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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 591: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2015


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Uncollected Tax

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs published its latest tax gap estimates on 16 October 2014. In 2012-13, the tax gap was estimated at £34 billion, 6.8% of total tax due.

The Government’s own figures suggest that the tax gap has increased by £3 billion. Independent experts say that the tax gap could be up to £120 billion. In North Ayrshire, the local tax office has been closed by this Government, and since 2010, 10,000 people in the Treasury have lost their jobs, despite the fact that every tax inspector brings in far more—in taxes—than they cost. Do the Government believe that they should rethink their strategy?

The reality is that the tax gap for 2012-13 was lower than in any year under the previous Labour Government. As for the yield—the money that is brought in by HMRC as a consequence of its activity—that has gone up by £9 billion since 2010-11, and is forecast to be £26 billion this year. That is a very good record.

Will the Minister confirm that the compliance tax yield for this year has been revised up to £26 billion, which is an increase of £9 billion since this Government came to office?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to make that point, and there has been an increase—[Interruption.] It is a point that bears repeating. Members really should take in the fact that, under this Government, we have seen a significant increase in HMRC’s yield. HMRC is more effective than ever in dealing with tax evasion and tax avoidance.

Two thirds of people getting tax credits are in work, so why does the Chancellor want to cut tax credits again? That will penalise hard-working families.

I suspect that, a couple of weeks ago, the hon. Gentleman walked through the Lobby in support of the charter for fiscal responsibility, which requires us to find £30 billion of savings, either in tax increases or in spending cuts. If he is not prepared to take action in that area, he has to tell his constituents where he is prepared to take action.

I congratulate Her Majesty’s Treasury on its successful efforts to reduce the tax gap. Where are the main hiding places that people are using to try to avoid tax?

My hon. Friend raises an important question to which I could give a lengthy reply. But what I will say is that, as a Government, we have taken action, for example, to improve the automatic exchange of information between various jurisdictions, so that there is nowhere for people to hide their money. The net is closing in on those who have evaded their taxes, and we are increasingly effective at dealing with tax avoidance as well.

With economic growth now showing signs of slowing and wages stagnating, is the Minister not worried that the amount of income tax and national insurance that he said he would collect is failing to live up to expectations? Will he tell the House by how many billions of pounds income tax and national insurance receipts have fallen short because of low wages, compared with the original Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts back in 2010?

We are aware that, since 2010, the economy has had to face challenges, which in 2010 were not anticipated by the OBR to occur in the way that they did. We have had to deal with the eurozone crisis, the high commodity prices at the time and the aftershocks of the financial crisis. The consequences have been significant, but if we want wages to rise we need to improve productivity. That is about improving our education system, and having more apprentices and a competitive tax system, and that is what this Government are delivering.

The answer is that income tax and national insurance receipts are down by a staggering £95 billion over this Parliament. Is it any wonder that the Minister and the Chancellor have failed so woefully to eradicate the deficit, and when will he realise that it is the low-wage economy that is the recipe for more borrowing, more welfare spending and more debt?

We discovered this morning that in 2014 the UK was the fastest growing major western economy. Employment is at a record level and unemployment has fallen dramatically, contrary to the Opposition’s predictions—but, yes, we have got further to go to reduce the deficit, which is why we need a Government who are prepared to make difficult decisions. All that we have heard from the hon. Gentleman is that he is going to put up fees on gun licences, which is not going to solve the deficit.

Am I right in thinking that under the charter for fiscal responsibility, to which everyone recently signed up, we have made it clear that part of the savings that we are going to make involves bearing down on tax avoidance? Indeed, we have set out clearly exactly where we are going to save every penny of the £30 billion that needs to be saved. How is it possible for anyone to sign up to a charter for fiscal responsibility without making it clear where they are going to make those savings?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; the Opposition have given no indication of the balance between tax and spending and how they are going to find that £30 billion. At a time when Labour Back Benchers are saying that Syriza shows the way while those on the Labour Front Bench apparently support a £30 billion fiscal tightening, all we get from the Opposition is chaos.

Bank Bonuses

The Government keep their opposition to the EU-wide cap on bonuses, but we withdrew our legal challenge in November 2014 after it became clear that it was not likely to succeed. We believe that the cap is flawed, and will just serve to put up fixed salaries, but instead of pursuing the legal challenge we are looking at other ways of building a system of pay in the banking system that only rewards excellence and clearly promotes responsibility.

Can the Minister tell the House how much the Chancellor spent on legal fees alone in that failed legal challenge? Was that not a huge waste of money when the priority should have been to help those people most in need?

No. The amount spent was £43,000. The Government believe fundamentally that we need to have the toughest regime in the world of any global financial centre on pay, and that is what we have. We have ensured that bankers will be remunerated in future on performance and that pay can be clawed back. We have put in place a system that is far better and far more accountable than anything that the previous Government attempted.

In the light of all the hard work by the Government to ensure that bonuses are held back by banks to secure better behaviour by staff and greater stability for banks, is not the bonus cap a crude measure that will increase bank instability and bad behaviour by bankers?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The Government wanted to challenge that cap because it would push up fixed pay, which means bankers being paid not for performing but for simply turning up and raises prudential risks associated with higher fixed costs. It was vital to the interests of this important sector to the UK that we introduced a better regime, and I am delighted that the Chancellor has written to the Governor of the Bank of England in his role on the Financial Stability Board to ask him to look at other ways of ensuring accountability.

Oil Prices

3. What assessment he has made of the effects of recent trends in the price of oil on the economy; and if he will make a statement. (907235)

The fall in the oil price clearly means that certain sectors such as the North sea face real pressure, which the Chief Secretary and I are determined to help them with, but overall this is a good thing for the United Kingdom and for British families. Today’s GDP figures confirm that the recovery is on track, and our plan is protecting Britain from the economic storm with the fastest growth of any major economy in 2014. However, the international climate is getting worse, and with 100 days to go to the election, now is not the time to abandon the plan and return Britain to economic chaos.

We have all noticed that we no longer hear about the cost of living crisis. Could my right hon. Friend tell me precisely how the change in oil prices has affected the retail prices index and how that compares with wage inflation?

Inflation is at 0.5% and wages are growing at three times that rate. If the oil price is fully passed on—and we have put pressure on the petrol and utility companies to do so—British families will on average be £750 better off. If we had accepted the ludicrous price freeze proposed by the Opposition we would have locked in those high oil prices and people would not see the benefit in their utility bills.

The good folk of Brigg and Goole have noticed that the price of a gallon of petrol has fallen significantly and they welcome that. Many of my residents, however, are off the grid and their heating oil bills have not necessarily fallen as they should have. What steps can the Chancellor take to put pressure on heating oil companies to make sure that the cost of heating also falls for those residents off the grid, in line with oil prices?

My hon. Friend has been a champion for his constituents and for all the 1.5 million people who are off the grid and rely on heating oil to warm their homes. That price has fallen by 20%, so people are seeing the benefit of the falling oil price, but we continue to put pressure on the heating oil companies, and we have met them in the Treasury to continue to reinforce the argument that those prices must be passed on and must continue to be passed on.

The oil industry has told us that the softening in the oil price has highlighted the underlying problem in the North sea, which is the high cost of doing business there, driven by an up to 81% tax on production. Instead of waiting till the Budget, will the Chancellor take urgent action on investment allowances and on a cut to the supplementary charge?

The Chief Secretary and I certainly recognise the pressure on the North sea producers. We want to make sure that we continue to extract the maximum amount of oil from the North sea basin. That is why we cut oil taxes at the autumn statement, published a consultation on the investment allowance and made it clear that further action may be required at the Budget.

May I draw it to the House’s attention that what the hon. Gentleman calls the softening of the oil price would have done disastrous damage to the finances of an independent Scotland? The Scottish National party’s projections for its oil revenue were out by almost threefold. It is a reminder of the strengths of the United Kingdom that we can bear pressures such as a falling—or, indeed, a rising—oil price across the entire UK.

Industry and economic experts say that thousands of jobs in the North sea oil sector are at risk, yet both the UK and the Scottish Governments seem to be passing the buck, rather than taking the urgent action that is needed. Will the Chancellor give a commitment to bring forward tax measures immediately to support the industry, as we have called for, rather than delaying for another seven weeks until the Budget?

As I said, we have already cut the supplementary charge. I announced that in the autumn statement and it came into effect at the beginning of this year. We have launched a consultation on an investment allowance. We regularly meet the industry; we met industry representatives last week. They think the Budget is the appropriate time to make further announcements, if there are further announcements, on the North sea oil and gas tax regime, but the hon. Lady and the industry have my assurance that we will do everything we can to support the North sea oil and gas industry during this difficult time. Of course it is impacted by the fall in the oil price. We want to make sure that we get the maximum amount of oil out of the North sea and that the record investment that we have seen over the past year is sustained.

Given the financial short-termism of the previous Government, I welcome the Chancellor’s comments about a shale gas fund. When he is Chancellor after the next general election, will he consider expanding the concept to create a North sea sovereign wealth fund for the benefit of the country as a whole?

Of course, our challenge is to eliminate the deficit and to get our debt falling. Sovereign wealth funds are built up by countries that run consistent budget surpluses, which is exactly what we need to do in the United Kingdom. In particular, I would like to see some of the revenues from the shale gas industry used to support local communities. That would be a boost to communities across the country, especially in the north of England.

Although the Government cannot control the world oil price, they can do things such as drive down the costs in the industry. If the oil price remains low and perhaps drops further to the level where it costs more to take the oil out of the North sea, that is bad not just for the economy of Aberdeen and north-east Scotland, but for the economy of the UK.

I agree with the hon. Lady and I know that she is deeply involved in these issues as the Member of Parliament for Aberdeen South and chairs the all-party committee on these issues. We have to work out how we protect the industry as best we can from a rapid fall in the world oil price, and we must make sure that the brilliant skills, jobs and investment in north-east Scotland continue. That is why we anticipated the challenge by launching the consultation in the autumn statement and making immediate cuts to the tax regime. We have to take further steps over the coming year because we are determined that this brilliant industry will have a brilliant future.

Will the Chancellor confirm that when the oil price halves, as we have just seen, that is likely to be extremely good news for the British economy? Will he also confirm that this fall in the oil price is particularly good news for the 70% of car owners who need cars to get to work? The House will realise that no Chancellor will want to commit himself now, but will he at least agree that there is now great merit in a period of stability in fuel duty?

My hon. Friend is right. As I said at the beginning, the fall in the oil price, for all the challenges it poses in the North sea, is good for the British economy and good for British families. It is being felt at the pump, where petrol is now cheaper than when this Government came into office. One of the reasons why is that we abolished Labour’s fuel duty escalator. As a result, petrol is 20p per litre less than it would have been had we stuck with the shadow Chancellor’s disastrous tax plans. We have to make sure that motorists feel the full benefit of the falling oil price. As I say, it was a good move to abolish that disastrous escalator.

National Insurance

4. What assessment he has made of the effect of lowering the rate of national insurance on levels of employment. (907236)

6. What assessment he has made of the effect of reducing employers’ national insurance contributions on employment. (907238)

This Government inherited damaging plans from the previous Government to increase the jobs tax. We responded by reducing the burden of national insurance. Since then, we have introduced an employment allowance that cuts national insurance for almost 1 million firms, and now we are going to cut national insurance for employing under 21-year-olds and young apprentices. These measures have contributed to record falls in unemployment. A rise in the jobs tax of the kind contemplated by Labour would have the reverse effect and destroy jobs.

I am very grateful to the Chancellor. Will he join me in congratulating the entrepreneurs and risk takers who, across my constituency, have stepped up to the plate since 2010—so much so that we now have 60% fewer people claiming out-of-work benefits? What further measures can my right hon. Friend deliver to ensure that the economic recovery continues in my part of North Yorkshire?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that unemployment in his constituency has fallen. Twelve thousand extra jobs have been created in his constituency. That is because local businesses are benefiting from the employment allowance, and there is more to come with the cuts to national insurance for employing under-21s and apprentices. One of the reasons businesses are coming to his constituency is that he is such a champion of his constituency as a place to invest and employ. He goes out of his way to bring businesses and jobs to his constituency. That is why unemployment has fallen so fast there.

It seems to me that we would be wise as a nation to reduce taxation on the activities that we wish to encourage. I therefore very much welcome the reduction in employers’ national insurance, which has created jobs in my constituency, and I suspect in every constituency around the country. Does the Chancellor agree that we would do well to push on with these reductions in employers’ national insurance, which, to all intents and purposes, is a tax on jobs that discourages their creation?

My hon. Friend is a champion of businesses in his constituency. That is one of the reasons unemployment has fallen in Windsor and 2,000 businesses in Windsor are benefiting from our employment allowance. We are going to go on reducing national insurance on employing 21-year-olds and apprentices. The alternative path—the path offered by the Labour party—is to put the jobs tax up. That would increase unemployment and return Britain to the economic mess it was in when Labour was last in charge.

The lower-paid, particularly those who are earning £15,000 a year or less, should benefit from the Chancellor’s decision to raise the personal income thresholds, but will he also look at raising to the same level the threshold at which national insurance contributions are made, so that the lower-paid pay neither income tax nor national insurance contributions on £300 a week?

We increased the employer’s threshold when we came into office to reverse the damage done by the jobs tax increase proposed by the previous Labour Government. We have used the personal income tax allowance as the best method of lifting people out of income tax. It stands at £10,600, and our long-term economic plan proposes to raise it to £12,500. I am happy to work with the hon. Gentleman on other measures we can undertake to support employment and jobs in Northern Ireland. Is it not absolutely striking that on a question about the jobs tax and a question about unemployment, not a single Labour MP gets up to speak?

Business Support

This Government champion British businesses. We are delivering a significant programme of reform to enable businesses to grow, expand and, importantly, become successful. The reforms are all part of the Government’s long-term economic plan to secure business-led economic recovery.

The number of new business start-ups in my constituency has increased by 100% since 2010. Does the Minister agree that creating a good business environment, with lower taxes and incentives to invest, is crucial to the future of the black country economy in the west midlands, part of which I represent?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. [Hon. Members: “Is he a champion?”] He is, indeed, a champion, and a strong voice for his constituency and his constituents. He is of course right in every respect. This Government are backing business every step of the way. Our long-term economic plan is making it easier to start and grow businesses, as he has seen across his constituency.

Figures published by the Bank of England last week show that net lending to business is still negative. After four and a half years of this Government, when can we expect the figures to go positive, and will we see out the last 100 days of this failed Government, who need a fresh Government to do the job for them?

To put it bluntly, this Government have turned around not only the economy, but the business environment. This Government have backed British businesses and business lending every step of the way, which is in stark contrast to a Labour Government, under whom that would only go backwards.

Does the Minister recognise that when the consultation on tax reforms for the North sea finishes, it will be crucial to businesses in the north-east of Scotland for the Budget to set in place permanent reforms for the long term, not just for the crisis?

My hon. Friend touches on a very significant point. The reality right now is that the reforms are all about long-term economic security. This Government have worked assiduously to ensure that every measure undertaken, whether to back businesses or to create the right tax environment for businesses—he has championed that in his constituency—is the right way forward.

What discussions has the Minister had with her colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills who, in answer to a recent question, admitted that they expect to spend less than £1 million of the employer ownership fund, which was allocated £30 million to help businesses? What will she do about this failure to help businesses?

I emphasise again that this Government have supported businesses and lending to businesses. That is in stark contrast to the failed policies of the Opposition, and to the fact that the hon. Lady’s party would just put up business taxes and take away the support given to small businesses under this Government.

Defined Contribution Pensions

8. What assessment he has made of the further steps which are necessary to ensure the fair treatment of defined contribution pension customers in response to the recent market reports published by the Financial Conduct Authority; and if he will make an assessment of the potential merits of introducing a second line of defence protection for such pension schemes. (907240)

We welcome the Financial Conduct Authority’s announcement yesterday that it will introduce new rules in April to protect consumers accessing their pension pot. The rules will introduce a second line of defence, with pension providers required to give consumers wanting to access their pension pot very clear risk warnings and to highlight the fact that guidance from Pension Wise or regulated advice can help them to avoid making a poorly informed decision.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I welcome the fact that the FCA, perhaps at the last minute, recognised there was an issue and took the right action yesterday. What more will she do to ensure that when people make free choices about their investments after April, they buy the right thing, not make a terrible mistake?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on expressing the importance of a second line of defence. The Government are determined to give pensioners the opportunity to make their own decisions about what to do with their pension savings. Nevertheless, it is vital to ensure that they have reasonable protections.

There were reports yesterday that some people who exercise these rights might face large tax bills that they did not know about. Will the Minister be absolutely clear about what measures will be put in place to ensure that people are not disadvantaged, because she knows, as I do, that people are already being approached informally to get them to exercise these rights?

I reassure the hon. Lady that we have sought to give people the opportunity to make their own decisions about what to do with their lifelong savings. That is far better than in the past, when they were effectively told, “You buy an annuity and that’s that.” We are putting in place clear protections, with a criminal measure on scamming and on pretending to be the Government’s pensions guidance service, and there will be proper guidance, with fully qualified guiders who are able to help people through the process. There is now a further line of defence, because pension providers will be required to point out to people the vital importance of taking guidance or regulated advice.


9. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of recent trends in unemployment figures. (907241)

Since the Government came to power, employment has increased by 1.75 million and now stands at its highest level ever; unemployment has come down by almost 600,000; and the number of jobseeker’s allowance claimants has fallen by more than 40%. That is one of the many ways in which the stronger economy that we are building is leading to a fairer society in this country.

Does my right hon. Friend know that unemployment in my constituency is down to 1.3%, which is precisely half what it was at the last general election and one of the lowest figures in the north-west of England? Does he agree that without the Liberal Democrats and the coalition Government, we would not have had the political stability that was essential for the recovery to take hold?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. Not only has unemployment halved in his constituency, but employment has risen by 1,300 since 2010. That is testimony to the work of Liberal Democrats and the Government in creating stability and to his role of supporting and championing local businesses in the north-west of England.

A striking feature of the recent trends in unemployment is the increase in youth unemployment, which has risen for three months in a row. In the figures that were published last week, it rose by 30,000, which is the biggest jump for almost two years. Why is it that while overall unemployment is coming down, youth unemployment is going up? Why are young people losing out?

I am sorry to have to correct the right hon. Gentleman, but youth unemployment has come down by 171,000 over the past year and is 175,000 lower than when the Government came to power. In his constituency, it is down 53% since 2010—a fact that I am sure he will join me in welcoming. I would agree with him that we need to continue for a number of years with the successful policies that are reducing unemployment in this country, to ensure that every young person has the opportunity to make the best of their life.

May I congratulate the Front-Bench team on their economic policy and their long-term economic plan? Unemployment in South Dorset has halved over the past five years. Does the Chief Secretary agree that to hand the country back to the Opposition in a few months’ time would be an absolute disaster for the economic future of this country?

I agree that the right course for the country is to continue with the balanced, sustainable, fair action that we have taken to deal in a common-sense way with the country’s financial problems. Lurches away from that path are offered by the Labour party and, I am afraid to say, the hon. Gentleman’s party. That is why it is necessary to have the Liberal Democrats to keep the country on the straight and narrow.

Although unemployment in Northern Ireland is lower than would be expected at this point in the economic cycle, growth has not reached out to many of the regions of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland. What steps are the Government taking to address the concentration of growth in the south-east of England and the fact that it does not extend to the regions?

I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation, because we see strong economic growth in London and the south-east and in Scotland, and the economy of the north-west of England has been growing well, particularly in employment. We are seeing a more balanced pattern of growth and job creation than in previous economic recoveries.

None the less, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are significant problems of unemployment in Northern Ireland. That is why we have put in place a range of policies to help support the Northern Ireland economy, some of which we will be debating this afternoon.

Fiscal Consolidation

The Government inherited the largest deficit since the second world war. Since then, we have made substantial progress on reducing the deficit. Borrowing has already fallen by more than a third since 2009-10 and is forecast to have fallen by half this year as a share of GDP. The Government’s consolidation plans have been central to the reduction of the deficit.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Given the eye-watering amount of British taxpayers’ money that is spent on paying the interest on our national debt, I am pleased that the Government have already reduced the annual structural deficit by half. Does he agree that it is vital to continue with the policy of reducing the annual structural deficit in order to tackle our national debt?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who is right to make that point. We need to go on and run an overall surplus, to ensure that our public finances are sustainable over the longer term.

Is the Office for Budget Responsibility not right to say that stagnant wages have led to more borrowing? Is that not the key reason why the Government have missed their borrowing targets by more than £200 billion?

If we want wages to increase, which we do, we need to improve our education system, ensure that we have a welfare system that makes work pay, improve our infrastructure and have competitive tax systems. In brief, we need a long-term economic plan. That is what we have got with this Government, and it is not what we would have with the Labour party.

My hon. Friend will recognise that getting the deficit under control is vital if we want a strong economy. For all the posturing that we have seen today from the Labour party about the NHS, does he recognise that Greece, which had a smaller deficit to the one we had in this country when we came to power, had to cut spending on health services by 14%? Does he agree that only a strong economy can deliver a strong health service?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, who puts it well. We want a strong NHS, but a strong NHS requires a strong economy, and that requires the Government’s policies to continue.

In the long-term economic plan—[Hon. Members: “Hurray!”] I would wait for the second part of the question. In the long-term economic plan, is missing a target by 50% evidence of success or failure?

We have turned the British economy around, and we grew faster in 2014 than any major western economy. Employment is increasing and unemployment is falling, including by 40% since 2010 in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. That is a success.

Northern Powerhouse

We are making good progress in building a northern powerhouse. Over the past year, private sector employment in the north has increased by more than 200,000, a faster increase than the national average and faster than in the south. We want to sustain that by investing in new transport, new skills and new science, by devolving power and by bringing our northern areas closer together into that powerhouse.

May I applaud the Chancellor and the Government for their work on creating a northern powerhouse? Will he ensure that rural communities participate in that wealth growth, and that rural broadband reaches farms and rural businesses that want to drive the rural economy and economic growth?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we want our rural communities in the north to be part of the powerhouse. It is not just about connecting the cities; it is about ensuring that the rural economy is a vibrant part of the northern economy. Superfast broadband is a key part of that, and, as she well knows, we have made special efforts to develop it in North Yorkshire. Rural transport is also incredibly important, as is supporting agriculture. The investment that we are making in agricultural science will benefit agriculture all over the country, including in her constituency.

The Chancellor will have noticed that, for the first time in a recessionary period, the unemployment figures in Scotland—our northern powerhouse—are consistently better than in the rest of the UK, as the SNP Government, where possible, have followed different economic policies. Is his opposition to proper economic powers for Scotland based on a fear of being further outperformed by the Scottish Government? Is he afraid of the competition from a real northern powerhouse?

I am delighted for Scotland that unemployment has fallen and it is seeing growth. I remember, however, that the SNP predicted that our economic plan would cause unemployment to rise in Scotland and shrink the Scottish economy. That has not been the case because Scotland has been part of a stable United Kingdom that is following a long-term economic plan that is benefiting the entire country.

20. On 4 November at Treasury questions, I raised the issue of Brierfield Mill, the largest redundant mill complex in Lancashire and situated in my constituency. Following that, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities visited the project on 16 January. Now, inexplicably, the Lancashire local enterprise partnership has failed to bid for even a penny of funding as part of the second round of the growth deal. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me urgently to discuss Government support for that important project? (907255)

I am well aware of the economic potential of the Brierfield Mill development and when I met my hon. Friend in Nelson recently we talked about those benefits with local businesses. He is a champion of that development and it is extraordinary that the Lancashire LEP and, in particular, Lancashire county council have not promoted the project. He is promoting the project because he is a champion of his constituency and I will happily meet him to see how we can progress the Brierfield Mill project and bring more jobs to the Pendle constituency.

The Centre for Cities recently reported that for every 12 new net jobs created in the south-east of England, only one is created in the rest of the UK. What is the Chancellor doing to address that two-tier economy?

The hon. Gentleman says it is a two-tier economy, but youth unemployment is down by 45% in his constituency and unemployment down by 31%. I agree that the Labour Government in the Welsh Assembly are doing damaging things to the Welsh economy, but thankfully the UK Government are promoting Wales and the Welsh economy and, as a result, we are seeing jobs being created. I am happy to continue to come forward with policies that support Wales and its economic development.

The north-east chamber of commerce recently said:

“Businesses are surging into 2015 on a wave of sustained growth and positivity”,

and unemployment is falling faster in the north-east than anywhere else in the country. Will the Chancellor ensure that the north-east is properly connected to the northern powerhouse and that the necessary infrastructure investment is delivered?

I assure my hon. Friend that that will be the case. The north-east is an incredibly important part of the northern powerhouse, and that is why we are investing in road and rail links there. We are also putting investment into science there, for example at Newcastle university, and of course in his constituency he has seen steelmaking begin again after it ended under the Labour Government. People will have a clear choice at the general election.

Tax Credits and Employment

I thank the Minister for that confirmation that more than two thirds of people getting tax credits are in work. How can she claim to be helping working families when the Chancellor wants to cut their tax credits again, causing real-terms economic pain?

Let us put this into some context. For a start, tax credit spending rocketed under the previous Government and throughout this Parliament we have made it abundantly clear that we support those with low incomes. Let us not forget either that the impact of Labour’s great recession is still being felt. We continue to help people with the cost of living through the increases in personal allowances, the freeze in fuel duty, cuts in council tax and, of course, by reducing the cost of child care.

Working tax credits are in effect a form of corporate welfare for employers who could pay higher wages, especially if tied to increased skills. Will the Minister continue her conversations with the Minister for Skills and Equalities about ways in which we can create a combination of those two, perhaps in the form of tax credits for training, such as proposed by Premier Inn?

I thank my hon. Friend for his suggestion. He is right that more can be done through working with business and learning from their suggestions.

17. How can the Minister claim there is no cost of living crisis when average full-time wages are down by £2,000 a year, when huge and increasing numbers of workers are dependent on state benefits to make ends meet, and when the gap between chief execs’ salaries and the people who work for them is growing all the time? (907251)

Let us be clear. There are a couple of points I would like to make. The Government have shown that the only way to improve and increase living standards is by tackling head-on the country’s economic problems, which are down to the legacy of the previous Government, and by supporting those who do the right thing and aspire to work. I hope the hon. Lady welcomes the fact that in her constituency things have improved, with employment down substantially by 47% and youth unemployment down by 52%.

Tax credits have helped many people, but it is also true that some have been prevented from taking a promotion or a salary increase because they would lose more in taxpayer-funded benefits than they would gain from their employer. That has to be wrong. Does my hon. Friend agree that as universal credit is rolled out across the country, so we return to the crucial principle that work always pays? I am afraid that that got lost under the previous Government.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He mentions the very important universal credit roll-out. As it rolls out—[Interruption.] It is already being rolled out, and it is going well. As it rolls out, more and more people will benefit. He is right to point out that this is about both the value of work and aspiration. We are the only party that stands for aspiration and value in work, and inspiring people to get off benefits and back into work.

Household Budgets

14. What recent estimate he has made of the effect on household budgets of tax and benefit decisions taken in the present Parliament. (907248)

Since 2010, I have published regular distributional analysis of the impact on households of our reforms to tax, welfare and public spending. It is the most comprehensive analysis available. The most recent analysis we published, alongside the autumn statement last month, shows that the wealthiest continue to make the biggest contribution towards reducing the deficit. By 2015-16, the net contribution of the richest 20% will be larger than the remaining 80% put together.

Today, the second independent report in as many weeks shows that proportionately the Government have hit the poorest and those with small children the hardest. Today, half a million more children are living in absolute poverty than when the right hon. Gentleman walked into the Treasury. Will he tell us why, instead of tackling that, he supported tax cuts for millionaires?

Those analyses ignore some of the most important and most progressive policies put in place by the Government. They ignore the pupil premium, which is investing money in the life chances of young people. They ignore the extra early years education provided to three and four-year-olds, and to the most disadvantaged two-year-olds. They are not included in those analyses, but they are helping to ensure that young people have better life chances under this Government.

Does the Minister not agree that it is important to note that real wages are rising, real disposable income is rising, child poverty is down and inequality is down under this Government?

It is very important to note all three of those facts, but it is also important not to be complacent. There is a lot more to do to ensure that we continue to deliver the successful growing economy that is creating jobs, because ultimately getting into work is the best route out of poverty for families.

I am not surprised that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury does not want to acknowledge the full truth unveiled last week by the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ figures. Its report shows clearly that tax and benefit changes under this Government have left households £1,127 a year worse off on average, and that families with children have been hardest hit of all. Does that not make a complete mockery of the Government’s claims that they would be the most family-friendly Government ever?

As I said, the published analysis is incomplete because it ignores public expenditure. Public expenditure is a very important part of fiscal consolidation, but it is the shift in public expenditure, towards such things as early years education, the pupil premium and supporting disadvantaged young people through the education system, that is a vital part of improving life chances. I hope the hon. Lady will want to recognise that the measures the Government have taken have been aimed at improving the life chances of people. That is why we are making so much progress on attainment in schools, reducing child poverty and so on.

Topical Questions

We in Stratford-on-Avon are rightly proud of our world-class chamber orchestra, the Orchestra of the Swan, which, as well as playing to packed audiences in Stratford, is busy exporting British culture to the US and China. What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the extra jobs and growth resulting from the new tax relief for theatres and orchestras?

The new tax relief for theatres has been a real success. It has been taken up by many theatres and is supporting regional productions. Separately, at my hon. Friend’s request, we have also helped the Royal Shakespeare Company to take its plays to China. Orchestra tax relief, the consultation on which we announced last week, will be another huge boost for British culture and music. We will set out further details in the Budget about how it will work, but it will be there to support a thriving orchestra industry—if that is the right word!

First, on a note of consensus, today is Holocaust memorial day. Following our conversation last night concerning today’s report by the cross-party Holocaust commission, on which I am proud to serve, will the Chancellor confirm the cross-party agreement to fund the commission’s recommendations, alongside ongoing funding, for the rest of the decade, for the vital work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, to ensure we have a new and permanent memorial and that future generations never forget that terrible atrocity?

Turning to today’s GDP figures, is the Chancellor, like me, concerned that economic growth is slowing? With just 100 days until the election, will working people be better off than when he became Chancellor, or will they be worse off?

First, this being the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, we should remember the inhumanity and the suffering of those who died and those who live with the memories of the holocaust, and we should vow as a nation to keep their memory alive. The right hon. Gentleman and Members from other political parties served on the Holocaust commission, the chairman of which, Mick Davis, briefed the Cabinet today on its proposals for a permanent memorial and an education learning centre. I made it clear in the Cabinet meeting that the Government would provide £50 million to support this brilliant plan, and of course we will continue to fund the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust, which takes Members and many school children to Auschwitz to see for themselves the horror that happened there. Across the House, we can come together to commemorate this day and ensure that the holocaust is never forgotten and that we never repeat its mistakes.

I hope you, Mr Speaker, will allow me a slight change of tone for a couple of seconds. The GDP numbers, which the shadow Chancellor complains about, show that Britain’s was the fastest-growing major economy in the world in 2014. He kept telling me to listen to the IMF—well, the head of that organisation said that few countries were driving growth like America and the UK. Growth is improving, the deficit has been reduced and unemployment is falling, and the President of the United States says we must be doing something right. When the shadow Chancellor complained about the Prime Minister’s going for dinner at the White House, he said, “I haven’t been neglected. They invited me in and gave me coffee and biscuits.” That is all the endorsement he is going to get for his economic plan anywhere in the world.

It is good we have cross-party agreement fully to fund the Holocaust commission’s report.

If things really were fine and if the economy really were fixed, people would be better off, but instead they are worse off, and the Chancellor would have balanced the books, as he promised, but he has not—he has completely failed to do it. It is because of that failure on the deficit that he is now planning spending cuts in the next Parliament that the IFS calls “colossal” and that the Office for Budget Responsibility says will take us back to levels in our economy not seen since the 1930s—before the NHS existed. Every developed country with spending as low as he is aiming for has widespread charges for health care. Is that not the real Tory economic plan?

We have a free-at-the-point-of-use national health service, which we are proud of and will continue to fund. What is clear is the total confusion in Labour’s health policy today. This morning the Labour leader said he was going to use his so-called mansion tax to pay down the deficit; six days ago the shadow Chancellor said that money would be used to pay for his NHS plan. It is total confusion today. The only way to have a strong national health service is to have a strong economy.

Let me end on this note. We read in the last couple of days that the shadow Chancellor has been sidelined from the general election:

“In a major humiliation, party bosses have quietly shunted”


“out of the media spotlight”.

Let me reach across the Dispatch Box and offer the hand of friendship. Let us resolve that we are both going to put him at the centre of this general election campaign.

T2. By sticking to our long-term economic plan, huge strides have been made towards reducing the deficit—something that seems to evade the shadow Chancellor. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is only one party that can be trusted to take the difficult decisions needed for prosperity in this country and for sound public finances, and it is the one that he and I represent? (907224)

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. In Lincolnshire and across the country, people have seen unemployment fall and businesses grow. We have got to stick with the long-term economic plan, particularly at a time when the global economic risks are increasing. By working through that plan, we can deliver that economic security for his constituents and mine, and make sure this country has a brighter economic future.

T4. Is the Chancellor aware that of the 150,000 people employed in Coventry, 50,000 of them—mainly women and young people—are in part-time, low-paid jobs? What are the Government going to do about it? (907227)

Of course we want to get unemployment down further, and for those who want full-time work, we want to make sure it is available. However, I would point out that, in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, youth unemployment is down by 73% over this Parliament and unemployment is down by more than a half, so we have got to go on with our long-term plan, which is delivering those jobs in Coventry. Eighty per cent. of the jobs created in the UK at the moment are full time, so we need to sustain that plan, not go back to the chaos we saw under the Government he supported.

T3. May I suggest that the Chancellor heed no criticism from the Labour party about deficits, given that it more than doubled the national debt when last in power? As we have heard, the Government have done much to help small businesses, which is why unemployment is falling across the country and in my constituency. As the country’s finances continue to improve, will he look further to ease the tax burden on small businesses—particularly corporation tax—which are very often the backbone of our local economies? (907225)

My hon. Friend is right that small businesses are absolutely central to our country’s economic growth and job creation in the future. We have cut small companies corporation tax in this Parliament. From April, we will have a single corporation tax, as it is consolidated around 20%, which removes a lot of the bureaucracy. On top of that, we have taken the smallest businesses out of business rates, and the employment allowance has helped with the national insurance bills of small businesses. Of course I will bear in mind anything else we can do to help small businesses. We have got some measures in the pipeline, but there is clearly more to do.

T6. This Government are demonising those on benefits, while doing little about tax evasion and avoidance, which, as we have heard, have risen significantly on their watch. Today sees the launch of the Tax Dodging Bill campaign, as 85% of British adults say that tax avoidance by large companies is morally wrong, even when it is legal. Why will the Chancellor not impose penalties for breaches of the general anti-avoidance rule, as we have called for? (907231)

First, it was this Government who got the base erosion and profit shifting process running with the OECD, looking to deal with the international rules. It was this Government who announced at the autumn statement that we are bringing in a diverted profits tax to deal with some of the contrived and artificial behaviours that people are worried about. It was also this Government who introduced the general anti-abuse rule and it is this Government who are consulting on bringing in penalties for it. I have to say, it is not a bad record.

T5. I commend the Chancellor’s aim of running an overall budget surplus in 2019-20 and cutting the national debt so that the next generation are not saddled with punitive taxes. Does he agree that this is a case of simple fairness, not ideology? (907230)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Countries such as Canada and Sweden, both of which have quite strong social democratic traditions, have forms of balanced budget rules, or rules where surpluses are run in good times. That has enabled them to bring their public finances under control and their debt down. They did not endure the hardship we saw as a result of the financial crisis here in the UK. We propose that countries should run a surplus in good times. That is the only sustainable way to get our national debt down. If we do not do that, we leave Britain exposed to whatever economic shocks the world throws at us.

T7. The Chancellor will be aware of the importance of the success of Newcastle international airport and of the need for successful businesses to plan ahead. He will understand, then, how the possible cut in air passenger duty north of the border is felt as a threat. Will the Chancellor give an assurance to the business of the Newcastle international airport and to other potential businesses affected that we will match any cut in APD funding north of border? (907232)

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point, and there is agreement on it across the political divide. The devolution of air passenger duty to Scotland raises the potential for real pressure to be put on airports in north-east England, but also on Manchester airport, which is partly in my constituency. We will of course have to see what the Scottish Parliament does when the powers are devolved, but the hon. Gentleman has my assurance that we will work together to ensure that we minimise the impact on the north-east if this happens, and that we will protect regional airports in England. We have a couple of years to work this out—it does not have be done tonight or tomorrow—and we can work out a plan that protects the brilliant Newcastle, Manchester and other regional airports.

This Treasury team abolished Labour’s unjustifiable and unfair beer duty escalator and delivered two historic successive cuts in beer duty. We still pay more tax on our beer, however, so our British brewers are not getting a fair deal in comparison with their European counterparts. Will the Treasury make it a hat trick?

During his time in Parliament, my hon. Friend has been a champion of the beer industry, small pubs and small brewers across the country—and a very effective champion he has been, too. Of course I cannot make any commitments about the Budget at this stage, but I welcome his recognition of the progress made on this subject during the course of this Parliament, and I will certainly take his recommendations for the Budget very seriously.

Britain has an enormous and persistent trade deficit with the European Union—clear evidence of a misaligned exchange rate. The significant weakening of the euro in recent days will make the position even worse and cause damage to British industry. When are the Government and the Bank of England going to take seriously the need to achieve and sustain an appropriate sterling-euro exchange rate?

This Government do not target a particular exchange rate. Successive previous Governments found to their cost that doing so was difficult and damaging. What we do is ensure that Britain is competitive. I think the best thing to do to support exports is to make sure that our British businesses are taxed in a competitive way; they have great skilled work forces working for them—[Interruption.] They are chuntering away on the Opposition Front Bench. I seem to remember that when the Labour leader was asked recently when Britain would join the euro, he said it depended on how long he was the Labour leader. It is still official policy to join the euro and tie the currency up to the eurozone—with all the ensuing chaos that would follow.

Is the Chancellor aware that since 2010 unemployment in my constituency is down by a staggering 1,000? What assessment has he made of the role of small business start-ups in reducing unemployment?

Small business start-ups have been central to job creation. We have helped them with the employment allowance and the enterprise investment scheme, and we have given the new enterprise allowance to young unemployed people to help them to start businesses—and that has been a great success. We have in place many initiatives to back our brilliant small businesses in Norfolk and across the country.

Considering the economic modelling carried out by one of the Treasury’s own economists, Professor Blake, what further progress has been made on reducing VAT on tourism, which would benefit all regions and particularly coastal regions in the UK?

We have looked at that, but there is a significant cost involved in making the changes. On the point of helping tourism, the hon. Lady will be aware of the substantial increase in Northern Ireland and other places over recent years and, secondly, the coastal communities fund provides a lot of support to many of the areas that benefit from tourism.

Cutting beer taxes, raising income tax thresholds and stopping the petrol tax increases proposed by the Labour Government have helped the Evans household and, probably, a number of other household budgets throughout my constituency. In the next Budget, will the Chancellor please keep calm and carry on cutting taxes?

I will not make any commitments in relation to the Budget, but my hon. Friend is right to point out that our support for the pub industry and for motorists has provided huge boosts for industries and families in Lancashire and throughout the country. Of course, we do not encourage people to mix the two.

Our plans do not involve a VAT increase, because we are prepared to make difficult decisions on public expenditure, including decisions on the welfare budget. The hon. Lady and her colleagues voted for £30 billion of consolidation. If they are not prepared to do that by achieving expenditure savings, they must be contemplating big tax rises. With 100 days to the election, we know the choice: it is between a competent Conservative plan that is delivering growth, and a return to economic chaos under the Labour party.

Order. I apologise to colleagues whom I was not able to accommodate, but, as usual in the case of Treasury questions, demand massively outstripped supply.