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Commons Chamber

Volume 607: debated on Monday 21 March 2016

House of Commons

Monday 21 March 2016

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Transport for London Bill [Lords]

Consideration of Bill, as amended, opposed and deferred until Tuesday 12 April at Four o’clock (Standing Order No. 20).

Oral Answers to Questions

Communities and Local Government

The Secretary of State was asked—

Devolved Business Rates

1. What estimate he has made of the amount of revenue that councils will be able to collect through devolved business rates. (904217)

4. What estimate he has made of the amount of revenue that councils will be able to collect through devolved business rates. (904221)

Councils currently retain just under £12 billion of the business rates that they collect. As a result of our reforms, we estimate that, by the end of this Parliament, councils will retain the full £26 billion raised from business rates.

Local confidence is rock bottom in the budget-setting of Eastleigh Borough Council, which is showing a huge funding gap. Does the Minister agree that the new business rates powers will help councils to take control of their finances properly and help local business?

I do indeed. I enjoyed meeting many of the councillors from my hon. Friend’s constituency recently and seeing the excellent work that is being done to attract businesses through the local enterprise partnership and investment in Eastleigh College. Business rates are buoyant in her area, and she will know that an extra two thirds of a million pounds is available this year because of that buoyancy in business rates, so the prospect of more business rates is clearly going to be of great help to her council.

The Sussex chamber of commerce has declared its delight at the Chancellor’s announcement that small business rate relief will be doubled, but will the Secretary of State confirm that the Budget measures will ensure that rural areas such as Wealden and East Sussex, which are net receivers of business rates, are not worse off as a result of the change?

My hon. Friend can have that reassurance. The package for small businesses in the Budget has been warmly received by small businesses right across the country. It amounts to a reduction of nearly £7 billion over four years, and every penny of that will be made up to local councils, so small businesses will benefit and councils will suffer no detriment.

I would like to take the Secretary of State up on that so that he can explain precisely how it will happen. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said the other day that it is perfectly possible to compensate for the changes in small business rate relief at present, while there is grant in play, but that it will be nigh impossible to do that from 2020 onwards, when there will be no grant for the Government to use. Also, how, precisely, will the Secretary of State compensate for the change from RPI to CPI, given that that involves a variable that changes every year? How will the mechanism work?

The answer to the first question is that compensation will be paid in the way that it always has been when we have reduced business rates: as a section 31 grant from Government to local authorities. That mechanism is tried and tested, as the hon. Gentleman knows, and it is the way these sums are always paid. He will also know that, when it comes to the full retention of business rates by 2020, the forecast, as I said, is that there is £26 billion of revenue, and councils retain £13 billion. Therefore, there are transfers that need to be made in, which will be taken into account by the end of the process. However, I know that his Select Committee, and local government generally, will want to help to advise on that.

Did the Secretary of State see comments in the Sunday papers saying that poorer areas of the country will again be doubly disadvantaged? What is the point of mucking around with local government finance if we continue to rob local government of its powers? Taking away responsibility for education must be one of the most shocking and negative things that I have heard in any Budget.

For generations, local government has argued that it should be financed from its local revenues. It has taken this Government, in devolving powers and finance, to say that every penny of business rates raised by local government should be kept by local government. The hon. Gentleman talks about the devolution of powers, but he will know that many members of the Labour party in towns and cities across the country have welcomed the devolution of powers to local government under this Government, which is something that I am very proud of.

The Secretary of State has reflected on the importance of protecting local authorities from an erosion of the tax base. That is a welcome measure. In setting the baseline for business rate retention, will he ensure that the measures include an incentive for local authorities to encourage the development of small business premises just as much as larger ones, to ensure that there is a mix?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. One of the reasons for the 100% retention of business rates is so that there is a direct connection between local authorities and their businesses. Of course, the best authorities, including his own, have always seen it as their duty and responsibility to promote and attract businesses. This approach means that they will get their reward for it.

With a former Cabinet Minister openly admitting that the Government are dividing Britain with unfair cuts, will the Secretary of State reconsider his divisive decision to cut the 10 poorest councils 23 times harder than the 10 richest?

The hon. Gentleman is wrong. The decisions we have made to reduce spending would have been made by any party that came into power after the election. The difference is that our party has devolved powers so that local authorities can have greater concern for their own future. On the change we have made to the methodology, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that it is an improvement and that the system is fairer than that in previous years.

Local Government Funding

The local government finance settlement reflects a detailed assessment of the needs and challenges of each area. We have announced a fair funding review and will work with local authorities to determine the appropriate funding needs of different types of areas as we move to 100% business rates retention by 2020.

Last month, the Government announced that 85% of the £300 million transitional fund for local government is going not to Labour or Liberal Democrat councils, but to Conservative councils. Does the Secretary of State agree with the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr Duncan Smith) that that does not matter, because those areas “don’t vote for us”?

I am surprise to hear the hon. Gentleman ask that question, given that his county of Norfolk has benefited from £1.6 million through the transitional grant, which I would have thought that he would welcome. On what party colleagues have to say, he should take advice from Bury Council, which has said:

“The methodology is a welcome improvement on that employed for allocating revenue support grant reductions…and goes some way to redressing…years in which poorer metropolitan authorities have received an unequal share of…funding.”

The hon. Gentleman should talk to his party members as well as his constituents.

As a native Teessider, it cannot have escaped the Secretary of State’s attention that towns such as Middlesbrough have been hit hardest by his local government cuts, yet Middlesbrough has not had a penny from the transitional fund. It seems that this Government’s duty is only to those wealthier areas that voted Tory. Is he not ashamed of his callous and unfair treatment of his hometown?

The hon. Gentleman should inform himself better about what is happening in the Middlesbrough local authority. For a start, as a result of the change in methodology, Middlesbrough gets an improvement in resources of nearly £4 million. I would have thought that he had read the consultation response that I received from Middlesbrough Borough Council. In response to the question,

“Do you agree with the proposed methodology for calculation?”,

the council said:

“Yes we would agree with the proposed methodology on the basis that this does not have a disproportionate impact generally across local authorities.”

The hon. Gentleman should inform himself before he comes to the House and asks questions.

Rugby Borough Council has a proactive attitude towards development and attracting new business, and it is very much looking forward to a greater retention of business rates. The council tells me that it likes certainty. In the event of the Government effecting a change such as additional relief on business rates, could the Secretary of State clarify what the transitional arrangements would be and what compensation might be available to local authorities?

My hon. Friend is correct to raise this issue. As part of the transition to 100% retention, we need the various checks and balances that will ensure that no authority loses out. The Government and the Local Government Association will work together to design the system. I look forward to receiving the responses to the consultation, which will include taking advice from Members of this House through the Select Committee and other bodies.

The Government have cut millions upon millions of pounds from Rochdale’s council budget, but they have dumped hundreds of asylum seekers in our town, adding pressure to already overstretched local services. Local people are not happy with the situation. What is the Secretary of State going to do about funding?

Rochdale has benefited from the change to the methodology that we put in place, and the representative organisation for the metropolitan authorities has welcomed the change. The council has benefited from the local government settlement, and the hon. Gentleman should welcome that.

Following this weekend’s revelation that the Government have targeted the working poor because they do not vote Tory, will the Secretary of State admit that the same warped thinking led him to hand £465,000 of transitional funding to Tory-run Trafford council and nothing to Labour-controlled Manchester and Rochdale?

I would have thought that an Opposition spokesman would make herself familiar with the settlement. Both councils that the hon. Lady mentioned have benefited from the change in methodology. The council that her colleague, the hon. Member for Croydon North (Mr Reed), used to lead—Lambeth Council, which was Labour last time I checked—specifically called for this transitional measure, saying:

“Transitional measures are usually employed where a new distribution methodology is introduced to ensure significant shifts are not experienced…The Council believes this is sensible on the basis that…those benefitting are not adversely affected.”

That is exactly what we have done.

Affordable Homes

3. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of affordable homes available to buy since 2010. (904219)

I am pleased that we were able to finish the last Parliament with more affordable housing than we started with. We were one of the first Governments in a generation to do that. We actually delivered beyond our target to deliver 276,000 affordable homes, of which 80,000 were for shared ownership.

Is the Minister aware that home ownership among people under the age of 35 is down by more than a fifth—by 21%? What will a redefinition of affordable housing to homes under £450,000 do to address that problem?

If the hon. Gentleman looks at some of the papers published over the past couple of weeks, he will see that although there was a fall in home ownership since 2003, it has stalled. It is our clear determination and policy to make sure that we increase home ownership, and that is what starter homes are about. I hope that he will support us in delivering those homes for first-time buyers under 40, at a discount of at least 20%, so that we can help them to be able to afford to get into that ownership model again.

One of the key planks of the Government’s policy on delivering affordable housing is neighbourhood planning, so the Minister will be pleased to hear that in Oakley, in my constituency, the neighbourhood plan went to a referendum last Thursday and received 95% approval. Given that, does he agree that it is an outrage that just seven days before the referendum, the planning inspector allowed an appeal in that village that largely renders the plan pointless after two years of work? What is he going to do about the Planning Inspectorate effectively bulldozing Government policy in my constituency?

Specifically in relation to affordable homes, a matter upon which I feel sure the Minister is tempted to dilate.

I think it is important that neighbourhood plans play their part in delivering affordable homes. When an area such as the one that my hon. Friend has mentioned has worked out a neighbourhood plan to deliver affordable homes, I would expect the Planning Inspectorate to respect that neighbourhood plan.

Some 22,000 households in Northern Ireland are in acute housing need. Between 2011 and 2015, we had 4,000 first-time buyers using co-ownership and 6,000 association homes. We need to build 11,000 homes a year. What assistance can the Minister provide when it comes to co-ownership to help people who wish to purchase even more?

The hon. Gentleman raises a good point. We are clear that as part of delivering 400,000 affordable homes by 2021, we want at least 135,000 to involve co-ownership and shared ownership. This is another fantastic model that improves the affordability of the home ownership model and enables more people to access it.

Will my hon. Friend outline what a couple under the age of 40 living in Cornwall can expect to borrow under the new starter homes initiative that the Government have implemented for a family home worth, say, £200,000?

My hon. Friend makes a good point about how starter homes can help people to get on to the housing ownership ladder. I would not presume to tell lenders what their position should be, but when we apply the starter home discount of at least 20% to that £200,000 home, which brings it down to £160,000, with a 5% deposit, we give access to home ownership to a whole range of people who have been trapped out of it since Labour’s great recession.

Social Care

We have provided up to £3.5 billion of funding to meet the demographic pressures on social care. That is significantly more than the £2.9 billion the Local Government Association estimated was needed.

Yet the Budget reveals a black hole of £4.3 billion for social care alone. Why are the Government prioritising giving tax cuts to the wealthiest while refusing to make sure there is decent social care for our elderly and disabled people?

During the spending review process, we listened extremely carefully to local government, which explained that social care was a priority. We responded by providing local authorities with up to £3.5 billion, which was in excess of the £2.9 billion that was asked for. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that extra support, and in particular the additional precept for adult social care.

What recent discussions have taken place between the Minister’s Department and the Department of Health about the integration of health and social care?

I assure the hon. Lady that we have significant and ongoing discussions with the Department of Health on this important area. We both share the same outlook. We want to fully integrate health and social care by the end of the decade, and we are setting out to do that through close dialogue between each Department.

Age UK reports that 300,000 elderly people are suffering from chronic loneliness, which leads to early death. The cuts imposed by, and inaction from, the Department for Communities and Local Government are letting our elderly people die. Is the Minister proud of that?

We are doing significant work to support social care. We have put in place the precept for social care, which has allowed councils to raise up to an additional £2 billion. We have also put in place an additional £1.5 billion for the better care fund, and we are absolutely committed to working with the NHS to make sure that health and social care are integrated properly. Part of that integration involves making sure that the issues the hon. Lady mentions are dealt with properly, and I can assure her that that is happening.

Flooding: EU Solidarity Fund

6. When the Government began preparing their application to the EU solidarity fund in respect of flooding in December 2015. (904223)

7. When the Government began preparing their application to the EU solidarity fund in respect of flooding in December 2015. (904224)

19. When the Government began preparing their application to the EU solidarity fund in respect of flooding in December 2015. (904239)

Following the devastating impact of Storms Desmond and Eva, the Government quickly made available more than £200 million to the communities affected. As we moved from response to recovery, we began preparation for and an assessment of a bid to the EU solidarity fund in early January.

The Government had 12 weeks from 5 December, the first day of flooding, to apply to the EU solidarity fund, yet despite many questions about that, they took until 25 February to confirm to the House that they would apply. Were the Government really so busy fighting with themselves that they held up the process for so long? Why the delay?

The EU solidarity fund is complex, as is the application process. One needs to determine eligibility and damage. The process is still ongoing as we understand, and inform and work with the Commission about, the extent of the damage. We started the work early in January and put in an application within the deadline. We are pursuing that application now.

The flooding in December was exceptional. It had an impact across the UK, including in Deeside and Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland. Will the Minister confirm that, should the bid to the EU solidarity fund be successful, the Scottish Government will receive a fair and appropriate share of that funding?

We do not know how long the process will take or, ultimately, what the quantum of any award might be. In the meantime, the Government are making available significant funds of more than £200 million to support the communities affected. We continue to work with local authorities and devolved Governments to ensure that this is done properly, and we will make appropriate announcements when more information is available.

Since 2002, the EU solidarity fund has helped communities and people from 24 countries, which I am sure the Minister agrees is an excellent example of the positive effects of our membership of the EU. Will he confirm, therefore, whether small and medium-sized enterprises severely affected by flooding across the UK will receive their fair share of financial support, given that they are not yet covered for flood insurance risk by Flood Re, which starts in April?

As I have made clear, we are pursuing the application to the EU solidarity fund, but it will take some time to pay out. We are in discussion with the Commission about the detailed information it needs to process the application, and we will be in a position to make further announcements about quantum and what it could be used for as and when that process is completed. We will, of course, keep the House updated as things progress.

I thank my hon. Friend for the help his Department provided to Bury Council under the Bellwin scheme, which has been of direct help to my constituents, but will he please confirm that his Department will continue to provide help to Bury Council to repair infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, that remains damaged to this day?

It is important to be clear that, although flooding happens over a short period, recovery is a much longer process. The Government are committed to continuing to support local authorities. We have made available over £200 million of funding and are making available support such as the property level resilience grant, which means that if someone’s property has been affected by flooding, they can claim up to £5,000 for resilience repair works. We will continue to work with local authorities to deliver for those communities and to support them as they recover from this terrible incident.

House Building

8. What recent assessment he has made of trends in the numbers of housing starts and completions. (904225)

The number of housing starts is up 6% over the last year and the number of completions is up 21%. Both are now at their highest level since 2007.

Since 2010, there have been more than 4,000 new housing starts in Cheshire West and Chester, including 2,500 in Weaver Vale alone, and the number of housing starts is up 91% compared to 2009. Will my hon. Friend remind the House who was Housing Minister when the figures were so low?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. As we have discussed on the Floor of the House before, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), the shadow Housing Minister, was the Minister who oversaw the lowest level of house building since, I think, about 1923.

We have seen record numbers of housing starts in Worcester this year, and the proportion that is affordable housing is larger than we have seen for many years. What more can my hon. Friend do, however, to ensure that this strong housing recovery—it led a constituent to tell me, “I’m voting Conservative because I am a builder and I’ve seen things get better over the last six years”—continues and that we continue to deliver on this strong record?

My hon. Friend gives an example of something I hear time and time again. We are the party and the Government who have got house building moving again from our inheritance in 2010, and I am proud to be the Housing Minister who, thanks to the Chancellor, is seeing the biggest house building programme since the 1970s. It is quite a contrast to what we inherited from the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne.

Ah, Mr Hollinrake, I think you know a thing or two about houses—you are an estate agent, man.

I will do my best.

The number of housing starts relies on a proper assessment of housing need. Gladman recently ran a successful appeal in my constituency on the basis that the local authority could not demonstrate a five-year housing supply. There is now a revised assessment by the local authority showing an eight-year-plus supply. Is it time for a definitive assessment of housing need?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that local authorities plan for the future housing delivery and housing needs of their areas. That is what the local plans are about, and I would encourage all local authorities still working through their local plan to get on with it and make sure they make that provision. He also makes a very good point about the confidence of having a five-year land supply, and we will respond in due course to the evidence from the expert panel group that looked at local plans and reported just last week.


10. What assessment he has made of the effect of Government policy on levels of homelessness since 2010. (904228)

Since 2010, we have enabled local authorities to help prevent or relieve over 1 million cases of homelessness, but one person without a home is one too many. So we have increased central funding for homelessness to £139 million over the next four years and protected homelessness prevention funding to councils amounting to £315 million by 2020.

I would be grateful if the Minister answered the question and, in particular, if he said why we have had a doubling of street homelessness since 2010 and why there are currently 370,000 households with no permanent home. Does he not see that these are a direct result of a series of Government policies introduced since 2010, and they are set to get worse—the removal of funding for new social rent housing, the bedroom tax, housing benefit caps, a rise in sanctions, the cut in funding for housing benefit for supported housing and the sale of 100,000 council homes?

I would suggest that the hon. Lady seek an Adjournment debate on the subject, but I realise now that she has just had it.

I do not know whether the hon. Lady has anything she could add to that list, but this is an extremely important issue. The Conservative party recognises that and we changed the methodology on rough sleeping to give a more accurate picture of the challenges. The issues with rough sleeping are not just about housing; they are about things such as mental health challenges and issues relating to drink and drug dependency, for example. The Chancellor, working with DCLG, confirmed an additional £100 million in the Budget for move-on accommodation, so that we can help to move rough sleepers out of the hostels they are put into and into move-on accommodation, thereby helping even more rough sleepers to get off the streets.

The Albert Kennedy Trust’s recent report found that 24% of homeless youth are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, the majority citing parental rejection or abuse as the primary reason for their homelessness. Does the Minister support the trust’s call for vulnerable young people aged 18 to 21 facing rejection and abuse at home to be treated as a group exempt from the housing benefit changes?

I spoke just last week to over 100 young people who have been through the problems caused by the type of issues to which the hon. Lady refers. I can assure her that this Government are absolutely committed to protecting the most vulnerable through the changes she mentions. We are currently looking carefully at how those changes take place to make sure the most vulnerable are absolutely protected.

The Minister is right to say that the best way to tackle the whole question of those sleeping rough on our streets is prevention and by tackling the underlying causes that he has mentioned. Given that, may I strongly encourage him to use the new £10 million social impact bond to focus specifically on the underlying causes, so that we do not just stop people going on to the streets, but keep them off the streets altogether?

That is a very sensible suggestion from my hon. Friend, who I know has significant knowledge and expertise in this area. I am working through these issues across Government in a cross-departmental working group to try to bring forward the social impact bond, which will help to get entrenched rough sleepers off our streets.

I welcome the £100 million in the Budget to deliver low-cost second-stage accommodation for rough sleepers and domestic abuse victims. What work can be done to encourage social and private landlords to take those who find themselves in that situation?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. This Department has supported organisations such as Crisis to deliver support to allow people to get into the private rented sector through things such as bond schemes and deposit schemes, so that those who would otherwise be unable to afford the deposit to get into private rented accommodation are able to do so.

Last week the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government took oral evidence from Crisis that suggests that an estimated 3,600 people sleep rough in a typical night in England. That figure is up 30% in the last year. Why does the Minister think that rough sleeping is rising so quickly in England and what action is he taking to get a grip on this?

We are giving serious consideration to making sure we prevent homelessness before it happens. Obviously, if homelessness does happen, we have to help; and, as I said earlier, we are taking significant steps to help rough sleepers off the streets. Homelessness prevention is key. We are looking at our options and looking at what goes on across the world in this respect, including in the devolved Administrations. We are looking at all options, working with homelessness charities and through a cross-ministerial working group, to make sure we tackle homelessness and the causes of it.

Shelter, which also gave evidence last week, suggested that 250% more people had become homeless over the past five years because their private tenancies had ended. Last week the Scottish Government passed the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Bill, which abolished no-fault eviction. Will the Minister look at Scotland‘s anti-homelessness legislation to establish what can be done to benefit homeless people in England?

As I said to the hon. Lady in my earlier answer, we will not ignore good practice where it is happening. We are giving careful consideration to how we can improve homelessness prevention, and if the hon. Lady wishes to give me further information, I shall be more than willing to look at what has been done in Scotland.

I, too, welcome the Chancellor’s announcement of an extra £110 million to help to tackle rough sleeping, a problem that is evident in my constituency because of the large number of tourists in our city. How will my hon. Friend ensure that charities such as Genesis Trust and Julian House, which benefited from the Chancellor’s measures in the last Parliament, will be able to benefit from the new fund as well?

I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend welcome the changes that were made in the Budget to support the homeless and rough sleepers, and I was also pleased to hear about the work that is being done by Julian House and the Genesis Trust. I can assure him that we will work with the homelessness sector and local authorities to design the £110,000 million to help people who are on the streets to come off the streets.

Last Wednesday the Chancellor announced money to support the homeless and reduce rough sleeping, but the Treasury has said that it is not extra money, but money from the Department for Communities and Local Government’s existing capital budget, which was announced in the autumn statement. So we have an ever growing national crisis of homelessness, no solution at all to the root causes, and no extra money. Is this not yet another example of a deeply unfair Budget from a deeply flawed Chancellor?

I think that the hon. Lady is misguided: some of that money is extra money. She has, however, drawn attention to the fact that we are working very closely with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and the Treasury to put right the mess that her party left when it was in government.

Social Housing

Since 2010 we have delivered 270,000 affordable homes, including about 200,000 rental homes, and the spending review committed £1.6 billion to the delivery of 160,000 further affordable homes.

Let me ask the Minister a specific question about new-build social housing. My local authority and housing associations say that, because they cannot afford to develop social housing on Network Rail and council land—public land—they will develop up to 2,500 high-value units. However, we have a serious social housing crisis. How will the Minister ensure that councils and housing associations can afford to build homes for social rent to match local needs?

If the hon. Lady compares what was done between 1997 and 2010 with our record, she will see that the number of council social homes being built roughly doubled under a Conservative-led Government. We are building social homes at the fastest rate for about 20 years. Housing associations had a £2.4 billion surplus last year, and local authorities have over £3 billion of headroom. We are working with them, and encouraging them to use their money to build the homes that we want to be built so that we can deliver more homes than the last Government left us.

It has been reported that private developers continue to hold many thousands of acres of building land in land banks, and are refusing to build on it until house prices rise in order to maximise their profits. May I suggest to the Minister that a sensible Government would take such land into public ownership, allocate it to local authorities, and require and enable them to build council homes to house those who are in desperate need of decent homes?

We do want to see developers get on with building more: we want build-out rates to increase. We want local authorities to deal with preconditions so that builders can get on site more quickly and get building more quickly, but we also want to make sure that land agents are not hoicking land around and holding it up in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described.

Private Rented Sector

Measures in the Housing and Planning Bill will improve conditions. We will be tackling the rogue landlords that give the entire sector a bad name, in particular those who let sub-standard accommodation. Our proposals include a database of rogue landlords and property agents, introducing banning orders for serious or repeat offenders, a tougher fit and proper person test, extending rent repayment orders and introducing higher civil penalties.

The majority of families in Slough live in the private rented sector with only six months’ security of tenure and six-monthly rent increases, often facing eviction if they complain about repairs and so on. I understand that that will be dealt with in future legislation, but it will not come into force until 2018. It is no way to bring up a family. What will the Government do to give such families more security?

The right hon. Lady has her facts slightly wrong, because legislation relating to retaliatory evictions came in in October 2015. She is right that we want tenants to have protection, which is why we are introducing measures in the Housing and Planning Bill that will go further than anything that any Government have done before. We should bear it in mind that the average length of tenancy in this country is getting on towards three years and that most tenants move by choice. However, she is right that people should not face retaliatory evictions, which is why we brought in that legislation in October 2015.

Devolution: East Midlands

My hon. Friend is a passionate advocate of local government matters and took an active part in the passage of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Act 2016. He is as eager as I am to see things progress. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced three new devolution deals in the Budget, including the deal for Greater Lincolnshire, in the delivery of which my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) played a key part. We are keen to go further. We are talking to additional areas. We want to do more.

I am grateful for that answer, but six district councils have now voted not to be part of the proposed north midlands devolution deal, so will the Minister confirm that he will not impose a deal on those areas without those councils’ consent? If so, what advice does he have for those who are still trying to get a deal for the east midlands?

If devolution is to last and if it is to make a real difference and work for those areas that want to be part of it, it must be done by agreement and through a bottom-up process. That is what is allowed in the legislation that this House passed and that is what the Government intend to do. We are not enforcing devolution on any area; we are working with those areas that want it to help to deliver it. It is welcome that so many more areas continue to sign up and to have such talks with Government.

The Minister says that this is being done by agreement, but why is the Chancellor—it is the Chancellor, not the Department—insisting that the price of devolution for Lincolnshire is an elected mayor, which, frankly, nobody asked for? Mayors are for towns, not a large rural area where the district council and a Conservative county council work perfectly well together. Let us have true devolution and true choice.

My hon. Friend is never backwards in coming forwards, and I have had many discussions with him about this deal and his interest in it. The Government do not enforce deals or impose mayors. This is all about local area consent. We want mayors for that sharp, democratic accountability, through which powers are passed from Government down to local areas to drive forward their economies and to improve lives in those communities.

Help to Buy

14. What steps his Department has taken to encourage new homes to be built and bought through Help to Buy. (904233)

The Government are investing a further £8.6 billion to enable another 145,000 people to buy their own home by 2020-21. Recent evidence has made it clear that 43% of homes sold would not have been built without the scheme, so it is clearly driving up the housing supply.

The great city of Lincoln is one of the most historic and successful cities in our country and more and more people want to live and work there. Ahead of any directly elected mayor of the county, would my hon. Friend like to remind councils such as City of Lincoln Council of the need to support private house building as well as affordable house building to ensure that my city’s residents have a full range of housing choices?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that local areas consider their housing needs and are able to plan to deliver the housing that local people want. Some 86% of our population want the chance to own their own home, so I encourage local authorities to work actively and enthusiastically with the starter homes programme that provides first-time buyers with a discount of at least 20%.


16. What assessment he has made of trends in the number of planning permissions granted in the last 12 months. (904236)

In the year to December 2015, the reformed planning system gave planning permission for another 253,000 new homes, which is excellent news. To be clear and to put it into context, that is a 53% increase on the figure for the year to December 2010.

Merely giving planning permissions does not build any houses. What more can the Government do to ensure that houses for which planning permission has been given are built out, so that we achieve our target of 1 million new homes?

We are doing a range of things, some of which are in the Housing and Planning Bill, such as having planning permission in principle, which will make it easier for small and medium-sized builders as well to get access to finance. My hon. Friend will be aware that, at the Budget last week, we outlined our plans to make sure we deal with some of the issues associated with preconditions and other things that can slow down the movement on to site once the initial planning permission is given. It is important that we speed up the process, getting developers on site and building out more quickly.

Topical Questions

Before the Easter recess, I should like briefly to update the House on the recovery following flooding caused by Storm Desmond and Storm Eva. The Government have moved rapidly to support more than 21,000 flooded properties; £50 million in dedicated funding has helped to ensure the rapid repair and reopening of key transport arteries—I am delighted that Pooley bridge in Cumbria reopened yesterday; a further £130 million will be spent repairing roads and bridges; £700 million was announced to boost future flood defence and resilience; and I am delighted that, in response to the fundraising from community foundations, for which the Chancellor offered to have match funding, I can now announce a one-for-one match for every pound raised by those community foundations during the floods.

The local government pension scheme provides future security in retirement for millions of public service workers. It is a funded scheme financed by the contributions of those workers. The Government now seem to be trying to interfere in the way those funds are invested, but investment decisions should be driven by the interests of the members of the scheme. What legal powers do the Government have to do this? Are they intending to direct the investment strategies of other UK pension funds? If not, why treat the local government pension scheme differently?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have a consultation on this. I do not know whether he has contributed to it, but it has now closed. We are reflecting on the responses, and I will update the House when we have had a chance to do that.

T2. Many towns and villages in my constituency have formally adopted their neighbourhood plans. Places such as Newick and Ringmer have had their plans in place for a long time, yet they are constantly challenged by developers who put in applications for sites outside the plan. Will the Minister uphold the status of neighbourhood plans in the planning process and return local democracy to our villages and towns? (904191)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We absolutely hold neighbourhood plans as being of prime importance and they have weight in law. I congratulate Newick on its initiative in creating a neighbourhood plan but, as I know she appreciates, I cannot comment on a particular case. I do wish to stress, however, while I have the opportunity to do so, that the national planning policy framework makes it very clear: where a planning application conflicts with a neighbourhood plan that has been brought into force, planning permission should not normally be granted.

My question is for the Secretary of State, who clearly lacks the clout to argue his Department’s case with the Chancellor, because there was nothing in the Budget on housing—nothing to reverse six years of failure, from rising homelessness to falling home ownership. In Labour’s last year, despite the global banking collapse and deep recession, we saw 120,000 new homes built in this country. Five years later, that total was only 5,000 higher. At this rate, the Secretary of State will not hit his house-building targets until 2079, so why was there so little in the Budget on housing?

I say to the right hon. Gentleman, with great respect, that he might want to have a look at the Budget book, which outlines a range of measures on both housing and planning. It builds on the autumn statement and the spending review, which gave us the biggest building programme since the 1970s—that is quite a contrast to his personal track record. It also outlines the work we did with local government to deliver another 160,000 homes on public sector land—joining central Government’s 160,000. I would have thought that 320,000 new homes in this country, on top of what we are already doing, is good news and highlights just how important this is to the Government.

On the contrary, the extra investment that the Chancellor announced in the spending review that is cited by Ministers brings the total to around about half that invested by Labour in building new homes when I was the last Labour Housing Minister. The truth is that there was little in the Budget on housing, and nothing that will deal with the causes of the housing crisis, so six years of failure is set to stretch to 10. Will the Minister now admit that, on housing, as on everything else, the Chancellor’s credibility is in tatters?

I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman keeps wanting to give me the opportunity to highlight the fact that he was the Minister who oversaw the lowest level of house building since about 1923. I am very proud to work with the Chancellor who has given this country the biggest building programme that we have seen since the 1920s. We have seen the number of first-time buyers double since 2010 and, as we heard earlier, planning permissions have gone up by 53% since 2010. We are delivering affordable housing at the fastest rate in more than 20 years. In the past five years, we have delivered double the number of council houses that Labour did in 13 years. I am proud of our track record. We aim to continue to deliver more and to deliver faster than Labour ever did.

T3. Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Wychavon district council on utilising the new homes bonus and investing more than £1 million in local community facilities? Will he take time out of his very busy schedule to visit that outstanding council with me to see some of those schemes? (904193)

I will be happy to join my hon. Friend on a visit. On my last visit, it was good to see the ambition and hard work that her planning team and local councils had put in to provide the homes that were needed locally. It is good to see them using that new homes bonus to deliver the infrastructure of those homes. I look forward to visiting again very soon.

T5. I accept that the final quantum award under any EU solidarity fund has not been decided, but may I nevertheless ask the Minister to ensure that, however it is apportioned, it reaches the communities that were actually affected? A simple population share going to the Scottish Government will not ensure that it reaches my constituency of Dumfries and Galloway. (904195)

The Government’s intention is to support absolutely those communities affected by the terrible impact of Storms Desmond and Eva and the flooding we saw over December and January. We are talking to the Scottish Government about what we can do to help Scotland, what Scotland’s needs are and what the impact is to inform the bid that we are making to the EU solidarity fund. We will keep the House updated as we know more, and as the process progresses.

T4. Can the Minister update the House on the future of the coastal communities fund and reassure me that future rounds will focus on tackling the social problems that blight so many of our coastal communities? (904194)

The 118 coastal community teams across England are taking control of their own areas’ regeneration. The Our Blackpool coastal community team was an early adopter of the CCT concept. Blackpool received £2 million from the coastal communities fund for its Lightpool project, which was successfully launched in 2015. The project is a boost to the local economy, driving football into the town centre. In December 2015, Blackpool received £50,000 coastal revival fund money for emergency work to the roof of the Winter Gardens Pavilion Theatre. That is the first step in creating a Blackpool museum of popular culture, commencing in January 2017. The coastal communities fund has now been extended by a further £90 million, out to 2020-21. Bidding for the next round is set to commence by the summer of this year. I wish my hon. Friend good luck for any bids that may emanate from his constituency.

T6. Rather than cutting support to people with disabilities, would it not be better for the Government to cut the housing benefit bill, which is up by £4.4 billion over the past four years? Is not that due to the Government’s failure to build enough houses, which is driving up rents and heavy reliance on the private rented sector? Is it not a disgrace that the Budget did not put any money into building social housing? (904196)

I again say to the hon. Gentleman that he might want to look back at the spending review and the autumn statement that gave us the biggest building programme since the 1970s. I also gently point out that one of the problems that we have had is that, under Labour, for every 170 homes that were sold under right to buy, just one was built. That is why it is important that we build more homes—and we are building more homes. In London, which I know is dear to his heart, we are looking at two for one. That increases housing supply and it is good for delivering new homes.

T8. Last week’s Budget saw welcome news for small businesses and pubs across my constituency in the form of the changes to business rates. What support will my hon. Friend give to Torbay Council to ensure that local businesses in my constituency benefit as soon as possible? (904198)

The Government have announced the biggest ever cut in business rates in England, worth £6.7 billion over five years. We are permanently doubling small business rate relief and increasing the thresholds. I am sure that that will help many of the small businesses in Torquay and in Paignton that my hon. Friend sets out his stall to support on an ongoing basis.

T7. The financial cost of homelessness is going up to nearly £1 billion. Research from the charity Crisis has shown that tackling single homelessness early could save the Government between £3,000 and £18,000 for each person they help. What work are the Government doing with charities such as Crisis? (904197)

We are working across Government with Crisis and a number of other homelessness charities, and with local authorities, because we absolutely recognise that preventing people from becoming homeless is the key to this issue. I hope to come forward in the not too distant future with announcements to tackle this important issue.

T9. Construction of the Middlewich eastern bypass would open up substantial local and wider growth opportunities. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how this long-awaited project can be progressed? (904199)

My hon. Friend is one of the most passionate and committed advocates for their constituency that I have yet encountered in the House. I know how much the investment she craves for Middlewich matters to her. I would of course be delighted to meet her, and any representatives of the local community she should wish to bring, to see what the Government can to do help to bolster the case.

During his statement on local government funding, the Secretary of State said that he would re-examine the fact that the social care precept will help the areas that need it most the least. How has he updated his thinking, because the areas of the country that rely on this the most are simply not getting the investment they need?

That is not true. The hon. Gentleman will see that the proposed allocation of the better care fund goes precisely to those authorities that have fewer resources through the precept. I am very happy to meet him to update him.

I welcome the greater Lincolnshire devolution deal that has just been finalised, but things are complicated by the fact that Lincolnshire County Council is in the east midlands whereas the two unitary authorities are in Yorkshire and the Humber. Will the Secretary of State look at this and re-designate the whole of Lincolnshire into the east midlands?

I do not have any regard to these artificial, expired administrative boundaries. Lincolnshire enjoys a proud identity, and my hon. Friend is a big champion of it.

In only six years the Government have managed to take away £100 million from Waltham Forest Council, which, funnily enough, happens to be Labour. How does the Secretary of State think that has assisted local services?

In their representations, councils across the country, and groups such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies, have reflected that this is a better way to allocate resources, and councils will see it as a fairer means.

My right hon. Friend has rightly been concerned about the structure and effectiveness of local government in Birmingham. This is not a party political point, because these concerns have extended under Conservative and Labour Administrations. In his negotiations with the Birmingham improvement panel, under the excellent John Crabtree, will he bear in mind the importance of giving the new Labour leader, John Clancy, the space to implement the necessary reforms?

I will. I pay tribute to John Crabtree and his fellow panellists. I am pleased to say that Birmingham City Council has made progress on the recommendations of the Kerslake report. The panel has done sterling work in helping the council to become more responsive. There remain a number of challenges that the council will have to overcome to translate its vision into reality. The panel wrote to me today suggesting that it step back and return in the autumn to report on how the council has progressed. I am happy to accept that recommendation, and I wish it well for the months ahead.

With your kind permission, Mr Speaker, an inquiry report was launched this afternoon in Speaker’s House on better devolution and the Union. During evidence-taking sessions, the Secretary of State was kind enough to say that he would positively engage in a discussion about a city deal for Belfast. I welcome that report, and ask the Secretary of State to reaffirm his commitment to engage in those discussions about a future city deal for Belfast.

I will do that with great pleasure, and I look forward to meeting the hon. Gentleman in that context.

Welsh community centres, rugby clubs and pubs cannot be registered as assets of community value because the Welsh Labour Government opted out of the relevant Bill. How can the Minister help us to protect our rugby clubs, pubs and community centres in Wales?

As ever, my hon. Friend is fighting hard for his community to have the same protections that we have been able to give people across England. I would be happy to meet him to see how we can work together to convince the Welsh Government that they should protect those vital institutions—something that Labour in Wales seems willingly unwilling to do.

Budget Changes

Immediately after this urgent question the Prime Minister will make a statement, and following that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will set out the Government’s position on personal independence payments and the welfare cap. For the rest of the day the debate on the Budget will continue, and tomorrow it will conclude with the Chancellor of the Exchequer responding. The House will therefore have three opportunities to discuss these issues before voting on the Budget tomorrow. I am grateful for the opportunity to talk about how this Government, through our long-term economic plan, are creating growth, generating employment, cutting the deficit, and securing long-term prosperity for the people of this country.

The Budget delivered last week by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out how we are taking more people out of income tax, supporting small businesses, encouraging investment, tackling tax avoidance, helping young people to save, and investing in our education system, all while restoring the public finances. That is what the British people voted for last May, and that is what we are delivering.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I asked it because the Budget process is in absolute chaos. It is unprecedented for a Government to have withdrawn a large part of the Budget and accepted two Opposition amendments before we have even reached the third day, and from what we have heard from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury today, we are little wiser. I have some sympathy for the hon. Gentleman, who has been sent out yet again to defend the indefensible, while the Chancellor insults this House by his refusal to attend.

This whole debacle started two weeks ago when the Government announced cuts of up to £150 a week in personal independence payments to disabled people. By the day of the Budget last week, we discovered that those cuts to disabled people had been forced through by the Chancellor to pay for cuts in capital gains tax for the wealthiest 5% in our society, and for cuts in corporation tax. I agree with the former Work and Pensions Secretary: such cuts are not defensible when placed in a Budget that benefits high earners.

How can the Chancellor any longer suggest that we are “all in this together”, when the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed today that poorer working age households with children will be the hardest hit? Will the Minister rule out any further cuts to support for people with disabilities in the lifetime of this Parliament? Over 600,000 disabled people and their families have been caused considerable distress over the last week, and they need the reassurance that their benefits are safe. If the PIP cuts are not going ahead, the money required from the Department for Work and Pensions still sits in the Red Book.

Will the Chief Secretary tell us which other vulnerable groups the Chancellor is considering targeting for cuts? If the Chancellor halts the attack on disabled people, a £4.4 billion black hole is created in the Budget. Add to this the billions of unidentified cuts, and the amendments on the tampon tax and solar power that we have won today, and within five days an enormous hole has appeared in the Budget. Is not the prudent thing for the Chancellor to do to withdraw this Budget and start again? I say that this is no way to deliver a Budget and no way to manage an economy.

First, may I thank the shadow Chancellor for promoting me to Chief Secretary to the Treasury? Secondly, may I just make this point about disability benefits? There is no question of this Government cutting disability benefits to the level we inherited in 2010. Spending on disability benefits has gone up by £3 billion in real terms. Thirdly, does the shadow Chancellor really want to talk about fiscal black holes? Does he really want to do that? [Interruption.]

Last week the Chancellor of the Exchequer reported on an economy set to grow faster than any other major advanced economy in the world. With wages up, the deficit cut by almost two thirds and 1,000 more people in work every single day, our economic plan is delivering for Britain. It is a Budget that continues this economic recovery, a Budget that takes us into surplus by the end of this Parliament, a Budget that backs British businesses, protecting jobs in difficult economic times, a Budget that helps more people buy their first home or save for their retirement, a Budget that builds our young people’s skills and invests in educating the next generation, and a Budget that helps to close the gaps between rich and poor and between north and south, because we believe in helping people to succeed wherever they come from. Since 2010, inequality is down, child poverty is down, pensioner poverty is down, the gender pay gap is smaller than ever, while the richest—[Interruption.]

Order. When the Minister is addressing the House, he is entitled to be heard. I know the Minister is raising his voice, but there should be no requirement to do so. Experience shows that all sides of the argument will be heard. Members need have no worry on that score. In the first instance, the Minister must be heard.

The richest 1% are paying a greater proportion of income tax revenue than in any single year of the Labour Government. This is the Government that introduced the national living wage, the Government that increased the personal allowance—in a year’s time, a typical basic rate taxpayer will pay over £1,000 less in tax than they paid in 2010—and the Government that are helping to generate record numbers of jobs, helping young people get on the property ladder, increasing spending on health and education, and disability benefits too, and protecting pensions and helping people achieve their aspirations at every stage of their lives. Delivering for Britain, creating economic security, jobs and growth—that is the record of this Government and the record of this Chancellor, and it is a record to be proud of.

Does my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary agree that the first duty of a Chancellor and his Treasury team when preparing a Budget is to have regard to the medium-term national interest and to provide sound finances for the benefit of our businesses, our investments and our employment? If we now have a situation in which Chancellors are expected to produce, on every occasion, popular spending commitments and popular tax cuts, while there is a failure to control out-of-control budgets, we will have the sort of economic performance achieved by the recent Governments of Greece, Italy or the United Kingdom under Gordon Brown.

I entirely agree with my right hon. and learned Friend that it is the long-term approach that he took as Chancellor of the Exchequer that we are now taking forward so that we can secure prosperity and economic security for the British people.

We are shortly to hear a statement from the Department for Work and Pensions, and if rumours are correct, it will announce a substantial change to the Budget announcements that we heard only last week. That is likely to result in either substantial extra borrowing or a requirement for substantial extra taxes or, potentially, the shredding of the fiscal charter rules. In any case, there is likely to be a substantial change to last week’s Budget. It is not good enough to announce that in a quick statement; surely it should require a supplementary corrective Budget. Let me ask the Minister whether his right hon. Friend the Chancellor has pencilled in a date for a summer Budget—and if he has not, may I suggest he does so now?

As the hon. Gentleman says, there will be a statement from the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and we also have two further days of Budget debates. As for changes to the fiscal position, in view of the oil price changes of recent months, I think we should look at the consequences for Scotland if it had been independent.

On 9 December, the Government issued a policy document announcing an increase in VAT on energy-saving materials from 5% to 20% to raise £65 million in the first full year. May I take it that I can now welcome the Government’s decision not to go ahead with that proposal? I would dearly love it if they did not proceed with it. Also, how are they going to deal with the fact that the European Court and European VAT law require us to impose this very unpopular tax?

The decision was taken some weeks ago not to proceed with any changes to VAT on energy-saving materials in this Finance Bill because new evidence had emerged and we no longer believed that we needed to go ahead with what was previously suggested. It is also the case—the Prime Minister will say something about this later—that because the European Commission and other member states are willing to agree to our arguments about the need for greater flexibility on VAT rates, we do not believe that these changes will be necessary.

Five days ago, the Chancellor stood at that Dispatch Box and published the Budget scorecard with a £4.4 billion cut to PIP. Where is the revised scorecard without it? Is it true that this cut will instead come from elsewhere in the DWP budget? If the Chancellor is too scared to answer questions in this House on the issue, he is not fit to do the job.

The Chancellor will debate the Budget resolutions tomorrow evening, and he will be the first Chancellor of the Exchequer to have done so since my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke). In 11 Budgets, Gordon Brown never once participated in the debate on the Budget apart from in his initial speech. As far as the public finances and compliance with the welfare cap are concerned, we will set things out at the autumn statement. Let us be absolutely clear that with the Labour party appearing to be upset about the public finances, Labour Members should listen to what they have been saying for the last six years.

My hon. Friend will know that members of the armed forces are sadly not immune to mental health problems and that, even more sadly, some of them take their own lives. As a member of the advisory board of the Samaritans, may I thank the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for the £3.5 million given to the Samaritans to assist military personnel who are suffering in this way?

The Minister has to accept that there will be a serious problem with the votes on the Budget resolutions tomorrow. How on earth is the House supposed to make a judgment when page 103 of the Red Book has been totally ripped up and changed? We are none the wiser about the contents of that section. Will he just answer one question? On a scale of one to 10, how embarrassed is he today?

If I were the hon. Gentleman, I would be a little embarrassed for not being aware that there are no votes on personal independence payments in the Budget resolutions tomorrow.

The role of the Budget is surely to promote growth and create employment. Has the Minister noticed that the small business rate relief measures have been widely welcomed by the Federation of Small Businesses because they will promote growth and employment across all strata of society?

Yes; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. There has been strong support from small businesses for the contents of this Budget. This is a Government who are backing small businesses and ensuring that they can provide the growth and employment opportunities that the British people need.

I regret the chaos that one tends to get with these unstable single-party Governments, but not half as much as I regret the failure of the Chancellor to be here to answer for himself. His Budget will leave the richest 10% of people £260 better off, and, until he was found out this weekend, that was going to be paid for by punishing the disabled. Does not all that conjuring just show that the Chancellor’s choices are driven by cynical politics, and not by economic necessity? Should not the fiscal charter, which is now utterly discredited, be scrapped?

Let me point out to the House that 28% of income tax was paid by 1% of taxpayers in 2013-14. Under the policies that we are pursuing, the highest earning 20% will now be paying more than half of all tax revenues. That would not have happened had we stuck with the tax system that we inherited in 2010.

Does the Minister agree that what the British people want, and what they voted for 10 months ago, is a Government who encourage growth, creating employment on a scale not seen for 30 years, and who take the low paid out of tax altogether while still focusing on investment in the health service and in mental health and other issues, making them a one nation, compassionate Conservative Government?

My hon. Friend puts it extremely well. Last May, the British people endorsed our long-term economic plan and we have to stick to it.

As the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has said, the cut in business rates has been welcomed by the small business community. In oral questions an hour ago, Department for Communities and Local Government Ministers said that local authorities would be completely compensated for that reduction, yet there is no sign of that in the Red Book either. Is this not simply another £1.7 billion black hole?

I very much support the Chancellor in wanting to live within our means and trying to balance the budget as quickly as possible. In my normal spirit of helpfulness, may I suggest that the problem is that too many Government Departments’ budgets are ring-fenced, meaning that the other Departments face cuts year after year? Is it not time to end the ludicrous ring-fencing of the international aid budget?

As always, I appreciate my hon. Friend’s spirit of helpfulness but I am afraid that I do not agree with him. It was a manifesto commitment by our party that we would fulfil the 0.7% target.

Harold Wilson once said that a week was a long time in politics. How long is a long-term economic plan? Three days? Four days? Five?

Let us be clear: this is a Government who have turned the economy round and delivered this country as the fastest-growing major western economy in 2014. We are forecast to be the fastest-growing again. We have record levels of employment. The deficit will be down by two thirds by the beginning of the next fiscal year. That is what this Government are delivering and will continue to deliver.

Will the Financial Secretary confirm that spending on disability payments has increased by £2 billion over the past five years and will increase by a further £1 billion over the coming five years?

Actually, the figure is slightly more than that over the past five years. Disability spending has risen significantly under this Government, even though we inherited the largest deficit in our peacetime history.

Today’s urgent question is not about the Budget documentation, the EU referendum or who is going to be the next leader of the Tory party, but about the hundreds of thousands of disabled people across this country and their fate. In the absence of the Chancellor today, will the Minister take the opportunity to apologise to all the disabled people across the country who have been left in turmoil over the past few days in relation to what support, if any, they are going to get from this Government? What are the future plans for them?

This is a Government who have increased spending on the disabled. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will shortly make a statement on Government policy in this area.

You frequently remind us, Mr Speaker, about the people listening and watching at home—our constituents. On the second day of the Budget debate, the shadow Chancellor pledged that if the Government would look again at the personal independence plans, the Opposition would not play politics with that. Does my hon. Friend agree that this is too serious an issue to play politics with?

My hon. Friend has a point. We have had assurances about not playing politics once or twice before from the shadow Chancellor. I am not sure he has always delivered on that.

Last week’s Budget makes the 2012 omnishambles Budget look like a model of good policy making. Can the Financial Secretary confirm that the Red Book is still the basis for the Budget and, if it is, that the £4.4 billion cut to disability benefits still stands?

What is very clear from the plans that we have set out is that by the end of this Parliament we are on course to deliver a budget surplus that would have never happened if we had followed Labour’s plans.

Some 600,000 small businesses will benefit from the rate relief cut. Will the Financial Secretary continue to support those small businesses, which generate the jobs for those people who want to work and generate the tax to support those people who cannot?

Absolutely. I can give that assurance. This is a Government who are on the side of businesses—businesses that create the growth and jobs that we need—and the biggest threat to our recovery is the anti-business approach that we see from the Opposition.

One of the smaller, disregarded mysteries of the Budget is the announcement of the north Wales growth field, which seems to exist in name only. Will the Minister enlighten the House about its details?

The Government will be engaging with the Welsh Government and local authorities on that. The future for the Welsh economy would be best pursued by electing a Conservative Government in Wales, as well as in the United Kingdom.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is thanks to the steadfast stewardship of the economy by our right hon. Friend the Chancellor and the Treasury team for the past six years that this year we have been able to introduce a Budget that has supported small businesses, supported the motorist, supported and helped local brewers and the pub industry, and that continues policies that support business and create jobs? Only steadfastness of purpose delivers that. Strength to the Treasury team’s elbow.

My hon. Friend puts it very well. This is a Government, and this is a Chancellor of the Exchequer, who have turned round the economy. We are in a position to be growing strongly compared with our international competitors, and we are bringing the public finances under control, having inherited the mess that would did in 2010.

The Chancellor made no effort to justify the cut in disability benefits in the Budget statement, beyond saying that it would save a lot of money. Yesterday, we heard from the former DWP Secretary that the Chancellor’s view is that people claiming disability benefits will never vote Conservative so there is no reason for restraint in cutting their benefits. Will the Financial Secretary respond to that allegation?

That was not even the allegation. The reality is that, if we look at spending on disability living allowance and personal independence payments, it has gone up since 2010 by £3 billion—that is not a Government who are cutting at the expense of disabled people.

Will the Minister confirm that, as well as continuing to take thousands of my constituents out of paying income tax, and as well as shifting the burden of taxation from small businesses, through business rates, to multinationals, the Government remain committed to a progressive target of halving the disability employment gap?

Indeed. My hon. Friend makes a good point, and he is absolutely right to raise that. As I pointed out earlier, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will address that point, I am sure, later this afternoon.

Last Wednesday, the Chancellor announced that this was a Budget for the next generation. Which member of the next generation will succeed the Chancellor?

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best way to reduce the welfare bill is to create more jobs and to give people the opportunity to have the dignity of earning their own living, rather than being stuck in a life on benefits?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is why all of us in the House should be delighted that we have record numbers of people in work.

As of last Wednesday, the Chancellor has delivered five Budgets in 15 months—one every three months. Are we to take it from the Minister’s statement that the Chancellor wishes to improve on that record and give us a new Budget every week?

I fear that the quality of the questions might be slightly deteriorating, but there we go. The answer is no.

I am sure the Minister, like me, will see the slight irony in the fact that an urgent question on the Budget is delaying an announcement and a debate on the Budget. However, will he reassure me that the Government, in looking at Budget changes, will be more influenced by a long-term economic plan than by the thoughts of Chairman Mao?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am delighted that the quality of questions has now improved.

We have a debate on the Budget today and tomorrow, and the Chancellor will respond to the debate tomorrow. In terms of any future changes of fiscal events, there will be an autumn statement in the autumn.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the many positive things in the Budget—including the small business rate changes, which will remove a lot of business rates from independent shops in Sutton, Cheam and Worcester Park, and the tax threshold changes, which will help a lot of people who should never have been caught by the 40% tax threshold, including many public sector workers—will go ahead as planned?

Yes, I can confirm that. The changes to small business rate relief will help hundreds of thousands of businesses, particularly small businesses. We are delivering on the pledge in the Conservative party manifesto to increase the higher rate threshold to £50,000—this Budget takes it to £45,000—and we are also raising the personal allowance. The typical basic rate taxpayer is now paying more than £1,000 less in income tax as a consequence of the changes we have made.

The Minister has talked about debt and our record. Of course, the last Government borrowed more in five years than the Labour Government did in 13 years. We understand that Conservative Members are clamouring for a change to the PIP proposals, on the basis that they disproportionately hit the disabled. If that is the case, why not also reverse another measure that disproportionately hits the disabled—namely, the disgraceful and appalling bedroom tax?

Let me deal with this point. During the whole of the last Parliament, we debated in this place measures to reduce spending and the Labour party constantly opposed them. It argued that we should borrow more—I presume this is what the hon. Gentleman means from what he has just said—to borrow less. If that is the position of the shadow shadow Chancellor, it is not much of an improvement on that of the shadow Chancellor. It is right that we try to find savings in the welfare budget, and the spare room subsidy is an important part of that.

Before I became a Member of Parliament, I was one of a dwindling number of self-employed people in this country. The self-employment sector now numbers 4 million-plus. Does my hon. Friend agree that we have cut back on red tape on self-employment and put more money into the self-employed, which is more than the Labour party did in 13 years? I was a self-employed person, so I can speak with authority on that.

My hon. Friend brings much expertise to this issue, and I know that he is very pleased that one of the things we were able to do in the Budget was to finally remove class 2 national insurance contributions. That was a tax on the self-employed and it was also a significant administrative burden, so I am pleased that we have been able to remove it.

May I express the shock and sadness in my constituency at the loss of life of a family from Derry in Buncrana last night?

How can the Financial Secretary continue to talk about a long-term economic plan when he is describing what are increasingly ephemeral Budgets? Will the Government finally end the error of their ways in relation to the welfare cap and stop using it as a search engine for benefit cuts?

First, may I associate myself with the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and, through him, express the condolences of the whole House to the family who suffered so grievously last night?

On this Government’s approach, we believe that it is in the interest of the whole country that the public finances are on a sound footing. Reducing the deficit from a record level to surplus is a significant challenge, but it is one that we have to meet as a country, and we have to be willing to take the decisions that that involves. That is what this Government were elected to do in 2010 and what we were re-elected to do in 2015, and that is what we will do.

Will my hon. Friend confirm that there has been no change in the Budget commitment to tackle homelessness with a record boost of some £115 million, which is on top of the protection for the homeless prevention grant? That very much shows this Government’s credentials in protecting the vulnerable.