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Topical Questions

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2013

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.