Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 585: debated on Tuesday 2 September 2014

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.