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Topical Questions

Volume 611: debated on Tuesday 7 June 2016

We are all extremely grateful that the Treasury was able to have funding for local infrastructure projects, which clearly shows the success of the Government’s policies. However, there has been no major investment in rail infrastructure in Hampshire for nearly 60 years, and that is holding back our productivity. Will my right hon. Friend meet me, local councils and local enterprise partnerships to sort out this issue as a matter of urgency, as we have committed to build 102,000 new homes by 2030 and our roads are already full?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise the issue of investment in infrastructure in Hampshire and in her constituency of Portsmouth. There is money going into the road infrastructure, such as the M27, and some investment in rail infrastructure, such as Southampton Central station, but, clearly, there is room to do more. As someone who has some experience of the rail services from Portsmouth, I know that they are not as good as they could be. I am very happy to meet her, her colleagues and local businesses to see what more we can do.

T4. In Scotland, we have introduced robust anti-avoidance rules—they are among the toughest in the world—on devolved taxes. The Scottish National party has repeatedly called on the Chancellor to embolden compliance by guaranteeing that the beneficial ownership of companies and trusts is made public. Has he taken steps to assure the people of the UK that this progressive step will happen? (905217)

The UK is bringing in a register of beneficial ownership for companies. On trusts, where there are tax consequences that will also be included. So, yes, the UK is leading on that, and we are pretty much the first country to do so.

T2. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are having difficulty with this year’s online HMRC self-assessment system, particularly with the level of customer service they are getting from the helpdesk. Will the Minister look into this issue as a matter of urgency so that we can get a speedy resolution to the problems and ensure that my constituents are not penalised? (905215)

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the specific points, but I would also say that the customer performance of HMRC last year was clearly not at an acceptable level. In the run-up to the self-assessment deadline at the end of January 89% of calls were getting through first time and the average waiting time was less than five minutes. That can be improved on, but we should note that it is a much higher performance than has been achieved in HMRC’s previous history.

T5. I note that the Minister has yet to respond properly to the shadow Chancellor’s question about the new anti-tax avoidance directive in the European Parliament, which is being voted on tomorrow. In light of Conservative MEPs’ abstention at the committee stage, will someone now confirm whether they will support it tomorrow? (905218)

Just to be clear, the text of the anti-tax avoidance directive has not been finalised. It was discussed at the ECOFIN meeting a couple of weeks ago and will be discussed again in a week’s time, on 17 June. It has not been finalised. What I can say is that the UK Government’s position is very clear: we want something strong and effective, and that is the case that we have been advocating in the Council of Ministers.

T3. The devolution of business rates, allowing local areas to shape their own future, will be of a real benefit to my constituents in Kingston, who pay some of the highest council taxes in the country and receive one of the lowest Government grants in return. Will my right hon. Friend confirm when the first business rate devolution deals will be rolled out and whether Kingston can be at the front of the queue? (905216)

My hon. Friend and his local council have been at the forefront of calling for this major reform of local government finance, which is, of course, now being undertaken across the whole country. I can confirm that London will be moving ahead of many other areas and we will start the retention of business rates in local areas from April 2017.

T7. The eye-watering costs of the proposed new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point C will put public finance at risk, as well as the strike price, pushing up energy bills for businesses and consumers. Will the Chancellor redirect this investment to cleaner, safer and cheaper energy sources such as renewables and carbon capture and storage? (905220)

The first thing I would say is that there were those remarkable figures recently showing that 25% of UK electricity generation is now from renewable energy. That is second only to Germany and is an amazing transformation in our energy supply under this Conservative leadership. Secondly, we need to renew the next generation of nuclear power stations, starting with Hinkley Point, but the deal we have signed makes sure that taxpayers are not exposed to the construction risk.

T6. I note that the Government will publish a report on the progress of payments to Equitable Life policyholders who are victims of the great scam, and I congratulate the Government on the progress that has been made to compensate those individuals. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to review the amount of money paid to victims of the scam so that we can fulfil the debt of honour that we owe them? (905219)

I can announce that although the Equitable Life payment scheme is now closed to new claims, payments being made under the scheme to with-profit annuitants are not only tax free but will continue for the life of the relevant annuity.

T8. June’s OECD economic outlook revised down its prediction for UK GDP growth. This latest fall arises in the aftermath of the International Monetary Fund’s health check of the UK economy, which concluded that GDP growth was also paltry. When will the Chancellor listen to the experts and offer much-needed investment instead of ideologically driven austerity? (905221)

Both the downward revisions to which the hon. Gentleman refers—from the OECD and the IMF—are specifically for this year and in both cases the organisations attribute that to the referendum on our membership of the EU and the potential exit from the EU. They say that if the country votes to remain, however, they expect activity to bounce back and they have not revised down growth for next year.

Does the Minister share my concern about the activities of ambulance-chasing law firms which encourage fraudulent whiplash claims, of which I have had personal experience? Can the Minister update the House on the Government’s plans to clamp down on this outrageous practice?

I hope that my hon. Friend has experienced only the ambulance chasers, not the whiplash. He is right to highlight the cost that this puts on motorists, which we estimate is about £90 a year for every motorist in the country. That is why we have already taken steps to reform this area. Last year in the autumn statement we announced further reforms, which will remove the right to cash compensation for minor whiplash injuries, while ensuring that genuine claimants are rehabilitated.

Genuine tax avoidance must be tackled, but HMRC pursuing people who invested legally in schemes, not to avoid tax, and who are now being hit with accelerated payments, is an affront to natural justice, treating them as guilty until proved innocent. Will the Chancellor meet me and a group of people who are seriously detrimentally affected by this?

I am afraid I completely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. He is opposing a measure that we have introduced which says to people who are in dispute with HMRC about the money they pay because of their potential use of tax evasion or avoidance schemes that they should pay up front and, if they win their case, they get their money. Every other taxpayer has to do that. As a result of the measure, we have raised hundreds of millions of pounds for public services and won some key court judgments. I find it remarkable for a Liberal Democrat to be siding with those who want to try to evade their taxes.

Does the Chancellor agree that we need to work with our businesses to tackle our productivity gap and especially to ensure that we have a skilled workforce in engineering and design and technology to boost our economy further?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and I know how much she champions skills in her constituency in Wiltshire. The apprentice levy, which has now been legislated for, will ensure that we are able to increase the number of apprentices in this country towards the 3 million that we committed to in the manifesto. Crucially, more money will go into skilled apprenticeships in fields such as design and engineering. She wants to see more of those, and so do I.

Many constituents of mine, including those working at RF Brookes, tell me that their employers are attacking their terms and conditions because of the national living wage. Does the Chancellor agree that this abuse should not go on as it is giving constituents of mine an overall pay cut?

We certainly expect businesses to pay the national living wage and to honour not just the letter of the law—we have increased enforcement of the living wage through HMRC—but the spirit of it, which means that employers should pay that wage and not find ways to cut other allowances to make good on the pay bill.

I welcome the Government’s support for the reporting of gender pay gap figures. What steps is the Minister taking to reduce the gender pay gap in the financial services sector?

I welcome this question because our financial services sector is not only our highest-paid sector, but the one with the widest gender pay gap. That is why we launched the Women in Finance charter, and we are asking all financial services firms to implement the recommendations in the excellent review by Jayne-Anne Gadhia, the chief executive of Virgin Money, on the representation, or rather the under-representation, of senior women in financial services.

The Government have made significant public spending cuts affecting disabled people, including nearly £30 billion of cuts in social security to 3.7 million disabled people. Given that disabled people are twice as likely as the general population to be living in poverty, how many more disabled people will be living in poverty by 2020?

In fact, spending on disability benefits is going up, not down. There are many more personal independence payments claimants getting the highest rate than there were under disability living allowance; 200,000 more people are getting carers allowance; 22,000 more people are getting help through Motability, and we have a firm commitment to work towards halving the disability employment gap, which is so important for driving up incomes. The gap has remained stubbornly wide, but the most recent quarter showed a small decrease.

In 1945 there was a dream of a link road from what is now the M6 to Heysham port, through which 10% of our GDP comes in. That link road will soon be opening. Does my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agree that part of the long-term economic plan is to show that this area of Lancashire will be regenerated? More to the point, would he, diary permitting, like to open the road?

I remember visiting the road with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister just days before the general election. Because our hon. Friend had been such a champion of his constituency, his constituents said, “Let’s have him back in Parliament championing more investment in Lancashire.” Diary permitting, I would be delighted to open the link road. Indeed, when I was at Warrenpoint in Northern Ireland yesterday, I met the company that trades between Heysham and Warrenpoint, and it is investing in new jobs there.

The Wales Bill being introduced later today will leave Wales with a vastly inferior fiscal settlement to those for Scotland and Northern Ireland. Why cannot Wales have full income tax powers like Scotland, corporation tax powers like Northern Ireland and air passenger duty powers like both those countries?

I totally agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to get on with income tax devolution. I will be having further meetings with the Welsh Government to ensure that we do that. At the same time, we need to look at questions such as how to adjust the block grant, which of course will depend on what is devolved and when. We have also set the funding floor at 115% for the duration of this Parliament.

The black country economy in the west midlands has been one of the fastest growing sub-regions in the UK over the past few years, with new jobs and investment. Does the Chancellor agree that we need to continue to focus on investing in growth in the black country and avoid the economic risk that would come from us leaving the European Union?

I agree with my hon. Friend on both points. First, I think that there is an enormous amount of exciting news in the black country, with businesses there growing and creating jobs, and more investment is coming into the part of the country he represents so well. Secondly, I think that economic growth would be at risk if we left the European Union. We have today heard warnings from the chairman of the Federal Reserve, the head of Hitachi and the head of the World Trade Organisation, all telling us that there is a real economic risk for the UK if we vote to leave.

What assessment has the Chancellor made of the impact on the British economy of overcrowding in airports in London and the south-east, and how much will further delay cost us?

It is absolutely clear that we need additional runway capacity in the south-east of England. That is what the Davies report suggested. Of course, the Government now need to come forward with a conclusion to that report, but we wanted to address the issue of air quality. When we raised that issue, some people asked whether it was necessary to look into it. If we look at the debates in the mayoral contest over the past few months, we see that air quality is an important issue to get right. We are close to finishing that work, and then we will report back on the Davies commission and future airport capacity.

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) to put his urgent question, I should explain that, on account of the subsequent business, its importance and the likely level of subscription to it, the UQ will run for a maximum of half an hour, so the limits on the Front Benchers and Back Benchers involved do need to be observed.