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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 594: debated on Tuesday 10 March 2015


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Uncollected Tax

1. What recent estimate Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made of the amount of uncollected tax in the UK. (907957)

4. What recent estimate Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has made of the amount of uncollected tax in the UK. (907960)

HMRC 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.

I thank the Minister for those figures. Will he confirm that HMRC’s own figures show that under this Government the amount of uncollected tax has risen by £3 billion?

The number I quoted a moment ago, 6.8%, is a lower percentage of tax due than was achieved in any year under the previous Government.

There has been speculation that the Chancellor’s Budget next week will deal with tax avoidance and evasion, but there has also been speculation that by 2016 the number of staff working in HMRC will drop from 50,000 to just over 40,000. How do the Government expect to deal with evasion and avoidance if they are unwilling to properly resource HMRC?

Over the course of this Parliament, HMRC has brought in more yield year after year. If the measure is just on the number of staff, the hon. Lady will be aware that, when HMRC was formed in 2005, it had something like 92,000 members of staff and that by the end of the previous Parliament it had below 70,000. It is not about the number of staff. We are seeing a huge improvement in HMRC’s performance.

Will the Minister confirm that HMRC’s compliance yield target has actually been revised up this year to £26 billion, which is £9 billion more than when this Government came to office?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The important point here is the output, not the input. I should point out that the number of staff employed in enforcement and compliance has gone up over the course of this Parliament.

17. A young man in my constituency had his jobseeker’s allowance taken away because he missed an early morning appointment, despite having notified the jobcentre of the illness that prevented him from attending. He is just one of many vulnerable people affected by the sanctioning regime imposed by this Government. According to the House of Commons Library, the amount lost in tax evasion and tax avoidance exceeds the entire spend on JSA by £2 billion. Does the contrast between the persecution of the most vulnerable and the Government’s failure on tax avoidance not say everything about their priorities? (907973)

Over the course of this Parliament, the number of prosecutions for tax evasion has gone up fivefold. The reality is that the Government are taking more measures to deal with tax avoidance and tax evasion. We have done that consistently at every Budget. Ever since the 2010 spending review, there has been a greater focus on HMRC being able to bring in the yield. The numbers, as my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen) pointed out, speak for themselves.

Hundreds of millions of pounds are lost in revenue, criminal gangs are financed and untold damage is done to the environment in Northern Ireland as a result of fuel laundering. Why have the Government resisted putting effective trace measures into fuel, which would stamp this out? Is the Minister concerned that despite numerous raids nobody is ever caught for fuel laundering in Northern Ireland?

Our record across the piece shows that we take tax evasion and criminal activity in this area very seriously. This is a complex matter, but the hon. Gentleman will know that considerable efforts have been undertaken to address fuel laundering. This is a matter we take very seriously.

The Minister must acknowledge the significant damage that the recent HSBC tax avoidance and evasion scandal has done to the public’s confidence in the Government’s willingness to pursue tax avoiders and evaders, thereby reducing the amount of uncollected tax in the UK. In the Chancellor’s absence, will the Minister now answer the question that the Chancellor failed to answer six times on the “Today” programme? Did the Chancellor ever discuss tax evasion at HSBC with Lord Green—yes or no?

As I have pointed out, the Government’s efforts and success in dealing with tax avoidance and tax evasion are a huge step forward from what we inherited. On the appointment of Lord Green, the proper processes, as put in place by the previous Government, were undertaken. The Cabinet Secretary looked at Lord Green’s tax affairs, and just as the previous Government appointed him to their business advisory council, so he was appointed as a Minister—an appointment that was welcomed by the Labour party.

Still we have no answer to the simplest and clearest of questions. If we cannot get a straight answer from the Chancellor or his Ministers, we should at least hear from Lord Green—the man who was in charge of the bank and was then made a Conservative Minister—either in front of a parliamentary Committee or through a statement in the other place. Why are the Government parties so desperate to silence Lord Green? What are they so afraid he will reveal?

We are not afraid of anything. The Government have been more successful at prosecuting criminals involved in tax evasions, more successful at closing tax avoidance loopholes and more successful at getting money in. That is a record we can be proud of.

Tax Credits

In total, 4.5 million households are in receipt of tax credits, and 71% of them are in employment. The Government believe it is right to provide additional support to those in need through the benefits system, but we have been clear throughout that we want to ensure that people are better off in work than on benefits.

Will the Minister confirm that the Government’s real-terms cuts to tax credits will not only hit more people in work but hit far more women than men?

I am sure the hon. Lady shares my delight at the great news that the gender pay gap is lower than it has ever been, that there are more women in work than ever before and that 1.85 million people are in work who were not in work at the time of the last general election. That is cause for celebration. The Government have strived at every point to support women into work, whether through entrepreneurial allowances, support for women with child care or other measures.

19. Is my hon. Friend aware of the Institute for Fiscal Studies report on living standards showing that living standards are back to where they were before Labour’s great recession? Does this not help the very people she has mentioned? (907975)

Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right. The IFS report also showed that 200,000 fewer people were in relative poverty in 2014-15 compared with 2009-10, including 100,000 children, and that since 2010 the number of children under 16 in workless households had fallen by about 390,000, taking it to the lowest level since records began. That is very good news.

25. The average wage in my constituency is £450, which is £71 per week less than the national average. How can the Minister defend real-terms cuts to tax credits for these hard-working people, particularly the women, in my constituency? (907981)

The hon. Gentleman will surely be delighted at the news from the IFS and other forecasters that real wages are now rising at a higher rate than inflation, and it is thanks to our long-term economic plan that inflation is so low. We have had council tax cuts and fuel duty freezes, and we have done everything we can by raising personal tax-free allowances to enable people to benefit from a recovering economy, but we can only do it by sticking to a long-term economic plan.

Am I right in thinking that universal credit will replace working tax credits and child tax credits, making 3 million households better off by an average of £177 per month and improving work incentives by allowing people to keep more of their income as they move into work?

Yes, my right hon. Friend is exactly right. Universal credit is a major reform that will transform the welfare state in Britain for the better. It will replace the current complex system of means-tested working-age benefits, including tax credits, and make 3 million households better off by on average £177 a month.

Infrastructure Investment

This Government have revolutionised the approach to infrastructure through long-term planning via the national infrastructure plan, which we conceived and published, that sets out an infrastructure pipeline worth more than £460 billion of public and private investment. In the 2013 spending round, I committed over £100 billion to support infrastructure investment across the United Kingdom.

I am delighted that the Government have made significant commitments to the south-west region, such as the fantastic £50 million-worth of investment for a new junction on the M49 in my constituency. Will the Minister confirm what further investments he is making for improvements to transport across the south-west region as a whole?

Investment in the transport infrastructure of the south-west has been a much higher priority for this Government than, I think, for any previous Government. We have committed £7.2 billion-worth of investment in the transport infrastructure of the south-west, including £2 billion in roads—for example, dualling the A303 and the new tunnel at Stonehenge, sorting out the A30 all the way to Camborne and the electrification of the Great Western main line with new inter-city express trains. I have recently asked the south-west peninsula rail task force to bring forward more proposals for investment in strategic rail schemes for the region.

Last month, a couple of hundred senior business figures gave a very warm welcome to the second stage of the review that Sir John Armitt has done on infrastructure for the Labour party, including plans for a new independent national infrastructure commission to identify the country’s long-term needs and monitor Governments’ plans to meet them. Business backs Labour plans; business organisations back Labour’s plans; will the right hon. Gentleman back them?

Of course, the Labour party’s belated conversion to long-term planning for infrastructure is welcome, although it was not the practice during its 13 years in office. I think that the national infrastructure plan and the architecture around it provides the right framework for delivering that long-term planning. I am not convinced that a new quango is the best way to solve the problem.

Last week, the HS2 Select Committee wrote to the Treasury asking for more flexibility on big infrastructure projects where farmers have difficulty finding suitable replacement land within the statutory time limits for capital gains tax relief, leaving the businesses not knowing whether or not a discretionary power could be granted. Can the Chief Secretary give some comfort to my constituents who are affected by this?

I do take seriously my right hon. Friend’s point. The Department for Transport is working on the plans to flesh out how these things will work in respect of HS2. I would add that HMRC can provide extra flexibility where there are particular impacts on particular farmers or other businesses. I would certainly want to maintain an open mind on the points that my right hon. Friend is raising.

I could not help but notice that when my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) was asking the Chief Secretary’s sidekick to answer a question about Lord Green, the Chief Secretary was constantly having a laugh at his expense. I am going to give him a chance: will he now answer the question about meeting Lord Green. Now is the opportunity to make a name for himself. Come on.

The hon. Gentleman has made his point, but unfortunately it does not relate to investment in infrastructure.

I am trying to use such powers of anticipation as I have, but let us hear the Chief Secretary respond.

I do not recall ever having had any conversations about investment in infrastructure with Lord Green. Matters relating to ministerial appointments are, of course, a matter for the Prime Minister. What matters is making sure that in this country we have a zero-tolerance approach to tax evasion and tax avoidance, and that where organisations are facilitating or encouraging tax evasion, we put in place the proper penalties.

Does the Chief Secretary agree that no British Government should fail to invest in the infrastructure, the personnel and the equipment of the armed forces at a rate less than the NATO-recommended minimum? Will he have a word with his leader and with mine to make sure that the necessary commitment is given before the general election?

We have met that commitment in the present Parliament, and we will do so in 2015-16 as well. Spending on defence will, of course. be a matter for the next spending round. However, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman should have regard not just to the total amount spent, but to the efficiency of the expenditure. We have made great progress during this Parliament in securing better value, in terms of defence equipment and output, for the limited money that we have to spend as a country.

The Treasury has had meetings with the European Commission to discuss the reinstatement of the aggregate credit levy scheme for Northern Ireland, which could serve as a further tool of investment in infrastructure. What further discussions have taken place?

I know that discussions have been ongoing, and that the issue has been the subject of a protracted dispute. I have no further updates, but I will ensure that my ministerial colleague who is responsible for the scheme writes to the hon. Lady.

NHS Funding Pressures

5. What recent representations he has received on fiscal steps to address funding pressures in the NHS. (907961)

The Government have protected the health budget in real terms throughout the current Parliament. Of course a strong national health service needs a strong economy, and the Government plan to deliver that strong economy, along with a fairer society. The NHS budget has already increased by £12.7 billion during this Parliament, and in the autumn statement we announced an additional £2 billion for front-line NHS services. That money is intended to meet demand pressures in the next financial year, and also to help to start the process of transformation that was outlined in the “Five Year Forward View”, which is probably the most important representation that I have received on NHS funding in the last year or so.

Hospitals have struggled to cope with the pressures during the winter. Labour has made a fully funded commitment to provide the extra doctors, nurses, home care workers and midwives who are needed through a “time to care” fund. Analysis of Conservative party spending plans shows that more than 260,000 elderly people risk losing their social care packages during the next Parliament. Is it not time for the Government to commit themselves to taxing hedge funds and tobacco companies in order to raise the extra resources that our NHS so desperately needs?

Let me gently say to the hon. Gentleman that he ought to be a wee bit cautious about believing too many of his Front Benchers’ spending plans. They say that they want to deal with the deficit but have set out no plans to do so, and they have made multiple spending commitments without any sense of how those commitments will accord with their fiscal strategy.

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right to suggest that going too far and reducing the deficit reduction by more than is necessary in the next Parliament would have a damaging effect on public services. I would say that his party has got it wrong and the Conservative party has got it wrong, but the Liberal Democrats have got it right.

23. Despite the economic chaos that was inherited by the coalition Government, spending on the NHS in England has been protected and increased. Does that not compare very favourably with the position in Wales, where a Labour Government have slashed NHS spending by 8%? Should we not judge these people by their deeds rather than their words? (907979)

My hon. Friend has made a very fair point. Comparing the NHS performance of different Administrations is an important activity, in which I am sure he will engage very fruitfully over the next few weeks. Let me add that if we are to judge a Labour Government by their actions, we should look at the mess that the Labour party made of the economy when it was last in power. If we found ourselves with problems of that kind again, money for our NHS would be one of the resources that would suffer.

As we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), the pressures on the NHS are already putting care services in crisis. Why has the Chief Secretary colluded in Tory plans to shrink public investment and take an additional £70 billion from public services in the next Parliament, thus posing an even bigger risk to health and social care? He has dodged the question in the past; will he give us a straight answer now? Why did he sign off those Tory plans in the autumn statement?

The hon. Gentleman would do better to begin any question about the NHS with an acknowledgement of his own party’s failures I have made it clear that the figures published by the Office for Budget Responsibility represent a neutral assumption. I think the hon. Gentleman’s party would borrow too much and the Conservatives would cut too much, and that what we need is a balanced approach in the middle.

I do not know whether the Chief Secretary knows what he is doing. The letter from the OBR’s Robert Chote explicitly says—I have it in front of me—that the forecast for that £23 billion of surplus in 2019-20 was

“signed off by the ‘quad’”,

of which I think the Chief Secretary is a member. Is Robert Chote wrong, or did the Chief Secretary not realise what he was signing up to? Will he at least assure us that, if that was a mistake or he did not spot it in the past, he will be opposing a repeat of those Tory plans in next week’s Budget Red Book?

Matters relating to the Budget will be revealed by the Chancellor in his Budget statement next Wednesday and not before, as I am sure you would expect, Mr Speaker. I have listened to the hon. Gentleman today, as I listened to him on the “Today” programme yesterday, and there was not a single answer about how Labour would balance the books, and not a single answer about how Labour would invest in public services. I heard yesterday about Labour’s zero-based review, which seems to mean zero savings, zero ideas, zero economic credibility.

Health services in Chester and west Cheshire are facing increased pressures because of thousands of people fleeing from the Welsh NHS and seeking treatment in England. Will my right hon. Friend guarantee to provide more money for hospitals on the English side of the border, to protect them from the failure of the Labour party in Wales?

Clearly, there are issues in the NHS in Wales, but I would caution my hon. Friend about the tone of his question, because health workers in England and in Wales are working as hard as they can to provide the best treatment they can for people on either side of the border. Of course there are failures in terms of funding in Wales and issues that need to be dealt with, but everyone on this side of the House should unite in respect and admiration for our nurses and doctors and the work they do to keep us healthy in this country.

Wine Duty

6. If he will make a comparative assessment of the level of duty on wine paid in the UK and in other EU member states. (907962)

Industry estimates show that there are 135 wineries in England and Wales, producing 4.5 million bottles of wine. The UK’s growing and award-winning wine industry benefited from the Government ending the wine duty escalator at Budget 2014.

There will be much responsible dancing in the streets if the Chancellor completes a hat-trick of beer duty cuts in his Budget and there will be much responsible celebration if he cuts the duty on spirits. But there will be much wailing and irrepressible disappointment if he does not reduce the duty on wine, which has gone up by 54% since 2008 alone and accounts for 67% of all the duty on all wine in the whole of the EU. Will he complete a fantastic treble-whammy by dropping the duty on wine, too, which it has been estimated would generate some £3 billion in extra revenue—and 20,000 jobs!

If it is not already too late to make this suggestion, I think my hon. Friend deserves a good bottle at lunchtime after that effort. He has put his case on the record, but of course all announcements are for the Chancellor on Budget day.

If this Government do indeed have a long-term economic plan, which most of my constituents do not believe, will the Financial Secretary stop worrying about the older generation of wine drinkers and start concentrating his mind on the young people of this country who are underprivileged and overtaxed and have more problems in getting a good job? It is about time that the 18 to 35-year-olds, rather than the older wine drinkers of this country, were taken into account by this Chancellor.

First, may I reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is a long-term economic plan, and thank him for using the phrase? Credible public finances will benefit the younger generation, who will not face many years of paying off higher debt levels.

While the Financial Secretary is looking carefully at the duty on English wine, will he redouble his efforts to support artisan and small-scale cider makers, who risk being put out of business as a consequence of a disastrous recent EU decision?

I appreciate the point made by my hon. Friend. The Government’s support for small cider makers across the piece has helped to create a diverse and vibrant market in this area, and we will continue to study the Commission’s arguments carefully because we want to support this industry.

Tax Avoidance and Tax Evasion Schemes

8. What plans he has to introduce penalties for financial advisers who promote aggressive tax avoidance and tax evasion schemes. (907964)

This Government have been relentless in cracking down on tax avoidance and evasion. We have introduced a tougher monitoring regime and penalties for high-risk promoters of tax avoidance schemes, and the unprecedented common reporting standard will mean that by 2018 more than 90 countries will be exchanging information on offshore accounts automatically, helping Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to find and pursue offshore evaders successfully.

I thank the Chief Secretary for that answer. Does he agree that more has been done on tax avoidance in the past five years than was done in the previous 13, so craven were the previous Government before big business and big tax avoidance? Will he welcome the Financial Secretary’s announcement yesterday of further action on tax avoidance-promoting schemes?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in both things that he says. The Financial Secretary’s announcement represented very important further progress, but if we look back over the past five years, we see that the relentlessness of our pursuit of measures to crack down on avoidance, be it the general anti-abuse rule in the tax system, the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes regime, the monitoring regime that we are putting in place or the measures to increase prosecutions for tax evasion, has made it clear that there is absolutely no tolerance for aggressive tax avoidance and tax evasion in this country.

The Chief Secretary will know that 10% of UK wealth is held in offshore bank accounts, which is a much higher proportion than in the United States, so why is he not focusing on that tax avoidance and evasion, at a time when 65% of people on jobseeker’s allowance in Swansea have been sanctioned and are living on a pittance? It is a disgrace.

The hon. Gentleman clearly was not listening to my first answer, because we have put in place something unprecedented: working with our colleagues in other countries, the common reporting standard will mean that more than 90 countries will be automatically exchanging information on offshore accounts, so that HMRC has the information it needs to find and pursue offshore tax evaders successfully. We need to make further progress on how we deal with organisations that encourage, promote or facilitate tax evasion. I have said I want to see further work done on that, and I am sure we will be hearing more about it soon.

In 2006-07, a hedge fund manager avoided millions in tax through a film scheme later judged unlawful. HSBC received £438,000 for acting as an intermediary, so does the Chief Secretary agree that there should have been a penalty on HSBC for its role in this scam?

I do not know the details of the specific instance to which my hon. Friend refers, but I do think that in cases where an organisation is facilitating or promoting tax evasion and a penalty is then paid and tax is paid, as it should have been in the first place, the organisation facilitating the tax evasion should be liable for exactly the same amount of money, to be paid to the Exchequer. In that way, there would be a strong financial as well as legal incentive for people not to get involved in this practice in the first place.

Local Authority Borrowing (Home Building)

9. What recent representations he has received on caps on local authority borrowing for building homes. (907965)

I have received many representations on local authority borrowing caps, but I would refer the House to the recent excellent review of the local authority role in housing supply carried out by Natalie Elphicke and Councillor Keith House. They made many suggestions as to how the local authority role in house building could be improved, but one of their conclusions was that the problem was not a lack of money but the way in which resources are deployed and organised in the local government sector.

I very much welcome the answer to my question and the other comprehensive measures the Government have taken to enable people to buy their own homes, such as First Buy. Will the Chief Secretary explain a little more about some of those findings and what more we can do to ensure that hard-working people who need social housing can get it?

The hon. Lady raises an important question. In this Parliament we are building more affordable homes than has been the case at any point in the past 20 years, and in the next Parliament we will be building even more. However, I do not think any of us should be complacent; we need to raise substantially the level of house building in this country. That is why I welcome the recommendation of Keith House and Natalie Elphicke on a housing finance institute. It is also why I set out around the autumn statement last year moves towards Government taking a direct commissioning role to ensure that we meet a 300,000 homes a year target. That will be piloted at the Northstowe development, which I encourage the hon. Lady to find out more about.

I declare an indirect interest, which is on record. Local authorities are at the sharp end of this Government’s failure to deliver the housing that the country needs, particularly affordable rented housing. Labour Plymouth is proactively doing what the Minister has just said—bringing forward land and building 1,000 homes. It has a view on the cap and about meeting the need. Greater concerns, however, surround the announcement of the starter home scheme, which will lead to a massive loss of affordable home building— developers get out of any requirement to do it and the local authority has no say. Can the Chief Secretary please tell the House what the impact assessment of that policy was and the impact on affordable rented homes?

The idea behind the starter homes scheme is precisely to offer homes at a discount to young people who want to get on the housing ladder. I would have thought that was an objective that everyone in the House would welcome. If the hon. Lady wants to look at social rented housing, in this Parliament—and continuing in the next Parliament—we have the highest annual rate of social house building than under the previous Government or for the past 20 years. During Labour’s 13 years in office, the number of social homes fell by 421,000; we have increased it by over 300,000.

Tax Devolution

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Finance Secretary of the Scottish Government on devolution of taxes. (907966)

I have had frequent and largely constructive discussions with the Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, including on the matter of devolution of taxes, as have my ministerial colleagues. The Scottish Minister recently met the Chancellor of the Exchequer. We have made huge progress in the area of tax devolution.

From reading the text of the Smith agreement, it seems to me that we have handed over income tax in particular to the Scottish Government, whereby allowances and bands can be varied. In fact, we have created the possibility of an independent tax system, apart from hanging on to the 20p tax as a kind of fulcrum around which it must work. Has the Treasury looked at the impact on the UK if there were an entirely independent tax system in the north of the United Kingdom?

Yes, we have. The hon. Gentleman is right. The Smith commission—rightly, I believe—devolves power over rates and bands in the income tax system. It does not devolve control of the tax base or the personal allowance. One of the bits of work that remains to be done is to ensure that we have a fiscal framework in place around that which means that the fact of devolution does not offer a financial advantage in and of itself either to Scotland or to the rest of the United Kingdom. I have had constructive discussions with John Swinney on that point and on many others. It is, of course, a matter for the Scottish Government to make sure that they have competent administrative machinery in place, which they will need next month when the process of the first wave of income tax devolution starts.

Is my right hon. Friend, like me, waiting with bated breath for the latest Government Expenditure and Revenue Scotland figures to be published? Does he expect that they will bolster or demolish the Scottish National party’s case for full fiscal autonomy?

Bated breath might be overstating it, but I expect the new GERS figures very soon. In recent days we have seen evidence of the damage that the Scottish National party’s ideas would do to the UK economy—higher debt for the whole of the UK at the end of this Parliament than at the beginning of it, and an extra £5 billion a year being spent on interest payments. Having been defeated on its proposals for independence, which would have undermined and damaged the Scottish economy, the SNP seems inclined to offer the same damage to the UK economy as a whole.

Under the Scotland Act 2012, from April 2016 Scotland will indeed have significant new tax-raising powers. HMRC’s own risk register shows that the risk that Scottish taxpayers will not be identified by April 2016 has risen from amber to red, so can the Chief Secretary tell the House why, despite these being the biggest changes to Scottish tax ever, only 11 full-time equivalent HMRC staff are working on them and, according to Audit Scotland, they rely on a single official in the Scottish Government?

I am confident that the resource being applied at the HMRC end of the spectrum is sufficient to ensure that we can deliver the devolution that is planned. That process is going on at present. Stamp duty devolution starts in April this year and income tax devolution the following April. Whether or not the Scottish Government are applying sufficient resource, effort or people to make sure that the tax system will be competently administered is a question for them to answer. I recently signed off the orders to devolve stamp duty, and they will now need to make sure that that is done properly.

I thank the Chief Secretary for that response, although it does not entirely fill me with reassurance. Is it not the case that this whole process risks descending into absolute chaos, and is it not time that both the UK and the Scottish Governments got a grip? How many HMRC and Treasury officials have been seconded to the Scottish Government to help clear up the mess? If people have not been seconded, will he now have urgent discussions to see whether that would help?

I am afraid that it is a feature of devolution, which the hon. Lady and I both support, that devolved Administrations have to take responsibility for matters that are in their purview. Frankly speaking, it is not for the Treasury to send officials to bail out Revenue Scotland. If it approaches us and says that it does not have enough people, it cannot do it and it is not ready, that is fine. But having discussed the matter with John Swinney and received assurances that he believes that it is in a good position to carry on taking on those functions and to do so properly, that is sufficient for me to sign the orders to hand over the powers.

Fiscal Support for Businesses

The Government champion business. We have cut the main rate of corporation tax to 21%, the lowest in the G7, we have allocated more than £460 billion for infrastructure projects, and we have committed to unlock up to £10 billion of business finance through the British Business Bank by 2017-18.

Businesses in Chiswick, Brentford, Isleworth, Osterley and Hounslow have been hugely helped by the Government through lower business rates, reduced tax, better infrastructure and two new free schools, which were announced yesterday, to help build the skills for the future. Does my hon. Friend agree that only a Conservative Government with a long-term economic plan can help make Britain the most attractive place in the world to start and grow a business?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. She is right that we want Britain to be the best place to start and grow a business. I am delighted for her that she has 9,600 new start-ups in her constituency, which she has fought for diligently throughout this Parliament, and that, as a result of this success, unemployment is down 38% in her constituency since 2010. I was particularly delighted to pay a visit with her to one of them, My Plumber Ltd, and to meet the wonderful Ollie, who was the apprentice there in charge.

One fiscal measure that affects business a great deal is the rate of VAT, and every Conservative Government put up VAT. In 1979, they put it up from 8% to 15%; in 1991, up to 17.5%; in 1994, on fuel and power; and in 2010, VAT was raised again to 20%. So we know what they will do, but let us give them one more chance. Will the hon. Lady rule out putting up VAT if in power after May?

It is extraordinary. I wonder if the hon. Gentleman would like to admit that every Labour Government when they leave office leave unemployment higher than when they came in. That is the truth of the matter. The Government are sorting out the mess left by the Labour Government, which was the worst financial crisis in British peacetime.

18. Does my hon. Friend agree that, thanks to our long-term economic plan, the Government have supported businesses through cutting businesses taxes? Does she further agree that the real difference between the Government and the Labour party’s approach is that while we have been cutting taxes on businesses, it wants to put them up? (907974)

Yes, my hon. Friend is exactly right. There is the risk under Labour of a return to an anti-business system that has already been recognised by people who are themselves trying to run businesses in the UK that are contributing to our economy. She has been assiduous in her constituency in supporting business. She has more than 8,000 new start-ups, and I was delighted to visit Clare and to meet the Ealing Mums in Business, who are doing everything that they can to build successful businesses from small beginnings, to talk to them about access to finance.

One of the steps designed to assist businesses in Northern Ireland is the devolution of corporation tax. In light of the reneging of Sinn Fein on the introduction of welfare reform, what implications does the Minister see in the devolution of corporation tax in Northern Ireland?

As I think the hon. Gentleman will know, we will agree to devolution for Northern Ireland if it is sustainable, and if it is felt by all sides to be a sustainable proposition.

Youth Employment

This Government have taken decisive action to boost youth employment. We have been a Government who are very much on the side of young people, and the results are clear: youth employment is increasing, up by 110,000 over the past year, and the number of young people claiming jobseeker’s allowance is at its lowest level since the 1970s.

Youth unemployment in my constituency is down by 53% since 2010. In the city of Hull, it is down by 54%. Does my hon. Friend recognise the opportunity that has been created by the growth in apprenticeships under this Government? Does she agree with the Education Committee that it would be “a mistake” for level 2 apprenticeships to be abolished for young people, as the Labour party proposes? Does she agree, on this occasion, with the TUC, which says it would be “a grave injustice”, or with the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, which says that, on apprenticeships, Labour has “got it all wrong”?

My hon. Friend is right. Under this Government we have seen over 2 million new apprenticeships, and level 2 apprenticeships are absolutely vital in giving young people a chance. Young people have shared in the success of our long-term economic plan, with the UK now having the fourth highest youth employment rate in the EU and the second highest in the G7. Very importantly, young people’s wages are also on the rise, with the latest data showing that the earnings of 18 to 21-year-olds who work full time have increased by 6% over the past three years.

Yesterday I had an exchange with the Minister for Employment in which I made it abundantly clear that youth unemployment in my constituency continues to rise. She has said that the recent rise in youth unemployment is just “a tiny blip”. Does this Minister agree with that?

The hon. Gentleman should surely be delighted that since 2010 youth unemployment in his constituency is down by 47%, so I cannot agree with him, and that since 2010 unemployment is down by 34%. In the past 12 months, long-term unemployment is down by 38%. Surely he should be celebrating those numbers.

Marriage Tax Allowances

The Government have introduced the marriage allowance for married couples and civil partners, which takes effect from 6 April 2015. The transferable amount has been fixed at 10% and will rise in proportion to the personal allowance.

More than 4 million people could benefit from the marriage allowance, for which they have been able to register since 20 February. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is about much more than just pounds or pence—it is about valuing commitment and marriage as a bedrock of society?

As the Prime Minister made very clear in the 2010 general election, it is right that we recognise marriage in the tax system, and that is precisely what we have done. As my hon. Friend rightly points out, it is now possible for people to register to be able to benefit from the transferable tax allowance.

Does the Minister consider it either fair or socially useful that money is being spent in this way when only one in four of the couples who benefit are raising children?

This is about recognising marriage within the tax system, but it should also be noted that it will benefit many low-income households, including 1 million households where tax credits are claimed.

North Sea Oil and Gas

14. What steps he is taking to support jobs in the north-east of Scotland by maximising the economic recovery of North sea oil and gas. [R] (907970)

The Government have made significant progress on supporting the North sea oil and gas sector, including the announcements I made in December about an investment allowance and other changes, although I recognise that there are very serious ongoing problems at the moment.

I thank the Chief Secretary to the Treasury for recognising the problems in the North sea. Does he also recognise that the job losses that have been announced predate the fall in the oil price, and that it is crucial that in the Budget we see long-term structural change for the maturity of the province?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. I have had a number of meetings with Oil & Gas UK and representatives of the oil industry. Having set out in December the fact that the tax regime for the North sea is going to be on a declining path, recognising precisely the issues that he mentions, we have set a clear direction of travel, and the Chancellor will set out our decisions in the Budget next Wednesday. Let me reassure my hon. Friend that this Government take incredibly seriously the need to make sure that we have a fiscal regime that supports maximum economic recovery of the resources of North sea oil and gas.

The Chief Secretary knows that the fundamental issue is the cost of doing business in the North sea basin. The up to 81% marginal tax rate on production is something that the Government could do something about. Given that this Chief Secretary boasted that putting up the supplementary charge was his decision, will he now apologise for that and make sure that the charge begins to be reduced in the Budget next week?

In fact, we made sure that the supplementary charge began to be reduced in the autumn statement in December, so the hon. Gentleman should catch up on his facts. The fact remains that the measures we are taking to support the industry—through the Wood review, the establishment of the Oil and Gas Authority, and decommissioning deeds and field allowances —have already created an environment that has seen very substantial investment in the North sea in the past few years. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) made is right. Making sure that we have a climate for long-term investment is precisely what we are trying to do, and the hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the Budget for our decisions.

What are the Government doing to encourage the offshore sector to co-operate and to have common standards as a better way of reducing costs in the supply chain than laying off the very people we will need when, I hope, things in the North sea begin to pick up again?

The hon. Lady makes an important point about co-operation in the industry. It is precisely such co-operation that has led the Wood review to recommend and the Government to create the Oil and Gas Authority. We find that particularly in respect of the sensible and low-cost use of infrastructure in the North sea, where greater co-operation between fields and so on will help to reduce costs. That is one of the early challenges that Andy Samuel is getting to grips with at the Oil and Gas Authority, and I think he has the support of the whole House in doing so.

Topical Questions

Mr Speaker, I should say that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is at ECOFIN, making sure that Britain’s voice is heard in the European Union, and the Exchequer Secretary is unwell. I am sure that the whole House wishes her a speedy recovery.

The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability and prosperity of the economy.

Will the Chief Secretary confirm that the Treasury has had discussions with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department of Energy and Climate Change with regard to UK Coal’s application for state aid for the British coal industry? What stage are the discussions actually at?

It would be wrong for me to go into the ongoing discussions between BIS and other Departments and the industry. However, I can certainly say that I am aware of the issues that the industry is experiencing, and a discussion on that subject is going on with the Government.

T2. Under the previous Labour Government, thousands of pubs closed and the brewing industry was taxed to the point of extinction. The Campaign for Real Ale now says that the Chancellor has saved 1,050 pubs, sold 75 million extra pints and has been the saviour of Britain’s brewing industry. Does the Chief Secretary agree that this Government have been positive for beer and pubs, and will he urge the Chancellor to keep on supporting our breweries? (907983)

This Government have undoubtedly been positive for beer and pubs. Many hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland), have campaigned on this issue. It is of course for the Chancellor to announce the Government’s decisions in this respect—I am sure that he has not pulled all those pints himself—but it is certainly the case that the beer and pub industry is stronger in this country, as part of a stronger economy, because of the decisions that this coalition Government have so far made.

T3. Do the Government expect operating oil companies in receipt of tax concessions to develop contract strategies to enable UK fabricating yards to participate in large contracts with the potential to support thousands of jobs across the whole country? (907984)

If the hon. Lady has specific issues in mind, I would gladly engage in further discussion with her, but the steps this Government have taken—including the establishment of enterprise zones in many areas where there are fabrication yards, and measures such as electricity market reform to get offshore wind and other such production going in the UK—all support the objective that she describes and which I share. If she has further ideas on how we can pursue that, I would gladly hear them.

T4. The Chancellor recently highlighted the major part that my Cleethorpes constituency and the Humber estuary will play in the growing northern economy. However, much depends on continued investment in transport infrastructure. Will the Minister assure me and my constituents that that will continue as a high priority? (907986)

I certainly can. In the final Treasury questions of this Parliament it is worth reflecting on the fact that, despite the tough economic decisions we have had to make, this country is making the largest investment in our rail network since Victorian times and the largest investment in our road network since the 1970s, and we have a programme to roll out superfast broadband across the entire country. Those things will leave our economy with a stronger long-term growth potential, as well as having given us the best growth rates in the European Union at the moment.

T5. Is it not the case that those earning more than £1 million a year have benefited from an average tax cut of up to £100,000 a year in this Parliament? Does that not illustrate that, as ever under the Tories, the mega-rich get richer and the poor get poorer—and that this time they have been aided and abetted by the Liberal Democrats? (907988)

It is this Government who have dealt with disguised remuneration by which loans were never repaid, benefiting the highest earners. It is this Government who have increased the rates of stamp duty land tax on high-end properties and ensured that they are properly enforced. It is under this Government that capital gains tax has gone up so that cleaners do not pay a higher rate of tax than hedge fund managers. It is this Government who have ensured that those with the broadest shoulders bear the greatest burden, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed last week.

T6. Is my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary aware that in my rural constituency, businesses regard the words “long-term economic plan” with the same degree of comfort and familiarity as evensong in an Anglican church? Will she be good enough to give an assurance that, following the election, those words and the benefits that they bring will continue, not least through the expansion of broadband which is so important for rural business? (907989)

It sounds as though evensong in my right hon. Friend’s constituency is a fabulous occurrence, and hopefully not just on a Sunday. He is right to point out that this Government have sought to ensure that the benefits of the economic plan are felt right across the country and that the growth is balanced, with all three major sectors—services, construction and manufacturing —growing by 2.5% or more for the first time since records began in 1990.

We all want to see an end to big companies wriggling out of tax by offshoring profits, but what assessment has the Minister made of the impact on kitchen table digital industries, such as the sale of knitting patterns, of the way in which HMRC has implemented the new EU rules on VAT being collected in the country of sale, and what can he do about it?

Those are EU rules. It was the previous Government who signed up to the principle of changing the way in which the VAT system worked, and they were right to do so. This Government have taken two measures to try to mitigate the impact on some smaller businesses. None the less, without the support of other member states, we are still faced with a change in the rules.

T7. Under this Government, food and drink manufacturing is a great British success story. However, our dairy farmers are being badly affected by volatile global markets. Will the Financial Secretary look favourably on proposals to implement tax averaging reforms, such as those in Ireland, to help these essential producers who contribute so much to our rural economies? (907991)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question; I shall take it as a Budget representation. I am sure she will understand that I cannot say any more about it at this point, other than to thank her. She has been vigorous in putting forward that case.

For hard-pressed taxpayers, the real test of whether the Government are committed to cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance will be whether this month’s Finance Bill contains legal penalties for breach of the general anti-abuse rule. Will the Financial Secretary tell us whether those will feature in the Finance Bill—yes or no?

The hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the Finance Bill to be published and to hear the Budget statement next week. He should reflect on his party’s record in office on these matters. Frankly, when the coalition Government came to office, we inherited a tax system like a Swiss cheese: it was so full of holes that tax was leaking all over the place. We have plugged a lot of those holes and there is more work to be done, but I do not think that he should give us any lectures.

I am sure my right hon. Friend will welcome the report by the Electrification Task Force, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), and praise its work. The report said that in tier 1 the Harrogate-Leeds-York line should be prioritised, but does the Minister agree that we must also put in the 1.1 mile of track to connect Yorkshire’s Leeds Bradford airport?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones) and my hon. Friend on the their work, and I met them recently to discuss it. There is a strong case for investment in the Harrogate-Leeds-York line and in the rail link to the airport that my hon. Friend describes. Ensuring that degree of connectivity for one of the fastest growing airports in the country, which has huge potential for growth, could also take off the roads the traffic caused by people travelling to other airports in the country. We shall be considering the matter carefully.

The Minister will have noticed the substantial depreciation of the euro in recent times, which is bound to cause damage to the British economy. When will the Government take the exchange rate seriously and seek to secure an appropriate exchange rate for sterling?

We take seriously the need for this country to have a set of policies that ensure the long-term health and growth of the UK economy, and the appropriate mix of fiscal policy, monetary policy and long-term investment. That is why we have the fastest growth in the United Kingdom of any advanced economy, and why there are now more than 2 million more people in work in the private sector than there were in 2010. That is a record I am proud of, and the hon. Gentleman should congratulate the Government on it.

When considering the allocation of LIBOR fines, will Treasury Ministers consider carefully the submission of Alabaré Christian Care in my constituency? It is seeking to construct a new veterans village in Wilton that will be transformational for veterans across Wiltshire.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As he will know, the LIBOR fines imposed on banks for the appalling rigging of LIBOR are being used for mainly military charities, and a few other ideas have been put forward. I shall bear his remarks in mind and mention them to the Chancellor.

Further to Question 8, what measures is the Chief Secretary taking to tackle the activities of payroll and umbrella companies that promote bogus self-employment which in turn fuels widespread tax evasion?

We have already announced measures to deal with intermediaries, both offshore and onshore. As the hon. Gentleman will know, a consultation on the issue is taking place at the moment, and it is important to ensure that companies cannot put in place artificial arrangements that are designed to reduce their tax bill and often have the consequence of removing important employment rights from workers. We continue to take that matter incredibly seriously.

Does the Chief Secretary agree that one key aspect of the long-term economic plan is investment in skills, and will he reassure the House that the Government will carry on doing that?

Yes I can. As this is national apprenticeship week it is worth reflecting on the fact that in this Parliament we have created more than 2 million more apprenticeships. That is a great achievement of this Government and has helped to ensure that young people have the skills they need to succeed in today’s economy. From my perspective that will continue to be a priority in the next Parliament.

To follow up the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), it appeared from recent written answers that the Government are leaving open loopholes that see workers lose hundreds of pounds a month from rip-off umbrella companies. Why is that?

As I said, we are consulting on that matter and have already taken considerable action to deal with intermediaries. I am sure that more will be said about the issue in due course.

Youth unemployment in my constituency has halved under this Government, and the Chief Secretary met some of the young people in new jobs at Anthony Best Dynamics in Bradford on Avon last year. Will he or the Chancellor accept an invitation to accompany me to one of the advanced manufacturing businesses in Chippenham which, with the support of the relevant Government programmes, can extend many more opportunities by creating jobs in 21st-century products in Chippenham?

I gladly accept the invitation, although time is limited. As my hon. Friend said, through visiting Anthony Best Dynamics I have seen precisely the benefits that apprenticeships can provide for young people wanting to get highly skilled jobs in the technology companies that are creating very high value added for the UK economy. The work that he has done in his constituency to promote businesses taking on apprentices is an example to the entire House.

Why was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury so discreet about the application for state aid for the three remaining deep mine pits in Britain? Is he aware that in February 2014 the Government took £700 million out of the mineworkers’ pension fund for themselves? That kind of money in state aid could save those three pits so that they could exhaust their reserves. Now come on—tell us what’s happening!

I am not going to change the answer I gave to the earlier question. I appreciate the sensitivity of these matters, and I would say that this Government have taken steps, wherever we can, to support that particular industry. I am not sure that it would be appropriate for me to comment further.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury will be aware that Hertfordshire is a prosperous and successful county. However, it had reached the point at which growth was being compromised because the A1M was not being widened between Stevenage and Welwyn. That work has now been announced but, for the future, are the Government satisfied that they are planning such infrastructure projects far enough ahead to enable us to maintain the kind of strong economic growth that we have at the moment as a result of the long-term economic plan?

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend and fellow Hertfordshire Member of Parliament. He is absolutely right to highlight that issue. As my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said earlier, we have in place a pipeline of road building and train improvements, the like of which we have not seen for many years. All of that will benefit Hertfordshire in particular and the United Kingdom as a whole.