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Volume 547: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2012

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Excessive Card Surcharges

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is taking forward work on excessive credit card surcharges. I understand that the consultation to seek views on how and when a ban might be applied is going on in the summer.

For many years, families in my constituency have faced surcharges—sometimes 240 times the actual processing costs—when booking plane tickets. There are now charges on theatre tickets and utility bills and some funeral directors are applying them. Given the prevalence of this issue, does the Chancellor still intend to ban excessive debit and credit card charges by the end of the year?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to highlight the costs imposed by this on our constituents. Our estimate was that in 2010 nearly £500 million was spent by consumers on surcharges. It is still our intention to ban them. Both consumers and businesses should be clear that after many years of inaction by our predecessors, it is this Government’s intention to ban these excessive charges.

The super-complaint was upheld in December last year. The Government have not even started the consultation that would be necessary to introduce this measure. Meanwhile, £8 million a month has been lost just by those suffering surcharges on flights from this country. When are we going to get some action?

As I said, we are going to publish a consultation this summer and take action to ban these surcharges as soon as possible after that. We should be very clear not only that we are going to ban them, but that some firms have already responded to the action we are going to take, with a number of them reducing their charges on credit and debit card use. That shows that even without legislative action, consumers are getting a better deal as a consequence of our policy.

This is a matter of very serious concern to our constituents. May I welcome the Minister’s commitment to tackling the payment surcharges and urge him to do whatever he can as soon as possible?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s welcome. I am working closely with the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), who is responsible for consumer affairs, to ensure that we act as quickly as possible to ban these surcharges and to deliver a better deal to consumers.

Quantitative Easing

2. What estimate he has made of the proportion of the money issued through quantitative easing which has been used by banks to pay off their debts. (113578)

Quantitative easing is a tool of the independent Monetary Policy Committee and has been designed to work through channels other than the impaired banking system by stimulating activity in capital markets. The Government and the Bank of England are working together on a new funding for lending scheme that will more broadly support sustained and increased bank lending to the economy. I can confirm for the first time that in the three months since the start of the national loan guarantee scheme, over 10,000 cheaper loans worth over £1.5 billion have been offered to businesses. I can also confirm that we have today secured EU state aid approval to extend the scheme to medium-sized businesses with a turnover of up to £250 million. That means 99.9% of UK businesses can now benefit.

Quantitative easing was certainly intended to stimulate the economy, but in reality it is being used to write off the debts of reckless banks with hundreds of billions of pounds’ worth of virtual money. Has anyone in Government thought through the consequences of this policy, and if so, what are they?

The Bank of England conducted a study of the first round of QE that it undertook under the last Government, and estimated that it had increased real GDP by between 1.5% and 2%. The Bank’s chief economist says that the asset programme regime

“was explicitly designed to go around the banking system”.

I therefore do not accept the hon. Lady’s characterisation.

Now that the Bank of England has finally shown more willingness to provide some liquidity support, there should be no obstacle to the exercising of more flexibility by the Financial Services Authority when it comes to how the liquidity buffers are used. That is being desperately demanded by banks. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the FSA should take action as soon as possible, and that such action is what is required to provide borrowing and lending at reasonable rates for the hundreds and thousands of businesses throughout the country that need it so desperately?

The liquidity auction undertaken by the Bank of England last week was very welcome, and the Bank is proposing future auctions. My hon. Friend, who chairs the Treasury Committee, has been prescient in pointing to some of the procyclical nature—if unintended—of some of the liquidity regulation in the United Kingdom in recent years. The Financial Policy Committee was set up to look at risks on both the downside and the upside. The Financial Services Authority must make its own independent decisions, but I am sure that it will have paid close attention to my speech and to the speech of the Governor of the Bank of England at the Mansion House.

Notwithstanding the Chancellor’s warm words about the impact of quantitative easing, I have yet to meet a banker, a businessman or indeed a Government representative who can identify the benefits that have accrued as a result of its introduction. While I do not necessarily oppose it, all the evidence that I am being given by bankers suggests that lack of demand is causing the main problem. Will the Chancellor do something to stimulate consumer demand and investment confidence in order to maximise the potential that quantitative easing might bring?

In conducting its most recent assessment of the UK economy, the IMF explicitly looked at unconventional monetary policy tools that are currently being used, and concluded that quantitative easing was having a positive impact. I think that we should welcome that. I believe that we are able to pursue loose monetary policy—that we are able to use all the tools that are available to us on the monetary policy side—precisely because we have international credibility on the fiscal side.

21. I, too, warmly welcome the action of the Bank of England last week to increase liquidity in its liquidity auction, but should not the role of the Financial Policy Committee be not only to stand against procyclical financial policy and liquidity buffers, but to lean against the wind and make sure that we can get the lending to businesses in our constituencies? (113599)

The Government established the Financial Policy Committee because under the previous tripartite regime, designed and implemented by the shadow Chancellor, absolutely no one was paying attention to overall levels of debt and credit in the economy. That is why we had such a deep recession, and why we went from such a large boom to such a big bust—to coin a phrase. My hon. Friend is entirely right: the FPC should be symmetrical in the way in which it looks at risks. We have made that clear, and we are amending the Financial Services Bill in the House of Lords to ensure that that the FPC has, as a secondary objective, due regard for the Government’s broader economic policy.

Yesterday the Financial Times reported that the Bank for International Settlements was warning of the dangers for economies that get hooked on ultra-low interest rates. Is not the reality that monetary policy alone will not kick-start the sustained recovery, and that fiscal intervention will be needed if we are to avoid a lost decade?

The very low interest and mortgage rates in Britain are extremely welcome to families and businesses across the country. If we want to know what the alternative looks like, we just have to look across the channel at countries that have not been able to maintain their credibility in international markets, where we see rising bank lending and funding costs and increased costs for Government borrowing. We have now five countries in the eurozone who have had to apply for bail-outs. It is because we have fiscal credibility despite inheriting the largest budget deficit in the European Union that we have been able to keep our interest rates very low.

I, too, welcome the announcement of extra liquidity for our banks, but how will the Chancellor ensure that our international banks lend this money to British businesses?

The funding for lending scheme, which the Governor and I announced at the Mansion House, is explicitly designed to address the high bank funding costs and it is tied to lending into the UK economy, so that is precisely what this new scheme is designed to do.

Economic Growth

The Office for Budget Responsibility is responsible for producing independent economic and fiscal forecasts. In its March economic and fiscal outlook, the OBR forecasted economic growth of 0.8% in 2012, but more recent independent forecasts have been lower, reflecting the fact that the euro-area crisis remains the biggest risk to the UK recovery.

A worryingly large jump in Government borrowing has been reported today. Why is it that of all the G20 countries, only Britain and Italy are in recession?

The right hon. Gentleman refers to borrowing, but his Front-Bench team wants us to borrow tens of billions of pounds more, which is not the right response. If he studies the figures carefully, he will see that departmental spending is rising much less than was forecast, but, of course, the automatic stabilisers in the economy are operating. That is precisely the flexibility in our plan, which is tough on the structural deficit but supportive of the economy.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the latest Office for National Statistics figures, which show that unemployment is down 50,000 in the last quarter and over 800,000 new jobs have been created since we took office? Does he agree that this suggests that the Government’s programme of deficit credibility, public sector restraint and support for business is laying the foundations for a sustainable recovery?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. He is, of course, right to say that the recent figures show that unemployment has been falling, and that is good news, of course. Inflation is also coming down, which is good news for hard-pressed consumers.

Does the Chief Secretary think the fact that the economy is in recession explains why today’s figures show that borrowing is going up, not down as the Government intended?

As I said to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), the figures reflect a combination of things, including the fact that departmental spending has been held down by more than was forecast, but the automatic stabilisers in the economy are operating. That is the flexibility in our plan. It is because of the fiscal credibility the Government have brought to this country that we can do that.

I do not think the Chief Secretary answered the question. Figures out this morning show that, with the economy in recession, tax receipts are falling, and the benefits bill is going up, so borrowing is already £4 billion higher this year than last. Is it not time that the Government admitted their plan has failed, and without action on jobs and growth, borrowing does not go down, it just goes up?

That is an astonishing question from the party that made the mess in the British economy that we are trying to clear up, and the party whose plans wanted this Government to borrow even more. That just goes to show what would have happened to the UK economy if we had been unfortunate enough to have the Labour party stay in power.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that protectionism is the enemy of economic growth? What steps will he take to re-energise the Doha round?

I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend. It is a very important point that, in times of economic stress worldwide, some countries may seek a protectionist approach. That is why at the forthcoming European summit the Prime Minister will again be arguing for measures within Europe to strengthen the single market and to increase free trade within the EU, and for measures for the EU to take to build on the free trade agreements that, collectively, we are signing with a number of other important economies in the world. We need to keep up the momentum of that process in order to help support the world economy.

Regional Pay

4. What progress he has made on his consultation on regional pay for public sector workers; and if he will make a statement. (113580)

The independent pay review bodies are considering how public sector pay can be made more responsive to local labour markets, and will report from July. Nothing has been decided, and no changes will be made unless there is strong supporting evidence and a rational case for proceeding.

The Tory finance spokesperson in the Welsh Assembly said that introducing regional pay could disadvantage thousands of public sector workers, and that

“we are making it absolutely clear that we are against”

it. Does the Minister agree?

As I have just set out, this is a question at present for the independent pay review bodies, which will report back in July. There is an argument that more local, market-facing pay in the public sector has the potential to support more for the same investment, and to help local businesses become more competitive.

23. How can it be fair for small businesses outside London and the south-east to have to compete for staff paid on national rates working in public offices? Given that the last Government committed us to local pay nearly 10 years ago, and that it already operates in the Courts Service, what is the problem with encouraging other departments to follow suit? (113601)

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point that I am sure the independent pay review bodies will consider. If I were to put a number on the average premium for working in the public sector, I could name 18% in Wales.

Last week, it was left to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General to come to the Chamber to explain the Treasury’s position on regional pay. Was that because the Chief Secretary does not support the policy and the part-time Chancellor does not want to make another U-turn?

We had an extensive and rather premature debate on this last week in the Chamber, and I shall say again what I said then: the independent pay review bodies are producing a report, and it would be premature to review that without the evidence, which they are considering.

Cost of Living

Rising global prices have increased the cost of living for families here in Britain. This coalition Government will do everything we can to help. We have already frozen council tax, kept mortgage bills low and abolished the fuel duty escalator. I can tell people that we will now stop any rise in fuel duty this August and freeze it for the rest of the year. This means that fuel duty will be 10p a litre lower than planned by the last Labour Government. We are on the side of working families and businesses, and this will fuel our recovery at this very difficult economic time for the world. The one-off cost of this change will be fully paid for by the larger than forecast savings in departmental budgets, and we will set out details of those, as usual, in the autumn statement.

If I were not on crutches I would be jumping for joy. The people of Cornwall will really welcome this move, which proves once more that this Government are on the side of hard-working families.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and I know this news will be welcome in Cornwall, as across the country. I repeat: because of the actions we have taken today and in recent Budgets, petrol duty is 10p a litre lower than it would have been under the Budget plans voted for by the Labour party. We are on the side of working families, we are helping motorists, helping businesses—doing everything we can in very difficult circumstances for the world.

I am glad that the Chancellor is beginning to listen to the shadow Chancellor. However, the Government’s own figures show that cuts to tax credits are leaving thousands of parents up to £72 a week worse off, and some are better off if they quit their jobs. With the cost of living rising and the economy in double-dip recession, surely it is time we saw a U-turn on this perverse policy, to make sure that work pays.

First, all families, if we take into account the benefit and tax changes, are £5.50 better off a week from April, and we have actually increased tax credits for the poorest families. We have had to make difficult welfare changes. They were completely opposed by the Labour party, which also opposed the cap on welfare benefits. We have to ask the question: what would Labour Members do to get control of the budget deficit that they created? We have had two years and not a single answer from Labour. That is why, as I say, we are the people trusted to lead this country out of the economic mess that they put us in.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is astonishing that Opposition Members do not welcome his announcement to cut the fuel duty that they proposed when they were in government? Does he agree that this Government will focus everything they can on cutting the cost of living for hard-working people?

We should judge people by actions as well as words, and Labour Members voted for increases in fuel duty, which this Government have stopped. That is because we are on the side of working families, whereas Labour Members are simply on the side of the economic mess that they created.

Economic Performance

As the Office for Budget Responsibility made clear last autumn, Britain’s recovery has faced strong headwinds from the euro area, high oil prices and the impact of the financial crisis being deeper than previously thought. Our actions to reduce the deficit and rebuild the economy have secured stability and kept interest rates near record lows, benefiting families, businesses and taxpayers, although, of course, considerable external risks remain.

That just does not wash, because by May 2010 the British economy was growing, whereas since the Government’s emergency Budget of June 2010 the economy has at best flatlined and at worst dropped back into recession. Why does the right hon. Gentleman think that is?

By May 2010, the hon. Gentleman’s Labour Government had put in place plans to increase fuel duty by above the rate of inflation each and every year of this Parliament. He should be welcoming the fact that we are taking steps to support hard-pressed families and hard-pressed consumers across the country in the very difficult economic circumstances that we face.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that motorists across the country will welcome the cut in fuel tax announced for August and that it will greatly improve the performance of the economy? Does this not show that the Government are on the side of hard-pressed working people?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I met representatives of the FairFuelUK campaign yesterday. We have a great deal of sympathy with its arguments, as well as with those made by families across this country, including in remote and rural areas. It is worth saying that thanks to the decisions this coalition Government have made not only is fuel tax 10p a litre lower than under Labour’s plans, but council tax is lower and income tax is lower. In the Budget in March we also saw the largest ever increase in the income tax personal allowance, all of which puts money back into the pockets of hard-pressed families.

EU Regulations

The Government are taking action to reduce the burden of EU regulation on UK business. At Budget 2011, the “Plan for Growth” announced a comprehensive package for tackling EU regulation. The Government estimate that the cost of European regulations to the UK has varied from 27% to 60% of the total UK regulatory cost since October 2009.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Although British businesses will welcome the fact that the United Kingdom is not in the eurozone, and will not suffer from the loss of sovereignty and the new regulations that fiscal union would mean, they are nevertheless burdened by EU-imposed red tape, which means that it is much harder for them to compete successfully for new contracts against companies from outside the EU, which are not subject to such regulations. May I urge him urgently to conduct an investigation into and an assessment of the extent to which that is holding back the British economy?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and that is why we are taking action through the “Plan for Growth”. We want the Commission to publish an annual audit of the cumulative cost of all planned EU regulations, but assessments are not enough in themselves, which is why as a consequence of lobbying by this Government the EU has introduced an exemption for micro-businesses and is looking at lifting the burden of regulation on the small and medium-sized businesses that are key drivers of growth in our economy.

I am sure I am not alone in believing that what regulation we do have should be made by this Parliament and not by the Commission in Brussels. However, I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the survey reported by the CBI that shows that 94% of businesses are concerned above all about demand and the ability to sell their goods and services. Is that not the problem with Government economic policy?

What we need are measures to tackle some of the structural problems in the economy that we inherited from the previous Government and to tackle issues to do with education, transport infrastructure and the complexity of the tax system. Those are the reforms we need to ensure that the economy grows.

Economic Growth

To help the economy, we are cutting taxes for businesses and families. We are, as we have just heard, freezing fuel duty, helping 10,000 businesses with the national loan guarantee scheme, reforming the planning system, creating enterprise zones, setting up the regional growth fund and creating the biggest number of apprenticeships this country has ever seen.

The recent Growth Factory report on industrial strategy highlighted the importance of rebalancing our economy. Does the Chancellor agree that the record increase in employment in the manufacturing sector in the first quarter of this year is a welcome sign of the growing confidence at the heart of our economy?

My hon. Friend is right and I commend him and his group for the interesting ideas, many of which I agree with, that they are promoting. He is absolutely right to point out the increase in employment, including in manufacturing employment. An interesting recent statistic from an independent international body on the British economy showed that the share of manufacturing in the UK economy is increasing for the first time in a very long time, having almost halved under the previous Labour Government.

Why did not the Chancellor cut fuel duty sooner? Why has it taken him all this time? He has done about 33 U-turns as far as I can see.

Last year we cut fuel duty and froze it. This year, we have frozen it again and the hon. Gentleman should welcome that. I know that he is in a slightly difficult position in that he was one of the Labour MPs who voted for the increase that we have now delayed, but he should just get up and welcome these moves.

Economic growth in Cornwall would be discouraged by the introduction of regional pay or the regionalisation of benefits. Will the Chancellor undertake to publish the Government’s evidence to the independent pay review bodies that are considering this issue?

I point out to my hon. Friend that we have published that evidence. As I say, the matter is now with the independent pay review bodies, so let us wait to hear what they have to say.

Infrastructure Investment

10. If he will discuss with his ministerial colleagues bringing forward the timing of public infrastructure investment in order to encourage economic growth. (113586)

We are having those discussions as we speak. We are already spending more on new roads and new rail now than we were at the height of the spending boom in the previous Parliament. We have provided £2.4 billion for the regional growth fund, £770 million for the Growing Places fund and £570 million for the Get Britain Building fund. We can also support infrastructure investment through the use of Government guarantees and will be announcing more about how we plan to do so later this summer.

But will the Chief Secretary listen to the business leaders quoted recently in the Financial Times, who said that they had heard Ministers talking about infrastructure projects for months but with no visible results? Will he publish a timetable today, or very soon, for each region showing the projects that will be brought forward with their delivery dates?

The hon. Lady will have seen that last November we published the national infrastructure plan, which does precisely what she said and which was widely welcomed by business leaders and business organisations across the country. She will know that we are spending more on road and rail than the previous Government managed, including on a number of projects in her part of the world.

My constituents warmly welcome the Government’s support for the Northern line extension in the Vauxhall/Nine Elms development area. Is that not a good example of exactly the kind of infrastructure project that the Government could support to help unlock economic growth?

It is precisely such an example of the sort of infrastructure that this country needs and the sort of project from which the economy of London and elsewhere will benefit if we can bring the investment forward and make things happen more quickly. As I said, we are looking for ideas about doing just that.

Is the Chief Secretary not aware that the so-called national infrastructure programme is way behind schedule, that the construction industry is flat on its back and that the apprenticeships in that sector, so badly needed by the industry and by the Government, are seizing up? Why does he not get his finger out and do something about it instead of making vague promises?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the national infrastructure plan, which we published last November, is behind schedule, but of course he is right to say that there are problems in the construction sector. That is why we have taken a number of steps to support the house building sector, but we will make further announcements in that area later this summer.

Over the past four years, footfall on the Norwich-Cambridge line and the Fen line has increased by 20%. In the Government’s infrastructure plan, will they bring forward the upgrading of the Ely North junction, which will enable half-hourly services on both those lines?

I do not know the details of the Ely North junction project but I shall certainly raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Transport. However, that is precisely the sort of project we have been bringing forward over the past two years to support economic growth across the whole of the United Kingdom, rather than having a model of growth based solely on receipts from the City of London, which was basically the policy of the Labour party.

Small Businesses

The Government have launched a package of credit easing measures to improve credit availability for smaller businesses. This includes the £20 billion national loan guarantee scheme and the business finance partnership, which will provide £1.2 billion of additional finance through non-banking channels. The Government and the Bank of England are working together on the new funding for lending scheme, which will provide funding to banks linked to their lending to the real economy.

There are a significant number of small businesses in my constituency that want to expand and create jobs but cannot get sensible bank financing. I therefore welcome the recently announced funding for lending scheme, but I understand that in exchange for this funding, banks will have to provide collateral to the Bank of England. Will my hon. Friend confirm, given that the precise details of the scheme are not available yet, whether small loans will be acceptable to the Bank of England as collateral? Otherwise, the desired lending to smaller businesses will not get off the ground.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. He is right to point out that the details of the scheme have yet to be finalised, but I take on board his comments. We will discuss this with the Bank of England. It is important that the scheme works and that it helps funding and lending to households and businesses.

In view of the banks’ disgraceful behaviour on delivering the Merlin agreement, will the Minister assure the House that this new scheme will be transparent and will be published and monitored independently each month? Above all, will he assure us that every pound of additional money that goes to the banks through this scheme will mean additional lending to small businesses and households?

The scheme is designed to encourage lending not just to small businesses and households but across the board to all businesses. We want to make sure that when banks put collateral to the Bank of England, it is in response to their having lent more. That is absolutely vital for a scheme that encourages lending and we will make sure that we design the scheme to do so.

Child Poverty

12. What assessment he has made of the effect of the Government's fiscal policies on the level of child poverty. (113588)

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission is being set up and will provide an assessment of child poverty using a wide range of measures, including income.

Before the 2010 election, the Prime Minister said:

“Poverty is relative—and those who pretend otherwise are wrong.”

Why are the Government now planning to abolish that measure of child poverty?

The Government have confirmed their commitment to child poverty targets and we are going further by consulting on better measures of child poverty in the autumn. We seek a range of views on that.

Does the Minister agree that the real failing of the previous Government was their narrow focus on income transfers instead of addressing the real root causes of welfare dependency such as low aspirations and worklessness?

I certainly do. The important point is how we help people to get out of poverty and stay out. I note that there are problems with the current measure of poverty. Because median incomes fall, children are considered to have moved out of poverty when there will have been no real change to their lives. That cannot be a fully accurate measure.

What will the Government do to address the still very high levels of in-work poverty, and how can freezing working tax credit and reducing help with child care costs possibly help?

Let me name a number of things the Government are doing to support families and let me note our plans to move toward universal credit, which will help with work incentives. Let me note our plans to have doubled the number of disadvantaged two-year-olds receiving free hours of child care each week. On tax credits, let me note that we have had to fix the previous Government’s unsustainable budgeting in that area and that six out of 10 families with children are still eligible.

Is it not especially important that we take action on child poverty, given the quite sharp increase in the previous Parliament? The targets were missed by about 600,000, I think, and when the previous Government left office, 4 million children were in poverty.

My hon. Friend is correct: child poverty is a real problem. This Government are committed to eradicating it and to increasing social mobility. We are taking the measures to assist children that I listed in response to the previous question. I should also point out that the average household gains about £5.50 a week from the tax and benefit changes made in April this year. We are making progress and acting where we can. It is important to keep up the pressure on child poverty.

Fuel Duty

The effects on the economy of fuel prices, including oil prices, refinery margins and tax, are assessed by the Office for Budget Responsibility as part of its economic and fiscal forecasts.

Motorists in the Kettering constituency and local hauliers will warmly welcome today’s announcement by the Chancellor. Has my hon. Friend undertaken any analysis of the negative impact on national economic growth that would have occurred had the present Government increased fuel duty by as much as the previous Government intended?

I can confirm that, through the actions of this Government, pump prices are 10p a litre lower than they would have been under the previous Government, who had scheduled in 12 fuel duty rises while they were in office and six more for afterwards.

HMRC Helplines

14. What the average waiting time for calls to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs helplines was in (a) the last 12 months and (b) the previous 12 months. (113590)

The average waiting time for a customer calling HMRC’s helplines in the past 12 months was four minutes and 19 seconds. In the preceding 12 months, it was four minutes and 13 seconds.

A constituent of mine has had a nightmare experience trying to get through to HMRC: he phoned several times throughout the week, but never spoke to an adviser and kept getting an engaged line. His is just one of many cases involving HMRC in my constituency office at the moment. With 10,000 HMRC staff being laid off, how do the Government hope to clamp down on tax avoidance when they obviously cannot collect taxes in the first place?

The first point to make is that the numbers of front-line staff dealing with tax avoidance and tax evasion are increasing over the course of this Parliament, in contrast with what happened during the last Parliament. There has been improvement in contact centre performance in the number of calls that get through, but more progress is needed. HMRC is deploying staff more flexibly and conducting small-scale pilots to see whether the private sector can provide additional capacity. HMRC is determined to improve performance.

My elderly constituent Mr George Robertson is concerned about the amount of money that has been wasted because of a catalogue of errors over two years by HMRC helplines and administration. They wrongly issued cheques for overpayments to Mr Robertson, despite his correctly informing them that, in fact, he owed money; and when the saga was eventually “resolved” in April, they got it wrong again. Will the Minister look into that case and the wider lessons that need to be learned, so that HMRC becomes more accurate and cost-efficient?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point and I am happy to look into the case. HMRC’s record in dealing with end-of-year reconciliations and improving accuracy is moving in the right direction, but there is more to do.

VAT (Savoury Products)

15. What representations he has received on the treatment of different savoury products for the purposes of levying VAT. (113591)

HMRC is shortly to publish on its website a summary of the responses to its consultation, “VAT: Addressing borderline anomalies”. The response document will contain a list of those who contributed to the consultation.

As I am sure you know, Mr Speaker, Newcastle is the home of the Greggs pasty, so I was hopeful that the Chancellor’s latest U-turn but one would have resolved the great savouries shambles, but now I learn that he has turned his wrath on the pretzel sellers of Newcastle, including Auntie Anne’s in Eldon Square. Could the Chancellor possibly focus on bringing growth to the economy, rather than confusion to our eating habits?

I am sure the hon. Lady is aware that Greggs welcomed what we said about hot food. None the less, there has been an anomaly in the tax system whereby some hot foods have been treated differently from others. We are seeking to remove that anomaly and that is exactly what we are doing.

Fiscal Policies (Output)

16. What recent estimate he has made of the effects of his fiscal policies on the rate of growth in output. (113594)

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

Given that the lead-in time for fiscal policy is about 18 months, how can the Minister explain the fact that the UK economy is now in recession, following the full impact of her Government’s fiscal policies?

It is essential to return the public finances to a sustainable path. It is this Government who are doing that, it is this Government who are keeping interest rates low, it is this Government who are taking action on fuel duty, and it is the Opposition who have no answers at all.

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 starts to live within her means.

Inflation has now lowered from 3% to 2.8% in May, which should be welcomed on both sides of the House. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is other Government measures such as freezing the council tax, freezing the fuel duty and increasing the personal allowance that have helped tens of thousands of my constituents in Morecambe and Lunesdale with their cost of living?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that it is very welcome news that inflation is now falling. That will help families. The Government want to help families further by keeping those mortgage costs very low, and the only way we can do that is by having a credible plan for the public finances. We have also frozen the council tax, increased the personal allowance, with another big increase next year, and as my hon. Friend has just heard, frozen fuel duty for the second year running, so that his constituents in Lancashire and people across the whole country can be helped at this difficult economic time.

The Chancellor told the “Today” programme a few weeks ago that the only thing worse than listening is not listening. Well, he certainly listened to the “Today” programme this morning. We have now had U-turns on pasties, churches, charities, caravans and skips, and today a U-turn on fuel, which we welcome. It would be interesting to know at what point this morning the decision was made, and whether the Transport Secretary was even told. Now that the Chancellor is on a roll, will he also do a U-turn on the millionaires’ tax cut and rescind the granny tax rise? There is a vote next week. Will he join us in the Lobby or will he do the U-turn first?

It is quite difficult for a Conservative Chancellor to do a U-turn on a Labour policy. I am not sure the Opposition is entirely joined up—or maybe it is because the right hon. Gentleman waited half an hour to come in. The hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), sitting directly behind him, who is a Labour Whip, has just tweeted on the fuel duty announcement that it is a deferred rise and cannot improve the economy. If the Labour Whip thinks it will not improve the economy, what does the shadow Chancellor think it will do?

It is about time this part-time, U-turning Chancellor took some responsibility for his own decisions. What is the reality? A double-dip recession, borrowing rising, family budgets under pressure—his plan has failed. Is it not time he listened to the Opposition and admitted that austerity has failed? Is it not time he did another U-time and adopted Labour’s five-point plan for growth and jobs?

We enjoyed reading recently that the right hon. Gentleman has been spending thousands of pounds on commissioning private opinion research about why his economic message is not getting through. It was leaked to the papers, saying that he was seen as “uninspiring” and “untrustworthy”. He had no need to spend thousands of pounds on that. He can ask Labour MPs and get that opinion of the shadow Chancellor. He has had two years to come up with a credible economic policy, and two years to apologise for his part in putting Britain into the economic mess that we are taking Britain out of.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the head of the IMF, who said that she shivers to think what would have happened to the British economy without this Government’s plans to reduce Labour’s deficit? (113606)

The managing director of the IMF put it in a very graphic way. She presented to the whole country the alternative that we faced in May 2010. If we had stuck with the Labour party’s incredible plans, we would be one of the countries seeking a bail-out, rather than, as we are now, a country that is a relatively safe haven in the very, very difficult European situation. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor will not move forward unless he concedes his role in getting Britain into this mess. Until he does that, he will remain a man of the past with no ideas for the future.

T2. Will the Chancellor update the House on what progress has been made on his offer to the computer games industry of tax incentives in his last Budget? It is important to get the details of the policy correct, but it is also important that time is not wasted unnecessarily. As the old adage goes, actions speak louder than words. When can we expect to see the words turned into action? (113603)

We will be consulting on that policy very, very shortly, alongside the new credits for animation and high-end television production. The video games industry is important in Scotland—for example, in Dundee there is a particular centre of excellence—but it is important across the entire UK, and the video game tax credit will help, alongside animation and high-end TV production.

T4. In order to help small businesses and those seeking new opportunities, will my right hon. Friend endorse the jobs fair that I am hosting in Erewash on 5 September? Will he further set out what the Government are doing to support small businesses, which remain the real engine of the British economy? (113605)

I certainly support my hon. Friend and congratulate her on organising the jobs fair. As the most recent unemployment figure showed, not only is unemployment falling but 200,000 private sector jobs have been created in the last few months in our economy. When it comes specifically to small businesses, as I set out to the House earlier, the national loan guarantee scheme has already helped more than 10,000 businesses with loans, we have cut the small companies corporation tax from the rate we inherited from the last Government, and the freeze in fuel duty will also help small businesses.

T3. In a time of austerity, when food banks are increasing in almost every town and city in Britain, is it not high time that the Government published a comprehensive list of all those people who are profiting from these tax avoidance schemes? Even Graham Aaronson, a Government adviser, forecast today that if something is not done there will be riots on the streets. This is a home-grown problem. Do not blame anybody else. Let us have a list of all those people close to home and those on millionaires row. (113604)

The last Labour Government, which the hon. Gentleman supported, had 13 years to introduce a general anti-avoidance rule; we are introducing one after just two years in office. The last Labour Government had 13 years to stop stamp duty avoidance schemes; this Government, after two years in office, are doing exactly that and stopping those schemes. The last Labour Government had 13 years to cap uncapped income tax reliefs, which are used for avoidance; we have introduced and are introducing that cap. Frankly, actions speak louder than words.

T6. With belt-tightening very much on the agenda right across Europe, will the Chancellor at least consider making deep cuts to our EU budget contributions, and so ally himself with the vast majority of people in this country? (113607)

We have worked very hard to freeze the EU budget during the last couple of years and avoid the very large increases that both the Commission and the European Parliament have sought. We are now beginning the very important negotiations on the next multi-year budget framework, and our objective is to deliver the best deal for the British taxpayer and make sure that unnecessary money is not going over to Brussels.

T10. Written answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) reveal that the nationalist Scottish Government have made no approach whatever to the UK Government on membership of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee. Does the Chancellor think that Scotland would have more influence on monetary policy as part of the UK or outside the UK using sterling as a foreign currency? (113611)

The hon. Lady refers to just one of a number of shambolic statements made by the Scottish National party since it launched its campaign for independence a few weeks ago, and not just on the Bank of England, but on financial services regulation. She makes the point very powerfully indeed that Scotland is “better together” as part of the United Kingdom. We have greater strength together as part of a more credible economic unit and part of the shared monetary policy of the Bank of England. All that would be jeopardised if Scotland were ever to become independent.

T7. The Chief Secretary has rightly committed the Government to clamping down on tax avoidance. Given recent high- profile cases of tax avoidance, and notwithstanding the earlier question from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), will my right hon. Friend update the House on the progress being made and perhaps give a projection for the progress he expects over the rest of this Parliament? (113608)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. As the Chancellor said, the Government have done more on this issue in two years than the previous Government managed in 13 years. In particular, at the time of the spending review I announced that we would invest an extra £900 million in Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs so that it could employ a large number of additional experts to deal with tax avoidance. That programme is projected to lead to an additional £7 billion a year in tax revenue by the end of this Parliament, and we are well on track to meet that objective.

Can the Chancellor confirm that the Government are going to spend an additional £150 billion in borrowing above their plan of a year ago?

The Institute for Fiscal Studies was very clear that, had we pursued the plan proposed by the previous Government, borrowing would be £200 billion more than it is today. As I have said, it is this Government’s credible fiscal plan that has brought record low interest rates and market credibility. We can see across the English channel what would happen if we did not have that credibility. That is where Labour would have put us.

T8. Has my right hon. Friend noticed that the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show that employment is up by 311,000, the biggest quarterly increase since the general election, and does not that mean that since the general election two jobs in the private sector have been created for every job lost in the public sector? (113609)

My hon. Friend—a knight of the realm—is absolutely correct. Despite these very difficult and challenging economic times, the private sector is creating jobs. We of course have to help it to create more jobs through the measures I have already outlined—cutting the small companies tax rate, help with credit and the like—but we also need to help those looking for work. That is why we have the Work programme and the youth contract, instruments that are much more effective than the programmes promoted by the previous Government at helping people who are out of work to link up with companies that want to employ people.

Britain is the only G20 country in a double-dip recession, youth unemployment is at record levels, poverty is on the increase, public services are in meltdown, and the Government are borrowing around £4 billion more this year than they did last year. The lessons of the 1930s demonstrate that the austerity programme that the Chancellor is pursuing will not work. Will he learn the lessons of history—

Order. We are extremely grateful, but I am afraid that we do not have time to go back to the 1930s now. We have the gravamen of the hon. Gentleman’s question.

I suggest that tonight and tomorrow the hon. Gentleman turns on the television and watches the evening news, because he will see that there are problems facing many economies around the world. The Labour idea that somehow Britain alone faces these challenges because the Government are trying to deal with the debt is absolutely ridiculous. There are all these European economies in recession, the US economy had disappointing jobs data, and the Chinese economy is slowing. These are difficult times, but we are doing everything we can to help the British economy deal with the problems we inherited.

T9. Last year we lost the most working days to strikes in 20 years, and since the last election union leaders have never won the backing of a majority of their members for any major strike. Will my right hon. Friend task the Office for Budget Responsibility to provide annual estimates of the cost to the economy of strikes and of the concessions, paid for by taxpayers, to avoid them? (113610)

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman’s suggested idea would be an appropriate task for the Office for Budget Responsibility to undertake, but he is right that strike action is costly to the economy. He would also be right to observe that it has not stopped this Government proceeding with the reform of public service pensions, and with pay restraint in the public sector, too, to help deal with the enormous mess left to us by the Labour party.

With regard to the problems at RBS this week, my constituent David Robinson has been unable to access his funds, including disability allowance, from his account with thinkbanking. It is an internet-based bank that uses the RBS platform, so he could not go into an RBS branch to resolve his problems. Will the Minister please make contact with RBS about internet banking users and make sure that my constituents—and everyone else—are not unduly affected?

The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I spoke to Stephen Hester this afternoon to find out what progress RBS has made in resolving its issues. It introduced measures to help people who can access branches, but she makes a very important point about internet banking, and RBS is very keen to learn the lessons from those problems and to put in place contingency arrangements for the future. I encourage her to get her constituent to write to RBS, and, if he has suffered additional costs as a consequence of the situation, to make that claim to it.

Embarrassing revelations about celebrities’ tax affairs usually bring a flurry of people to their tax accountants, asking them to check whether their affairs are all in order. Will the Treasury ask HMRC to encourage people to come forward voluntarily now and confess to what they may be up to, rather than wait for an investigation into their tax affairs?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, and I hope that all those who have engaged in aggressive tax avoidance schemes consider whether it is the right thing to do and reconsider their affairs.

One of my constituents was told by her department store employer that she either had to accept a 12-hour contract, which amounts to fewer hours than she works at the moment, or go fully flexible, which does not fit with her child care. Is it not time that the Chancellor decided to do another U-turn and to restore tax credits to those working couples who do not work up to 24 hours a week?

We on the Treasury Bench have argued many times in the House that it is fair to ask couples to work under similar requirements as lone parents, and I urge the hon. Lady to consider that in this case.

When will the House be given the details of the three very large schemes for monetary easing announced at the Mansion House, and when will we be given a chance to debate them?

It is standard practice for the Bank to announce its own monetary and liquidity schemes. That is what it did with the liquidity proposals, and the Governor of the Bank was answering questions about them this morning before the Treasury Committee in this House. When we have further details about the funding for lending scheme, we will of course come to the House and make that announcement, but I hope that my right hon. Friend will allow me to continue to make Mansion House speeches as Chancellors have before.

The counter-party proposal and the levy control mechanism fall within the ambit of the Treasury. Within the past hour the Energy Secretary has told the Energy and Climate Change Committee, which is undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny of the Energy Bill, that he would welcome a Treasury Minister going before it to explain those proposals. Why is the Economic Secretary refusing to do so?

In correspondence with the Chairman of the relevant Select Committee, I have articulated that there is no precedent in the records that we can find for a Minister from one Department to assist in the scrutiny of another Department’s legislation.

Following the exchanges about tax avoidance and the Government’s very robust position, can one of the Treasury team tell us how soon we will have in place a system that targets not just celebrity individuals but all high-worth individuals, so that they all pay a decent share of tax to the nation?

HMRC already has in place a particular team that focuses on high-net-worth individuals; under this Government, we have also introduced a team that deals with not just the very top but the next band; and we are looking to introduce a general anti-abuse rule that will address tax avoidance—aggressive tax avoidance—more widely. This Government remain absolutely determined to ensure that people pay their fair share.