Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 552: debated on Tuesday 6 November 2012

The core purpose of Her Majesty’s 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.

That is all very interesting, but Anne Marie Carrie, the excellent head of Barnardo’s, recently said that the proposal to remove housing benefit from all under-25s

“is reckless and unfair as it will leave some of this country’s most vulnerable people stranded.”

I am particularly concerned about the impact on care leavers, who do not have a family home or family to fall back on and for whom a safe and stable roof over their heads means they can keep off the streets, out of the NEET statistics and out of trouble. Will the Chief Secretary guarantee now that he will work with other Ministers to make sure that any changes to housing benefit for under-25s do nothing further to disadvantage that already disadvantaged group?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about care leavers. These ideas have been floated as part of a discussion within Government on the next phase of welfare reform. I will certainly make sure that his point is brought to bear in any discussions on that proposal.

At a time when we are seeing cuts to the budgets for police, NHS and schools, it is right that last week this House gave the Government a mandate to negotiate a real-terms cut in the EU budget. However, instead of developing a strategy to deliver this, the Prime Minister has simply resorted to threatening a veto before negotiations have even begun. Of course, walking away is always an option for any EU Government, but can the Chief Secretary confirm that if Britain or any other country just turns up and uses the veto, the budget will rise in line with inflation anyway, costing British taxpayers an extra £310 million?

I start by congratulating the hon. Lady on the news that she is expecting a child, which was announced a few weeks ago. I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in that.

Labour’s position becomes ever more extraordinary; its opportunism on Europe seems to know no bounds. That is why we have heard words of unease from several Labour Members who thought that Labour was a pro-European party. This Government have taken the toughest position of any European Government in these negotiations. We saw what happened with the previous Government’s negotiating tactics when they gave away half of Britain’s rebate. We are not going to do that all over again.

I am not sure whether I caught an answer there. Frankly, the Chief Secretary should know better. After all, he was not only the chief press officer for the Cairngorms national park but the chief officer for Britain in Europe, and he should know that the only way to deliver a real-terms cut is to argue for one and build alliances to deliver it. Perhaps he should listen to his Cabinet colleague who said last week that it is “absolutely ludicrous” to threaten the veto now, weeks before the summit. Is that not just the desperate ploy of a weak Prime Minister with no influence, no allies and no strategy? He should get a good deal for Britain—a cut in the budget.

The hon. Lady was a pro-European once; I still am. We seem to be seeing an outbreak of amnesia on the Labour Benches. Not only has the hon. Lady forgotten what Labour did in the last multiannual financial framework negotiation, when it gave away half of Britain’s rebate by not forming any alliances and instead giving up vast amounts—billions of pounds—of Britain’s money, but the shadow Chancellor seems to have forgotten that more recently his party was running the largest structural deficit in the world economy in the good times, leaving this country more exposed than ever to the financial crisis. This country does not want amnesia from Labour—it wants an apology.

T5. Manufacturing in this country halved during the Labour period, falling from 22% of GDP in 1997 to 11% in 2010, and during that period the sector employed half the number of people it did in 1997. With this in mind, what recent representations has my right hon. Friend received regarding investment in manufacturing industry in the north-west? (126546)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the work that we are doing to increase manufacturing through, for example, the advanced manufacturing technology institute and investment from the regional growth fund. We have had a number of representations from the north-west, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Gordon Birtwistle), who has made representations on capital allowances for businesses.

T2. Nearly three in 10 workers in my constituency, including half of all part-time workers, earn less than the living wage of £7.45 an hour. Does the Chief Secretary, unlike the Prime Minister, back the living wage? Is he not wrong to boast about a recovery that is not being felt in the pay packets of millions of people on low and middle incomes? (126543)

Labour Members had 13 years to introduce a living wage; if they believed in it so much they could have done something about it when they were in office. This Government are increasing the income tax personal allowance towards the goal of £10,000 set in the Liberal Democrat election manifesto. As of next April, the amount of income tax paid by someone working full time on the minimum wage will have been halved under this Government. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would want to welcome that.

T7. The regional growth fund is a great help in sorting out the economic devastation left by the previous Government in areas such as Redcar and Middlesbrough. Does the Minister agree with Michael Heseltine that areas such as the Tees valley can become economic powerhouses again, and will he support a further round of the regional growth fund? (126548)

I welcome what my hon. Friend has said about the regional growth fund. With him, I have visited recipients of that fund in his constituency, and seen at first hand the benefits on Teesside. He will also welcome the fact that Teesside is a candidate in the next wave of city deals, which will provide an opportunity further to enhance the economy of that area. I hear his representation for a fourth round of the regional growth fund, and I will consider that alongside other policies in the normal way.

T3. Instead of insulting hard-working parents and calling them “fiscal nimbys”, will the Minister explain how it is fair that a couple earning up to £100,000 a year will keep all their child benefit, while a one-earner family on £50,000 will see theirs cut? (126544)

We looked at introducing this measure on the basis of household income, but it would mean bringing 8 million households into the tax credit system and impose a much greater administrative burden on many people. At least Labour Members are consistent: they have opposed every measure to try to reduce the welfare budget, whether it be the welfare cut or child benefit for higher earners. It is time for us all to look at public spending in that area and bring it under control, but the Labour party will simply not do that.

T10. In the light of a recent report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, which suggests that UK growth will outstrip many of our European neighbours in 2013 and 2014, will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will continue to deal with the UK’s structural deficit? That deficit started to emerge before 2008, despite repeated protestations to the contrary by the shadow Chancellor. (126551)

Yes, I can certainly give my hon. Friend the assurance he requires. The coalition Government have put Britain back on the path to fiscal credibility, and we have cut the deficit by a quarter in our first two and a half years in office. We intend to continue in that policy direction, which is endorsed not only by the CEBR but by many other organisations.

T4. What is the Minister going to do about all those multinational companies that are paying little or no tax? Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs claims that it is powerless because those companies are gaming the system. Instead of pious statements issued from Mexico about what we might or might not do, may we have some action from the Minister? He could start by increasing from 65 the number of tax experts who actually deal with this problem. (126545)

Anyone would think that there was a completely different arrangement in 2010, but I am afraid that is not the case. The Government are working at an international level to ensure that multinationals pay the tax that is due, and that profits on their economic activity is paid where it occurs. We are also strengthening HMRC’s capacity in that area and giving it greater skills to tackle the issue. I would have thought the Labour party welcomed the progress we are making when compared with the lack of progress under the previous Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way to stimulate additional growth is through better use of the prompt payment code? Will he join me in calling on businesses and public sector organisations to adopt that code and adhere to it?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, and we have already raised that issue with central Government Departments. We will certainly reinforce that message. I know that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General has been advancing that as part of the reforms to public procurement, and I will pass on my hon. Friend’s concerns to him.

T6. When universal credit is introduced next year it will cut the living standards of hundreds of thousands of working people—yes, working people. Will the Minister join the Archbishop of York, the Mayor of London and the Labour party and demand a living wage? (126547)

I think the hon. Gentleman’s criticism of universal credit is extraordinary. Universal credit will simplify the benefits system and ensure a single, clear process for all people in receipt of benefits. Having a clear single taper will ensure that everybody knows they will be better off in work—something they could not be sure of under the previous Government.

The Government have seen the benefits that transparency can bring. Would it be good to require large corporates to publish their tax returns so that we can all see how they achieve the low rates of tax they pay?

It is right that large corporates engage in this debate, and there is a lot of public interest in the matter. One must ask whether tax returns in themselves will provide the full information—my hon. Friend has great expertise in this area—and whether that is the right way to address the issue. We have a tradition of taxpayer confidentiality in this country, as does every major economy.

T8. Will those on the Treasury Bench tell us the expected cost to HMRC in, for example, extra staffing and IT support of dealing with the massive number of extra self-assessment returns—it is estimated at around 500,000—that will result from child benefit changes? (126549)

The cost of implementation of the child benefit policy will be £100 million over five years, but it will bring in £1.7 billion in the first year. I should also point out that the likelihood is that the number of people in self-assessment next year will be no higher than the number in self-assessment last year.

Will my hon. Friend tell the House what steps he is taking better to support small and medium-sized enterprises through the tax system?

We have taken a number of measures, including reducing the small profits rate from 22%, which it would have been, to 20%. We have also introduced measures such as seed enterprise investment schemes and small business rate relief. We have taken such measures because we recognise that small businesses will be an engine for growth for our economy and in employment.

T9. The Prime Minister has said that a family with children will lose an average of £511 under the Government’s changes this year alone. Is that fair when the Government are cutting taxes for the most wealthy? (126550)

The Government are increasing taxes on the wealthiest in society and using that money for a number of things, including to put in place a new free child care entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds; to extend the child care entitlement of three and four-year-olds to 15 hours a week; and to reduce the income tax personal allowance, which benefits families in work. The hon. Lady should welcome rather than criticise those policies.

Some pensioners with capped draw-down and self-invested pension plans have seen their retirement income halve as a result of decisions by the Government Actuary’s Department. How would the Minister suggest those pensioners cope in retirement with such a sharp fall in access to what is, after all, their own money?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that pensioners are facing pressure because of low interest rates and longevity. The Government Actuary’s Department makes recommendations to the Government and we must take them seriously—we keep the matter constantly under review.

The Government make a great deal of creating 1 million private sector jobs—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] Wait, wait. Half of those jobs, according to their statements, were in place after eight months of their coming to office, meaning that in the following 22 months only another half a million jobs were created. That suggests that the rate of growth has slowed substantially as a result of the Chancellor’s policies.

Once again, Labour Members are on the search for bad news, but the hon. Lady has picked the wrong subject. More than 1 million private sector jobs have been created since the election. The most recent figures show that tens of thousands more jobs have been created in the private sector and the largest ever number of people in employment in this country. That should be welcomed by everyone in the House, including her.

Will the Minister update the House on steps he is taking to ensure that the affordable housing programme remains on course to deliver the £19.5 billion of public and private investment in affordable housing over the course of this Parliament?

Yes, I will. The affordable rent programme was over-subscribed and will deliver more homes than originally expected. My colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government will ensure that they are delivered as quickly as possible. By putting in place the new guarantee programme for housing associations, we can further accelerate that programme, ensuring that we meet the targets my hon. Friend describes.