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Treasury

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2013

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Competitiveness

Under this Government, Britain has moved into the top 10 of the most competitive places in the world to do business, according to the World Economic Forum; our tax system is seen as one of the most pro-business in the world; market interest rates are at record lows; red tape has been cut by almost £850 million in the past two years; and exports to China, India and Brazil are up by almost two thirds since 2009.

I thank the Chancellor for that reply. Is he aware that, according to accountants KPMG, Britain is now the best place in the world to do business, for the first time ever? That is very welcome news for businesses in my constituency, but what more do we need to do to maintain and consolidate that position?

My hon. Friend refers to the remarkable survey by KPMG that found that in the space of three years Britain has gone from having one of the least competitive business tax systems in the world to having the most competitive one; we are ahead of Ireland, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, as well as, of course, the United States, France and Germany. That is because of the hard work we have done on corporation tax and on the controlled foreign companies regime. Of course, we have to go on making this country the most competitive place to do business, so that we can succeed in the global race.

Is it not the truth that demand has been so sucked out of the economy by the Government’s policies that there just is not the growth? Telling us how competitive we are is living in cloud cuckoo land, given that even the Office for Budget Responsibility says that growth is going to be very slow, even in the coming year.

To get a lecture from the Labour party on demand! The economy shrank by 6% when the shadow Chancellor was in the Cabinet, and we are picking up the pieces of the mess he and his party left behind. One of those pieces was the deeply uncompetitive business tax system which meant that companies were moving their headquarters out of the United Kingdom. Companies are now moving into the UK because of the changes we have made.

It is small businesses in our constituencies that will hold the key to Britain’s economic revival. Does the Chancellor agree that they are simply not getting the support they need from the banks at the moment and that although the funding for lending scheme is good, most of the money is currently going into mortgages rather than businesses? I realise that he will not want to say much now, just before the Budget, but can he at least reassure the House that the needs of small businesses are right at the top of his agenda for this Budget?

My hon. Friend has that assurance. The funding for lending scheme, joint with the Bank of England, is now supporting the small and medium-sized business sector as well as the mortgage market, and is repairing the damage to the financial system caused by the financial crisis. He is also right to say that small businesses are the bedrock of our economic revival, which is why we have cut the small companies tax rate, which before the general election the Labour party wanted to put up. We have also carried on the relief for small businesses from business rates, and in the autumn statement we increased tenfold the annual investment allowance, so that small businesses can invest for the future and create jobs. The Government understand that there needs to be a private sector recovery in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The Chancellor boasts that all is going well for British business, but terrible figures out this morning show that manufacturing is down by 3% compared with last year’s figure. Business has lost all confidence to invest, so when will he pull his head out of the sand and see that his plan is clearly failing?

The manufacturing sector halved as a share of the British economy when Labour was in office and we had the fastest decline in British manufacturing in British history. The steps that we have taken to support manufacturers, to help with investment allowances and to ensure that they have access to fast-growing parts of the world, such as China and India, are all part of rebalancing and rebuilding the British economy. I was in the west midlands a couple of weeks ago, and there are 67,000 new private sector jobs in that region alone; I mention the region because private sector employment fell during the boom years under the previous Labour Government. We must get behind the private sector and we must get behind business: that is exactly what this Government are doing.

Credit Rating

2. What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s credit rating; and if he will make a statement. (147124)

As I said to the House last month, the recent Moody’s decision was a stark reminder of the debt problems facing Britain and the clearest possible warning to anyone who thinks we can run away from confronting them. We will not do that.

When he was shadow Chancellor in 2009 and Standard & Poor’s put the UK on negative watch, the right hon. Gentleman was unequivocal in calling for a general election. Now that the UK has lost its triple A status on his watch, will he be consistent and urge his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to go to the palace?

The advice from the rating agency could not be clearer: a reduced political commitment to fiscal consolidation would put Britain’s creditworthiness at risk. That reduced political commitment would come from the Opposition, who oppose every single spending cut, who have no credible economic policy and who, despite having promised for two years to produce a deficit reduction plan, still do not have one. We hear that a draft Labour manifesto is coming this July; perhaps then we will see a proper plan to deal with the deficit Labour created.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only true measure of creditworthiness is the price paid by the Government to borrow? Gilt yields are still 16 points lower today than before Moody’s downgrade. Does that not reconfirm the international markets’ confidence in this country’s ability to pay its debts and the Chancellor’s programme to tackle Labour’s deficit crisis?

My hon. Friend is right that our credibility as a nation is tested every day when we seek to borrow money to pay for the deficit that the Opposition racked up. We can borrow at historically low rates, which means low rates for people’s mortgages and low rates for people’s small business loans. Of course, if we lost that credibility by pursuing the Opposition’s policies, interest rates would rocket, people would be put out of their homes and businesses would go bust. That is exactly what we will avoid.

I am sorry; we cannot let the Chancellor wriggle out that easily. Does he remember writing his pre-manifesto paper, “A New Economic Model: Eight Benchmarks for Britain”, just before the last general election? In it, he said that

“for the first time, the British people will have eight clear and transparent benchmarks—Benchmarks for Britain—against which they can judge the success or failure of their Chancellor and their government over the next Parliament. We will be accountable.”

Will he remind the House of his first benchmark test?

Our benchmark was to restore the fiscal credibility of this country and that credibility has earned us record low interest rates. The hon. Gentleman talks about wriggling out of things we did in the late period of the last decade, but he ran the leadership election campaign for the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown)—he was the campaign manager—and he should apologise for that disastrous premiership and the chancellorship that preceded it, which put this country in this mess in the first place.

We are all deeply moved by the Chancellor’s remorse and contrition, but let me remind him of his first benchmark test:

“We will safeguard Britain’s credit rating”.

He has failed on the other benchmark tests, too: he said that he would ensure greater availability of credit to small and medium-sized enterprises; he has failed on economic growth; he is failing on borrowing and the deficit; and he is failing on living standards. After three years of failure, when will it dawn on the Chancellor that his strategy is not working?

We have cut the deficit by a quarter, a million new jobs are being created in the private sector and there is record employment in our economy, as well as record female employment. We are rebalancing the British economy after all the problems of the past. The hon. Gentleman talks about remorse and contrition, but until we hear some remorse and contrition from those on the Labour Front Bench about the economic mistakes they made, no one will pay the slightest attention to what they, and in particular the shadow Chancellor, have to say.

Given that the UK Government are able to borrow at historically low rates, may I urge my right hon. Friend to take advantage of that position in order to prioritise capital investment, particularly in the housing market, to give a strong fillip to growth?

We have increased capital investment from the period of the Labour Government. Capital spending as a percentage of our national income is more than under the Labour Government, and we have increased by £10 billion our spending on capital from the plans they left us. I agree that we should be using the Government’s credibility to do more, which is why the infrastructure guarantees and the housing guarantees are coming on stream. Guarantees are being written and that will help to build the infrastructure that this country needs.

Interest Rate Swapping

On 31 January, the Financial Services Authority published the findings of the pilot review into interest rate swap mis-selling. The full review of 40,000 cases is now under way, and the FSA says it should be completed within six months. Small business organisations played a major role in exposing the scandal, so I can announce to the House that from today bodies representing consumers, including small businesses, will be able to apply to make super-complaints to the Financial Conduct Authority, giving them fast-track access to the regulator. That important power should help to ensure that any future misconduct is detected quickly and put right.

I thank the Minister for that answer. My constituent, Mr James Boyle, has a contract with Clydesdale bank, which seems to be excluded from the review. The main banks—RBS, HSBC, Barclays and Lloyds—are all included. Why are the Clydesdale bank, and my constituent, excluded from the review?

I can confirm that the Clydesdale bank has now become part of the review, as have all the other principal banks. The hon. Gentleman has raised the case of his constituent with me before; even though the product was not within the review’s terms of reference, Clydesdale has agreed to consider it as part of the review.

I have constituents who are concerned that the FSA may come under pressure from the banks to water down its findings and reduce the scope of the redress scheme, to their disadvantage. What can my right hon. Friend say to reassure my constituents about that important issue?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. The review is under the auspices of the Financial Services Authority, and each bank has had to appoint independent reviewers who are themselves accountable to the FCA. It is absolutely crucial that the objectivity they bring to bear cannot be compromised, and I have given the FSA clear feedback that it should have that in mind during the review.

Lending and Equity

4. What steps he has taken to increase the amount of (a) lending and (b) equity financing to the real economy. (147126)

The funding for lending scheme is aimed at boosting bank lending to the real economy and has already led to some of the cheapest mortgage rates on record. Through the seed enterprise investment scheme, the Government provide generous tax relief for investment in firms with high growth potential, and we will deploy an additional £1 billion through the business bank.

Does the Chief Secretary agree that raising share capital is a vital way to help businesses grow, in addition to loan finance? Between 40 and 50 extra initial public offerings in technology companies could come to the UK in the next six months if we get conditions right, so in the forthcoming Budget will the Treasury do all it can to help businesses access share capital?

I certainly agree that there is a need to diversify the range of funding sources, including the one my hon. Friend describes, particularly for small businesses and businesses with high growth potential. That is the purpose of the seed enterprise investment scheme. The business bank has a remit to try to diversify the range of sources of finance available for small businesses, because in this country we are too dependent on solely bank finance. I shall certainly consider what my hon. Friend said.

Small and medium-sized businesses are still finding it difficult to get banks to lend them essential finance. What further steps can the Minister take to reconnect banks with the reality of business? Up to now, it seems that banks have been a law unto themselves.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. That is the purpose of a number of the schemes I mentioned earlier. The funding for lending scheme is designed to get banks to lend more to small businesses, and a complaints process has been put in place, allowing independent adjudication when cases go wrong. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to refer constituents to the scheme, which has overturned bank decisions in a large number of cases.

In welcoming the funding for lending scheme and the other measures my right hon. Friend mentioned, may I urge him to break up and sell off as soon as possible the publicly owned banks, so that we have more competition on the high street, and constituents of mine who are unable to borrow on good projects have more to choose from?

It is right that we own large chunks of two banks, because that was necessary to clear up the mess of the under-regulated, overheated banking system that was created under the present Opposition when the shadow Chancellor was City Minister. We are working as hard as we can to get those banks in good order and we are making progress in the direction that my hon. Friend suggests.

The experience of small businesses across the UK does not match the rosy picture painted by the Chancellor earlier or by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Last week we learned that, despite the funding for lending scheme, net lending to businesses was down £4.5 billion in the last quarter. Will the Chancellor now act on Labour’s calls to reform the scheme immediately so that small and medium-sized enterprises get the funding that they so urgently need?

I am sorry that we did not hear the apology for the mess that was made in the financial system by the Opposition when they were in office. Many of the steps that we are taking are necessary to repair the damage that the hon. Lady and her Front-Bench colleagues did to the financial system and the banking system. She should also have noted that net lending to the real economy increased by £2.5 billion in January 2013. The schemes that we are putting in place are making a difference, but we are facing a continuing very challenging situation and that is why we will continue to look for further things to do to help small businesses.

Unemployment (Halifax)

The claimant count in Halifax in December 2012 was 4,328. The UK has a lower rate of unemployment than either the US or the euro area and, as the Chancellor said earlier, we have created more than 1 million jobs in the private sector since 2010.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but in reality the Government’s record on unemployment in Halifax since 2010 is that the number out of work has risen from 7.3% to 9.2%. Halifax cannot sustain those levels of unemployment for much longer. Can the Minister understand how angry people are? What action is he taking on unemployment in Halifax?

Of course I recognise what the hon. Lady says and that unemployment is a concern right across our economy. Unemployment rates across the economy have been coming down. She refers to the experience in her constituency. Since 2008-09 the number of apprentices in Halifax doubled, so some of the measures that the Government are taking, such as the investment in apprenticeships and the Work programme, are making a difference to her constituents. The most important thing that we can do to continue to support unemployment moving in the right direction is to maintain the credible fiscal policy that this Government have put in place, and not give up on it, as the Opposition would.

Debt

6. What recent assessment he has made of progress on the Government’s target of public sector net debt falling as a share of GDP in 2015-16. (147128)

The independent Office for Budget Responsibility assesses the Government’s performance against the fiscal mandate and supplementary debt target. The OBR’s assessment is that the public sector net debt as a percentage of GDP will be falling by 2016-17.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government will have more than doubled the national debt between 2010 and 2015, and that this Government will have increased the national debt by more in five years than it increased in the entire 13 years of the Labour Government?

Having brought the country to the brink of bankruptcy and having set the economy ablaze, the Opposition now throw stones at the firefighters. The country will never forget that we had the largest budget deficit when we came to power. We were borrowing £5,000 a second, and that deficit began in 2001, long before the financial crisis. Since then, we have cut it by a quarter, brought back confidence to Britain and created jobs at a record rate.

I congratulate the Government—the Conservative-led coalition—on reducing the deficit, but of course all that is slowing the rate of growth in the debt. When does the Minister think we will get to a budget that is balanced?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about how we must tackle the record national debt that we inherited. It went up threefold during the 13 years of the previous Government’s time in power. When we set out the Budget forecast next week, my hon. Friend will get a good answer.

Businesses in Swansea are telling me that assessing net debt should include an assessment of net assets, and they have written to me and the Chancellor asking that Swansea be considered for superconnectivity status, namely that the Government invest in our broadband capability. Is that something he is willing to look at positively with the businesses involved?

That was very wide of the subject of public sector net debt falling as a share of GDP in 2015-16. The hon. Gentleman needs to do his research and have another go. Go back to the drawing board. We are grateful to him.

Would it ever be a credible policy to borrow more in order to borrow less, or would it simply increase our debt, damage our credit rating and ensure that the country would be in even greater difficulties than it already is thanks to the Labour party?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. If the country were now following the Labour party’s plans, independent assessments show that the country would be borrowing £200 billion more: more debt, more deficit. As we bring the deficit under control we will be able to invest in things such as broadband plans in Swansea and help growth in this country.

Child Poverty

7. What assessment he has made of the effect on child poverty of his changes to the uprating of tax credits and other payments announced in the autumn statement. (147129)

10. What assessment he has made of the effect on child poverty of his changes to the uprating of tax credits and other payments announced in the autumn statement. (147132)

The Government have protected poor and vulnerable groups while undertaking the urgent task of tackling the fiscal deficit. Work remains the best and most immediate way out of poverty, and we have continued to prioritise providing the best possible work incentives for welfare reform and increasing the personal allowance.

The Government’s own impact assessment says that 200,000 more children will be pushed into poverty as a result of the cuts to tax credits and benefits next month. The Children’s Society says that 40% of the children in my constituency now live in poverty. Will the Minister provide an assessment of how many more children in Middlesbrough will be in absolute poverty in 2016 as a result of the Chancellor’s failures, with not enough money for their food, warmth and shelter?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the official measure for child poverty is flawed. It is based on changes in relative income, which has meant, for example, that under Labour child poverty fell by 300,000 during a recession—clearly a nonsense. This Government are focused on the causes of child poverty, such as unemployment. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the fact that more people are employed in Britain today than at any time in our history.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the changes that the Government are bringing in will cost a one-earner family with children around £534 from April this year. Will the Minister confirm that figure, and in doing so, will he confirm also that a one-earner family with children where the earner happens to be a millionaire will receive a £40,000 cut in April this year?

What I can confirm to the right hon. Gentleman is that this Government are focused on the causes of poverty, which is what he should be concerned about. I am surprised that he raises this question, because he highlights to his constituents that during the last term of the previous Government youth unemployment in his constituency went up 149%. Under this Government it is down 18%.

Is it not a lamentable fact ignored by Opposition Members that for far too long this country has had too many children growing up in workless households, which means bad outcomes for those children over the longer term? Will my right hon. and hon. Friends redouble their efforts to make the tax system as simple as possible and to create incentives for people to work and set a good example for their children?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why the Government have increased the personal allowance, cutting taxes for the low paid, helping 24 million people in the country. In addition, we are introducing universal credit to create the right incentives to get people back into work.

On the subject of the personal allowance, does my hon. Friend agree that that has made a huge difference to a large number of people who are less well-off? In my constituency alone, 38,000 people have benefited.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The previous Government abolished the 10p tax rate. This Government have cut taxes for the lowest paid in this country, 24 million people have benefited and 2 million people have been taken out of taxation altogether.

Corporation Tax

8. What plans he has to increase corporation tax payments in the UK by large multinational companies; and if he will make a statement. (147130)

13. What steps he is taking to ensure that international companies pay the appropriate levels of tax on revenues earned in the UK. (147135)

The Government are determined to ensure that multinational companies pay their fair share of tax. The UK is committed to taking multilateral action through the G20 and the OECD to tackle the issues of profit-shifting by multinationals and erosion of the corporate tax base. The OECD presented its initial report on addressing these issues at the G20 meeting in Moscow last month and will present a comprehensive action plan to tackle them at the G20 in July this year.

Even if the OECD produces a decent action plan, nothing will happen before September, yet Britain is responsible for some of the biggest tax havens in the world: Barbados, Bermuda and the British Virgin Islands received more foreign direct investment than Germany and Japan in 2010. When did the Minister last talk to the Foreign Secretary about what he could do about these tax havens?

It is worth pointing out that these places are not simply colonies in which we can direct orders; they have a degree of independence. We are working with other countries at the G20 and the G8 and through the OECD to ensure that we have a modernised tax system, which includes addressing jurisdictions where there is a lack of transparency.

Does the Minister agree with me on this very simple principle: companies should expect to be liable for appropriate tax in the UK on goods and services paid for and used by people and organisations based in the UK?

The point I would make is that we want to have an international tax system under which economic activity is taxed where that economic activity takes place. The fact is that the international rules have not moved with the times, but they need to do so, and I am delighted that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is leading the way in this debate.

Many of my constituents—particularly younger constituents and Church groups—are very interested in this agenda and are closely following what the Government are hoping to achieve this year. Is the Minister optimistic that our international partners will respond positively to this agenda and we can make progress on it?

It is fair to say that we are making progress so far. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has worked very closely with his German and French counterparts in pushing forward this agenda, and I hope we will make significant progress over the months ahead.

Although I wish the Minister success in achieving the international objectives, does he agree that dismantling the ability of the UK tax authorities to deliver on that international agenda is not the way to go about it, and with 2,000 staff at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs already having been sacked, does he not worry that we will be unable to deliver on it?

In areas of enforcement and compliance, we are investing more money in HMRC. Staff numbers will increase, and that contrasts favourably with the record of the previous Government. The fact is that HMRC’s ability to get in more money is increasing year after year.

Alcohol and Fuel Duty

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of alcohol duty and fuel duty on the cost of living and household budgets. (147131)

As a result of Government actions on fuel duty, from April average pump prices will be 13p per litre lower than if we had implemented the previous Government’s plan to squeeze motorists, and will remain at least 10p per litre lower over the remainder of the Parliament, giving real help to millions of families and small businesses.

I certainly welcome the efforts that the coalition Government have already made, but with the price of fuel now once again nudging £1.50 per litre in some places, does my right hon. Friend recognise the anxiety that the continuing prospect of rises in fuel duty causes people in rural parts of Wiltshire, as much as in the highlands of Scotland, who find themselves with little alternative to running a car?

As my hon. Friend knows, as a fellow rural MP I fully understand the pressures he describes, which is why we have taken the action I set out in my previous answer. He will also know that the pressures on the public finances remain substantial. I would remind him and the House that 25 million working people in this country will see the largest ever increase in their income tax personal allowance, meaning that the income tax cuts delivered by this Government will amount to £50 a month from April.

One of the biggest hits on petrol prices has been the VAT increase. The hon. Member for Chippenham (Duncan Hames) is absolutely right that there are now record prices at the pumps. Will the Minister consider temporarily lowering the VAT rate, to help hard-working families across the country?

With all respect to the hon. Gentleman, I am not sure that he has reflected upon the substantial fuel duty escalator that was baked into the public finances when his party was in office. We have dealt with those increases on a case-by-case basis and reduced fuel duty by a penny. I think that is the right action to support motorists, families and small businesses alike.

16. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that minimum unit pricing for alcohol could hit responsible drinkers from some of the most deprived families? (147138)

But surely the Minister cannot run away from the fact that the largest single increase in fuel prices at the pumps was the VAT increase. Also, over the past two weeks the weakening pound has driven up prices at the pumps. That needs to be seriously considered.

I do not run away from any of the decisions the Government have made, and the hon. Gentleman should not run away from the fact that the ratchet on fuel prices planned by his party in the last Parliament, which was baked into the public finances, would have dwarfed the increase to which he refers.

Turning to the other escalator, the nonsensical beer duty escalator, I can give my right hon. Friend good news: there are now around 1,000 breweries in this country, the highest number for 70 years, because of the explosion in micro-breweries due to fairer and lower beer duty. Now that the Government are rightly going to tackle overcharging by the pub companies, which will allow more access to market for the wonderful micro-breweries, may we also have some joined-up thinking with the abolition in the Budget of the beer duty escalator, which simply does not make sense?

I certainly share my hon. Friend’s admiration for micro-breweries: one in my constituency has recently produced a beer called Ginger Rodent, which sold out in its first run. I look forward to more sales when it is in the House of Commons bar in June. As for the rest of his question, I take it as a Budget representation.

Inflation: Average Earnings

11. What recent estimate he has made of the extent to which the rate of increase of average earnings has kept in line with the rate of consumer price inflation. (147133)

The average gross weekly earnings of full-time employees rose by 2.8% between the last quarter of 2011 and the last quarter of 2012, while consumer prices rose by 2.7%. As a result of the increases in the personal tax allowance and rising employment, average household disposable income has increased by 2.8% more than inflation.

Clearly the Chancellor has no understanding of what it is like to get by on a low income when increases in prices such as VAT mean debt and hardship for many families. Equally, last week the Office for Budget Responsibility confirmed that the Prime Minister has no understanding of his economic policies either. Is that why the Chancellor is implementing a tax cut for millionaires—because he does not understand real life or economics?

If the hon. Lady had a grasp of economics, she would understand the need to take people out of taxation, which is what we have done through the increase in the personal allowance. In fact, that increase affects the lowest paid most of all and is equivalent to a pay increase of 4.5% since the general election. A higher personal allowance is a better policy than the shadow Chancellor’s plan to introduce the 10p rate, which the Financial Times described as “a pretty basic howler”.

The shadow Chancellor is a very gracious chap and, I am sure, would wish to commend the Government for taking 25 million people out of tax by the simple measure of increasing the personal allowance. Can my right hon. Friend share with the House what that means for an individual’s annual budget?

Yes. By next month it will be worth £600 a year for every basic rate taxpayer, which is an enormous increase. For someone on median earnings, it is equivalent to a pay rise of 4.5%. I would have thought that the shadow Chancellor, who professes to be interested in helping the low-paid, would endorse the policy.

Income Tax

12. What estimate he has made of what the annual value of his planned reduction in the additional rate of income tax to 45% would be to a person earning £1 million a year. (147134)

Owing to the significant behavioural responses to changes in marginal tax rates at high levels of income, the annual value of changing the additional rate of tax would not reflect the actual Exchequer impacts of the change. HMRC’s report “The Exchequer effects of the 50 per cent additional rate of income tax”, which was published alongside the 2012 Budget, set out that behavioural response in detail.

Well, that was very clear, Mr Speaker. The answer, of course, is £40,000 a year. Why is a £40,000 a year tax cut for millionaires this Government’s priority?

The purpose of income tax is to raise money to fund public services. The 50p rate of income tax did not raise money to fund public services, so we have got rid of it.

On the subject of priorities, how much does the Exchequer believe that cutting the higher rate of tax will cost compared with the cost of raising the personal allowance, which has benefited thousands of my constituents and millions of people across the country?

The costing for the cutting of the additional rate, according to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and signed off by the Office for Budget Responsibility, was £100 million. The cost of raising the personal allowance is about £9 billion, and that is where our priorities lie.

17. Instead of spending £3 billion on cutting the 50p rate for the richest, why not put the money towards 100,000 social rented homes of one and two bedrooms to make the coalition Government’s bedroom tax work? (147139)

This figure of £3 billion that is repeated time and again is simply inaccurate. It makes no assumption for behavioural effects whatsoever, and this was never the position of the Labour party. The fact is that the cost is £100 million, recouped several times over by other measures contained in the last Budget that are getting more money out of the wealthy.

Tax Avoidance

The Government are fully committed to tackling tax avoidance, taking all necessary steps to protect the Exchequer. Since 2010, the Government have introduced 26 changes to the law to close loopholes and tighten our legislation against tax avoidance. We are introducing a general anti-abuse rule in this year’s Finance Bill to tackle abusive avoidance schemes, and we will be consulting on measures to address high-risk promoters of avoidance schemes.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer. One of the drivers of these aggressive tax avoidance schemes has been the cottage industry that has grown up among those who seek, for their own financial gain, to persuade those who want to pay their taxes to enter such schemes. What steps are the Government taking to deal with the promoters of these aggressive tax avoidance schemes?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue, which the Government have focused on extensively in recent months. We have consulted on what we can do in this area, and I hope that we will be able to report back on that shortly. We have also strengthened the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes regime, making it increasingly difficult for people to peddle these artificial, contrived schemes that involve people not paying their fair share. We do not think that that is right and we are doing something about it.

Two years ago Christine Lagarde gave the Treasury 6,000 names of UK nationals using Swiss bank HSBC to avoid paying tax. Two years later, one of them has been convicted. Is the case closed on the other 5,999, and if so, why?

I am not going to get drawn into individual cases, but I will say that under this Government the number of prosecutions will increase fivefold. We are giving additional resources to HMRC to help to deal with prosecutions, and we have strengthened its offshore team. Our record on dealing with tax evasion—dealing with those who have cheated the system—is one of which we are proud, and it compares very favourably with the record that we inherited.

Private equity is an important source of investment for expanding businesses, but when they over-leverage it can lead to disasters such as that with Castlebeck. It can also lead to protracted negotiations with the Revenue over the deductability of interest and an erosion of the tax base. Will my hon. Friend consider the German approach of limiting the level of interest that can be deductible in any tax year as a proportion of a company’s profit—the so-called bright line?

We did look at interest deductibility when we first came into office. However, in the corporate tax road map that we set out in 2010, we took the view that we were not going to change the rules fundamentally with regard to interest deductibility. What we have done, of course, is favour equity more by cutting corporation tax. My hon. Friend also raises wider issues about private equity and leverage that the Banking Commission is considering.

National Infrastructure Plan

We have made significant progress in implementing the national infrastructure plan and published an update in December’s autumn statement alongside the latest version of the infrastructure pipeline. A further detailed delivery update on the top 40 infrastructure projects will be published alongside the Budget.

Why did the Government cut infrastructure investment by £12.8 billion more than the plans they inherited?

The hon. Gentleman will know that in the 2010 spending review and the 2011 and 2012 autumn statements, we increased spending on infrastructure compared with the plans for capital spending that we inherited from the previous Government. Consequently, investment in infrastructure in this country is higher as a share of GDP over this Parliament than it was on average during the previous Government’s time in office.

I am extremely grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s generosity, but I am afraid we are not going to take Question 19. We are moving on. [Hon. Members: “Shame!”] Oh, go on, then. I am not going to ruin the hon. Gentleman’s day.

Budgets 2010 and 2011

19. What assessment he has made of the effect of measures he announced in the 2010 and 2011 Budgets. (147141)

I am delighted to answer Question 19.

The Budget of June 2010 set out the Government’s plans to reduce the deficit and rebuild the economy. The Government’s strategy since then has provided the foundations for recovery. Market interest rates have fallen to near-record lows. The deficit has been reduced by a quarter over two years. Employment is at record highs and exports of goods to China, India and Brazil have increased by about a third.

The Government set out in 2010-11 some key initiatives in the all-important life science sector: the biomedical catalyst fund, the patent box and tax breaks for start-up companies. This week sees the publication of the catalyst fund’s first annual report, showing that more than £1 billion has been raised in five new early stage funds in the UK, with more than 50 innovative medical projects coming to the NHS. Does that not suggest that we are laying the foundations for a sustainable recovery?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and I am sure that the House is delighted to have heard him do so. I know that he has done some superb work with the biotech industry. I met representatives of the BioIndustry Association a few weeks ago and they recognised that the steps we have taken on the patent box and research and development tax credits have put in place a very favourable environment for that industry.

Unfortunately, we certainly do not have time for Question 20 from the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) on article 153(5) of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, but you never know what topical questions might bring.

Topical Questions

The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability and prosperity of the economy. I am pleased to announce that I have decided to reappoint Martin Weale as external member to the Monetary Policy Committee. He is a wise and valued member of the committee and I am delighted he has agreed to continue his service.

The spending review will be published on Wednesday 26 June and its spending envelope will be set in next week’s Budget.

Bankers’ bonuses are up £15 billion, executive boardroom pay is up by 27%, and the richest 1,000 people in this country have increased their wealth by £155 billion, yet there is still a tax cut on the way for the richest 1%. When is the Chancellor going to do something for the other 99% who are paying the bill to subsidise the lifestyle of his privileged chums?

We are increasing the personal allowance for 24 million people. Bankers’ bonuses were £15 billion a year when the shadow Chancellor was City Minister, but they have come down to just over £1 billion—a dramatic reduction as we now have a more responsible financial sector.

T5. With the whole of the United Kingdom getting behind Southend’s bid to be city of culture in 2017, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what economic benefits such an award would bring? (147152)

My Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), has just said in my ear that her constituency is also bidding. I will not take sides, but I know that Southend will put in a very strong bid, as will Hastings. The decision will be announced shortly.

The Chancellor has had plenty of advice over the weekend on how to change his failing economic plan, and it has not all come from me. The former Defence Secretary says that he should cut capital gains tax, the Business Secretary wants a £15 billion housing boost, and even the Home Secretary is making speeches calling for a new growth plan. What is going on? Do Cabinet Ministers not realise that the Budget is in just eight days’ time, or have they lost confidence in the Chancellor of the Exchequer?

What people realise is that the right hon. Gentleman’s prescription of borrowing more as a solution to Britain’s borrowing problems is exactly the same prescription that got the country into this mess in the first place. He is like the snake oil salesman selling his miracle cures when people remember that his medicine almost killed the patient. We are not going to listen to him again.

But it is the Chancellor’s plan that is failing. The Business Secretary said on Monday:

“Well we are already borrowing more”—

[Interruption.] Government Members may cheer behind the Chancellor in public, but they are not cheering in private. An e-mail from the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr Redwood) has fallen into my hands. It was sent around within half an hour of the Prime Minister’s speech last Thursday to set out alternative ideas for the Budget from Back Benchers, such as income tax cuts and capital gains tax cuts. He says that “one colleague” says that we should do

“more to help people with childcare costs.”

Just one colleague! It concludes that the Chancellor needs

“to stimulate greater confidence, more enterprise, and to relieve some of the squeeze on the private sector.”

Businesses and families are feeling the squeeze, so why will the Chancellor not act to stimulate the economy and why is it only millionaires who are getting a £3 billion tax cut from him? Is not the truth that his plan is failing? That is why all the Government Members are losing confidence.

I am tempted to say, “Look behind you.” With a week to go until the Budget, is that the best that the shadow Chancellor can do? He has produced an e-mail from Conservative Back Benchers who are perfectly entitled to ask for things in the Budget. In this party, we are perfectly prepared for people to express an opinion and to listen to the views of our colleagues, unlike him and the operation that he runs. He is the face of Labour’s economic failure. As long as he remains as shadow Chancellor, it is a great thing for my party.

Given that an improved export performance will be crucial to Britain’s economic success, may I share with the Chancellor the good news that in its fourth quarter economic review, the Northamptonshire chamber of commerce, which after all represents middle England at its best, reported that 41% of its manufacturing members reported increased exports and that 76% of service sector companies reported higher figures?

That is excellent news. I congratulate the businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency and the people who work for them on the hard work that they are putting in. It is essential that Britain connects itself better to the fast-growing parts of our world. It is good news that exports to China, India, Brazil and the like are up by two thirds under this Government, but we still have much more to do in that space. That is why, in December’s autumn statement, we put more money into UK Trade & Investment, which will help the businesses in his constituency to get those export orders.

T2. Is it not absurd that the Liberal Democrats, who claim that the mansion tax on homes worth more than £2 million is their policy, are poised to vote against a motion that argues for precisely that? (147149)

I note that the shadow Chancellor did not refer to his opportunistic motion this afternoon, because we would have had a chance to refer to Labour’s record of welfare for the wealthy during their time in office: a lower rate of corporation tax than for the person who cleans the offices of the private equity fund manager; a lower top rate of tax of 45p during Labour’s 13 years in office; loopholes in the stamp duty system; and the 10p tax rate fiasco. We will take no lessons on tax fairness from the Labour party, and we will vote for our amendment that confirms Liberal Democrat support for a mansion tax.

Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what measures the Government are taking to put right the unbelievably poor regulation by the previous Government, and say what the permanent bank levy will do to improve revenues to the Exchequer, over the bank bonus implemented by the previous Government?

We are raising more in bank taxes every year of this Parliament than the previous Government raised in any one year during their time in office. My hon. Friend is right; those revenues help to support public services and deal with the deficit. We also have a better-regulated banking system, and with the arrival in April of the Bank of England’s new role as prudential regulator, and the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill currently before Parliament, we are putting right all that went wrong in the banking system.

T3. Did the Business Secretary let the cat out of the bag yesterday? When asked on the “Today” programme whether his call for investment in infrastructure to kick-start the recovery would mean more borrowing, he replied:“Well we are already borrowing more”. (147150)

We are increasing capital spending more than in the plans we inherited from the Labour Government. This Government are spending more on roads than the previous Government did and, of course, the deficit has come down by 25%.

Although article 153(5) of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union may be esoteric to some, it is rather important because it prohibits the European Union from running an incomes policy. It seems to me that the bonus limit is an incomes policy; it is not a power of the European Union and therefore ought to be resisted by the Government by all possible means. Will the Chancellor take it to the European Court of Justice?

I am delighted to answer my hon. Friend’s question. We are looking carefully at the provisions of the treaty and at every aspect of the proposals. We think that this country has a particularly rigorous set of arrangements, and we do not want to see them diluted.

T4. Companies are telling me that with demand at rock bottom and infrastructure projects failing to get away from the starting blocks, they see little incentive for investment in UK industry. When drawing up the Budget, will the Chancellor consider expanding the scope of enhanced capital allowances to cover a broader range of investment, and therefore encourage companies to invest in the UK rather than take their money elsewhere? (147151)

I shall take that as a Budget representation, but it is worth pointing out that at the last autumn statement the annual investment allowance was increased tenfold.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the recent report from Barnardo’s that highlights the reduction in child poverty in some inner-city areas such as inner London? That is because there are significantly more families in work than there were this time last year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Like us, Barnardo’s is interested in reducing child poverty and understands that that is done by creating jobs. The private sector has created 1.2 million jobs over the past two years, which is more than were created during the last 10 years of the previous Government.

T6. Owing to the changes to child benefit for families with a higher-rate earner, as from 7 March, 370,000 parents have opted not to receive child benefit. Will the Chancellor say how many of those 370,000 parents are stay-at-home mums who will lose their national insurance credit to their state pension, which is linked to the receipt of child benefit? Were they advised before they made that decision? (147153)

As far as contributions to the state pension are concerned, the change will have no effect whatsoever on any of those who opt out. The system will not be affected by the change and the hon. Lady can be assured that that is not an issue. I also point out that all households affected by the high income charge on child benefit are in the top 15% to 20% in terms of earnings. It is right for the Government to take some difficult decisions to reduce the deficit.

House building approvals are up by two thirds. Does that reflect the success of the Government’s funding for lending schemes, the Financial Secretary’s successful planning reforms, or the sustained period of record low interest rates?

T7. My weekend surgeries were dominated by constituents facing backdated payment demands from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, despite the fact that they had discharged their responsibilities and had been assured that their tax affairs were in order. Does the Minister think it is right to put people through financial stress and misery because of HMRC mistakes and staff cuts? (147154)

There was an issue regarding end-of-year reconciliation, which is an errant part of the pay-as-you-earn system. When we came into office, 17 million cases needed to be dealt with. I think that backlog is about to be cleared—we have made great progress. We are reforming the PAYE system so that tax will be collected at the right rate at the right time, and much more accurately than in the past.

Does the Chancellor agree that increasing the personal allowance again will mean that a basic rate taxpayer in my constituency will pay £600 less in tax as a result of the measures taken by the Government?

That is already planned and was announced last year. In April, people will be £600 a year —£50 a month—better off. We have also taken 2 million people out of tax altogether, which is a sign of our commitment to those on low incomes and a sign of our commitment to all those who work hard and want to get on.

T8. As the Chancellor puts the finishing touches to the Budget, may I, on behalf of the potteries of Stoke-on-Trent, make another plea for applying the mineralogical processing exemption in the taxation of energy products? That would be a helpful sign that the Government understand the needs of energy intensive sectors. (147155)

I shall take that as a Budget representation. To be fair to the hon. Gentleman, he is always a powerful champion of the ceramics industry in his constituency.

My constituents find it much easier to take out a payday loan than to open a savings account. What steps are the Government taking to make it much more difficult for my constituents to fall into that sort of temptation?

My hon. Friend will know that the Government commissioned an independent report from Bristol university on the high interest lending industry. That report shows severe consumer detriment and we have already taken action. We announced last week that we will be working on advertising content and placement, and we will be giving extra powers to the Financial Conduct Authority to impose fines and to close down firms in the most significant cases. She may have seen that last week the Office of Fair Trading announced it is investigating a number of firms: it has told a number of payday firms that they have 12 weeks to shape up; otherwise it will take severe action.

T9. Financing delays are holding up the Government’s new schools rebuilding programme. What steps is the Minister taking, together with colleagues in the Department for Education, to secure financing for this scheme and to support our construction industry, which is under real pressure at the moment? (147156)

The House will know that the Department for Education has already announced that the first 41 highest priority schools are being funded by direct capital. We will be in a position soon to make a statement about the rest, and we have announced recently additional investment in school places to expand school buildings in areas under pressure. All that adds up to an £18 billion investment programme in schools over the course of this Parliament, which I think is a credit to the Government.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that infrastructure projects such as the Mersey Gateway bridge, the northern rail hub and High Speed 2 are good news for my constituents, good news for greater Cheshire, and good news for the north of England as a whole?

I absolutely agree with my constituency neighbour. The Mersey Gateway bridge, which has been talked about for many years, has now got the go-ahead. The northern hub, which MPs from all parties and on both sides of the Pennines have been calling for, is now funded and will be of particular benefit in the Greater Manchester area. High Speed 2 is controversial, but nevertheless will connect the biggest cities of our country and help reduce the north-south divide in our economy. One piece of good news in our economy recently has been the growth of private sector jobs in the north of England.

T10. Has the Chancellor of the Exchequer managed to overcome the militant tendency within the Cabinet to allow him fully to implement the recommendations of the Heseltine review on growth and localism? (147157)

We will set out next week our response to the Heseltine review. Michael Heseltine has set out a compelling vision of how we can operate as a more decentralised country and empower our great cities. I was with him in Birmingham just the other day, with the Labour leader of Birmingham council, working on how Birmingham could set out a report and act as a test case for other cities.

In the past, Chancellors have had to resign if Budgets are leaked. Given what happened last year, will the Chief Secretary tell the House what measures he has put in place to ensure it does not happen again?

Of course I want to ensure that the House of Commons is the first to hear the Budget, just as it was the first to hear the appointment of the new Governor of the Bank of England.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues, but demand always exceeds supply at Treasury questions.