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Volume 574: debated on Tuesday 28 January 2014

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Women in Business

The most important thing that we can do to support women in business is supporting the economy to grow. Today’s gross domestic product figures show that our economy grew by 0.7% in the last quarter, bringing four-quarter growth up to 2.8%. I am sure that that news will be welcome across the House. These numbers are a boost for the economic security of hard-working people. Growth is broadly based, with manufacturing growing fastest of all. It is more evidence that our long-term economic plan is working, but the job is not done, and it is clear that the biggest risk now to the recovery would be to abandon the plan that is delivering jobs and a brighter economic future.

May I congratulate the Chancellor on the appointment of Karren Brady as small business ambassador? Does he agree that our record of 500,000 new businesses started last year, bringing the total to 880,000 now run by women, and accelerating economic growth to 2.8% a year demonstrate that our long-term economic plan for an entrepreneurial recovery is working in the face of the pessimism and bankrupt business credibility of the Opposition?

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the remarkable success story of many women entrepreneurs. Karren is a role model for many of them, and she is helping with a mentoring programme to encourage more women to set up their own business and become entrepreneurs. It is all part of the picture where we now have a record number of women in work, and our proposals to bring in tax-free child care next year will help as well.

The Chancellor will know that one of the main barriers for women setting up a business is the cost of child care. Given that it has risen five times faster than wages in this Parliament, what help is he offering to women in this Parliament to meet those costs?

We have provided extra free child care, and we have increased the number of hours available, which has been a real help. We have also helped the parents, including mothers, of those on low incomes by extending the child care offer to younger children, and we will legislate for tax-free child care. I hope the hon. Lady can support that.

22. Little Bee bakery in my constituency is owned by Melissa O’Dwyer, and it is a great example of a business set up from home that has expanded into an industrial unit, employs exclusively female staff and is growing. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is an example of female entrepreneurs playing a critical part in economic growth? (902229)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I congratulate Melissa on her business and her expansion plans. We are there to provide advice and support for women who want to grow their businesses. We are there to provide help, as I have set out, with tax-free child care. Above all, we are there to provide economic conditions in which businesses can grow and our long-term plan is, as the numbers show today, delivering that.

Of course, 0.7% is lower than 0.8% in the previous quarter, but leaving that aside—[Interruption.] With construction—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) should go and lie down in a dark room. Take a tablet and restore your health—I am very anxious about your condition, and I suspect that the House will be too.

Construction is down as well, but to return to the question—[Interruption.] Well, the Chancellor did not return to it. Support through tax credits and child care tax credits has been crucial for many women going into self-employment for the first time. Proposed universal credit rules will make it a lot more difficult for self-employed people. Will the Chancellor speak to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions to help him to get this right for women entrepreneurs?

First, the economy shrank by 7% of GDP when the Opposition were in office. It is striking that no Labour MP has yet got up to welcome the good economic news today. They cannot bring themselves to welcome the news that jobs are being created and the economy is growing and, yes, we are reforming our welfare system with universal credit to make sure that work always pays.

Fuel Duty

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirmed in the 2013 autumn statement that fuel duty will be frozen for the remainder of this Parliament. As a result of this Government’s actions, average pump prices are now 13p per litre lower than if the Government had implemented the previous Government’s fuel duty escalator and it will be 20p per litre lower by the end of this Parliament.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is only because of the difficult decisions that the Government have taken on deficit reduction that they have been able to provide this action on fuel duty? Does she further agree that if these difficult decisions on spending had not been taken, not only would it have been impossible to help motorists, it would have put at risk the economic recovery?

My hon. Friend is entirely right. We all know of many businesses across our constituencies, as well as households, who rely on their vehicles—their lorries and vans—to get about. By 2015, the average motorist will be saving £680 a year and the average small business with a van will be saving £1,300 a year in their fuel costs.

Will the Minister explain to my rural constituents in a low-wage economy area why of the 10 areas where the Chief Secretary has endeavoured to get a special rural fuel discount scheme into place, eight are in Lib Dem constituencies and two are in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency? Is that some kind of coincidence?

The point is that there were very strict criteria relating to pump price thresholds, cost of transporting fuel and population density. That is how the list was arrived at and that is why the hon. Gentleman’s constituency was not included.

On that latter point, I commend the Government for listening in a way that the Labour party never did and I commend the scheme, but may I draw to my hon. Friend’s attention one anomaly, namely the petrol pump at Bettyhill? It meets all the criteria of the others, but because of an anomaly in postcodes will not be included. Is there anything at all that can be done to help that one station?

As I mentioned before, very strict criteria were laid down by the EU. The scheme was brought in by this Government, not by the last Government, to help rural areas. My hon. Friend might like to consider campaigning for the postcodes to be changed.

Rural north Wales has the highest petrol prices in the United Kingdom but is not included in the rural discount. Is that because we made the mistake of not electing a single Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament?

The right hon. Gentleman seems to have forgotten that if the last Labour Government had continued in office prices would have been even higher, because it is this Government who reduced fuel duty.

Small Businesses

We heard today that our economy continues to grow and we know that there is currently the greatest number of businesses in the UK on record—around 400,000 more than at the general election. We have supported that by reversing the previous Government’s increase in the small companies tax, undoing their jobs tax, cutting red tape, freezing fuel duty, taking the smallest firms out of business rates and helping the high street, and in a few months’ time, we will have our employment allowance, a £2,000 cashback on jobs, which will take almost half a million small firms out of employer national insurance altogether. Unlike others, we are unabashedly pro-business.

Small businesses recognise the supportive economic framework that the Chancellor has set out, such as reductions in corporation tax, national insurance and business rates, among many others, by recruiting more people than ever before. Will the Chancellor reassure me that he will not follow any advice from the shadow Chancellor, who called for a plan B and predicted a double and even a triple-dip recession?

There is no danger of that. In the last few days, even the Labour Ministers who served with the shadow Chancellor are not prepared to follow his advice. The important point here is that we have supported a private sector recovery, small businesses are absolutely at the centre of that, and the Prime Minister yesterday, at the Federation of Small Businesses, reinforced the point that we are there to do more to help small businesses and we encourage them to come forward with ideas for the Budget.

Town centre businesses in Alton, Bordon and Petersfield will welcome the Government’s package of help for high streets. As many young people rely on local shops and cafés for their first job, will my right hon. Friend update the House on what he is doing to make it easier to employ those young people and give them the key skills that they need to get on in life?

This year, there is the help for the high street and the £1,000 support for business rates for our high street shops, cafés and pubs. We are also introducing the employment allowance, which will take many small businesses out of employer national insurance altogether. Next year, we have the removal of the jobs tax altogether when someone under the age of 21 is employed. That is what we are doing to help the many businesses that my hon. Friend so ably represents in Parliament.

There have been 3,000 new business start-ups in my borough of Dudley since 2010, many of which will benefit from increased research and development tax allowances, the national insurance rebate and the business rates cap. Does my right hon. Friend agree that while the fiscal measures he has introduced make a vital difference, the 2.8% growth in the economy announced today is sure-fire proof that his economic plan is working and that those small and medium-sized enterprises are now on a far better growth trajectory as a result?

I am delighted to hear about the success of businesses in the Dudley borough area and in my hon. Friend’s constituency. The Government made a choice that we were going to back a private sector recovery and that, in a time of limited resources, we would put our efforts into helping small businesses grow by cutting their business and employment taxes. That is what we have done, and we are beginning to see the fruits in the growth of jobs in the west midlands and across the whole country.

In the past 20 months, unemployment in my constituency of Harrogate and Knaresborough has halved. It is now has one of the lowest levels of unemployment in the country, particularly for young people. Much of that growth has come from our strong small business sector. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the impact that the employment allowance will have on improving the situation further, and does he agree that the anti-business rhetoric and measures proposed by some would destroy that progress?

The employment allowance will help many small firms that want to invest or take on a new member of staff. I saw that for myself when I visited a small business in Enfield that, as a result of the employment allowance, will take on an extra member of staff. That is the support we can give. It is up to those in this House who promote anti-business rhetoric to get up and explain how that could possibly help our economy. The truth is that by being anti-business, they are anti-recovery, anti-jobs, anti-investment and anti-the British people.

The latest figures show that net lending by banks to businesses has dropped by nearly £56 billion since 2010. The Chancellor is on record as supporting lending to small businesses, so what action is he taking to address the problem?

Credit conditions for small businesses have been one of the huge challenges since the banking crash. The better news is that conditions are starting to ease, as the most recent surveys show, but I am the first to say that the job is not done. That is why we are shifting the focus of the funding for lending scheme with the Bank of England onto small business lending and why we have introduced the British business bank, which did not exist before. We are doing all those things to support credit, including for small businesses.

Following that answer, will the Chancellor tell us how many firms have actually been helped by the business investment bank?

The British business bank is lending to intermediaries that support non-bank lending to small firms. [Hon. Members: “How many?”] There was no British business bank before. The only bank that the Opposition helped to take into public ownership was the Royal Bank of Scotland, because they completely failed to regulate it.

One of the ways that the Treasury can help small businesses is by giving them a better chance of winning Government contracts. What is the Chancellor doing to use his Department’s clout across Whitehall to ensure that those contracts are not just snaffled up by the big guys?

That is a huge challenge for any Government and any bureaucracy, but I am pleased to report that under this Government, because we have focused all Departments on trying to increase their procurement from small firms, that has gone up from around 10% to around 20% of Government procurement. That is a big step forward, but I am the first to say that the job is not done. We want more procurement from small firms, not least because they are often the most innovative and entrepreneurial in the country.

Business rates are one of the biggest concerns for employers, yet they are still going up and up under this complacent Chancellor. The autumn statement saw some relief for retailers, but will the Government commit to giving genuine support to all small and medium-sized enterprises, which are the lifeblood of our economy, by matching our pledge to cut and freeze business rates for all small firms—not just those in retail, but manufacturers, high-tech firms and other job creators too?

Business rates rocketed under the last Government. First, we have taken about 400,000 of the smallest businesses out of business rates altogether, a scheme that the Labour Government wanted to bring to an end. Secondly, we have capped the increase at 2%, so we have protected businesses from inflation. Thirdly, we have chosen to provide particular support to our high street stores, and I am very disappointed that the hon. Lady does not support that. It is interesting that another of the Labour spokespeople has got to their feet, but not one of them has yet—20 minutes into Treasury questions—welcomed the good economic news today.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of changes in the VAT export rules that are causing concern among auctioneers, damaging EU trade and putting them at a competitive disadvantage? Will he look into this, and try to ensure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs makes the system manageable?

I will make sure that the specific issue is looked at and that the right hon. Gentleman can meet my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary, who handles such tax and VAT issues.

There is evidence that Ulster bank deliberately bankrupted some viable businesses to make more profit, according to one of the Government’s key advisers, Lawrence Tomlinson. What is the Chancellor going to do about this to protect the small businesses affected by Ulster bank and by RBS?

The revelations by Tomlinson shocked everyone, and the business practices of RBS, including Ulster bank, are now under the microscope. Of course, these revelations would not have come to light if we had not asked Tomlinson to do his work and had not published the Tomlinson report.

We are particularly aware of the challenge in Northern Ireland, with the weakness of the Northern Ireland banking system—affected by what has happened in the Republic and the fact that RBS is such an important player through Ulster bank—and we are in constant discussion with the Northern Ireland authorities. I know that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary is talking to the Northern Ireland Executive about precisely what we can do to help to protect the Northern Ireland economy, as RBS implements its bad bank plan.

The Prime Minister said yesterday:

“I am a tax-cutting Tory”.

So am I. Does the Chancellor agree that, when resources allow, cuts in tax are the best possible tonic that the Government can provide to small businesses? Does he further agree that the best spur to incentives for small businesses is to cut the marginal rates of corporation and personal tax as soon as he can?

I am a low-tax Conservative as well, and I hope that I am in good company on the Government side of the House. We have made reductions in tax. The small companies tax rate was due to go up to 22% under the Budget plans voted on by the Labour party, but we have reversed that and reduced it to 20%. We are now of course bringing the main headline rate of corporation tax down to 20% as well, and getting rid of the complicated taper. That is all further evidence to support the ambition of reducing marginal tax rates for businesses.

Could the Chancellor and I make a deal that I will start to welcome any measure of improvement in the economy if he stops blaming the whole economic world meltdown on the previous Labour Government?

On small businesses, many people find crowdfunding and crowdsourcing a real way to start businesses and get the finance to do it; women, in particular, are coming through that route. Will he meet an all-party group of MPs to talk about the proposed regulation of crowdfunding so that we do not strangle a rather nice baby at birth?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the better news. Indeed, I think that unemployment in his constituency has fallen by 20%, which is further good news. It is the first time in years that I have heard him try to defend the record of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown): since he is not here, the hon. Gentleman has to do it for him.

The point that the hon. Gentleman makes about crowdsourcing is a serious one. We are looking at this new market and at what, if anything, the Government should do to support it. It is of course growing without Government support, but we are actively looking at it, and I would very happily consider any positive suggestions he has on what more we can do to support crowdfunding.

Income Tax

Since 2010, the Government have increased the income tax personal allowance by more than 50% and it will reach £10,000 this April. That will cut the income tax bills of more than 25 million working people by £700 a year. We can afford to do that because we have stuck to a credible economic plan that is creating jobs and supporting growth, as is shown by today’s excellent figures.

That means that 2.4 million people have been lifted out of paying tax altogether. In my constituency, thousands of people are no longer paying tax and are in profitable work. My constituency has a 1.9% unemployment rate and thousands of jobs are coming to Daventry. Does that not show that for my constituents, the Government’s long-term economic plan is working?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend. I can update him on one point of fact. By April this year, we will have taken not 2.4 million low earners out of tax, but 2.7 million low earners.

Given that the married couples tax break helps just one sixth of families with children and one third of married couples, is it an example of the Government’s well-targeted support?

I would prefer it if those resources were used to fund further increases in the personal allowance. However, the hon. Gentleman should welcome the fact that the Government are saving thousands of people in his constituency £700 a year in income tax that they would be paying if his party had stayed in office.

Raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 is putting more money into the pockets of the low-paid, and their spending is helping to drive the recovery. Will the Chief Secretary consider increasing the threshold to £10,500 in the forthcoming Budget?

My hon. Friend is right to say that this policy is helping people on low incomes, as well as working people up and down the country, many of whom have household budgets that are under pressure. I would like the income tax personal allowance to be higher. As a party, we have set the goal of a £12,500 personal allowance in the next Parliament. In the same way, the £10,000 goal for this Parliament was set by the Liberal Democrats.

I note that, despite a number of opportunities, the Chancellor did not mention the cut to the 50p rate of tax. I wonder whether the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will refer to it in answering a simple question. Will he confirm that people who are earning more than £1 million have received an average income tax cut of more than £100,000 this year—yes or no?

The figures from HMRC show that the cost of reducing the 50p rate to 45p was about £100 million. It is precisely because the tax was not raising any money that I was willing to support the decision to reduce it, on the basis that we would raise much more money from the same people in different ways. The House might like to be updated on one of those measures. The annual tax on enveloped dwellings—the mansion tax for tax dodgers—is raising five times as much as we thought it would.

Sugary Drinks (Taxation)

6. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health on introducing an additional tax on drinks with a high sugar content. (902213)

There are difficulties of principle and practice with using tax instruments to promote public health. Unlike smoking, where any level of consumption can have damaging effects, the consumption of most drinks in moderation can be to the benefit, rather than the detriment, of an individual’s health. The Government are instead working with industry to reduce the nation’s calorie intake.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has called for a 20% tax on sugary drinks, stating that it would provide enormous health benefits and yield £1 billion to the Treasury. We spend £9.8 billion a year on dealing with type 2 diabetes and its complications. Will the Exchequer Secretary consider that idea for inclusion in the next Budget? At the very least, will he meet a delegation of those who want to make the argument in favour of such a tax?

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s remarks. This is a problem of over-consumption and tax can often be a blunt instrument in dealing with such problems. My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary will be more than happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman and a delegation to discuss the matter.

Does the Exchequer Secretary agree that tackling obesity in children should be a matter for parents, teachers and others who work with children, and that any tax increase such as that proposed by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) would be seen as a Treasury tax grab on those who enjoy Pepsi cola, Coca-Cola and Fanta?

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point. It is right that the Government take steps, through the public health responsibility deal, to encourage companies to reduce calories in their products, and that we encourage participation in sport. That is more effective and targeted than a tax increase.

Cost of Living

In addition to lifting the income tax personal allowance, which I mentioned earlier, the Government are supporting working households’ income through other measures such as freezing fuel duty, supporting a council tax freeze and, most importantly, sticking to an economic plan that is getting hundreds of thousands more of our fellow citizens back into work.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The best way to help people and families on lower incomes is to take them out of tax. What is the effect of the increase in the tax threshold compared with the last Government’s disgraceful decision to abolish the 10p tax rate?

That is a very good question. The tax threshold increases that we have presided over will have taken 2.7 million people out of tax. The personal allowance is a zero rate, whereas a 10p rate would halve the rate of income tax, so raising the personal allowance is literally twice as good.

I would like to draw the Chief Secretary’s attention to people who earn less than £10,000 a year and cannot afford to run a car. With the incredible squeeze on tax credits through low inflation rises and the taper being made even steeper, families in that situation, who are the working poor, are being hit the hardest. What will he do for those people on tax credits?

The hon. Lady is right, of course, that the financial crisis that took place when her party was in office cast a long shadow over the personal finances of millions of people in this country. However, she omits to mention that many of the people she refers to were paying income tax under the previous Government, and it is thanks to this Government’s policies that they are no longer doing so.

19. I want to extend the previous question to the difficulties of pensioners who are stuck on low-performing annuities. How will the Government open up the market and improve annuities for the future? (902226)

We have already taken steps to ensure that the annuities market works better. We are examining it further to ensure that people who have saved for a pension can get a proper deal in retirement.

When it comes to the cost of living, does the Chief Secretary now agree that it was a big mistake for the Chancellor to issue such dodgy statistics last week, desperately pretending that the public have never had it so good? The Government’s first statistical dodge was adding in only tax changes that they like and ignoring tax rises and cuts to tax credits, which, by the way, disproportionately hit women. Their other dodge was trying to prove that the rich were really doing very well by leaving out that thing that they do not like talking about today—the millionaires’ tax cut. They were such blatantly skewed figures—is the Chief Secretary not just a little bit embarrassed about such statistical trickery?

A vast amount of words, but not one of them welcoming the most important set of statistics today—the growth figures that have been published this morning. The year 2013 was the first calendar year since 2007 with economic growth in all four quarters, and I wish the hon. Gentleman had welcomed that.

Week after week, month after month, we come to the Dispatch Box and beg the Government to do something about the cost of living crisis, but all we hear from the two Government parties is, “Crisis? What crisis?” How out of touch can they possibly be? I want to ask the Chief Secretary a simple question. Does he really, genuinely think that the British public are better off today than when he came to office?

I know for a fact that the British public are better off than they would be if the hon. Gentleman’s party had stayed in office. He’s got a cheek, he really has.

Again, no welcome for the growth figures or the fact that, last week, we saw the largest quarterly rise in employment in our country’s history. No welcome for the big tax cuts for working people in this country or the range of measures that we have taken to ask the wealthiest to pay more. Those are the things that are getting this country back in the right direction, something that the hon. Gentleman’s party would fail to do.

Beer Duty

9. What assessment has he made of the effect on the brewing industry of the reduction in beer duty announced in the 2013 Budget. (902216)

The Government reduced the tax on a typical pint of beer in the Budget 2013, and ended the beer duty escalator. A British Beer and Pub Association survey suggests that 76% of its members have increased investment, and 61% are employing more staff following the beer duty changes.

On Friday I will open a new bottling plant at Marston’s brewery in my constituency—a £7 million investment made possible because of the Chancellor’s decision to cut beer duty. In the past six months, beer sales have gone up for the first time in 10 years, and 120 million extra pints have been sold. Does the Minister agree that the Chancellor was right to cut beer duty to get growth, and can we have the same again please, George?

I thank my hon. Friend very much indeed. He ran a magnificent campaign before the Budget last year in representing Burton, which I understand is the home of British brewing. By ending the beer duty escalator at Budget 2013, it is already assumed in the public finances that beer duty will rise by less than other alcohol duties this year. Pubs and brewers will also benefit from other actions that we have taken to support businesses, including support with business rates and ending employer national insurance contributions for those under 21, but I hear what my hon. Friend says.

Knowing that the Government would always wish to recognise and celebrate cultural diversity, will the Minister ensure that anything done for beer is also done for cider?

I hear the hon. Gentleman’s request. I am sure he is aware that in the 2010 Budget the Government reversed the previous Government’s 10% above-inflation rise on cider duties, and as he will know, the Treasury keeps all duties under review.

Child Poverty

Estimates of child poverty are published in the National Statistics “Households below average income” series. The Government remain committed to ending child poverty, but strongly believe that looking at relative income in isolation is not a helpful measure to track progress towards that.

There are now more than 1,000 food banks throughout the country, and the Brick food bank in my constituency is forced to give out cold food packs and kettle packs to some working families who cannot afford to eat or heat. Will the Minister explain why the number of working families with children in relative poverty is increasing?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As a Member of Parliament who has held a number of surgeries in my local food bank in Loughborough, I know that there is a variety of different reasons for people having to rely on food banks, and I am sure she will recognise that, under this Government, jobcentres are now able to direct people to food banks. Work remains the best way out of poverty, and the number of children living in workless households has fallen by more than 100,000 since the Government came to office.

Does the Minister agree that Labour’s abolition of the 10p tax rate drove more households into child poverty? By raising the tax threshold to £10,000 and creating more jobs than ever before, this Government are reducing child poverty.

At the heart of my hon. Friend’s question is the fact that, as I said, work remains the best way out of poverty, and the number of children living in workless households has fallen since this Government came to office. He is absolutely right, and we must do more to get people into jobs and therefore benefit from changes to the personal allowance threshold.

16. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that an extra 1.1 million children will be living in poverty by 2020 as a direct result of this Government’s economic policies. Today, research from Demos shows that children living in poverty are also less likely to do well at school. What will the Government do to prevent the multiple and lifelong effects of children living in poverty? (902223)

On poverty projections, in October 2012 the IFS suggested that the number of children in relative poverty would fall by 100,000 in 2010-11, but in fact it fell by 300,000. If the hon. Lady wishes to talk about educational attainment, I am sure she will join me in welcoming the news yesterday that thanks to strong reforms of the education sector by the Secretary of State for Education, more schools are now offering better education than under the previous Government.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as the Centre for Social Justice has argued for a long time, we must tackle the underlying drivers of poverty—family breakdown, illiteracy and innumeracy, substance abuse among parents and so on—as well as put a welcome emphasis, as she has done, on getting people back into work?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The Government remain committed to ending child poverty by 2020 and to the Child Poverty Act 2010. We understand that poverty is about more than income alone. As he has said, we need to focus on the root causes, one of which is poor mental health, in which I have taken a particular interest.

Energy Prices

11. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of domestic energy prices on consumer price inflation. (902218)

Consumer price inflation was 2% in December. That is the first time it has been at or below the 2% target since November 2009. It is well below half the peak of 5.2% in September 2011. The Office for Budget Responsibility is responsible for producing independent economic and fiscal forecasts, and factored in energy prices in the latest forecasts for consumer price inflation.

Given what the Minister says about inflation, in plain English, can she tell us whether she accepts that the energy bills of my constituents and those of all hon. Members have gone up this winter? Does she think that is good or bad for them and our economy?

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. Yes, energy bills have gone up, but how come she voted for a decarbonisation target last autumn that would have added a further £125 to all average bills?

Will my hon. Friend look at the impact of domestic energy prices on off-grid customers and try to find common measures to enable them to access lower energy prices?

I certainly will do so. I am sure my hon. Friend welcomes the moves the Government have made so far—in the autumn statement 2013—to cut £50 off household bills. Of course, we would like to do more, working with the companies.

23. What assessment has been made of the impact on fuel poverty of the proposed changes to the carbon emissions reduction obligation funding, which will prevent insulation work from being carried out on hard-to-treat cavity properties, particularly in the north? (902230)

I am interested to hear the hon. Lady’s question, as she also voted for the decarbonisation target that would have added £125 to bills. However, I am sure she welcomed the winter fuel payments made to 14,000 people in her constituency in winter 2012-13. This Government are on the side of helping people to deal with the rising cost of their fuel bills. In autumn statement 2013, we extended the energy company obligation target, but we have certainly not given up on it.

Private Sector Job Creation

The latest data published by the Office for National Statistics on public and private sector employment are available up to September 2013. Between the first quarter of 2010 and the third quarter of 2013, private sector employment increased by 1.67 million, more than offsetting a decrease in public sector employment of 433,000. Over the period, for every public sector job lost, 3.9 have been created in the private sector.

In Cannock Chase, 4,000 more people were employed in the private sector in the 12 months to June 2013 than in the same period in 2012, an increase of more than 12%. Unemployment is down 40% in Cannock Chase since May 2010. What further action is the Treasury taking to make it easier for small businesses in my constituency to take more people on?

To highlight one measure, the introduction of the employment allowance in April will mean that the first £2,000 of jobs tax will not need to be paid. It is worth noting that some believed it was not possible that growth in private sector job creation would outweigh public sector jobs lost. Indeed, in 2011 the shadow Chancellor said that that whole idea was a “fantasy”.

As the Chancellor is keen for an Opposition Member to endorse his growth figures, I welcome them—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] However, a report yesterday indicated that much of the growth in the private sector has been concentrated on London and not on other parts of the United Kingdom. What policies is he undertaking to ensure that the growth we are experiencing is experienced by cities across the UK?

First, may I express my gratitude for the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question? As to the second part, he should be aware that in 2013 the focus on London changed and that only one in five of the new private sector jobs was created in London. Indeed, over the course of this Parliament employment is up in every region and nation of the United Kingdom.

Apprenticeships (Child Benefit and Tax Credits Eligibility)

14. If he will extend eligibility for child benefit and tax credits to the households of young people who are undertaking apprenticeships. (902221)

The Government continue to support apprenticeships by funding 16-to-18 apprenticeships for every employer who wants to offer them and every young person who secures a place, and by promoting the uptake of apprenticeships among employers and implementing reforms to drive up apprenticeship quality. When a young person takes up an apprenticeship, they are classed as in employment with training. From that point, benefits for the young person paid to their parents cease.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. The number starting apprenticeships in my constituency has almost doubled from 630 in 2009 to 1,100 last year. Will the Minister join me in congratulating all those apprentices and their employers? Does he share my view that this is one more sign that the Government’s long-term economic plan is working?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. His experience in Hereford in not unique: the number of apprenticeship starts across the nation has gone up by 82% in the course of the past three years. He is absolutely right to describe that as part of a long-term economic plan.

National Infrastructure Plan

I published the updated national infrastructure plan on 4 December 2013. It includes an update on the Government’s top 40 priority investment projects, including a pipeline of £375 billion-worth of planned investment, of which the Government have contributed £100 billion in capital over the long term.

Last month, after detailed analysis, the Financial Times reported that it found progress in infrastructure schemes to be slow, if not minimal, including on many of the 40 priority projects launched to great fanfare by the Government. What will the Minister do to rectify the situation and get infrastructure projects delivered?

I do not think that that analysis is correct. Thirty-six transport projects worth more than £1.7 billion have been delivered, upgrades to more than 150 railway stations and 350 flood and coastal erosion schemes have been completed, superfast broadband last year passed an extra 200,000 premises and electricity generation schemes are being completed across the country. Just last week we completed, several months ahead of schedule, the M4 and M5 managed motorway projects near Bristol—another example of infrastructure being delivered by this Government.

Topical Questions

When the right hon. Gentleman was first asked to vote on the issue, the figure was 1 million; now it is 5 million—that is, people in hock to payday lenders. Does the Chancellor therefore regret voting against the cap on the cost of credit so many times?

I was the shadow Chancellor for five years and never once did the Labour Government propose a cap on payday lending. It is this coalition Government who are introducing a cap on payday lending. I would have thought that of all people the hon. Lady, considering her campaign, would welcome that.

T2. Does the Chancellor agree that the previous Government led us to financial ruin not through taxing us too little but by spending too much, and that the solution to the problem is to reduce spending to affordable levels? Will he therefore guarantee to plug the remainder of the deficit through spending reductions, rather than through tax rises on hard-working and hard-pressed families? (902199)

While no responsible Chancellor rules out tax changes, I believe the remainder of our deficit reduction plan can be achieved by reducing spending. Indeed, the reduction in the deficit has contributed to the economic stability that has been a platform for the economic growth we have seen. Perhaps the shadow Chancellor will get up and welcome that.

Order. Some people are slow learners, so I will say it slowly: keep calm, be patient; Government Members, you have got the man at the Box for whom you were waiting, and now you should just listen. In tennis, new balls come after the first seven games of a match and subsequently after every nine, so patience is required.

After three damaging years of flatlining, today’s growth figures are welcome, but everything we have seen today from the Chancellor shows he just does not understand that for working people facing a cost of living crisis, this is still no recovery at all. Last week, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister tried to use dodgy figures to tell people they had never had it so good. Why will he not today admit the truth: he has failed to get the deficit down, and since he came to office, working people have been not better off, but worse off?

I am not sure that that was worth waiting for. Since we last met, there has been a very important Labour economic announcement, and one that we wholeheartedly support: the decision to keep the right hon. Gentleman in his job until the general election. He welcomes the economic news through gritted teeth, because he said not only that it would not happen, but that it could not happen if we pursued our economic plan. He predicted that jobs would be lost, but 1 million have been created; he predicted that the deficit would go up, but it has come down; he predicted there would be no economic growth, unless we borrowed and spent more. He has been wrong on all these things. What the Opposition need are new crystal balls.

Very good, Chancellor—a joke about my name being Balls. Fabulous.

The reality is that business investment is still weak, housing demand is outstripping supply, the savings ratio is falling and the average working person is £1,600 a year worse off than they were in 2010. Let me ask the Chancellor about the one thing he has refused to talk about now for four days. He has delivered one massive tax cut for the richest 1% earning more than £150,000, when everybody else is worse off. The Prime Minister and the Mayor of London are now saying that they want to cut the top rate of income tax again, to 40p. Is that really the Conservative party’s priority? If the Chancellor still believes that we are “all in this together”, why will he not stand at the Dispatch Box and rule out another top-rate tax cut from the Conservatives in the next Parliament? Come on, George: stand up and rule it out.

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman what the big tax cut was this Parliament: it was for working people through our increase in the personal allowance to £10,000. After last week, it is clear that the shadow Chancellor has learned absolutely nothing from the economic mess he brought upon this country. He said that Labour should have spent more money in the boom; he has set out fiscal plans that allow billions more of borrowing; and on the top rate of tax, he announced a plan that was attacked by Labour Ministers whom he served with in government, by the people who lent the Labour party money and by credible business people across the country—and his costings were shot down by the Institute for Fiscal Studies last night. There cannot have been a more disastrous policy launch in the history of the modern Labour party. On the day we learn that our economy continues to grow, is it not clear that the anti-business Labour party is now the biggest risk to the economic recovery?

T3. That seems to be game, set and match.The European Commission is considering the removal of the aggregates levy exemption, which would affect the Cornish china clay industry and put up to 500 jobs at risk. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will do all they can to maintain the exemption and protect these vital jobs? (902200)

Yes, I can confirm that. A state aid investigation has been opened, so we are compelled under European law to suspend the exemption, but, working with the industry, we have provided a very robust response to the Commission outlining why the exemption is justified. We remain confident that the Commission will find that the exemption does not amount to state aid.

T8. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is investigating 12 employment agencies in my constituency for underpayment of the minimum wage. Two investigations have been concluded, penalties imposed and money repaid to local workers, but local people simply do not understand why the Government will not name and shame those two agencies. I think the Government are wrong. Will they reconsider? (902206)

I think the hon. Gentleman raised this topic in the debate on the national minimum wage. I am very happy to take this away and to have a conversation once I have had a chat with Treasury officials.

T4. This time last year, the shadow Chancellor said that the economy would get worse. Can I lob the following question to the Chancellor and ask him how that prediction turned out? (902201)

The economy has grown by 2.8 % over the past four quarters, which is the point. First, when the shadow Chancellor was in office, he predicted that there would be no more boom and bust—we had the biggest boom and the biggest bust—and secondly, he predicted that there would be no recovery unless we borrowed and spent our way into economic risk, which has turned out to be untrue. I do not know why anybody in the Labour party still listens to his predictions at all.

Order. Mr Cryer will be heard. The House should hear him. His constituents should hear him. It is really just a matter of courtesy.

The Liberal Minister used to be a loyal servant of Britain in Europe. Does he still agree with its founding principles?

I still very much take the view that Britain is better and stronger as a full member of the European Union and that membership of the European Union is vital for our trade and for 3.5 million jobs in this country, which is why I will resist any attempts to take Britain out of the European Union.

T5. I do not know whether the shadow Chancellor has been to Yorkshire recently, but if he does come up north, he will see that, in Colne valley and Huddersfield, manufacturing is surging, whether it is Magic Rock brewery exporting to Australia, Camira fabrics selling its textiles to the Los Angeles transit system or even Newsholme foods selling black puddings to Spain. Will the Chancellor please continue to reject the doom-mongering, mithering and class warfare from the Labour party and continue with his long-term economic plan? (902202)

I was in Pudsey the other day seeing a very successful manufacturing business near to my hon. Friend’s constituency. What was interesting was that that business is now exporting to China, which is a total reversal of what we have seen in the textile trade over the last few decades. I am very willing to come and see my hon. Friend and perhaps taste some of that delicious black pudding that the Spanish are buying.

Thousands of small businesses are often unaware that they are sitting on a bit of a time-bomb: embedded swaps sitting within personal loans, often sold to them without their knowledge. What will the Chancellor do to bring that back into the Financial Conduct Authority review to ensure that these swaps, which are currently not subject to any regulation, are regulated?

The FCA is looking at the whole issue of swaps and how they were sold to small businesses, and clearly, considerable sums of compensation are going to be paid. I will look at the specific point that the hon. Lady makes. If she believes that there is a group that are not currently included that should be included in that work, I will take a close look at it personally and get back to her.

T6. Last week, we saw the sharpest quarterly increase in the number of people in work since records began. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is more evidence that the Government should stick with their long-term economic plan to reduce the deficit and create more jobs, which is already providing a record number of people with the stability and security of a regular pay packet from firms such as Steelco in Dudley, which I visited last week? (902203)

I know from visits with my hon. Friend to the manufacturing businesses of Dudley that he is a powerful supporter of their interests in growing those businesses and taking on more people. Unemployment in Dudley has fallen by 19 % since he started to represent that town. I welcome his support. Together let us make sure that we have a business-led recovery and a recovery in the west midlands and that we reject the anti-business approach of the Labour party.

The whole House has heard the Chancellor proclaim over the last three years that when the recovery comes—as it will—it will be a different kind of recovery, based on investment and, indeed, investment-led. Is it not the case that business lending is stagnating, if not falling, that capital investment in the much-heralded infrastructure plan is 7.4% lower than it should be, and that what we are actually seeing is an economic-pick-up based on consumer spending? Does that not send a warning signal to the Chancellor? Instead of boasting about the situation, he should be doing something about it.

Given his experience, the hon. Gentleman must surely consider the growth of the car industry in Coventry, and in the west midlands as a whole, to be as strong as any growth that he has seen in his career. We are exporting cars at a rate at which we have not exported them since the early 1970s. Of course we want to see more business investment and more exports, but what we are seeing now is a rebalancing of the economy. The private sector is growing, and the number of jobs is increasing throughout the country—and that includes the west midlands, an area in which the number of jobs fell during the boom.

Incidentally, given his business experience, I suspect that the hon. Gentleman does not support for one moment the proposals announced by the shadow Chancellor over the past week.

T7. In south Essex, £1.5 billion is being invested at London Gateway, £500 million is on the table for a new power station, £180 million is being invested at Lakeside, and the regeneration of Basildon town centre is about to begin. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those inward investments in my area indicate that our long-term economic plan is working, leading to rising growth and falling unemployment for the benefit of my constituents? (902205)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on the work that he has done to bring that investment into his constituency, and to create jobs and opportunities for the people whom he represents. It is important for us to send a message to the world that we are open for business and open to investment, and because we are doing that, we are now a go-to destination for world investment. Can my hon. Friend imagine the impact on jobs and investment in his constituency if we adopted the Labour party’s approach?

May we have an update on the Chancellor’s intention to introduce a new regime for annually managed expenditure? Will the overall welfare cap of which he has spoken include a cap within a cap for welfare spending in Northern Ireland?

We are not proposing a cap within a cap, as the hon. Gentleman puts it, but we are proposing a welfare cap. We have set out the details of the benefits and the annually managed expenditure that will be part of the cap, but we will announce further details about the level of it at fiscal events later this year.

T9. Next week I shall be hosting an event to celebrate independent retailers, cafés and pubs in the city of Hereford, in particular Hat Trick, La Madeleine and The Barrels. I greatly welcome today’s excellent economic news. Does the Chancellor share my view that low taxes are a vital means of helping and encouraging small businesses to grow and create jobs? (902207)

It sounds very tough, campaigning in Hereford.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing those businesses to the attention of the House, and congratulate him on the support that he has given to the economic policies that are helping them to grow. He is absolutely right: we must continue to support firms of that kind. High street shops, pubs, cafés and the like will, of course, benefit from the £1,000 rate relief which will be introduced this spring, and which will be a huge help to all—or most—of the businesses on the high streets of Hereford.

The person who had the best answer to that question was the head of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who said very clearly that the reason why the country was poorer was the very deep recession. He said that we have had the biggest recession in 100 years and that it would be astonishing if household incomes had not fallen and earnings had not fallen. This country is poorer because of the disastrous economic policies of the shadow Chancellor. It is under this Government that the economy is growing and jobs are being created, including jobs in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency.

We know that the Chancellor is keen to cut high marginal rates of tax. Does he appreciate that an advantage of the further increase in the personal allowance for which the Liberal Democrats are calling is that it would almost entirely scrap the effective 30% marginal tax rate faced by those who are aged over 65 and whose incomes amount to no more than the national average?

May I first take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend, and my hon. Friend the Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), on recently becoming parents? He is quite right to suggest that further increases in the personal allowance would benefit all parts of the population. The Chancellor will make announcements in the Budget in March and, as a party, we will be campaigning for further increases in the personal allowance, precisely to ensure that the benefits are spread as widely as possible.