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Topical Questions

Volume 567: debated on Tuesday 10 September 2013

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.