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Topical Questions

Volume 541: debated on Tuesday 6 March 2012

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).