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Topical Questions

Volume 591: debated on Tuesday 27 January 2015

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.