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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 570: debated on Tuesday 5 November 2013

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Energy Prices

1. What assessment the Office for Budget Responsibility has made of the effects on the economy of recent changes in energy prices. (900893)

The Office for Budget Responsibility has not published any assessment of the effects of the recent energy price increases on the economy. The OBR’s last published forecast, “Economic and fiscal outlook” was issued in March 2013, and an updated forecast will be provided alongside the autumn statement. The Government are committed to doing all we can to keep energy bills down to support hard-working families.

I welcome the hon. Lady to her post. Is she aware that last year wholesale energy prices rose by 1.7%, but energy bills by 9.1%? Is it not time that the Government stopped defending the big six energy companies and actually called for a freeze on prices while we reset the energy market?

It is very interesting to hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but the first thing he needs to do is explain to his constituents why he voted for the decarbonisation target, which is going to add £125 to energy bills. Secondly, it was the last Labour Government who created the big six. We started off with 20; they left us with the big six. Thirdly, this Government have set out very clearly how they will help households—by reviewing green levies, by encouraging switching, which I am pleased to see the Leader of the Opposition has taken up, and by increasing competition.

I, too, welcome the Minister to her post. She will know that one of the energy bills that my rural constituents have to struggle with is for petrol. Will she tell us whether the Office for Budget Responsibility has done an assessment of how much families are saving by our avoidance of the 13p fuel hike planned by the Labour party?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The OBR does an assessment of all taxes and their impact on the economy. The policies that this Government are pursuing in recognition of the pressures on household budgets mean that filling up the average car is costing families £7 less at the moment, and by the end of this Parliament it will cost them £10 less.

Does the Minister accept that the best answer to this question is to freeze energy prices? Surely that is the answer.

I thank the hon. Gentleman very much indeed for his question, but the energy price freeze suggested by the Leader of the Opposition is actually an energy price con. It has been made very clear that the prices will go up beforehand and up afterwards, and the Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that if wholesale prices go up, he will have to stop the freeze. That is a price con; it is not sustainable; we are fixing the problem.

Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer join me in congratulating the Eastleigh Liberal Democrat borough council on the large part it has played in bringing the local unemployment rate down below 1,000?

Whatever the worthiness of the efforts of the council to which the hon. Gentleman refers, unfortunately it has absolutely nothing whatever to do with Question 1.

Fuel Duty

Thanks to this Government’s action, pump prices are 13p a litre lower than they would have been under the previous Government’s plans. Provided we can find the savings to pay for it, my intention is to freeze fuel duty for the rest of this Parliament.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. The cost of fuel is of great concern to many of my constituents. If he can freeze the price of fuel for the remainder of this Parliament, how much cheaper will petrol be, come the next election?

If we are able to freeze petrol prices for the rest of this Parliament, the price will 20p a litre lower than it would have been if we had stuck with the plans that the shadow Chancellor advocated at the last general election. That would mean, as my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary was just reminding us, a saving of over £10 every time people filled up their average car. That is what this Government are doing; by fixing the public finances, we are able to help people.

When the Chancellor became Chancellor, unleaded petrol was £1.19 a litre. Can he tell us how much it is today?

It depends, of course, where you buy it. The last price I saw at a petrol station was around £1.35, but it would have been 20p higher if we had stuck with the last Government’s plans—the hon. Gentleman voted for them—in the last Labour Budget. That is the truth, and it is because we are fixing the public finances and fixing the economy that we can avoid these disastrous Labour tax rises.

The freeze on duty makes a crucial contribution to improving business competitiveness, and will have been welcomed by all our constituents throughout the country. Will the Chancellor undertake, as part of his work on the autumn statement, to publish the Treasury’s own estimate of the full amount by which both motoring and energy input costs have been increased by climate change-related measures?

Of course the OBR provides an assessment of the impact of Government policies on the economy, and I will consider my hon. Friend’s specific suggestion that we look into the impact of climate change policies on energy prices. We are currently examining the charges and levies that the last Government, among others, added to energy bills, and seeing what we can do to roll them back in order to provide relief for customers.

I welcome the action taken by the Government to freeze fuel duties, but UK taxes on petrol and other fuels remain among the highest in any country in the European Union. What will the Chancellor do to remedy that much unwanted achievement?

I looked at the plans that this Government inherited, and then cut petrol duty in March 2011. We have frozen the duty ever since, and I intend to continue the freeze for the rest of the current Parliament, provided that we can find the savings to pay for it. That is the crucial point: if we do not sort out the economy, if we are not fixing the public finances, if we do not have an economic plan, we cannot have a living standards plan.

Notwithstanding the excellent news of the fuel freeze, petrol pump prices are still under threat from hard-liners at Grangemouth. Does my right hon. Friend agree that extremism in the pursuit of hard-pressed motorists is no virtue?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The greatest threat to fuel supplies recently has been the threat of industrial action from the Unite union, led by the chair of the Falkirk Labour party. We now hear the former Labour Chancellor and the former Labour Foreign Secretary saying that Labour should open its inquiry and publish what it finds, and a Labour Front Bencher saying that Labour does not “publish internal documents”.

Order. That has nothing to do with the responsibilities of the Chancellor. [Interruption.] Order! In the name of respect for parliamentary process and the traditions of the House, I ask Ministers not to behave in that way. We deserve better.

I shall return to the actual question of duties. Has the Chancellor found the £750 million that is needed to pay for the freeze? At the party conferences, he also promised to spend a further £700 million on school meals, a further £300 million on his Work programme, and a further £600 million on a marriage allowance. That is £2.3 billion of promises. Let us be clear about this. Is the Chancellor going to raise taxes or cut services to pay for those promises, or is he planning simply to borrow even more? Which is it?

What a question from a Labour Front- Bench team that wants to spend £27 billion more, and to borrow every penny of it. If this is the hon. Gentleman’s debut performance as shadow Chief Secretary, I am afraid that he will have to do a lot better. His job should be to control the promises that he makes. As for our side, we are paying for the commitments that we are making to the hard-working people of this country.

Despite all that hot air, it seems that there are still £2.3 billion of unfunded promises. Would it not be far easier if all those promises were fully costed and funded and independently checked by the Office for Budget Responsibility, just to ensure that the Chancellor’s sums add up?

We have proposed that all the main political parties should be able to submit tax and spending plans to the OBR ahead of the election manifestos. Surely we can all agree that—as the Chair of the Treasury Committee has suggested—an independent audit by the OBR for all the main political parties would be good for the democratic process, so will the Chancellor now join us in a cross-party consensus on that?

As to a cross-party consensus, I remember when I was speaking from the Opposition Dispatch Box and the hon. Gentleman’s party was in government that it opposed the creation of the OBR—opposed it time and again. I believe it is important that we preserve the independence and integrity of this new body, which is working well but is entrusted with the very important task of providing the economic forecasts for whoever is in government. That should be its primary purpose and the changes to the primary law that the hon. Gentleman is proposing are not very practical.

Sukuk

3. What his policy is on the issuing of Government bonds in the form of sukuk; and if he will make a statement. (900895)

The Government want the United Kingdom to become the first sovereign state outside the Muslim world to issue an Islamic bond. The Treasury is therefore working on the practicalities of issuing about £200 million of sovereign sukuk as early as next year. The Government see sukuk issuance as an excellent opportunity to promote London as the leading centre for Islamic finance.

As chairman of the all-party group on Islamic finance and diversity in financial markets, I welcome the Government’s decision to issue a sukuk. It is something the group has campaigned on. I also congratulate the Government on their part in hosting the World Islamic Economic Forum in this country, the first time it has been held in a non-Muslim country. What else are the Government doing to promote Islamic investment in this country and sustain the Islamic banking sector?

I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing work in promoting Islamic finance and diversity in financial markets. London is already a global player in Islamic finance, which brings in significant investment and creates thousands of jobs. Last week I also announced that we are bringing together a global Islamic investment group. This group will have the expertise to help Islamic finance grow globally, as well as developing London as one of the leading centres for Islamic finance.

May I also welcome what the Government have done? It will make this country the first anywhere in the western world to provide sharia-compliant bonds. We do not just want people to invest from outside, however. Although the last census showed that Brecon and Radnor had 116 Muslim people, I have 21,075 in my constituency. How does the Minister intend to sell those bonds to the people of Leicester East?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his warm words. Britain already has 20 banks offering Islamic financial products. We also have 49 sukuk listed on the London stock exchange, valued at over £25 billion, and 25 law firms that have significant Islamic practices. We will bring all this experience together to further develop Britain as an Islamic finance centre, and I am sure that will help his constituents with their investment decisions.

Air Passenger Duty

4. If he will introduce a time-limited exemption from air passenger duty on new long-haul routes from uncongested airports. (900896)

The Government are always open to ideas that promote regional growth. The Airports Commission will shortly publish a report on the best use of existing airport capacity in the short to medium term and the Government will take its findings into account in our response.

I am grateful to the Minister for her answer, and I welcome her to her position. As part of the growing links between the north-west and China, Manchester airport is seeking to develop a new route to Beijing, but one of the major obstacles is the very high level of UK APD. Will she take a careful look at new research by York Aviation, which has concluded that a time-limited exemption from APD on new long-haul routes from regional airports would make the Manchester-Beijing route immediately viable?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. The Government will always take a look at the evidence. In fact, we debated APD in the House only the week before last. In October 2012, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs published modelling on price differentials at UK airports, and it showed that even large price changes have a relatively small impact on total passenger demand, but I am sure he will welcome my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s announcement of the £800 million investment in Airport City in Manchester, which will create over 16,000 jobs. The involvement of Beijing Construction Engineering Group as a partner in this project is the latest in a line of new partnerships being forged between the UK and China.

Manchester airport is second only to Heathrow in terms of airport capacity, but it is operating at under half capacity, yet Heathrow is full. Boris Johnson talked yesterday to the CBI about getting these new routes out to China and Asia, but instead of forcing people from the north-west to fly down to London in order to fly to China, why cannot we get people to come from London up to Manchester to fly out on all these new routes that we need?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As I said, we will always look at any evidence that people want to send us. We want to encourage new links between the UK and China, and the Mayor of London made some interesting points. The point is that we have to change prices a lot in order to change passenger behaviour, and we would need to look at that further.

Is the Minister aware of the success of Barcelona airport in gaining more than 20 international routes in the past year because of a 100% APD reduction? Does she think that such a reduction would help Scotland to regain the millions of passengers it has lost owing to this Government’s APD costs?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is no APD charge from airports in his constituency. As he knows from our recent debate, APD makes an important contribution to the deficit reduction plans; we will always keep it under review, but it is a very important part of this Government’s attempts to rebalance the economy.

APD can also have a disproportionate effect on regional airports operating lifeline routes with modest passenger numbers, such as Newquay’s. Will the Minister factor that into the discussions she is having with colleagues on the future of APD?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We will always look at the evidence, and if cares to write to me, we will certainly take that into account.

Private Sector Jobs

5. What estimate he has made of the number of jobs created in the private sector in the last 12 months; and if he will make a statement. (900897)

11. What estimate he has made of the number of jobs created in the private sector in the last 12 months; and if he will make a statement. [R] (900904)

In the past year, employment in the private sector has increased by 380,000, more than offsetting the fall in public sector employment of 104,000. For every public sector job lost, more than three have been created in the private sector. That confounds the predictions of those who thought it could never happen.

Unemployment in my constituency is lower than it was when I became the MP. With the further good news that Waitrose is creating 140 new jobs in Northwich later this month, will my right hon. Friend the Chancellor set out how small and medium-sized enterprises will benefit from a reduction in national insurance contributions?

I am delighted by the news of the new jobs being created by Waitrose in Northwich; as my hon. Friend well knows, I represent part of that town. That will be good for the people who live in it, and I hope that some of my constituents will find work there. The employment allowance, which we debated in this Parliament this week, is going to take £2,000 off the national insurance bill of every firm, but the biggest benefit will be felt by the smallest companies; 450,000 firms will be taken out of employer NICs altogether. That is a real boost for business, and it shows how we can help to support the recovery.

Unemployment is down by almost 30% in my constituency since the last election. Given that Selby lost almost 2,000 jobs in 2004 in the mining industry, that is very encouraging. Given UK Coal’s recent troubles and its callous decision to withdraw concessionary fuel from some ex-miners and their widows, what comfort can the Chancellor give to these pensioners, who potentially face fuel poverty this winter?

I know that this difficult situation has been brought about by the failure of UK Coal. I congratulate my hon. Friend on leading this campaign to do something about the situation, and I know that my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) and for Nuneaton (Mr Jones) have joined him in coming to see me about it. We are looking very carefully at the case for what we can do to help those who have had their concessionary fuel allowance taken away because of the failure of UK Coal. I am personally looking at this case and I hope to have some good news shortly.

Evidence shows that it is not just having a job, but having the right job and the right level of pay that lifts someone out of poverty. So can the Chancellor tell us how many of those new jobs that have been created are full-time jobs, how many do not involve zero-hours contracts and how many actually pay the living wage?

We have 1.4 million new jobs in this economy. To take on the point about part-time work, there has also been an increase in the number of hours worked in the economy, and a lot of the recent increase in employment has come from full-time employment. Let us compare that with the disastrous situation we inherited from the Labour party, where unemployment was rocketing and youth unemployment was rocketing. Unemployment is now lower than it was at the general election, and many thousands—[Interruption.] That is the fact. Many thousands of young people have come off the claimant count for youth unemployment, too.

Can the right hon. Gentleman now confirm that the number of people working part time because they cannot get a full-time job has risen over the past year to 1.45 million and is now at a record high? With prices rising faster than wages for 39 of the past 40 months, is this not just another reason why so many working people are facing a cost-of-living crisis after three wasted years under this Chancellor?

The best thing we can do for anyone’s cost of living is make sure that they have a job. Jobs are being created under this Government, after they were destroyed by the Labour Government. I am surprised that the hon. Lady did not thank us for creating an economy in which, in her constituency, unemployment is falling, and has fallen over the past year, and the claimant count is falling, when it was rocketing in the last years of the Labour Government.

The Chancellor made some important announcements last week about the future of the Royal Bank of Scotland. Although we are absolutely right to keep pressing the bank to improve its poor lending record, will he also put on record the need for us to recognise the hugely important private sector jobs underpinned by RBS in Scotland and elsewhere, and the fact that we see a strong future for that company?

I have discussed RBS and what we can do to ensure that it supports the Scottish economy with my right hon. Friend on many occasions. The plan that the management has proposed, which we and the Governor of the Bank of England support—it is the first time since RBS collapsed in autumn 2008 that all those groups agree on a single strategy for the bank—will mean a strong, healthy future for RBS as a bank that supports the entire United Kingdom economy and, in particular, the Scottish economy. It is an important part of Scottish economic history and of Scotland’s economic future, too.

Earnings/Inflation

6. What recent assessment he has made of the rate of increase in (a) average earnings and (b) consumer price inflation. (900898)

Disposable income increased last year at the fastest pace since 2009. In March, the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that real household disposable income growth would accelerate each year from 2014 to 2017, reaching 2.3% in 2017. The best way to raise living standards is to stick to the Government’s economic plan and deliver a recovery that works for all. Britain is back on the path to prosperity, the economy is growing, the deficit is falling and jobs are being created.

I do not understand how the Minister and the Chancellor can think that their economic policies are a success. After three wasted and damaging years of flatlining, working people are on average £1,500 a year worse off. Is it not clear that his plan has failed hard-working families?

It has not failed the people of Bolton West, where unemployment has fallen by 1,800 in the past year.

On the subject of the cost of living, does my hon. Friend think it astonishing that Opposition Members do not understand that this Government have done so much to keep council taxes down? If we were still subject to their policies, the average council tax cost would be £210 a year higher.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was not this Government who doubled the rate of council tax, it was not this Government who doubled the rate of income tax for the lowest earners and it was not this Government who increased fuel duty 12 times.

Why does the Minister think that April 2013 was the only month on this Chancellor’s watch in which pay rose faster than prices? Does he agree with the ONS that it is because people deferred their bonus payments to make the best use of the Chancellor’s millionaires’ tax cut?

Of course, under the previous Labour Government bonuses were four times the rate they were this year. I would also ask the hon. Gentleman whether Labour believes in reversing the 45p rate of income tax, because I am not sure what the answer is.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one way of tackling rising prices is to leave people with more of their own money in their pocket? Will he confirm that the 50% tax cut we have given to those on the minimum wage has done exactly that and shows that we are on the side of hard-working people?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we want to help living standards, we want to be able to cut taxes in a sustainable way. That is what we are managing to do.

Home Buyers

The Government are committed to making the aspiration of home ownership a reality for as many people as possible. That is why we recently announced that participating lenders will be able to offer high loan-to-value mortgages supported by their Help to Buy mortgage guarantee schemes three months earlier than planned. I was pleased to hear that Lloyds Banking Group recently announced that the first such mortgage was taken out by a first-time buyer in Dartford, Kent.

Will my hon. Friend update the House specifically on helping the hard-working people in my constituency, where there is 77% home ownership, which is increasing, compared with 65% across the UK?

Under Labour, the number of first-time buyers fell to its lowest level for 25 years, from an average of 470,000 a year in the early 2000s to around 190,000 by 2008. That destroyed the hopes and aspirations of many hard-working families. This Government’s two Help to Buy schemes will help thousands of hard-working people to get on the housing ladder, including those in Elmet and Rothwell and those throughout the UK.

16. Is it fair for taxpayers in my constituency to subsidise a London property bubble that has already increased by 10% since the introduction of this scheme? (900910)

The hon. Lady should know, as she would if she looked at the facts carefully, that the Help to Buy scheme is priced on commercial terms; it is designed to break even and it will not cost the taxpayer anything.

Does the Minister share my concern that, reportedly, some young people have actually given up saving for a deposit, and will he ensure that those of us on the Government Benches will stand with those people who have a dream of home ownership to make sure it can be fulfilled?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Some Opposition Members believe that only people who have rich parents that can help them meet some of the large deposit requirements should be able to buy their own home. That is not the policy of this Government, who support hard-working families.

On the issue of fiscal steps to help people buy homes, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said last year that people buying homes through a company to avoid tax was unacceptable, and he would come down on it

“like a ton of bricks”.

Has he investigated reports that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond), has avoided tax in that way, and will he come down on him like a ton of bricks?

I welcome the hon. Lady to the shadow Front Bench team. I look forward to debating with her. The Government have already taken steps to ensure that property buyers pay more in tax, by increasing stamp duty and by dealing with purchases through companies, and it would not be appropriate for any Minister to make a comment on any individual’s tax circumstances.

Infrastructure

Investment in infrastructure is a key priority for this Government. In June, I set out a pipeline of investment in specific projects, worth over £100 billion out to 2020, including the largest investment in our railways since the Victorian era and the biggest investment in roads since the 1970s.

I welcome the support of my local Labour leader of Kirklees council for the new north-south railway, but does my right hon. Friend agree with the leader of Manchester council, who said that politicians need to stop taking cheap shots at HS2

“unless we want an increasingly disconnected North…slowly grinding to a halt”?

I wholeheartedly agree with those sentiments. My hon. Friend could have added to that list the leader of Nottingham city council, who said that the Labour Front Bench should get off the fence on HS2. The project is needed to promote growth, and connectivity outside London. I agree with that, and so should they.

22. When the Chancellor talks about increased investment, is that what he meant to cover the £10 billion increase in the HS2 costs, which have gone up on his watch? (900916)

We set out in June the budget for HS2. We will absolutely stick to that budget. Using the excellent leadership we have brought in, with Sir David Higgins and others, we will make sure that the project is delivered under budget. The hon. Gentleman should be committed to the project because it will support growth all over the United Kingdom. It is the most significant investment in our railways for 100 years, and his party should support it.

17. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.I congratulate the Chancellor and his Government on their investment in infrastructure in the west midlands, which helped to deliver the Jaguar Land Rover plant, and thousands of manufacturing jobs in the process. I also draw the Minister’s attention to the A50, a key corridor in my constituency, connecting Stoke to Derby, which involves a number of manufacturing businesses that could hugely benefit from road improvements and infrastructure spending. (900911)

The hon. Gentleman is right that targeted infrastructure investment can unlock job creation in enterprise zones, including at JLR and in various places around the country. I am well aware of the particular scheme that he is promoting and I look forward to discussing it further with him to see how we can take it forward.

The Chief Secretary will be aware that several conflicting and not very encouraging cost-benefit analyses for HS2 are currently in circulation. Could he not clear the air by commissioning and publishing a genuinely independent internal Treasury cost-benefit analysis of the project?

The Government have set out various cost-benefit analyses of the project. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, what is needed in this project is not more procrastination, delay and extra reports, but a commitment in all parts of the House to get on with this north-south railway and allow economic growth in every part of the United Kingdom.

Small Businesses

The Government are very supportive of small businesses. We demonstrated this support again at Budget 2013 through the introduction of the new £2,000 employment allowance for small businesses and charities from April 2014.We have extended the small business rate relief from April 2013. We have increased the small business research and development tax credit to 225% and the lifetime limit on entrepreneurs relief to £10 million. In addition, we have launched a £1 billion British business bank to improve access to finance for small and medium-sized enterprises in the UK.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fact that the new employment allowance will mean that 450,000 small businesses pay no national insurance contributions at all. Is this not a positive help to small businesses such as those in my constituency as they seek to take on more employees?

I entirely agree. That £2,000 for every business will feed through by helping businesses take on new staff, invest in their business or pay higher wages. It is a positive contribution, which contrasts with the proposals that we inherited for an increase in employer’s national insurance contributions.

We have had to deal with the aftermath of a banking crisis that occurred, in part, because of failed regulation set up by the previous Government.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is good news that, due to the investment in small businesses, unemployment in Morecambe has fallen by 10% in the past three months?

That is very good news. As we are hearing from various constituencies, unemployment is falling. It is going in the right direction and it is important that we stick to the economic path.

Why should we believe from the Minister that the present scheme for dealing with national insurance contributions will be any more successful than his previous scheme, where take-up was extremely poor and did nothing to increase jobs?

I do not know whether Labour is opposing the scheme. That was not the impression I got. This is a very simple scheme. It does not require applications or involve any of the complexities that we saw with two of the Labour national insurance contribution schemes. We are confident that the current scheme will work. It has been widely supported by business groups and I think it will make a big difference to small businesses.

In-work Benefits

The latest forecasts of benefits and tax credits are available online via the website of the Department for Work and Pensions. They are consistent with the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts and reflect the Government’s wider policy.

Will the Minister explain why she is allowing companies that are making massive profits to pay poverty wages that need a subsidy from the taxpayer through in-work benefits? Why does she not stop those companies sponging off the taxpayer and adopt a Labour policy of requiring companies that can well afford it to pay a living wage?

It seems that even the shadow Chancellor has questions about a living wage policy, saying in 2010 that he was not sure about it. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman did not talk about the fact that in the north-west and Merseyside 306,000 people have been taken out of paying income tax altogether as a result of this Government’s policies.

It was the case, was it not, that under the previous Government work simply did not pay because people who got into work found that a huge proportion of their extra income and, in some cases, all their extra income was clawed back by the complex benefits system? Will my hon. Friends redouble their efforts to make sure that work pays?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is absolutely right. This Government believe that work should always pay. By 2010, nine out of 10 working families had been made dependent on the state by the previous Government. This Government believe that families should keep more of their hard-earned money to spend on the things that are important to them.

Youth Unemployment

The UK labour market is showing some signs of recovery. Youth unemployment, excluding those in full-time education, fell over the last quarter and the number of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance is lower now than it was in 2010. The Government are committed to supporting long-term unemployed young people, which is why we launched the Youth Contract in 2012 and why we have increased the number of apprenticeships, with over 1 million starts so far.

The Chief Secretary refers to the Youth Contract, but does he not accept the assessment of the Government’s own social mobility adviser that it is having a limited impact on the

“appallingly high levels of youth unemployment”?

I certainly accept that there is a great deal more that we have to do to get people off benefit and into work, but if the hon. Lady looks at the work experience programme within the Youth Contract, she will see that it is having a significant effect on the number of young people getting off benefit and into work, and at one 20th of the cost of the future jobs fund, which I think is good value for money.

Is not the single most important measure we can take to tackle youth unemployment the creation of jobs? I therefore welcome the creation of over 1.5 million new jobs and 600,000 new apprenticeships and the news that last year this country had more small businesses than ever before. Does that not show that we have a Government who are seriously tackling youth unemployment, after it rose for 13 years?

My hon. Friend is right. In fact, there are now more people in work, including more women, than ever before in our country’s history, and there are now more households in which someone works than in any year under the previous Government. There is a lot more to do, but that is a record to be proud of.

Yorkshire Bank

13. What representations he has received on Yorkshire bank and lending to small and medium-sized businesses. (900907)

All meetings between external organisations and Treasury Ministers are published on the Government’s website. However, it is not the Treasury’s practice to provide details of all representations Ministers receive. Lending to small and medium-sized businesses is an important issue, and I can assure my hon. Friend that it receives the Government’s highest attention.

I thank the Financial Secretary for that answer. He might be aware that two years ago the owners of Yorkshire bank announced their intention to downsize in the UK and invest more money in Asia. Since then they have aggressively reduced the size of their UK loan book, despite assurances made to small businesses. That has affected many businesses across the country, including Arley Homes in my constituency, which has been forced into administration, with the loss of many jobs. Is there more we can do to make them behave responsibly?

I know that my hon. Friend raised this issue with my predecessor on behalf of his constituents, and he was absolutely right to do so. The way in which a bank structures its business is a commercial decision, as I am sure he appreciates, so I am unable to comment on it. However, if a bank decides to restructure its business in a certain way, I would expect it to pay due regard to the interests of all its customers and to treat them fairly.

Small businesses in my constituency used to borrow from Yorkshire bank, and many have told me that they never missed a repayment, but now the bank simply will not lend to them, despite excellent credit histories. Why are the banks refusing to lend to small businesses that have a strong history of repayment?

May I give the hon. Gentleman some advice on how he can help small businesses in his constituency and elsewhere? The SME appeals process that the Government set up with the banking sector has been very successful, with 40% of businesses that appeal finding decisions overturned. He can help to advertise that, as the Government will be doing shortly to banks.

The point of capitalism is that people who take risks should be rewarded when they are successful and should lose money when they fail. Yorkshire bank has been among the worst for penalising its good customers to try to make up for its own losses. That is an abuse of capitalism. I hope that the Minister will take steps to ensure that Yorkshire bank treats its customers fairly, because in too many cases it has been treating them terribly unfairly.

My hon. Friend has made a number of representations on this issue, and he is right to do so. As I have said, we want all banks to treat their customers fairly, and the Government are absolutely committed to that.

I agree with the comments made by the hon. Member for Warrington South (David Mowat). Following an article I wrote for the Yorkshire Post, I have received dozens of complaints about Yorkshire bank from small businesses, particularly about being locked into tailored business loans with very high interest rates and very high redemption clauses and payments to get out of them. Will the Minister look at involving the Financial Conduct Authority to see if there could be an investigation into what has been going on?

I believe that my predecessor raised this issue with the FCA, but I would be more than happy to do so again.

Wage Levels

14. What recent comparative assessment he has made of trends in real wages in the UK and in similar economies. (900908)

This Government recognise the pressure on households, but the fall in living standards is a consequence of the economic crisis left to us by Labour. The only way to raise living standards is to stick to our economic plans and deliver a recovery that works for all. Britain has turned a corner: the economy is growing, the deficit is falling, and jobs are being created. Last year, UK take-home pay was the highest in the G7 and the third highest in the OECD.

That is a very interesting answer. Why does the Minister think that the 15% cut in wages suffered by British workers over the past five years is more than in any comparable five-year period and the second biggest in the G20?

It is interesting to note that the main fall in wages and salaries came in 2007-09, when growth fell from 5.7% to less than 1%. Of course the Government understand that the situation is very difficult, but I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not welcomed the fact that the claimant count in his constituency has fallen by 11% under this Government, whereas it went up by 75% under the previous Government.

Will my hon. Friend tell the House by how much those on low and middle incomes are going to be better off because of this Government’s decision to raise the personal allowance to £10,000 from April 2014?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The average taxpayer will be better off by £700 a year as a result of these changes.

Banking

The Government are driving a wide-ranging and ambitious programme of reforms to make the banking sector more competitive and to give consumers a better deal. This includes reducing market barriers, encouraging current account switching, and putting competition at the heart of the regulatory system.

Will my hon. Friend commend the Church Commissioners for their investment in Williams and Glyn’s as a new competitive bank that intends to have the highest ethical standards? As well as increasing competition in banking, is it not also crucial that we have a system of banking regulation with clear accountability and responsibility, avoiding mistakes in the system designed by the previous Administration?

I congratulate the Church Commissioners on their role and the expertise that they bring. Given that my hon. Friend is a commissioner, I take this opportunity to congratulate him too. He is right to highlight the fact that the previous Government’s changes to financial regulation contributed significantly to the banking crisis in 2008. That caused misery and hardship for millions of hard-working families, yet I notice that the Opposition have yet to apologise.

The Minister will agree that a level playing field is important for competition. Why, then, did the Chancellor make the misguided offer to the Chinese Government to give light-touch regulation to Chinese banks operating in this country? If we are going to have competition, will that approach be extended to all other banks?

The hon. Gentleman will know that such decisions are made by the independent regulators—in this case, the Prudential Regulation Authority, which has made the reasons for the decision absolutely clear.

Topical Questions

The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability and prosperity of the economy. Today I can also announce another step in the fight against tax evasion. This afternoon we will sign a tax information-sharing agreement with the Cayman Islands—the first ever with an overseas territory. As a result, information on UK taxpayers held in the Cayman Islands will automatically be provided to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which will use it to collect the tax that is due.

Is it still the Chancellor’s intention to withdraw jobseeker’s allowance from all young people under the age of 25?

That is not part of the Government’s programme. We are seeking to help young people into work through the Work programme and the Youth Contract. The good news is that the youth claimant count has fallen by many tens of thousands. I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would use this opportunity to get up and point out that unemployment has fallen in his constituency over the last year, and there are—[Interruption.] Unemployment has fallen in his constituency, and every job created is one that he should be celebrating. He should remind his constituents of the enormous damage done to the north-east economy by the previous Labour Government.

T3. The most important financial issue in the lives of many young families is mortgage interest. Does my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agree that the best way—indeed, the only way—to keep mortgage rates low is to stick with the Government’s economic plan of cutting the deficit? (900920)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, one of the consequences of the higher borrowing that the Labour party is advocating would be not just higher taxes, but higher interest rates, which would be absolutely disastrous for families. That is precisely why we have to stick with the economic plan that is delivering the recovery.

I welcome the Economic Secretary and the shadow Financial Secretary to their new jobs, and let us not forget the former Treasury Whip, the Treasurer of Her Majesty’s Household, the hon. Member for Chelsea and Fulham (Greg Hands), who has finally got the promotion we have been urging him to get for three years.

On this Chancellor’s watch, the UK is experiencing the slowest recovery for more than 100 years, and with prices, including energy prices, rising faster than wages, for millions of people this is no recovery at all. Yet from the Chancellor’s earlier answers to the Chair of the Treasury Committee, he seems to think he can get away with cutting energy bills by simply shifting the burden of his green levies on to the ordinary taxpayer. Let me ask the Chancellor—[Interruption.]

Why will the Chancellor not agree with us and Sir John Major that it is the energy companies that are making the excess profits and that it is they, not the ordinary taxpayer, that should bear the burden?

First, I join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the two hon. Ladies to their new Front-Bench positions, although I think he got the title wrong of his new shadow Exchequer Secretary. By the way, while I am at it, may I welcome the fact that the right hon. Gentleman did not move in the reshuffle, because he is exactly where we want him to be?

Perhaps one of these days the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that GDP is increasing, that unemployment is coming down and that today we had the best services purchasing managers index since May 1997. I believe we should roll back some of the levies and charges that have been imposed on energy bills. I am not clear whether he agrees.

After three years of flatlining, people are worse off because of this Chancellor of the Exchequer. As for ordinary people’s rising energy bills, he just does not give an EDF.

Is it not the case that, over the past year, energy prices in the euro area fell by 1.7% while in the UK they have risen by a staggering 7.7%? Simply switching green levies on to the taxpayer is giving with one hand and taking with the other. Why does this Chancellor always hit ordinary families while standing up for a powerful few?

With questions like that, the right hon. Gentleman is never going to be npower, is he?

The truth is that the right hon. Gentleman created a situation in our economy whereby living standards were hit hard, because he destroyed jobs and economic prosperity. Like a bonfire on Guy Fawkes night, every single one of his economic predictions has gone up in smoke, and he has nothing credible or serious to say about the British economy.

T4. Is it not true that the only way to improve considerably our standard of living is to focus on the economic situation of the country to boost growth and pay down debt? (900921)

I completely agree with my hon. Friend that unless we have a credibly economic plan to grow the economy, deal with public finances and support business rather than tax it, we will get the reaction the shadow Chancellor got from the CBI, whose members said that the hairs on the backs of their necks stood up as they listened to all the terrible things that a Labour Government would do to them. The truth is that we are fixing the economic mess the shadow Chancellor left behind, and that is the best way to improve people’s living standards.

T2. The Chancellor was warned that his cuts would choke off the growth that had returned to the UK economy when he took the job in 2010. Of course we welcome the fact that Britain is finally returning to growth, but does he not realise that if he had taken the advice of my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) earlier, we would not have had three wasted years, the average working person would not be £1,500 worse off, and the talents and potential of 1 million young people would not have been laid to waste? (900919)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the shadow Chancellor said that our economic policies would choke off the recovery in the spring of this year—the very moment when the recovery was under way. When will a Labour MP welcome the fact that our GDP has grown by 0.8% and unemployment is coming down? When will Labour acknowledge that it is our economic plan that is delivering that?

T5. One of the frustrations of losing ministerial office is that one cannot see through the things that one started. Will the Chancellor look carefully at the recommendations of the independent future of farming review, which I commissioned, because it has made far-reaching suggestions for changes in taxation that will benefit rural areas? (900922)

I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend did in government. I will make it a personal priority to ensure that his review sees the light of day and is acted on.

The key thing is that people are getting into work. That is another Labour MP who has not acknowledged the fact that unemployment has fallen in his constituency. When will Labour Members acknowledge that our economic plan is repairing the mess that they left behind?

T6. On behalf of brewers everywhere, I thank the Chancellor for being the man who scrapped Labour’s hated beer duty escalator and who cut beer duty for the first time since 1959. Last month saw the biggest growth in beer sales this century, with 1 million extra pints being sold and £60 million extra going to the Exchequer. I ask him to keep supporting Britain’s pubs and brewers. (900923)

This is a case of teamwork, because my hon. Friend has led a brilliant campaign involving many Members of Parliament in support of the local pub industry in their constituencies and the brewing industry, which is so important in Burton. The work that he has done has been fantastic. It was thanks to his campaign, which drew the evidence to my attention, that we were able to take the action that he has welcomed.

T10. Will the Chancellor make a statement on why the decision has been taken to extend HMRC’s pilot of the new customer service model in the north-east by two months until the end of December? (900927)

We want to look at the evidence further, so that seems to be a sensible approach; we want to see whether the model is working. The final decision has not been taken on whether to extend it. This is about improving the service for the people who need it most. We believe that that is an important objective.

T8. As you know, Mr Speaker, I am of a nervous disposition. I was therefore alarmed this year—not three years ago—to hear predictions that 1 million jobs would be lost, there would be a decade of lost growth and the recovery would be choked off as a result of the Government’s plans. Will the Chancellor allay my fears and explain what has happened in the real world? (900925)

My hon. Friend is right that there were a lot of predictions from the Opposition Dispatch Box. They said that there would be a decade of lost growth, but the economy is now growing and we have had the fastest growth in the G7 this year. They predicted that 1 million jobs would be lost, but 1.4 million jobs have been created in the private sector and unemployment is down. Above all, they advocated—indeed, they continue to advocate, because it was in the speech that the shadow Chancellor made yesterday—increased borrowing, which would lead to higher taxes and higher interest rates. The biggest threat to the British recovery is sitting right opposite me.

What progress has been made on the extension to the fuel duty rebate scheme, which is due for further implementation via a submission to the European Commission?

We have completed a call for evidence on that subject and have put forward an initial list of locations that meet the strict criteria that are required to make a successful application at the European level. Further work is needed to ensure that we have all the information that is necessary to submit the application. That will be the subject of a supplementary piece of work and we will submit the application early in the new year.

T9. I was delighted to welcome my right hon. Friend to Hainsworth mill in my constituency recently. Will he join me in welcoming the news that production output increased by 0.5% in the last quarter, and does he agree that that shows that British business is rising to the challenge of rebalancing the economy after an unsustainable decade under the Labour party? (900926)

I was very impressed by the work being done at Hainsworth mill, which is one of the oldest textile mills in Britain and has been going for a couple of hundred years. It is now exporting textiles from west Yorkshire to China, which shows that the British economy can achieve remarkable things if we get the investment and economic policy right. My hon. Friend is right: we must stick with the economic plan that is continuing to improve the situation in his constituency and across the country.

Every newly created job in the private sector is very welcome, but will the Chancellor tell the House how many public sector jobs have been redesignated as private sector jobs in the past three years?

I am happy to write to the hon. Lady with that number. Let us be clear: the Labour party and the shadow Chancellor said it was a complete fantasy that private sector job creation would outstrip the loss of public sector jobs required by fiscal consolidation. That is complete nonsense and we have not yet had an apology from the shadow Chancellor.

Companies up and down the country have been investing in manufacturing capacity for the green infrastructure of tomorrow. Those in the north-east Energi Coast consortium have already invested £400 million. Will the Chancellor confirm the Government’s commitment to support the renewable energy industry?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the question, and I congratulate him on his new appointment in this House. I can reassure him on his point. We are, of course, looking at the range of support that exists in terms of people’s energy bills, but we will not compromise on our commitment to renewable energy and green infrastructure investment. That means we remain absolutely committed to the renewables obligations and the contracts for difference, and that will not change as part of this process.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that more than 1 million more children will be living in poverty in 2020, which absolutely wipes out the number of those lifted out of poverty under the previous Labour Government.

The best approach to lifting children out of poverty is to ensure that they live in working households. We now have the lowest number of workless households since records began, which is due to the achievements of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and of the economic plan that is getting the parents of children into work.

Given that the cost of the EU will double in this Parliament, and the huge current account deficit with the EU, does the Chancellor agree that our current economic relationship with the EU is wrong and that we should renegotiate?

I certainly agree that we need to reform the European Union so that our entire continent is not priced out of the global economy. We must also make reforms to the European Union, and Britain’s relationship with it, so that British businesses can thrive, compete and create jobs. I point out to my hon. Friend—he knows this anyway—that the cost of the European Union would have been much higher if my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister had not secured a very good deal. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) says, “We did it,” but Labour gave up the rebate. The Prime Minister went to the EU battling for Britain and delivered for Britain.

Over the past six months more than 350,000 people, many of them in work, have accessed emergency food aid from a food bank. When will the Chancellor visit a food bank so that he can see for himself the impact of his cost-of-living crisis on hundreds of thousands of people across the country?

I have visited a food bank in Northwich in my constituency and seen the excellent work it does. I commend the volunteers at that food bank, and indeed across the whole food bank movement.

If Scotland chooses to vote for independence next September, how will handing over control of the Scottish economy to a foreign bank, namely the Bank of England, benefit Scotland’s economy?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. It would be very foolish indeed for anyone to vote for independence on the basis that Scotland will keep the pound. It is highly unlikely that a currency union would be workable, and therefore highly unlikely that any euro-style arrangement for the UK would be in the best interests of either Scotland or the rest of the UK. The only way to be sure of keeping the pound is to keep the UK together.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but, as usual, we have bust the box office for Treasury questions. There is nothing unusual about that.