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Topical Questions

Volume 604: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2016

High exit fees act as a disincentive for people to take advantage of flexible pensions, so does the Chancellor agree that tackling these high fees is essential to give people freedom over their own pensions?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The pension freedoms we have introduced have been widely welcomed, but we know that 700,000 people who are eligible face some form of early exit charge. The Government are not prepared to stand by and see people being either ripped off or blocked from accessing their own money by excessive charges. We have listened to the concerns and the newspaper campaigns that have been run. Today, we are announcing that we will change the law to place a duty on the Financial Conduct Authority to cap excessive early exit charges for pension savers. We are determined that people who have done the right thing and saved responsibly should be able to access their pensions fairly.

Recent statistics show that household debt is now at a record high, but back in 2010 the Chancellor promised to move from an economy built on debt to one that saves. Will he tell us today why the figures contradict his original promise?

Household debt as a proportion of household income was 168% in 2008 and today it is 142%, so it has fallen.

T3. This Chancellor has given more than any before him to the cause of looking after our armed forces veterans in this country, and for that I thank him wholeheartedly. Does he agree that although the charity sector has a key role to play, ultimately veterans’ care is a state responsibility and we must ensure that the money coming from Government is used for evidence-based, empirically measured professional treatments for our veterans and their families? (903092)

My hon. Friend obviously has huge experience in this area, personally and because he represents a constituency that has given much to the defence of our nation. He is right: as well as the LIBOR fines, which we use for specific one-off causes to help military charities, we have the armed forces covenant and the annual commitment to support our veterans. I am always happy to look at either specific projects in which we can invest or ongoing concerns we can deal with.

T2. The collapse of UK manufacturing has in fact been going on for some 50 years—it has gone from 30% of the economy in the 1970s to less than 10% today, and from more than 20% of all jobs in the 1980s to only 8% today. Given the scale and length of this decline, why have the Government not made manufacturing and exports one of their top priorities? (903091)

We have backed our manufacturers and exporters. We have cut corporation tax and other taxes that affect those businesses, and we have reformed UK Trade & Investment. As a result, the manufacturing sector accounts for a larger share of our economy than when I became Chancellor, but there is still a huge amount more to do. One thing I would say to the hon. Lady and the Scottish Government is that we want to work more closely with the Scottish Government on overseas trade missions, where we can promote Scottish businesses. We do not always get that co-operation, but we hope it will be forthcoming in the future.

T4. Although I welcome the Government’s move towards digitisation of tax, a number of self-employed people and small businesses across my constituency, approximately 74% of which employ fewer than four people, have voiced concern about how quarterly tax reporting might have a negative effect on their human and financial resources, depending on their reliance on an accountant. What support will be provided to our small businesses to help them to adapt to the proposed changes? (903093)

First, may I reassure the House that there are no plans for quarterly tax returns, as has been reported? What HMRC is considering is making greater use of digital technology and ensuring that information is provided to HMRC more frequently. My hon. Friend raises an important point about ensuring that businesses are supported as they adapt to new ways of record keeping, and HMRC is determined to do that.

T9. The midlands engine has been turbo-charged, with recent figures showing four Staffordshire constituencies in the top seven ranked by the extent of the fall in the claimant count between May 2010 and November 2015, with Cannock Chase ranked fourth. What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to make sure that we maintain the positive momentum? (903098)

There has been good news in Cannock and across the midlands. Employment is up by 6% in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Since entering Parliament, she has been a great champion of the businesses in her area. We are working together to give more power to people in the west midlands to take control of the decisions that affect them, and I welcome her support for that; and we are investing in major transport infrastructure and backing science in the west midlands as well. We are introducing a whole set of measures, but if my hon. Friend has specific ideas to help businesses in Cannock, my door is open.

T5. How on earth will a £42 million cut over the next four years to the UK Trade & Investment budget enable it to become “a world class export and investment promotion agency”? (903094)

We set out today the strategy to give more direct help to our exporters across the United Kingdom, and Lord Maude presented to the Cabinet the proposals to do that. On getting lectures on public finances from Scottish nationalists, I have to say that we would be heading towards the break-up of our country in two months’ time if the people of Scotland had listened to the arguments of the Scottish nationalists, whose calculations were based on an oil price of $115, which at the time the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) described as “quite a conservative estimate”. The oil price is now less than $30. It would have been an absolute catastrophe for the people of Scotland if they had listened to the figures and economic advice given by the Scottish National party.

I am delighted to tell my constituency neighbour that at the end of last year we announced that all the major banks are now able to offer a basic bank account to customers who require one.

T6. Many of my constituents who watch “Coronation Street” will be following the story of Tyrone Dobbs’ struggle with debt with keen interest. Unsecured lending reached a record high last year, with more than 3 million people in problem debt. The Government promised a review of what breathing space creditors should give to people who are engaged with a debt charity or agency, so that their debts do not continue to spiral out of control while they are working to resolve them. The review was due by the end of 2015. When do the Government now plan to announce it? (903095)

In answer to earlier questions I referred to the importance that we place on the team that will tackle illegal money lending. We have continued to support funding for debt advice, including through excellent organisations such as Christians Against Poverty, StepChange and Citizens Advice, to help individuals such as those mentioned by the hon. Lady.

On Friday I visited Barclays bank in Kingston to hear about the fantastic Barclays life skills course, which teaches young people financial literacy, among other things. I can see some candidates for the course here today. Does the Minister agree that by making financial education more accessible, we can ensure that the financial sector itself supports young people and people throughout every stage of their lives?

I am delighted that my hon. Friend found his visit to Barclays in his constituency to be so helpful. I know that he, too, will welcome the fact that since 2014 financial education has been part of the national curriculum.

T7. The Conservative leader of Essex county council has told the Prime Minister that the 2% social care precept will cover only half the council’s increased costs. He has suggested bringing better care funding forward to 2017 and asked for a fairer redistribution of funds. Even Conservative councils cannot wait till 2019 for the funding that the Chancellor has allocated, so will he act now to avoid a further crisis in social care? (903096)

In advance of the spending review, the Conservative leaders of the Local Government Association came to see me. One of their specific proposals was to introduce the social care precept to help address the shortfall there may otherwise have been. We have also put a lot more money into the better care fund to make sure that local authorities and the NHS working together are able to meet the challenges of social care over the next years.

One of the key tools that the Chancellor has deployed to boost the economy has been the creation of enterprise zones. Will he lend his support to the creation of an enterprise zone at Thoresby colliery in the northern part of Nottinghamshire?

I know Thoresby colliery and have been to the site with my hon. Friend. We were not able to give the go-ahead to the enterprise zone because the business case did not quite stack up, but I have committed to work with him and the local community to try to get that over the line and get an enterprise zone in place in Thoresby colliery.

T8. I have just chaired a packed meeting of the all-party parliamentary group on carbon capture and storage with the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change. There was a lot of anger in the room over the Chancellor’s decision to axe the funding for the CCS competition projects. What funding will the Chancellor provide when DECC comes up with its new CCS strategy in the autumn? (903097)

We have set out our capital budget and our energy policy, which will see a doubling of the investment in renewable energy over the next five years.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. You are very kind. My superb hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer) had already asked the question, but I will ask it again as that is not unusual in this place. My parents formed their small business in the first enterprise zone created by Margaret Thatcher in Telford in 1984. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has carried on in that great Conservative tradition. Will he afford the same opportunities to get on in life and create jobs to my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood by backing Thoresby colliery as the next and best enterprise zone?

My hon. Friend has just demonstrated that he is a very smart thinker on his feet. He is always ready to stand up for the interests of his Newark constituents. As I said to our hon. Friend and his neighbour the Member for Sherwood (Mark Spencer), I would love to get the Thoresby colliery enterprise zone into a condition where we can give it the go-ahead, and I give him and my hon. Friend his neighbour my personal commitment that we will try to do that over the next year or two.

Of course, as colleagues know, the fact that a question has been asked does not stop others asking the same question. Repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons.

Will the Chancellor ponder the fact that we still have not tackled productivity? May I guide him and ask him and his Department to look at the way in which we further invest in manufacturing skills? Surely he will agree that what we want in this country are high skilled, high paid jobs, which are to be found in manufacturing.

The hon. Gentleman is right to draw attention to the fact that the UK has had a productivity challenge for many decades, and the financial crisis caused a significant impairment that had an impact as well. Productivity is improving, but the key weakness in the British economy, consistently identified by everyone who looks at it, is the weakness of our skills. I hope that the apprenticeship levy and the expansion of the apprenticeship programme will go some way towards addressing that historical weakness for Britain.

Credit unions can play a vital role in improving financial inclusion and creating a stronger savings culture. As I know from my work with the all-party credit unions group, they have support in all parts of this House. With the opportunity of the World Council of Credit Unions coming to the UK—to Northern Ireland—later this year, will the Chancellor commit to making sure that we continue to build on the work of the credit union expansion programme and back this vital group?

My other constituency neighbour is a fine advocate for the excellent credit unions industry. As he will know, we have backed the industry with £38 million of investment through the credit union expansion project, and we will continue to seek ways to back credit unions.

Given that manufacturing remains at 6.1% below pre-crisis levels, with worrying trends in the manufacture of plant and machinery and of pharmaceuticals, will the Chancellor accept that his domestic policy agenda has just as much impact on our performance as the global factors that he is so very keen to blame, and that if the march of the makers is now going backwards, he must bear a measure of responsibility and come forward with proposals to halt the decline?

As I said, manufacturing makes up a larger sector of the economy than when I became Chancellor, but there is a huge amount more to do to make the UK more competitive, to make our businesses more competitive, and to improve skills for our manufacturers and the like. I have to say, and I suspect the hon. Lady agrees with me, that the idea of banning manufacturers from paying dividends would not be a particularly sensible way forward. Unfortunately, that is now the policy of the Labour party.

Is the Chancellor aware that since he took office in May 2010, the claimant count in my constituency has fallen by 62% and the youth unemployment count has fallen by 67%? Does he agree that reducing corporation tax, increasing the personal allowance and reforming welfare has caused these fantastic figures, and will he confirm that his long-term economic plan will continue?

We will absolutely deliver the plan in these more difficult economic conditions. As I say, the IMF has not revised down the UK’s growth forecast even though it has today revised down the global economic forecast. In Croydon and south London, we will continue with important transport infrastructure, and, indeed, do everything we can to back homeowners in my hon. Friend’s constituency—a group of people he particularly champions.

May I return the City Minister to the issue of the cancelled FCA inquiry into banking culture? The Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards chaired by the right hon. Member for Chichester (Mr Tyrie) pointed to the “Murder on the Orient Express” excuse where everyone was partly responsible but no one was really to blame. The Minister said before that Ministers had no role in the cancellation of that inquiry. Will she say, yes or no, whether any civil servants did?

Points of order come after urgent questions, so I will await the hon. Lady’s inquiry with interest.