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Topical Questions

Volume 606: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2016

Has the Chancellor had a chance to read last week’s National Audit Office report on financial services mis-selling? Does he agree that it draws attention to a missed opportunity to deliver a financial advice sector that protects small-scale investors when things go wrong, as they did in the case of the Connaught fund, with devastating results for a number of my constituents?

We have sought to increase consumer protection by introducing a powerful new consumer protection agency in the form of the Financial Conduct Authority, and we have sought to give more financial advice to individuals through, for instance, the Money Advice Service and Pension Wise. However, if the hon. Lady has any specific further ideas that we can consider, I shall be happy to do that.

T3. The Government are making some of the biggest investments in road and rail in our nation’s history. Is my right hon. Friend aware of any alternative investment policies, and of the impact that they would have on our nation’s economic security and, in particular, the southern powerhouse? (903807)

My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to the big investment that is being made in our nation’s infrastructure, especially transport infrastructure. We have the biggest rail programme since the Victorian age and the biggest road programme since the 1970s, which the hon. Lady is seeing in the improvements to the A27 and M27 in her area. Of course, an economic policy that destroys all confidence in the British economy would mean no investment.

T2. The OECD has estimated that tax havens are costing developing countries three times the global aid budget. Does the Chancellor share my frustration over the fact that the UK overseas territories have ignored the pleas of the Prime Minister, and have not introduced beneficial ownership registers? What more can be done to end the secrecy and inaction? (903806)

The United Kingdom is leading the way in respect of a public register of beneficial ownership, but other countries, including the overseas territories, are not committed to that. We continue to engage with them, because we believe that they should follow the same direction as us—as, indeed, should other countries.

T8. Tackling the deficit should rightly be a priority for the country. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that everyone pays a fair share in meeting that objective? (903812)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to ensure that this is done fairly. Under the present Government, the richest pay a higher proportion of income tax than they did under the last Labour Government. Figures published this morning by HMRC contain, for the first time, the income tax data for 2013-14, which was when the 50p rate was reduced to 45p. The data reveal that in that year there was an £8 billion increase in revenues from additional-rate taxpayers, which completely defies the predictions made by the Labour party at the time, and shows that we have lower, competitive taxes that are paid by all.

T4. Figures from the Public and Commercial Services Union show that 2,000 HMRC staff in Scotland face redundancy, including 150 experienced and dedicated people in Inverness. At the same time, the HMRC overtime bill is about £6 million a month. Can the Chancellor explain to my constituents how that makes any sense at all? (903808)

HMRC is engaged in changes that will be focused on 13 regional centres across the United Kingdom. The same proportion of its work force will continue to be in Scotland, which is actually a larger percentage than the population of Scotland. We are seeking to improve the efficiency of HMRC, and we believe that regional centres will enable it to achieve more for less. It is already bringing in more money and a better rate of return than we have ever had before.

About 40,000 people in my constituency have benefited from the rise in the personal allowance since 2010. Can the Chancellor confirm that the Government will continue to help hard-working people to keep more of the money that they earn?

That is absolutely what the Government were elected to deliver. We have manifesto commitments to deliver not just the £50,000 threshold for the higher rate, but a £12,500 personal allowance, so that more people can see the benefit of either paying no tax if they are low paid, or paying less tax if they are better paid.

T5. Will the Chancellor tell us when he is due to publish the proposals for the distribution and calculation of the apprenticeship levy to the devolved nations, and whether the Governments in those nations have agreed to it? (903809)

We are working to get those arrangements right. They are clearly complex, because of cross-border companies that will pay a single levy rate, but we are having good discussions with the Scottish Government. I think that, as with the agreement on the fiscal charter, we can work together for the benefit of the United Kingdom.

I welcome the fact that my constituents have been given more control over their finances, thanks to changes implemented by the Government. Can the Minister advise me on what steps have been taken to ensure that the regulation applied to small high street financial advisers and insurance brokers is both fair and proportionate, given the important service that they provide?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising this point. We have launched something called the financial advice market review, which will be reporting around the time of the Budget. We will be looking at how to make financial advice more affordable and more available, and also at how to get the right kind of regulatory balance for smaller firms.

T6. Following reports that Hinkley Point C faces further delays, will the Chancellor revisit his decision effectively to write the French an extremely generous long-dated option and instead bring forward fall-back options? (903810)

We are working with the French Government, and all the signs are that they are committed to this project. This is a good example of how the United Kingdom, working with France and indeed attracting investment from Asia, is getting a new generation of nuclear power under way. That was promised for 20 years or more and did not happen, but it is now going to take place in Somerset.

I am proud to have been part of the Government who introduced the national living wage, but I wonder whether my right hon. Friend has had a chance to look at the report from the British Retail Consortium entitled “Retail 2020”, which talks about that and about the impact of internet shopping.

I did see that report yesterday. We all have to accept that the retail industry faces an enormous amount of change, particularly because of what is happening on the internet and the way in which people are shopping online. I personally think that one of the biggest changes we can make right now is to allow shops to open on a Sunday, which is the biggest single day for internet shopping. We cannot say that we want to protect our high street shops while in the same breath saying that they cannot open on one day every week, given that the internet is open 24 hours a day. We shall have a chance to vote on that question next week.

T7. The Chancellor’s statement on ECOFIN referred to the UK seeking a multilateral agreement on making the details of the tax paid by companies publicly available on a country by country basis. Will he tell us what measures he will take to achieve that, and on what timetable? As a first step, will he admit that his Google tax deal was not a great success, and does he accept the Public Accounts Committee’s call for full transparency? (903811)

The Public Accounts Committee has investigated HMRC deals in the past and it is of course welcome to do so again. It gave HMRC a clean bill of health on its approach to these things. We are introducing country by country reporting, and the regulations came into force last week. That is happening only because this Prime Minister put the matter on the agenda in this country and internationally, and I have been calling, at the EU and at the G20, for an international agreement on public reporting so that we can know what companies are paying in different jurisdictions rather than just reading reports about it.

The local economy in Hornchurch and Upminster comprises thousands of small businesses. Can the Chancellor offer any encouragement to the Federation of Small Businesses, which is pressing for tax simplification in order to reduce the burden of tax administration for small businesses?

One of the areas in which we can make progress is the digitisation of the tax system, which could help a lot businesses. I would also make the point that the Office of Tax Simplification has been strengthened and we are putting it on a statutory footing. We are looking forward to seeing a couple of reports from it over the next few days on what we can do to help small businesses in particular.

T9. When services that have been removed from local authority control and centralised in England have been granted the right to reclaim VAT, does the Chancellor accept that the refusal to grant that right to Police Scotland—making it the only UK force to pay VAT—just looks vindictive? Will he not reconsider that decision? (903813)

To be fair, the position on reclaiming VAT was made perfectly clear when the Scottish Government made the decision to go down this course. The UK Government are simply pursuing the policy that we always said we would pursue.

The Chancellor will be aware that debates have been held and questions asked in the House regarding serious allegations of collusion between banks and valuers in order to deliberately undervalue and seize assets. Has he considered the current regulations on such banks and valuers, and whether there needs to be a broader remit for the Serious Fraud Office and other organisations to investigate these serious allegations, whose number is growing?

I am aware of the points my hon. Friend has raised in Westminster Hall and obviously I am keen for our system to have a tough set of rules on conduct in the banking system. I would welcome the opportunity to meet him to discuss these specific allegations in more detail.

T10. If the Chancellor believes that a strong steel sector is fundamental to a strong northern powerhouse, what steps is he taking to level the playing field for the steel industry, the foundation of our manufacturing and defence industries, so that it can have a prosperous future to match its prosperous past? (903814)

The steel industry faces a big challenge at the moment, and that is true in many other countries in the world, as the price of steel has collapsed. We have taken a number of steps to ensure the level playing field that the hon. Gentleman speaks of. First, we have taken the industry out of the energy levies that were imposing additional costs on it. Secondly, we have made sure that local areas that have had redundancies get the support they need. Thirdly, we have changed our procurement rules so that we can make sure we are buying British steel and taking into account the social impact of those steel purchases in making our value-for-money assessments. Fourthly, as I said in reply to an earlier question from him, we are working, through our partners in the EU, to make it clear that we do not and cannot support Chinese steel dumping, and that we need to take action against it.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will be well aware of the widespread and cross-party support for a children’s specialist accident and trauma department at Southampton general hospital, so may I urge him to give careful consideration to the bid put together by clinicians? I know they have sent it to him and are looking for support for a match funding bid.

I am aware of the case being made—a strong case, in my view—for the children’s facilities at the Southampton hospital. It is a case advanced by my hon. Friend and other colleagues, notably my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), who has pushed it, alongside her. We are looking closely at it and I will make an announcement in due course.

Let me follow the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Neil Gray) by raising the key issue of the apprenticeship levy, because the devolved Governments are moving towards elections and we need to know about this as soon as possible. Will there be a Barnett consequential attached to it?

Our intention is to use the principles of the Barnett formula to make sure that the devolved Administrations, not only in Scotland, but in Northern Ireland, do get the resources they need. Of course we would urge them then to spend those resources on training, but that is ultimately a matter for them and the people to whom they are accountable.

Given the importance of family investment in start-up businesses, particularly science and technology businesses, where a leap of faith is often required, will the Chancellor, in the Budget, consider lifting the restrictions on family investment under the enterprise investment scheme and the seed enterprise investment scheme, so that mum and dad can invest alongside everybody else on the same terms?

I am happy to take that as a Budget representation. I am sure my hon. Friend will understand that if he turns up on Budget day, he will see my response to it. The SEIS and EIS have been enormously successful. We have to make sure that the rules are tight enough so that they are supporting the kind of entrepreneurial activity we want, rather than being used as a vehicle for tax avoidance. I think we have got the balance right so far, but I am aware of good, positive proposals that people have put forward to improve it.

The Chancellor chose to give a puff to his desire for Sunday trading liberalisation, but is he aware of the study produced yesterday which showed that all there will be is a switch of activity from small shops to big shops, and that that will mean a loss of thousands of jobs? [Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) says that the Chancellor has already dealt with that question. As I have often had cause to observe, repetition is not a novel phenomenon in the House of Commons.

To repeat myself, Mr Speaker, I do not agree with the hon. Lady, because it has been the case that when we have extended opening hours we have not seen not a displacement of jobs, but an increase in jobs. That is the assessment from the retail industry. Of course, these arrangements exist in Scotland, in many European countries and in the United States. Many of those are countries with strong Christian faiths, so I do not think there is a contradiction there. We cannot in this House constantly say that we worry about our high street and then not allow high street stores to open on the day when the biggest level of internet shopping takes place. This is one of the answers to helping our high street. It is not the only one, but it is an important one.

North Lincolnshire and North East Lincolnshire councils are currently preparing detailed regeneration plans. Can the Chancellor assure me that he will give them serious consideration, so that my constituents can gain maximum benefit from the northern powerhouse initiative?

Absolutely. We will give careful consideration—as I always do—to the proposals that my hon. Friend comes forward with to support North Lincolnshire and his own constituency. We have been able to make investments in new roads, reduce the tolls on the Humber bridge, and introduce enterprise zones. I would love to hear of any new ideas that he has.

Happy St David’s day to you, Mr Speaker.

The Chancellor often talks about repairing the roof when the sun is shining. Norway, a country the size of Scotland, managed to amass £810 billion in an oil fund when the sun shone. Just how much have the broad shoulders of the UK saved for a moment such as this to help north-east Scotland? Is the figure indeed zero?

We are providing support to Scotland, and that support is entrenched in the fiscal framework that we have agreed with the Scottish Government. The hon. Gentleman cannot duck his responsibilities. He wanted Scotland to be independent on 24 March—this month. If we had gone ahead with that—if the Scottish people had voted for it—there would have been a fiscal catastrophe in Scotland, because oil revenues have fallen by more than 90%. We had a question earlier from a Scottish National party Member—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting, but that was a very unseemly gesticulation by the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil). I remind him of his status in this House as the Chair of a Select Committee. He is an aspiring statesman and must conduct himself accordingly.

In response to an earlier question on productivity, my right hon. Friend mentioned the drivers of growth being investment in schools and investment in science and technology. Does he, like me, welcome the Government’s commitment to train 17,500 more teachers in science, technology, engineering and maths, and does he think that there is absolutely no time to waste in recruiting those teachers?

My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. It is one of the big national challenges to get more children, particularly more girls, studying STEM subjects at school. The key to that is to get more STEM teachers. We have a series of incentives to drive that forward. Of course through our school freedoms, schools also have the tools to recruit teachers themselves.

Order. We must now move on. Demand invariably exceeds supply. No one is keener to facilitate questions than I, but we do need pithy questions and pithy answers.