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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 587: debated on Tuesday 4 November 2014


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Northern Powerhouse

In July I set out my plan to build a northern powerhouse to connect the great cities of the north with the counties that surround them—and, of course, north Wales—by investing in transport science, and by devolving powers from Westminster to elected city mayors. We now have plans for High Speed 3 and for major new science investment. Yesterday I signed an historic agreement with the civic leaders of Greater Manchester to create the first directly elected metro-wide mayor outside London, with powers over transport, economic development and policing. I hope that Manchester will be the first of many cities to take advantage of the greater devolution of powers. Today I have opened my door to discussions with any metropolitan authority that wants to adopt a new model of governance. All that is part of our ambition to reduce the decades-old gap between north and south, which is central to our long-term economic plan.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that key to the northern powerhouse vision is the improvement of transport connectivity throughout the region, and does he agree that north Wales is well placed to benefit from such improvement?

As a Cheshire Member of Parliament, I know that the north Wales economy is closely connected with the economy of the north-west of England. We have already committed ourselves to reopening the Halton curve, re-establishing a regular direct rail link between north Wales and Liverpool for the first time since the 1970s. That is something that my right hon. Friend asked me to do, and campaigned for. Moreover, High Speed 2 gives us the potential of a station at Crewe, which will greatly increase capacity for journeys to north Wales and reduce journey times. We are ready to listen to further ideas for ensuring that prosperity is experienced in north Wales as well.

For 13 years Labour neglected jobs and growth in the north, including Weaver Vale, thus creating an economy that was dangerously unbalanced. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is only the Conservative party, with its long-term economic plan, that will deliver job security for the whole United Kingdom, not just the south?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. A record number of people are now employed in the north of England, but the gap between north and south grew under those 13 years of Labour government. If the House wants one example of a project that was waiting to be completed but was entirely neglected by the Labour Government, it is the Mersey Gateway bridge, which this Government are now building and to which they are committed—and, thanks to my hon. Friend’s campaigning, there will be no tolls for local residents.

I welcome the Chancellor’s obvious commitment to the northern economy. Does he agree that a commitment to exports will be at the heart of its regeneration, and will he join me in praising Victrex, a company in my constituency, which exports 97% of what it produces? Is that not what will drive a northern renaissance?

My hon. Friend, who is a powerful champion of the businesses in his constituency which employ local people, has told me about Victrex and its exporting success. That success is being replicated by other manufacturers in the north of England which are increasing their exports. The energy revolution in the Fylde area and on the Blackpool coast is creating the potential for a national college to develop the engineering and other skills that will be required. My hon. Friend has made a strong bid for that college to be in his constituency, and I am listening very carefully to the case that he is making.

I welcomed what my right hon. Friend said when he was in Manchester yesterday. However, a northern powerhouse must not just be about our biggest cities. In Pendle we have landmark regeneration projects such as the £30 million redevelopment of Brierfield Mill, which is in need of my right hon. Friend’s support. Will he tell me what benefits the northern powerhouse will bring to my constituents, and how his investments in transport and regeneration will help them?

Crucial to the vision of the northern powerhouse is not just supporting the great cities of the north, but ensuring that they are connected with the towns and counties surrounding those cities. We are investing hugely to improve transport links in Lancashire. My hon. Friend, who is such a champion of his constituency, has raised with me the Brierfield Mill site, which is now called Northlight. We are taking a close look at what we can do to redevelop the area and bring more jobs to his constituency, and that is due to his campaigning efforts.

The idea of a northern powerhouse is welcome, as is the introduction of an elected mayor, which I am sure will provide real leadership. However, it is vital for smaller places such as Carlisle to benefit as well, which will mean ensuring that the next generation has the right skills to enable local businesses to succeed and prosper. How will the Chancellor ensure that that happens?

Thanks in part to the efforts of my hon. Friend and the support he has given to investment in Carlisle, we have seen a 34% fall in the unemployment claimant count in Carlisle in the last year alone. We are also devolving more responsibility for setting the skills agenda to local businesses, so we can have skills that are specific to the Carlisle area. I am always happy to talk to my hon. Friend and to meet people he would bring to see me, to see what more we can do to make sure that Carlisle is part of the strong economic revival of the north of England.

The Chancellor opened the door for other metropolitan areas to go down the route of the northern powerhouse. Has he given any consideration to what he regards to be an optimum size for those units? In the west midlands, would that be a Greater Birmingham and black country metropolitan area or an entire west midlands metropolitan area?

I do not think any one area is the same as any other area. There is a specific model for Greater Manchester, and of course the Greater Manchester councils had worked well together as a combined authority. Clearly Birmingham city council is much larger than Manchester city council alone, so I would like to have a conversation with the hon. Lady, and with Albert Bore and other civic leaders in Birmingham, about whether we can move to a mayoral model, perhaps just in the city. That is a discussion to be had with local people, however.

I must congratulate the Chancellor of the Exchequer on his organisational brilliance by peppering us with all these planted questions on this subject, but I tell him, as the co-chair of the Yorkshire group of MPs, that we are a bit canny in Yorkshire; we are a bit worried about this northern powerhouse. We agree with it and support it, but it is a bit close to the general election. Where has he been for four and a half years, and where is the money coming from? We have not seen any resources for it.

We have already made investments over the last four years in things such as the northern hub and the electrification of the trans-Pennine railway, which of course will have helped the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I welcome his support for the northern powerhouse. This agreement with Greater Manchester was struck with Labour leaders of Manchester councils as well as the Conservative leader of Trafford and the Liberal Democrat leader of Stockport. I want to work across party divides with local Labour civic leaders and local Labour MPs to see what we can do for Huddersfield and other towns in the north of England so that they are connected to the northern powerhouse.

Can we see the colour of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s money? How much is being allocated for so-called HS3, and has he ring-fenced the amount of funding for north Wales?

We will have developed and costed plans for HS3 from—[Interruption.] There was no proposal for HS3 from the Labour party for 13 years in government and then for four years in opposition. Labour Members are now complaining that I came up with a proposal four months ago. We already have detailed support for that proposal from David Higgins and we are going to have a costed plan for it. There was absolutely no attempt to connect the north of England from east to west under the last Labour Government. It is happening under this Conservative-led Government.

Is not the best way to have a northern economic powerhouse to have full fiscal autonomy for Scotland? After all, the Prime Minister did say that all options for devolution are there and all are possible. Does the Chancellor agree, or is he afraid of the competition from a more socially just Scottish treasury making better policies for the people of Scotland?

We will honour the commitments made during the referendum campaign by all the Unionist parties to devolve further fiscal powers to Scotland. We will honour the commitment we made, and I would ask the Scottish National party to honour the promise it made that this was a referendum which would settle the issue of Scottish independence at least for

“a generation…perhaps for a lifetime”—

I am quoting Alex Salmond. Perhaps the SNP should stop trying to reopen the question that was resolved, and work with us to make sure that Scotland has a great economic future.

The Chancellor talks about creating a northern powerhouse, but really is he not just struggling to play catch-up, because while he has been shifting funds from northern cities to wealthier parts of the country, the unemployment rate in the north-east is the highest in the country, wages for working people in the north have fallen by even more than the national average and across the north the number of people unemployed for a year or more is up 62% since the last election? Why will he not match Labour’s plan to devolve real power and £30 billion of funding not just to the north, but to all city and county regions?

Labour ran one of the most centralised Governments in history. It did not devolve any powers to anyone—

Not in England. In regard to playing catch-up, I would say to the hon. Lady that we have heard from Labour’s civic leaders in Greater Manchester that they want a directly elected mayor. We have heard from the Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer. What is the view of those on the Labour Front Bench on this proposal? Last week, the Labour leader was in Manchester saying that the Labour party would never sign up to such a deal, but four days later all his civic leaders did so. What is the policy of the Labour party?

Income Tax Allowances/Thresholds

2. What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals to change income tax allowances and thresholds. (905839)

By next year, the personal allowance threshold will have reached £10,500. This will mean an £805 cut in income tax for the typical basic-rate taxpayer, and 3 million people being taken out of income tax altogether. Under a Conservative Government in the next Parliament, we would go further.

Enabling people to keep more of what they earn is the best thing any Government can do for ordinary hard-working taxpayers. Can the Chancellor tell me how many of my constituents in Thurrock will be likely to benefit from these proposals?

My hon. Friend is a champion for the hard-working people in her constituency. Not only have our personal tax cuts helped many thousands of those people, but if we go ahead with our plans to raise the personal allowance to £12,500, more than 5,500 people in Thurrock would be lifted out of income tax altogether and 58,000 of the people she represents would benefit.

Raising tax thresholds disproportionately benefits men, because many women earn so little that they do not even reach the lowest threshold. On the other hand, consumption taxes have a disproportionate effect on women who are responsible for managing the family budget. Will the Chancellor rule out any increase in VAT, in order to ensure that our tax system can be fair to both genders?

We do not need to raise VAT, because our plans are paid for by the Government living within their means. Does the hon. Lady speak for the Labour party, because she seems to be opposing the increase in the personal income tax threshold? That is a policy that has lifted many low-paid women out of income tax altogether, and I find it surprising that once again the Labour party is against the interests of hard-working people.

By raising the personal allowance, the Chancellor has pulled 3.2 million people out of tax altogether. At the same time, however, he has dragged 1.6 million people into paying the higher rate of 40p. It is the marginal rates that matter, and that is a massive disincentive to wealth creation in this country. Does he acknowledge that, as soon as the fiscal room to do so is available, it will be essential to act to take as many people as possible out of higher-rate taxation altogether?

As my hon. Friend knows, people earning up to £100,000 who are paying the higher rate have seen the benefit of the increase in the personal allowance. They have seen their income tax bills fall. He is right to say that more people have been pulled into the 40p rate, however, and that is why we are proposing to increase the threshold to £50,000. That will be in our election manifesto, and it is something that we can deliver in the next Parliament so that people on middle incomes, as well as those on lower incomes, can benefit from a tax-cutting Conservative Government.

The Chancellor did not give us the small print relating to the promises that he has just repeated: terms and conditions apply. Will he acknowledge that there is a price tag attached to those promises, and will he tell us specifically what the cost of those commitments would be?

It is around £7 billion when we add it all up. That would be paid for by lower public expenditure. These are tax cuts that are paid for. I note that that is not the approach taken by the Labour party, which would increase tax, increase borrowing and increase spending, sending the economy back into the mess that it left it in.

So we have established that this would mean £7 billion of lower public expenditure. What elements of public expenditure would be involved? Would the Chancellor cut the police again? Would he take the money from schools and hospitals? Or are we to judge him on his usual track record, which would mean that after the election he would simply add it on to VAT?

What we have seen under this Government is a party that is able to bring our public finances under control; to reduce the welfare bill; and to make sure the egregious waste in Westminster and Whitehall that took place under the previous Government no longer takes place. We will fund that by lower public expenditure, because once we get the public finances under control we are going to keep them under control.

Tax Receipts (Deficit)

Progress has been made on reducing the deficit; it is down by more than a third from its peak and borrowing in 2013-14 was under £100 billion for the first time in six years. The latest public finance release shows that the impact of the great recession is still being felt in our economy and the public finances. The Office for Budget Responsibility expects real earnings to rise faster than inflation, and receipts are expected to perform more strongly in the second half of the year. It is therefore important to stick to the plan, which is building a more resilient UK economy.

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury will be aware that although unemployment has been falling, income tax receipts to the Treasury have stayed flat, despite the Government predicting a significant increase. Does that not show that this Government are presiding over an explosion of underemployment, zero-hours contracts and low pay, and until they deal with that, they will never bring the deficit down?

First, I would think that the hon. Gentleman would welcome the substantial increase in employment we have seen in the past two or three years—after all, it was his Front-Bench team who predicted that that would not happen under this Government. In fact, 80% of the jobs created in the past 12 months have been in full-time employment, not the part-time employment he is talking about, which is greater than the level in the economy as a whole.

Tax receipts and deficit closure are contingent on a strong economy, so does the Minister welcome the fact that the Legatum Institute’s prosperity index shows that the UK is now the most prosperous economy in all the major EU countries?

I agree with my hon. Friend that strong tax receipts require a strong economy, and the focus of this Government’s economic policy since the coalition was formed has been to rebuild the UK economy and clear up the mess left to us by the Labour party. We now have the strongest growth in the major world economies, and Government Members should be very proud of that.

Revenue officials have always been slow to catch up with the latest tax-avoidance scams in the construction industry, the latest of which is the umbrella company. Such companies are costing the Revenue huge sums and are exploiting workers. This is spreading rapidly to other sectors, including supply teaching. What is the Minister going to do about the scandal of umbrella companies?

We introduced measures precisely to deal with intermediary companies, which are often vehicles for tax avoidance or for minimising tax. We take that very seriously. If the right hon. Gentleman has evidence that he wishes to bring to my attention of specific issues that have come to his attention, I would gladly look at it.

Does the Chief Secretary agree that the best way to increase tax receipts is to create the conditions for business confidence and growth? That is happening in my constituency, with the recruitment firm eResponse choosing to set up in Rugby because it has assessed that between 1,500 and 2,000 new jobs will become available.

I welcome that sort of investment, and I very much agree with what my hon. Friend says. Businesses like that one, in every constituency up and down the country, are creating jobs because they have confidence in the economic policies of this Government.

Uncollected Tax

4. What estimate Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made of the amount of uncollected tax in the last year for which figures are available. (905841)

HMRC published its latest tax gap estimates on 16 October, and in 2012-13 the gap was estimated at £34 billion—6.8% of total tax due.

Thirty-four billion pounds is a very significant amount of money, and under this Government the amount of uncollected tax has risen by £3 billion. Why has the Minister allowed that to happen?

Let us be clear: a rate of 6.8% is lower than was achieved in any year under the last Labour Government. In addition, HMRC’s yield—the money that has come in as a consequence of its efforts—was £7 billion higher in 2013-14 than it was in 2010-11. The fact is that this Government have an excellent record on dealing with tax avoidance, tax evasion and the tax gap.

Can the Chancellor of the Exchequer say how the Government are encouraging greater payment of tax through international agreements that we have achieved, for example, with Switzerland?

I am sure that the Chancellor can explain that, but as I am already at the Dispatch Box, I will answer the question. The UK has very much led the way in the OECD base erosion and profit shifting process, ensuring that the international tax system is fit for purpose. We have made good progress on that, but there is still work to do.

18. Does the Minister think that there is any link between the deep cuts to HMRC staff, particularly in Cardiff, and the uncollected tax that is rising under this Government? (905859)

As I say, what has happened under this Government is that the yield brought in by HMRC has increased year after year. The tax gap is lower for 2012-13 than it was in any year under the previous Labour Government. In truth, the record of HMRC is one of getting more from less, but we have invested in the areas that bring in money on tax avoidance and tax evasion.

Will the Minister ensure that the unacceptable and unwelcome £1.7 billion bill from the European Union remains an uncollected tax demand, and that there will be no payment of interest on any late payment?

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the ingenuity of his question. Secondly, let me repeat what the Prime Minister said: we will not be paying £1.7 billion on 1 December.

It was indeed an extremely ingenious question, as HMRC would not be the tax collector, but, understandably, that did not trouble the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) in any way.

20. One in four children across the UK lives in poverty while this Government allow £34 billion in unpaid tax to go astray. Does the Minister not see an urgency in collecting that tax so that he can eliminate that disgraceful statistic? (905862)

Let us be clear: the tax gap is lower than it was under the previous Government and yield is higher. By international standards, the UK has one of the lowest tax gaps in the world. We have a good record, but we always seek to do more, which is why at the Budget and autumn statement we have always been able to bring forward measures to deal with tax avoidance and tax evasion, and that is a record with which we will continue.

The Minister has failed to acknowledge that families struggling to make ends meet expect the Government to ensure that everyone pays their fair share, and yet the amount of uncollected tax has risen by £3 billion since he came to office. Is it not the truth that that is both deeply unfair to hard-working families and further evidence that this Government have totally failed to tackle tax avoidance?

No; we have brought forward 40 measures to reduce tax avoidance, reduced the tax gap as a proportion of tax receipts, and increased by £7 billion the yield brought in by HMRC. The truth is that it is this Government who have acted in this area, and the record of the previous Government does not bear comparison.

Fiscal Consolidation

The Government inherited the largest deficit since the second world war. Since then, we have made substantial progress in reducing the deficit. By the end of last year, borrowing had fallen by more than a third. The Government’s consolidation plans have been central to the reduction in the deficit. Indeed, by the end of last year, we had implemented 70% of the £126 billion of fiscal consolidation planned for the end of 2015-16.

Does the Chief Secretary to the Treasury agree that if we have a credible plan to reduce the deficit, we can credibly plan to protect spending on the NHS and cut taxes? As the Labour party’s announced fiscal rules would allow for an extra £166 billion-worth of borrowing over the next Parliament, there can be no credibility in its deficit plan and in its plan for this country’s economy.

I agree with my hon. Friend that Labour’s plans would put at serious risk the jobs and stability that this coalition Government have secured. There is a lesson in what he says for all parties in this House, because economic credibility is hard to win and easy to throw away. Any party that does not put forward a plan to sort out the economy or offers unfunded tax cuts to the British people will put its credibility at serious risk.

On the deficit, the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury have failed the test they set themselves, which is to close the deficit by the end of this Parliament. Worse than that, they have failed the test that my constituents set for them, which is to put money back in their pockets. That was said to me this week by a grandmother who is desperately worried about her grandson, as he is on a five-hour contract and unable to afford to take a day off work. What will the Chief Secretary do about that?

The first thing that we are doing is delivering on what we promised to do when we created this Government in the first place, which is to repair the deep damage that the hon. Lady has to admit was done to the economy under her party’s stewardship. We have now got the United Kingdom into a position in which we are creating more jobs than in the whole of the rest of the European Union combined, and we have the strongest growth rates in the developed world. She should welcome that as something that creates opportunities for young people.

This fiscal consolidation plan will be heavily influenced by the dramatic liberalisation of pensions announced in the Budget, which will be significantly influenced by the success or otherwise of the guidance guarantee that is now being legislated for. Does the Chief Secretary agree with Ros Altmann that the Financial Conduct Authority should ensure that people who do not receive or take the guidance in this new environment are at least asked proper questions about their circumstances, such as about their partner and their health?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the pensions reforms are a great liberalisation of the pensions system. We will give people, rightly, the opportunity to make use of the money that they have saved for their retirement as and when they choose. The guidance guarantee is enormously important. We have been working closely with organisations such as Citizens Advice to make sure that people have access to the guidance in the way that my hon. Friend has set out, and we need to deliver on that.

Has the Chief Secretary to the Treasury factored into his fiscal consolidation arithmetic the extra £1.7 billion contribution demanded by the EU? Does he accept that that payment is properly due under the formula agreed by the UK Government? When will it be paid, contrary to the answer given by the Chancellor?

The Office for Budget Responsibility takes into account forecasts for EU payments in its own forecasts. It did so at the time of the Budget and will do so again at the time of the autumn statement. A demand of this size in this manner is simply not acceptable, and we are absolutely right to do everything that we can to deal with the issue. That is what we in the coalition will ensure happens.

Tax Avoidance

The Government have taken a wide range of actions to tackle tax avoidance over the Parliament, including introducing the UK’s first ever general anti-abuse rule. This year’s Finance Act introduced a tougher monitoring regime and penalties for promoters of high-risk tax avoidance schemes. We have also given HMRC the power to collect disputed tax bills up front. That removes the incentive for tax avoiders to delay and frustrate HMRC’s efforts to settle disputes and brings forward £4.3 billion in revenues.

I am aware that, as a result of measures taken by the coalition Government to crack down on tax avoidance, a record £24 billion in additional tax revenue was raised in the last financial year. Does my hon. Friend agree that much more remains to be done to make sure that multinationals such as Starbucks and Google pay their fair share?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the record yield for the last financial year. Indeed, there are reasons to believe that that record may well be broken for this financial year. As for multinationals, I do not want to be drawn on individual companies, but it is right to say that we need to work internationally, as I mentioned earlier, through the OECD base erosion and profit shifting process. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made clear at the Conservative party conference, we are looking to take further action in respect of multinationals not paying the tax that they should.

The Chancellor has said that the Swiss tax deal will raise £5 billion by next year. How much has been raised so far?

We have already got in about £800 million, and we will get more, but that is money that we would not otherwise have received. That is a deal worth doing. It is worth pointing out that some people said that if we had not had this deal with the Swiss—which has brought in additional revenue—we would not have been able to make progress on automatic exchange of information, whereas the reality is that just last week the Chancellor signed a deal on behalf of this country that made progress on that.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that under the previous Government the tax gap grew and that all the running in this Parliament on ensuring that businesses pay their fair share of tax and cracking down on tax dodgers has come from our side of the House, and that this Government have made the case internationally as well?

The tax gap as a proportion of tax receipts was higher under the previous Government than for every year under this Government. We have introduced about 40 measures to close loopholes, one of which, on disguised remuneration, let us not forget the Labour party opposed.

Given the Government’s commitment to clamping down on tax avoidance, can the Minister give us a prediction or a commentary on the yield he expects next year as a result?

As we heard earlier, the yield for 2013-14 was £24 billion. HMRC anticipates that that will be broken and that the yield will be higher for this financial year—the details are to come, but that is encouraging. On the tax gap, the small increase is largely due to the VAT tax gap being higher in 2012-13 than the previous year, but we already know that for 2013-14 it will fall.

Regional Economies

This Government are committed to rebalancing the economy in order to strengthen every part of the UK. In July this year local growth deals were agreed with all 39 local enterprise partnerships across England. Each deal reflects the particular needs and capabilities of the local area. Growth deals are just one of several ongoing investment programmes aimed at helping every region in the United Kingdom achieve economic success.

May I explore the link with governance? What is the concrete evidence outside London of the slightest connection between economic growth and elected mayors?

It is fair to say, as we have heard today, that devolving power to more local areas enables the regions to take responsibility for the decisions that affect their areas, which in the long run will create good, solid, strong local long-term economic plans.

The Minister talks about supporting regional growth and rebalancing the economy, yet promises are being made— £7 billion to Greater Manchester, £7 billion potentially to top taxpayers. That money would sort out transport connectivity issues and help us grow our economy, so will she commit to the Dawlish avoiding line and the resilience measures that we need in the south-west now?

In the past four years the Tees valley has received five times as much investment from the regional growth fund as in the last four years of the Labour Government. That is going not just to large companies, but to smaller ones too, such as Wards and ElringKlinger in my constituency. Will the Minister ensure that regional growth funding continues to be a key element of rebalancing the economy?

My hon. Friend is right that, by handing back power to local leaders, we are enabling them to back local jobs and to create prosperity and long-term economic growth. That is exactly what this Government are committed to doing.

I welcome yesterday’s announcement in Greater Manchester and put on record my gratitude to the leadership in Greater Manchester for their efforts. May I offer some advice to the Chancellor? If he wants to endear himself further to the voters of Manchester, he might consider the totality of his Government’s policies on the area. When will he consider going further in fiscal devolution and secondary legislation devolution so that we can truly live up to our aims?

I welcome the hon. Lady’s support for the package, which is substantial. The priority must be its implementation and delivery, and we look forward to working with all parties to make sure that it is a success.

Deficit Forecast

11. What recent forecast he has made of the change in the deficit between May 2010 and May 2015. (905849)

In 2010 the Government inherited the largest deficit since the second world war at 10.2% of GDP. We have made substantial progress in reducing the deficit since 2010. By the end of the last financial year 2013-14, the deficit had fallen from £149 billion to £95.6 billion, estimated at Budget 2014. As a share of GDP that is a fall of more than a third from its peak.

The Chancellor’s promise to eradicate the deficit in this Parliament has long since been abandoned, but with the deficit going up in the first half of this financial year, the scaled-back aim of halving the deficit by the end of this Parliament looks in serious trouble as well. The Chief Secretary has just attacked the unfunded tax cuts that the Chancellor announced. Does the Minister still think that the tax deficit will even be halved by the end of the current financial year?

The right hon. Gentleman is possibly being a little mischievous. As a veteran Chief Secretary to the Treasury from the previous Government, he should well understand that, according to the OBR’s comments and looking at its 2010 forecast errors over time, the biggest difference between 2013 and earlier was the lack of external shock. In 2011, high commodity prices ate into disposable incomes and the euro area crisis damaged credit and confidence. He should well understand why the deficit reduction was impacted by external shocks.

According to the International Monetary Fund’s “World Economic Outlook”, the UK is set to grow at rates that will put other major European economies to shame. What measures does the Minister believe have allowed that out-performance of our European partners?

My hon. Friend is quite right. The UK is now growing at the fastest rate in the G7 and, indeed, is forecast to grow at the fastest rate in the G20. That is the result of our long-term economic plan—reducing business tax rates in order to get more people into work; more people paying their taxes and more people able to bring home a wage. That long-term economic plan is what is bringing our economy back into growth.

Tax Credits

When the Chancellor came to office, less than a quarter of housing benefit claimants in Croydon were making claims to supplement low pay. Today that figure is two fifths. Will the Minister apologise for pushing growing numbers of hard-working Croydon families into poverty?

When it comes to the cost of living, Labour’s great recession is what made the country and the hon. Gentleman’s constituents a whole lot poorer. We now have record levels of employment, including a 9% increase in his constituency. Perhaps he would like to welcome that.

There are a great many studies and much empirical evidence showing that the surest way to combat poverty is through work. Is it not a badge of pride for this Government that in four years we have reduced the number of people in households where no one works by 671,000?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When it comes to tackling the country’s economic problems, we can improve living standards only by getting more people back into work. This Government have been reducing child poverty and ensuring that work pays.

Tax credits are meant to be moving into universal credit. What timetable is the Treasury working to for phasing out tax credits?

If someone comes here to work from the European Union, and if they are in a relatively low-paid job and receive tax credits as a form of benefit, they might effectively be paying no tax at all. Will the Government tell the European Commission that we should have a new system by which people have to pay tax for at least three years before drawing any tax credits or benefits?

We have already made changes to that whole area, and that is something we will look at further.

Economic Growth

In the year to the third quarter of 2014, GDP grew by 3%; it is now 3.4% above the pre-crisis peak. The International Monetary Fund expects the UK economy to be the fastest growing in the G7 in 2014.

Clearly the fact that we are leading our European partners in economic growth shows that the long-term economic plan is working. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, with the eurozone in crisis and external factors uncertain, the last thing we want to do is return the keys to those who crashed the car in the first place?

I am sorry that my hon. Friend has brought up the shadow Chancellor’s recent driving incidents, but I agree with the point that the Labour party made the economic mess that we—Liberal Democrats and Conservatives—came together in a coalition to sort out. We have made strong progress in this Parliament, including achieving the strongest growth in the G7. The last thing that the country needs is to hand the keys back to a majority Labour Government.

The long-term economic plan is not working in terms of the living standards of people up and down the country. What has been the rate of growth of wages over the past year?

The rate of growth of real wages has been low, and that needs continued attention in the months and years to come. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman would join me in welcoming the fact that millions of our fellow citizens are now in work as opposed to being unemployed, as they were under the Labour Government. We now need to work to make sure that we increase business investment, enhance productivity, and make sure that the benefits of the economic growth we are seeing are shared as widely as possible. I think that he and I would agree about that.

Average Earnings/Rate of Inflation

15. What recent comparative assessment he has made of growth in average earnings and the rate of inflation since May 2010. (905854)

Inflation is at 1.2%—lower than at any point since 2009. We appreciate that times have been tough for families in recent years, but as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said, that is

“a direct but delayed result of the 2008 recession”.

Since May 2010, this Government have taken decisive action to support families. We have increased the personal allowance, frozen fuel duty and council tax, and cut energy bills. In the past year, unemployment has fallen at the fastest rate since records began, and the proportion of workless households is lower than it ever was under the previous Government.

We have gone through a difficult period, but, as I said, that is

“a direct but delayed result of the 2008 recession”.

Employment Trends

A record 30.76 million people are in employment. Since the coalition came to power, employment has increased by more than 1.7 million. Over 2 million private sector jobs have been created since early 2010, meaning that for every public sector job lost, over five have been created in the private sector.

Can the Minister help my constituents, who are pleased by the record number of people in jobs in my constituency but confused by the Leader of the Opposition’s claim that our plan would mean the loss of 1 million jobs, and concerned about the impact that Labour’s pledges of more spending, more borrowing and higher taxes would have on jobs in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that irony. Under this Government, we have just seen the biggest drop in unemployment ever. In particular, long-term unemployment and youth unemployment are dropping fast, giving hope, prospects and a decent wage to so many in our country. We should be celebrating these things and definitely not letting Labour put them in jeopardy.

Twenty per cent. of my constituents earn less than the living wage. People are working at two or three jobs and still cannot make ends meet. When is the Minister going to recognise that her so-called vaunted increase in employment is based on people earning poverty wages?

I completely refute what the hon. Lady says. A lot of the particularly big increases in employment have been among very young and older workers, who tend to earn less, but is not that great news for the longer-term prospects of those young people, who are off the unemployment register and developing skills for the future?

Pensions (Taxes)

The Taxation of Pensions Bill that is currently before the House will reduce tax rates that previously applied if people wanted to withdraw money from their pension flexibly. It will also reduce the 55% tax rate on pension assets when someone dies. These tax cuts will leave people with more of their own money and more choice about how to spend it.

These measures clearly show that we are the party on the side of those who do the right thing, work hard, and save. Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour would adversely affect those people through its new pensions tax plan?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We often heard Labour Members say that they were going to oppose a tax cut for hedge funds. It turned out that it was not a tax cut for hedge funds but a tax cut that benefits pension funds, yet they want to reverse it.

While the Minister is talking about cutting tax on pensions, will he spare a thought for the 4,000 members of the British Midland International pension scheme who lost considerable sums of pension entitlement when their airline was taken over? Lufthansa offered them substantial compensation, but Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is now insisting on taxing it. What is he doing about that?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question and I have met a couple of hon. Members to discuss the issue. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs needs to apply the law as it currently stands, but that does not give it a great deal of discretion. This is a complicated matter and I am more than happy to set out details in writing for the hon. Gentleman.

Given the significant number of pensioners in my Fylde constituency, may I welcome the sweeping reforms announced by the Chancellor earlier this year? What plans will be put in place to make sure that those pensioners who access their own money get sound advice?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have set out our plans for a guidance guarantee. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced that we are working with Citizens Advice in particular to provide a face-to-face service. Good progress is being made, so that service will be available in good time for next April.

Topical Questions

How on earth can the Chancellor of the Exchequer justify a tax cut of £3 billion to those getting more than £150,000—like Nigel Farage—while at the same time cutting the wages of nurses and midwives? What a load of hypocrisy.

We have cut taxes for 25 million working people. In Bolsover, there are more people in work, fewer people unemployed and the claimant count is down by a third. It is the Conservative party that is the party of the working people now.

T4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the level of employment is a good economic indicator? If so, will he join me in congratulating Southend businesses on their outstanding apprenticeship schemes, which have helped a huge number of young people and reduced youth unemployment by 47%? (905831)

I certainly congratulate Southend businesses on the apprenticeship schemes they run. Apprenticeship schemes number 2 million in this Parliament and we aim to take that figure to 3 million in the next Parliament. That is all towards achieving our goal of full employment. We have the highest number of people in work, but we want to go further still.

The whole country was shocked to learn on the night the Prime Minister arrived at the European Council that the European Union is demanding from the UK a backpayment of a staggering £1.7 billion. The Prime Minister was unclear on this last week, so may I ask the Chancellor just how long before the Council meeting did he and his Ministers and officials learn that the UK was going to be asked to pay more, and why on earth did he not tell the Prime Minister?

First of all, may I say that it is very good to see the shadow Chancellor in his place? We had heard disturbing rumours that there was going to be a shadow Cabinet reshuffle. We waited nervously by the phones, but we are absolutely delighted that he is still in his place.

Let me answer the shadow Chancellor’s question directly. There was a meeting at the Commission on Friday 17 October. On Tuesday 21 October, Treasury officials prepared advice for me, and the Prime Minister was aware of the advice on Thursday 23 October. That is very similar to the timetable that the Dutch Government have set out.

The revisions of the Office for National Statistics came months beforehand and the Financial Secretary knew weeks before. The Chancellor knew only two days before and he still forgot to tell the Prime Minister. Was he not just asleep on the job?

Let me ask the Chancellor another question about the way in which Europe is affecting the public finances. The Government promised to get net migration down to the tens of thousands. According to the latest figures, net migration is 243,000—up 38% on the previous year. Will the Chancellor confirm that his Budget forecast for net migration has been revised not down, but up? What is his assumption for net migration for the 2015 public finance forecasts?

The reason there has been an increase in European migration is that the British economy is succeeding while the economies in Europe sadly are not. That is why we want to seek a different relationship with the European Union, to take into account that and other features of our relationship. I notice that the last Labour Chancellor now supports a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, but the shadow Chancellor does not. The truth is this: we will set out our forecasts to the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, but the idea that Labour would get a better deal in Europe is total fantasy, alongside the shadow Chancellor’s fantasy that Labour left us with a golden economic legacy and that he has been right all along and everyone else is wrong. The right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) has resigned, so there is now a vacancy for a conspiracy theorist at the Home Office—the shadow Chancellor should apply.

T7. Small businesses and retailers are the backbone of our economy. With small business rate relief, a relief for businesses re-occupying long-term empty properties and other discount schemes, this Government have shown their support for small business. Will my right hon. Friend go further and review the business rate system to ensure that it is fair and does not deter investment? (905834)

My hon. Friend makes a good point about the impact of business rates. That is of course why we have extended small business rate relief and helped 360,000 small properties. It is why we have offered the £1,000 high street discount to stores in Harrogate and elsewhere around the country. We are going to review the business rate system to make sure that it is simpler, fairer, more transparent and more responsive to economic circumstances, and he is very welcome to take part in that review.

T2. What is the link between the Chancellor’s £7 billion of unfunded tax cuts and his blocking of the OBR from auditing the tax and spend plans of other political parties ahead of the election? I suggest that the clue is in the question. (905829)

Interestingly, we conducted an independent review by one of the Canadian officials involved in auditing their finances—

The right hon. Gentleman says “Come on”, but there were no independent forecasts when he was in the Treasury. He was the economic adviser who cooked up the forecasts, and came to the House and as a result misled this country about its economic fortunes. The OBR is working as an independent institution. The independent review of the OBR said that we should not extend its powers. We do not want the Labour party undermining the independent institution that has brought confidence back to public statistics.

T8. Last week, the Queen opened a new Jaguar Land Rover plant in Wolverhampton, which is creating 1,400 new jobs. The enterprise zone and the black country city deal are set to create nearly 10,000 more new jobs. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we could go even further in Birmingham and the black country if our local authorities followed the example set by those of the northern powerhouse? (905835)

The investment by Jaguar Land Rover is very welcome. I was at one of the Jaguar Land Rover plants in September, and saw the incredible investment that is going in there. The new engine plant in the black country is a huge and welcome investment in the west midlands. I take very seriously my hon. Friend’s suggestion that we should talk to authorities in the west midlands to see if we can build on what has been achieved in Greater Manchester. I would be very happy to start those discussions with civic leaders and local MPs.

T3. Will the Chancellor confirm that the only way to reduce the £1.7 billion bill from the EU and avoid paying interest requires the UK to secure support from a qualified majority of EU members on rule changes and get a vote in the European Parliament on delaying the deadline for payment? How confident is he that he can achieve that? (905830)

T10. There are now 1,217 fewer people claiming unemployment benefit in my constituency than in 2010. Does the Chancellor agree that we need to continue the job of reducing business taxes to incentivise business to create jobs, rather than to adopt the policy of slapping higher taxes on business, which will only have the effect of destroying jobs? (905837)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have been lucky enough to visit successful manufacturing businesses in his constituency with him and, indeed, to see the investment that as a result we are able to make in new hospitals in the west midlands. He of course makes the very strong point that if you increase business taxes—that is the official policy of the Labour party—in such a competitive world, you will destroy jobs, reduce revenues and not be able to fund good public services.

T5. Will the Chancellor, as the self-styled champion of the north, now look again at his early decisions and their impact, and will he commit to a fairer funding settlement for north-east councils? (905832)

The whole United Kingdom has had to make difficult decisions because we inherited a record budget deficit, but I am willing to work with councils in the north-east to see whether we can build on what we have achieved in Greater Manchester. There is real potential to do that and to make key investments in the infrastructure of the north-east. For example, I think there is a strong case for the A1 north of Newcastle to be dualled.

This Government’s support for apprenticeships has hugely helped the 40% drop in youth unemployment in Gloucester. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will continue to look constructively at new and innovative vocational schemes in sectors where there are jobs available—such as HGV drivers, haulage companies, and electroplaters for the Poeton company—but a shortage of skills at the moment?

Order. I try to get in as many Members as possible, but I think some colleagues have forgotten—or perhaps never learned—that topical questions are supposed to be shorter. Please do not abuse the process because you are spoiling it for other people.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) has worked with local employers to improve skills, and I visited a successful apprenticeship and training scheme with him. We want to ensure that local employers are involved in shaping those apprenticeships and further education courses, and that is precisely what we are now setting up.

T6. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has forecast that under the Chancellor’s current policies 900,000 more children will be in relative poverty by 2020 compared with 2011. Is his real attitude towards the working poor in this country too much stick and too little carrot? (905833)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point about child poverty, which under this Government is down. That does not in any way reduce the need for us to continue taking steps to reduce child poverty, the most important of which is having an economy that creates jobs. In the end, for most people the best route out of poverty is to get back into employment.

May I urge the Chancellor to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) so that we can make the case for including the dualling of the A69 in the autumn statement? Hopefully such a meeting could be before the autumn statement takes place.

My hon. Friends the Members for Hexham (Guy Opperman) and for Carlisle (John Stevenson) have made a strong case for improving transport links in the north of England and between the north-east and Carlisle. They have already brought the A69 to my attention, and I would be happy to have that meeting.

T9. Given that the Chancellor is claiming to be the champion of the north, will he explain why he has given a £3 billion tax cut to people who earn £150,000 a year, while people in Hull are on average £1,600 a year worse off? (905836)

We have cut taxes, including taxes for people in the north of England, for 25 million working people. Under the Labour Government, the gap between the north and south increased. We are working across party divides with local authority leaders to get in the investment and change this decade-long imbalance in our country.

The last Labour Government cancelled the Supertram scheme in Leeds and then told the city that it could only have a bus-based solution. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as well as devo-max and “devo Manc”, we also need “devo Yorks”?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, and the Deputy Prime Minister has been championing that agenda in government for the last four and a half years. If the leaders of Leeds wish to come forward with proposals for further devolution and more power over the things he has been talking about, to ensure that we get the right economic developments in the Leeds area, we would be delighted to have those discussions in an active way, to try to settle a deal there as well.

The Chancellor has rightly said that Europe is in danger of pricing itself out of the world economy, and one way in which it is making itself uncompetitive is through its costly renewable energy agenda. Will he try to persuade his neighbour in Downing street to abandon that dogma and liberalise the UK energy market?

The Prime Minister achieved a good deal for the United Kingdom, and got away from the solid and fixed renewables target that the Labour Government signed up to. If the hon. Gentleman wants Britain to leave the European Union, that will be achieved with a Conservative Government offering a referendum, and him having a vote and seeing what the outcome is. [Interruption.] Under the Conservative Government, the British people will get a referendum. We will make the argument for staying in a reformed Europe, and the hon. Gentleman can make the case he wants to make. That will not happen under a Labour Government.

May I urge the Chancellor to support the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in calls for banks not to shut the last branch in a town? HSBC is about to shut its last branch in Lee-on-Solent, leaving businesses with no banking support at all.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Many people are concerned about bank closures. I recently had a round table with a number of banks and challenger banks to discuss the issue, not least the change towards mobile and telephone banking. We are certainly looking closely at the matter.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs figures released this month show that the amount of uncollected taxes has increased by £3 billion each year under the Chancellor. What difficulties has he found in collecting those taxes, and what does he propose to do about them?

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in the House when we debated that at some length a few minutes ago. The fact is that the tax gap for 2012-13 was lower as a percentage of tax receipts than in any year under the Labour Government. Tax yield from HMRC has gone up by £7 billion since 2010-11.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint colleagues but, as they will know, at Treasury questions demand always massively outstrips supply. Whether the business managers want to extend the sessions or provide further sessions with the Chancellor’s concurrence, who knows? But we must now move on.