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Volume 597: debated on Tuesday 16 June 2015

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

EU Referendum and the Bank of England

1. If he will make representations to the Bank of England on the publication prior to the EU referendum of its assessment of the effect on the UK economy of the UK leaving the EU. (900320)

Thanks to this Government, the British people will at last have their say on British membership of the European Union. The Bank of England is of course independent, and any questions about publication should be directed to it. The priority of the British Government is clear: the best outcome for the UK economy is that we achieve major economic reform of the European Union for the benefit of Britain and for the whole of Europe. That is why the Prime Minister and the rest of the Government are now fighting hard to achieve that, and we are confident we will succeed.

Airbus industries, Toyota vehicles and Vauxhall Motors—all serving my constituency, and employing thousands of people—have all said they believe that the future of the UK economy is in Europe. Would it not be useful for the Chancellor to put pressure on the Bank of England to produce any internal report, and indeed to publish any Treasury reports, so that we can see once and for all what exit from the European Union would mean for our UK economy?

I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that companies such as Airbus make a huge contribution to the economy not just of north Wales but of the whole United Kingdom, and we want them to succeed. That is why we want the European Union to be a place that attracts jobs and investment from around the world. We are seeking reforms because we do not think at the moment that the European Union is heading in the right direction. I welcome his participation in this debate, and I can assure him that the Treasury will participate in it as well.

The Bank of England may be operationally independent, but does the Chancellor agree that Parliament and the Treasury Committee are likely to see the Bank as having a duty to share its thinking, at least as far as it affects its statutory objectives of monetary and financial stability, on the impact of the UK’s membership of the EU?

I certainly do not presume to tell the yet-to-be-formed Treasury Committee how to go about its business, but I would be very surprised if it did not want to have sessions on this vital issue of Britain’s future membership of the European Union. It is of course within its power to ask the Bank’s Governor and indeed other members of the Bank of England to attend; they do attend regularly. It would be very surprising if the Bank of England was not engaged in these crucial economic and financial issues. That is part of its statutory responsibilities, and I think we would all be disappointed if it was not engaged.

Thirty-one per cent. of businesses surveyed by Ernst and Young have said that they will either freeze or cut investment until the result of the EU referendum is known. Does the Chancellor accept that that uncertainty will cripple our economy until this is sorted out once and for all? Does he accept that that is a reason for bringing forward the date of the referendum as fast as possible?

If the hon. Gentleman is worried about the effect of the EU referendum, why did he vote to have one? We have heard the argument over the past couple of years that the fact of having a referendum would put a dampener on investment. In fact, we have attracted the lion’s share of investment in the European Union since my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out our policy, and he has now won public support for that policy. Of course we now want to resolve the uncertainty, but the way to do that is to achieve a good deal in the European Union and put that deal to the British people at the referendum, and we will have the referendum when we have the deal.

Given that even the most fanatical supporters of our membership of the European Union now accept that we could trade freely with the EU even if we left, will the Chancellor set out for us exactly what we get for our £19 billion a year membership fee?

I certainly commend my hon. Friend for his consistency. I remember that in his maiden speech he made the case for Britain leaving the European Union, and he will of course have his opportunity in the referendum. I would say that this is precisely the judgment that the British people and this Parliament have to make: what are the economic benefits of our European Union membership, such as the single market, and what would be the alternative? That will be part of the lively debate, and as I say, the Treasury will be fully involved in that debate.

There have already been a number of serious interventions in this debate suggesting that the in/out referendum will be disruptive for inward investment. At the very least, businesses seeking to invest need the certainty of knowing what the Chancellor believes success will be in the Prime Minister’s negotiations. Will he tell the House today what he considers success in terms of the outcome of the Prime Minister’s negotiations?

There are, of course, a number of things that we want to achieve. Speaking as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I want to ensure that the European Union works for the citizens of the European Union and of the United Kingdom. That means that it must be a place where businesses want to grow, where jobs are created and that attracts investment from around the world. I do not want Europe to be the place that used to be the dynamic centre of the world, but is not any longer. That is what we are fighting for, and if we achieve it, it will be a success.

We all want to see a dynamic EU, but there were no specifics in that answer. Is it not the case that however bad the negotiations, the Chancellor will declare them a success, and however good the negotiations, the out-at-any-cost brigade will declare them an unmitigated disaster? Instead of pandering to the UKIP agenda, should the Government not pull the whole idea of this daft referendum?

I do not want to say this to the SNP spokesman, but I am not sure that he is speaking for Scotland, because 58% of Scots want a referendum and 63% of SNP supporters want a referendum. He needs to get in touch with his grassroots.

It is extremely important that the Bank of England report and, indeed, other Government reports and other organisations’ reports on this matter are published in the course of the next two years. However, does the Chancellor of the Exchequer not agree that it is vital that such documents, which may well affect the outcome of the referendum, are not published in the so-called purdah period of six to eight weeks before the referendum?

As was made clear by the Foreign Secretary in debate and by the Prime Minister from this Dispatch Box, there are serious issues to address about the current law on referendums, because we believe that it would make the debate on the European Union unworkable and inappropriate. We understand the concerns in all parts of the House about that, and we will come forward with reassurances that enable the proper business of government to continue and allow the Government to make the case for the outcome that is achieved and the vote that we recommend, but that ensure that there is not an unfair referendum and that the Government do not, for example, engage in mass communication with the electorate. Those matters will be discussed later today.

The debate and conduct during the referendum campaign must be, and must be seen to be, legitimate and well informed. He has failed to do so thus far this morning, but will the Chancellor make it clear that he agrees that, in the interests of transparency, the Bank of England should publish full details of its risk assessment, which is codenamed Project Bookend, its terms of reference, its personnel and its timetable? Will he add his voice to our call that any publication of the report must happen well in advance of the vote?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position as shadow Chief Secretary—long may she continue in it. It is not for me or even, dare I say it, her to tell an independent Bank of England what to do. I have no doubt that it will engage in the debate. Indeed, the Governor of the Bank of England has made it perfectly clear that it will do so. I have no doubt that the Treasury Committee, when it is formed, will want to ask the Bank of England questions about the European Union, because it is central to many of the Bank’s responsibilities. However, as I have said, we have an independent central Bank and I propose to keep it that way.

There is still no clear answer from the Chancellor and he has given no commitment to push for the transparency that the debate demands. He has a clear responsibility to ensure that the economic impacts are debated and fully understood. I know that he has his mind on other things these days, like moving next door to No. 10, but if he will do nothing further on Project Bookend, will he at least step up and lead the debate by agreeing to commission and publish reports by the Treasury and the Office for Budget Responsibility on the economic impact of the UK leaving the EU?

As I have said repeatedly, we are certainly going to take part in the debate. I am sure that the Treasury will publish assessments of the merits of membership and the risks of a lack of reform in the European Union, including the damage that that could do to Britain’s interests. For example, in my Mansion House speech, I talked about the risks for Britain as a non-euro member as the eurozone continues to integrate and about how that needs to be addressed as part of the negotiations. We will take part in the debate. The more that we get on to the big issues that are at stake, rather than focusing on the process details, the better informed the public will be.

Northern Powerhouse

We have a comprehensive plan to rebalance the economy and create a northern powerhouse by bringing together the great cities and counties of the north of England, alongside plans to support other vital economies in our country, such as the south-west. Those plans involve major investment in transport infrastructure, backing science and skills, and supporting local businesses. The centrepiece of the northern powerhouse is the commitment to a major transfer of power to our great cities and counties so that local people can take more control of the decisions that affect them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) and I were delighted in the previous Parliament that the Humber was at the centre of the northern powerhouse. Will the Chancellor confirm that the East Riding of Yorkshire and north Lincolnshire will continue to enjoy that position? I have a specific local issue in mind. Will he continue to prioritise flood defence funding for our region, because it is important for encouraging investment into the Humber?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the Humber, the East Riding and northern Lincolnshire are a central part of the northern powerhouse. When we originally set out the vision of the northern powerhouse last year, we talked about the belt stretching all the way from Merseyside across to the Humber. I know about his passionate commitment to improving the flood defences in the Humber. He achieved marked success last year, but has an even more ambitious project in mind. As he knows, because of his work and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), the Environment Agency is undertaking a study of that proposal.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend for turning the north into a powerhouse, but what plans does he have to ensure that Plymouth and the south-west—

Order. The question is about the northern powerhouse and must be confined to the northern powerhouse. We are immensely grateful.

In my constituency, a link road was 60 years overdue. The Prime Minister and the Chancellor came, and the Prime Minister put a series of bolts into the bridge there. Does my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agree that the road is vital to the improvement of my constituency, and that such projects should be rolled out across the area to ensure more vitality in the northern powerhouse?

My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Oliver Colvile) is a huge champion of Plymouth and the south-west. We will have time to address the south-west in questions.

The Heysham link road is a major achievement for my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris). People have campaigned for it for 70 years. I happened to visit about a week before the general election with the Prime Minister. Because of my hon. Friend’s fight for infrastructure and jobs in his seat, he is back in the House doing his job.

22. Despite the Chancellor’s talk of a northern powerhouse, will he admit that output per hour in the north-west is still lower than the average for England, and lower than it was in 2007? Is it not true that his plan to improve the economy of the north-west has drastically failed that region? (900341)

The north-west has seen a huge increase in employment—it has had the fastest rate of employment growth in the entire United Kingdom. I would have thought the hon. Lady would welcome that.

The northern powerhouse initiative was instigated by me and the Labour and Conservative council leaders of Greater Manchester. It has been done on a cross-party basis. I would like to think that, at the beginning of this Parliament, we can work across the party divide, including in this Chamber, to bring about that major rebalancing of the British economy, which has eluded Governments for many generations.

Major employers in the north-east such as Nissan and Hitachi, which are the key drivers of the northern powerhouse, are clear that membership of the EU is vital to their investment in our region, and that they would reconsider their involvement in the UK should we leave the EU. Given that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), the Minister responsible for the northern powerhouse—I cannot see him in the Chamber—told the “Sunday Politics” show last weekend that he would vote to come out, will the Chancellor tell the House what assessment he has made of the impact of the EU on the north-east economy and his northern powerhouse plans?

I commend the work that Nissan and other employers do in the north-east. The north-east is currently producing more cars than the whole of Italy, which is a remarkable achievement and a tribute to the workforce there. I am glad the hon. Lady mentions the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. He was not only returned with an increased majority, but is now playing a central role as the Minister helping to deliver the northern powerhouse in DCLG. The debates are about the future of our relationship with the European Union and the reform we need so that major Japanese car manufacturers continue to see Europe and the UK as a place to come, create jobs and invest. We will not do that if our continent prices itself out of the world economy.

I am proud that the coalition Government sought to start the rebalancing of the British economy and introduced the northern powerhouse scheme, which I support. It seems clear that we will have to have a mayor in the Leeds city region. Will the right hon. Gentleman seriously consider the possibility of having a Yorkshire-wide mayor to rejoin together that wonderful county, which could be a real powerhouse for the whole of this nation?

I am not trying to impose a model on any particular area. It is up to local metro areas to come forward with their proposals. I am clear that if we are to see a massive transfer of power from national Government to local government, there has to be a single point of accountability: someone who carries the can and drives the process forward. The authorities of Greater Manchester have agreed with me that that should be an elected mayor, but, as I say, how the authorities of West Yorkshire, and indeed the whole of Yorkshire, want to proceed is up to them. My door is open to a conversation.

20. I was grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), for meeting me recently to discuss the upgrading of the north Wales main line. Will the Department study the wider economic case for such an upgrade to allow north Wales to link to the proposed HS2 hub at Crewe, and, importantly, to tap into the jobs and prosperity that the northern powerhouse will bring? (900339)

I welcome my hon. Friend to this House, fighting for the interests of north Wales. He is absolutely right that north Wales is a central part of the northern powerhouse. Of course it is a single economic area, a point made in the lead question. I will take a close look at the rail upgrades he is calling for. It is good to see him championing his constituency so soon after being sent to this place.

In the north, we know there can be no power without resources. Will the Chancellor be truthful with northern authorities and tell us how much more he is about to cut them by in this financial year?

I welcome the hon. Lady to her new position on the shadow Treasury team. Of course we have to make difficult decisions to balance our budget. If we do not get our public finances in order there will not be any powerhouse in any part of the country, and that is what we are doing. It is disappointing that the Labour party, having worked out that it did not have any economic credibility, has started the new Parliament by opposing all the savings we make. As it happens, in the in-year savings I announced we have protected the local government settlement.

Deficit Reduction

Thanks to our long-term economic plan, the deficit has more than halved as a share of GDP from its post-war peak of 10.2% in 2009-10 to 4.8% by the end of last year, but the job of fixing the public finances is not yet complete.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that competitive procurement continues across all Government Departments to ensure value for money for taxpayers in all that we do?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his stellar victory in demolishing both the UK Independence party and Labour. I made a number of visits to his constituency, and I can say that he is truly one of the party’s finest campaigners. The Government remain committed to improving value for money in public procurement, building on the significant progress made in the previous Parliament. The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and I meet regularly to discuss this, continuing the excellent work of Francis Maude.

Despite being left a note by one of his predecessors saying that there was no money, will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will continue to focus on cutting taxes for low and middle-income earners in North East Hampshire while working to eliminate the deficit, so that my constituents pay less tax and less debt interest in the future?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on taking his seat and on his fine maiden speech last week. He told us then:

“Our best days lie ahead.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 646.]

He is right, but only if we continue to get our deficit, and therefore our debts, under control. Thanks to the plans we have set out, we are set to eliminate the deficit altogether and deliver the tax cuts outlined in our manifesto. We are doing it with the strong endorsement last month of the British people.

There are 800,000 fewer people earning more than £20,000 than there were in 2010. Is that why the Government have borrowed more in five years than Labour did in 13 years?

The hon. Gentleman ignores the overall employment picture over the last Parliament, in which 2 million new jobs were created and unemployment fell by 1 million. It sounds to me as if the Labour party is starting this Parliament as it started the last one: in a mode of deficit denial and failing to face up to Britain’s problems.

Despite the Chancellor telling us last week he was going to get our economy into surplus, we are still £75 billion in the red. Will the Chief Secretary set out in detail how he will eliminate the deficit, specifically on the £12 billion of welfare cuts?

To be fair to the hon. Lady, at least she has remembered the deficit today. I have one question for her. During the election campaign, Labour was denying—

Order. Let me make something clear, as I know the right hon. Gentleman is a new Minister. The Chief Secretary has no questions for the Opposition—that is not the constitutional position. [Interruption.] I am glad he is getting a bit of advice from the Chancellor. He needs to be clear about that at the start of the Parliament.

I thank you, Mr Speaker. Welfare savings will be set out in due course. I remind the hon. Lady that we all need to confront the deficit and do something about it, and I hope that creates cross-party support.

Does the Chief Secretary agree that the key part of reducing the deficit is the long-term economic plan, and that it rests on the provision of additional skills for our manufacturing sector, which in turn will drive up opportunities for young people?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, which is why the Government have, and will continue to have, an excellent record on the skills agenda. I look forward to looking at the funding for the further education sector as part of the spending review this autumn.

Among all 20 of the world’s most advanced economies, why have only France, Italy and Japan grown more slowly than the UK in the five years the Chancellor has been in the Treasury? Is not weak growth, not the deficit, the real problem for the UK economy?

The right hon. Gentleman, as a Treasury Minister in the last Labour Government, will know that the size of the deficit we inherited—which, at more than 10%, was one of the highest—made our job difficult in the first couple of years. However, the UK is now growing faster in 2014 and 2015 than any other EU or G7 country.

Tax Gap

Since 2010, the percentage tax gap has stayed lower than at any point under the previous Labour Government, saving the country £4 billion. One way in which the Government will address the tax gap is by tackling tax avoidance and evasion. We have committed to raising at least £5 billion more from measures to tackle evasion, avoidance and aggressive planning within the tax system, and we will announce further details at the Budget.

Last year, Caffé Nero managed to make £20 million of profit and pay not one single penny in corporation tax, unlike many hard-pressed local businesses, such as dairy farmers. Does my hon. Friend agree that we might need to look at the rules on tax deductable interest payments and, in the meantime, support coffee chains that pay into the system and support their local businesses?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, Treasury Ministers do not discuss individual cases, but I can say that the Government are determined to ensure we have a competitive tax regime in which everyone plays by the rules and pays their fair share. We have been involved in a number of crackdowns on tax avoidance, both domestically and internationally, with the OECD base erosion and profit shifting projects, and we continue to work hard on that.

Well, it seems that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) does not have a lot of confidence in the measures being laid out by Ministers. Never mind percentages: the tax gap has increased to £34 billion. The US-Swiss tax deal raised £800 million in 2013, not the forecast £3.2 billion. Despite these failings, the Minister has just mentioned the manifesto promise to raise a further £5 billion. Will he start to tell us how he will do that? He has not even brought in tougher penalties on the general anti-avoidance rule.

The hon. Lady mentions the general anti-avoidance rule. As we have made clear, we are introducing specific penalties for tax avoidance.

In the last Parliament, HMRC’s yield rose from £17 billion to £26 billion a year, and, as I have said, the tax gap as a percentage has been lower in every year under us than it was in any year under the Labour Government. In the Budget, we will set out further details of how we will raise more revenue by dealing with tax evasion, tax avoidance, and aggressive tax planning.

Personal Allowances

The Government are committed to raising the personal allowance to £12,500 and the higher-rate threshold to £50,000 by the end of this Parliament, but we will go further than that and ensure that in future people who work 30 hours a week for the minimum wage will not pay income tax.

Can the Minister provide an estimate of the number of people in my constituency of Cannock Chase who will benefit from the implementation of the Conservative manifesto pledge to increase the personal allowance to £12,500?

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the broad benefit of our policy. Increases in the personal allowance and the higher-rate threshold during the current Parliament will benefit 30 million people. It is not possible to make reliable projections for an individual parliamentary constituency, but I can tell my hon. Friend that 2.28 million taxpayers in the west midlands have benefited from personal allowance increases to date, and that a typical basic-rate taxpayer is £825 better off.

Apart from specific tax steps, what steps is the Minister taking to ensure that employers actually pay the minimum wage?

Minimum wage compliance is, of course, vital, and work in that regard is ongoing. Universal credit encourages people to work more hours, and, in general, they should be doing higher-paid work.

Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that this Government, more than any other, have made quality childcare accessible to hard-working families?

My hon. Friend is right. The suite of childcare support that the Government are providing for families is unprecedented. It includes the doubling of provision for three and four-year-olds, the extension of provision under universal credit, and tax-free childcare.

Order. I think that the Minister meant to use the phrase “affordably, thereby enabling people also to keep more of their earnings.” I am sure that that is what he meant to say.

Will the Minister assure us that, as part of ensuring that people keep more of their incomes in their pockets, the Chancellor will not increase fuel duty in the forthcoming Budget?

During the last Parliament, the Government made difficult decisions in order to keep fuel duty frozen and save motorists £9 every time their tanks were filled. Of course, no decisions of that kind are cost-free, and difficult measures had to be taken so that we could afford the freeze. All taxes are kept under review, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will announce the details in the Budget.

Saving and Home Ownership

8. What steps his Department is taking to (a) support savers and (b) promote home ownership. (900327)

The Government stand firmly on the side of people who want to work hard, save up, buy their own homes, and retire with dignity. We have increased allowances for individual savings accounts, introduced the Help to Buy scheme, pensioner bonds and pension freedoms, and taken 95% of people out of tax on their savings.

Alongside the support that has been introduced over the last five years, maintaining a strong economy and low interest rates is one of the most important ways of helping home owners. Can my hon. Friend assure my constituents in Havant that the Government will continue to ignore the Opposition’s calls for more taxes and more spending, which put our economy at risk and make it harder for people to get on to the housing ladder?

What a pleasure it is to welcome my hon. Friend to the Chamber. He is absolutely right: more people are employed than ever before, and mortgage rates are extremely low. As a result of our long-term economic plan, my hon. Friend’s constituents in Havant, and constituents elsewhere, can now aspire to own their own homes one day.

Policies such as Help to Buy have proved very popular in my constituency, but may I urge my hon. Friend to be more ambitious in the longer term? Will she consider expanding the shared-ownership model, which enables people to take an initially small equity share in a property at the start of their careers, and then save up in order to expand it as their careers progress?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the strong endorsement he received from the voters of Milton Keynes to return here and express their interests. I am very pleased to hear Help to Buy is so popular in Milton Keynes. The town tops the charts for the attractiveness of buying versus renting. Shared ownership is indeed an excellent way to help people take their first steps on the property ladder, and the Government remain committed to it.

The Minister talks about housing topping the charts in Milton Keynes, but in my constituency we are in danger of topping the charts in house prices, with the average price now £606,000. That is being fuelled in part by overseas buyers who purchase a property and either rent it out or do not live there. Have the Government any plans to tackle this and help my constituents get on the housing ladder?

My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) topped the chart in Milton Keynes personally as well, but the hon. Lady raises an important question: London house prices are a key issue for her constituents. That is why the Government have brought in so much support to increase the number of affordable homes. The number of social homes and affordable homes increased by over 200,000 in the last Parliament. We are committed to continuing that great work and to bringing in the concept of starter homes, which we hope will add further to housing supply.

I genuinely welcome the Minister to her post, but I ask her to be very careful about the right to buy housing association properties. Will she look across at cities such as Paris, where people on low incomes have been driven out and live in ghettoes many, many miles outside the city? If we do not build more social housing that is available to lower-income people, that will happen in our cities.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman—who kindly welcomes me to my place—will welcome the fact that more social housing was built in the last Parliament than in the entire 13 years of the last Labour Government. He rightly raises a point about housing associations: we must allow more supply of housing association properties. That is why this Government will bring in the right to buy for housing association tenants, which will enable more capital to come into that sector and more housing association properties to be built.

Home Ownership

The Government are taking a range of steps to promote home ownership, including helping almost 100,000 households through the Help to Buy scheme. The Government have extended the Help to Buy equity loan to 2020, introduced a Help to Buy ISA and extended the right to buy, and we are delivering 200,000 new starter homes.

Hundreds of Basingstoke residents have a home of their own because of this Government’s Help to Buy policy. What assurances can the Minister give today that Help to Buy will continue into the future, because we are currently putting together our local plan, which includes a commitment to more affordable housing?

I can give my right hon. Friend the assurance that the Government want people who work hard and want to buy their own home to enjoy the security of owning their own home. The equity loan scheme will last until 2020, which should support another 120,000 households in Basingstoke and elsewhere to get on to, and up, the housing ladder. In addition, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced in his recent Budget, the Help to Buy ISA is expected to help over 1 million first-time buyers save for a deposit.

The Government’s policies were not popular in every part of the country, in particular in my constituency. May I therefore ask the Minister, as this has been a week for U-turns, to listen to the National Housing Federation, the CBI and the Institute for Fiscal Studies and revisit right to buy for housing association stock, which will lead to a decrease in the availability of affordable homes for rent, and to deal instead with the fundamental problem of housing supply?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House. This Government are firmly on the side of those people who want the right to buy their own properties, and that includes extending the right to buy to housing association properties. Perhaps he will agree with the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), who published a report with the Institute for Public Policy Research in recent years calling on his party to do exactly the same thing.

Many hard-working homeowners in my constituency take in lodgers to meet their mortgage repayments. However, the rent-a-room tax-free threshold has remained unchanged at £4,250 a year since 1997. Now that the deficit is being paid down, would it not be a positive step to help aspirational homeowners by raising the rent-a-room tax-free threshold?

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Chamber. He clearly brings a wealth of experience in this area, and he is right to highlight the fact that people who rent out a room can receive the first £4,250 tax-free. I note the point that he has made. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is sitting beside me and he will no doubt take that as a Budget submission and consider it as part of that process.

Following on from that question, one aspect of the tax gap that everyone admits is part of the problem is the collection of tax on rental properties. Will the Minister confirm that there will be a Treasury study on how to deal with the tax gap on rental properties, in order to find out how big it is and how we can challenge it?

The right hon. Lady is right to highlight that point. It is important to recognise that although the first £4,250 of rent is covered by the allowance, once it goes above that level it becomes taxable income. HMRC is constantly looking at ways in which it can improve the collection rate in that area.

Child Benefit

In my constituency, there have been reports of children returning to school in September malnourished because their parents are struggling to afford to feed them. Does the Minister agree that cuts to either child benefit or child tax credit would exacerbate the problem and make the issue of holiday hunger even more common?

The Prime Minister has made this extremely clear by stating categorically that child benefit stays as is. The most important thing in regard to affordability and household budgets is to increase employment and ensure that people are in good jobs. The Government have also done an awful lot to bear down on household costs to make them more affordable.

Will my hon. Friend tell my constituents what this Government will continue to do to cut the costs of childcare for hard-working families?

The coalition Government had a very strong record on extending childcare, and we are going to go much further in this Parliament with the extension from 15 to 30 hours of childcare for the three and four-year-old children of working parents, the introduction of tax-free credits and the further extension of childcare provision under universal credit when that migration happens.

Science Budget

We committed in our manifesto to protect the science capital budget of £6.9 billion up to 2021. Decisions on the wider science budget will take place in the spending review.

I was grateful to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer for protecting the science budget during the last Parliament, but the flat cash settlement agreed in 2010 is now worth 15% less than it was then. Will the Minister agree to look at that and at least make good that loss when preparing the Budget and going into the spending review, so that our excellent science base can play its full part in delivering our long-term economic plan?

I once again congratulate my hon. Friend on his excellent election result in Basildon. I note that, to date, he has served five years on the Science and Technology Committee, so there cannot be many in the House who take a stronger interest in the matter. He will know that our capital funding for science almost doubled in the last Parliament, and that we take science very seriously. Wider decisions on science funding will be dealt with in the spending review.

Traditionally, Britain has been absolutely brilliant at basic science, but less good at translating that into innovation for industry. What are the Government going to do to address that issue?

The hon. Lady makes a reasonable point, but that is why in the previous Parliament we increased spending on innovation, including on the new catapult centres and on a whole host of other projects, and we look forward to doing more in this Parliament.


The UK’s productivity has been lower than the G7 average since OECD records began 45 years ago. In the previous Parliament, we took a number of steps to increase the UK’s productivity in the long run, including cutting the corporation tax rates to the lowest in the G20 and investing in skills, infrastructure and science. The Chancellor will set out what further action this Government will take to boost productivity in our productivity plan to be published before the Budget.

I thank the Minister for his reply. In Chester, the number of people on apprenticeships continues to decline, and I am talking about Conservative-style cheap and cheerful apprenticeships with little added value at the end. Was the creation of a low-skill, low-wage economy an intention of the Government, or was it an unintended by-product?

On the subject of Chester, unemployment fell over the course of the last Parliament by 49%, which is something I would have expected the hon. Gentleman to welcome. The reality is that we are investing in apprenticeships; we saw 2.2 million people undertake apprenticeships in the previous Parliament, and we will increase that to 3 million in this Parliament.

Following the crash, the remarkable record of the economy was that unemployment did not rocket up more post-2008 and 2009. Now, in my constituency, it is the labour market that is very tight. I ask the Front-Bench team to focus very hard on improving productivity because that is where the improvement in our economy must now come from.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Improving our infrastructure and skills and ensuring that we have a competitive tax system can all help to drive up productivity.

21. According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, if productivity growth per worker was closer to 4%, our national debt would be around £350 billion lower by the end of this Parliament. The OECD confirmed that continued weak productivity could lead to a higher than expected budget deficit. Why does the Minister not realise that his failures on productivity explain why we are doing so badly on bringing down the deficit? (900340)

I have said that productivity is important. One element of that is attracting more business investment into the UK. That requires a Government who are pro-business. I am not sure that the hon. Lady’s ambition to make the hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) Prime Minister will help.

In 2010, according to the World Economic Forum, the UK had the second highest burden of red tape in the G7. By 2015, we have the lowest. Does the Minister agree that that alone will have a significant impact on productivity in the UK?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes an important point. Regulations that are burdensome and do not achieve their objective do nothing to help productivity; they hold businesses back. That is why it is right that for every new regulation we bring in, two are taken out.

Topical Questions

The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure the stability and prosperity of the economy. I can report to the House that the latest inflation figures show that consumer prices index inflation is at 0.1%, which is good news for working families. Inflation is close to an all-time low, and wages are growing strongly, which is further proof that our long-term economic plan is working.

I thank the Chancellor for that response. However, one of his responsibilities is to ensure that the correct tax is paid. Given that there is huge public support for a Bill to tackle tax dodging, will he introduce such a measure in this Parliament to deal with the tax avoidance by UK companies both in the UK and in developing countries?

Every single Finance Bill we have introduced has been about tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance. Indeed we have also introduced into this country the diverted profits tax—almost a first in the world—which is tackling those international businesses that move their profits offshore to avoid tax. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that in the Budget we will take further action to clamp down on avoidance and evasion.

T2. Last week, the Chancellor announced a simple new rule to ensure that we run a surplus in normal times. Does he agree that the Opposition’s description of this as no more than a “distraction” proves that no lessons have been learned and that they would make exactly the same mistakes if they were ever given the opportunity again? (900346)

Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman, who is a seasoned hand, was asking a question about the Government’s intentions. I am sure that he was not asking about Opposition policy, and that the Chancellor will not answer about Opposition policy.

Of course. Perish the thought, Mr Speaker. The Government will introduce their new approach to fiscal policy in the Budget. It will include a commitment to a surplus in normal times, and we look forward to wide cross-party support for that approach.

Tomorrow the House of Commons will debate productivity, probably the central challenge facing our economic recovery. Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer be leading for the Government in response to that debate?

The Chancellor clearly feels that productivity is not a priority of his. I am surprised that he will not be responding on this central question. After all, he will be here, as he will be acting as Prime Minister in Prime Minister’s questions tomorrow. If I can bring him back to the economy and he could rein in his personal ambitions for a moment, will the Chancellor set out where productivity features in his ambitions? While we have got the Chancellor here today—he is obviously not bothered about the debate tomorrow—will he explain why he failed to mention productivity in his March Budget speech just three months ago?

Well, I never thought I would say, “Bring back Ed Balls.” The Labour party needs to look at the productivity of its own Front Bench after those two dismal questions. I spoke in the Mansion House about the importance of raising the productivity of the United Kingdom. It is a challenge that has existed for many decades, as the hon. Gentleman knows. We will bring forward further proposals in the Budget to tackle the productivity gap in skills and infrastructure and the regional imbalance of our economy. Perhaps the Labour party could find some credible economic spokesman to take part in the debate.

T5. Pensioners in Romsey and Southampton North have welcomed their new freedoms over their pensions. What evidence does my right hon. Friend have that they are taking advantage of those new freedoms? (900349)

Conservative Members believe that we should trust people who have worked hard and saved hard with those savings in retirement. These unprecedented pension freedoms have been widely welcomed. I can give the House the latest numbers—indeed, the first numbers—on how many people have taken advantage of the freedoms. So far, in the few weeks since they came into effect, 60,000 people have made use of them. More than £1 billion has been transferred out of people’s pension funds as a result. It is a sign that this is a real success, but we have to make sure that people get the best advice, that the market responds and that companies up their game in helping customers make use of these freedoms. We will be watching these things very carefully.

T3. Given that the population of Greater Manchester is bigger than those of both Wales and Northern Ireland and not far short of the population of Scotland, why are the people of Greater Manchester being denied the opportunity to decide whether they want a directly elected mayor? What is wrong with a constitutional referendum in England for a change? (900347)

I am sorry to hear that the hon. Gentleman disagrees with the Labour civic leadership across the authorities of Greater Manchester. They are elected, of course, and the elected national Government put together this deal. It will increase accountability in Greater Manchester because there will be an elected mayor whom people can hold directly to account.

T6. The latest Office for National Statistics figures show that disposable household income was rising more quickly in the west midlands than anywhere else in the country. Will the Chancellor consider creating further local enterprise zones such as Waterfront Business Park in Dudley South to help create further local growth, opportunities and prosperity for my constituents? (900350)

I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. I know that he will be a strong voice for Dudley. We are looking at smaller enterprise zones that are better fitted to areas such as his, to build on the success that we have had with the bigger enterprise zones. Enterprise zones for individual towns will help the west midlands and the black country to be an engine of growth for the British economy.

T4. Is the Chancellor aware of the letter in The Guardian on Friday from 80 senior economists, in which they say—these are their words—that his plans are “risky experiments with the economy to score political points…have no basis in economics”and“are not fit for the complexity of a modern 21st-century economy”?Does this not show that the Chancellor’s extreme cuts agenda is out on a limb and that his ideological fixations are outside the economic mainstream? (900348)

I do not read The Guardian every single day but I was made aware of that letter. I disagree. The same sort of people were saying the same things five years ago and now we have one of the fastest-growing economies of any major economy in the world. This is not the first thing on which I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. This morning he called for the abolition of the monarchy, so he is making an interesting start to his political career.

As the economy continues to recover and the deficit falls, will the Chancellor consider increasing funding to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, given that continual cuts under successive Governments have reduced its capacity and its skill base to such an extent that many people are saying that that has hindered our recent foreign policy decisions?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in the issue; indeed, he has been in contact with me about it. We absolutely want to make sure that Britain’s diplomatic reach is as wide as possible across the world, and we should commend my former colleague William Hague who, during his period as Foreign Secretary, despite the Foreign Office playing its part in delivering value for money and getting the best deal for taxpayers, was able to open more embassies and consulates around the world and increase Britain’s footprint on the global stage.

T8. The Chancellor’s Government keep talking about the Tory fantasy of a northern powerhouse, which never mentions Lancashire. Is it still his Government’s policy on the Treasury revenues from fracking that 1% will go to Lancashire and more than 60% will go to Whitehall? (900352)

I gave the original speech on the northern powerhouse in Lancashire, if we count Manchester as being in the traditional county—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Jones, it is unseemly. I thought you were on an apprenticeship to become a statesman, but it has a long way to travel. It is courteous to hear the Chancellor. Let us hear him.

I think it will be one of those four-year apprenticeships, at this rate. I will say to the hon. Gentleman something which I know is not universally agreed with: I think the potential for shale gas in the north of England is a massive boost to the local economy there. I know it is not always popular with some local communities. That is why we have made sure that the benefits go to local communities, and we committed in our manifesto to creating a sovereign wealth fund for the north of England from the revenues from shale gas exploration so that we get a lasting benefit to the natural resources of that part of our country.

My right hon. Friend has been enthusiastic and proactive in promoting the northern powerhouse, but will he shift his gaze southwards towards the midlands? I suggest to him that the midlands has the productivity that the United Kingdom needs, and the midlands engine needs promotion too.

I agree. That is why I was recently in both Derby and Birmingham after the election stressing that there is a massive potential for the midlands to be this engine of growth, and I am sure Lichfield will be a key part of that engine.

T9. I am sure the Chancellor agrees that pro-business parties are pro-European parties, so when will he come off the fence and confirm that he will be leading the charge for Britain to stay in Europe? (900353)

What we are fighting for is Britain to be part of a reformed European Union. Now that we have finally persuaded the Labour party to come to its senses and support the referendum, we can get on with the business of negotiating a good deal for this country.

May we have a Treasury review into how effectively the balance sheets of housing associations are meeting the challenge of building new housing, looking in particular at their average cost of capital, the amount of leverage and whether a change in accounting policy would help to meet the housing challenge?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his re-election; I enjoyed visiting him in Bedford just before the election. He raises an interesting point about how efficient housing associations are in increasing the housing supply, which is what we want them to do, and we are certainly looking at that at the moment.

T10. Given that the Chancellor wants to create the west midlands powerhouse, what is he doing to protect the powers and identity of local authorities such as Coventry? (900354)

I met local authority leaders from Coventry, Birmingham and the surrounding local authorities only a couple of weeks ago, and I made it clear that it is up to them to come together in a combination that suits them and reflects local identities, and that my door is open for any discussions they want to have.

Further to my right hon. Friend’s reply to our hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), both my hon. Friend and I are big supporters of further devolution to northern Lincolnshire so that the economy can expand at an even faster rate. Can the Chancellor assure me that he will support any proposals that come forward from the leadership of our local authorities?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. Because of his campaigning, and that of our hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), we have made sure that northern Lincolnshire is part of the northern powerhouse concept and that it is not left behind or neglected, as it was under the Labour Government.

The last Chancellor to run a budget surplus was Gordon Brown, thanks to a sell-off of gold at a rock-bottom price. Now this Government are pursuing a budget surplus by selling off RBS at a loss. When are we likely to see a banking strategy, rather than a costly political gimmick?

I never thought that I would hear the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath admit that the gold was sold off at the wrong price—I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the House. With the Royal Bank of Scotland we have a serious decision to make: do we continue to believe that at some point we might get back the money that the previous Labour Government put in, or do we take the advice of the independent reports that have been commissioned, and of the Governor of the Bank of England, which is that now is the right time to start selling RBS, and indeed that that might stimulate a higher share price? Above all, it will help to support the British banking system. We have had countless questions in this House about the impact on small businesses of what went wrong at RBS. I think that as soon as we can get that business back into the private sector, the more we can support the general economy, and indeed give a great future for the RBS work force.

The Government’s support for more, better and higher apprenticeships has been critical to the halving of youth unemployment in Gloucester over the past year. The other side of the equation is making sure that work always pays, and many of us want to play a part in ensuring that that happens. Universal credit is the key. It will come to Gloucester later this summer. What does my right hon. Friend think will be the tangible and intangible benefits of seeing people able to work longer than 16 hours, increase their income and reduce welfare benefits?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that universal credit, the major reform of our welfare system that will be widely felt in this Parliament, will create a very simple system in which people know that if they work that extra hour, they will be rewarded for it. That simplicity, and the fact that people can keep more of their income by working that extra hour, will be a powerful incentive that makes work pay.

Order. We are very constrained for time—in fact, we have run out of it—but we will hear from Mr Sammy Wilson.

Yesterday, as a consequence of the refusal by Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour party to implement welfare reform, the Northern Ireland Assembly gave authority to the Departments to breach spending limits and increase spending by 6% over the block grant. What steps will the Chancellor take to ensure that Assemblies and Parliaments across the United Kingdom do not recklessly breach spending limits?

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious question that I suspect this House will have to return to on a number of occasions. We have a clear agreement in the Stormont House agreement that we now expect all parties in Northern Ireland to implement, including Sinn Féin. Frankly, it is not acceptable for any devolved Administration simply to breach the spending limits that have been agreed with the United Kingdom Government, so that is something we will have to address. As he knows, the key is to implement welfare reforms that will not only deliver value for money for the taxpayer, but ensure that more people in Northern Ireland are released from the poverty trap and are able to work.

Yesterday, borrowing costs across Europe increased as the contagion from the Greek economic crisis spread. May I congratulate the Chancellor on the long-term economic plan, which, in contrast, has brought jobs and growth to the UK economy? May I also urge him to use the Budget to reduce the deficit by increasing resources for infrastructure, such as the £250 million needed for Crossrail 2, which will bring even more jobs to my constituency and to the UK?

My hon. Friend is right to remind the House after an hour and five minutes of Treasury questions that out in the real world there are some serious economic risks, not least the risk that we see growing in Greece of a potential default and exit from the euro. People should not underestimate the damage that that would do to financial confidence. Of course, in the UK we take all steps to prepare for and protect ourselves from such eventualities, but the best thing that a Government can do is to ensure that it is living within its means, that it has a productive economy and that its public finances are in good order. That is what we are going to deliver in this Parliament.