House of Commons
Thursday 19 March 2015
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Energy and Climate Change
The Secretary of State was asked—
1. What steps he is taking to help households improve their energy efficiency 
11. What steps he is taking to help households improve their energy efficiency 
Making households more energy efficient is the surest and safest way to reduce energy bills. Thanks to the energy companies obligation and green deal schemes, more than 1 million homes have been made more energy efficient, helping households stay permanently warmer for less. In Luton North, more than 2,726 households have been helped by ECO alone, which is nearly the twice the national average in respect of households.
The truth is that millions of low-income families are still living in poorly insulated and cold homes, and paying very high fuel bills. Cuts to the energy companies obligation have meant that nearly half a million fewer households will receive vital upgrades to make their homes warmer and cheaper to heat, and, in any case, half of that budget goes to households that are not in poverty. Have this Government’s policies not been a failure, leaving millions of families too cold in their homes, struggling to pay heating bills and in need of a Labour Government to make their lives better?
I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation. Fuel poverty under this Government has gone down. The changes to the ECO specifically took £50 off the bill, but reserved the amount that was to help the vulnerable and those on low incomes. So we have continued to focus on low-income and vulnerable people, to ensure that they are the first households to be made warmer for less.
With one in 10 green deal companies being struck off, what assurances can the Minister give constituents of mine, and people across the country, who might suffer as a result of lower standards and shoddy workmanship?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to address this matter. The fact is we have very tough consumer protection in this area. One in 10 have been struck off, but that is not necessarily to do with any criminal behaviour; it is to do with their not engaging properly with the certification process. It is because we have a tough certification process, which is in line with other organisations’ arrangements, that some have been struck off in order to protect the consumer better.
Many household electrical appliances use up far too much electricity. What progress has been made over the past five years on persuading manufacturers of these products to make them far more energy-efficient?
I share my hon. Friend’s views on this issue. Some products do use far less electricity than others, and of course saving energy is the best way to save on people’s household bills. I am happy to say that the EU product regulations have been helpful in implementing this and we will continue to be able to do that.
The Minister will know that rural homes are often some of the worst in terms of energy efficiency. The renewable heat obligation should help with that. Unfortunately, I have encountered constituents who have installed a wood-burning boiler and been granted the renewable heat incentive payments, only to have them removed later on the spurious grounds that the boiler may be able to burn logs as well as pellets. Is that not illogical?
The scheme has been successful and we will continue to support it. On his specific question, may I suggest that he writes to me about the particular example and I will certainly look into the matter?
Low-carbon Energy Sources
2. What recent assessment he has made of trends in levels of investment in low-carbon energy sources. 
4. What recent assessment he has made of trends in levels of investment in low-carbon energy sources. 
6. What recent assessment he has made of trends in levels of investment in low-carbon energy sources. 
13. What recent assessment he has made of trends in levels of investment in low-carbon energy sources. 
On 24 March, we will be publishing a detailed report on the progress this coalition is making on investment in low-carbon energy, but let me now share two findings from that report ahead of next week’s publication. First, for the second year running the UK has invested more in clean energy than any other country in Europe, Secondly, Bloomberg new energy finance data show that last year was the UK’s best ever year for new-build renewable energy finance, placing the UK in the global top five. I promise, Mr Speaker, to give each Member in turn a new statistic showing how the UK is doing so well on low-carbon energy investment.
More than 50 companies called on the Secretary of State to implement a 2030 decarbonisation target. They warned that the absence of a specific carbon-intensity target was undermining investment. Does he regret not joining the 16 Members from his own party who rebelled against the Government and voted for this target?
The hon. Gentleman knows that my party and I are in favour of this target, which is why we legislated in the Energy Act 2013 to put one in and it will be in our manifesto. But he is wrong if he thinks this target is some sort of panacea for low-carbon energy investment. We were told by the Labour party that if we did not do this, we would not see the supply chain growing. But here is a statistic for him: the supply chain in the UK for low-carbon energy investment is booming. We have had the massive investment from Siemens and Associated British Ports in Hull, transforming that city, and we have seen what MHI Vestas has been doing in the Isle of Wight. Under this Government, low-carbon energy investment and the whole supply chain are booming.
I am sure that the Minister will be pleased to know that Northumbrian Water has an advanced anaerobic digestion plant in my constituency that is not only producing green energy from the sewage treatment process but injecting it into the gas network. However, according to the Environmental Audit Committee, investment in clean energy is running at only half the rate needed if we are to meet our binding carbon emission commitments. Will the Minister explain why he is failing to generate the investment that we need?
Let me give a statistic to the hon. Lady: the annual rate of renewable energy investment in this Parliament is more than double the rate that it was in the previous Parliament. From 2010 to 2014, low-carbon investment has amounted to more than £40 billion. That is a record of which we are very proud.
What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on employment in the onshore wind industry from the effective moratorium on onshore wind? He will probably know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and I recently visited West Coast Energy in my constituency, which employs many people developing onshore wind. The organisation is now threatened by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is blocking wind farms. Surely the right hon. Gentleman does not support him in that.
The right hon. Gentleman will know that onshore wind has boomed under this Government. There is no moratorium, so what he said was wrong, but it is true that there are Conservative colleagues who do not share my enthusiasm for onshore wind. I recently opened the largest onshore wind farm in England, at Keadby, and I was able to grant, after the recent very successful first auction of contracts for difference, 15 out of 27 contracts to new onshore wind farms. That sounds to me like we are going ahead fast.
When the Government cut the feed-in tariff for solar, we were promised a scheme that would “serve the many, not the few”. Will the Minister help us to understand why the number of households getting solar halved between 2012 and 2014?
I simply do not recognise the hon. Lady’s statistics. Let me give the House one statistic: 99% of the UK’s solar installations were put in under this Government. We have seen more than £11 billion invested in solar, which is a fantastic record.
Without doubt, investment in low-carbon energy is booming, thanks to the bold reforms of this coalition Government and our long-term economic plan. But one of the unsung success stories of this Government has been the renewable heat incentive. Will the Secretary of State update us on just how many thousands of commercial, industrial and residential installations there now are?
In answering my right hon. Friend’s question, may I pay tribute to him for the role he played in this boom, particularly in the renewable heat incentive? We have seen more than 25,000 domestic installations. I cannot give him the figure for non-domestic installations, but we are seeing a big increase. Now that this renewable heat scheme has really got going, the next Parliament will need to build on our success.
Every few months, the consultancy firm EY publishes its renewable energy attractiveness index. This month, the UK fell yet again. In November 2013, we were fourth in the world. In February 2014, we fell to fifth; in May 2014, to sixth; and in September 2014, to seventh. This month, the UK fell to eighth, which is a 12-year low. The Secretary of State’s sole solution to our broken energy market is telling people to switch. In order to reverse that appalling record, is it not time we switched to a Labour Government so that we can drive the investment, create the skilled jobs and produce the clean energy that our country needs to succeed?
The hon. Lady has scored a massive own goal. She trailed us going down the attractiveness index for future investment, but she should realise that the closer we get to the election, the more worried investors are. Members do not have to believe me about the potential threat of a Labour Government to investment; they can believe the Secretary-General of the OECD, Angel Gurria, who said that Labour’s energy price freeze could bankrupt investors. That is why the index is going in the wrong direction. The hon. Lady might also want to know that that index was prepared as a snapshot before the recent successful contracts for difference auction, which saw 27 new renewable energy plant contracts issued. This Government are seeing huge investment. The only thing that can stop that investment is the election of a Labour Government.
Energy Supply Market
3. What recent steps he has taken to increase competition in the energy supply market. 
We have made it quicker and easier for consumers to switch supplier. Now 10% of dual-fuel customers use one of the 21 independent suppliers in the domestic retail market, which provides more competition and more choice for consumers.
It really saddens me that Labour’s misunderstanding of markets meant that it backed the big energy businesses and drove the smaller ones out of operation. If we are to have a healthy energy market, it seems to me that what we need is more competition and faster switching so that consumers can enjoy lower prices and better quality services. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend is completely right. We have halved the time it takes to switch. Our Power to Switch campaign is now up and running. I myself am going to switch energy supplier today as part of that campaign, and I look forward to saving serious amounts of money as a result. I urge all Members, and indeed all consumers, to consider switching, because the power of competition is one of the best ways to get energy bills down. Instead of the big six that Labour created, we now have 21 new independent suppliers.
It might be better if the right hon. Gentleman switched party, rather than energy supplier. Is not part of the problem with cost down to the fact that we have companies that generate electricity selling it to themselves, which allows them to hike the prices paid by consumers? People need those prices to come down in order to heat their homes. Why not just split those roles completely to ensure that we get an honest broker in the middle?
First, we got the Competition and Markets Authority to look into that matter, because it had not been investigated under the previous Government. The CMA’s initial conclusion was that we have a competitive market at that level, so the precise detail that the hon. Gentleman sets out is not the problem. The remaining problem in the UK’s energy market is that it needs to be more competitive in order to get a better deal for customers. The last thing anybody needs is for prices to be frozen at the high levels at which Labour proposed to freeze them.
Household Energy Bills
5. What steps he is taking to help households with their energy bills. 
10. What steps he is taking to help households with their energy bills. 
15. What steps he is taking to help households with their energy bills. 
Energy bills are a significant and important part of people’s household budgets. The Government have delivered, on average, a £50 reduction in energy bills, boosted competition in the energy market and ensured that fairer tariffs are in place. Last year alone, 3.1 million people switched energy supplier, and we are helping more consumers to save up to £200 or more through our Power to Switch campaign.
Wholesale gas and electricity prices have fallen by some 20% over the past 12 months, yet household bills have gone down by only 5%. Is that fair, and what is the Minister going to do about it?
We are taking action on that. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor led on that by calling in the big six to speak to them about it, and that was followed up by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We have seen reductions. All I can say is thank goodness we did not have the freeze that Labour proposed in September 2013, because we would then have seen no reduction at all. We do not take anything for granted, which is why we are supporting the CMA review into the market. We eagerly await its results at the end of the year, when we can take action.
The Ministers’ words will ring very hollow indeed in many of our rural communities, where people are off-grid and rely on domestic oil for heating. I ask the Minister not to quote what the price happens to be this week, because we know that, like gravity, domestic oil prices go up and down. Will she tell us why the Government have not listened to MPs from across the parties who have asked for domestic oil to be put under the regulator Ofgem?
We have put in place a fuel poverty strategy, which will address some of the issues the hon. Lady raises. We are liaising with Ofgem and are encouraged by the early results from the CMA, and of course we will be taking them up further when they come through at the end of the year.
Despite the rosy picture that the Chancellor wanted to portray yesterday, fuel poverty in Wales has gone up by 18% since 2011, and 90,000 people with children cannot afford their energy bills. When are the Government going to take real, tangible action to fight rip-off bills from these energy companies?
The hon. Gentleman may know that the Big Energy Saving Network is active in Wales. That is an initiative from this Department that instructs and funds third parties to go out and help people to switch and to access the warm homes discount. Yesterday in the Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced further funding for the Big Energy Saving Network, and that will go exactly to the cause that the hon. Gentleman raises, which we care about as well.
Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), many, many people in rural areas like mine are dependent on fuel oil or liquid petroleum gas and have seen their costs go up inexorably over recent years. Even in an unregulated market, is there any way in which the Minister can ensure that the prices now fall commensurately with the fall in oil and gas prices, and do so promptly?
As the hon. Gentleman observes, the price has been falling, and we will keep a careful eye on it to make sure that it continues to fall. I would hope that it should fall at a greater rate than the major energy companies’ bills, because gas prices have been falling at a greater rate.
Recently the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), a respected member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, admitted that the Conservative party had no clear energy policy and had been relegated to “second fiddle”. Helpfully, he added:
“If I’m honest, I don’t think we’ve done particularly well.”
If Government Members do not have any confidence in their own party’s energy policy, why should the British people?
I will be answering a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) later, and I look forward to that opportunity. I think that our energy policy is absolutely clear and is delivering what we set out to do. To be honest, the lack of clarity and the chaos is only on the Opposition Benches, because we remain completely confused about the Opposition’s policy towards Ofgem, which they claim to want to amend, on the one hand, and abolish, on the other. As for the price freeze, I think I will hear about that later from my hon. Friend.
I am afraid that there will be nowhere to hide in the forthcoming general election as regards the coalition parties and their energy policies. The facts speak for themselves: energy bills £300 higher; three out of four households being overcharged by their energy supplier; the number of families with children who cannot afford to heat their homes at the highest-ever level; and, as we have heard today—it has been reconfirmed—a Government who, for five years, have just told people to shop around. Does not this show that the only way to help households with their energy bills is to elect a Labour Government to freeze energy prices until 2017 while we reform the market and give the regulator the power to cut bills in time for Christmas?
That is further chaos from Labour about a cap or a freeze—we have no idea which they would do. Let me point out to the right hon. Lady that during 2013 the UK had the lowest household gas prices and the fifth lowest household electricity prices in the EU 15. In no way are we complacent about what has been achieved in helping people; that is why we back the CMA’s reforms. It is very disappointing that she does not back the CMA’s approach, which will give us an independent review that we look forward to enacting at the end of the year.
Wholesale Energy Prices
7. What assessment he has made of the effect of recent trends in wholesale energy prices on household energy bills. 
12. What assessment he has made of the effect of recent trends in wholesale energy prices on household energy bills. 
All the major suppliers have announced reductions to their standard variable gas tariffs in recent weeks in response to reductions in the wholesale gas price. The price of fixed-term deals has continued to fall, with the cheapest deal on the market £100 cheaper than the cheapest deal a year ago. The Competition and Markets Authority has made it clear that it will be looking further at the relationship between wholesale costs and retail prices as part of its investigation.
I thank the Minister for her reply. The news about prices and bills is all very welcome, but does she agree that the next Conservative Government—as I hope and expect it will be—should concentrate primarily on energy efficiency? This would bear down on household bills and, indeed, bills for businesses, while also conserving our planet’s finite resources and helping to secure this great nation’s energy supplies in future.
On this account, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: energy efficiency is indeed the best way to help people and that is why it has been a Government priority for the past few years. He is also absolutely right that the benefit is not only in keeping bills down, but in conserving our resources.
Is my hon. Friend as surprised as I am that the Labour party is still pursuing its policy of a price freeze? If a price is frozen at a high level, surely the danger is that when the market settles at a lower level, my constituents will end up paying more than they are now.
Order. The Minister must not be led astray, away from the path of virtue, by her hon. Friend. She will know that she must not talk about the policies of the Labour party. Her responsibility is with the policy of the Government. A brief and pithy reply on that matter would be in order, but nothing beyond.
Thank you for that guidance, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, revealing the confusion being caused among his constituents. I hope they will make the right interpretation and support him and this Government in the future.
The drop in wholesale energy prices has allowed Governments around the world—including India, Indonesia and Egypt—to reduce the subsidies to fossil fuels in a way that is commensurate with the proposals of the United Nations framework convention on climate change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, in yesterday’s Budget the Chancellor gave a £1.3 billion subsidy to our fossil fuel industries. What does the Minister make of that paradox?
The hon. Gentleman, who is well respected in this area, should identify the difference between taxation and subsidy. The point of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday is that North sea oil is an important part of our industry and employment. We still feel there is more to be done in the extractive industries and we should support them despite the fall in oil prices.
8. What assessment he has made of the effect on (a) generating capacity and (b) the transmission network of an increased reliance on intermittent energy supplied by renewable sources. 
Electricity generation always needs to balance supply and demand. The transmission system clearly has to change to accommodate expanding renewables, and Ofgem’s new framework will help that happen.
I note that my right hon. Friend does not give any costs for the extra capacity required for when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine and the extra transmission lines required to transmit from long distance. Will he confirm that those costs are not included in the £7.6 billion levy control framework, despite the fact that the former power director of the National Grid puts them at £5 billion a year? If they were included, the potential total cost of all the subsidies could be £500 per household per annum.
The levy control framework specifically controls the amount of direct subsidy, but a whole series of changes needs to happen to make sure that our transmission system can keep up with the distribution of energy supply as well as the demand. That includes changes to interconnectors—in other words, getting more of them—and making sure that we have a smarter grid and distribution system. It is difficult at this stage to calculate the cost of those changes.
14. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one very effective way to address the issues raised by intermittency from renewable generation is greater use of demand-side management, which is both cost-effective and environmentally attractive? As we get more sophisticated in our use of demand response, the balance can be maintained even with intermittent peaks and troughs in generation. 
I pay tribute to the huge expertise of my parliamentary neighbour, who will step down from this House next week, in this area. He has reminded me of something I should have said in my previous answer, which is to include demand-side response as one of the many ways in which we need to help manage the transmission system with more renewables on the grid.
According to National Grid, on 26 December less than 1% of power generated into the national grid in Scotland came from wind, meaning that electricity generated south of the border and the doubling of output from the coal-fired Longannet power station in Fife kept our lights on. The Minister will be aware that Iberdrola, the Spanish owner of ScottishPower, which operates Longannet, has decided not to invest to make it compliant with the industrial emissions directive and is now threatening to announce the closure of that power station next week, jeopardising hundreds of skilled jobs. Given Iberdrola’s public statements, what discussions has the Minister had with the Spanish power company or National Grid about the implications of potential closure?
We have of course considered the implications of the closure of any major power plant. Alongside National Grid, we continually assess the security of supply risks across Great Britain, including in Scotland. We are confident that we have the tools to address any issues at Longannet and any other fossil fuel plant that may close. We will ensure that the procedures and policies are always put in place to make sure that the supplies of energy are secure.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but he will be aware that various public claims have been made by or on behalf of Iberdrola ScottishPower about the impact of closure on both security of supply and group resilience, and that National Grid has rejected those claims. What assessment has his Department made of the claims and their implications? Given the conflicting statements made in the public domain, will he publish the assessment and advice so that the veracity of the claims and counterclaims can be properly tested?
I have looked in detail at the claims, and they are not correct. National Grid’s assessment is that the closure of Longannet is not a threat to the security of supply. I think that we should trust the assessment of the transmission grid operator, rather than that of an individual company playing one small part in the operation. I will of course look at what we can publish to make those reassurances yet more concrete.
Unconventional Oil and Gas Exploration
9. What recent representations he has received on the application of regulations to onshore unconventional oil and gas exploration; and if he will make a statement. 
We receive a wide variety of representations on onshore unconventional oil and gas, and we always listen carefully to the views expressed.
The current regulations that apply to unconventional oil and gas exploration onshore have not yet been properly tried and tested. The protections given to national parks, sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty were withdrawn in the Lords. Given that the regulations will not be published until July, what is the legal position on protections in or under national parks as regards any application that may be submitted this month?
The legal protections are in the Infrastructure Act 2015, which my hon. Friend played a role in shaping as it went through this House. I want to pay tribute to her for her long service in this House to her constituents: she has been unending in her determination to support them. I would say that anybody looking to propose a development of unconventional oil and gas ought to act as though the provisions of the Infrastructure Act were in place. There will be a period before they are formally implemented, but we need to ensure that development continues in the assured and careful manner provided for in the Act.
Energy Policy (Regional Devolution)
16. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of devolving energy policy to a regional level. 
We are proposing further devolution to Scotland and Wales consistent with the need for an efficient and good-value energy system throughout Great Britain.
Is it not high time that the regions of the United Kingdom had a chance to have some power over energy policy? Yorkshire in particular, with its offshore wind power and its other resources, knows a lot about energy. Does not all the evidence show that if we grass-root energy policy, even at a community level, and give people ownership of it, perhaps through social systems of ownership, it works better? Taking energy policy down to the grass roots binds people into a good policy.
No matter how great a county Yorkshire is—it is, indeed, a great county—[Interruption.] —we need to make sure that the system works on a GB-wide basis and that it is as efficient as possible. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the ability to access distribution networks and indeed the wider grid to ensure that those producing electricity can connect to nearby demand will enhance the ability of communities to play a part. I can see where he is going, but I am not sure that breaking up the GB-wide energy system is the best way to reach a solution.
I note that a Lancastrian Whip blurted out what might be described as a competitive chant when the right hon. Gentleman was hailing the merits of Yorkshire, but I will not draw any further attention to the matter.
17. What support his Department plans to provide to the development of the proposed tidal lagoon project near Newport. 
I can confirm that the Government have announced that we are entering into a negotiation on a contract for difference for the Swansea bay lagoon to decide whether the project is affordable and represents value for money. I am strongly in favour of a tidal programme across the UK, subject to the usual planning permissions and to the lessons from the first project or projects being learned. Given that planning permissions are site-specific, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot give a view on the Newport project.
The belated recognition by the Government of the enormous advantages of tidal power is very welcome. They should examine what has been taking place for the past 50 years at La Rance in Brittany, where the cheapest electricity in the world is being generated. Will the Secretary of State look at the other schemes? The schemes at Newport are far better value than the Swansea scheme. However, we all give a warm welcome to the Government’s recognition that tidal power is a British, eternal, clean, non-carbon and entirely predictable energy source.
I think this is the first time that the hon. Gentleman and I have been in agreement on energy policy, so I would like to mark the occasion. He is right that tidal lagoon power presents a huge opportunity for this country. The Department is looking at it in detail. I hope that it will produce not only the clean energy that we need, but the green jobs that are so important in many parts of the country.
18. What steps he is taking to encourage businesses to install solar energy panels. 
The solar PV strategy, which we published last spring, sets out how we are maximising the deployment of panels on commercial and industrial buildings. We have taken a range of actions to assist owners of such buildings to deploy solar PV panels. To name just a few, we have consulted on allowing the transfer of panels without the loss of feed-in tariff accreditation; we have made changes to the feed-in tariff to protect the incentive for building mounted solar; and we are working with the property sector to remove other barriers to deployment.
Vaillant in my constituency is a shining example in this area. It is energy efficient because it has so many solar panels. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that after 13 years of Labour, just 6.8% of British electricity came from renewables, whereas since 2010, renewables generation has more than doubled?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Renewable electricity generation has more than doubled. In fact, it has gone up by 165% in just a short time. Solar has played a key role in that.
19. What recent assessment he has made of the merits of proposals for the generation of electricity from tidal lagoons. 
I am delighted that we are back on tidal power. My considered view is that tidal energy has many merits: it is clean, renewable, predictable, home-grown and secure. Tidal lagoons can be built in numerous places in the UK and have the potential to meet up to 8% of our electricity needs. Tidal lagoon costs could fall significantly in the next decade, as larger, more cost-effective projects are deployed. With tidal lagoons having the potential to last 120 years, this is a future green energy technology that I hope all parties will strongly support.—[Interruption.]
My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) is claiming the credit for most of the Secretary of State’s answer. I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for the prospects for tidal power in the Severn estuary. When does the Minister expect the strike price to be agreed, which will help to spur the full commercialisation of the sector? Does he share the concern of organisations such as Citizens Advice that the current strike price for tidal lagoon power is higher than that for any major green energy project to date?
The negotiations with the Tidal Lagoon Power company are bilateral, so they will set the strike price over months and we cannot give an exact timetable on how long they will take. I read the CAB report, but it was not as informed as it might have been. The first tidal lagoon power plant, which will be the world’s first, is likely to be a bit more expensive, just as when the UK had the first offshore wind farm it was a bit more expensive. Unless we invest in new technologies, we will not get the costs down. We have seen the costs of solar tumble. We have seen the costs of offshore wind tumble. We have seen the costs of onshore wind tumble. That has only happened because we have invested in new technology. That is the way that Britain—a world leader—should go.
Untypically, we are ahead of time and can proceed with dispatch to Topical Questions.
T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. 
Since the last oral questions to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the first auction of low-carbon contracts for difference was completed. I was able to offer contracts for 27 new renewable power plants, including 15 onshore wind farms, two offshore wind farms, and five solar farms. The auction saw onshore wind prices fall by 17%, and offshore wind farm prices by 18%. Today I will publish the first annual update to our country’s first ever community energy strategy. That shows real progress in everything from district heating policy to grid connections, and from state aid clearance for the Green Investment Bank to lend to that sector, to our new water source heat map.
As this is the final DECC oral questions of this Parliament, I thank you, Mr Speaker, my Ministers and officials, Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, and all right hon. and hon. Members for their help and advice—most of the time. The UK is now achieving on all our energy and climate change objectives, and I believe it is leading Europe on the path to a climate change treaty in Paris this December.
I thank the Minister for that response. The community energy stuff will go down well in Bristol, which is European green capital of the year, as I think I have mentioned in every DECC questions. Although we welcome the measures in the Budget, what does the Secretary of State plan to do to diversify skills in the North sea towards low-carbon and renewable technologies, given that the North sea is a mostly mature basin? Does he agree that we need a long-term transition plan for places that are currently heavily reliant on the oil and gas industry?
We are seeing a huge amount of activity in the North sea for offshore wind, and the beginnings for carbon capture and storage. About 18 months ago I brought together representatives from the oil and gas industry with representatives from the renewable industry working in the North sea. We need them to work together, particularly on issues such as regulation and the way infrastructure will develop. We need a longer-term plan, and we have been kicking that work off.
T4. Will the Minister confirm to the House that it is not the policy of this Government, or indeed the next Conservative Government, to freeze energy prices just as the wholesale market starts to reduce in price? 
Absolutely. It is not the policy of the Government to freeze energy bills, not least at the level they were 18 months ago when we first received representations to do that. We have not chosen that path because we would end up with millions of consumers paying an average of £100 more for their electricity, and we would undermine investment, which is so critically needed, in the future of our energy system. It is a bad mistake and we will not do it.
I join the Secretary of State in thanking you, Mr Speaker, and others. Thursdays have become the ticket to have in questions, and there is no doubt that over the past four years energy has been front and centre of pretty much every debate across the policy range. I wish those on the Government Front Bench a happy retirement.
On a serious note, the devastation wrought by Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu has reminded us that climate change is a national security threat, not just overseas but in Britain. It is vital that the UK plays a leading role to secure a binding global agreement to tackle climate change at the Paris conference later this year. Does the Secretary of State agree that we will secure influence abroad only if we show leadership at home, and will he reaffirm his support for Labour’s Climate Change Act 2008?
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, who makes a serious point about the impact of climate change on some of the most vulnerable people on our planet. We need to lead in the world, as indeed we are doing. She will also know that not only the Liberal Democrats but the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Conservative party, and the Leader of the Opposition recently signed a letter to confirm their support for the Climate Change Act 2008. That had huge consensus across the House—[Interruption.] As the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) notes, five people voted against it, and nine Members also voted against the Energy Act 2013, which I put through the House and is the practical way of delivering on the Climate Change Act 2008. It is important that the world should understand that across the parties there is a lot of agreement on this issue.
T5. In my constituency, we have seen some dreadful flooding over the last decade, and I wanted to rise to thank the Department for making available the funds to complete the lower Thames flood alleviation scheme, which will save tens of thousands of homes and thousands of businesses and really help my constituents have a better quality of life with greater economic outcomes. 
Order. I am tempted to think that that would ordinarily be a matter for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but if ingeniously the Secretary of State can contrive to fashion a response that relates to his own important responsibilities, and if he can give us what he described a few moments ago as his “considered view”, the nation will be enriched.
Mr Speaker, you are just too kind.
The Government, whether the lead has been taken by a different Department, such as DEFRA, or another Department, have done their best to deal with flooding issues. I speak as one of the Ministers with responsibility for flooding. We have done a lot of work in the south of London to assist with this matter, including on aspects of the Thames flood alleviation, but the real issue for me, as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, is that if we do not tackle climate change, this country will be badly hit by more flooding. We can build the flood defences we need, but in the long term if we are to reduce the cost of climate change to this country we need to tackle climate change itself.
T2. Over the last five years, one of the biggest problems, particularly for elderly constituents of mine, has been complicated, high-tariff energy bills. On 17 occasions, the Prime Minister has said he would force energy companies by law to put their customers on the lowest energy tariff, but three out of four households are still on energy tariffs that cost on average £180 more than the lowest one. What are the Government going to do about that? 
We inherited an energy market that was completely broken and a situation where energy bills were complicated and opaque, but we and the independent energy regulator, Ofgem, have acted. We now have simpler bills, fewer tariffs and increased levels of switching, which are helping huge numbers of people. On the specific point the hon. Gentleman raises, Ofgem, in its retail market review, proposed the policy he refers to and is making sure it goes through, but if he has examples suggesting that any suppliers are not delivering on that new regulation, he should bring them to the independent regulator’s attention.
T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the single biggest boost to the British and world economy has been the halving of the oil price, and does it not follow that forcing British industry to use energy that costs twice as much as conventional energy will have a depressive effect on the British economy? Why oh why is he insisting on our moving to wind, which costs twice as much, and this Swansea tidal power, which, according to the Financial Times, will involve a price three times that of conventional fuels for 35 years? Is that not going to depress the British and Welsh economies? 
I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman, who is known for his intellectual abilities and knowledge, but I am afraid that on this occasion they have failed him, and for this reason: we do not use oil to produce electricity—we haven’t for a long time. His point relates to transport. Oil is a substitute for transport fuels. I think he is talking about gas, but the price of gas has not come down by very much. Moreover, the fall in the price of gas was taken account of in the way we produced the levy control framework, which is the support for low-carbon electricity.
T3. Earlier this month, I spoke at North East Call to Action’s time to act day, which brought together organisations and people from across the region who wanted the UK to lead in combating climate change through decarbonisation and to build a long-term sustainable economy based on clean energy, green technology and skilled jobs. When I reminded them of the Prime Minister’s promise that this should be the “greenest Government ever”, there was widespread laughter. Why does the Secretary of State think that was? 
Because some people have not looked at the facts. This is the greenest Government ever, but as I have said—[Interruption.] Well, we have seen massive increases in low-carbon energy and a big increase in energy efficiency, so I am afraid that the hon. Lady is completely wrong. Let me explain why some people laugh. It is because the bar for being the greenest Government was not very high—the last lot did such an appalling job. I want to make sure that if Liberal Democrats are in the next Government, it will be the greenest Government by a long way, which is why we have published proposals for five green Bills. We need to build on the success of this Government and go a lot further.
T9. By when does the renewable energies Minister think it might be possible to generate solar energy without subsidy? 
Solar energy has been a great success under this Government. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out, 99% of solar energy developments have taken place under this Government, not least because of the great boost given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who put together the solar strategy in 2014, for which we are very grateful. The great news about solar energy is that it is likely to become subsidy-free in the next five years. That will be a classic example of investing in renewable energy and making sure that, as it increases, it becomes subsidy-free.
T7. Hundreds of jobs are still waiting on a state aid application from UK Coal. The Minister promised an announcement would be made before the Dissolution of Parliament. Will he confirm when it will take place and whether it will be before the Dissolution? 
This is an important issue for the two coal mines owned by UK Coal—two of the three remaining deep coal mines. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has been steadfast and hard working in delivering on this issue. There will absolutely be a decision before the Dissolution of Parliament.
I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to expanding renewable energy generation, but does the Minister agree that we should not tolerate the payment of renewables obligation certificates or feed-in tariffs to unlawful developments?
T8. The Secretary of State will be well aware that he promised me at the last Question Time that he would come back to me on the report on vulnerable customers that I produced with the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. Is this going to be another one of the Government’s unfulfilled promises, or will he come forward as soon as possible with a reply to this important report on how to ensure that vulnerable people will be taken care of when they most need help? 
I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman asked that question. He knows that I have read the report, because I have talked to him about it. I have told him in this Chamber that I wanted to respond to it. I thought that the reply had winged its way to him. If it has not, I shall chase it up. Let me say to him and the House that I read his report and thought it was very good.
I recently met senior management at the Phillips 66 refinery in my constituency. The refinery has the lowest per barrel SO2 emissions in the country, but it fears that the continuing demands of the industrial emissions directive will increase costs with little benefit to the environment. Does the Minister share my concerns, and what action is he taking to protect the industry and the jobs?
It is important to ensure that we have clean emissions and that we abide by our international obligations. None the less, I am looking forward to my visit to Cleethorpes and the refinery to see the impact for myself and to make sure that, locally, whatever changes need to be made will be implemented as carefully as possible.
T10. An elderly constituent recently contacted me about her confusing energy bills. She had to make a payment, but the complicated bill structure meant that she had no idea of how the charges had been calculated, causing her some distress. It is obvious that Ofgem’s reforms to make bills simpler, clearer and fairer have not worked. Is it not about time that the Government started to stand up for consumers and treat ordinary people fairly and honestly by ensuring improved transparency in energy bills? 
I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman make that point. There has been a great improvement in bills, which are much simpler now. Furthermore, the energy suppliers must now inform consumers if a lower tariff is available, even if it involves different payment methods. However, if there is an issue I shall be happy to look into it. and the hon. Gentleman should also contact Ofgem.
One of our purposes in setting up and investing in the Big Energy Saving Network was to ensure that vulnerable people could obtain face-to-face advice, and organisations such as citizens advice bureaux, Age Concern and National Energy Action are funded and trained to deliver that advice.
A few minutes ago, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State gave a very helpful answer to a question about demand-side response. In support of the Government’s fully justified claim to be the “greenest Government ever”, which I congratulate them on achieving, may I press him a little further? Is he aware that some people in the demand-side management industry are worried about the way in which the capacity market auction operated just before Christmas, and will he undertake to look into exactly how it is working in good time before the next auction, with the aim of establishing a level playing field as between different types of demand?
I met representatives of the demand-side response industry in the autumn. I can give a commitment that we will review the way in which the market operates before the next auction, which we expect to take place this autumn.
May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Secretary of State? Although we are members of different parties, we have worked extremely closely, and I think that he has been a terrific Secretary of State. His support for the nuclear industry has been revolutionary, not least in his own party; his support for market-based solutions to renewable subsidies has been first-rate; and his support for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s proposal for a Swansea bay tidal lagoon has been exemplary. It has been a pleasure to work with him, and I wish him all the best.
You will know, Mr Speaker, that I hate to be the curmudgeon at the party, but I must inform the Secretary of State that, according to findings published this morning by the Leeds university research team, we have entirely failed to meet proper carbon emission reduction targets, and must redouble our efforts if we are going to take account of all the goods that we import from China and other parts of the world.
The hon. Gentleman has clearly not read the report, and he has clearly not read what the Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, and indeed Greenpeace, has said about it. Not only are we more than meeting our carbon emission reduction targets, but as the hon. Gentleman will see if he reads the report, there are different ways of accounting—we have made that point a number of times—and we are accounting in the way that is internationally recognised. If the hon. Gentleman wants to change that system on the eve of climate change talks, he must be completely barmy.
Does the Minister agree that, when the history of the coalition comes to be written, the Department of Energy and Climate Change will be seen as outstanding in terms of effectiveness and impact, and as a cut-out example of two parties, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, coming together to govern in the national interest? In that context, may I also pay tribute to the terrific leadership of the Secretary of State, his effective ministerial team, and the brilliant officials—[Interruption.]
Order. I must say to the House, in response to a sedentary interjection from an Opposition Member, that the use of the word “barmy” is a matter of taste rather than order.
Talking of taste, Mr Speaker, I thought that the question from my right hon. Friend for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) was very tasteful, and that he made a very sensible point. I am grateful to him. I think it is clear that, although there are some differences between us on some aspects of energy policy such as onshore wind, the two parties have been able to work together in the country’s interest to achieve our objective of providing affordable, secure, green energy. I am grateful to the Minister of State for what he said earlier, although he did make me laugh when he claimed that the Chancellor was the force behind the tidal lagoon.
What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor about the damage that could be caused to community energy co-operatives by the proposed exclusion of co-operatives from future tax allowance schemes?
We have discussed the matter extensively with the Treasury, and we have introduced something called social investment tax relief. It is better than its predecessor, because it gives community energy companies tax relief not just on equity finance but on debt finance, thus expanding the instruments.
There is an issue concerning which types of organisation should be able to claim the tax relief. The whole purpose of supporting community energy is to support schemes that give real benefits to the community, and energy co-operatives do not necessarily do that, although they benefit their membership. However, we have been working with the community energy sector as well as the Treasury, and I think that if the hon. Gentleman reads today’s update, he will see that we have come up with a very effective solution.
Before the last election the Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition, said:
“I think we all feel that when the gas prices or the oil prices go up, they rush to pass the costs onto us and yet when we read in the papers that the oil price has collapsed…we wait for a very long time before we see anything coming through on our bills, and I think the first thing you’ve got to do...is give the regulator the teeth to order that those reductions are made and that is what we would do.”
Why did he break that promise?
That is exactly what is happening. At that time, in 2009, when the Leader of the Opposition was the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, nothing happened: bills did not come down and the Secretary of State did not lift a finger. Instead, this time I called in the big six and as a result they cut prices: they cut prices to pass on in full the wholesale reductions, and consumers benefit in a way that they could not if the energy price had been frozen at the high level suggested by Labour.
At the Paris negotiations the central words will be “common but differentiated,” and while I entirely agree with the Secretary of State’s response on the subject of consumption emissions, does he accept that consumption emissions will play into that debate about common but differentiated responsibilities?
I have met a range of climate change negotiators, particularly the Chinese negotiator Minister Xie, and interestingly they have never raised that issue. They have raised many other issues, but they have never raised that specific one, so it would be a first for the negotiations. There are other issues that we need to focus on, however, and we set out our position in a publication last September.
Several hon. Members
Order. I think we will leave it there. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but we have quite a lot to get through.
Barts Health NHS Trust
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on Barts Health NHS Trust being placed into special measures.
The NHS Trust Development Authority announced on Tuesday 17 March that Barts Health would be placed into special measures. This followed a report by the Care Quality Commission which rated services at the Barts Health site at Whipps Cross as inadequate. As a result of this decision the trust will receive a package of tailored support to help it rapidly make the necessary improvements for patients. This will include the appointment of an improvement director and the opportunity to partner with a high-performing trust. The chief inspector of hospitals has highlighted the scale of the challenge ahead and this is an opportunity to ensure that the trust has the extra support it needs to meet that challenge. Barts Health has already announced that it has begun to strengthen management arrangements at Whipps Cross, in response to concerns raised by the CQC.
We make no apology for the fact that, under the new rigorous inspection regime led by the chief inspector of hospitals, if a hospital is not performing as it should, the public will be told. If a hospital is providing inadequate care and we do not have confidence in the ability of its leadership to make the required improvements without intensive support, it will be put into special measures. It will remain in special measures until it is able it to reach the quality standards that patients rightly expect.
While the trust is in special measures, it will receive increased support and intensive oversight to help it address its specific failings. This process is publicly transparent, so patients and the public can see and track for themselves, online through the NHS Choices website, the progress that their trusts are making. Any changes or additional support required for the trust leadership are put in place early on in the improvement process, as has already taken place at Barts Health.
The expectation is that an NHS trust or foundation trust will be re-inspected by the CQC within 12 months of being placed in special measures. It is the job of the chief inspector of hospitals to recommend when a trust is ready to exit special measures. The NHS TDA or Monitor will then formally decide to take the trust out of special measures when it considers the trust is able to sustain the quality of care at the level patients rightly expect.
Barts Health NHS Trust is no ordinary hospital trust: it is the largest NHS trust in England, employing more than 14,000 staff and treating patients from all over London and indeed the whole country. Importantly, it is also one of the few trusts directly managed by the Trust Development Authority and the Department of Health.
Is it not true that the problems at Whipps Cross have been known for some time and have not just been uncovered this week? Is it not also true that these problems have been allowed to get worse over the past two years, with 208 serious incidents in the last year alone, and that specific warnings have not been acted on? Given all this, is it not a cause for real concern that this trust has become the 20th to be placed in special measures under this Government? People in east London need to know why, and what is being done to bring their hospital back up to an acceptable standard. Does the Minister accept that, given the seriousness of this issue, they are entitled to be disappointed that the Secretary of State is not here today to respond to these concerns?
One of the report’s main conclusions is that the root cause of care problems in the past two years was the reorganisation of the trusts in 2013. It states that
“the decision…to remove 220 posts across the trust and down band several hundred more nursing staff had a significant impact on staff morale and has stretched staffing levels in many areas”.
These findings raise significant questions for the Department and Ministers. Given that it is a directly managed trust, was a proper assessment made of the reorganisation plans, and was it signed off by Ministers? Why did Ministers overrule the Co-operation and Competition Panel, which advised against the proposed merger and warned of material costs to patients? What action did the TDA, the Department and Ministers take on the warnings raised at the time?
The Minister will know that my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer)—I am afraid he has a constituency engagement this morning; otherwise, he would have been here—and, as I understand it, her Cabinet colleague the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith), raised specific concerns about the decision to remove the management structure from Whipps Cross Hospital, concerns echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). Why were those concerns ignored, leaving Whipps Cross without an adequate management structure?
Looking ahead, can the Minister say more about what is now being done to improve management at Whipps Cross, and to reassure local people that their hospital is safe? What immediate steps are being taken to improve staff numbers? On finance, is she aware that the bill for agency staff across the trust has gone up by a huge 44% in the last year alone, and what is she doing to bring that down? It is unsustainable and unaffordable, but it is also damaging standards of patient care on the ward and continuity of care.
The inspection took place in November. Why was it published only this week—one day before the Budget? Given that this is about a failure of NHS management, why is the Department of Health still sitting on the report by Lord Rose on NHS management? Will the Minister give a firm commitment to this House today that it will be published before Parliament is dissolved?
This report has been widely described as the worst assessment ever seen from the CQC. It will be seen as a symbol of the decline of the NHS on this Government’s watch, and people are looking now, today, for an urgent plan to turn things around.
The whole House will have noted that the right hon. Gentleman asked why the report has only just come out. He might reflect on his own time in office, when there were reports that did not come out at all just before the general election. If there is any better example of weaponising the NHS—we have just seen it. Instead of trying to make political capital, should the right hon. Gentleman not admit that the new CQC inspection regime illustrates exactly why transparency is so important, and why this Government were right to implement it?
Under the previous Government, failures of care were swept under the carpet and not acted on, which led to the tragic consequences we know about. Before the last general election, Labour tried to block the publication of a devastating report into Basildon and Thurrock hospital. [Interruption.] These are serious matters, and that is exactly why the CQC inspection has to be taken seriously. As I have said, local management is looking at these important issues, some of which we have debated before in the House, and which need to be addressed very seriously. However, the hospital management are beginning to do that, and they must take such action to ensure that they bring care up to the right standards.
All the things that the CQC has identified have to be addressed. As I have said, this illustrates exactly why the new CQC inspection regime is so important. Even now, a week before Parliament dissolves before the general election, this Government are committed, without fear or favour, to transparency and to bringing out this report. We are committed to ensuring that we put into the public domain the measures that need to be taken to put that hospital back on track and to ensuring that its patients can have confidence in the safety of its operation.
This is a very serious matter, and it is extremely important that it should be brought to the House. I am pleased that the Francis report on Mid Staffordshire resulted in the appointment of a chief inspector of hospitals, which has led to the production of reports such as this, but does the Minister agree that this case highlights the vital importance of having proper safety systems within each health and social care provider, as is proposed in the Health and Social Care (Safety and Quality) Bill, which is now going through the House of Lords with the support of the Opposition and the Government? Will she ask the CQC to ensure that each hospital and social and health care provider that it inspects has such safety systems in place and that that includes management systems, to ensure that the providers cannot make cuts that would put patient safety at risk?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s remarkable work in this Parliament on campaigning for transparency in patient safety. He is exactly right to say that these are important features of the inspection regime. As I have said, work has already begun to strengthen the management arrangements at Whipps Cross, but he is right to say that patient safety must be the predominant concern of the management when they come to address failings such as these.
Whipps Cross is my local hospital. I have been a patient there and my family have been patients there, as have friends and neighbours. I join the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) and my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) in being horrified at what I am sure they would see as the Minister’s insulting response to this issue. She is playing politics with the hospital that serves our community. We all want to put on record our support for the patients and staff who spoke out and demanded that the CQC should come back to the hospital, despite the assurances from the management and the Government that all was well there. They were begging the CQC to return to look again at Whipps Cross, and when we read the report, we can see that they have been vindicated. The lead inspector has rightly expressed his concern that front-line staff will feel even more demoralised following the report, and that their welfare needs to be our priority. What assurances can the Minister give me that, rather than playing party politics, she will listen to the inspectors and heed that warning?
The hon. Lady is quite right to say that patients would be concerned, but they should also be reassured that this inspection regime has exposed some of the issues, and now is the time for them to be addressed adequately. The additional support that the trust will receive as part of the special measures is part of what will help it to make the necessary improvements for patients. The chief inspector of hospitals has highlighted the scale of the challenge ahead, but this is an opportunity to ensure that the trust has the extra support to meet that challenge. That is exactly why the regime exists—[Interruption.] I am sure that, like me, the hon. Lady will have been concerned to read of the culture of bullying and low morale, which is not acceptable. Part of the transparency regime that this Government have put in place involves ensuring that staff can speak out, and I am glad that some of them did. It is never acceptable for staff to feel unable to speak out on the issue of poor care, so I am glad that this report has given them the chance to voice their concerns. Those concerns must now be properly addressed.
The House will be reassured by the Minister’s coming to the House today to make this statement and taking this early opportunity to highlight these issues. [Hon. Members: “What? She was dragged here!”] I am sure you would agree, Mr Speaker, that the Minister stands head and shoulders above those who failed to do anything during their time in office to ensure patient safety.
I thank my hon. Friend for that—[Interruption.] We are hearing a lot of chuntering from a sedentary position, but I refer the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), who asked the urgent question, to a quote from Roger Davidson, former head of media at the CQC, who said in evidence to the Francis inquiry that
“there were conversations between the CQC and ministers to the effect that the CQC would not cause any trouble in the run up to purdah. The message that we don't want bad news infected the whole organisation.”
However much of a small discomfort it might be to Ministers to come and answer an urgent question on such an important matter for patients, people should be reassured that it is far more important that these issues come out transparently, whatever the timing, even if it is ahead of a general election.
Both trusts that serve constituents in the London borough of Redbridge—Barking, Havering and Redbridge, which serves King George hospital in my constituency, and Barts, which serves Whipps Cross—are in special measures. In 2013, the Government forced the closure of maternity services at King George hospital, and as a result some of my constituents had to go to Whipps Cross. I am therefore shocked by what I have seen in the report. It is about time that the Government ruled out their plans to close the A and E at King George, because I do not want constituents of mine dying as a result of inadequate provision in north-east London.
The hon. Gentleman and I have debated these issues in Adjournment debates in this House, so I know that they are of great concern to him. All these issues in that part of London’s health economy need to be considered.
Will Barts be given the same excellent support from the Government as Medway hospital in my constituency, which is in special measures? It has received extra resources and been paired with excellent hospitals such as Guy’s and St Thomas’s. Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to the excellent staff who work day in, day out caring for patients at Medway? Will she also note that in 2006 Medway hospital had the seventh highest mortality rate in the country, yet nothing was done? Will the shadow Health Secretary apologise for that? I welcome the support that the Government have given Medway hospital to turn it around.
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He illustrates the fact that these problems can be addressed through this regime of extra support. I pay tribute to the staff at his local hospital, who have worked so hard to address the failings and to provide much safer care for their patients. He illustrates exactly why this regime of being transparent about issues and ensuring additional support can be given to trusts to address their problems can be successful and can benefit patients.
I am shocked by the Minister’s tone, as there are genuine concerns about the services that my constituents and those of colleagues are receiving. Barts is the largest trust in England, and when it was formed many concerns were raised. It dilutes accountability and direct line management. Does she agree now that it was too big and that consideration needs to be given to making a number of trusts out of this large trust that are more manageable and directly accountable?
As the hon. Lady knows, the site in question in this report is Whipps Cross. The priority for its management is to address the issues that the CQC has identified.
As my hon. Friend knows, Basildon hospital was one of 14 to go into special measures and one of the first out. I believe that the reason for that is the Government’s openness to accept there are problems and not duck them, the hard work of hospital staff and the open and transparent attitude adopted by the management team to accept the problem and make it their own. Is my hon. Friend confident that the leadership of Barts is willing to accept the problems unreservedly and has the ability to face up to the challenges?
The failings at the site are laid out in black and white in the CQC’s report and it is important that people accept that. There will be intensive support to address that, and the management have already said that they are looking at the problems and have begun to address them. My hon. Friend is right that management and leadership are critical. We have seen that in his area and in others, and that is what those involved must now face up to.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) and I have been assisting the save our surgeries campaign in Tower Hamlets for 18 months, because, like many other GP surgeries in east London, ours are feeling under threat. Today’s response from the Minister indicating that the trust for Barts and the Royal London is in special measures, as well as the Barking, Havering and Redbridge University Hospitals NHS Trust, demonstrates that there is anxiety across east London about the state of the national health service. We did not hear anything in the Budget statement yesterday to give any reassurance to the people of east London. Does the Minister not recognise how serious this is for east London?
This report alone is a very serious report, and of course it is recognised. But it is right that we are transparent about it. As a London MP, I know some of the challenges that parts of the London health economy face. The issues need to be addressed, but this Government have put record amounts into the health service. We are also committed to backing the NHS’s own “Five Year Forward View”, and moving forward new ways of delivering GP care is a part of that vision. We have to make sure that that delivers for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, as well as for mine and for other people in London.
Several hon. Members
It is good to know that in his capacity as a distinguished ornament of the Health Committee, the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) takes a keen interest in matters appertaining to east London.
Absolutely, and not least because we warned of these dangers during the passage of the Health and Social Care Bill, which later became an Act. With all due respect, I should point out to the Minister, on her references to openness and transparency, that this failing has happened as a direct result of mergers introduced by this Government. May I respectfully point out that when this merger was approved by the Secretary of State three years ago, Labour MPs, including my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer), did point out that such a change would be a disaster, and that has come to pass? The Secretary of State pressed ahead. May I point out the bullying issues that the report throws up? The chairman of the Unison branch was sacked on trumped-up charges. Will the Minister issue instructions to have those individuals reinstated?
The bullying of NHS staff who are trying to draw attention to poor care is never acceptable, and this Government have taken a lot of measures to make sure that NHS staff are protected. The trust’s chief executive has said the following about the report:
“We are very sorry for the failings identified by the CQC in some of our services at Whipps Cross and we know the Trust has a big challenge ahead.”
Part of that big challenge will be in restoring staff morale, and making sure that that culture of openness and support for staff is in place.
The placing of Barts into special measures this week confirms what many of us already know: London hospitals are under enormous pressure, some simply cannot cope and too many patients are not getting the care they deserve. In the light of that, can the Minister confirm that the recently announced Monitor investigation into the Princess Royal hospital at Farnborough will not result in another attempt by her Government to take the axe to Lewisham hospital and to services in south-east London more generally?
I believe we may well be addressing that issue in an Adjournment debate next week. There will be a chance to discuss it in more detail then.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris), I am not from London, but I do feel qualified to speak on this subject. The issues that have been raised about staff morale and the “down banding” of nurses are all too familiar to me. Until October last year I worked for the NHS—I worked for the NHS for more than 30 years—and what is going on at Barts is very similar to what was going on in the trust in the north-west where I worked. Again, it was a large trust, having been formed by the merger of four hospitals. It is an unworkable plan. As my hon. Friend said, we warned about what was going to happen with the Health and Social Care Bill, and it is depressing to see all this come to fruition. The cost of agency staff, which has been referred to—
Order. May I exhort the hon. Lady to come to a question? I know she has provided her diagnosis, and we are grateful to her for that, but what we need is a question.
My question is regarding the trade unions and the welfare of staff. Staff morale is at an all-time low in the NHS, and trade unions need to be involved in any special measures that are taken in this trust.
The CQC’s inspection report does identify some issues of concern to do with staff morale and bullying. As I said to the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) a moment ago, the issues need to be addressed. We want a culture in which all staff can speak out about poor patient care and feel supported in doing so. That is exactly what we have put in place over recent years.
It has been very disappointing that the Minister, for whom I have a very high regard, has dealt with this disgrace with a crudely political response. Does she not agree that an important element in the recovery of all patients is for them to have faith in their doctors and in the health service? No Government have done more than this one to undermine confidence in the health service throughout the nation. Does she not feel that great damage is being done by making the greatest political achievement of the past 100 years—the national health service—a political football to be knocked about by parties and by undermining that faith in the health service? That is something that the public will not forget and will never forgive.
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s basic premise—not at all. In fact, recently, people’s satisfaction with the NHS has gone up. What he says is a slur on our hard-working clinicians, who respond so magnificently to the pressures in our system. This Government have backed them with money and support. I just do not recognise the picture the hon. Gentleman paints.
Several hon. Members
Order. I note the interest—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker—
Yes, in a moment. I notice that the interest in this debate grew as it was taking place. The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means, the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), and the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) have toddled into the Chamber. [Interruption.] Yes, I understand that the right hon. Gentleman has a constituency interest, and that others have taken a keen interest.
I will now allow a point of order, because it relates directly to the exchanges that have just taken place. I know that the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) will not abuse his privilege.
I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing this point of order.
In the Minister’s non-reply to my questions, she inadvertently misled the House. She said that, before the last election, I had blocked a report on Basildon hospital. I wish to place it on the record that I made an oral statement to this House about Basildon hospital and published reports on it on 30 November 2009. I followed that up with a written statement to the House on 5 March 2010. I would be grateful to the Minister if she withdrew her comments.
I note what the shadow Secretary of State has said. He has put it on the record. The Minister is welcome to respond if she wishes, but she is not obliged to.
I was not a Member of the House at that time. Of course I would not wish inadvertently to mislead the House. Nevertheless—[Interruption.] I read out evidence that was given to the Francis inquiry that made it clear that such a culture did exist. However, if, on the specific point, I was not quite right, I will withdraw what I said.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for what she has said. We will leave it there.
Before we come to the statement by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I will make a brief statement. The content of ministerial statements is, by longstanding practice, not a matter for the Chair, nor is my permission required for such a statement to be made. However, these statements must be ministerial, delivered not in a personal or a party capacity but on behalf of the Government. Although some latitude is of course permitted, there comes a point at which using the privilege accorded to Ministers for purely party purposes would be unfair to the House and would put the Chair in a very difficult position. I know that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will bear that in mind.
Fiscal Responsibility and Fairness
Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out the final coalition Budget of this Parliament. The policy measures contained in the Budget document were all agreed between us. I secured key Liberal Democrat commitments, including the significant increase in the income tax personal allowance, support for mental health, and tax measures to support motorists, Scotch whisky and the oil and gas sector, because together they make our society fairer and our economy stronger.
However, I know that millions of people who watched yesterday’s exchanges between the Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition were left wondering, “Isn’t there another way to do this?” Of course people want a stronger economy based on a credible plan, but they also want a fairer society based on modern public services. Therefore, to all those left cold by yesterday’s exchanges, to all those asking themselves whether there is another way, today I say, “Yes, there is a better way.”
Today I set out a better economic plan for Britain, a plan that is based on values of fairness as well as strength, a plan that delivers on our commitment to balance the books in a fair way, a plan that borrows less than Labour, cuts less than the Conservatives and enables our country to see light at the end of the tunnel. It is not a rollercoaster ride, but a steady path back to prosperity. It sticks to the path we have chosen in this Government, rather than lurching away from it by cutting too much or borrowing too much.
The fiscal forecast published by the Chancellor yesterday would, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, return Government consumption—the effective spending power of the state—back to levels last seen in 1964. But the era of “Cathy Come Home” is not my vision for the future of Britain. [Interruption.] Although, I can see why 1964 might appeal to some on the Government side of the House—after all, that was before Nigel Farage was born.
The economic plan that I am publishing today has been produced by the Treasury, based on assumptions I provided, using data from the Office for Budget Responsibility—[Interruption.]
Order. I will not take points of order in the middle of a statement.
Finishing the job we started in 2010 will require roughly £30 billion of fiscal consolidation by 2017-18. All parties in this House signed up to that in January, although the shadow Chancellor has been trying to wriggle out of that commitment ever since.
Our first priority must be to ensure that those with the broadest shoulders bear the largest share, so the fiscal plans I am setting out today are based on a further £6 billion from tax dodgers—an additional £6 billion of tax rises. We should expect those in high-value properties, the banking sector and others to pay more, rather than asking those working on low incomes to accept less. That would leave around £12 billion of departmental expenditure savings and the remaining £3.5 billion from welfare savings. Those measures would allow the structural current deficit to be eliminated in 2017-18. In fact, the coalition’s fiscal mandate is met with headroom of £7.7 billion.
Once that task is complete, we need to continue to cut the debt as a share of the economy, and we will not flinch from that task, because to do so would be to leave an intolerable burden to future generations. Provided that we can meet that target, borrowing for productive investment in infrastructure—in roads, railways, broadband and housing—can and should be part of our plan. We will therefore grow public expenditure as the economy grows after 2017-18. Ten years on from the financial crisis is the right time for the public finances to turn the corner. To continue the pain beyond that date is unnecessary and simply making cuts for cuts’ sake. To go too slowly, as the Opposition recommend, would drag out the pain for too long.
The national debt as a share of the economy would fall in every year of this plan, from 78.2% in 2017-18 to 76.1% and then 73.9%. The implied spending envelope for Departments would be £314.3 billion in 2017-18, rising to £324 billion and then £348.1 billion in the last year. That is £25 billion, £36 billion and then £40 billion more available for public services and infrastructure investment than in the plans presented yesterday. Just think what could be achieved with that. [Interruption.] They might not like to hear it on the Opposition Benches, but that money could be used—[Interruption.]
That money could be used to ensure that the NHS has the £8 billion it needs to secure its future, or to ensure that the education budget can be protected in real terms from cradle to college and not allowed to wither, or to support growth-enhancing spending of the sort delivered so effectively by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills—[Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) must resume his seat.
Send him out!
Order. Sir Bob, I do not think I require a lecture from you upon the matter of good order. Calm yourself, man; it will be better for your health.
Labour Members may not like it, Mr Speaker, but I am setting out the numbers in the Treasury document published today, which is an entirely legitimate thing to do.
This will also allow us to reward the hard-working public servants whose pay restraint has helped so much to balance the books. Public servants have made big sacrifices, and we need to repay that.
No Chief Secretary has ever had to control public spending in the way that I have, and no Chief Secretary should ever have to do so again. But this scenario proves that there is no need to shrink the state in the way that some in this House propose. The recovery secured, the fiscal mandate met, national debt down, public finances that have turned the corner, a stronger economy and a fairer society, and a better future for the United Kingdom: that is what these plans deliver.
However, fairness is not simply embodied by the numbers on a spreadsheet; it is also about the actions that we take. Nothing makes people more angry than the sight of some refusing to pay the tax that they owe. Last month I committed to ensuring that any individual or company that facilitates tax evasion would face stronger criminal penalties and financial sanctions. Today we deliver on that commitment by publishing a substantial package of next steps in the clampdown on these immoral and illegal practices. We inherited—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) would simply listen to what is being said instead of ranting like a lunatic, he would hear the measures that the Government are taking to clamp down on tax evasion.
We inherited from the previous Government a tax system that had more holes than a Swiss cheese and was more complex than a Rubik’s cube. The opportunities for those who wish to get away without paying were many and varied.
Which page of the Budget is this on?
Order. The hon. Gentleman should not keep shrieking from a sedentary position, “Which page?” If the Chief Secretary wishes to go through page numbers, that is his prerogative, but if he does not, excessive gesticulation is rather unseemly. I have high aspirations for the hon. Gentleman’s future as a statesman, but I am not sure he is aiding his objective of becoming a statesman by this rather shrill shrieking, which in any case, as I am sure Mrs Gwynne will confirm, will be injurious to his health.
We would not wish to injure the hon. Gentleman’s health, Mr Speaker, nor to allow him not to hear the changes that we are making to deal with tax evasion.
For too long, our tax system struggled with the fact that a small minority felt it perfectly okay to indulge in tax avoidance and commit the crime of tax evasion. The public will not tolerate being stolen from any more. When this coalition Government came into office, we made it clear that we would eradicate loopholes that the previous Administration had left wide open. We said, “If you have not been compliant, we will give you the chance to put your affairs in order, but then we will come after you.” Since 2010, in every year of this Parliament we have put in place measure after measure to tackle the abuse of the tax system. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will have secured £100 billion in additional revenue over the course of this Parliament. That includes more than £31 billion from big businesses and an extra £1.2 billion from the UK’s 6,000 richest people.
Yesterday’s Budget announced further measures targeting those who persistently enter into or market tax avoidance schemes that HMRC defeats. The Budget also announced game-changing information exchange agreements with over 90 tax authorities worldwide. Today I can announce the next steps—a tough, comprehensive new evasion-deterring package. First, for offshore evaders, following consultation we will introduce a new strict liability criminal offence so that people can no longer simply plead ignorance in an attempt to avoid criminal prosecution. Strict liability will bring an end to the defence of, “I knew nothing—it was my accountant, m’lud.”
Secondly, the Government will introduce a new offence of corporate failure to prevent tax evasion or the facilitation of tax evasion. No longer should any organisation be able to get away with facilitating or abetting others to evade tax. If people help a burglar, they are accomplices and criminals too. Now it will be the same for companies that fail to prevent their employees from helping tax evaders; they will be treated as accomplices too.
Thirdly, we will increase financial penalties for offshore evaders, including, for the first time, linking the penalty to underlying assets. A billionaire evading £5 million of tax will not just be liable for that £5 million. Fourthly, we will introduce new civil penalties so that those who help evaders will have to pay fines that match the size of the tax dodge they facilitate. If someone helps someone else evade £1 million of tax, they risk a penalty of £1 million, or even more, themselves. Fifthly, we will extend the scope for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to name and shame both evaders and those who enable evasion.
Our message is simple: “Come forward and settle your affairs, or be caught and face the consequences.” These measures are helping to put in place a far more effective tax system in the UK. Once again it combines fiscal responsibility with fairness.
I would like to mention one last measure. Mr Speaker, you and the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) have pioneered measures to open up politics and Parliament to people from a more diverse range of backgrounds. Following extensive discussions, I am delighted to confirm that the Treasury has agreed to provide reserve funding of £200,000 a year for the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme in both 2015-16 and 2016-17, to ensure that its excellent work can continue beyond this year. I pay tribute to the work done by you, Mr Speaker, and the right hon. Lady as the driving forces behind the programme.
Combining fiscal responsibility with fairness—that is the approach that we as Liberal Democrats have brought to the coalition Government. We will finish the job of dealing with the deficit, and do so fairly. We will get the national debt down, we will secure the economic recovery and we will have no tolerance of people who evade tax or those who help them. That is the approach that will deliver a stronger economy and a fairer society. I commend this statement to the House.
What a farce! Why has the right hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander) been allowed to use the Government Dispatch Box for his party political pleading this morning? Is this a statement of the Treasury’s policy or not? He said he was publishing fiscal plans today—where is that document? I thought that statements in the House of Commons were supposed to be from Ministers speaking collectively on behalf of the Government, but the right hon. Gentleman has totally abused that privilege, assembling MPs this morning on a false pretence.
I know it is usual to have several days of Budget debates in the Commons, but not several Budgets. On a procedural point, I have to ask you, Mr Speaker: what recourse do we have, as the official Opposition, when statements are made that are not Government policy? [Interruption.] I do not know where the Deputy Prime Minister is going. I think that was his valedictory appearance in the House of Commons.
Can we all have a turn at giving statements and using civil service resources in this way? Will we get to vote on both Budget statements or just one of them? The Government refused to let the Office for Budget Responsibility cost all the manifesto policies of the main parties, but then they waste Treasury time and money specifically funding a Lib Dem policy document. Will the Chief Secretary at least tell the House how much this morning’s phoney exercise cost the taxpayer? What better illustration can there be of the shambolic downfall of this miserable Government when we cannot even tell whether a Minister is speaking in an official capacity? This is an alliance driven totally by party political interests, rather than Britain’s best interests.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke about measures supposedly to tackle tax evasion and tax abuses. Are they actual Government policy or are they things that he would quite like to do but that other Ministers are squabbling about? Are they genuinely new powers to tackle tax evasion or just a series of press releases to give the impression of activity?
The OBR has expressed doubt about the right hon. Gentleman’s approach to common reporting standards and says that these plans have “very high” levels of uncertainty. Can he clear that up? The OBR also says on page 209 of its report that today’s announcement relies
“on extra HMRC operational capacity in order to be implemented as intended.”
How much additional HMRC resource will be committed to the measures? When will it be committed and with what guarantee?
With the tax gap widening a further £1 billion, to £34 billion, why should we believe that these steps will be any different from the Government’s failed deal on tax disclosure with Switzerland, which has raised less than a third of the promised £3 billion and involved agreeing to turn a blind eye to abuses in the future? Would the new powers to tackle offshore tax abuses prevent what looks to have happened at HSBC? The ex-chairman of HSBC’s Swiss bank, Lord Green, apparently admitted last night to feeling “dismay and deep regret”, adding with enormous understatement that
“the real world of the markets is shot through with imperfections”.
You san say that again! Will the Chief Secretary at least now admit that it was an error that Lord Green was appointed as one of his ministerial colleagues in the face of all the evidence, or did he sign up to that as well?
The Chief Secretary came to the Dispatch Box to set out an alternative Lib Dem Budget, desperately trying at the eleventh hour to distance himself from the extreme and hazardous fate that awaits our public services—our police, our defence, our social services and the NHS—if his boss is re-elected. Let us just get this straight: is he now saying he cannot sign up to the Chancellor’s Budget, as in the Red Book, this time around? We know, or at least I thought we knew, that the quad, of which he is a member, had signed off the Budget and autumn statement figures. Is he now saying that next week he will not be voting for what is in the Red Book?
Are the Liberal Democrats ruling out a coalition with the Conservatives after the election? If they cannot even sign up to the Chancellor’s Budget when they are part of the Government, how on earth could they sign up for another five years? Does the Chief Secretary not realise how two-faced he looks? They want to have their cake and eat it—to be in government, but not in government. I can almost hear his constituents saying, “It’s too late, Danny. You’ve been propping up the Tories for five years—taking the NHS backwards, imposing the bedroom tax and trebling tuition fees, while slashing taxes for millionaires—so don’t come along now with your alternative plans and expect anybody to believe you.” It is too late for this: the Liberal Democrats have backed the Tories all the way—working families have paid the price—and now it is time for him to pay the ultimate price for his behaviour.
Frankly, the hon. Gentleman should know about farce—he has presided over the farce that is his own economic policy for the past five years.
The hon. Gentleman referred to collective agreement. I can confirm that the publication of “An alternative fiscal path beyond 2016-17” has been collectively agreed by the Government as an alternative fiscal scenario. He may not like this constitutional innovation, but he should get used to having coalition Governments in the future. The fact that he does not like constitutional innovation is perhaps why he and his colleagues blocked House of Lords reform earlier in this Parliament.
No Treasury resources were expended apart from in the work of the civil servants who calculated the numbers. It is entirely appropriate for civil servants to carry out work on a scenario on behalf of the Chief Secretary. In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s questions on tax evasion and avoidance, the new powers introduced by this Government are set out in a report today. I am sorry to hear that he opposes the common reporting standard. I would have thought that he welcomed the fact that there is UK leadership on ensuring that there are international agreements to open up offshore bank accounts to scrutiny by tax authorities from around the world. The new offences and penalties will of course hit any organisation, whether a bank or an accountancy firm, that facilitates others to engage in tax evasion.
On the hon. Gentleman’s last question, he knows very well that, as the OBR says in its own document, its forecast is constructed on the basis of a neutral fiscal assumption that is presented for the rest of the Parliament. That conceals a range of differences between the parties in the coalition. It is entirely proper for me to set out today what I think we are undertaking, exactly as the Chancellor did in his speech yesterday. Instead of this pathetic display, the Labour party should get on with apologising for the economic mess it created, and it should congratulate the Liberal Democrats and the coalition Government on clearing up its mess.
Several hon. Members
Order. I must tell the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) that he is a cheeky fellow. He came into the Chamber after the start of the statement, and I therefore know that he will not expect to be called to ask a question on it, for in parliamentary terms that would be inappropriate. I know that he would not knowingly commit a misdemeanour in that regard. He can sit and listen if he so wishes, but he will not take part in this particular exchange. That is only fair.
I have to say that I am stunned by this statement. The fact that not a single Conservative is on the Front Bench says an awful lot. This is the Westminster bubble at its absolute worst, and it represents everything that is wrong with politics today. The Liberal Democrats have betrayed their voters, and their voters know it; their own candidates are now pretending to be independents; and today’s display is an absolute betrayal of the role they have played in government. I have no question, Mr Speaker. I think the voters will make up their own minds.
Given that we have secured a substantial fall in the deficit, the strongest economic growth in Europe and the creation of jobs in numbers that are not being seen in the rest of the European Union, the hon. Gentleman ought to be congratulating me and my hon. Friends on our role in this Government, not criticising us.
A fanfare went up around the country when, in the autumn statement, the Government announced that there was going to be a tax relief for orchestras. Now we learn that the Government’s definition of an orchestra says that an orchestra can get tax relief only if it has woodwind, strings, percussion and brass—all four. That means that no string orchestra is included, the London Sinfonia is not included, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is not included and nor, for that matter, is a single brass band in the land. If the Chief Secretary wants somebody to trumpet his orchestra tax relief, will he not have to change the rules?
I think that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make a serious point. Officials in HMRC have worked very carefully on writing a definition that is appropriate. I will certainly take his points back to HMRC and see whether they can be taken on board.
I welcome the Chief Secretary’s statements on tax evasion and avoidance. Does he agree that it should no longer be a respectable occupation to advise those who want to avoid paying their share towards our schools, hospitals, our armed forces, pensions and all the other things on which our country relies, and enable them to do so?
I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. I have championed action on that matter in the Treasury over the past five years, and today’s Government announcements show the next stage of that. As he says, this country does not and should not tolerate the abuse of the tax system that has gone on in the past.
I have never seen a statement, other than a Budget statement, that is so heavily redacted. It is almost as if the Chief Secretary is trying to pretend that he is important. He sat there yesterday and grinned as the Chancellor announced £30 billion of cuts. He voted for £30 billion of cuts in January and he has boasted about it today. He has not laid out a plan that combines fiscal responsibility and fairness. The plan is in the Red Book. It is not responsible and it is not fair; it is just another five years of austerity and cuts, and he knows it.
Given that the hon. Gentleman speaks on behalf of a party that wants to break up and bankrupt the United Kingdom and that has set out plans to have the national debt higher at the end of the next Parliament than at the beginning, he has a cheek. The Scottish National party’s plans would do nothing to sort out this country’s economy. They would damage the recovery and cause jobs to be lost in Scotland. I think that the people of Scotland can make up their own minds about that.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that he has done to ensure that the wealthiest pay a much higher contribution in taxes than they did under the last Government, who created more loopholes for the rich to avoid taxes than there are holes in a sieve. Surely it is perfectly legitimate for a coalition that has secured recovery and growth for five years to set out how that can be taken forward in the next five years. May I suggest that if coalitions are to become the norm, we need to find better ways of handling them, so that the two coalition parties can present their cases to the House? This statement is a perfectly reasonable way of doing that.
I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. I thank him for his support on the measures to support tax avoidance and evasion and on the package of measures that we announced yesterday to support the oil and gas industry, which has been widely welcomed in his constituency and elsewhere. He is absolutely right that although the Labour party might not like the fact that we have a coalition Government, it needs to get used to the idea that that may well be the norm for many years to come. Innovation will be needed in parliamentary procedures and other things to accommodate that.
At the beginning of his statement, the Chief Secretary seemed to express concern over the direction of the coalition Budget and some of its measures. Will he confirm that the Liberal Democrats will go through the Lobbies with their coalition partners?
As I said in my statement, all policy measures in the Budget have been agreed across the coalition. What is being set out is an alternative fiscal scenario for meeting the path of deficit reduction to 2017-18, which is an entirely legitimate thing to do. Labour Members may not like the fact that they crashed the economy, made a mess of the nation’s finances, and have no plan of their own to sort it out, but they should welcome the fact that an alternative plan has been set out today.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the action he is taking in government to prevent tax dodging—not long ago it was relatively easy to take advice on that simply by watching the “Daily Politics”. Will he say how much extra revenue Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has been able to collect as a result of action he has already taken to prevent tax dodging?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, which gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent people who work for HMRC. They work hard, day in, day out, on behalf of us all, to ensure that we bring in the revenue that is required, and that compliance procedures are in place to ensure that people cannot get away with dodging tax. As a result of the actions we have taken, more than £100 billion of revenue is being collected by the Exchequer that would not otherwise have been collected.
A Budget, in other terms, is an estimate. Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury please tell us about estimates that the Lib Dems will have more or fewer MPs after the general election than the 16 who are currently in the Chamber?
I am not sure that is a matter for the House; it is a matter for the British people in the coming election, and I confidently expect that the Liberal Democrats will do far better than any of the pundits predict.
I commend my right hon. Friend for setting out a fair path to a stronger economy. Will he join me in congratulating Wick tax office, which has done such a sterling job on cracking down on avoidance through film partnerships, and which is still open despite many Treasury attempts to close it? As the economy grows, will he pay real attention to investing in infrastructure and education so that we can maintain a sustainable recovery and invest in our future?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and his work on the Treasury Committee, and to staff at Wick tax office for their work to ensure compliance in our tax system. They have brought in many millions of pounds of revenue that would not otherwise have been collected. He is right to stress the importance of investment in infrastructure. Under this Government, we have the largest programme of investment in our railways since Victorian times, and in our road network since the 1970s. The plans I am setting out today would allow and enable borrowing for productive capital investment after the books are balanced, which will allow us to do more of that still. That is the right, fair plan for this country.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury may be aware of a popular television programme in this country called “Pointless”—it would be unkind of me to use the same description about him, so I will not. Can he say in one short sentence what exactly was the point of what he has said today, apart from pacifying some of his colleagues?
The hon. Lady is a member of a party whose last Chief Secretary left a note boasting that there was no money left—I think “Cashless” might best describe the Labour party. The point of my statement is exactly what I set out. I do not intend to repeat the entire statement in response to the hon. Lady’s question, but it is clear that behind the neutral fiscal assumption on which the OBR constructs its forecast, many different paths are open to this country. The alternative scenario published by the Treasury today illustrates one such path, which I would endorse.
I commend the Budget and congratulate the Government on focusing on reducing national debt, which seems to have taken the wind out of Opposition sails. I thank the Chief Secretary for agreeing to a rural fuel duty discount for Hawes. Regrettably that is not in Thirsk, Malton and Filey, but I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) will be very pleased. Will the Chief Secretary take heart that the £10 less duty paid on tanking up a car will bring great comfort to families in north Yorkshire?
I thank my hon. Friend for her consistent support for the rural fuel discount scheme. She was one of the Conservative Members who spoke up for this in the last Parliament, as well as in this one, and she makes the right argument. I am delighted that we are the first country in the EU to put in place a rural fuel discount scheme for remote mainland communities, and I hope in due course it will be possible to extend it—so I do not wish her constituents to think that the hope of its being extended to them is extinguished.
The right hon. Gentleman has tried to give a very different impression today, but if he is still “all in it together” with the Chancellor, will he do what his boss has refused to do and tell us where the £12 billion of cuts to the welfare budget will fall?
It might have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge, but his Front-Bench team signed up to the revised charter for fiscal responsibility, which requires £30 billion of further deficit reduction. I can reassure him that I do not support the Conservative policy of £12 billion of welfare cuts in the next Parliament, but no doubt that matter will be debated in the election campaign. I believe Labour claims it has some plans for reducing welfare expenditure, though, as on everything else, it has not set out any detail.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his determination in staying a course that avoids the excessive borrowing advocated by Labour and the ideologically based welfare cuts of the kind just mentioned. Without such a course, it will not be possible to deliver what he has given a personal commitment to—dualling the A1 and repairing the road into Rothbury taken away by a landslide. These and other measures have been based on the success of Liberal Democrat participation in the coalition.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. The plan I have set out today ensures that we would borrow less than Labour and cut less than the Conservatives, ensuring a fair path for the public finances, which is necessary to deliver in full on our plans to dual the A1—plans that he has championed relentlessly during his time in the House. I am pleased it has been a Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary who has enabled that scheme to be funded.
This is clearly the Chief Secretary to the Treasury presenting an alternative Liberal Democrat Budget. He obviously did not hear your statement at the beginning, Mr Speaker. To press him on the point my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East (Chris Leslie) raised, how will he be voting on Monday, and if he is going to vote for his own alternative Budget, will he be resigning as Chief Secretary to the Treasury?
With the greatest respect, I think it was the hon. Lady who was not listening. I made it clear that the policy measures in the Budget were ones that I helped put together, on an equal basis with the Chancellor, and I will be voting in favour of all the Budget resolutions, as I think Labour should. If it wants to oppose income tax cuts for working people and measures to support first-time buyers and savers and motorists, it should tell the British electorate.
I am grateful to the Liberal Democrats for coming to the House and announcing their policies, because it will allow me to campaign in the election for the Conservative party manifesto and put clear blue water between our two parties. However, I have to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his stance today. I think he has pulled off the neat trick of not only being a member of the Government but showing himself able to be part of the opposition—something that Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition have not been able to do in the last five years.
I think I will take that as a compliment, although I do not know if it was meant as such. The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. He and I are members of different political parties and have different visions of the future, but we have worked together in this coalition Government very effectively to clear up the mess left by Labour and get our country back on the right track. Of that, both coalition parties ought to be proud.
How does the Chief Secretary expect to tackle tax evasion and avoidance if the Government go ahead with reducing the number of HMRC staff—the staff he was just praising—from 50,000 to 40,000 by next year?
As I explained in my statement, we have set out a range of measures in this Parliament to improve compliance activity, including by investing an extra £1 billion in precisely the areas of HMRC that focus on this, so there are more specialist tax inspectors, accountants, lawyers and so on focusing on this area. Yesterday, we announced the ending of the tax return and the move to a digital system for tax reporting, which will save money for both taxpayers and HMRC and allow even more resource to be focused on tackling avoidance and evasion.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Will he comment briefly on its implications for the future funding of our nurseries, our schools and our colleges—something very important to us on the Liberal Democrat side?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I believe that in the next Parliament, we should protect the budgets in real terms not just of schools, but of early-years education and 16-to-19 education as well. Saying simply that cash per pupil should be provided on a frozen basis across the Parliament amounts to real-terms cuts for education. That is what people will get from one party of this coalition, but from our part of it people will get real-terms growth and expenditure in all parts of the education system. I think that is vital, given the role of those institutions in fostering opportunity for all in our society.
The Chief Secretary has just talked about education. If he is really concerned about the education of 16 to 24-year-olds, why is he cutting the further education budget in Coventry by 24%? He should look further at the validity of the claim that the Government are going to create more apprenticeships. That rings hollow, certainly in my ears, so will the Chief Secretary please clarify the answer he just gave to the hon. Member for Hendon (Dr Offord)?
It is a matter of record that 2.1 million apprenticeships have been created under this Government. That was the result of substantial investment by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. I would have thought that apprenticeships, and their growth, would be welcomed on all sides, because it is an important way for people to gain skills, not least within this House. I very much hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will welcome that substantial investment.
Business of the House
With permission, I should like to make a statement on next week’s business:
Monday 23 March—Conclusion of the Budget debate. I expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make a statement following the European Council.
Tuesday 24 March—Consideration of a Business of the House motion, followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the Recall of MPs Bill, followed by consideration of Lords Amendments to the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, followed by a motion relating to section 5 of the European Communities Amendment Act 1993, followed by a motion to approve statutory instruments relating to counter-terrorism, followed by consideration of Lords amendments.
Wednesday 25 March—All stages of the Finance (No. 2) Bill, followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to terrorism, followed by consideration of Lords amendments.
Thursday 26 March—Consideration of Lords amendments, followed by an opportunity for Members to make short valedictory speeches as recommended by the Backbench Business Committee. The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received. All consideration of Lords amendments announced for next week will be subject to the progress of business. The House will not adjourn until Royal Assent has been received to all Acts.
This is the last weekly business statement of this Parliament. Although I will be seeking to catch your eye on several occasions next week, Mr Speaker, now seems an opportune moment to thank the shadow Leader of the House for her good humour, her support for reform of the House and her commitment to the interests of the House. We worked together on many bodies, such as the House of Commons Commission, and she has always been a constructive colleague. I have enjoyed working with her.
I would also like to thank my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House for his dedication and companionship, particularly on Thursday mornings. I praise his industry, because since becoming Deputy Leader of the House in September 2012, he has clocked up more than 114 legislative hours dealing with six different Bills. I wish him well. I thank other colleagues for their assistance and often their patience, particularly those who have regularly attended business questions and given close attention to our proceedings.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for the final days of this Parliament, and, of course, for his extremely gracious and entirely typical thanks and tributes not only to me, but to all Members. I am sure that next week, during the “valedictory addresses”, we shall have an opportunity to repeat some of the graciousness.
I must say, however, that despite the heroic efforts of the Leader of the House since he took the reins, this is a Parliament that will be remembered for being so devoid of business in its second half that “zombie Government” has entered the political lexicon, and so badly managed that it has lost two MPs to UKIP, seven Cabinet Ministers, and no fewer than 103 votes in the House of Lords. No wonder the Tory Chief Whip cannot even organise his way out of a toilet.
Yesterday, we heard a Budget that people will not believe from a Government whom they do not trust. No amount of rhetoric can mask the Chancellor’s failure. He told us that the deficit was the most important thing, and promised to eliminate it by the end of this Parliament. He has failed. He claimed that we were “all in this together”, but he has given us tax cuts for millionaires and a bedroom tax for the most vulnerable. We have had tax breaks for hedge funds from a party that is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the tax avoiders, and, for the first time since the 1920s, working people are worse off at the end of a Parliament than they were at the beginning.
What did the Chancellor offer when he told us to choose the future? Extreme and dangerous cuts, the deepest for 50 years, which the independent Office for Budget Responsibility has described as a “rollercoaster”. It is no wonder that the Chancellor mentioned Agincourt more than he mentioned the NHS. It has been calculated overnight that he spent £80 million on bad jokes in his Budget speech. I can give you this promise, Mr Speaker: my jokes will always be cheaper than that.
It is no surprise that this week one Tory MP has been caught desperately trying to hide his true identity. He has come up with a cunning disguise, and has taken on a whole new persona. I am not talking about Michael Green. This week, the hon. Member for Croydon Central (Gavin Barwell) contacted constituents, begging them to endorse him to their families and friends. So confident is he about the Government’s stunning record that he said:
“it'll be much more effective if it doesn’t mention the Conservative Party”
or the Prime Minister.
Meanwhile, the Tory party chair, after years of denial and threatening to sue one of his own constituents, has finally admitted that he did, after all, have a second job while serving as a Member of Parliament. He created a brand-new alternative to “economical with the truth” when he apologised for “over-firmly” denying the facts. After five years, there we have it: the Liberal Democrats misadvise themselves, and the Tories over-firmly deny.
As this is the last session of business questions during the current Parliament, I thought it would be remiss of me not to take a few moments to poke fun at the Liberal Democrats, but, given what we have just heard from the Chief Secretary, I think that they have done it all by themselves. The Chancellor’s apprentice, the mini-me of the Treasury, came to the House to deliver his very own faux-Budget statement—and what did he say? That today he disagrees with everything that he signed up to yesterday. Apparently, he is so determined to feel important that he had his very own yellow Budget box constructed, and—absurdly—posed with it at the weekend. However, I hear that he has already taken it to a Liberal Democrat fundraiser and sold it off to the highest bidder, much like his principles. I understand that he got fifteen hundred quid for it.
Meanwhile, the former president and aspiring next leader of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), tried to boost morale at the party’s spring conference by saying that he thought they might lose half their seats, and that they deserved a mark of just two out of 10 for their time in government. I think that that is a bit generous.
Let me take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Leader of the House, who is retiring from this place in just a few days’ time after 26 years of service. He has gone from blond bombshell to slick statesman. He commands respect across the House. Over his career he has befriended celebrities, he has written books, he has travelled the world, he has led his party, and he has been a hard-working and effective Leader of the House whom I have enjoyed working with. Now that’s not bad for someone who was once rejected for a job as a special adviser by Margaret Thatcher, who wrote on his application form, “No, no, no.”
I know the right hon. Gentleman is off to a new house in Wales, which I gather has 10 bedrooms, 10 bathrooms, and I am not sure how many kitchens—perhaps he will tell us. All I can say is that he is lucky a Labour Government will repeal the bedroom tax, although he may be less happy about our plans for a mansion tax.
Yesterday the Chancellor laughably claimed that this Government were helping the north, but what he does not realise is that he is about to lose the only northern powerhouse the Tories have ever had.
I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s touching remarks. As last week, I will not join her in making fun of the Liberal Democrats; I pointed out that I am going to wait a little while for that. I have spent a lifetime making fun of the Liberal Democrats, but I have had a five-year interregnum, and I am looking forward to it coming to an end. Since I will be released from this place anyway, I will be able to join in, but they are deeply valued colleagues—for another few days anyway—and I very much meant the tribute I paid to my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House.
The hon. Lady asked about various matters including referring again—we have debated this before—to the Chief Whip and his experiences in toilets. I have explained that it is an essential part of the duties of a Chief Whip to know who is lurking in there at any one time.
I want to take the hon. Lady up on what she said about this Session of Parliament, because I believe when we come to the end of it next week a great deal will have been achieved: the Infrastructure Act 2015 that provides a nearly £4 billion boost to the economy; the small business Bill that will help businesses get credit from banks and ensure they can expand; the Pension Schemes Act that gives people freedom and security in retirement; the Criminal Justice and Courts Act that allows us to properly punish serious offenders; the Modern Slavery Bill, which will be a landmark piece of legislation; and the Childcare Payments Act that helps more parents with the cost of child care. These are all from this Session of Parliament. That is not a zombie Session of Parliament; that is real, constructive legislation that is of immense assistance to many people in this country.
I have all the great respect for the hon. Lady that I spoke of earlier, but I think she may have written part of her remarks before the Budget, because she said people would be worse off at the end of the Parliament than they were at the beginning of it, but as we now know from the Office for Budget Responsibility one of the achievements of this coalition—Conservatives and Liberal Democrats—will be that on average households will be £900 better off in 2015 than they were in 2010. So the script will have to be changed, albeit at the very end of the Parliament.
Talking of the northern powerhouse, I am very proud that, as the Chancellor pointed out yesterday, more jobs are being created in Yorkshire than in the whole of France. That is not remotely a surprise to those of us from Yorkshire, but it is part of the achievement of this Government that employment is at its highest since records began, and that 1,000 more jobs have been created every day under this Government. One particularly striking aspect of yesterday’s figures is that the rise in youth employment in the last year has been higher than in the whole of the rest of the European Union put together. It is very rare for a Government at the end of a Parliament to be able to say that—very rare indeed—and the Opposition, who voted for the charter for budget responsibility but are now unwilling to maintain any spending discipline, have to explain where the tax rises are going to come from in their programme. There will be a great deal of suspicion that there will be large hidden tax rises from a Leader of the Opposition who has that large hidden kitchen he did not want to speak about.
Such issues will be considered in the Budget debate, continuing until Monday, and in the general election campaign. We will do everything we can in the meantime to bring the business of the House next week to an orderly conclusion.
My right hon. Friend and I were both born on 26 March but a decade apart. I wish him well, but I do think he is retiring at too young an age.
Will my right hon. Friend please find time for a debate on the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013? My constituents Nick and Jane Winfield feel that all manner of people are collecting and selling scrap metal without a licence, and that something needs to be done to ensure that the law is being enforced.
This is a very important issue that has affected rail services, and war memorials have been desecrated and church roofs damaged. We have taken action, as my hon. Friend knows, and there is indeed the 2013 Act. The licensing scheme is administered by local councils, and we fully expect them to take action where scrap metal dealers are found to be unlicensed or are failing to comply with the Act. I hope that is of some reassurance to my hon. Friend. I do not think it will be possible to add a debate about that issue into the remaining few days of this Parliament.
I have known the right hon. Gentleman for a long time, and on Yorkshire issues we have got on very well indeed. I shall certainly miss the double act, which is one of the best I have seen in business questions over the years.
We have had the Budget and we are debating it, but I urge the right hon. Gentleman to give even more attention in the remaining few days to the reality out there: museums, libraries and art centres are closing, as are hospitals—we are in a dreadful state. Is there an opportunity in the coming week to reconnect with the people out there, because they are not connecting with the Budget we heard yesterday?
It is sad that the double act is coming to an end—although my jokes might be more expensive than those of the shadow Leader of the House.
I point out to the hon. Gentleman that part of the Budget debate can of course be about the matters he has raised. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government will open tomorrow’s Budget debate, for instance, so the hon. Gentleman will have a further opportunity to raise those matters. He talks about the reality out there. The reality is that there are more people in work than ever before, and that we have the fastest growing of all the major industrialised economies. That, of course, allows us to have strong public services in the future, and without a strong, growing economy, we cannot have the public services the hon. Gentleman is talking about.
May we have a debate on election conduct? As the Labour party clearly has nothing positive to offer, I fear that this will be the dirtiest election campaign on record. My right hon. Friend may be aware of some of the disgusting smears and lies that have been put out about our hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) by the Labour candidate. Does my right hon. Friend agree that although it is perfectly reasonable for political parties to point out the threats, as they perceive them, posed by the other parties being elected to government, personal smears, attacks and abuse of individual constituency candidates are not acceptable and bring politics into disrepute? Perhaps a debate next week in advance of the forthcoming general election would allow all the political parties to maintain that they will not tolerate that kind of behaviour.
I cannot offer a debate, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: we believe in vigorous political debate in our elections, but I have seen comments made about my hon. Friend the Member for Witham that are offensive, malicious and often false, and which will be particularly offensive to women and to people of Asian origin. It is time the Labour party took that in hand in Witham.
I join others in paying tribute to the Leader of the House. He has clearly been one of the most outstanding parliamentarians, certainly in my time in the House. I played a small part in his career when I gave him his first job, as secretary of the all-party footwear and leather industries group, and look how well he has done!
Next Thursday will be a very important day in the history of Leicester when the interment of Richard III takes place. If the right hon. Gentleman wants a ticket for the occasion, I can try to arrange one for him. May we have an urgent look at the criteria for boroughs and cities being permitted to use the title “royal”? Leicester must surely be entitled to use it—as Kensington and Chelsea, and Greenwich, have done—and to become a royal city, given our new connection with royalty.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words. The role I played as secretary of the all-party footwear and leather industries group was so crucial that I have completely forgotten it, actually. But it played a very important part in my career in the House a quarter of a century ago—
It was a footnote.
It was indeed a footnote to my career. I thank my hon. Friend for that.
There are periodic opportunities and competitions for towns to compete for city status and for cities to request an increase in their status. I do not think that that will be able to happen in the coming week, however. Leicester will have many important claims for advancing its status but I do not think that the connection with Richard III would be decisive, given that he lost the battle of Bosworth and that the royal line that flowed from him was rather weakened as a result.
Will the Leader of the House welcome the new manifesto for change which calls for justice for the victims of criminal driving? This is a hugely important issue, and a number of changes need to be made in order to bring justice to many people. I should like to thank the many people who have contributed to the process. May we have a debate on this new manifesto, which is backed by Brake and other organisations as well as by a number of MPs from both sides of the House, so that Parliament can discuss how we can get the changes that we need?
I welcome the continuing debate on this matter and on the many concerns that have been raised. The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 has increased the maximum penalty for causing death while disqualified from two to 10 years, and created the new offence of causing serious injury while disqualified, which carries a maximum penalty of four years. That does not mean, however, that all the concerns have been dealt with. This is a welcome campaign and manifesto, and I will certainly ensure that ministerial colleagues are made aware of my hon. Friend’s work, alongside the Government review. Although there is not time to debate the matter further in this Parliament, I am sure that it is an issue that the next Parliament will want to return to.
I should like to associate myself with the tributes that have been paid to the right hon. Gentleman and to my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), his shadow.
I do not expect the Government to comment on the outcome of elections in other countries, but will there be a statement on Premier Netanyahu’s announcement that he will not support a two-state solution? Might the Prime Minister refer to it at the European Council and then comment on it in the House next week? The two-state solution has been the policy of the UK, the US and the EU for some time, and the statement by the Israeli premier must have disappointed the Government as much as it has disappointed so many people in this country.
Support for the two-state solution is a very important part of our policy on the middle east peace process, and it is common across the House of Commons. I did a good deal of work on this as Foreign Secretary, although the greatest amount of work has been done in recent times by Secretary John Kerry and I salute all the work that he has put into the process. I have often said in the House that time was running out for a two-state solution and, sadly, that remains the case. The best opportunity to ask Ministers about this will be when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gives a statement to the House next Monday or at Prime Minister’s questions next week, when this would be a perfectly normal thing to ask him about.
The Leader of the House is not only one of the finest Foreign Secretaries and parliamentarians that Britain has ever had but a much loved and respected local North Yorkshire MP. May we have a debate about North Yorkshire, its people, its businesses, its beauty and its beer?
Everybody is being very kind, but none of this will persuade me to stay. I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for all his support and co-operation on North Yorkshire issues. There would be a great deal to say in a debate on North Yorkshire, including about the beer. I understand that a beer has been launched in my honour called Smooth Hague and I have already tasted it. We could debate all those things, and I hope, if I manage to catch your eye, Mr Speaker, at the end of the valedictory debate next week, to say a few sentences about the great people of North Yorkshire and what a privilege it has been to represent them over the past 26 years.
I first met the Leader of the House when I was 18 and I went to his 21st birthday party, which I remember was subtitled “wine, women and song”, so it is with mixed emotions that I congratulate him on leaving the House. We will miss him, but we are all looking forward to some wonderful new books, as he is a very fine writer. He says that he will keep up his campaign against the use of sexual violence in war and we all praise him for that, but who knows, perhaps he will appear down the corridor in a few weeks’ time in another guise.
May I ask him about the use of LIBOR fines announced yesterday? I gather that more announcements are coming today. Of course we support the Government’s announcements on how they are being given out, but it feels a bit like pork barrelling at the moment, as Treasury Ministers, without any formal process, have just been doling out cash to organisations that have not even asked for it. Would it not be better to go through the Arts Council or the Heritage Lottery Fund?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whom I have known since he was 18, when he was a Conservative—[Interruption.] I hate to break the news to the Opposition, but he was a member of the Oxford university Conservative association, albeit in favour of PR—
You were in favour of PR.
No, the hon. Gentleman was in favour of PR, which made him rather a suspicious character in the eyes of the rest of us.
Plus ça change.
I had already given up my support for proportional representation at that point, but yes, I have known the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) for a very long time and I am grateful for his remarks. He mentions my work on preventing sexual violence, which I will continue outside this House, but that is another illustration of the use of LIBOR money. Last month, I was able to announce £1 million of that money going to the London School of Economics to create a centre for women, peace and security. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has just joined us, and I do not think that it is fair to say that that is pork barrel use of money. That is an example of how well used the LIBOR funds are. They are, of course, available only on a temporary basis, so setting up a whole structure to disburse them is probably not the way forward, but I will be able to pass on to the Chancellor what the hon. Gentleman has said.
I join colleagues in paying tribute to the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House for the work they have done, on the House of Commons Commission in particular. Much has been achieved together and it has been great working as part of that team.
Will it be possible to have a debate on the provision of communication infrastructure by BT? It has been suggested recently that that should be hived off from the company. In the highlands of Scotland, in my constituency, I have received 45 complaints, such as that from John Sinclair of Caithness Creels, who has been waiting for more than three weeks to get broadband. The residents of Lothmore have been waiting for up to six weeks to be reconnected. There is a clear shortage of engineers, and BT seems to regard that as perfectly acceptable. I wrote two weeks ago to the chairman, Sir Michael Rake, pointing out the potential reputational damage to BT; I never received an answer from him. The high-level complaints team has however told me that it will look at the issue, but that it might take some time. That is not acceptable from the provider of a national infrastructure and I believe we should be concerned about that.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend and pay tribute to the tremendous work he does for this House, which I have seen at close quarters. We have been able to work together very well in the House of Commons Commission, so I thank him very much for that. He raises an important issue. The Government of course have a very strong record on the development of superfast broadband around the United Kingdom, particularly in rural areas, but he is right about the difficulty in some of the remotest areas. I see that in North Yorkshire, and he highlights the difficulties in the extremely remote areas that he represents. Although there is not time for a debate, I think he has succeeded in raising the matter on the Floor of the House, and I hope that BT will take that very seriously and attend quickly to the matters affecting his constituents.
The Leader of the House will be remembered in Wales as one of the most agreeable alien governor-generals we have had, in a period when he had the great good fortune to meet the wonderful Welsh woman who was to become his wife. Can he add further lustre to his reputation today by looking at a profoundly anti-democratic measure that was blocked by several voices last night? It would remove from the local authorities their powers to control drilling and the dumping of toxic waste, including nuclear waste, in their country. Would it not be an affront to democracy if that measure passed through the House on a deferred decision by a thinly attended House? Should the measure not now be withdrawn, for consideration by the next Parliament?
I am grateful for the nearest thing to a ringing endorsement from the hon. Gentleman. I have fond memories of being Welsh Secretary. The Prime Minister who appointed me to that role, Sir John Major, asked me to take Wales to my heart. When, a year later, I married my private secretary, he said, “I think you are taking this a little bit too literally now.” Of course I have been deeply fond of Wales ever since.
On the measure the hon. Gentleman refers to, we must follow the procedures with all matters before the House, including the large number of orders in the remaining few days of the Parliament, so I cannot offer him an additional debate, but he will be able, as ever, to use every possible procedure of this House—he is very skilled at that—to make his views known. I am sure he will continue to do so on that matter.
My first question in this House resulted in £2 million being awarded to Jewish schools in my area to enforce their security. Yesterday, I was pleased to present the petition signed by more than 2,000 people seeking that sum again to be renewed. Will the Leader of the House take this opportunity to confirm the Prime Minister’s announcement last night that not only has that money been extended and increased, but that it will now also cover independent schools, synagogues and Jewish cultural centres such as the JW3 centre on Finchley road?
The Jewish community is a vital part of British life. Although we meet additional security costs at state-funded Jewish schools, we recognise that a wide range of independent establishments face the same risks, as my hon. Friend has said. We are therefore widening eligibility for the grant to cover those schools and colleges, so that their pupils and students can have the same degree of security as those attending state schools. The new package announced by the Prime Minister is in addition to the existing Department for Education grant, which will also continue in the next financial year. So we remain staunchly committed to tackling anti-Semitism wherever it occurs, and I can confirm the announcement, as my hon. Friend says.
As a former political child star, the Leader of the House will, I am sure, join me in wanting today’s young people to grow up informed and active participants in the political process. Will he find time for a debate on how we might do more to encourage young people to become involved? Pending that, will he join me in endorsing today’s BBC school report news day, which has involved 1,000 schools and 30,000 teenagers at schools in making the news? The Westminster and Paddington academies in my constituency are taking part, as are schools right across the United Kingdom. Does he think that is one important way in which we can get young people actively involved in citizenship, news making and understanding politics?
Yes, I absolutely join the hon. Lady in welcoming that initiative. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House will be marking this day with one of his own schools later today. It is important that all parties keep up the work to engage and inform young people. The new education centre, which you, Mr Speaker, have always strongly supported, will be available to encourage that work. One of the most impressive moments of the past year for me as Leader of the House was when the Youth Parliament gathered in this Chamber. Its representatives set quite a good example to all of us who are not so youthful, and we should be greatly encouraged that, in this country, we have great young people who will be the leaders of the future.
I shall communicate colleagues’ shared enthusiasm for youth participation when I meet the students of Holland Park school this afternoon. Those students will be comforted and reassured to know of the esteem in which their involvement is held.
I am confident that I speak for all members of the other coalition party when I pay tribute to the Leader of the House and endorse the comments made by the shadow Leader of the House. The right hon. Gentleman is a remarkable parliamentarian who will be missed in this House. Perhaps he will find a perch at the other end.
Is there time to have a quick debate on the geography of the United Kingdom? The reason I ask is that the Conservative party has issued a leaflet in my constituency, which has Colchester on the coast. Mr Speaker, you will be aware that Colchester is on a tidal river. Although the Conservatives may be at sea, I am not.
As always, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I doubt that we will find time in the remaining five days for a debate on the geography of the United Kingdom. How close to the coast anywhere is in the United Kingdom depends on the scale of the map. If it is small enough, we are all on the coast; this is an island. I am sure that he will bear that in mind.
May I reiterate the tributes to the Leader of the House? I wish him, very sincerely, good luck for the future. I was particularly delighted with his remarks about the Office for Budget Responsibility. I wondered whether they meant that the Government had had a change of heart over the OBR scrutinising manifesto spending commitments. If they have, will he enlighten us?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her remarks about me. As for the OBR, it is an important innovation that was introduced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. There was no such independent auditing of Government Budgets and statements before. It has produced an extensive report that goes with the Budget, but it would be in some difficulty assessing the policies of the Labour party, because we do not know what all the tax rises would be in order to fill the gaping hole now left in its finances. That is something that it will have to explain.
Will my right hon. Friend indulge me while I say that he is the finest Prime Minister we never had? I feel that I have grown old with him, because he has been there on the mantelpiece for successive elections since 1997. Talking of growing old, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who has just taken his place, said yesterday that we should provide for people in their old age, as they have paid tax on what they have earned. In the future, could we have a debate on council tax reduction and exemption for the over-75s?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whom I have known for a long time. He says that we have grown old together, but I do not feel very old. I have enjoyed all the work that we have done together over the years. He is quite right about the importance of council tax and other fixed costs for older people, which is why it is so important that, under this Government, councils have had the opportunity to freeze council tax for the entire period of this Government, whereas it doubled under the 13 years of the previous Government. That freeze, the reduction in the scheduled increases in fuel taxation and now falling energy prices are major benefits for older people.
I bring good news from Kettering. International food manufacturer Alpro has opened its new extension to its UK production facility at Burton Latimer. Alpro’s sales in the UK are increasing by 25% year on year, and its £30 million investment will double production in its drinks made from almonds, hazelnuts, soya, oats and coconut, and create 50 additional jobs for the local economy. That investment is a vote of confidence not only in the UK, but in the local economy in Kettering. Before Parliament is dissolved, may we have a statement from Her Majesty’s Treasury about how much foreign investment this country has attracted over the past five years as a result of the success of this Government’s long-term economic plan?
My hon. Friend has been absolutely assiduous, particularly in recent months, in bringing good news to the House from Kettering and in creating, through his work as an MP, great good news for Kettering. He has missed only one week, which was, I think, last week. His absence caused much concern about Kettering, but I know that he was working on additional good news. Again, Kettering is a microcosm of what is happening in the country as a whole with the remarkable growth in employment, of which I spoke earlier. He is right about the importance of foreign investment, which has, in the UK over the past five years, far outstripped foreign direct investment in other countries in the European Union, and it will continue to do so provided that we stick to a long-term economic plan.
Last week, the deposed elected President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, was sentenced to 12 years in prison by a corrupt court. Although it is believed that he is safe in Dhoonidhood, it is expected that when he is moved to Maafushi island, there will be real concerns for his safety. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Foreign Office is doing all it can to highlight the concerns of Nasheed’s supporters, and can a statement be made to the House about sanctions and whether they should be taken against this much misunderstood set of islands?
The Government are deeply concerned about the sentencing of former President Nasheed of the Maldives. We have called on the Maldives to follow due legal process. The Foreign Office Ministers were the first to make a strong statement, making it clear that we are monitoring the case closely. We are pressing the Government in the Maldives to give international observers access to any appeal hearing and to allow them to visit the former President in prison. We continue to urge calm across the country, to encourage political parties to act with moderation and to appeal to the Government of the Maldives to ensure that they work within the bounds of the law.
It has been a privilege to serve with the Leader of the House, and I appreciate the advice that he has given me over the years. I wish him a wonderful retirement, which I am sure will be as energetic as his time here in Parliament.
In Windsor and across the country, unemployment is at the lowest level that I have ever seen, which means that young people are getting livelihoods and life chances that they have not seen for a very long time. That has been driven by private sector businesses competing with each other in a very enterprising way. They have been set free by the pro-enterprise policies of the Government. May we have a debate on how markets work, largely for educational purposes for the Opposition party?
That is not a bad idea. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks about me. He is quite right about employment. I pointed out earlier how the rise in youth employment over the past year has been greater than in the whole of the rest of the European Union put together. We have also seen in this Government more than 750,000 new businesses created in the United Kingdom. We have a strong economic future ahead provided that we continue to follow a long-term plan. I hope that my hon. Friend will take the opportunity of the Budget debate—[Interruption.] Oh, he has already done so. He has spoken in the Budget debate and so has already been able to contribute to the education of the Opposition, but they clearly need more educating. As the shadow Chancellor has just arrived, they could do with a bit more educating in the next half hour.
As a relatively new Member, may I say to the Leader of the House that it has been an immense privilege to see not only an outstanding parliamentarian, but someone with immense integrity and humour?
This week the first council houses to be built in Medway for 40 years were officially opened in Gillingham, and last month MHS Homes in Medway was shortlisted for a UK housing award for its construction of shared ownership apartments in Rainham. Will he join me in wishing MHS Homes every success for the award ceremony, and may we have a statement on the excellent work that this Government are doing to build more homes?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments, although it is getting a bit embarrassing—I am beginning to think that I might have died. Of course, had I died, hopefully I would not still be here. He makes an important point about affordable homes. Our affordable homes programme is on track to deliver 170,000 new, good-quality and affordable homes, and over the next Parliament we will build more of those than were built in any equivalent period in the past 20 years. That includes a £400 million rent to buy scheme for up to 10,000 homes. That is very important work that the Government have done, and I know that my hon. Friend has done great work to encourage such developments in his constituency.
May I associate myself with the tributes to the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House and wish the Leader of the House a very long life? [Interruption.] Of course, I wish that also for the shadow Leader of the House.
Many of my constituents are facing problems with blight because of High Speed 2. Although there is an exceptional hardship scheme, which I must say in some cases works reasonably well, some people, particularly those who have difficulty negotiating with the scheme or who might have real personal difficulties because of illness or disability, find this a very troubling time, and I believe that sometimes they end up with a less than satisfactory outcome. May we therefore have a debate on ensuring that the compensation for people who have been put in that position through no fault of their own is full, fair and speedy?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. He raises an issue that of course is very important to his constituents. As he will be aware, the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Bill is receiving painstaking consideration, and that will continue into the new Parliament, so there will be further opportunities to raise those matters. They are matters that would naturally fall to Adjournment and BackBench business debates, but no more of those are available in this Parliament. However, he will be able to pursue the matter in the next Parliament, to which I am confident he will be returned.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As you will be aware, for over 18 months I have been looking into the inappropriate use of sanctions by the Department for Work and Pensions. At a Select Committee hearing on 4 February, I questioned the Minister for Employment and one of her officials on peer reviews undertaken by the Department of cases in which claimants have died. I asked whether there were any instances in which DWP actions were considered inappropriate or incorrect. I also asked about their association with sanctions. The answers I was given were inconclusive and opaque. I have since tabled written questions on the same matter, but again I received responses that bore no relation to the questions. Given that Parliament is due to be dissolved in the next few days, I seek your advice on how I can get answers to those very important questions.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving me notice of her point of order. She will understand that the content of Ministers’ answers, whether in Select Committees, in written answers or on the Floor of the House, is not a matter for the Chair. That said, I understand her frustration on the subject. The shortness of time before Dissolution limits the opportunities for her further to pursue the matter. However, the deadline for tabling a question for written answer on a named day is next Monday, so she still has a little time. Eyes can be kept on the matter. In the meantime, she has at least succeeded in putting her concern on the record.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. This morning I visited Sir Christopher Hatton school for a debate with young people. In fact, five years ago I did the same thing, and out of that came a parliamentary candidate, Tom Pursglove, who is fighting in Corby. I have a problem with the sitting times of the House, because as a result of attending that debate I was unable to get here in time for business questions. Had I done so, I would have been able to pay tribute to the Leader of the House for all that he has done and for the way he has answered questions absolutely brilliantly and not entirely to my satisfaction. I could also have paid tribute to the shadow Leader of the House. Is there any chance that the sitting hours of the House could be looked at again?
Anything is possible, but in the meantime, as the puckish grin on his face eloquently testifies, the hon. Gentleman has found his own salvation.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You have already referred to the fact that this parliamentary Session is coming to an end and that it is difficult for hon. Members to get replies to questions. I think that you were in the Chair on 4 March when I asked the Financial Secretary to the Treasury whether he could confirm the figure, which the Conservatives had announced on 5 January, of £83 million for the cuts to Arts Council England’s budget, which would start in April. He undertook to write to me at the time, but he has still not done so, despite the fact that I also wrote to him on 4 March. Would it be in order for you to encourage the Financial Secretary to make sure that he replies to all correspondence, particularly on undertakings he has given, before Dissolution?
I have no control over the matter, but it is a very simple ethical principle that people should honour their commitments, whether in respect of the House of Commons or elsewhere. If a Minister has committed to write to the hon. Gentleman, either stating explicitly that the letter would be sent before Dissolution or giving the strong impression that it would be, it just seems to me to be axiomatic that that should happen, and it would be extraordinary if anybody were for a moment to suppose otherwise. But I know the hon. Gentleman, and he does not let go, so I have no doubt that he will persevere on the matter in all manner of ways until he receives some satisfaction.
Confiscation Orders (Sentencing and Offence) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Keith Vaz, supported by Nicola Blackwood, Dr Julian Huppert and Yasmin Qureshi, presented a Bill to provide that payment of the recoverable amount determined in a confiscation order by a court must be included as a component of a custodial sentence; to provide that non-payment of the recoverable amount be a criminal offence; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 27 March, and to be printed (Bill 191).
Ways and Means
Budget Resolutions and Economic Situation
Amendment of the Law
Debate resumed (Order, 18 March).
Question again proposed,
(1) That it is expedient to amend the law with respect to the National Debt and the
public revenue and to make further provision in connection with finance.
(2) This Resolution does not extend to the making of any amendment with respect to
value added tax so as to provide–
(a) for zero-rating or exempting a supply, acquisition or importation;
(b) for refunding an amount of tax;
(c) for any relief, other than a relief that–
(i) so far as it is applicable to goods, applies to goods of every description, and
(ii) so far as it is applicable to services, applies to services of every description.
It is an honour to open today’s Budget debate. Less than 24 hours after the Budget statement, the truth is becoming clear. For all the Chancellor’s hubris, yesterday’s Budget has changed nothing for working people in our country. He spent an hour telling people that they have never had it so good, but working people are still, on average, £1,600 a year worse off after five years of the Tories. Our national health service is still in crisis, but he had nothing to say about the NHS.
The Chancellor started the day with plans for extreme spending cuts, and he ended the day with plans for extreme spending cuts: cuts to spending even bigger in the three years after the election than those of the past five years; deep cuts that go way beyond balancing the books; and deep cuts that can be delivered only by another Tory rise in VAT or by putting our NHS at risk. It was a Tory Budget from a Tory Chancellor who gives with one hand and takes much more with the other—an out-of-touch Budget that made twice as many references to Agincourt as it did to our NHS.
I will examine all the Chancellor’s claims and set out the truth behind the spin and hubris, but first I want to set him straight on one issue. I applaud the £1 million he announced to commemorate the battle of Agincourt, but before he goes any further with those plans I have to correct his rather shaky understanding of the battle. I know he has a degree in history, and that I have a mere A-level in mediaeval history, but I suggest he stick to the period he knows. For a start, the Chancellor should be aware that not a single Scottish soldier fought on the French side at Agincourt. Indeed, if he reads Shakespeare’s version of the battle, he will see that there were representatives of Scotland, Wales and Ireland, all fighting as captains in King Henry’s army.
The story of Agincourt was one of an arrogant and complacent king who, rather than fight the battle himself, sent his weak and ineffective right-hand man to defend an impossible situation. He got his tactics wrong, he lost control of the situation, and he became bogged down in mud. He was no match for the stout yeomen on the other side. They may have lacked money, horses and noble blood, but they outfought their opponents on the battlefield. We stout yeomen will be happy to join in the commemorations of Agincourt. As fans of hand gestures, if anyone can think of any famous hand gestures traditionally associated with Agincourt, we will be happy to use them towards the Chancellor again and again at every stage of this debate.
It was fitting that the Chancellor chose to invoke Shakespeare in his Budget speech. He has, after all, been a poor player these last five years. Yesterday he strutted and fretted his final hour upon this stage, and after May he will be heard no more. Yesterday was a Budget full of sound and fury, ultimately signifying nothing.
To give way or not to give way, that is the question.
On the subject of sound and fury, will the shadow Chancellor clarify what he would do to stick to the commitments he made when he signed up to the charter for budget responsibility only a few weeks ago?
People say that empty vessels make the loudest noise. I will set out clearly our approach to deficit reduction, but before I do let us go back to the ineffective right-hand man, who apparently is now standing in front of Downing street holding a yellow Budget box—less reality, more “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. What a shambles! Yesterday we had the Budget, today we had the farce of the alternative Budget from the Chief Secretary, the Liberal Democrats’ new economic spokesman, and now, with the Business Secretary shortly to come to the Dispatch Box, I presume we are to get the alternative alternative Budget from the man the Chief Secretary displaced from the job.
One has to feel sorry for the Business Secretary. He lost a job and still has to turn up to give the speech, sitting there beside one of his Treasury nemeses, with the other outside Downing street. Another Shakespeare quote comes to mind:
“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.”
How true. Let us not forget that the Business Secretary and the Chief Secretary served with the Chancellor in the Cabinet for five years. Together all three of them voted to put up VAT. The Liberal Democrats voted with the Tories to raise tuition fees to £9,000. They voted with the Tories for the hated and iniquitous bedroom tax. The fault is not in their stars, but in themselves, and the British people will not let them forget it.
Will this ploy of much ado about nothing delivered in a tempest form continue for the whole of the right hon. Gentleman’s soliloquy, or will he come to some points of import shortly?
Some men are born great and some have greatness thrust upon them. I think we can say that of the hon. Gentleman, who has served his time in the House with great distinction. Let me take up his challenge.
“Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep”—
When is the right hon. Gentleman going to get on with it?
I don’t know. That was all Greek to me.
Let us stop wasting time with the ridiculous Liberal Democrats and return to the Chancellor’s Budget. The Chancellor claimed, first, that working people are better off than they were in 2010. How out of touch can you get? No wonder Conservative Back Benchers were so muted in the House of Commons yesterday. They know, as we know, the reality of people’s lives. Unlike the Chancellor, they hear it on the doorstep. They know that with wage growth stagnant over the past few years, energy bills rising, and 1.8 million zero-hours contracts, when the Chancellor says there is a recovery, most people say, “Where is the recovery for me? It is not a recovery for me, our family and our community.”
The Chancellor tried to invent a new measure of living standards yesterday. It was a flawed measure because it includes income to universities and charities, but, compared with the first quarter of 2010, in the first quarter of 2015 the Chancellor’s measure has not gone up; it has gone down. Even on his own measure, people are worse off than they were in 2010. We know from the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation that on more sensible measures confirmed by the IFS two weeks ago, household incomes are down compared with 2010, and wages after inflation are down by more than £1,600 a year since 2010. This is the first Parliament since the early 1920s when the average person in work will be worse off at the end of the Parliament than they were at the beginning. In answer to the famous Reagan question, “Are you better off than you were five years ago?”, the answer is a resounding no.
We welcome the action to help savers and increase thresholds, but where was the action to help working people? Why did the Chancellor not announce an ambition to raise the national minimum wage to £8 an hour? Why did he not commit to expanding free child care for working parents to 25 hours? Why not cut business rates for small companies? Why not ban exploitative zero-hours contracts? Why not repeat the bank bonus tax and have a compulsory starter job for our young people? Why not scrap his absurd married couples allowance, which he barely mentioned yesterday, because it goes to only a third of married couples, and instead use the money to cut the taxes of working people? That is what he should have done. That is what a Labour Budget will deliver.
The Chancellor’s second claim is that he is rebalancing the economy. We all remember his claim of
“a Britain carried aloft by the march of the makers”—[Official Report, 22 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 966.]
but the independent Office for Budget Responsibility said yesterday that growth is still lower than was forecast in 2010. Growth is set to be slower this year and next year than last year. The OBR confirmed that the Chancellor is on course to miss his 2010 target to double exports to £1 trillion—off course by more than £600 billion, and business investment has been revised down this year. The OBR says that “the growth of potential productivity per hour remains below its historical average throughout the forecast” and that “actual hourly productivity growth has again been weaker than expected”. The only thing it has revised up is its forecast for net migration.
Why did the Chancellor not act to deal with the housing crisis by committing to build 200,000 more homes a year by 2020? Why did he not establish a proper British investment bank for small and medium-sized businesses? Why did he not take up our idea, now the subject of consensus across our country, and establish an independent national infrastructure commission to stop long-term decisions being kicked into the long grass? Why did he not go further and devolve powers, including the uplift on business rates, to all areas in our country, rather than just to some? Why did he not commit to securing Britain’s place in a reformed European Union?
I would not want the right hon. Gentleman to forget to mention the deficit, so can we get back to that? It is quite important. When we came to power, following the Labour Government, the annual budget deficit was £141 billion a year. It is now £93 billion a year—still far too much. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain his plans for matching our plans to keep that budget deficit under control and preferably get rid of it by 2020?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I know from reading Hansard that he said to the House a year ago that
“for all the huff and puff, when it comes to what it actually puts into and takes out of the economy, the Budget represents a 0.3% change . . . That is somewhat worrying when we consider the very big challenge we face on deficit reduction”.—[Official Report, 20 March 2014; Vol. 577, c. 993.]
I share his concerns about the Chancellor’s track record, and I am going to set out our alternatives in a moment.
Before I do that, let us go back to the Chancellor’s claims yesterday. He seems to have been telling the media this morning that he has retreated from his commitment to austerity, but the OBR’s document sets out the truth. Its verdict on the Budget is that it represents
“a much sharper squeeze on real spending in 2016-17 and 2017-18 than anything seen over the past five years.”
It goes on to give the details on page 130, where it sets out in graphical form the cuts in public spending that we shall see from the Chancellor. Paragraph 4.108 states:
“One implication of the Government’s spending policy assumptions is a sharp acceleration in the pace of implied real cuts to day-to-day spending on public services and administration in 2016-17”.
I am going to set out a better way to do this, but first I will highlight what the Chancellor is actually doing. The reason he has to set out such deep cuts to public spending—deeper in the next Parliament than in this Parliament—is that, as the OBR confirms, and as the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) knows very well, in this Parliament he has failed to balance the books. Yesterday’s numbers confirm, according to the OBR, that the Government are borrowing £200 billion more than they planned in 2010. The deficit is set to be not balanced, but £75 billion. For all this Chancellor’s boasts about national debt falling, public net debt in 2015-16 is £217 billion higher than he was forecasting in 2010. He now claims that the national debt is going to be falling. That is based on his forecasts of short-term, one-off money coming in from the sale of bank shares. In 2014-15, he was planning on the national debt falling from 69.4% to 67.4%. In fact, his forecast yesterday has the national debt in 2015 at 80.4%, falling to 80.2%. It takes some hubris for a Chancellor to borrow over £200 billion more and then claim he has succeeded. That is the reality, and we know why. As the OBR confirmed yesterday, income tax and national insurance receipts have come in short of the 2010 forecasts by £97 billion cumulatively across the Parliament.
The result is the deeper spending cuts that the Chancellor had to set out yesterday. The IFS said back in the autumn that these were colossal cuts; they are still colossal cuts. The OBR said in the autumn that this would take spending on day-to-day public services back to the level of the 1930s. The Treasury tried to tell us yesterday that that was no longer the case. Its special advisers tweeted that they are only the deepest cuts since 1964. It comes to something when they have to boast that we are cutting our public spending to a level not seen for 50 years. In fact, the small print of the OBR tables reveals that 2018 spending, on the historical comparative measure that the OBR uses—day-to-day spending on public services—falls to its lowest level since not 1964 but 1938.
The Chancellor claimed that he had changed the position, but he has confirmed the reality—even deeper cuts in the next three years than in the past five years. That is the truth. These are, in my view, cuts that will be impossible for our police services, our defence and armed forces and our social care to bear. Even this Chancellor cannot make this scale of cuts to our armed forces, our police forces or our social care, so he is going to have to end up doing what he always has to do—raise VAT and cut the NHS. That is the reality.
The Chancellor wants us to believe that this does not have to happen. He says that he can instead cut welfare and tackle tax avoidance. The problem is that his record on both is miserable. He is promising £12 billion more cuts to welfare, but he cannot tell us where they are going to come from. We know he has brought in the bedroom tax, but he cannot tell us what else he has in store. In this Parliament, he has overspent on his welfare plans by £25 billion.
Apparently the Chancellor is now going to crack down on tax avoidance. This is the Chancellor who has seen the tax gap—uncollected tax—rise by £3 billion. This is the Chancellor who, with the Prime Minister, appointed Lord Green—who, it turns out, had presided over HSBC’s industrial-scale tax avoidance. Despite repeated questioning, the Chancellor still cannot tell us whether he actually talked to Lord Green about tax avoidance. Why will he not, between now and the general election, come clean and tell us whether he had conversations with Lord Green about tax avoidance? No wonder the Chancellor did not come to Treasury questions a couple of weeks ago. No wonder he does not want a head-to-head debate. We now know why. One member of the Tory Cabinet does not want to talk about Michael Green, and another member of the Tory Cabinet does not want to talk about Lord Green. One is a deluded fantasist who has great problems with the truth, and the other is the chairman of the Conservative party. To be fair, only the chairman of the Conservative party changed his name—although, then again, perhaps the Chancellor did too.
This is the truth: the Chancellor promised to make people better off, and they are worse off. He promised to balance the books in this Parliament; that pledge lies in tatters. He promised, “We’re all in this together”, and then cut taxes for millionaires. Now he is forced to confirm extreme and risky cuts to public spending in the next Parliament, bigger than in this Parliament.
We need a fairer, more balanced approach to the deficit and living standards. That is why Labour is now the only centre-ground party in British politics. We will cut the deficit every year and balance the books, with a surplus on the current budget and the national debt falling, as soon as possible in the next Parliament. Unlike the Conservatives, we have no unfunded commitments on welfare or on taxes. We were the party that wanted the independent OBR to audit all our manifestos—blocked by this Chancellor.
I am glad that my right hon. Friend mentions the OBR. I do not know whether he has had a chance to look at the online version of the Liberal Democrats’ document “An alternative fiscal path beyond 2016-17”, table 2.A of which is entitled, “Scenario input assumptions”. Can he guess who the source is? It is not the OBR, it is not the IFS: it is the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
We know from the autumn statement that the OBR confirmed that the scale of these spending cuts was agreed by the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Chief Secretary, and the same thing is clear about this Budget document. The OBR says:
“This profile is driven by a medium-term fiscal assumption that the Treasury has confirmed ‘represents the Government’s agreed position for Budget 2015’ and that was ‘discussed by the Quad and agreed by both parties in the Coalition.’”
The Liberal Democrats now come along and say that they were not really in favour of the bedroom tax, and not really in favour of these fiscal plans, but we know the truth. That is why we need a fairer and more balanced approach.
We will have sensible spending cuts in non-protected areas. We will cut winter fuel payments for the richest 5% of pensioners. We will cap child benefit at 1% for two years. The shadow Chief Secretary has been setting out in our zero-based review of every pound spent by Government cuts from rooting out waste and inefficiency in policing, in local government, in defence, and in schools. We are going to get rid of the police and crime commissioner elections. We are going to get rid of the free schools. We are going to stop the overpayment of housing benefit. We are going to deal with the issue of—[Interruption.] I meant new free schools. The shadow Chief Secretary has set out ways in which we can make those sensible cuts in non-protected areas.
We will also make fairer choices. We will reverse—[Interruption.] If the Chancellor wants to intervene, I will happily give way.
No, carry on.
I am sorry, but I thought the Chancellor was about to stand up and tell us whether he talked to Lord Green about tax avoidance. He knows very well that our policy is to not have any more new free schools, and our £230 million saving is based on that.
We will make fairer choices, reversing this Government’s £3 billion a year tax cut—[Interruption.] Does the Chancellor want to intervene? The fact is that he cannot give us a yes or no answer about whether he talked to Lord Green about tax avoidance.
We will reverse this Government’s £3 billion a year top-rate tax cut for the 1% earning more than £150,000. We will introduce a mansion tax on properties worth more than £2 million, to help save and transform our national health service.
Our plan will deliver the rise in living standards and stronger growth needed to balance the books. It is a better plan for more good jobs and more balanced growth, because we know that if we can get our economy not to slow down, but to keep growing 0.5% a year faster than forecast, Government borrowing would be more than £32 billion lower in the next Parliament.
After this Budget, it is clear that Britain needs a better plan, not a Budget flop from a Chancellor whose failing plan is not working for working people. The choice is now clear: a tough but balanced and fair plan to deliver rising living standards, save the NHS and get the deficit down with Labour, or an extreme and risky plan under the Tories for bigger spending cuts in the next four years than the past five, which would cause huge damage to our public services and put our NHS at risk.
If they ever write a play about this Chancellor, it will be a tragedy of hubris, fantasy and thwarted ambition: the ruthless prince whose desire to be king has blinded him to reality and made him reach too far. Nothing will better reflect his time in office than the leaving of it: a final Budget built on sand and smoke—a Budget signifying nothing. He has run out of lines, and it is time he left the stage.
It is a privilege to respond to the Budget. I have calculated that, if we include emergency Budgets, this is the 20th successive Budget to which I have responded. I have begun to recognise some common traits, one of which is that the shadow Chancellor, whoever it is, has to adopt a tone of outrage. The current shadow Chancellor does outrage very well—I will concede that—but what he does not do so well is memory. He has the same problem as his party leader of forgetting important things.
The shadow Chancellor seems, for example, to have had problems remembering his own version of the millionaires’ tax cut, when throughout almost all the period of Labour Government the top rate of tax for millionaires was 40% rather than the 45% it is today. I think he has forgotten his authorship of that famous phrase, “No more boom and bust,” and his own role in boosting the banking sector such that it became overweight, toppled over and caused much of the damage and hurt we are still living with today. I think he has forgotten his record as a forecaster: we all remember his triple-dip recession—there was no triple and there was not even a recession.
There is help at hand, however, because one of the genuinely good legacies of the previous Labour Government is the Crick Institute, which will open shortly and will do medical research. I understand it will be taking forward some of the excellent work of University college London on neural pathways. That will open the door to a cure for amnesia, which seems to be the shadow Chancellor’s main problem.
Does the Secretary of State not accept that the real change took place when Mrs Thatcher and Geoffrey Howe abolished exchange controls, raised interest rates, raised the value of the pound, destroyed manufacturing and shifted power to the City?
From what I remember of the facts, the biggest decline in manufacturing took place when the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues were in government. I will come back to that later.
I am genuinely flabbergasted that the Secretary of State is accusing others of suffering from amnesia. He seems to have forgotten all the speeches I remember him making from the Opposition Benches in support of our spending plans. In fact, the Chancellor, who is sitting beside him, made exactly the same sorts of speeches in support of our spending plans all the way up to the eve of the recession. If some of us are a little sceptical it is because the Secretary of State is forgetting his own amnesia.
We will come in a moment to my own and my party’s distinctive approach to spending and taxation, which offers a very sensible middle way between the two extremes on offer.
Let me deal with the shadow Chancellor’s various critiques of Government policy, including whether we have made the numbers add up, inequality and living standards, and the balanced recovery. I will start with his accusation that we have failed to balance the books. The shadow Chancellor is a very clever man, but there is a great deal of intellectual confusion about what Labour is accusing us of. The Government started with the objective of trying to deal with the structural deficit—in jargon, the cyclically adjusted current deficit—within four to five years. We are now spanning that over seven years.
What is the problem? If the Government had pressed ahead dogmatically with the timetable, we would have been accused of being inflexible and causing undue economic harm, and there would have been righteous indignation from Labour. In the event, however, the Chancellor was flexible and responded to changing circumstances, not least the effect on the UK economy of rising world commodity prices and the slowdown in Europe.
The Chancellor is a learned man. He is familiar with Keynes’s “General Theory”—I am sure he had read it several times from cover to cover—and he understands that, in periods of economic slowdown, counter-cyclical stabilisers should be used, which is what we did, alongside the use of monetary policy, to stabilise the economy. It is greatly to his credit that he did that, and that accounts for the fact that we are taking longer than was planned to deal with the deficit. None the less, having done that, the deficit is clearly now being reduced. We have got to the single point that debt as a share of the economy is starting to decline. There is a strong recovery—the strongest in the G7—and we have extraordinary employment figures, with the largest number of people in employment in history.
On the shadow Chancellor’s reference to the balanced recovery, I want to focus on one important development, namely what is happening with business investment, which is what drives sustainable recovery. Let me cite for the shadow Chancellor an interesting contrast. Between 2000 and 2007, 3% of the contribution to British growth came from business investment. That was a period when the British economy was being driven by consumption, household borrowing and a boom in house prices. There was very little business investment. Since the crisis—since this Government have been in office—30% of growth has been driven by business investment.
It is possible to break that figure down even further as to where that investment came from. In the period of Labour Government running up to the financial crisis, the contribution made to investment by property—overwhelmingly commercial property speculation—was 80%, and 4% of that investment was in the form of plant and equipment, which is why we had rapid de-industrialisation of the kind referred to by the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins). Under this Government, the share of property investment has fallen to 30%, and 50% of all business investment is now plant and equipment—real factories making things and a revival of manufacturing industry.
Is it not the truth that the deficit today is where it would have been under the plans of my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling), and that until this moment not a single Government Member has admitted that the Chancellor was talking nonsense in 2010 when he claimed that he would wipe it out by the end of this Parliament?
The Chancellor was not talking nonsense. It was perfectly sensible to aim to remove the structural deficit as quickly as possible. The fact that we have taken longer over it is a reflection of common sense.
The Business Secretary will know that manufacturing has hardly shifted as a percentage of GDP in a period when Tata Steel is potentially selling off half its UK operations to a gentleman with a spurious background in that industry. Is he really saying that the march of the makers and manufacturing is doing so well when 20,000 to 30,000 jobs might be at risk because of de-investment in British and European markets, particularly in the steel industry?
We do not know what will happen in relation to Tata Steel, but I and my Department are talking to the parties involved, including the trade unions, and we are very concerned about the situation. The hon. Gentleman may, however, have overlooked one thing in the Budget. We had a very emotional debate in the House about the future of the steel industry a couple of months ago, and there is a lot of genuine concern, which I share, about the future of steel. Many of its problems derive from relatively high energy costs, but one element of the Budget was to bring forward the compensation to help steel producers—whether in south Wales, the midlands or the north—to deal with the pressures on their costs. I would have hoped that, at the very least, there would be a little acknowledgment of that.
Yes, the Chancellor announced that, but he had said that the compensation scheme would come in much earlier than next year. The Tata long products division is still operating under the existing conditions and, may I add, with a carbon floor price brought in unilaterally by this Government—without any discussion with the industry—which is jeopardising all those jobs. Will the Secretary of State at least talk to the Chancellor about speeding up the compensation package, which is much needed for energy-intensive industries?
The industry has already received a certain amount of compensation. The constraint on bringing it forward is not the reluctance of the Chancellor, but the problem of getting state aid approval. Once that approval has been given, the compensation can and will be brought forward.
Does the right hon. Gentleman share my bemusement at the fact that Labour Members are complaining about our rate of economic growth and the low levels of unemployment? This country is respected around the entire world for its position on all such matters, which affect the livelihoods of our constituents across the country. I am surprised that Labour Members will not acknowledge even one point when it comes to this Government’s great, solid, sensible economic management.
The hon. Gentleman is right. I do not think that the shadow Chancellor mentioned the word “employment”, which is interesting because when we first entered office we heard nothing other than the threat of mass unemployment.
Let me pursue the argument about how we will deal with the deficit in the future. It is perfectly right to say that the parties could debate our actual priorities. To be fair to my Conservative colleagues, they are quite explicit about how they wish to deal with the deficit by relying on reductions in public spending. They recognise, as we do, that there is still a significant problem left. This morning, my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary set out a different way of achieving the same objective. We all have a responsibility to deal with the problem, and we suggest going about it through a different mixture of taxation and spending. The Conservative approach is to deal with it through spending cuts, and given where they come from politically, that is perfectly understandable. Our approach is different: it is a mixed approach, with a ratio of 55% spending increases to 45% tax increases.
With that different balance, we could do more for the NHS. We have talked to Simon Stevens about the finances required to sustain services, including the extra £8 billion and the commitment on mental health. As far as my Department and its work in supporting growth is concerned, I can say—I do not know what my shadow can say, because he is not in the Chamber—that, on such a trajectory, we could sustain spending on the Budget headings that support growth. Those headings cover the industrial strategy and business support; financial interventions, such as the business bank, the green investment bank and the regional growth fund; innovation, which we need to double by the end of this decade if we are to be competitive internationally; science and research, which we plan to grow in real terms, and which the Chancellor has shown a particular interest in and whose budget he supports; adult skills, further education colleges and apprenticeships; and higher education teaching, research and student support. Those are my priorities, and I am very interested to hear what the Opposition’s are. I think their priority is tuition fees, and I will make a little analysis of how that will be done in a moment.
My right hon. Friend made a very important speech relating to banks, particularly in rural areas. Will he be kind enough to give us a few extra thoughts on that question? For example, the last bank in Eccleshall in my constituency has been closed. Does he not regard that as a very retrograde step? It is very important to maintain facilities for banking in rural areas.