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EU Budget (Surcharge)

Volume 587: debated on Monday 10 November 2014

To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement to clarify his agreement on the European Union budget surcharge.

Last month the previous European Commission presented Britain with a bill for £1.7 billion, which it insisted must be paid by 1 December. The Prime Minister spoke for British taxpayers when he said that that was completely unacceptable, and we set about getting a better deal. Following intensive discussions with the new Commission and at the ECOFIN meeting last week, we have achieved such a deal. I can tell the House that we have halved the Bill, have delayed the Bill, will pay no interest on the Bill, and have changed the rules of the European Union so that such unacceptable behaviour never happens again.

Let me briefly give the House the details. At the European Council last month, the Prime Minister made it clear to the Barroso Commission that while annual adjustments to contributions were a regular part of EU membership, a sudden and unprecedented demand for a £1.7 billion payment on 1 December was unacceptable. He secured the agreement of all 28 Heads of Government that it should be discussed by the Finance Ministers as a matter of urgency. That meeting took place last Friday, and followed two weeks of intensive and constructive discussions with the new Budget Commissioner, Vice-President Georgieva, and other member states.

As a result of those discussions, we achieved unanimous agreement that, first, expecting payment on 1 December was indeed unacceptable. The budget rules will therefore be rewritten to allow for a delay in any payment. In Britain’s case, that means that we will pay nothing this year, and will instead make payments in two instalments in July and September, in the second half of next year. Secondly, the suggestion that we might have to pay interest charges was rejected, and it was agreed unanimously that no interest would be charged on the delayed payments. Thirdly, in our discussion with the new European Commission, it was agreed that a full rebate would apply to the British payment, that the rebate would be specific, that it would be in addition to any other rebate that we might expect next year, and that, for the first time ever, it would be paid at the same time as any money owed.

It had not been clear that we would receive a rebate, let alone such a large one. No one in the House had suggested that we would. Only my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley) had even asked a question about it. Indeed, it was only confirmed that we would receive a rebate, and a large one, by Vice-President Georgieva on 6 November, last Thursday evening. This means that Britain’s payments have been halved, from £1.7 billion to about £850 million.

Finally, all member states agreed with us that the entire episode had been unacceptable, and a deal was therefore reached to make a permanent change in European law so that this would never happen again.

In the face of this budget challenge, we have far exceeded the expectations and predictions that preceded Friday’s meeting. We have achieved a real result for Britain. The whole episode reminds us of the reform that we need in Europe—reform that Government Members believe should be put to a vote of the people of Britain.

If this is such a good deal, why did the Chancellor not offer to make a statement? Why was he dragged to the House this afternoon? Talk about smoke and mirrors, Mr Speaker—I can barely see you through the Chancellor’s fog and bluster!

Is not the truth that the Chancellor failed to reduce our contribution by a single penny? All he is doing is simply counting the rebate that was due anyway—a rebate that was never in doubt—in an attempt to fool people into thinking that the bill has been halved. His so-called victory is nothing more than a con trick.

The Chancellor claims that the rebate was somehow in doubt, but that claim has been contradicted by everyone else. The EU Budget Commissioner was very clear when he said, on 27 October, in a statement on the backdated gross national income revisions,

“the UK will benefit from the UK rebate for the additional payments”.

On Friday, having been asked whether the rebate was in doubt, the Vice-President of the Commission replied, “No, absolutely not.”

On Friday, the Treasury was telling journalists that the Government had legal advice that the UK rebate somehow might not apply. If the legal advice exists, the Chancellor should publish it. Mr Barroso’s spokesperson, Mr Mark Gray, has directly contradicted the Treasury’s claims, saying:

“Commission position on this clear at European Council—rebate was never in doubt”.

The Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan agrees. He said—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. I wish to hear the views of Mr Daniel Hannan. Let us hear them.

I’ll tell you what Mr Hannan said. He said:

“it’s not credible to claim that it was ever in doubt”.

The Dutch Finance Minister said that of course this

“mechanism of the rebate will also apply”

on the new contribution:

“So it’s not as if the British have been given a discount today.”

The Austrian Finance Minister said that

“the amount cannot be put in question”,

and the Irish Finance Minister confirmed

“the UK will pay the whole amount.”

They are queuing up to contradict the Chancellor.

Let me ask the Chancellor this: can he name a single Finance Minister who is willing to go along with his desperate attempts to pull the wool over people’s eyes? And it is worse. The Financial Times reported:

“Officials involved in the closed-door negotiations between finance ministers said Mr Osborne did not complain about the overall bill.”

He didn’t even complain about the overall bill, Mr Speaker! I have here the minutes of Friday’s ECOFIN meeting: 21 pages, and not a single reference in those 21 pages to the UK rebate or the amount Britain owes being reduced.

Is it not now clear that the Chancellor totally failed to get a better deal for the taxpayer? He did not reduce Britain’s backdated bill by a single penny. The British people don’t like being taken for fools, and his attempts to fool them have totally unravelled.

No, the British people do not like being taken for fools which is why the shadow Chancellor is in opposition. The shadow Chancellor is one of those people who is wise neither after the event nor before the event. How do we know that? He wrote an article in The Guardian last Friday. It appeared alongside another article called “Labour is doomed” by one of his colleagues, and in his article he set out four tests that I had to pass. The first test, he said, was that we needed a coalition of support, and he asked me about that again today. We had unanimous support around the ECOFIN table for the deal that was agreed. The second test he set me before the ECOFIN council was that we needed the support of Germany. Well, we went to Berlin and the German Finance Minister was central to the deal that we did. Thirdly, in this article, he said:

“The Prime Minister should be clear about whether he intends to take the EU Commission to the European Court of Justice if they insist on the deadline of 1 December.”

Well, we do not have a deadline of 1 December any more, because we did not challenge the law; we changed the law.

So three tests passed, and here is the fourth and final test the shadow Chancellor set us: he said that the interest rates on any delayed payments should be fair. Well, I disagree. I do not think we should pay any interest at all, and we are not, but what is revealing about this fourth test is the number he himself gave for the fines Britain might face. He said:

“Britain could face a…fine of £114,000 a day.”

Does he confirm that that is what he said in the article: £114,000 a day? [Interruption.] Well, he has given himself away because £114,000 a day happens to be the EU penal interest on £1.7 billion, so the shadow Chancellor, who stands before us today and says he always knew the rebate would apply, is the same shadow Chancellor who on Friday said we would paying £1.7 billion.

And of course the word “rebate” never appeared once in that article or, indeed, in any intervention from the Labour party on this issue. This whole question from the shadow Chancellor today is based on the absurd charade that he would stand up for Britain’s interests in Europe, but he gave away billions of pounds of the rebate, he signed us up to billions of pounds of eurozone bail-out, and he still refuses to give the British people a say on our future in Europe. May I suggest to him that he should leave the strong leadership in Europe to us, and he should get on with throwing over the weak leadership in the Labour party?

This is almost like Budget day. Was it not crass insensitivity on the part of the Commission to make such a demand on several countries in this way? The Government have negotiated an interest-free deferment and a reduction in the sum outstanding, and exactly what those are worth is something that the Treasury Committee will want to examine with the Chancellor in public session in due course. In the meantime, will he give us further details to assure us that such demands will not be made on us or any other country again?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s support for what has been announced. There was agreement around the table that we should permanently change the EU budget rules. We shall have to consult the European Parliament on that, but it does not have a veto. We should change those rules so that if there is an exceptionally large payment or adjustment in future, as there was this time, member states cannot be bounced with a bill like this. There was strong support around the table for that change.

On the UK rebate, will the Chancellor give us the name of just one European Finance Minister who changed their mind after listening to him?

As the hon. Gentleman should know, the rebate involves a discussion between member states and the European Commission, which is why we were discussing with the Commission, in parallel, the size of the British rebate. Frankly, any question from Labour Members about the rebate is a bit rich, given that they gave up half of it.

My right hon. Friend is to be congratulated on getting rid of these punitive interest rates. I hope that he will refer the new rules that were decided at ECOFIN last Friday to my Committee so that we can scrutinise them properly. Is there any sound reason for our making any payment at all if those rules do not deal with the problem of other member states including their black economy in the statistical base that they use when putting forward their proposals? That greatly affects the whole basis on which the calculations are made.

My hon. Friend raises an important point about the quality of the statistics. It was raised by the European Court of Auditors last week; it was also made forcefully by the Dutch Finance Minister at ECOFIN. The key point is that we can examine the numbers, and if there are errors we will get money repaid to us at the end of next year.

Can the Chancellor explain why the EU Commissioner said on 27 October that the UK would benefit in any event from the rebate that was due? Also—this is at the heart of the problem—what evidence does the right hon. Gentleman have to suggest to the House, other than in a gross act of deception worthy more of Goebbels than of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer—

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not accusing any member of the Government of engaging in deception. If he is, he must withdraw that term.

I always knew that the hon. Gentleman asked questions that had been prepared by the shadow Chancellor, but I have never before seen those questions being handed over in the Chamber. Nor do I think his embellishment of the question added much to it. If the rebate was always going to apply, and to such an extent, why did neither he nor any other Labour Member raise the matter? Why was it not mentioned in the shadow Chancellor’s article in The Guardian? The shadow Chancellor says that the outcome was obvious, but the estimate of a £114,000 fine was based on a number of—

He says no, but the penal rate is 2% above base, and 2% above base per day on a £1.7 billion charge is £114,000. Is that just an amazing coincidence?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on securing the deal last Friday. He was good enough to recall that, two weeks ago in the Chamber, I said that the rebate should apply to the additional demand on the UK’s contributions. Despite the shadow Chancellor’s assertions just now, the Leader of the Opposition said nothing about the rebate two weeks ago; he said nothing until my right hon. Friend actually secured it. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the rebate will still apply to UK net contributions in future years, as it would have done before? [Interruption.]

I am sorry that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) wants to leave, because we were just talking about the presence of the Labour leader. As the hon. Gentleman said at the weekend:

“‘I never believed the answer to Labour’s problems was to show people more of Ed Miliband.”

My right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley) is right; on 27 October, he asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister about the position of the rebate. The Prime Minister said it was:

“One of the important questions that needs to be asked and properly answered”.—[Official Report, 27 October 2014; Vol. 587, c. 30.]

He said that that is what we are seeking to do. So my right hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire is right to have asked the question—of course nobody from the Labour party did—and that is why we were engaged in the intensive discussions to nail down the rebate.

Does the Chancellor not agree that this whole fiasco just shows that we are paying far, far too much to the European Union, that we should be seeking ways of getting back control of our country, our own borders and our own system of justice, and that the sooner we get a referendum, the better?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady, which is why I made the point at the end of my remarks that the whole episode demonstrated why we needed reform in Europe. She, of course, is one of a growing number of Labour MPs who join us in wanting to see that referendum—I hope she can persuade the Labour Front-Bench team.

Does the Chancellor agree that whatever deal he had obtained last Friday—even if he had come back bearing sackfuls of tribute in gold—it was wholly predictable that hard-line Eurosceptics would immediately say that this was robbery by Brussels and that the shadow Chancellor would immediately claim that, in some mysterious way, he could have produced some superior outcome for this country? Would the Chancellor accept my congratulations on a surprisingly good result that he achieved at that meeting, which I strongly suspect was a friendly discussion between 28 Finance Ministers and a Commissioner on a technical subject, and did not resemble the gunfight at the O. K. Corral, which is how everybody has to present European Council meetings and the debates we have on these subjects in this House?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his support; he is not always fulsome in his support of our European policies, so that is particularly appreciated. He is right that around the table were other members states that had been hit by this very large payment—the Dutch, the Italians, the Greeks and others—and therefore there was a lot of sympathy for trying to change the rules. In parallel, as he would know, there is a discussion with the Commission about the British rebate, which is properly a matter for the discussion with the Commission rather than ECOFIN.

Does the Chancellor accept that, whatever is said about the rebate, this substantial bill for the United Kingdom still represents an EU penalty for stronger economic performance? Does he not think that there are better ways to spend £850 million than handing it over, albeit next year, to the European Union?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the European Union could spend the money far better than it does through reform—that is the reform we are seeking to achieve. Of course membership of the European Union does mean adjustments to the payments each year, and sometimes Britain has been a beneficiary of them—indeed, when the shadow Chancellor put the country into recession we received a tiny bit of money back from the EU. That is one of the regular features of membership but, as the right hon. Gentleman says, it demonstrates why we need further reform in Europe.

The last time the shadow Chancellor mentioned the EU rebate in this House appears to have been in 2005. Does the Chancellor agree that, if the shadow Chancellor really thought the bill we were being presented with by the Commission was £800 million out, it is curious that he did not find time to mention it before this week?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. Of course the only involvement the shadow Chancellor has ever had with the rebate is giving away half of it.

The rules that determined this payment were agreed in May, without discussion. The UK participated fully in those discussions, and had two formal opportunities to respond but did not do so—indeed, there was not a single signal from the UK that there was a problem until late October. Is the truth not that this performance by the UK Government has less to do with payments to Europe and more about pandering to the open wound of anti-Europeanism from the Members who sit behind the Chancellor?

If the separatists had had their way, Scotland would not be in the European Union. But I make this point: Commission Vice-President Georgieva confirmed in the press conference afterwards that there was no way that member states could have known the net figure until 17 October, which was when the official meeting took place in Brussels. That has also been confirmed by the Dutch Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission. Again, this is one of those examples in which the shadow Chancellor says that he knew better than the rest of us, but those Heads of Government confirm that Britain could have known only in late October.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only is this a superb deal for the UK, but if the people vote for a Conservative Government in May 2015, the people will have a vote in a referendum about it?

As my hon. Friend says, the key point is that we are offering the people of Britain a vote on the membership of the European Union, which we will then seek to reform. Interestingly, it is not only the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) who has made her point on Europe, but the last Labour Chancellor, who says he now supports a referendum on Europe. It would be interesting to see what the shadow Chancellor really thinks.

I am still trying to find a serious commentator who did not think that the rebate would apply to the British contribution. All this banter covers the fact that the Chancellor has not made any progress in reforming the system that led to this completely absurd demand, which made Britain pay and France and Germany receive money.

I agree that this was a totally unacceptable approach from the previous European Commission. To be fair to the new budget Commissioner, she has engaged constructively and got the rules changed so that it does not happen again. On the hon. Lady’s comment about finding a serious commentator who thought the rebate might not apply, I know the shadow Chancellor is not a serious commentator but he did not at any point raise this issue. The calculation on interest payments that he used in The Guardian on Friday was based on the assumption that we would pay £1.7 billion—that is how he came up with the number that he used to make his point. As a result, he did not expect the rebate to be applied or to be applied at this rate.

The shadow Chancellor says that this reduction is entirely down to the rebate. So, if Tony Blair had not given away half the rebate, would we have got a 100% reduction?

Sadly not is the short answer to my hon. Friend’s question. The Prime Minister we should credit for the rebate is Margaret Thatcher.

May I try to help the Chancellor? He is in danger of becoming illiterate as well as innumerate. The word “result”, which he used once today and three times last week, can mean a win, a loss or a draw or, as in this case, a confidence trick.

I take it as a win for Britain. Again, I do not want to follow lessons from Labour MPs about how to negotiate in Europe when they gave up much of the rebate, signed us into the eurozone bail-outs, gave up many of our vetoes over many years and refused to give the British people a say in referendums in key treaties.

At a time when budgets are tough, I completely understand why people want the maximum amount of money possible to be spent at home, but the truth is that we have been able to get a reduction in the EU budget because of the tough negotiations of the British Prime Minister. That is what we are able to achieve by standing up for Britain’s interests in Europe.

Will the Chancellor help us better to understand what he is presenting as a masterful feat by telling us: what he did not know; when and for how long he did not know it; and why he did not know it?

It was not clear that this exceptional demand for a payment would have the British rebate applied or indeed to what extent the rebate would be applied. The amount was confirmed to us only last Thursday evening.

Is the Chancellor surprised by the number of EU budget experts who now seem to be appearing on the Opposition Benches? Does he, like me, wonder where they all were when former Chancellors were happily signing off flawed EU accounts or giving away our rebate?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; they gave into all Europe’s demands and handed over more and more British taxpayers’ money. They were neither wise before this event, nor particularly wise after it.

Can the Chancellor confirm that when the EU budget is reconciled, it will show that the surcharge to the UK was paid in full, that it will show quite separately that there was a rebate that was applied, and that therefore his attempts to link the two are simply nonsense?

What we achieved was the simultaneous application of the rebate, so we will pay only £850 million.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on maintaining the application of the UK rebate in a way that the Opposition utterly failed to do when they were in power. Would he have been strengthened in that position had he maintained a euro preparations unit in the Treasury?

The first and kindest cut of all was closing down the euro preparations unit, which I discovered in the Treasury on coming to office.

I know that the Chancellor did not want to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy), but I will try again. Can he please name one EU Finance Minister who supports his version of events?

All 28 countries, and therefore 27 other Finance Ministers, agreed to our plan, and the plan put forward by other member states, to change the rules so that we do not have to pay on 1 December, to enable us to delay payment, to ensure that no interest will be paid during that delay, to ensure that any errors in the accounts will be rectified and that we will be compensated for them next year, and to ensure that this never happens again. We got that coalition of support around the table. The discussions on the rebate, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows, happen between the UK and the European Commission.

After all the to-ing and fro-ing over who should pay what, would not the best way to thank our European friends be to show them how to make savings in the cost of Brussels so that the costs paid by each country becomes more affordable, both for us and for their shrinking economies?

We want to achieve reform in Europe. The hon. Gentleman mentions Brussels, and I suggest that they could make a start by staying there and not going to Strasbourg.

Some €1 billion is still an exceptional surcharge on this country’s finances. Will the Chancellor put his deal to a binding vote in this House?

We have the normal scrutiny methods. Indeed, the Chair of the Treasury Committee and I have already discussed my happily answering questions from members of the Committee, and of course my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has his Committee as well.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is worrying that the shadow Chancellor forgot to mention the rebate before today? Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to make a detailed calculation of exactly how much less Britain would have to pay had Labour not given away the rebate in the first place?

Of course, giving away the rebate cost Britain billions a year. My hon. and learned Friend is right to draw attention to the pattern of forgetfulness on the Opposition Front Bench. They forget about the deficit and about immigration, and now they forget about the rebate. It reminds everyone why the British public are quite clear that they are unfit for government.

Regardless of whether the bill has been rebated, does the Chancellor not recognise that for many UK citizens facing cuts in public services, £850 million extra going to a body which has not had its accounts signed off for 19 years, wastes billions through fraud and spends money on vanity projects, is not good value and that they object to it?

I completely understand the anger and frustration felt by all our constituents at the way money is spent by the European Union. That is why we are seeking reform and why both the hon. Gentleman and I would like to see the British people asked for their consent in a referendum.

Was my right hon. Friend surprised to see the shadow Chancellor in his place here today? My reading of the Daily Mirror was that the shadow Chancellor was going to make a speech in support of the Leader of the Opposition—I apologise to the House; I misread that. The shadow Chancellor is going to be making a speech in support of the Leader of the Opposition in the next fortnight.

Order. We are grateful, but the question suffered from the disadvantage of being irrelevant to the matter under discussion, so we will move on to someone who has a relevant question to ask.

Confirmation that the rebate will be applied is clearly to be welcomed, but the blunt truth is that this country faces a bill £850 million larger than it faced two weeks previously. Given that we now pay more than £10 billion a year as our membership fee for this organisation, my constituents in Kettering feel that the bill is too large. Will the Chancellor confirm that a majority Conservative Government will renegotiate the membership fee after the next election?

As I say, I understand the frustration that many people feel about the way their money—hard-earned taxpayers’ money—is spent in Europe. That is why we are seeking a reform of Britain’s relationship with Europe and a reform of the way Europe works for all its citizens, and why we are seeking to put that to the British people in a referendum. With reference to my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), it is good to see the shadow Chancellor here, breaking off from the Balls family pastime of undermining the Leader of the Opposition.

The Chancellor read out to us the Prime Minister’s response to the right hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr Lansley) about the rebate, but can he explain why, in all that feigned anger, the Prime Minister did not explain about the rebate? Was it because the Chancellor had not shared that knowledge with the Prime Minister, or was it because the pair of them were in it together, ready to pull out a white rabbit last Friday?

I am not sure what a white rabbit has to do with it, but it was not clear that the rebate would apply. That is precisely why we were engaged in intensive discussions with the European Commission, and it is why, universally in this House and in the media, people were talking about a figure of £1.7 billion. It was not clear, but we achieved the application of the rebate, and as a result the bill is £850 million.

I think I am missing something here. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the only reason we are discussing the payment of an EU surcharge at all is because of the stunningly impressive handling of the economy by my right hon. Friend?

My right hon. Friend is very kind. One of the reasons why this surcharge, as he puts it, has arisen is because of the strong UK economic performance relative to the continent of Europe. We should not be happy about the poor performance of the European continent. We want the European continent to be performing better.

Has not Britain had the rebate for a very long time? Can someone therefore tell me why the Chancellor has only just found out how it works? He was taken by surprise by the £1.7 billion bill in the first place, and now he belatedly discovers the rebate. How can the House have any confidence that the Chancellor knows what is going on?

The House can have confidence that this Government fight for Britain’s interests in Europe, because we have cut the EU budget, got us out of those disastrous eurozone bail-outs that the Labour Government put us into, and had the rebate applied—a rebate which, of course, the hon. Gentleman’s party wanted to get rid of.

Given the fact that the shadow Chancellor and almost everyone on the Opposition Front Bench with him has been completely absent from the airwaves in the past few days in support of their leader, one would have thought that they had ample opportunity to proffer advice on the rebate. I did not hear it. Did my right hon. Friend hear it privately from them?

I do not want to discourage members of the Opposition Front-Bench team from taking to the airwaves and criticising their leader, because it is very good. It is only after the event that we hear that they think he is useless. They did not tell us that beforehand. My hon. Friend is right. The Opposition did not raise the issue—[Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor calls me to the House of Commons, he has nothing to say for himself and he has no answer to the fact that his own article reveals that he thought we were going to be paying £1.7 billion. It just confirms that he is not up to the job.

I think the Chancellor should calm down when it comes to leadership and loyalty. Why did we have a by-election last month that his party lost to the UK Independence party and why do we have another one this month? Will he confirm that the ECOFIN Ministers he discussed the rebate with are of the opinion that we will pay no less than we would have done if we had paid the full £1.7 billion on 1 December and then received our rebate?

As I have already said, it was not clear that the rebate would apply, which is why the shadow Chancellor, in his article in The Guardian, uses a number that assumes that we are going to pay £1.7 billion. That is what he thought we were going to pay, but we negotiated hard and had intensive discussions, and as a result we have got this result for Britain.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it was the UK’s leadership in Europe that resulted in the deal being struck that has enabled all nine countries that were being surcharged by the EU to delay their payment until 1 September next year? Does he agree that such leadership in Europe bodes well for our renegotiations next year, after the Conservative party has won the next general election?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course, we needed the agreement of all the member states for this budget deal. Any one of them could have blocked the deal, but we got the support of all the other 27 member states, not just to delay the payment and have no interest applied but permanently to change the rules.

For the fourth time, I think, in this House, may I press the Chancellor to tell us which Foreign Minister or which Commission official agrees with his interpretation of the rebate?

As I say, it required the agreement of all 28 member states to get the budget deal at ECOFIN. The discussion on the British rebate was a discussion had with the Commission. The Commission confirmed that the rebate would apply, and apply in the amount it did, only on Thursday night. The hon. Gentleman also serves on the Treasury Committee. If he, like every other Labour Member, was so wise about the number, why were they not saying this beforehand? Not a single Labour MP, either in the Chamber of the House of Commons or on the media, said anything other than that we would be paying £1.7 billion. They are trying to be wise after the event, and they have been found out.

Does the Chancellor agree that one additional way to help the EU budget would be to clamp down on corporate tax evasion in places such as Luxembourg?

My hon. Friend is right that we need fair tax arrangements. The European Commission is looking at that through some of its state aid action on particular tax deals done in some member states. However, we do not want to move to a common tax policy across Europe whereby there is a single corporation tax rate and the like. I am in favour of competitive business taxes, but competitive business taxes that are fairly paid. That is the policy that we pursue in the UK and that we are seeking international agreement on and making a lot of progress on.

Since the Council meeting on Friday, the Finance Ministers of Ireland, Austria and the Netherlands have all said that the UK will still pay the full amount. Is the Chancellor seriously arguing that they are wrong, and if so, can he point to a single measure that will cut the overall bill for the UK taxpayer over the next two years?

We were presented with a bill for £1.7 billion and we are going to pay about £850 million, so in my book that is a cut.

May I congratulate the Chancellor on the excellent deal that he has achieved in Europe? As a better woman than me once said, there is no such thing as Government money, only taxpayers’ money. Does he agree that the people who benefit from this negotiation are hard-working British taxpayers?

My hon. Friend is right. Of course, this is not the Government’s money: it is the people’s money—taxpayers’ money. People work very hard to earn money and then they pay taxes on it, and it is the policy of the Conservative party to keep taxes as low as possible.

Given that the relationship between GDP and the European Union budget was understood before this series of events, and yet the Government appeared to be asleep at the wheel, what was the reason for their reluctance in getting their act together properly in the first place? Was it the Chancellor’s unwillingness to fess up to the Prime Minister or to stand up to his Back Benchers?

I am not sure it was worth waiting 45 minutes for that question. The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, the President of the European Commission and the vice-president of the European Commission with responsibility for the budget all said that it was not clear until late October what the amount would be. That is why, the moment we found out, we got it on the European Council agenda, and the European Council agreed that it would be discussed at ECOFIN.

This weekend marked the 19th year in which the European Union has failed to sign off its accounts. Does that not make the case for a referendum and reform compelling? The harsh binary truth is that during this parliamentary Session the only Members who have pushed that agenda are sitting on this side of the House.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are pushing the case for reform in Europe while the Opposition want no reform in Europe. The people of Wolverhampton and elsewhere in the country have a very clear choice at the election. If they vote Labour, they will pay more to Europe; there will be no reform in Europe; Europe will continue to hold back the British economy because it is unreformed; and, of course, they will have no say. If they vote for the Conservative party, they will get a say on Britain’s future in Europe.

The Irish Finance Minister has said:

“My understanding is that the UK will pay the whole amount”.

Is the Chancellor seriously saying that the Irish Finance Minister is wrong?

As I have already explained, the negotiation and discussion on the rebate are had with the European Commission. The full amount, which was universally discussed in this House beforehand and by the shadow Chancellor in The Guardian, was £1.7 billion. As a result of our negotiation and intensive discussion, we will be paying £850 million.

I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has secured a change in the way that the surcharge formulas are calculated. Can he confirm that the UK will never be penalised in this way again for a strong economic performance?

We will never face such a large payment or such an unexpected period of time in which to pay, which is why we are getting permanent changes to the budget rules. That requires the consent of all member states, and we have that.

Some of us remember inheriting a budget deficit of 11.5% from the previous Labour Government. It has fallen by more than a third. We will get the forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility in December.

Let us get it on the record that the shadow Chancellor says that the budget deficit is going up. We will wait for the forecasts at the beginning of December and see who is right.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on this deal, but the situation adds to the frustration that many of my constituents have with the EU. Does that not show that we need to renegotiate such matters and then give people in my constituency, my right hon. Friend’s constituency and constituencies across the country an in/out referendum so that they can decide whether they want to stay in the EU?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People in Nuneaton and across the country will have their chance to vote on whether Britain stays in the European Union. I want to see reform in Europe and I want to put that reform to the British people. The only way the British people will have that say is if they vote for my hon. Friend and other Conservative Members.

My constituents would have expected the Chancellor to negotiate the best possible deal on a rebate. They would also have expected him to negotiate down the surcharge. Is it not the case that he has not done the latter at all? It is not a penny less than it would have been and the accounts will show that the figure is still £1.7 billion.

My hon. Friend makes a good point that the hon. Lady would have paid the whole lot. We are paying £850 million because of the application of the rebate.

I congratulate the Chancellor on halving the recent EU demand in record time. I wish he had just continued a little longer, because with his skills he might have got us a net refund. Does he agree that for those for whom this result is not enough, nothing would ever have been enough? Does he also agree that, however distasteful we might find it, while we are in a club we have to abide by the rules, and that only a future Conservative Government will give the people a say—and a chance to leave the club—in a referendum in 2017?

My hon. Friend is right. Part of the reform we seek in Europe is reform to make sure that the money that British taxpayers pay is well spent. Indeed, we want to make sure that the money of all European citizens is well spent in Europe. He is absolutely right that the only way to get that reform is with a Conservative Government, and then the British people can decide in a referendum.

Will the Chancellor name one European Commission official who asserted to him, or will he release correspondence from the European Commission indicating, that the rebate did not apply in this case?

As I have already said, the rebate and its size were only confirmed to us by the European Commission—by the vice-president for the budget—last Thursday night.

Roughly speaking, the previous Government gave away 20% of our rebate. Based on that logic, they have just cost us a further 20% of £1.7 billion. Does the Chancellor agree that they have just cost us another £340 million?

My hon. Friend underestimates what the previous Labour Government cost us. They actually cost us billions of pounds a year in the rebate that they gave away. That is yet another reason why the idea that they could fight for our interests in Europe is obviously false: we saw what they did when they were in office.

My constituents want a Chancellor who will work with our European partners to create well-paid jobs for ordinary people to reverse the decline in living standards over which he has presided. What they do not want is a Chancellor who tries to pull the wool over their eyes after failing to negotiate with our partners, while making false promises and claims about a budget rebate that was always going to happen.

As I have said, we worked with the other member states to achieve the deal at ECOFIN. We needed the agreement of the other member states on the delay, paying no interest and the permanent change in the rules. It is always good to get lectures from Labour Members about working with and supporting colleagues, so we look forward to the shadow Chancellor’s speech supporting his leader in the next couple of weeks. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman nods, and I know that he is a man true to his word.

Much of this discussion has centred on the rebate, but has my right hon. Friend done any calculations of the value of the forgone interest that would be paid as a result of the extension of the date for this payment from 1 December to the middle of next year?

Of course, the shadow Chancellor estimated that it would cost £114,000 a year, which is the EU penal rate on £1.7 billion. If interest had been charged even on the rebateable amount, it would of course have been about half that figure.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on getting half the money back? That is certainly a step in the right direction. However, does it not show that one economic cap does not fit all in the EU, and never ever will?

My hon. Friend is right. That is why previous Conservative Governments achieved things such as the opt-out from the single currency, even though the previous Labour Government toyed with the idea of joining the single currency, which reveals—

The Government Deputy Chief Whip reminds us that it is still official Labour policy to join the single currency. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) is right that different economic models and different economic policies are appropriate for different countries, but I would make the broad point that freer markets and lower taxes seem to help most countries.