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Volume 585: debated on Tuesday 2 September 2014

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Long-term Economic Plan

The Government’s long-term economic plan is working, and the International Monetary Fund expects the United Kingdom to grow faster than any other G7 country this year. But the job is not yet done; there are growing risks abroad from a disappointingly weak eurozone and persistent risks at home from Opposition Members who would abandon the long-term plan and return Britain to the economic mess they left it in.

I welcome the statistics out today on the Government’s flagship Help to Buy scheme. It is helping those families it was designed for: those buying a house worth less than the national average—overwhelmingly, these are people outside London and the south-east. The policy is boosting aspiration and helping hard-working families on to the housing ladder. So will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will not listen to the Labour party, which has opposed the policy, and will instead continue with Help to Buy as part of our long-term economic plan to deliver greater economic security and a brighter future for our country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. We heard lots of scare stories from the Opposition about how this scheme would be used only in central London and the like. The fact is that today’s figures show that almost 50,000 people have been helped by Help to Buy, and that 80% of those have been helped outside London and the south-east of England. In her own council area, more than 300 families have been helped. Members of Parliament from west Yorkshire would like to note that Leeds is the No.1 location for people using Help to Buy. The scheme is working, it is about backing aspiration and it is about helping people get on in life.

Businesses and families across my constituency will all benefit from recent investments in the Halton curve railway, the Mersey gateway bridge and the Hartree centre for supercomputing in Daresbury. I urge my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to continue the important work he is doing as part of the long-term economic plan to build the northern powerhouse, which will continue to create jobs and economic security in Weaver Vale and across the north of England.

Of course, I want Weaver Vale and Cheshire to be part of that northern powerhouse, and may I commend my hon. Friend for the campaigns he has fought to get the second Mersey crossing, the Halton curve and the investment in Daresbury? Those are things that Labour MPs, including the one who used to represent his seat, campaigned for for years and got nothing from a Labour Government. We now have a Conservative MP delivering for his constituents under a Conservative Chancellor.

For the reasons that I have set out before—with the slower growth in Europe. This is extraordinary: all we get at Treasury questions and generally from the Labour party are requests for more spending and more borrowing, but now Labour Members seem to be complaining that we have not cut enough. Over the summer, we did our sums, we added up their summer spending spree and we found there had been £21 billion of Labour spending commitments in the past five or six weeks alone. That is another reminder of why it cannot be trusted with the British economy again.

New research by the Inequality Briefing highlights the fact that nine of the 10 poorest regions in northern Europe are in the UK—these include the ones I represent in west Wales. The UK is also home to the richest region in northern Europe: inner London. What has happened to the long-term plan to geographically rebalance the UK economy?

The first thing I would say to the hon. Gentleman is that of course we need to tackle long-standing regional disparities in our country, and we are putting investment into Wales, including transport and infrastructure investment, to try to lift the economic performance of Wales. The broader point I make is that we need to bring the economic geography of our country closer together. That is an argument I have made about the north of England. The gap between the regions grew under the last Labour Government. By making the long-term investment under our long-term plan we hope to reduce the disparities under this Government.

The crucial task now is to develop a long-term supply side reform agenda. Does the Chancellor agree that at the heart of that must be policies to release the energies of millions of small businesses and sole traders up and down the country? With that in mind, will he examine the policies of both the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Mirrlees review, which in different ways have proposed to reduce the burden of national insurance contributions when that is affordable? Is that not an essential part of Britain’s long-term recovery?

I agree with the sentiment that my hon. Friend expresses that we want to make it easier to employ people. I would argue that the reductions that we have already made in national insurance on coming into office and the provision of an employment allowance, which has been enormously popular among smaller businesses, and next year’s move to remove under 21-year-olds from the jobs tax are all steps we are taking to support the creation of jobs in the economy. Of course, the Labour party would like to put up the jobs tax, but that would be deeply counter-productive and put people out of work.

Does the Chancellor find it a cause for concern that the Bank of England has halved its forecast for wage growth for the rest of this year?

Of course one of the challenges across the western world has been wage growth. The shadow Chancellor put it very well in an interview he gave last week. He said:

“I think that the fact that you had the massive…financial crisis which happened on our watch meant people saw their living standards hit.”

There is an admission of where the source of the problem is, and the solution is to grow our economy, create jobs and help people get on in life, and that is what we are doing.

I am not sure whether I detected any concern from the Chancellor. But if he is concerned about this issue, why is it that under his plans it is always those with the lowest incomes, those in the poorest areas and those who are most vulnerable in society who end up being hit hardest by these measures? Will he now prioritise action to ensure that we have proper enforcement of a decent minimum wage, end those exploitative zero-hours contracts and promote some incentives to have a living wage?

We are introducing new measures to strengthen enforcement of the minimum wage and to ensure that there is not an abuse of zero-hours contracts. Might I add that for 13 years the Labour party had the opportunity to introduce those measures and it did not? The record under this Government, despite the incredibly difficult economic inheritance, is that child poverty is down by 300,000 and inequality is lower than it was on average under the previous Labour Government, so we are proceeding to deal with the enormous problems that we inherited in a way that is consistent and fair.

Party Spending (OBR Audit)

2. If he will take steps to allow the Office for Budget Responsibility to audit the spending plans of political parties. (905044)

Autumn statement 2013 announced that, as required by legislation, the OBR is launching an external review of its publications over the course of 2014. The external review team will publish its independent report tomorrow. Following the outcome of that review, the Government will hold their own review of the OBR at the start of the next Parliament.

That was very interesting but it had nothing to do with the question. The figure of £21 billion that the Chancellor mentioned in his answer to question 1 will presumably be sent now by the Minister to the OBR to be checked as to whether it is factually correct, or is the figure a political smear, as usual from the Chancellor, that he is not prepared to stand up by sending it for scrutiny to the OBR—yes or no?

Much of that £21 billion figure is based on the Labour party’s own announcements. I do not know why the hon. Gentleman is complaining about that. If the Labour party wants to have credibility on fiscal policy, perhaps it should stop making so many announcements of spending splurges. Our view is that the OBR is in its infancy. We want the organisation to succeed and therefore do not want to draw it into party political matters.

If the OBR ever does decide to look at the Labour party’s figures, perhaps it will be able to explain how it is possible for the Labour party to be able to call for reductions in borrowing and in the deficit while making all sorts of promises to spend billions of pounds that it simply does not have. Does it not show that the Labour Members are as incoherent on economics as they were when they lost the last general election?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The OBR is a very successful organisation that has achieved a lot, but trying to explain the fiscal policy of the Labour party is something that would currently be beyond it.

Why are the Financial Secretary, the Chancellor and the whole Treasury scared of having such an audit? It is the most appropriate thing for the OBR to do. The OBR is one of their better creations; we have complimented them on it and supported it all the way. Perhaps we should have set it up ourselves but we have got it now. I will tell the Minister why they will not arrange for such an audit. It is because they are frit. The whole Government know that the OBR would endorse and give a clear bill of health to our plans.

My memory is that the Labour party did not support the OBR all the way. There is a debate to be had about the future of the organisation, but we do believe that, in its infancy, an organisation of this sort needs to be secure. That argument was used by the Labour party when the relevant Bill was passed in the House of Lords.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, rather than trying to untangle the mess of the current spending plans, the OBR’s time might be better used looking at the spending plans of the Labour party when it was in government so that the public have a verified and independent record of the mess it left before the next general election?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion, but I think the record is fairly clear whether the OBR looks at it or not. The previous Government left our public finances in a desperate mess and we are continuing to recover from that mess.

As well as auditing manifestos, we propose that the OBR should be tasked with monitoring and reporting on the Government’s progress on child poverty, including the impact of Budget decisions. Why will not the Government task the OBR with taking on this role? Is it because the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts that by 2020 almost 1 million more children will be living in relative poverty and almost 1.4 million in absolute poverty?

Every week, another new task comes from the Labour party for the OBR. Child poverty is down by 300,000. That is the record and those are the numbers that have been produced. We believe that the OBR has had a very good start as an organisation. We value it and believe that it has an important future, and we will not jeopardise it by letting Labour use it for party political games.

Child Poverty

3. What recent assessment he has made of the effect of his fiscal policies on the level of child poverty. (905045)

The Government are protecting vulnerable groups while taking action to tackle the record deficit we inherited. Work remains the best route out of poverty and the Budget took action to support families and to make the tax and welfare system fairer, further increasing the income tax personal allowance to £10,500 in 2015-16, which will take 3.2 million people on low incomes out of tax altogether.

I was amazed by the answer given by the Minister’s colleague to the previous question, so perhaps I will try her on the same point. Are she and her colleague in the least bit troubled by the fact that the IFS forecasts that child poverty will rise by 400,000 during this Parliament?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are committed to ending child poverty by 2020. Under this Government, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already said, child poverty has fallen by more than 300,000 since 2010. The best route out of poverty is work and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will support that route.

I congratulate the Minister on her debut at the Dispatch Box. She has referred to child poverty falling under this Government. Will she confirm that it rose under the previous Labour Government in the previous Parliament?

I thank my hon. Friend for his warm remarks. He is absolutely right. It is this Government who have gone out of their way to focus on a child poverty strategy, reducing the numbers, and that is something of which we are proud.

16. The Government’s own figures show that the number of children in poverty in absolute terms after housing costs increased by half a million between 2010 and 2013. Why does the burden of fiscal adjustment fall on the most vulnerable? (905060)

I think it is worth my reiterating that relative child poverty has fallen under this Government by 300,000 since 2010. It is quite clear what the IFS has said about the greatest and deepest recession we have had thus far and that work is the best route out of poverty. I have said it already and I will repeat it: work is the best route out of poverty. This Government are supporting hard-working families across the country and getting them out of poverty.

18. Unfortunately, the Minister’s comments bear no relationship to Rotherham, where almost a third of children are living in poverty. On a related topic, may I ask whether the Chancellor would listen to requests for additional funding for child protection in Rotherham and around the country? (905062)

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and we will look at all places and all situations. I reiterate that this Government are committed to helping all families that are having difficult times. Child poverty has come down and, of course, work is the best route to get families out of poverty. I am happy to discuss with her the specific issue of child poverty in her constituency

Fuel Duty

Autumn statement 2013 confirmed that fuel duty will be frozen for the remainder of this Parliament. As a result of this Government’s very clear actions, average pump prices are currently 16 pence per litre lower than they would have been if the Government had implemented the previous Government’s fuel duty escalator, and will be nearly 20 pence per litre lower by the end of this Parliament.

May I congratulate my fellow Essex MP on her well-deserved promotion to the Treasury? Will she update the House on the use of the tax system to reduce the instability for motorists and outline the help that has been provided for them during what was the most horrendous recession caused by the Labour party?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his warm and generous remarks. He knows that the Government are committed to supporting motorists. We are the Government who abolished the previous Government’s fuel duty escalator, cut fuel duty by 1 pence per litre and scrapped the four increases that had been planned over the Parliament. By the end of this Parliament, fuel duty will have been frozen for nearly four and a half years—the longest duty freeze in over 20 years—which I know that my right hon. Friend and, of course, the good people of Chelmsford will warmly welcome.

Employment Levels

There are a record number of people in work, and 1.8 million jobs have been created since 2010. We are also seeing the largest fall in youth unemployment on record. But too many people remain without a job, which is why we are determined to achieve full employment by helping businesses to take on new staff, and reforming welfare so that it always pays to work.

Unemployment continues to fall across Leeds, and in my constituency it has fallen by 39% to 1.8%. That is providing families with the stability and security of a regular pay packet. But is my right hon. Friend aware that of the 2 million jobs created, more than three quarters have been in full-time employment, and does not that show that the long-term economic plan of this Government is building a healthier and stronger economy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I remember visiting with him Hainsworth & Sons, a textile company in his constituency, which is now exporting to China. In his constituency, as in others, we have seen a dramatic fall in unemployment. Unemployment is down 31% in the last year; youth unemployment has fallen too. Many of those jobs are in full-time employment, as he says, but of course we are also supporting those in self-employment.

Of all those jobs created, many are part time, and part-time jobs for people who are looking for full-time employment—over a quarter of a million people are involved there. What is the Chancellor doing to increase the opportunities for full-time employment in this country?

What the hon. Gentleman says is not a clear statement of the facts, because actually, full-time employment accounts for three quarters of all the new jobs created since 2010. Of course there are those who want part-time employment, but for those in part-time employment who want full-time employment, the answer is to continue to support the economy, to do the difficult things necessary on the public finances to inspire confidence in that economy, and not to have disastrous things like a jobs tax rise, which would make it more difficult for those people to get full-time work.

Key to a long-term employment plan is the wonderful apprenticeship scheme. The new scheme was launched by the Business Secretary in Leeds. We have seen the creation of 2,000 apprenticeships since 2010. Will my right hon. Friend also welcome the fact that now, finally, Leeds city council is talking about a university technical college? Considering that there is a spare Leeds city council site, does he not think it is time that Leeds city council got on and built one?

I very much agree with my hon. Friend. The university technical colleges have been a real boost to technical education in our education system, and I know that there are ambitious proposals in Leeds. Indeed, I think, from memory, that one has just been given the go-ahead in Leeds. But I would also say that the apprenticeship scheme has been very successful. Working with myself and the Business Secretary, more than 2 million apprenticeships have been provided. We want to see more of those provided, so that young people have the skills to take the opportunities that the economy is now providing them.

Does the Chancellor regret that under his watch the number of young people staying on jobseeker’s allowance for more than 12 months has risen by more than 46%? Is it not now time for Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee to ensure that young people are not left behind?

Interestingly, a lot of Labour MPs have regularly asked about long-term youth unemployment during Treasury questions over the past couple of years. I bring that up because the hon. Lady asks about this, but long-term youth unemployment is now lower than it was when this Government came to office. We heard a lot of complaints about long-term youth unemployment over the past two years, so let us have some Labour Members congratulating the Government now.

Taxes on Households

The Government have done a vast amount to reduce the tax burden on working people. By the end of this Parliament, without the Government’s changes to the tax system, 3.2 million low-paid individuals whom we have lifted out of income tax would still have been paying income tax, it would have cost the typical motorist £10 more to fill up their petrol tank following the rise that the previous Government planned would take place yesterday, and the council tax bill for a family in a band D property could have been up to £1,100 more. This is all part of our long-term plan to build a stronger economy in a fairer society.

Around 40,000 people in my constituency will benefit from the Government’s decision to raise the tax limit. That helps those on low and middle incomes to keep more of the money they earn in their pocket each month, which shows the Government’s good values in action. Will my right hon. Friend confirm how much more someone in my constituency on the minimum wage will save as a result of our actions?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to stress the importance of lifting the income tax personal allowance, which was a Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment for working people in this country. A full-time worker on the minimum wage will pay three quarters less income tax than they would have done in 2010. A typical basic rate taxpayer will save £800 in cash terms in the next financial year.

If the Chief Secretary believes in reducing taxation on working families, will he explain why those on universal credit will be subject to a 76% marginal deduction rate on extra earnings? Why do the Government believe that wealthy people have to be incentivised by a tax cut, but the poorest people need to be incentivised by a huge tax rate?

The hon. Lady deliberately ignores the fact that many people faced marginal deduction rates of more than 100% under the previous Labour Government. It is precisely because we want every single person in this country to know that they will be better off in work than on benefits that we are introducing universal credit, and she should support it as strongly as I do.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research has shown that a 3p cut in fuel duty would generate 70,000 new jobs, stimulate GDP by 0.2% and help to reduce inflation. The Centre for Economics and Business Research says that a cut would be even more beneficial to the economy and would be self-financing. Do the Government accept that a cut in fuel duty would be self-financing and provide a boost to the economy?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing attention to that study, which I have discussed with the FairFuelUK campaign, although I was slightly discomforted when it said it thought that the only two politicians it had met who understood the issue were myself and Nigel Farage—that was probably a surprise to both of us. The Treasury has published its own analysis on fuel duty reductions, which shows the economic benefits that they can bring.

Given the importance of accurately calculating the tax yield from households and businesses, and that of ensuring that both pay their fair share of tax, will the Chief Secretary tell us when, following the letter from the head of the UK Statistics Authority, the Chancellor will correct the record and apologise for giving the House incorrect figures that inflated the success of his tax avoidance programme?

The hon. Lady should celebrate our tax avoidance programme because it ensures that people who avoided paying tax under the previous Labour Government now pay tax under this coalition Government. She should welcome the fact that the programme is bringing in £7 billion more than was the case under the previous Government, not criticise it.

Help for Businesses

The Government are actively supporting the export and investment aspirations of British businesses. To ensure that companies have access to world leading export finance, Budget 2014 announced that Export Finance’s direct lending facility will be doubled to £3 billion and the rate of interest cut by a third to the lowest level allowed by international agreements. UK Trade & Investment is on track to help 50,000 companies export by 2015, double the number supported in 2010, and to encourage investment, the Government have cut the main rate of corporation tax to 21% and will reduce it further to 20% in April 2015.

I have a successful small company in my constituency that sells skin care products across the world, and most recently, to China, but it would appear that the Chinese Government are insisting that online customers in China can purchase only up to $100-worth of product at any time unless they turn themselves into a registered business. Surely that must be against World Trade Organisation rules, so will my hon. Friend will look into it as a matter of urgency?

My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for her constituents and businesses located in her constituency. She raises an important point and I will make sure that both our embassy in China and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are aware of her concerns. The Government recognise the importance of trade with China and we want to do everything that we can to bring down barriers to enable as much trade as possible.

During the past week, two reports have shown that export growth is down because of external factors such as slow growth in the eurozone, sanctions against Russia and the strength of the pound, and at the same time lending by banks to small businesses this year has fallen by £1,200 million, affecting their investment plans. Is there not a real danger that future growth will now be dependent on unsustainable consumer borrowing? What can the Government do, first to force banks to lend money to small businesses, and secondly to make known to small businesses the plethora of initiatives that have been taken to encourage exports?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the fact that there are external pressures here, but there are steps that the Government can take, and, as he touches upon, we have taken a number of measures to help with exports. Whether that is support for UK Trade & Investment or new financing facilities, the Government are determined to do everything to help those businesses to export to overseas markets.

21. Does my hon. Friend agree that the extension of the runway at Birmingham airport, allowing long-haul flights now to fly direct to China, is another example of how the Government’s long-term economic plan to build a stronger and healthier economy in the west midlands will allow business men to travel there and do better business with China? (905067)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point and that is one important example of the 2,000 infrastructure projects delivered by the Government.

The removal of the aggregates levy credit scheme in Northern Ireland has severely hit the construction industry. I was pleased to hear that the European Commission had ruled that the scheme was legal and will not be seeking back payments. What will the Minister do to reinstate the levy to help local businesses grow and create employment?

The hon. Lady raises an important point and I hope that we can say more about the steps that we can take to help businesses in Northern Ireland in particular that have been affected by this issue.

Bank Bonuses

The Government are challenging the bank bonus cap provisions under EU capital requirements directive IV. We think that those rules will undermine the progress that we have made to make sure that bankers’ pay is aligned with long-term performance and that there are no rewards for failure or wrongdoing.

The Chancellor was much too complacent earlier. Youth unemployment in Blaenau Gwent is still way too high. Why do the Government refuse to repeat the tax on bank bonuses? That could fund guaranteed jobs for young people throughout the UK.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have instead introduced a permanent bank levy on bankers’ balance sheets, which, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, will raise £8 billion during the life of this Parliament, and up to £18 billion by 2018-19, so they are paying a fair share towards our economic recovery.

Growth in Average Earnings

10. What recent estimate he has made of the difference between the rate of inflation and the rate of growth in average earnings since May 2010. (905053)

We recognise that times have been tough for hard-working people. However, the Government have taken decisive action in getting more people into work than ever before—cutting taxes for hard-working families through increases in personal allowances, freezing council tax and fuel duty, cutting energy bills, and providing tax-free child care up to £2,000.

In July the Chancellor came to Newcastle to announce that the economy was back on track. Office for National Statistics figures show that the real value of average wages in the north-east has fallen by £1,811 per year since this Government came into power. Is that what he means by “on track”—falling wages for working people and tax cuts for millionaires?

The hon. Lady will know that our economy is recovering from the deepest debt-fuelled recession in living memory. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has made it clear that there have been very significant falls in real earnings as a direct but delayed response to the 2008 recession. In the light of this honest assessment, she will know that the only way to raise living standards in a sustainable way is to tackle the country’s economic problems head on.

20. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the best indications of the rate of growth is the increase in jobs, and that with over 1.8 million more jobs now in the economy than over the past four years, more women in work than ever before, and youth unemployment falling dramatically, that all indicates that our long-term economic plan is working and that as regards the economic policies of the Opposition, the wheel may be turning but the hamster is dead? (905066)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He has made the case very clearly that there are strong economic indicators out there that are testament to the Government’s long-term economic plan. Quite frankly, this country is going forwards, not backwards.

According to the most recent Office for National Statistics figures, child poverty in lone parent families where the parent is working full-time has risen from 17% to 22%. What are the Government doing to help those families to beat the rising cost of living?

I re-emphasise the point that I made earlier: child poverty under this Government is down by 300,000. Inequality is being tackled very effectively by this Government through what we are doing to raise living standards and tackle the country’s economic problems head on.

Will my hon. Friend remind the House of the amount by which personal tax-free allowances have been increased since 2010 to help protect household budgets in an era of sluggish wage growth?

As my hon. Friend will know, we have increased tax allowances by thousands of pounds to the new figure of £10,500, which will take an extra 3.2 million people out of tax.

Business Start-ups (Milton Keynes)

11. What estimate he has made of the number of new businesses set up in Milton Keynes in the last year. (905054)

I am grateful for that answer. Does my hon. Friend agree that more new business start-ups are vital to secure our economic recovery? Is he aware that this Friday my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes North (Mark Lancaster) and I are hosting a business start-up event to give budding entrepreneurs access to the support and advice they need to get their businesses going?

I entirely agree that business start-ups are very important. I certainly was aware of the event at the national rail centre in Milton Keynes between 4 o’clock and 7 o’clock on Friday afternoon. I also note that unemployment in my hon. Friend’s constituency has gone down by 42% since the last election, which suggests that start-ups are thriving in Milton Keynes.

Order. It is a pretty considerable distance from Milton Keynes to Brighton, and indeed, for that matter, to Bolsover. The question was narrowly constrained, so we will move on.

Cost of Living

As I said earlier, the coalition Government have taken decisive action to support families on low incomes, particularly by increasing the personal allowance next year to £10,500—a key Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment. I also mention the hugely successful introduction today of universal free school meals for infant school pupils, which, as well as enhancing educational performance, is worth £400 per child in terms of the costs of paying for those meals.

I thank the Chief Secretary for his answer. Does he agree that the Liberal Democrats have been a driving force in this Government for helping people on low incomes through the increase in personal tax allowance, and that the implementation of the universal free school meals for infant schools this week is further evidence of the Liberal Democrats really helping hard-working people on low incomes?

It will come as no surprise to the House that I wholeheartedly agree with my right hon. Friend. She is absolutely right to say that certain measures would not have happened without the role played by the Liberal Democrats in this Government. The lifting of the income tax personal allowance and the introduction of free school meals for infant pupils are just two of many ways in which our party has contributed to this Government to ensure that we are helping and that this country has a stronger economy and a fairer society where everyone can get on in life. That must be the right objective.

In the last 10 minutes we have heard that jobs are very good—part-time, no doubt—and business start-ups are supposed to be very good. If all this is true, why are all these Tory MPs jumping ship?

I could not possibly comment. They have to make their own career choices. In terms of the hon. Gentleman’s own constituents, in the past four years the claimant count is down by 40.7%, which means that there are more job opportunities in his constituency than there have been for very many years.

Bank Lending to Businesses

Net bank lending to business in the UK fell sharply following the financial crisis. The Government have acted decisively to stimulate lending, introducing schemes such as funding for lending and the British business bank. Against that backdrop, the picture has now begun to improve and the most recent figures from the Bank of England show that gross lending to small businesses has increased steadily since 2012.

Those were not the figures released last week, which show that net lending to small businesses in Britain fell by £435 million between April and June. That followed a decline of £720 million in the first quarter. Two years on, has not the funding for lending scheme failed Britain’s small businesses?

No. The hon. Gentleman is completely wrong. The funding for lending scheme has undoubtedly made more credit available than would otherwise have been the case. As I have said, gross lending to businesses has improved and the Federation of Small Businesses has said that the outlook for small and medium-sized enterprises is now better than it has been before. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the peak-to-trough drop in GDP between 2008 and 2009 was 7.2%. That is the cause of the disastrous drop in the availability of bank funding to businesses in this country.

Bank lending is particularly important for new businesses. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the record number of business start-ups—a staggering 1,965—in Brighton and Hove last year?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his announcement of what is going on in his constituency. It is fantastic news that so many new businesses are starting up. As we know, that is creating millions of new private sector jobs, and that, of course, is the way for our economy to recover.

19. I hate to contradict the Minister, but Ministers from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills tell me that they do not think that banks are lending to small business. Could the Minister do even more—I know the Chancellor has done something on this—to encourage crowdfunding as a method of getting more money to start-ups countrywide? (905063)

The hon. Gentleman is quite right: more needs to be done. The problem is not solved. This Government are doing a great number of things to try to help facilitate not only bank lending, but crowdfunding and peer-to-peer lending. We are putting crowdfunding possibilities into individual savings accounts, as the Chancellor announced at Budget time. We are also taking great steps to improve the availability of new challenger banks, to ensure that banks provide postcode-level lending data so that new challengers can look for new opportunities and to ensure that banks share credit histories via credit reference agencies. All those measures are being taken to try to improve the availability of funding to small businesses. There is certainly more to be done and I would be happy to hear any ideas the hon. Gentleman has.

National Insurance

15. What estimate he has made of the potential effect of a rise in national insurance on employment rates and take-home pay. (905058)

This Government inherited plans to increase the employer’s national insurance contributions rate by 1%. We largely reversed the negative effect of that by raising the employer threshold by £21 a week above indexation. We have also introduced the employment allowance. From April 2015, we will abolish employer’s national insurance contributions for under 21-year-olds, helping to support jobs for almost 1.5 million young people currently in employment.

It cannot be said too often: higher national insurance is a tax on pay and a tax on jobs. My hon. Friend will therefore understand my delight when the Government introduced the £2,000 employment allowance—he referred to it in his answer—which will help new businesses in particular to create new jobs. May I tempt my hon. Friend to say what further measures the Government plan to take to reduce the tax burdens on businesses and so increase employment in this country?

As I mentioned earlier, we have the removal of national insurance contributions for under-21s next year. I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the impact of higher employer’s national insurance contributions, and I have to say that one of the risks that the economy faces is a future Labour Government putting up employer’s national insurance contributions.

Fuel Duty

I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking her well-earned place on the Front Bench. May I tell her that my constituents and, indeed, many businesses in Worcester have fed back how pleased they are that we have kept the fuel duty freeze in place and rejected calls from the Labour party to restore its fuel duty escalator? Will she remind the House what the cost would be to those people and businesses if we had gone along with the previous Government’s plans?

I thank my hon. Friend for his warm welcome and kind remarks. This Government scrapped the previous Government’s fuel duty escalator, which would have increased fuel duty by 1p per litre above inflation from 2011 to 2014. Were it not for this Government’s very clear actions on fuel duty since 2011, current pump prices would be 16p per litre higher and would be nearly 20p per litre higher by the end of this Parliament. I know that my hon. Friend’s constituents and businesses in Worcester will support the clear action that this Government have taken.

Topical Questions

The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability and prosperity of the economy. That is delivered by our long-term plan. I can tell the House that the plan will be further expanded in the autumn statement, which I will deliver on Wednesday 3 December.

I thank the Chancellor for that answer. This summer, the Labour party set out a summer spending plan of some £21 billion of extra spending a year. I suggest this further debt will make our constituents wonder whether it has actually learned anything from bankrupting this country under Blair and his successors. Has my right hon. Friend assessed the impact on the public finances of such a disastrous decision?

My hon. Friend is right, of course. The Treasury’s own independent analysis of the Labour party’s approach to public spending shows that it could borrow over £166 billion more in the next Parliament. Labour Members have started to contribute to that with a £21 billion shopping list this summer. Perhaps the shadow Chancellor can get up and explain how he is going to pay for it.

Let me start by welcoming the Exchequer Secretary to her new post on the Front Bench, and by saying to the Chancellor, “Don’t worry—I’m not going to press you on my ice bucket challenge to you today.”

Let me instead ask the Chancellor about another highly topical economic issue, particularly among his Back Benchers. Before the last election, he told the Centre for European Reform that he was a “pro-European”. This week, The Times is reporting that the new chapter in his biography says that the Chancellor has gone cold on Europe—an “unmistakable hardening”—and is now pondering exit. I suspect we may know the answer, but let me ask the Chancellor: what has changed?

First, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for nominating me for the ice bucket challenge. I would rather make the extra donation to charity and pour the cold water over his economic policies. When it comes to reading biographies, we do not need a biography to know his life story: he was put in charge of the British economy, and he wrecked it.

On Europe, our position is the one that I think is shared by the majority of the British people, which is that we seek a renegotiation of Britain’s terms of membership of the European Union, and that we will then put that to the British people in a referendum. Why does the right hon. Gentleman not get up and commit the Labour party to letting the people have a say?

The Chancellor cannot even convince his own Back Benchers of his policy on Europe, let alone anybody else. Let me tell the House what the president of the CBI said last week. He said that the Government’s policy on Europe

“has already, and is increasingly, causing real concern for business regarding their future investment”.

Yet the Chancellor is flirting with exit. We know what has changed: Boris Johnson has said that he is returning to Westminster and that he is flirting with exit, and—surprise, surprise—the Chancellor is too. Let me ask the Chancellor this. I want reform in Europe but, like the CBI, I am determined to put the national economic interest first. Surely the Chancellor should put his leadership ambitions aside and put the national economic interest first too.

We put the national economic interest first by fixing the mess that the shadow Chancellor left the British economy in. I have been doing some research on what he has been up to over the summer. I read an article in the Express & Star called, “Out and about with Labour’s Ed Balls”, about when he went canvassing last week. It says:

“as we walk down Essex Drive to another house (there’s no-one in), a group of boys on their bikes look over”.

They say, “Oh look, it’s Gordon Brown.” Even they can spot more borrowing and more debt—it is Gordon Brown all over again.

T2. Some Members of the House predicted that the Government’s deficit reduction strategy would result in the number of jobs lost in the public sector far outweighing the number of jobs created in the private sector. Will my right hon. Friend tell us who was right and whether that prediction was accurate? (905079)

That prediction, like all the Opposition’s predictions, was completely wrong. For every job that has been lost in the public sector because of the necessary and difficult decisions that we have had to take to reduce the 11% budget deficit, more than five jobs have been created in the private sector. That is testimony not only to the strength of the Government’s economic plan, but to the ingenuity of British business in creating such opportunities.

T4. The Chief Secretary has been keen to trumpet free school meals for six, seven and eight-year-olds. However, this week in Hackney, many of the 47% of children who are living in poverty will turn up at school not having had a square meal for six weeks. They will be fed by the free breakfast clubs that are supported by head teachers and charities. Is it not time that the Government woke up to the reality of poverty? The parents of those children can get only low-paid, part-time work if they are lucky. Is it not time that the Government took action to tackle child poverty? (905082)

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the seriousness of these issues. However, as has been said in this question session, the statistics show that child poverty in this country has come down and is coming down under the coalition Government. It is precisely because of these issues that we are introducing the policy of universal free school meals. The evidence shows that it increases take-up among low-income families, who do not always take up free school meals, and ensures that children get a square meal at school each day. I hope that she will join me in welcoming that.

T3. The appalling congestion in Abingdon makes life miserable for families and commuters and inhibits local economic growth. With 600 new and needed houses planned on Dunmore road, will the Chancellor meet met to discuss why investing in a diamond junction on Lodge hill on the A34 is the answer not only to making that development sustainable, but to unlocking growth in the wider region? (905080)

Of course, I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss improvements on the A34. We are making an enormous number of improvements to the UK road system and spending more on transport and road improvement than the previous Government. We are also investing in science, and I remember making a useful visit with my hon. Friend to her constituency to see the results of the money that we have contributed to Begbroke science park. I will certainly have a meeting with her about the A34.

T6. We know from survey evidence that more than half of the licensees who are tied to large pub companies earn less than £10,000 a year. Does the Chancellor support the save the pub group’s call for a market rent-only option to ensure that tied licensees can earn a fair living and play their part in contributing to the local and national economy? (905084)

I am perfectly willing to consider representations, but the Government have set out legislation to deliver a fairer deal for pub tenants—something for which Members have been calling for many, many years. I hope that it commands his support.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend comment on the astonishing claim by the Scottish Government that they would default on their share of the UK’s debt if they did not achieve a currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom if—heaven forbid—independence was to happen? (905083)

The Scottish Government’s plan to renege on Scotland’s share of the debt in the event of independence is simply not credible because of the catastrophic effect it would have on the people of Scotland. Mortgage rates would go up, credit cards and bills would go up, and the Scottish Government would have to resort to the bond market’s equivalent of Wonga to raise money to pay for public services in Scotland. To default on the debt would be to punish every Scot for Alex Salmond’s failure to think through his currency plan B properly.

T8. Since the Government updated the law in April, thousands of construction workers such as my constituent, Ron Boyle, are facing a new form of exploitation. Forced to register with sham umbrella payroll companies, they lose hundreds of pounds a month in bogus fees, and pay national insurance contributions that ought to be the responsibility of their employers. Will the Minister assure me that that loophole will be closed quickly, so that workers such as Mr Boyle are not continually conned out of a fair wage? (905086)

I am grateful for that question, and we all sympathise with some of the difficulties that people have faced. It is fair to say that this Government are closing the loopholes in that area, dealing with intermediaries, and reforming the construction industry scheme to ensure that people who are employed have the full employment rights that they deserve.

T7. Is the Chancellor aware that unemployment in my constituency has fallen by nearly 700 since July last year, thus giving new hope to many families? Will he tell the House how the UK’s job creation record compares with other G20 countries? (905085)

The answer is that it compares very well. There has been a much faster rate of job creation in the United Kingdom than in the rest of Europe, for example, which I suggest is because we have instilled confidence in our ability to pay our way in the world through our difficult but necessary deficit reduction plan. We have helped businesses to employ extra people through the employment allowance and other tax changes, and we have created a more entrepreneurial economy, so that people who were out of work when this Government came to office got a chance of being in work, with all the security and opportunity that brings.

May I press the Chancellor on the deficit? The central objective of his plan when he launched it was to eradicate the deficit in this Parliament, but he now estimates that he will only halve it. Why has the plan fallen so far short of that central objective?

This has been the subject of much discussion across the Dispatch Box, and I have pointed out that while this Government have been in office we have had the near collapse of the eurozone economy on our doorstep—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor chuckles. Perhaps he should chuckle at the fact that the British economy is performing more strongly than any other major advanced economy in the world. He predicted that the deficit would go up, but it has come down; he predicted that millions of people would be unemployed, yet millions of jobs have been created. This summer, Labour Members set out £21 billion of more spending commitments, so the deficit would go up if they ever got the chance of office again.

I thank my right hon. Friend for reminding the House that the autumn statement will be on 3 December. May I urge him to ensure that there will be investment in our roads and railways in the south-west, so that we have trains that get into Plymouth before 9 o’clock in the morning, and more three-hour train journeys to and from London?

The autumn statement will be an opportunity to set out further improvements to infrastructure in the south-west, and the services, roads and railways that support Plymouth. My hon. Friend has been a doughty champion for that city and delivered huge investment to it, which was never forthcoming before. I assure him that we are looking at specific transport improvements to connect better the whole of the south-west with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Many local authorities are struggling to implement the Government’s policy on free school meals—for example, Coventry has to find something like an additional £1 million. What are the Government going to do about that?

The Government have made available funding to pay for the implementation of free school meals for infants and to enable additional capital investment in kitchens and the like in schools. The reports from around the country are that implementation is going successfully and that this policy will benefit thousands of children and their families.

Does the Chief Secretary share my surprise that the yes campaign in Scotland says that its economy would be stronger alone, yet it does not want the freedom to have its own currency and set its own interest rates?

I do share my hon. Friend’s concerns. As he knows, a currency union is not going to happen because it would expose the rest of the UK to economic risks that it could not control and leave Scotland unable to control its economy in the face of huge risks and uncertainty. An effective currency union needs a fiscal union and a political union, yet that is what the nationalist campaign wants to dissolve. The only way for Scotland to keep the pound as it is now is to remain part of the UK, and that is what I believe my fellow countrymen will vote for on 18 September.

Britain has an enormous trade deficit, especially with the EU, which is clear evidence of a misaligned exchange rate, and UK manufacturing is again suffering as the euro has depreciated relative to sterling. When is the Chancellor going to take the exchange rate seriously?

I follow the practice that previous holders of this job have followed over the past 20 years, which is not to comment on the exchange rate, but as I said in my response to the first question in this session, the weakness in the eurozone is an emerging risk to the UK economy and something to which we need to be alert.

Constituents of mine have been targeted by phone fraudsters calling them at home pretending to be from their bank, and several have had their bank accounts emptied, leaving them devastated. Will the Minister meet me and other hon. Members whose constituents might have been affected to discuss a way forward to ensure that banks have in place proper, robust security measures to prevent that from happening again?

Yes, I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that issue. I have been made aware of such cases. Of course, banks try to ensure that they have robust processes in place, but if anything else can be done, we are happy to look at it.

We now know that the Chancellor has had a letter from the head of the UK Statistics Authority, so when will he correct the record and apologise for giving the House—obviously inadvertently—incorrect information which inflated the success of his tax avoidance programme?

The Government, including me, did inadvertently give the wrong information, but the explanation provided by the permanent secretary at the HMRC was accepted by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), as a fair explanation of what happened.

The Treasury’s infrastructure fund is paying for increased transport capacity in enterprise zones, through roads and rail services, unlocking large new housing developments. Is the Chief Secretary prepared to use the fund also to pay for the internet and communications infrastructure that those homes and businesses will desperately need?

The support we are offering to enterprise zones includes access to high-speed broadband, and my hon. Friend will also know that a significant part of our infrastructure plan is precisely to invest in and ensure that high-speed broadband is available in the vast majority of homes in this country. That is certainly something we will turn our minds to again in the autumn statement.