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Topical Questions

Volume 557: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2013

My right hon. Friend will recognise the valuable work that public sector workers do, by and large on our behalf, but he will also acknowledge the fact that their earnings have increased by only 1%. Is it the Government’s policy that benefits will not increase by any more than the increase in public sector pay?

It is the Government’s policy that both should rise by 1%. It is a rather bizarre argument advanced by the Labour party—that public sector pay should go up by 1%, but benefits should go up by more than 1%. The Opposition are the people who will have to explain it to the hard-working public sector taxpayers who have to pay for the welfare system.

May I start by welcoming the Chancellor back from his winter mini-break in Davos? I do not know whether he got any skiing in, although he and his chums certainly went out on the piste.

Back to Britain: in August 2010, the Chancellor also made a speech at Bloomberg, in which he claimed that his economic plan would secure the recovery. A few weeks later, his spending review said that by now we would see growth of 5.2%. Let me ask him: since his spending review, how much growth have we actually had?

I am glad the right hon. Gentleman noticed that I went to Davos, where I met the last two Labour Prime Ministers as well—and I could not help but notice that both of them were talking about the global economic problems. Of course we have to sort out those problems abroad, but we also have to deal with our problems at home, and of all the people now in Parliament, the right hon. Gentleman bears primary responsibility for putting Britain into this mess. The reason his economic argument is not making more traction is because no one believes that the problems that got us into this mess are the things that will get us out of it.

How complacent is that? The economy is flatlining and borrowing is rising on the right hon. Gentleman’s watch. Let me tell him the facts. Since the spending review, growth has been just 0.4%, which is 13 times lower than he forecast. Our growth is slower than that of America, France, Germany, Australia, Canada, Mexico, Turkey—the list goes on and on. Let me ask him this: now that the chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, the Deputy Prime Minister and even his dining chum the Mayor of London are losing faith in his plan, when will he listen, stop being so complacent and finally act to kick-start this flatlining economy?

There is no complacency about dealing with the mess that the right hon. Gentleman left behind. He talks about the economy over the last couple of years. Let me tell him what has happened in the Morley and Outwood constituency. In his area, the unemployment claimant count went up 190% under the last Government; it has fallen by 7% under this Government. The youth claimant count was 161% up under his Government; it has come down by 10% under this Government. We are fixing the problems that he created. The only job that he is interested in saving is his own. The truth is that while he remains in the post that he is in, he is a reminder to everyone of all the mistakes that Labour made when it managed the economy.

Order. This is a considerable discourtesy to the House. The hon. Gentleman must have his question heard.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

A number of my constituents have been caught out by the high interest rates charged on payday loans. At a time when many families are struggling with high levels of personal debt, what are the Government doing to ensure that consumers are protected against bad practices in that industry and the often extremely high interest rates that are charged on such loans?

I know that my hon. Friend is passionate about this issue, and he is right to raise it today. The Government are committed to ensuring that people who borrow from payday lenders are protected against bad practices. Last January, we announced our intention to transfer the regulation of consumer credit from the Office of Fair Trading to the new Financial Conduct Authority. The FCA will have powers and sanctions to address consumer detriment in the consumer credit market, and we will shortly be publishing consultation on this very issue.

T2. May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Chancellor’s excellent judgment in supporting Labour’s spending plans up until November 2008? Will he therefore accept that the deficit he inherited was caused not by the spending plans supported by those on both sides of the House but by the worldwide recession? (139738)

The idea that Labour irresponsibility had nothing to do with the fact that Britain had a higher budget deficit than almost any country in the world is fanciful. The truth is that my predecessor as Chancellor has accepted that Labour was spending too much, as has Tony Blair, who was Prime Minister during that period. The only person who will not accept that is the person who was chief economic adviser at the Treasury at that time—the man who Labour have now been landed with as shadow Chancellor.

T5. The last Labour Government presided over a decline in manufacturing industry in west Yorkshire, which fell from 23% of local economic output in 1997 to just 14% in 2010. What steps is the Chancellor taking to reverse that trend and to support constituencies such as mine, which have relied on manufacturing for jobs and growth? (139741)

That is a shocking reminder of the economic incompetence of the previous Government and of the damage that they did to our economic base. The revitalisation of manufacturing is important for the rebalancing of our economy. Keighley in west Yorkshire has an important manufacturing tradition, and it is benefiting from the manufacturing advisory service and from the £2.7 billion of regional growth money that is going to the entire nation. Also, the announcement in the autumn statement of more money for UKTI will benefit the help that UKTI gives in Yorkshire.

T3. Today, we saw the Government unveil their “pile ’em high, teach ’em cheap” approach to child care, hot on the heels of cuts to tax credits for poor working families and cuts to child benefit. When is the Chancellor going to unveil his supposed plans for a tax benefit for child care? What are the Government doing to support working families? (139739)

If the hon. Lady were concerned about child care, I would have thought she would welcome the fact that under this Government the free offer for three and four-year-olds has been increased from 12.5 hours to 15 hours and that this Government have put in place a new offer for the 40% most disadvantaged two-year-olds for 15 hours’ free nursery education at that age. We will bring forward the proposals to which she refers very shortly, and I hope that when she sees them, she will welcome them.

T8. Will the Chancellor update the House on a subject on which all Members receive a great deal of correspondence—funding for small businesses? Will he in particular update us on the funding for lending scheme and other similar initiatives? (139744)

I can tell my hon. Friend that in the most recent period, net lending under funding for lending has increased by £500 million. It is also the case that the average interest rate on small business loans has declined by 0.33% since the scheme was introduced.

T6. Families living with a disabled member are going to be hardest hit by tax credits and benefit cuts. That is not according to a third-party briefing, but according to the Government’s own assessments. What do this Government have against disabled people in this country? (139742)

I think that is a very poor way to phrase the question, especially when the hon. Lady will know that disability living allowance payments, for example, are continuing to be uprated in line with inflation, even as we have to take more difficult decisions on other parts of the economy.

T9. A recent article in MoneyWeek suggested that raising the minimum wage would cut the cost of tax credits and benefits and increase employment. What work has the Treasury done on the interrelationship between the level of the minimum wage, the cost of benefits, tax revenues and employment levels? (139745)

It is not clear that tax credits are being used to supplement lower wages, but what I can say is that the Government have taken action to bring unsustainable levels of tax credit spending under control. It has already been reduced in respect of eligibility from nine out of 10 families with children to six out of 10. Our reforms are also making work pay. Universal credit will unify the current complex system of welfare and make sure it always pays for people to go into work. The withdrawal rate will aim to smooth that transition into work.

T7. Last Friday, the Bishop of Sheffield, the Bishop of Hallam and other faith community and civic leaders came together to launch a campaign for a fair deal for Sheffield. Will the Chancellor recognise their concern that the combined effect of his austerity programme with unevenly distributed cuts and benefit changes that hit the poorest hardest is having a disproportionate impact on our urban areas and our big cities? Will he listen to those concerns? (139743)

Yesterday, I met the leader and chief executive of Sheffield and we were discussing the very good progress made in the Sheffield city deal, which all parties, including the hon. Gentleman’s, strongly support as being key to the economic prosperity of Sheffield in the future. I would hope that he would welcome that.

We already know that in April the personal tax allowance is going to be raised to £9,400—the largest rise in history. By the time we next meet for Treasury questions, the Chancellor will have put the finishing touches to his Budget. I now urge him to take the final step and deliver £10,000 of tax-free pay in time for April 2014.

We have a very clear commitment to reach that £10,000. We have not put a time scale on it, but even under the plans we have already put forward, that level will be reached with inflation increases before the end of this Parliament. This is a good example of two parties coming together to help working people across this country.

T10. In the autumn statement of 2011, the Chancellor allocated £5 million to combat metal theft, which through Operation Tornado has been highly successful. With that funding coming to an end, was that a knee-jerk reaction or is the Chancellor going to continue it? (139746)

I am happy to look at the funding for the metal theft initiative, but I know that the Government have introduced regulation to clamp down on this crime, which can of course endanger people’s lives.

In a debate in this Chamber, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband) accepted this Government’s spending envelope, but was quickly shot down by the shadow Chancellor. Is not the real problem here the fact that to be credible on the economy, the Labour party needs to come up with a policy that stands up?

My hon. Friend has described the comments of the right hon. Member for South Shields as a speech. I think we could describe them as an audition.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is being lobbied heavily by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, for a massive increase in infrastructure spending in London. Does he realise that if he really wants to get our economy going, he should be investing in the infrastructure of the towns, cities and regions of our country, particularly Yorkshire and the north-west?

The hon. Gentleman may not have been aware of it, but an announcement was made yesterday that was germane to his point: the announcement of the extension of High Speed 2 to Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester, which, in 13 years in government, his party never got around to delivering.

The Minister may be aware of the report on football governance which was published today by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. I want to record my thanks to him and to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for their help in dealing with Portsmouth football club. Will he assure us that his Department will play its full part in ensuring that prospective owners who are not fit and proper do not get their mitts on these important community assets and destroy them?

The Government will, of course, look closely at the Committee recommendations. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport has made clear, it is time for football to get its house in order.

The Chancellor is well known for trying to help us Back Benchers to do our job. Would he be so kind as to place in the Library the criteria that he uses to define whether or not the economy is in the danger zone, and will he tell us whether it is in the danger zone today?

There is a pretty simple definition. Every day and every week the British Government have to go and borrow money to fund the extremely large deficit that was left behind, but we can command record low interest rates because of the confidence that the rest of the world has in our economic plans.

Unemployment among 18 to 24-year-olds in my constituency is 15% lower than it was in December 2011, but does the Chancellor agree that we still need to do more to improve young people’s skills, especially in the context of the black country city deal, which is focusing on skills in advanced manufacturing? May I commend that proposal to the Treasury team?

I was in Wolverhampton recently, meeting business and civic leaders from the black country. The proposals to increase skills to help the advanced manufacturing sector in the area to expand are well under way, and I look forward to responding to the bid very soon.

In opposition, the Chancellor was fond of quoting the Institute for Fiscal Studies in support of his policies. Does he accept the finding by the IFS that because of all the changes that he has made following his autumn statement, the average one-earner family with children will be £534 worse off by 2015?

I am fond of quoting the IFS in government as well, and it says that Labour’s plans would add £200 billion to borrowing.

What assurances can the Minister give me that if shale gas production is given the go-ahead in Fylde it will not be just the Treasury or the company that will benefit, and that substantial benefits will flow to the local community?

I know that my hon. Friend has a strong constituency interest in this issue. We want to see the shale gas revolution come to the United Kingdom—it has done wonders for the United States economy—but that must, of course, happen in a way that does not damage the environment and enables communities to benefit. I shall be happy to work with my hon. Friend, and other Members of Parliament throughout the House who may be affected, to ensure that communities share the benefits—which I hope can be shared by the whole economy—of this new form of energy extraction.

On the many other occasions on which the economy has gone into reverse under this Chancellor, he has blamed the snow, and he has blamed the floods. When people took time off in the summer to go on holiday, he presumably blamed the sun. He has blamed the Americans, and he has blamed the Europeans. He blamed the Queen’s jubilee. He even blamed her grandson for getting married. Whose fault is it this time?

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues. It is always box office, and demand has greatly exceeded supply. We must now move on to the urgent question.