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Topical Questions

Volume 565: debated on Tuesday 25 June 2013

In his March Budget, the Chancellor boasted that Government borrowing fell last year. Will he confirm that figures published by the Office for National Statistics on Friday show that Government borrowing last year actually did not go down, but went up?

The Office for National Statistics revised down borrowing for 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2013-14; that is actually good news.

T2. The quality of schools in my constituency is very high. Will my right hon. Friend outline the Government’s intentions on school funding? (161244)

Everyone knows that Britain needs to live within its means, and tomorrow I shall set out the next phase of the economic plan to move Britain from rescue to recovery. However, I can confirm that we will offer real protection for our national health service and our schools. Those vital public services are an investment in our economic future, and they are all about doing what we need to do to win that global race.

The whole House will have heard the Chancellor not answer the topical question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk). The reason is that, despite all the Budget speech bluster, borrowing last year went not down, but up.

Let me ask the Chancellor another question. The bonuses paid in the financial services sector this April, the first month of the new tax year, were 65% higher than in the same month last year—up by a total of £1.3 billion. Can the Chancellor tell the House why bank bonuses rose by £1.3 billion this April?

First, on borrowing, the Labour Government were borrowing £157 billion a year. This Government borrowed £118 billion last year, which represents a fall in borrowing. The deficit is down by a third because we are taking the tough decisions to ensure that Britain lives within its means. On bonuses, they are 85% lower than when the right hon. Gentleman was City Minister.

The fact is that the Chancellor promised to get the deficit down, but it is rising, and that month-on-month rise in bonuses is the highest since records began in 2000. There is a simple reason why that happened: thousands of very highly paid people deferred their bonuses into the new tax year to take advantage of the Chancellor’s top rate tax cut, which has cost the Exchequer millions of pounds in lost tax revenue. How can the Chancellor still say, “We’re all in this together,” when living standards are falling for everyone else and the economy has flatlined for three years? Is not this economic failure the reason why the Chancellor will not balance the books in 2015 and why he will be coming back to the House tomorrow to ask for more cuts to public services? He is unfair and out of touch, and he is now revealed as totally incompetent.

Getting a lesson from the shadow Chancellor on how to balance the books is like getting a lesson from Dracula on how to look after a blood bank. He finds himself in a most extraordinary situation. On Saturday, the Labour leader said that Labour was going to rule out borrowing more. On Sunday, when the shadow Chancellor was asked whether Labour could borrow more, he said, “Yes, yes, of course,” and then, on Monday, the Labour party committed itself to higher welfare spending—it is a complete shambles. On the eve of the spending review, Labour finds itself in the extraordinary situation in which it has completely abandoned the economic argument that it has been making for the past three years, but kept the disastrous economic policy. That is a hopeless position. The shadow Chancellor has led Labour Members up a cul-de-sac and they have to find their way out of it.

T4. In the last Budget the Chancellor announced a video games tax relief to help support UK publishers and developers, which was a very welcome step. However, the European Commission has launched an investigation into this tax relief. Will my right hon. Friend join me and industry representatives such as TIGA so that we may make the best case possible for this vital policy? (161247)

We remain committed to introducing video games tax relief as soon as possible and we are working with the industry to provide the Commission with the evidence that it needs to conclude its investigation quickly. These things can take a little time, but we have a history of succeeding in implementing new and innovative forms of state aid.

T3. Since the Chancellor’s last spending review the US economy has grown four times faster than the UK’s. Is this not further evidence of the Chancellor’s failed policies? (161246)

The US fiscal consolidation is faster this year than the UK consolidation. The structural deficit in the UK has fallen by more than in the US. But look at the UK—we have created over a million new jobs in the private sector. That is one of the most impressive employment records anywhere in the world.

T6. Devolution is a continuing process. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the National Assembly for Wales is to develop into a fiscally responsible governing institution, it must have responsibility for raising a significant part of its own budget? (161249)

I do agree with that. The Government established the Commission on Devolution in Wales to consider, as part of its remit, how to increase the fiscal accountability and autonomy of the Welsh Assembly Government. We are carefully considering the commission’s recommendations and we will respond in due course, having discussed the matter with the Welsh Assembly Government.

T5. May I take the Chancellor back to the question posed by the shadow Chancellor and by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk)? Did Government borrowing rise in 2012-13, as compared to 2011-12? (161248)

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that the deficit fell from 7.8% to 7.7%, so it came down.

T7. In the light of the Chancellor’s assiduous commitment to deficit reduction, what assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the Opposition’s spending plans, which appear to consist of more borrowing, more debt and a return to Labour’s failed policy of boom and bust? (161250)

Order. The Chancellor is not responsible for Labour policy. A very short one-sentence reply will suffice, then we must move on. Members must ask questions that are orderly, not disorderly.

T8. Why does the Office for Budget Responsibility say that the deficit this year will be the same as it was last year and the year before? Is not the truth that the Government’s stalled plan on jobs and growth has led to this appalling situation? (161251)

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman the appalling situation. It was an 11% budget deficit that the Opposition left us when they left office—11%. It is now going to be 7.7%. Borrowing—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) asks how much money. I will tell him. The Opposition were borrowing £157 billion. We are now borrowing £118 billion. Borrowing is not going up. It came down from £157 billion to £118 billion, and if the right hon. Gentleman cannot do that maths, no wonder he left the country in such a mess.

The A14 Cambridge toll road is strategically vital for the golden economic triangle that is Cambridge, Norwich and Ipswich—

And indeed Colchester. Can my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirm that he will have that at the forefront of his mind when the Treasury makes its capital allocations?

The A14 is a strategically important road, not just for my hon. Friend’s constituents, but for the whole country. It links ports to many of our largest cities. It is at the forefront of our mind. My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary will set out on Thursday not just the capital plans for 2015-16, important as they are, but our long-term plans for road investment. Central to that is making sure that Britain has the economic infrastructure that we need to succeed in the modern world, and the A14 is part of that infrastructure.

T9. The Chancellor must be concerned about the spiralling costs of air travel, with fares currently up by 22%. Does he agree that we need to increase competition by making better use of spare capacity at regional airports? To that end, will he agree to look again at reforming air passenger duty in order to promote growth at airports such as Manchester airport? (161252)

The right hon. Gentleman and I represent both ends of the runway at Manchester airport and know how important it is to our constituents and to economic growth in the north-west. We looked specifically at whether to split APD into a tax for hub airports and a tax for regional airports, but we ruled that out because we do not think that it would be fair. We have stuck with the APD rates we inherited from the previous Government. With regard to the campaign being run on the subject, it is important to recognise that airlines often refer to charges and taxes, and many of the charges are those, such as fuel charges, that they have chosen to put on. I understand the argument, because we have collectively—it was the previous Government’s decision—taken a tough decision on APD rates, but I think that people should read the small print of the campaign.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, notwithstanding the Alice in Wonderland economic world of the shadow Chancellor, a plan to borrow more will not actually bring borrowing down?

I completely agree that Labour’s plan to borrow more to borrow less is completely nonsensical. It really is extraordinary that a day after the Labour leader said that Labour had ruled out borrowing more, the shadow Chancellor committed the party to doing just that. It is a catastrophic position for his party to hold. Frankly, I do not think that the country will ever adopt it.

Given that the Chancellor appears unwilling to give us the answer that dare not speak its name on last year’s borrowing, I will ask him about the time available to debate the recommendations of the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards. A number of those recommendations require legislation before they can be given effect. The Government have allocated only one day on Report for the banking Bill. Although I respect their lordships, surely it should be the elected House that is given a chance to debate the recommendations. Will he reconsider and allow two days on Report?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution to the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, along with all Members of this House and the other House who took part in it. The very fact that the Commission has done its work speedily means that we can consider its recommendations for the banking Bill going before Parliament. Of course, allocation of time is a matter for the Leader of the House to make clear in his statement. The right hon. Gentleman has my commitment that over the course of the Bill’s scrutiny—it will go to the Lords and then come back to the Commons—there will be proper time to consider all the Commission’s recommendations and, if necessary, for the Government to draft changes in order to implement them. It is a parliamentary commission, which is what I wanted it to be, and it is of course right that Parliament should consider its report in detail.

In 2007, 50% of UK gilts were purchased by insurance companies and pension funds. Last year the figure had fallen to 22%, the lion’s share of UK gilts now being bought by the Bank of England. Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that we are funding public sector overspend by having one branch of the state write out IOUs for another? Can that be sustained?

The arrangements for quantitative easing are well established, and the decisions on whether to increase asset purchases are within the envelope that I set for the independent Monetary Policy Committee. I think that an active monetary policy has helped sustain demand over the past few years. It is anchored in a credible fiscal policy, the next stage of which we will set out tomorrow.

It is six months since the Banking Commission’s first report warned against a delay in ring-fencing, so it is disappointing that the ring-fencing of the banks might not be fully implemented until 2019. Can the Chancellor give one guarantee today—that the markets division of RBS, and comparable departments in other large banks, will be outside the retail ring fence and not liable to taxpayer assistance when the new rules are in place?

First, the timetable is one that John Vickers and his commission themselves proposed. Secondly, it is not for me to make individual decisions about individual banks; that is for the boards of those banks and, of course, the regulator. But the whole purpose is to insulate the retail bank from things that go wrong in the investment bank and, above all, to make it possible for the person doing my job to be able to resolve the retail bank and keep the retail operations going without having to bail out the investment banking arm. Indeed, that whole problem of “too big to fail” is something we need to deal with.

It is the Government’s policy that, to cover cutting the Army to its smallest size since the battle of Waterloo, people should be encouraged to join the reserves. Leading by example, will the Chancellor of the Exchequer say how many members of his staff have joined the Territorial Army since January this year?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the answer is none. He is passionate about the issue, which he has raised before. I can also confirm that the Treasury implements the policy of the Government—to make sure that all reservists who request a 10-day special leave on a paid basis get it.

On infrastructure investment, there is widespread disquiet—including in the National Audit Office, it seems—about the management of the Government’s broadband investment programme. Does the Chancellor agree that it is essential to harness competition effectively in delivering infrastructure investment?

Our programme of investment in rural broadband is being delivered in every part of the United Kingdom, and it is on track for delivery. We continue to look at the capability of Government Departments to deliver infrastructure projects effectively. My noble Friend the Commercial Secretary to the Treasury has been undertaking a review of these matters and will set out the conclusions shortly.

This morning, it was Labour party policy to cut pensions to spend more on welfare. We have just heard that the party now supports the triple lock. Is the Chancellor optimistic that by tea time it might support our policy on controlled welfare spending? [Interruption.]

The hon. Lady was very difficult to hear because there was so much noise from the Opposition Benches, but fewer than 10 minutes ago I stressed that questions should be about the policies of the Government, not the Opposition. It is a pity to finish on a bad note, but Members really ought to establish the right habit early in their parliamentary careers. We will, I am afraid, have to leave it there. This is a box office occasion, and demand tends to exceed supply.