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Volume 567: debated on Tuesday 10 September 2013

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—


1. What recent comparative assessment he has made of trends in real wages in the UK and in similar economies. (900219)

The hon. Gentleman asks about trends in real wages. The main deterioration in wages and salaries was from 2007 to 2009 when growth fell from 5.7% to minus 0.6%. This is a vivid reminder of the damage that the great recession did. The Government have taken continued action to help with the cost of living so that last year real household disposable income grew by 1.4%, the fastest growth for three years. Of course, however, these remain difficult times for families, and the only way to deliver improved living standards for the long term is a sustained, balanced economic recovery with low mortgage rates, more jobs and more income tax-free. Our economic plan is delivering that. The Opposition’s plan for more spending and more borrowing would make things worse.

Well, that is one of the most vacuous answers I have ever heard, and that is against some very stiff competition. In the past three years real wages in this country have fallen lower than in any G20 country bar one—we are second from bottom. For how long is that going to be sustainable?

Let us be clear: this country had one of the deepest recessions of any of the countries in the G20 or anywhere else. We had one of the biggest banking crises and our country has had to recover from that, but I point out that in the hon. Gentleman’s own constituency there are now 12,000 more people in work than at the time of the election, and unemployment is down by a third.

What contribution has real wage restraint in the private sector made to the surprisingly low level of insolvencies in the UK compared with our competitors, which is now enabling more firms to take advantage of the recovery than would otherwise be the case?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that wage restraint in the private sector and the public sector has helped preserve jobs during the economic shock that we experienced under the previous Government. That is partly a credit to the labour market flexibility of the policies that previous Governments introduced in the 1980s and early 1990s and the last Government did not reverse. The wage restraint has helped us preserve more jobs than would otherwise have been the case in the public sector, which is why at least until recently it was supported by the Labour party.

23. Will the Chancellor confirm, however, that after three years of flatlining growth and with prices still rising faster than wages, working people are on average £1,500 a year worse off than in 2010? (900242)

People have been helped with their low mortgage rates which our credible economic policy is delivering. They are helped by the increase in the personal allowance—£600 this year, £700 next year. They will be helped by our tax-free child care, but above all they are helped by an economy that is turning the corner. The worst thing for living standards, the worst thing for household incomes, would be a return to the disastrous economic policies of the Labour party.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the trend in real wages further emphasises the need to hold down social security spending?

Of course, the key thing about social security and welfare is that it should encourage people into work. One of the remarkable achievements of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is that the number of workless households is now at a record low in this country. That is a huge achievement. Since the Opposition have been raising all these questions about living standards and wages, perhaps they would like to hear what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne), a member of their shadow Cabinet, has been saying. He said:

“From 2004 onwards…families on ‘median incomes’—millions of workers—…were feeling the strain…people were working just as hard as ever—but were not getting on”.

He presented his findings to the Cabinet in 2010 but they got buried:

“We picked it up too late. It was very late in the day, is the truth”.

The truth is that working families have paid the price for the three years of flatlining under this Chancellor. Prices have risen faster than wages for 37 of the 38 months that he has been in office. I have a quiz question for the Chancellor this morning. Can he tell the House which one of those 38 months is the odd one out and why?

First, may I welcome the hon. Lady back and congratulate her and her husband Nick on the birth of their baby, Anna?

There has been wage restraint in the public sector, but I thought that, as shadow Chief Secretary, the hon. Lady supported that. When she gave her speech about fiscal discipline before going on maternity leave, she supported wage restraint in the public sector. I am not clear whether she has changed her policy.

The right hon. Gentleman obviously does not get the bonus point. He might find the truth embarrassing, but I must tell the House that the only month in which real wages rose was the month when bank bonuses soared by 80%, as the highest paid took advantage of his tax cut for millionaires. Rather than cutting taxes for the richest, why does he not help families facing the cost of living crisis on his watch?

When the shadow Chancellor was the City Minister, bank bonuses were £14 billion a year. They are now a fraction of that. Indeed, the income tax rate in every year of this Government is higher than in any year of the previous Government. By the way, inequality is now at its lowest level in this country since 1986. We have taken difficult decisions and tough action to ensure that our economy turns the corner. All those things were opposed by the Labour party, but as a result, because of low mortgage rates, because of the large tax-free allowance and because we are creating jobs in the economy, we can hold out the prospect of an improvement in the long-term living standards of the British people.

Does the Chancellor agree that taking 2.7 million taxpayers out of income tax through a higher allowance—a Liberal Democrat policy—will help improve living standards?

It is a policy being delivered by a Conservative Chancellor and a Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary. The hon. Gentleman is right that together we have taken millions of the low-paid out of income tax. Of course, that is also delivering a tax cut to 25 million working people, and there is more to come next April. It is one of the ways that, by securing the economic recovery and having credible policies with the public finances, we can help people by, for example, increasing the tax-free allowance.

Family Incomes

The Government have published distribution analysis for all our fiscal policies at each fiscal event, and we are the first Government to do so. The most recent assessment was at the 2013 spending review, and the analysis showed that the richest 20% of households continue to make the greatest contribution to reducing the deficit, both in cash terms and as a percentage of their income.

I thank the Minister for that reply, although he completely failed to talk about the real issue that I was hoping to raise: the extent to which ordinary families are being hit incredibly hard by the Government’s policies. We are hearing from Citizens Advice that inquiries about food banks have risen by 78% over the past six months, and one in four families is having to borrow to provide school uniforms. What are the Government doing about those real issues affecting real people?

I must say that if the hon. Lady is genuinely interested in the challenges that families face, she should recognise the causes: Labour’s recession, the deepest in our post-war history; Labour’s record budget deficit, the deepest in our post-war history; and Labour’s bank bail-outs, the largest the world has ever seen.

With working families’ incomes on average 1,500 quid down and millionaires taking tax cuts, does the Minister really think that we are all in this together?

As the hon. Lady has already heard, all millionaires will be paying a higher tax rate under this Government than they did for the whole 13 years that the Labour party was in power. She should also welcome the tax cut we provided for the lowest income families, 25 million people, with 2.7 million taken out of taxation altogether. I note that the Labour party has recently talked about reintroducing the 10p tax rate, which they abolished. Well, I have news for it: all those people are now paying a 0% tax rate on that income.

The Times leads this morning on yet another banking scandal that has cost savers in this country billions of pounds. At the same time, bonuses in the financial sector have risen by 90% and ordinary families are really struggling. It is simply not working, so when will the Government step in and do something about the regular obscenities in the banking industry?

The hon. Lady should look up the facts. Bank bonuses reached their peak when the shadow Chancellor was City Minister; today they are almost one seventh of what they were at that time. The hon. Lady should welcome the measures we have taken to help working families. They have helped reduce interest rates and keep mortgage rates low, meaning that the average family with the average mortgage are paying £2,000 less per year than they did under the previous Government.

If it had not been for the Government’s council tax freeze, and if council tax had continued to rise on the trajectory set under the previous Government, the average bill would now be £200 higher. Does the Minister agree that the steps taken by the Government are helping hard-working families keep their council tax bills down?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That council tax freeze is helping families up and down the country, as are many other measures we have taken, such as the cap on rail fares.

Household debt peaked in 2008 at 170% of household income. Since then it has come down, but households are still very vulnerable to rising interest rates. Does my hon. Friend agree that any fiscal policy must give comfort to the bond markets in order to help the Governor of the Bank of England keep interest rates low and mitigate the effect of rising rates on households?

My hon. Friend is obviously referring to the fact that when this Government came to office, we had the biggest deficit in our post-war history. The previous Government were borrowing £5,000 a second—£300,000 each and every minute. We have reduced that deficit by a third and, as my hon. Friend suggests, that has brought confidence, investment and jobs.

Does my hon. Friend worry, as I do, that the worst outcomes for children are in those families where nobody is working? If so, is he as delighted as I am that our economy has generated 1.25 million new private sector jobs since 2010, thereby improving the prospects of millions of children?

My hon. Friend correctly highlights that the best way out of poverty is through work. As she says, the private sector has generated almost 1.3 million jobs over the past three years. In fact, it is the fastest rate of job creation in the G7.

17. The Chancellor said recently that he knew that times were tough and that family budgets were being squeezed. Why, therefore, did this Government choose to prioritise a tax cut for those on the 50% rate? (900235)

Perhaps the hon. Lady missed it, but we have made sure that the people who earn the most in our society are making the biggest contribution to the necessary measures we have to take to make sure that the country lives within its means. In each year of this Government, the richest will pay a higher tax rate than under the Government she supported.

Does the Minister agree that, come next April, a family where both parents earn wages will be £1,400 better off than they were in 2010, and that a child of theirs who works on the minimum wage—perhaps in the city centre of my constituency—will be lifted out of income tax altogether?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is a big boost to family incomes. In fact, someone on a minimum wage who is working full time will find that their tax bill is more than halved as a result of this Government’s policies.

The reality is that, because of this Government’s warped priorities, women are paying three times more than men to bring the deficit down. Will this all-male Treasury team explain how that is helping families manage the cost-of-living crisis?

The hon. Lady knows all about unemployment, because she is probably thinking about the record rise in unemployment that took place in her constituency during the last term of the Labour Government. That record rise included men and women. In all categories it has fallen under this Government, and today more people, including more women, are employed in Britain than at any time in our history.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the single most important contribution to household earnings is having a job? Has he seen the latest data that show that the claimant count is now lower than in May 2010, that there are 500,000 vacancies, and that five jobs are being created in the private sector for every one lost in the public sector, leading the ManpowerGroup to say that this is a “game-changing year” for the UK jobs market? Is it not the truth that plan A is working and plan B is redundant?

As always, my hon. Friend speaks the truth very eloquently. The economy is growing. Of course there is a lot more work to do, but there is plenty of evidence that we have turned a corner.

Child Poverty

The Government have protected vulnerable groups as far as possible while urgently taking action to tackle the record deficit we inherited. Work remains the best and the most immediate way out of poverty, and the Budget took action to support families and make the tax and welfare system simpler, including further increases in the income tax allowance to take 2.7 million people on low incomes out of tax altogether.

The chief executive of Citizens Advice, commenting on the huge rise in inquiries about food banks, said:

“The combined impact of welfare upheaval, cuts to public spending, low wages and the high cost of living are putting unbearable pressure on many households, forcing them to seek emergency help putting food on the table.”

Is the Minister concerned by this evidence, which is backed up by the recent statistic showing that 300,000 children have been pushed into absolute poverty since this Government took office?

The hon. Lady did a lot of good work with Citizens Advice before she came to this House, so I think she shares with me a genuine interest in child poverty. If that is the case, she will recognise that the existing measure for child poverty is flawed. It is based on relative incomes and it produces perverse results. For example, according to that measure, during the previous recession—Labour’s recession, the deepest in our post-war history—child poverty fell by 300,000. The hon. Lady knows that that cannot be right, so if she wants to work with me to help develop a measure that actually works, I would welcome that.

Despite the Minister’s divisive rhetoric about benefits, two thirds of all children living in poverty have one or more parents in work, not out of work. Does he not accept that his inaction on prices and wages is not just hammering those young people but hammering the rest of us as well?

Work remains the best and the most immediate way out of poverty. The hon. Gentleman will be concerned that his constituency saw a 72% rise in unemployment during Labour’s last term in office. It has now fallen under this Government. He is rightly concerned about workless households, so he should welcome the fact that the number of children living in workless households is at an all-time low—the lowest since records began in 1996.

Thirty-two per cent. of Nottingham children live in poverty compared with a national average of 20%, and we have the worst affected local authority in the east midlands. For all the Government’s warm words on early intervention, the city’s early intervention grant has been cut by £2.8 million. Is it not the case that across the country this Government’s policies are making child poverty worse?

I have taken five questions from Opposition Members so far, and not one of them has mentioned plan B; I wonder why. It is not very nice for Mr B. The best way to deal with poverty is by tackling the causes of poverty, and work remains the best way out of poverty. The hon. Lady should welcome the fact that jobs are growing at a record rate in our country, with 1.3 million jobs generated in the private sector in three years and more people employed than at any other time in our history.

By any modern measure, my childhood was one of poverty, and strictly speaking I was homeless. The route out of poverty was provided by the creation of a sound economic environment and a belief in economic optimism. Does the Minister agree that that is as pertinent today as it was 30 years ago?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. One of the many things we share in common, apart from both being west midlands MPs, is that by the official measure I was also homeless as a child. I agree with his assessment that the best way out of poverty is through work and a growing economy.

Another excellent way out of poverty is giving children from disadvantaged backgrounds the best education possible. How many children are benefiting from the £2.5 billion that has been put into the pupil premium, which will, in the long term, boost their educational chances and their chances of obtaining work?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise education as another way of tackling the causes of poverty. Thousands of children up and down the country are benefiting from the pupil premium and the further educational reforms that are taking place, not least the focus we put on apprenticeships.

Is not the real truth about child poverty the fact that median hourly pay rose by only 0.3% a year between 2003 and 2008? The only real answer for the United Kingdom economy is for it to be a high-skill, high-value-added economy. Our school reforms, and in particular our poverty-busting university technical colleges, are the answer to the problem.

The question is about fiscal policy, so a very brief reply will suffice. We are grateful to the Minister.

Despite taking action to ensure the country starts living within its means again, the Government have found money in their budget, because of their fiscal policy, to spend on schools and education, and ensure we increase skills. That includes building more university technology colleges and pledging more funding to do so.

21. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, by 2020 an additional 1.1 million children will be living in poverty, which will completely wipe out the reduction in the number of children living in poverty made under Labour. Why do the Government’s choices give tax breaks to millionaires and send more children into poverty? (900239)

I am sure the hon. Lady knows that the best way out of poverty is through increased pay and employment. I therefore do not understand why she does not welcome the fact that jobs are being created at a record rate throughout the economy, including in her constituency where I note that during Labour’s last term, youth unemployment rocketed by 120%. It is down by 14% under this Government.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the way out of poverty is to work. Does he agree that by reskilling people we can ensure that British people fill highly skilled jobs, and not rely on mass immigration to fill the skills gap?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The best way to get more British people into British jobs is to ensure they have the skills to do those jobs. That is exactly what the Government are focused on.

Families up and down the UK who are struggling with the cost of living simply will not recognise the rosy picture that the Minister is painting. Is the reality not shown in a recent report from the Child Poverty Action Group and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which states that changes brought in by this Government mean that families on low wages now have less than they need for a minimum acceptable living standard? That failure is on this Minister’s watch. Is it a record he is proud of?

It is not clear what the hon. Lady is proposing. Is she saying that she is against some of the changes we have made on welfare? Is she pledging more spending, more borrowing, and more debt? The Labour party need a policy on those issues. Our policies are clear: to deal with poverty we are focused on trying to generate even more growth. The economy has turned a corner; there is more to do but jobs are being generated in Britain at a record rate.

Land Tax

The Government have no plans to introduce a land value tax at this time. In our view, the complexity and cost of administering such a tax, and, more importantly, the likelihood of a significant increase in tax bills for many council tax payers, particularly those such as pensioners with liquid assets, means that such a proposal is not tenable.

I thank the Minister for his response, but given that we have massive increases in house prices, massive increases in the value of farmland and builders and supermarkets land-banking and pushing up the price of land, and given that 1% of the population own 69% of our total land mass, is it not time for action? Do we not need a land tax?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that some of the construction numbers of late are much more encouraging, and the Government are taking action to improve house building, including our Help to Buy proposal. Believe it or not, not every problem this country faces can be solved by another tax.

Small Businesses

This year the Government are taking further steps to help small businesses. We have increased the investment allowance tenfold, and from next April we will introduce a new employment allowance worth £2,000 for every small employer, taking around one third of small employers out of employer national insurance contributions altogether. From next Monday we will help small businesses get the best deal from their banks by guaranteeing that they can switch their accounts within seven days. That service will also be available to families, which is real choice and competition in banking being introduced by the Government.

I thank the Chancellor for that answer. I know he will want to welcome the new business centre I opened recently in the centre of Winchester, which is part of our plans to find and develop new start-ups. That is all happening in the light of increased business confidence, increased takings and reduced vacancies on the high street. Will he therefore join me in backing Winchester city council, which is working strongly in partnership with the business improvement district to help drive recovery in my area?

I certainly welcome that. I met members of my hon. Friend’s local authority who came to Downing street to tell me about the business improvement district. That involves the local council, the local MP and local businesses working together to attract jobs and investment to Winchester. I congratulate him on the leadership he has shown.

In the past year, 502 small businesses have been set up in my constituency, which is a 12.6% increase on the previous year. Does the Chancellor agree that further extending rate relief to new small businesses will both help them and inspire other people to set up new businesses in the economically vibrant part of the world that I have the privilege to represent?

We have had rate relief for small businesses—I have announced that in previous fiscal statements, and my hon. Friend must wait for further announcements—but we are also helping businesses with the employment allowance. That major change in the tax system means we are taking a third of small businesses out of employer NICs. Four hundred and fifty thousand small businesses will benefit, which I hope is welcomed on both sides of the House.

Given the need to underpin local economies, what progress has been made toward reviewing the current approval criteria for a simplified import VAT accounting scheme? That would enable new businesses, but particularly import businesses, to be underpinned.

I will write to the hon. Lady on her specific point, to which I do not currently have an answer. However, more broadly, the Government are open to ways in which to make the VAT system and the business tax system simpler. We have created the Office of Tax Simplification, which has specifically looked at the burden on small businesses. I will take what she says as a submission.

I wonder whether I could yank the Chancellor out of his complacency for one moment. Is he aware that, in the year since the funding for lending scheme was announced, lending to small and medium-sized businesses is, on the most recent figures, negative? Is he aware that that is symptomatic of a broader failure on investment under his reign?

Gross lending is up under the funding for lending scheme, which we operate jointly with the Bank of England. We are aware of the specific challenge of small business finance, which is why, just before the summer, with the previous Governor, we launched a focus of the scheme on small business funding.

The hon. Gentleman says investment is failing under this Government. He is an MP from the midlands. Given his personal history, I would have thought he would welcome the announcement by Jaguar Land Rover of the 1,700 jobs being created in Solihull. As he well knows, four years ago there was a choice of closing either Castle Bromwich or Solihull. Not only are both open, but a huge investment in the new technology of ultra-light cars is coming along with 1,700 new jobs. The hon. Gentleman is a midlands MP and used to work for the company, so I would have thought he would welcome that.

19. I met the Braintree district business forum last week. The feedback was very positive—the economy is turning around and demand for business is growing—but, as businesses grow, they face a working capital squeeze. What are the Government doing to enable businesses to access working capital more easily? (900237)

The business bank is up and running, and £300 million is in the market to help support small business lending. My hon. Friend has gone around the country promoting some of the investment tax breaks we have provided, such as the seed investment tax break, which provides that crucial, early-stage capital so that the many businesses now being created have the money to grow.

I am glad the Chancellor mentioned the banks. The small businesses in my constituency report that the predatory and risk-averse nature of the banks is still their biggest problem. One particular company has large contracts, including one in Parliament, which the banks have funded and which has just got started on time—the company is tooling up. However, the bank is now talking about stripping its assets and threatening its viability. What can the Chancellor do to stop banks in this country being so risk-averse and get them to support business?

That is a good question from the hon. Gentleman. The repair of the financial system perhaps remains one of our biggest domestic economic challenges. We are conducting a review of the future structure of the Royal Bank of Scotland and I will report back to Parliament this autumn on that specifically. More generally on the banking system, the funding for lending scheme, as a monetary intervention, has helped to support lending. Account switching, which will be possible from next Monday as the result of Government pressure, will help small firms to change their bank account much more easily and, as a result, get a better service.

20. Unemployment in Brighton Kemptown is falling, although there is still much to do. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the £2,000 cut in jobs tax will help small businesses in Brighton take on more staff and get even more people into work? (900238)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not just jobs that are being created in Brighton; there has been an increase in the number of businesses being created, too. Employment allowance is coming in and people will see that as a real way of helping small businesses with the cost of labour. That should help them employ more people and help the people who are already employed. That is just one example of what we are doing to ensure that this is a balanced private sector recovery, and that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs expects businesses to provide real-time information, which a lot of small businesses find either very difficult or impossible to do. What help will be put in place to ensure that they are able to move on to the new system? Even if universal credit eventually comes into being, it will depend on that information.

Some 90% of businesses are on real-time information. Of course, the transition to any new system is a challenge, but the new system will be much easier for small businesses, and all businesses, to keep an accurate account of their tax payments, and that will help them. We have phased it in so that small businesses, in particular, have time to prepare. This is a real improvement on a tax system that was many decades old and had not kept up with modern technology.

Will the Chancellor consider abolishing business rates for small retail establishments, and to make that fiscally neutral by putting a levy on out-of-town car parks?

I am not sure about the out-of-town car park part of the question, because I want to encourage retail and employment wherever they happen. We are aware of the challenge on our high streets, particularly for small retailers. The Government have, in previous Budgets and autumn statements, extended relief from business rates for small businesses, which has meant that many of the smallest firms do not pay business rates. I will take the suggestion as a good submission for a future fiscal statement.

Mortgage Guarantee Scheme

The Government are making good progress in working with mortgage lenders to introduce the mortgage guarantee scheme from January 2014. The scheme would allow people who can afford repayments on a mortgage but do not have a large deposit to own their own home.

The dangers of feeding a housing bubble are real. According to the Office for National Statistics, house price inflation in Greater London is four times higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister confirm his assessment as to the extent that funds spent on the scheme in Greater London will exceed their pro rata share, based on the UK’s population?

The scheme comes into effect in January. Government Members believe that home ownership should not be reserved for the well-off and the children of the well-off, which is why we are introducing this measure. The average deposit has risen to 79% of the income of a first-time buyer. That is why we are introducing the scheme: we are determined to help ordinary working people who want to own their own home.

I recently met a constituent who purchased a one-bedroom flat at the height of the boom when she was single. She is now married and expecting her first child. They are desperate to move but are in negative equity and cannot move, despite having two good incomes and good savings. Will the mortgage guarantee scheme offer a positive solution for my constituents, and how can they access the scheme?

Yes it will. The scheme is available to purchasers who already own their own home but want to move to a bigger one, perhaps because, like my hon. Friend’s constituents, they have had children. They are currently trapped in the home they have bought, and that is why the scheme we are introducing is important. It will allow people who can afford to pay the mortgage to achieve their dream of home ownership.

The mortgage guarantee scheme does nothing to help housing supply. In those circumstances, many organisations suggest that the scheme will be inflationary. What is the Minister doing to reassure those who are concerned that the scheme will increase house price inflation?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that the scheme has done nothing to encourage supply; 10,000 homes have been started under the current scheme. The Home Builders Federation itself has said that a lack of affordable mortgage availability remains the biggest constraint on housing supply. That is a problem; we are solving it.

Foreign-based Companies (Corporation Tax)

7. What his policy is on the payment of corporation tax by foreign-based companies; and if he will make a statement. (900225)

The Government are committed to creating the most competitive corporation tax regime in the G20 to support investment that drives economic growth. We want a system that is stable and fair with all companies abiding by the rules and making their contribution. We are cutting the rate to 20% by 2015, clamping down on avoidance and aggressive tax planning and driving forward multilateral efforts to modernise the international tax framework.

Will my hon. Friend join me in celebrating the water industry, a flagship industry since its privatisation over 20 years ago? Will he explain to the House the benefit to consumers of deferring corporation tax against current foreign investment received?

We need investment in infrastructure, including water and my hon. Friend is right to highlight the work being done on that. We want a tax system that ensures that everybody pays their fair share, but also encourages that type of investment.

Tax Avoidance

The Government continue to make strong progress on tackling tax avoidance. Following on from our announcement at Budget 2013, we have introduced the UK’s first general anti-abuse rule, which will act as a significant deterrent to abusive avoidance. We have completed our consultations on avoidance using partnership rules and the use of offshore intermediaries, and we have just launched a consultation on new information requirements and penalties for the promoters of tax avoidance schemes.

I would like to wish the hon. Member for Amber Valley (Nigel Mills) good luck for his forthcoming wedding. I trust all will go as smoothly as his question.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

I welcome the measures that the Minister has announced. My constituents want to see everyone paying the tax they owe on their income. Does the Minister think that any measures are required to make sure that trade unions do that as well?

First, I add to the words of Mr Speaker and, perhaps, wish good luck to my hon. Friend’s future wife. He draws attention to a story that we have seen in the last few days: allegations of tax avoidance against Unite and against Labour. Maybe the links between the two are closer than we realised.

While it is right that we all press down on active tax avoiders, a number of small businesses that find themselves categorised as such are simply unable to pay the correct amount. Does the Minister think that the average of 29 minutes that it can take for the Revenue to answer a telephone call, the fact that the tax code has reached 11,500 pages, the closure of local offices and the reduction in Revenue headcount—things for which he is responsible—might be contributing to this, at least in some way?

On support for small businesses, HMRC has in place a time-to-pay arrangement. On the service that is provided by HMRC, it is always seeking to improve and deal with telephone calls and letters as efficiently as possible. But we have to bear in mind that the yield that HMRC is bringing in is increasing by £10 billion over the course of this Parliament. HMRC’s performance on phone calls and letters is better than it was when we came to office. It has made considerable progress and that should be acknowledged.


15. What recent assessment he has made of the contribution to the economy made by the manufacturing sector. (900233)

Manufacturing output grew in the most recent quarter by 0.7%, contributing to the growth of the economy as a whole. Growth was broadly based. In June, output increased in all 13 of the published manufacturing sectors, the first time that this has happened since 1992. The whole House will welcome today’s news that Jaguar Land Rover is to create a further 1,700 new jobs in the west midlands and 24,000 jobs in the supply chain.

I thank the Minister very much for that answer. Does he agree that the news that manufacturing output has increased to its highest level in 20 years, as exemplified by firms such as Renishaw, Xograph and Delphi in my constituency, represents a good start to the rebalancing of the British economy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to him for doing his bit in an important cluster of manufacturing businesses in Stroud. He has invented and promoted the festival of manufacturing and engineering in Stroud, which will take place between 11 and 15 November, helping to give a further boost to the already successful companies in Gloucestershire.

According to the Office for National Statistics, Corby is the manufacturing capital of the UK, but over the past three years our businesses have survived despite this Government’s policies not because of them. Will the Minister look again at the decision to pick winners in the boat-building industry and not to award money from the regional growth fund to my local firm, Fairline Boats?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong in his assessment. He failed to say that the 13% collapse in manufacturing happened during the last three years of the previous Government. In the first three years of this Government, it has recovered. He mentioned the regional growth fund—paying tribute, I assume, to another successful intervention, which has helped firms such as JLR and will help others, including in the east midlands.

National Infrastructure Plan

The Government will invest £300 billion over the next Parliament on infrastructure projects, including a pipeline worth more than £100 billion, and covering investment in transport, schools, science, housing and flood defences.

Since the Government took office, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost in the construction sector. I am deeply concerned that more than 80% of the Treasury’s infrastructure projects have not yet even started. Can the Minister explain to the House why there has been such a delay and what he will do to kick-start the process?

It is interesting that the hon. Lady did not mention the Armitt review, which was set up by the shadow Chancellor. Perhaps it is because Mr Armitt concluded that there was an economic crisis when this Government took office and she does not want to draw attention to it. However, she will be reassured to know that the Government take infrastructure investment very seriously. It is a top priority, which is why public investment under this Government is higher in each year of this Parliament than under the previous Government’s plans, as well as being higher as a percentage of national income.

A crucial part of our national infrastructure is broadband for the 21st century. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Worcestershire county council on its excellent plans to put 90% of homes and businesses on superfast broadband?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to what is a hugely important plan for the residents of Worcestershire, which includes my constituents in Bromsgrove. We are right to make that investment, because it will make a real difference.

Income Tax

18. What estimate he has made of the annual value of the reduction in the additional rate of income tax to 45% to a person earning £1 million per annum. (900236)

The cost of reducing the additional rate of income tax to 45% is set out in table 2.2 of Budget 2013. We have not broken down the impacts on individuals by income ranges because of the significant behavioural response associated with the additional rate of income tax. The behavioural response is estimated in aggregate and reflected in the costing.

Yesterday, yet another food bank opened, in Methil in my constituency. Fifty volunteers are doing an exceptional job in difficult circumstances. One of the volunteers asked me, “Why has the Chancellor prioritised tax cuts for the very rich, instead of using the revenue to alleviate family poverty in our society, and in Methil in particular?”

I would hope that the hon. Gentleman said in response that in the 2012 Budget we saw increases in stamp duty on high-value properties and a clampdown on tax allowances and reliefs for the wealthiest, all of which raised far more from the wealthiest than the 50p rate, which was failing to raise revenue.

Topical Questions

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that extensive answer. He was boasting yesterday that he had saved the country, while we have people struggling with electricity bills, transport costs and food prices are up, people on the same wages are getting less and less for their money, and zero-hours jobs mean that people cannot get a mortgage or a loan, unless it is a payday loan. What would the Chancellor say to those people?

I could give a more extensive answer and point out that, in Glasgow North West, which the hon. Gentleman represents in this Parliament, the claimant count is down this year and employment is up. In other words, we are turning the corner and putting right what went so disastrously wrong under the previous Government.

We have now had 50 minutes of this Treasury Question Time, and we are hunting for a Labour economic policy. We have not heard one advocated yet; maybe we will get one soon.

T2. Many of my constituents have been adversely affected by the troubles at Equitable Life. May I please ask the Chancellor, on their behalf, for an update on the Government’s position? (900209)

I said in the Budget that we would make special ex gratia payments to Equitable Life policy holders who had bought their with-profits annuity before 1992. I said that we would try to make those payments as soon as possible, and I am pleased to be able to tell the House and the constituents of my hon. Friend, who represents them so well, that we can make those payments in this financial year, rather than in the next one as we originally predicted. We will shortly be writing to those annuitants with more information, but I can confirm that they will receive the money directly, without having to make an application. We are doing this not because we are legally obliged to do it but because, quite simply, it is the right thing to do.

On growth, on living standards, on the deficit, on every test that the Chancellor set himself, his economic plan has failed. Since 2010, growth has been not 6.9% but 1.8%, families have been worse off not better off, and the deficit has not gone down to £60 billion but is stuck at £120 billion. How on earth can the Chancellor now claim that his economic plan has worked? After three wasted and damaging years, does he not realise that he cannot just airbrush out his failure?

The shadow Chancellor cannot airbrush out his predictions. He said:

“Britain’s double-dip recession is even deeper than first thought”,

but there was no double-dip recession. He also said that it was a “complete fantasy” that private sector job creation would replace losses in the public sector, but it has done so three times over. And three months ago, he said that our policy would choke off the recovery. The fact is that he cannot stand the fact that the economy is recovering and his plan would have been a disaster. Let us fear that the predictions about his own future in the shadow Cabinet turn out to be more accurate than his predictions about the British economy.

Three years ago, this Chancellor did choke off the economic recovery. That is what happened, and his arrogant complacency will jar with millions of ordinary families who, even with growth returning at last, are still worse off because of his failing plan. Let me ask him who is benefiting from his policies. Can he confirm what the Office for National Statistics reported last month—namely, that the incomes of the highest earners were boosted in April because they delayed receiving their bonuses by a month in order to benefit from the tax cut for people earning more than £150,000 a year? The wealthy might be celebrating with the Chancellor, but everyone else thinks that he is completely out of touch.

I hope this is not our last encounter across the Dispatch Box, because we are enjoying this. We are enjoying the fact that the shadow Chancellor simply does not admit to the mistakes he made, not only in office but in opposition. He is increasingly like Monty Python’s black knight defending that bridge. When unemployment falls, he says that it is but a scratch; when business confidence rises, he says, “I’ve had worse”; the recovery—it is just a flesh wound. The limbs are falling off his economic argument, and it would be a comedy if it were not for the fact that Labour’s economic policies were a tragedy for this country.

T6. Next week, along with the university of Chester riverside innovation centre, I am organising a small business fair in Chester to try to encourage people to set up their own small businesses. Will my right hon. Friend the Chancellor tell us what the Government are doing to encourage people to set up their own businesses and create jobs in addition to the 1.3 million that have already been created in the private sector? (900213)

There is a record number of business start-ups in this country at the moment, and I congratulate the business community and people in Chester who want to set up their own business. We are doing everything we can to support them. The new employment allowance will help many hundreds of businesses in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Together, as Cheshire MPs, we can of course make a broader argument that Cheshire is a great place to invent.

T3. To sustain strong economic growth, to restore full employment and to support manufacturing for the long term, it is vital to establish an appropriate exchange rate. Does the Chancellor accept that case and, if so, what is he doing about it? (900210)

I make it a practice, like previous Chancellors, not to comment on the exchange rate, but let me make a broader point about monetary policy. At the Budget, I set a remit for the Bank of England to consider the use of forward guidance. Since we last met, the Monetary Policy Committee has, of course, made an independent judgment to take that up and has made a very clear statement about the future path of interest rates.

T7. Does my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agree that manufacturing surging to a three-year high and investment intentions rising to a six-year high show that this Government are committed to securing a balanced economy? (900214)

My hon. Friend, who is my constituency neighbour, knows as I do that manufacturing businesses are doing better now. Orders are up and exports, particularly to the new emerging markets, are up. In Daresbury in my hon. Friend’s constituency, we are committed to making sure that the manufacturing businesses at the cutting edge of technology get support, and we will continue to do that.

T4. I congratulate the Chancellor on his comedy haircut, but let me tell him that his policies are not very funny for people in my constituency, who are at least £1,500 a year worse off than they were in 2010. Does he accept that a certain few at the top are better off under his policies? (900211)

I have not heard in the 54 minutes of these questions either an apology for what happened under the Labour Government or a single economic policy being advanced. If the Labour party is against our welfare cuts or spending cuts, let it have the courage to get up and say that it would reverse them. We have not heard that at all in this questions session.

T8. My right hon. Friend is well aware that 80% of the employment in my constituency comes from the private sector. Will he tell us his plans for increasing private sector involvement in the economy and for giving that vital sector some support? (900215)

Of course one of the key things as the economy recovers is not to make the mistakes of the past and not to have the unbalanced economy that we had before the financial crash, when, for example, even in the boom years, private sector employment fell in some regions such as west midlands. What we must do in my hon. Friend’s constituency and elsewhere is support small businesses that are starting up, get the capital to the small businesses that want to expand and encourage the big companies to invest. In all those areas, there is positive news, but we have to stick at it.

T5. Yesterday, the Chancellor said that those who opposed austerity had lost the argument, but wages are falling, child poverty is increasing and he is presiding over the slowest economic recovery in over 100 years. Unless the Chancellor is living in cloud cuckoo land or residing on planet Zog, he will surely admit that his record of economic competence has been less than satisfactory— (900212)

On planet earth, we inherited an economic mess, and we are putting it right. As I say, if Labour Members are serious about advocating an alternative economic plan, perhaps they would tell us today—perhaps someone will stand up and tell us—whether they oppose our spending cuts and would reverse them. We have not heard that today.

T9. Will my right hon. Friend continue his support for specific major infrastructure projects such as superfast broadband, rail electrification and High Speed 2, which should begin to address the divide between north and south that grew so much wider under the previous Government? (900216)

I strongly agree with what my fellow north-west MP has said. I think that investment in infrastructure is important, whether it is investment in superfast broadband for rural areas in Lancashire, investment in the northern rail hub—which, although it was campaigned for by parties on all sides in the north of England for years under the last Government, did not happen then, but is happening under this Government —or, indeed, investment in High Speed 2, which will help to change the economic geography of the country, and will ensure that all parts of it benefit from the economic recovery. I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend: those things need to go ahead.

T10. What assessment has the Chancellor made of the impact of zero-hours contracts on the health and well-being of British workers, and also on the consumer confidence of the hundreds of thousands of workers who are on such contracts? (900217)

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is investigating zero-hours contracts. It is seeking to establish whether there is abuse, and, if there is abuse, what we should do about it.

The Labour party seems to have suddenly discovered this issue. I do not remember a single Minister ever raising it when Labour were in government. Moreover, a number of Labour councils use zero-hours contracts.

Although the economy is improving, I am afraid that the same cannot be said of the deputy Chancellor—[Interruption.]

Yes—you! [Laughter.]

Given that Sir John Vickers has just warned us that British banks are still seriously under-capitalised, does my right hon. Friend now accept that ring fencing, whether electrified or not, cannot be relied on to provide adequate protection for depositors and businesses in the event of another banking crisis? Will he therefore give further thought to the proposal, supported by Mr Paul Volcker and Lord Lawson, for the total separation of the commercial and investment banking sectors?

I will grant the right hon. Gentleman an Adjournment debate on the matter if he judges it to be necessary after he has heard the reply to his question. We shall see—but I am grateful to him.

Let me say first that the shadow Chancellor was in effect the deputy Chancellor for 13 years, when the economy became so unbalanced and we experienced the biggest crash in modern history.

My right hon. Friend raised a serious question about the separation of retail and investment banking and about, in effect, Glass–Steagall-like reforms or a Volcker rule in the United Kingdom. We asked John Vickers— whom he mentioned—to look into the issue, along with a serious commission of experienced people, and they concluded that ring-fencing retail banks was a better solution. That is what we are legislating for, and it shows that we are learning from the mistakes of what went so badly wrong when that deputy Chancellor was in charge of the City.

As the Chancellor knows, a large number of small and medium-sized enterprises were let down by the conventional banking system. Many are finding that crowdfunding is a useful way of enabling them to start up and grow. Will he and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills be very cautious before introducing unnecessary regulation to curb crowdfunding, which is a good thing for most small businesses?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We want to see a great variety of sources of finance for small businesses. It is important for consumers and businesses to have confidence in those sources, and the Financial Conduct Authority is considering carefully rules that will strike precisely the balance to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Worse than the shadow Chancellor’s talking down of the British economy is the Labour party’s love of the jobs tax, which reduces employment, depresses wages and discourages enterprise. Will my right hon. Friend think about what he will do with the employment allowance next year, and see whether he can reduce it further so that we can reverse those trends?

I well remember my trip to Bedford with my hon. Friend before the 2010 election, when we were campaigning against the jobs tax which was the Labour Government’s solution to rising unemployment. This Government are adopting the opposite approach. We are taking taxes off jobs, and from next April there will be a new employment allowance that will help the many businesses in Bedford and throughout the country. That is just one example of what we are doing to fix what went so badly wrong.