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Topical Questions

Volume 587: debated on Tuesday 4 November 2014

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.