year’s Budget? What has happened to the stabiliser, or is it not the truth that he cannot do the right thing on child benefit, tax credits or fuel because his plans have failed? A year ago, he said in the Budget that he would put fuel into the tank of the British economy. The fact is that the economy has tanked—on the hard shoulder—and this Chancellor has run out of fuel.

There is an inconvenient truth, which is that the fuel duty rises that the right hon. Gentleman refers to are the ones put in place by the Labour Government, which he and any Labour Member who was in the previous Parliament voted for. That is the unbelievable opportunism of the Labour party today. One month it is VAT, another month it is child tax credits and now it is fuel. He is like a pinball machine, bouncing all over the place. He does not have a credible economic policy.

Today, the right hon. Gentleman may have been listening to his Labour leader on Radio 5 Live. This is what a caller from Wakefield—very close to the shadow Chancellor’s constituency—said:

“I voted Labour all my life…but we need to have a credible Opposition…You’re not going to be the Prime Minister of this country by any stretch of the imagination. I’d put my life on that.”

Another Labour voter said:

“It’s really bad what you’re doing.”

The truth is this: they need a credible economic policy to be a credible Opposition and a credible shadow Chancellor and they do not have it.

Order. When the House has calmed down a bit, I will gently and kindly remind the Chancellor that answers are to be about the responsibility for Government policy. It is pretty straightforward.

T2. Many Conservative Members have long believed that lower-paid workers should be moved out of paying income tax. Will the Chancellor confirm that next month’s increase in personal allowances will have a real benefit for hard-working families in Broxtowe, and can they be increased even more come the Budget, please? (98024)

The personal allowance is increasing from April. We inherited a personal allowance that was £6,475. It is going to be £8,105 in April. That will take 1.1 million people out of tax and deliver a tax cut to 23 million or so basic rate taxpayers. I say to my hon. Friend, to my colleagues in the Conservative party and to my colleagues in the Liberal Democrat party that this is a coalition policy. It was part of the coalition agreement. It was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, but I am also proud that it is a Conservative Chancellor who is implementing it.

T4. If the Chancellor had cut less than the Darling plan and at the same time was borrowing less, we would be calling him a genius. What word would he use to describe somebody who has achieved the opposite? (98027)

I did not really understand what the hon. Gentleman was saying. He seemed to suggest that we should be cutting less than the Darling plan, so the Opposition are now abandoning even the deficit reduction plan that they claimed to have when they were last in government. It just shows how all over the place they are.

T3. The oil and gas industry has opened its books to an unprecedented degree to show the costs of operating in the North sea, to help the Chancellor understand the need for investment and incentives. Will he recognise the need to respond positively in the Budget on decommissioning relief and on other incentives to maximise the job potential of the oil and gas that we have left in the North sea? (98026)

I am very aware of what an important industry that is for the UK and how important it is to extract what remains of the oil and gas in the North sea—of course there is still an enormous amount of oil and gas in the North sea—and to have an industry in Aberdeen and other places that continues long after the oil runs out. We are specifically engaging with the industry on decommissioning relief in order to give certainty to the industry about the years ahead, and on specific field allowances, which might aid new exploration.

T8. Given that schoolchildren and students are the future bill payers of this country, can the Chancellor explain why, two years after the Conservatives blocked plans to include financial education in the national curriculum, no progress has been made in ensuring that our young people have the tools to make informed decisions about their finances? (98032)

The Department for Education is looking at this area. I am clear that the support that this Government have given to the Money Advice Service will ensure that people of all ages and all income levels receive the advice that they need to manage their money properly and prepare for their futures.

T5. The Opposition’s policy of more spending, more borrowing and more debt is not credible and will result in higher interest rates. Will the Chancellor tell the House what impact just a 1% rise in interest rates would have on businesses, mortgages and the cost of servicing the colossal national debt racked up by the previous Government? (98028)

I gave these figures to the House before and will give them again because they remind us how irresponsible the Labour party’s policy is: a 1% rise in mortgage rates would add £10 billion to family mortgage bills; a 1% rise in interest rate loans would cost businesses £7 billion; and a 1% rise in interest rates would add £21 billion to debt interest payments. The policy that the Labour party claims to pursue, at least this week, would definitely put market rates up, which is what has happened to other countries without a credible fiscal policy, and taxpayers, families and businesses would pay for the mess they got us into.

By how much will the national debt have grown by the next general election, compared with the situation the Government inherited following the last general election?

In two weeks’ time I will produce the latest Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts for the fiscal situation, so the hon. Gentleman will have to be patient and wait until then.

T6. With new businesses setting up and others expanding in my constituency, I very much welcome plans to promote equity investment in new business ventures through the seed enterprise investment scheme. What else is being done to support new business ventures across my constituency and the rest of our nation? (98029)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the seed enterprise investment scheme, which will provide 50% income tax relief on investments in new start-up businesses. There is also the £50 million business angel co-investment fund, supported through the regional growth fund, the business coaching for growth arrangements and a number of measures that HMRC is taking to help start-up businesses.

The Minister’s answer on the national insurance holiday for small businesses was simply not good enough, so may I press him again on why he will not expand eligibility for the national insurance holiday to all small businesses with fewer than 10 employees that take on extra workers, as set out in Labour’s five-point plan for jobs?

I am afraid that my answer is the same: we cannot keep doing things if we cannot fund them. We will have the Budget in two weeks’ time, but once again we hear proposals for tax cuts or spending increases but nothing to show how the books would be balanced.

T7. What success are we having in stamping out VAT fraud, specifically missing trader fraud, which affects us more than it does other EU countries and costs us almost £10 billion? (98030)

This has been a major problem over a number of years. Progress has been made since the mid-2000s, when the problem was at its greatest, but we must of course remain vigilant and I know that HMRC continues to monitor the matter closely.

Airports create jobs, yet next month’s increase in air passenger duty will apply equally to unused airports in regions with high unemployment and busy airports in the south-east. Will the Chancellor consider introducing a differential level of air passenger duty so that airports in regions with high unemployment can gain some benefit from it?

We will of course listen to any representations. My constituency is also served by Manchester airport. Indeed, the second runway is in my constituency, so I am well aware of the representations from the airport, but I gently say to the right hon. Gentleman, with whom I get on well as a constituency neighbour, that the increase in air passenger duty was the policy of the previous Labour Government and was set out in their last Budget. The one thing we were able to do was to delay the increase last year to give passengers some relief. It is a little opportunistic for Labour Members to complain about a tax that they all voted for when in government.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is unacceptable that four banks in the UK have 80% of the SME business and 80% of the personal current account business in this country and that it is essential we get more competition in the banking sector? During the passage of the Financial Services Bill, will he consider again the Treasury Committee’s recommendation for a specific primary competition objective for the Financial Conduct Authority?

We have listened to representations from not only the Treasury Committee, but the Independent Commission on Banking, and one of the three objectives of the FCA will be to promote competition, which will get better outcomes for consumers so that there is more choice and better value for money.

Unemployment in Halifax has doubled since 2010, because of the Government’s failed economic policies. Will the Minister outline the urgent action that he is going to take to ensure that people get back to work in the town?

Unemployment rose sharply at the end of the previous Labour Government, and youth unemployment has been rising since the middle of the previous decade, which is a tragedy for everyone affected by it and for the country. That is why we have the Work programme, why we are introducing the youth contract and why we have our work experience scheme, but a Labour MP is chairing the campaign to sabotage it and deny young people who are currently claiming unemployment benefit the chance of real work experience, so perhaps, first, the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan) will have a word with the Labour MP who chairs the so-called right to work scheme.

The Chancellor referred to the top 15% of earners having to contribute to deficit reduction. Why is he proposing that, in that 15%, those who have children should make a bigger contribution than those without?

The reason we have put forward the policy is that those higher-rate taxpayers who do not have children are not in receipt of state benefits, so it is quite difficult to remove state benefits from them.

The Chancellor and his Government are considering the complete removal of all subsidy to disabled manufacturing workers in Remploy. Does he accept that, as a minimum, the subsidy should be at the level of unemployment benefit and reflect the knock-on cost on health in order to avoid making a net loss by putting those people on the dole?

We are seeking to use the same amount of money in a better way, and it is a very sensitive issue, which hon. Members from all parts of the House are concerned to ensure we get right. We are working very closely with disability charities to come up with a future that is right for the people who have disabilities and want to work.

In 1997 the gross value added difference in the national economy between the north and London was some 70 points. By 2010 it had gone up to 86 points. What more can my right hon. Friend do, or what will he consider doing in the next Budget, to add to the Government’s drive to narrow the north-south divide, which increased under the previous Government?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The gap between the economic performance of the south of England and the north of England and, indeed, all parts of the UK increased under the Labour Government, so all those policies for regional development agencies, The Northern Way and all that led to an increase in disparity in our country, and manufacturing as a share of our national economy halved. We have introduced the regional growth fund, and we have enterprise zones and major transport schemes such as High Speed 2, to shrink the gap between the north and the south and to make sure that all parts of our economy benefit—[Interruption]so that we have a better record than the one when the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) was sitting in the Treasury.

The Royal Bank of Scotland has today announced that it is cutting 300 jobs, mainly in Edinburgh, and transferring the work to India, where 250 jobs are to be created. Will the Chancellor intervene and tell RBS that the public did not put billions into it just to let it export jobs in that way?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, the Government’s shareholding in the Royal Bank of Scotland is managed through United Kingdom Financial Investments Ltd, an institution created by my predecessor, another Member for Edinburgh, the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), and we have no plans to change those arrangements.

Last week was indeed a triumph for those in the Treasury tackling tax avoidance, but can the Chancellor tell us whether those tax receipts, which will have not been budgeted for, are going to be used to set against the deficit or to put money back in the pockets of ordinary working people?

I am afraid that my hon. Friend will have to wait for the Budget to see what we propose to do across the board, but last week we demonstrated that we are prepared to take decisive and swift action where we find unacceptable tax avoidance—by a bank in that case, which we felt was incompatible with the code of practice that we asked the banks to sign and which they have signed. I hope that he and his constituents take it as a signal of our seriousness about tackling tax avoidance and, indeed, tax evasion.

Much work has been done to secure a private sector-led infrastructure project in Blaenau Gwent. The developers say that it could create sustainable jobs for over 10,000 people. Given that the Chancellor has already announced 100% capital allowances in six English enterprise zones, when will he be able to offer similar assistance to the Welsh enterprise zones?

We are in discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government about their proposals for enterprise zones in Wales, including the possibility of applying within them the capital allowances regime that the hon. Gentleman describes, and we will make an announcement shortly.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Does my right hon. Friend agree with the statement made this morning:

“The last Labour government didn’t regulate the banks properly. That’s what caused the financial crisis”—

not my words but those of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband)—or does he, like me, think that it was caused not just by a failure to regulate the banks but by the Labour Government spending more money than they had?

Of course, it was a double failure: the catastrophic failure of Labour Ministers, including the then City Minister, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls); and the failure to get a grip on public spending. We are having to clean up both messes at the moment.

Bill Presented

Planning Applications (Appeals by Town and Parish Councils)

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Martin Caton, supported by Philip Davies, Mr Elfyn Llwyd, Andrew George, Caroline Lucas, Bob Blackman, Paul Flynn, Kate Hoey, Robert Halfon, Steve McCabe, Kelvin Hopkins and Sir Bob Russell, presented a Bill to allow town and parish councils to appeal against the granting of planning permission in their area in certain circumstances; to make provisions for Wales; and for connected purposes.

Bill read the first time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 April, and to be printed (Bill 314).