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Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2016

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Economic Growth: Coastal Areas

The Government are committed to helping coastal communities unlock barriers to economic growth. For example, we have invested more than £125 million in more than 200 projects across the United Kingdom through the coastal communities fund. That investment is forecast to deliver more than 18,000 jobs and help to attract more than £240 million of additional funds to coastal areas. Last week, in the autumn statement, I announced the allocation of £1.8 billion from the local growth fund to all regions in England.

Coastal areas face specific challenges because they do not have 360° access to trade with neighbouring areas, and the Isle of Wight faces additional challenges because we have no physical link with the mainland. Does my right hon. Friend regard the Isle of Wight as a special case that deserves extra support from the Government?

I know that every single one of my right hon. and hon. Friends will regard his or her own constituency as a special case, but I can tell my hon. Friend that the Government recognise the specific barriers to economic growth experienced by coastal areas such as the Isle of Wight. That is why we are extending the coastal communities fund by at least a further £90 million across the United Kingdom over the current Parliament. In addition, as my hon. Friend will know, through the Solent growth deal the Isle of Wight has benefited from nearly £15 million of investment to expand the skills base, support business growth and improve transport links.

Coastal areas in the north of England have been left behind for too long. We now know that the cost of Brexit to our economy will be the best part of 60 billion quid. Will the Chancellor commit himself to replacing the EU structural funding that gives coastal areas such as New Ferry, in my constituency, half a chance to make economic progress?

We have already made announcements about EU funding during the transition period, giving a Treasury guarantee to underwrite funding that is allocated to projects in the UK, so that people who bid for that funding can do so with confidence. However, as the hon. Lady suggests, after we leave the European Union we will need to review for England, and discuss with the devolved Administrations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, how we are to replace the streams of EU funding to which many regions have become accustomed. We need to have a debate in the House to ensure that that funding is used in a way that reflects the UK’s priority in the future, not the priority of the wider European Union.

Selsey Bill, in my constituency, is a special case, but the best thing that can be done for coastal areas is to secure stronger growth throughout the economy. Mario Draghi has suggested that UK growth would be lower if, as a consequence of Brexit, the UK economy were less open to trade and investment. Does the Chancellor agree that both the UK and the EU benefit from an open economy, and that, if the European Central Bank is worried about a Brexit shock to the eurozone, he can and should be lobbying EU leaders to press for a high degree of mutual market access in the Brexit negotiations?

Absolutely, Mr Speaker. I agree with Mario Draghi that a reduction in openness would be very bad for the economy of Selsey Bill, and my right hon. Friend is right to draw attention to that. I entirely agree that the best way for the Government to protect the UK’s economy is to argue for the most open possible trading relationship with the European Union after we leave.

The coastal communities of Cumbria were deeply affected by Storm Desmond last December. The River Kent, which meets the sea at Morecambe bay, is one of Britain’s fastest-flowing and shortest rivers, and when it flooded last December, untold damage was caused to communities and the economy throughout the county. In last week’s autumn statement, the Government went back on their word from last December to fund the resilience of bridges to help prevent future flooding. Will the Chancellor apologise to the flood-hit communities of Cumbria for that betrayal, and, even at this late stage, will he change his mind?

We did announce funds for flood resilience in the autumn statement, distributed from money that had already been set aside for that purpose in the spending review. I did not mention Cumbria specifically in the autumn statement, but I will look at the case that the hon. Gentleman has raised, and will write to him.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcements of the various sums, and may I suggest that the sums the Government have put aside for coastal defence are critical for places such as Whitstable, in my constituency, for generating economic as well as social confidence among the people who live there?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right and of course flood defences are categorised as economic infrastructure precisely because they are a critical enabler of business activity and are critical to protect transport, communications, infrastructure and so on, and we will continue to invest in them.

It is about time we heard from this Government about support for our coastal economies because we have just seen, in last week’s autumn statement, a catalogue of six and a half years of abject failure, whether on infrastructure, skills or support for businesses. The coastal communities of Formby and Crosby in my constituency need to hear a lot more from the Chancellor. They need support now and in the future.

If the hon. Gentleman had been listening, what he would have heard last week was a catalogue of 2.7 million new jobs created over the last six and a half years, a deficit inherited from Labour at a peacetime record high slashed by two-thirds, a million new jobs created in the UK, record employment levels and 865,000 fewer workless households, all of which will have made an important contribution to improving living standards and prospects in coastal communities throughout the UK.

Housing Supply

The Government are committed to supporting housing supply and ensuring that the housing market works for everyone. Good progress has been made since 2010, with housing supply now at an eight-year high. In October, my right hon. Friend the Communities and Local Government Secretary launched a £3 billion home building fund to provide loans to house builders to unlock over 200,000 homes. However, the scale of the challenge requires us to go further, which is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced that the Government will invest £2.3 billion in a new housing infrastructure fund that will deliver up to 100,000 homes, and will invest an additional £1.4 billion to deliver 40,000 new affordable homes.

Will the autumn statement’s £3.15 billion boost for London housing be flexible enough to meet the aspirations of both Londoners wanting a home they can afford to rent or buy and London’s homeless, whose complex needs include the need for supported housing?

I can provide that reassurance to my hon. Friend. The Government are committed to supporting housing supply and ensuring that the housing market works for everyone, including Londoners. London’s £3.15 billion affordable housing settlement will deliver over 90,000 affordable housing starts by 2020-21 across a range of tenures, including homes for low-cost home ownership and submarket rent, as well as supporting housing for Londoners with particular needs, and of course London will also benefit from the housing infrastructure fund.

More people in my constituency rent privately than own their own homes and for most of them ownership is a distant or impossible dream. Are the Government considering looking at the supply of private rented housing on longer tenures, perhaps with rent guarantees, and possibly using tax reliefs or other mechanisms the Treasury has in its armoury, to encourage landlords to provide those longer-term tenancies and better security for the many private rented sector tenants?

The Government are taking action to ensure that we build more homes. There is a need for flexibility in terms of tenure, which was at the heart of my answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), but last week’s autumn statement included a series of measures that will help to ensure that we are building more homes in this country, which is what we need.

Why is there such a large gap between the number of planning permissions and the number of housing starts, and what specifically can the Government do to close that gap?

There has consistently been a gap. What is important is that there is certainty of supply. We need to ensure that we have the right planning system in place and the right fiscal support, and that is what the Government are determined to deliver.

In last week’s autumn statement, the Chancellor raised the tax on house insurance by 20%. How is that supposed to help first-time home buyers to get access to housing?

We were very clear that the 2% increase in insurance premium tax was a revenue-raiser that enabled us to introduce the measure on changing the taper for universal credit, which increases the incentives to work. We believe that was the right course of action, but if we look at the autumn statement, and indeed the announcement made at the Conservative party conference, what is very clear is that this Government are committed to ensuring that we build more homes, which is what the public rightly expect.


3. If the Government will establish a public inquiry into Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ contract with Concentrix. (907541)

9. If the Government will establish a public inquiry into Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ contract with Concentrix. (907547)

The independent National Audit Office is carrying out an inquiry into the Concentrix contract and it plans to publish its report in early 2017. That is in addition to Select Committee and Public Accounts Committee scrutiny, which has been extensive to date and will no doubt be extensive in the future.

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), who is not in her place, whose hard work got this issue on to the agenda and forced HMRC to act. In July, the independent Social Security Advisory Committee said that the Concentrix contract was a

“major departure for HMRC, as decisions about a claimant’s past eligibility to a benefit are being made by a commercial organisation”,

and that

“this same organisation is then performing mandatory reconsiderations when a claimant challenges the initial decision.”

What are the Government going to do to prevent this situation from happening again?

The chief executive of HMRC addressed that particular issue in one of his evidence sessions to a Select Committee. I hope the House will be pleased to hear that HMRC has taken back and completed all 181,000 cases from Concentrix and has now cleared most of the mandatory reconsiderations. [Interruption.] There are of course issues to consider. That is why the National Audit Office is carrying out its inquiry, which is already under way, and the Government will of course respond to its report in due course.

The Concentrix scandal left huge numbers of people in hardship, and some of them are still paying off the debts to loan sharks that they took out to see them through. Ministers must have seen the complaints letters, and they must have seen what was in the media. Were they asleep at their desks? Were they just caught napping? Concentrix, HMRC and the Minister at the time need to be held responsible for this, and we need a proper inquiry.

I would make the point to the hon. Gentleman that a proper inquiry is exactly what the National Audit Office will be undertaking, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and her Committee will have that report in front of them in due course. This matter will be properly looked at in some detail. Over the course of the contract, considerable savings were made for the taxpayer in relation to fraud and error, but it is true that things went badly wrong towards the end of the contract, which is why swift action was taken.

While recognising the points made by the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on the Concentrix contract, which will be covered in the Select Committee’s report, I would like to congratulate Treasury Ministers on responding very fast when these issues really came to a climax in August and on being extremely prompt in looking after constituents who contacted their MPs about this matter.

I thank my hon. Friend for those words. Having looked carefully at the profile of complaints from Members over the period of the contract, it is clear that there was sharp increase in their number right at the end of the contract, when it became apparent that a number of Members were contacting us on behalf of their constituents. As I have said, it was the sharp decline in service that led to the actions that we took. It is also worth noting that all the 181,000 cases that were taken back have now been resolved and that, where appropriate, compensation has been paid. Most importantly, when claims have needed to be renewed and reinstated, this has been done.

Given the issues in my constituency that I have raised, I am pleased that the Concentrix contract has now been brought to an end. Does the Minister agree that an inquiry by the National Audit Office, which works for and answers to this House, will be far more effective in getting lessons learned than a long-winded public inquiry that could become a lawyer-fest?

My hon. Friend is exactly right to say that the National Audit Office inquiry is the way to go. This is an area in which it is deeply experienced and the work is already under way. The report will be produced in the new year. In order to draw conclusions and to find these reports helpful, that speed of inquiry is important. We will have the report early in the new year, and the House will have further chances to scrutinise it at that time.

HMRC Penalty Surcharges

4. What steps he is taking to reduce the effect on small businesses of penalty surcharges levied by HM Revenue and Customs. (907542)

Ultimately, the Government want to collect the right tax at the right time, not charge penalties. As it happens, we are currently reviewing ideas for how we charge penalties. A discussion document was published last year, and we recently consulted on a new approach to sanctions for late submissions of returns and late payment of taxes. We are currently considering all the comments received and if my hon. Friend wants to contribute to that process, I will be happy to look at any detailed points.

I am more than happy to contribute. A small building company in my constituency has paid large VAT bills on time since 1972. However, on one occasion, because of a mistake by a member of staff, the company’s VAT return was one day late and the company was hit with a totally unfair £12,000 penalty charge. During the review, will Ministers consider changing the penalty charge system so that they are levied only on businesses that repeatedly fail to pay their VAT on time? “Three strikes and you’re fined” might be a good system.

I note what my hon. Friend says with interest. It is worth clarifying that the VAT default surcharge system already contains safeguards to help businesses avoid penalties and that no business incurs a surcharge the first time it makes a late payment. My hon. Friend may want to write to me about that individual case because I cannot address it here in the House. The current system of surcharges is structured in a way that allows the smallest businesses up to four late payments without incurring a surcharge, so I suggest that he writes to me with the details, which I will pass on to HMRC.

The new “Making tax digital” arrangements, which will require businesses to submit quarterly returns, increase the likelihood of sanctions being imposed following late returns or non-submission. How does that fit in with the Government’s promises to make it easier to start a business, to cut red tape and to make businesses more competitive?

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s description of “Making tax digital”—an important reform that we will consider carefully. We said in the autumn statement that we will respond in the new year, but it is not right to say that there will be four returns; information will be digitally uploaded to the system more regularly. It is also the case that one of the driving forces behind “Making tax digital” is to help small businesses to get things right first time, because there is an awful lot of error that often costs businesses money that they would otherwise be owed.

I must press the Financial Secretary on that point. I appreciate that the “Making tax digital” programme does have advantages, but many small businesses are worried about quarterly reporting. Will she consider making it voluntary rather than mandatory?

I reiterate to my right hon. Friend that it is envisaged that people will upload information quarterly, but that is not the same as four tax returns a year, something which got some currency at the time. Several significant concessions regarding the number of small businesses that were exempt from the system were announced over the summer, but I am listening carefully to the points being made both by colleagues in the House and by some of the important stakeholders with whom we have been engaging. That is why we said that we will respond in the new year. We do not want to rush our response; we want to consider all the points carefully.

Productivity (South-west)

Investment and skills are front and centre in our plans to raise productivity across the country, including in the south-west. The autumn statement announced a new £23 billion national productivity investment fund that will be targeted at four areas that are critical to improving productivity: housing; transport; digital communications; and research and development. We also announced in the autumn statement that the south-west will receive £191 million from the local growth fund to back local priorities and support new jobs and £19.5 million extra investment to bolster the area’s resilience to flooding.

I welcome the Chancellor’s words and appreciate that he is keen for funding to be granted and attached to infrastructure projects that will bring a positive economic effect. With that in mind, will he consider supporting road improvements on the Toneway-Creech Castle corridor that leads into Somerset’s county town of Taunton, which will unlock 3,000 housing units?

I understand that the Heart of the South West local enterprise partnership bid for this scheme is part of its local growth fund submission; as I said, £191 million has been allocated to the south-west, and details of the individual LEP allocations will be announced in the near future. The Government are very supportive of using infrastructure to open up house building and employment opportunities, and from what she has said about this road, it sounds as though the project in question would fit very well with Government priorities.

As the Chancellor will know, Bristol is making a real contribution to productive growth, not just in the south-west, but across the country. But as the mayor of Bristol said in his response to the autumn statement,

“if the government wants a ‘watertight’ UK economy it needs to stop punching holes in local government’s hull.”

Will the Government commit to giving Bristol and cities like it the devolved powers, infrastructure investment and funding they need to deliver on productive growth locally?

The Government remain committed to the devolution agenda and, in particular, to supporting mayoral authorities, to ensure that economic growth and productivity are driven from the bottom up. We will continue to work with those authorities to make sure we deliver the funding available in the most effective way to get the result the national economy needs.

I very much welcome the Chancellor’s commitment to road, rail and broadband. Openreach should be broken away from BT to deliver proper competition, because in the hardest-to-reach areas for broadband in my constituency and across the west country, we need some greater players and greater competition.

I appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying. He will know that there has been a long and heated debate about the best way of delivering our broadband infrastructure in the future, and Ofcom is at the heart of reviewing this issue. I shall continue to have meetings with Ofcom, and with representatives of BT and others, over the coming days, as will my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary.

The south-west’s productivity has drifted down since 2010 and, according to the House of Commons Library, the UK overall has seen the widest productivity gap with the G7 since 1991, when the data series began. What plans, if any, does the Chancellor have to pursue his predecessor’s so-called “Fixing the foundations” productivity plan? Or is that another failed policy that this Chancellor is trying quietly to jettison?

No, and if the hon. Gentleman looks at the document we published last Wednesday, he will see that it contained a specific reference to “Fixing the foundations”, which is the base document setting out the Government’s agenda for addressing productivity issues. Of course, the key announcement in last week’s autumn statement was an additional £23 billion of borrowing specifically targeted at the highest-return investment projects; this is designed to raise Britain’s productivity by raising the productivity performance of our regional cities, in particular, and our regions more generally, to that of London and the south-west.

It is six years late. The productivity gap has widened for both the south-west and the country, and so has the gap in earnings and wages. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the outlook for wages is “dreadful”, with workers likely to earn less in real terms in 2021 than they did in 2008, and with the biggest losers being lower-income families, with the poorest third likely to see incomes drop. So in tandem with action on the productivity crisis, what are the Chancellor’s plans for action on the wages crisis?

First, if the hon. Gentleman that if he looks at real household disposable incomes, he will see that the picture is rather brighter, and they present a much more real picture of what people in the economy are experiencing. He is right to say that real wages are a reflection of productivity performance, and the only way sustainably to raise real wages is to raise the productivity performance of this economy. So rather than whinging about whether something was done this year, last year or six years ago, and perhaps with a careful eye on the performance of the previous Labour Government in this area, he might care to welcome the announcement made last week as an appropriate initiative to try to raise the UK’s productivity performance, and raise real wages and living standards over the long term.

Business Investment: UK and East Anglia

The Government are taking significant steps to encourage business investment in East Anglia and in all regions of the UK by cutting corporation tax to the lowest rate in the G20, delivering a £6.7 billion business rates package and allocating the £23 billion of public investment through the national productivity investment fund to ensure increasing and improved productivity. The autumn statement also announced £27 million for the Oxford to Cambridge expressway road link, as well as funding for the east-west rail link, and local enterprise partnerships in the east of England will also receive up to £151 million of local growth funding.

I welcome the Chancellor’s reply and the announcement of investment in the Oxford to Cambridge corridor and the transformational effect that that could have. Will he also ensure that other schemes to the east of Cambridge, such as the vital Ely North rail junction and improvements to the A47, also go ahead on time? He will be aware that they are crucial to the future economy of west Norfolk and other parts of Norfolk.

I will certainly pass on my hon. Friend’s comments about that particular rail scheme to my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary. My hon. Friend will know that we have a large programme of rail infrastructure in place and that the additional funding for the east-west rail link that was announced last week was outside that core rail programme. I hope that he will agree that the Oxford to Cambridge corridor represents a real growth opportunity for the south and the east of England to exploit Britain’s two best known universities and their world-class research reputations to enhance the productive capacity of our economy.

Since 23 June, there has been a significant depreciation of sterling and two announcements of major investments in UK motor manufacturing. The prospects for investment in UK manufacturing more widely are now much improved. Will the Chancellor be seeking to ensure that the more sensible exchange rate welcomed by Lord Mervyn King, among others, is sustained?

No. It is not the Government’s business to sustain or manage the exchange rate in any way, as the hon. Gentleman very well knows. We have an inflation target, but exchange rates are set by markets and reflect market views about the economy and expectations of the trajectory of the economy in the future. He is absolutely right to observe that, over the past six months, we have seen some remarkable endorsements of the British economy through large inward investment decisions made by foreign inward investors.

May I congratulate the Chancellor on the £23 billion of extra money for this national productivity investment fund, which will confer huge benefits on the whole of the United Kingdom? Although I do not expect him to comment on the considerable merits of the A610 growth corridor and the improvements to the road at Giltbrook, I am very happy to meet him to persuade him of them. On a serious note, will he do everything he can to ensure that excellent schemes such as those are expedited and not caught up in what can sometimes be bureaucratic tangles?

It is an excellent scheme indeed. My right hon. Friend will know that it is not only the £23 billion of additional funding for economically productive infrastructure that was announced on Wednesday last week, but a core £150 billion of funding for the same defined purposes over the remainder of this Parliament and the Government’s commitment, repeated last Wednesday, to move to a roads fund from 2020, funded by the revenues from vehicle excise duty, all of which adds up to a sustained commitment to investment in our roads.

Brexit is putting business investment on hold at the expense of job losses. This comes after a long period of escalating debt and slumping growth. Furthermore, quantitative easing has failed to raise confidence and stimulate business investment in the real economy. The autumn statement measures announced are simply insufficient. What else will the Chancellor do?

I simply do not recognise the picture that the hon. Gentleman paints. The Bank of England’s monetary actions have undoubtedly had a positive effect in stimulating the economy. The performance of consumer demand over the past few weeks has demonstrated that very clearly. We have the key elements in place, both monetary and fiscal, for our current circumstance, which is the potential for a more difficult period ahead. We need to muster our resources, make sure that we are able to support the economy through this period, and, at the same time, address the fundamental challenges, such as the productivity problem, to ensure that Britain is match fit to meet the challenges that it will face as it leaves the European Union.

In that regard, I am sure that the Chancellor would agree that research and development investment is critical to obtaining a high skill, high wage economy and one that increases productivity, as he has recognised. It is therefore disappointing that the autumn statement has failed to match R and D investment as a percentage of GDP in line with other major economies. What will the Chancellor do to fill that gap?

What I will do over the medium to long term is get the British economy back on to a firm footing, so that we can fund all those investment needs—which we do have, as the hon. Gentleman points out. Let me turn the question around. Scotland will receive £800 million of additional capital funding through Barnett consequentials as a result of the announcement made last week. From the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I feel sure that the Scottish National party will want to confirm that that money will be used in Scotland, as it will in England, to target productivity-raising capital investment, so that the Scottish economy can perform more strongly in the future.

Leaving the EU: SMEs

7. What assessment he has made of the potential effect on the ability of small and medium-sized businesses to raise capital of the UK leaving the EU. (907545)

The UK remains very much open for business and the Government are committed to supporting SMEs to access the capital they need to grow, as demonstrated by the £400 million increase in funding for the British Business Bank announced at the autumn statement, unlocking £1 billion of funding.

The Minister will be aware that more than £10 billion of EU structural funds is invested annually in the UK, particularly in Wales. Indeed, in my constituency of Ogmore, many small and medium-sized businesses have benefited from Jobs Growth Wales, which is a success of the Welsh Labour Government. Will the Minister give a cast-iron guarantee to the people of Wales that structural funding will continue, pound for pound, after we leave the European Union?

We want to see the economy benefit every part of the UK. It is interesting to note that there are almost 1 million new businesses in our country since 2010, and I note the Prime Minister’s announcement at the CBI conference about the new patient capital review, which will be interesting, I am sure.

Does my hon. Friend agree that Brexit is essentially a red herring for SMEs in this context, that what matters is that the Government create the right conditions for businesses to do business and that the banks are in a sufficiently capitalised position to lend money?

I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. It is about creating an economic environment in which businesses can grow and thrive. The British economy is strong and will continue to be strong as we prepare for our departure from the EU.

What would be the impact on SMEs, particularly those in the supply chain of big manufacturing firms such as Jaguar Land Rover or Airbus, if we were to leave the EU without full access to the single market or a free trade deal with the rest of the EU and if we were forced to fall back on World Trade Organisation rules and tariffs?

The Government have been clear that we will not comment on every turn of the negotiations. Indeed, the negotiations have yet to start. However, we are absolutely committed to getting the best possible deal we can.

Does the Minister agree that the City of London plays a very important part in helping businesses to raise capital and that maintaining clearing in euros in the City of London will be an important way to ensure that the City retains that status?

The City of London is a very important financial centre and we fully intend it to remain as such. Clearing is an important element of the negotiations, and we will do all we can to retain London and the UK as a financial centre of excellence.

Regional Infrastructure

In the autumn statement, we prioritised additional high-value investments, specifically in infrastructure and innovation, that will directly contribute to raising Britain’s productivity. The Chancellor announced a new national productivity investment fund of £23 billion to be spent on housing, transport, digital communications and research and development over the next five years. Local enterprise partnerships will receive £1.8 billion of growth deal funding. This will go towards the projects needed to bring about economic growth in local areas, including new homes, transport improvements and supporting businesses and people to access the skills they need.

I welcome all those measures to boost productivity and particularly to turn attention to infrastructure and the specifics for the east of England given yesterday. However, given the strategic importance of the A14 trunk road linking Felixstowe port with Cambridge and the rest of the country, as well as its significance to 80% of businesses in Suffolk, does the Minister agree that further improvements to a road that he knows well are vital to productivity?

My hon. Friend is right—it is a road that I know well. We certainly agree that the A14 is a critically important part of the network. We are investing £1.5 billion for a major upgrade to cut congestion on the A14, including a new 21-mile road between Huntingdon and Cambridge, and only yesterday my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary was able to go there to witness the start of the work.

24. Is not the simple truth that more than half the money announced for England will go to projects in London and the south-east and that, despite a £50 million shortfall in NHS funding by 2017 and a £130 million shortfall in social care funding by 2020, the Chancellor, like his predecessor, has short-changed Birmingham and the west midlands? (907563)

No, that is not true. There is a balanced package and all parts of England will benefit from the transport measures. The Barnett consequentials should mean that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can also benefit in this area. A specific announcement about the midlands hub was made in the autumn statement and there is more to be said about the midlands engine. This is a Government who are determined to ensure that the whole country benefits from economic growth.

17. Can the Minister assure me that digital infrastructure is as important as road infrastructure and that part of the £1 billion broadband fund will be allocated to address the productivity gap in rural areas—in particular, to help shops such as the hollies farm shop in my constituency, which has three business lines and 2 megabits of speed? (907556)

My hon. Friend highlights the fact that digital must be key to improving productivity. That is why a £1 billion package was announced in the autumn statement. There was also specific help for rural areas through rural rates relief. Our ambition is clear: to provide the best digital infrastructure we can for urban and rural areas.

In table 4.21 of the report Office for Budget Responsibility’s it forecast that the Government will underspend on infrastructure by £15 billion in the next five years—two thirds of the additional money announced by the Chancellor last week. Why should the public have any confidence in the ability of the Government to deliver on their promises when their own watchdog clearly does not?

The OBR has always taken a cautious view on delivery of infrastructure, but let us remember that we have already delivered 3,000 projects. We have set out an ambitious plan for delivery of infrastructure improvements in the course of this Parliament, and that is exactly what we will deliver.

UK Exports

10. What fiscal steps he has taken to help increase levels of UK exports since the UK’s decision to leave the EU. (907548)

The Government are committed to ensuring that exporters receive world-class support. That is why the autumn statement announced the doubling of UK export finance capacity.

Last week, the OBR reduced its trade forecast, stating that this is

“due to the loss of trade that the OBR judges will result from the UK leaving the EU.”

We all know that this Government would like to have their cake and eat it, but changes to export finance alone will not bridge the gap between ambition and reality. Do the Government seriously expect to meet their own target of doubling exports without continued membership of the single market and without a comprehensive plan to do so? Do the Government stand by their exports target?

We do, and it is interesting to note that the Federation of Small Businesses, for example, welcomed the doubling of export finance because it felt that it would help small and medium-sized enterprises reach new markets. It is also interesting to note that the Scotch Whisky Association highlights the importance of exports, and it has seen an increase of 3.1%, to 531 million bottles. Perhaps the hon. Lady might remove uncertainty in Scotland by stopping banging on about a second referendum.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best thing the Treasury can do to help British business export is to allow it to keep more of the profits it earns by continuing to cut corporation tax?

We have legislated for corporation tax to be reduced to 17% by the end of this Parliament—one of the lowest rates in the G7—and we will do all we can to help businesses grow and thrive in this country.

Last week’s autumn statement should have been about providing answers to meet the challenges of Brexit and at least information on the options available. Instead, it appears that the only information we can glean is from photos snatched of the notes of a senior Conservative official in Downing Street. We know now, in the light of that leak, that many of the Chancellor’s senior colleagues in the Government are reluctant to pursue the transitional deal being called for by businesses when we leave the EU. Will the Minister now provide some clarity by inviting the Treasury and the Office for Budget Responsibility to undertake a full assessment of the public finance implications of the range of policy options associated with Brexit, including access—or not—to the single market, being in or out of the customs union and the potential for transitional arrangements?

I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that that is a normal part of what we do on a very regular basis, and he really should not believe all he reads in newspapers from researchers or Back Benchers—it is hardly Government policy.

I take that as a no.

Last week, we learned in the OBR report that the OBR was denied any information in respect of assurances provided to Nissan. The OBR said:

“On this occasion we asked specifically whether any contingent liabilities had been created in respect of assurances provided to Nissan and the Treasury declined to say.”

This level of opaqueness on an existing deal undermines the certainty businesses need to invest in any future deals. Will the Chancellor now provide the OBR with the information it has requested, so that it can provide a more accurate forecast, rather than being left in the dark or, as it put it, “none the wiser”?

Perhaps we should welcome the jobs to start with. However, in answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, it was, unfortunately, not possible to confirm this to the OBR in time to feed into the drafting process. Her Majesty’s Treasury therefore provided the same answer as it would to any query on contingent liability.

Public Infrastructure Spending

In the autumn statement, as I have said already, I announced the creation of a new national productivity investment fund to provide £23 billion of additional investment. That is on top of the £150 billion that is already baked into the baseline, and it is focused on the key areas for boosting productivity—housing, infrastructure and research and development.

I welcome the £800 million in Barnett consequentials, which the Scottish Government will invest on top of the £100 million they have already announced for capital projects, but what further steps will the Chancellor take to address the almost 10% cut to the Scottish capital budget since the Tories came to office?

The Scottish Government will have a full share of infrastructure spending through the Barnett formula, and we will work with the Scottish Government and all other devolved Administrations and regional entities, as we work to raise the UK’s productivity game. That is about infrastructure investment—both public and private. It is about raising skills. It is about raising management capability, and we announced that we would fund the Charlie Mayfield initiative to disseminate best management practice across small and medium-sized enterprises. It is about doing all these things to ensure the UK is match fit to prosper in the global economy in the future.

May I ask the Chancellor not to blindly hand over any extra infrastructure spending in West Yorkshire to the Labour-dominated West Yorkshire Combined Authority for it just to pump money into the Labour heartlands, and instead make sure that money can be spent in other parts of West Yorkshire, including on a Shipley eastern bypass, which would benefit the local economy and the economies of my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew) and for Keighley (Kris Hopkins), too?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I did not know that Labour had any heartlands left, so that is an interesting comment. I will pass on his concerns to my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary and ask him to take them into consideration when he makes his allocations.

Topical Questions

Order. I remind colleagues that topical questions are supposed to be sharply shorter, and the same goes for the replies. We made remarkably slow progress in the first session this morning, and we really need to do rather better.

My principal responsibility is to ensure the stability and prosperity of the economy. In the current circumstances, I judge that that requires a combination of near-term measures to ensure resilience and longer-term measures to manage the structural adjustment, as the UK transitions out of the EU, and to address the UK’s long-term productivity challenge. The package announced in the autumn statement last week delivered on both requirements.

So far the Chancellor has disregarded Members’ requests to give justice to the WASPI—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—women. Will he now listen to bodies such as North Tyneside Council, which, under our elected mayor, Norma Redfearn, has written to the Government to ask for a fair transition of the state pension right for all these women?

I understand the concerns, but this issue was debated extensively during the passage of the Pensions Act 2011, when the Government made concessions to this group of individuals worth £1.1 billion.

T4. As the Chancellor will know, this Saturday marks Small Business Saturday across the country. I will be heading out in Bath to do some Christmas shopping at some of the small businesses and encouraging them to join my Best of Bath business awards. Will he join me in encouraging my constituents, and hopefully my neighbours’ constituents, to come into Bath and shop local? (907532)

This is year four of Small Business Saturday, and the campaign continues to get bigger each year. Small businesses and entrepreneurs are the backbone of the British economy. The Government will continue to support Small Business Saturday this year with events across the country. I encourage right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House to be in touch with their local enterprise partnerships and their local branch of the Federation of Small Businesses to find out what is going on locally and to get out there and support it.

Last week, we saw the accumulation of six wasted years of failed economic policies supported by both the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. Following last week’s autumn statement and the publication of the Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts, can the Chancellor confirm how much worse off a pensioner on the state pension will be by 2019-20 as a result of the OBR’s downgrades to wage forecasts?

I am slightly mystified by the hon. Lady’s question, because the downgrades to wage forecasts will not be the driver of the circumstances of a pensioner on the state pension, given that we have introduced a triple lock that guarantees pensioners an increase in line with inflation, in line with earnings, or 2.5% as a minimum. However, I am happy to look at the specific question and to write to the hon. Lady with a calculation.

Let me inform the House that the forecast is this: a pensioner on the state pension will be £429 worse off by 2019-20, with only the triple lock preventing an even worse decline. After claiming in the autumn statement that the triple lock will now be subject to review, will the Chancellor end the uncertainty and worry he has caused older people and join me in committing to preserve the triple lock throughout the lifetime of the next Parliament?

Well, this was worth waiting for: we have a firm commitment by the Opposition to run the triple lock through the lifetime of the next Parliament. I wonder whether the hon. Lady knows how much money she has just spent, without knowing the fiscal circumstances the country will face. What we have said, and the only responsible thing to say, is that all the commitments we have made for the duration of this Parliament we will review at the spending review before the end of the Parliament, and we will decide then which ones we can afford to renew and which ones are appropriate to renew. I think this tells us everything we need to know about the Opposition: three and a half years out, they are willing to spray around commitments without any idea of what it is going to cost them.

T9. Casework in Wycombe continues to illustrate calculation and communication errors around tax credit payments. What steps will the Government take to reduce those errors? (907537)

My hon. Friend is right to point to the fact that we inherited a complex system in that regard. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has enhanced its online services. There will be an online service, for example, for people making new claims for tax credits starting in April 2017. The use of real time information through pay-as-you-earn has really helped to pick up potential errors in claimants’ income, and it is making a difference.

T5. Chester’s status as a centre for the financial services industry, particularly FinTech, is under threat from continuing problems with retention by businesses, which cannot get staff to come to the area. Staff cannot get there, because our infrastructure is not good enough. Instead of gloating about the Oxford to Cambridge corridor, can we have some news about when money will be spent on the M56 to upgrade it to a smart motorway? (907533)

I will take that as a representation and make sure that my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is aware of it. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are already setting out an ambitious programme for road spending over this Parliament. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made announcements last week about putting in more funding to improve our road network across the country. I am happy to look at the case that the hon. Gentleman raises.

I recently visited ASV Global in Portchester, an innovator in unmanned and autonomous marine technologies. In just six years, ASV has designed 70 new products, which it has delivered to 10 countries and 40 customers. What further support for research and development is available to companies such as ASV to boost job creation and wealth?

We have done two things. Within the £23 billion that I announced last week to raise the UK’s productivity game is a significant increase in public R and D investment. We also said—we will do this before the Budget—that we would carry out a review of the way that tax support for privately funded R and D works, with the objective of ensuring that the UK is the most attractive place in Europe to do private R and D work. I will report at Budget 2017.

T6. The autumn statement shows that, as gross national income falls, so will the total projected official development assistance budget. Can the Chancellor assure us that, within that, the Department for International Development budget will be maintained as much as possible and that, if ODA has to contract, cuts will have to fall on other spending Departments before DFID? (907534)

No, not necessarily at all. We spend our ODA in different ways, and different Departments have relatively small pools of ODA. Of course, the great majority of it goes through DFID. Where GNI contracts and the ODA budget needs to be trimmed accordingly, we will look to take away the lowest-value ODA spending. I think that that is the way the taxpayer would expect it to be done.

Further to the Chancellor’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Fernandes), could he set out how QuestUAV in Amble, a manufacturer of mapping and survey drones, and other high-tech north-east businesses will be able to access the R and D funding that he talks about?

Public R and D funding will take two principal forms. There will be further funding to the science base in our universities, and there will be funding through Innovate UK, which is accessible by companies to support innovation. We already have an excellent base in basic science. What we need to do now is to up our game in innovation and the application of that science.

T7. A feature of the modern gig economy is that more and more people are sticking together mini jobs, in most of which they earn below the national insurance threshold. HMRC manages to add together that money to tax it, but it does not manage to add together that money to make sure that those people have pensions. What is the Treasury going to do to make sure that older women, in particular, get access to pensions when they have mini jobs? (907535)

The right hon. Lady and I have recently spoken about this issue, and as she knows, there has been some work done to look at the broader issue. It is complicated, but I undertake to look at it again and respond to her. Of course, some of the broader aspects of the gig economy will be covered during the Taylor review.

According to the Library, infrastructure spending per head is 2.5 times greater in London and the south-east than in the regions. Does the Chancellor agree that now is the time for a fairer distribution of investment spending across the UK?

The Government are committed to investment in all the regions of the UK. We have delivered more than 500 infrastructure schemes in the north since 2010, and more than £13 billion of spending is planned on transport in the north during this Parliament. In Yorkshire, this includes new trains on the east coast main line, the trans-Pennine railway upgrade and bringing the A1(M) up to motorway standard for its full length. I would just say to my hon. Friend that figures for London and the south-east are distorted by the effect of the strategic Crossrail project, with a cost of £14.8 billion.

T8. I am pleased to note that the Chancellor has finally scrapped the arbitrary target for a budget surplus, which would have cut billions more than necessary, but concerns remain about his attitude towards borrowing and debt. Will the Chancellor tell us on what date his charter will come before the House, so that it can be fully scrutinised properly? (907536)

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a precise date, but I have discussed this with the business managers. The rules of the House mean that 28 days must elapse before the charter is laid. I think that that will put it in the second half of January, but we will have the debate as soon as we can after the statutory period.

As other Members have mentioned, there is growing alarm about the impact of making tax digital on small business people, of whom I am one. Will the Chancellor confirm that, in time, quarterly tax returns will also apply to Members of Parliament?

As my hon. Friend mentioned, we touched on this earlier. Making tax digital is an important reform. I have mentioned already that some important concessions were made during the summer, by taking many very small businesses out of making tax digital, but it has much to offer small businesses. I am looking carefully at all the responses that have been made, and as he knows, I have listened carefully to the points that he has made on a number of occasions.

T10. Will the Chancellor confirm that the devolution of corporation tax, which is conditional on the Northern Ireland Executive’s finances being on a sustainable footing, is not a vehicle for the Treasury to interfere in Northern Ireland’s devolved policies? (907538)

It is not a vehicle to interfere, but we have been clear from the very beginning that if the Northern Ireland Executive wish to reduce corporation tax rates in Northern Ireland, they need to do so in an environment in which we can be confident that the public finances are on a sound footing in Northern Ireland.

When I met the leader of North East Lincolnshire Council yesterday, he emphasised to me that one of the major challenges facing our coastal community is that many people retire there and put additional strains on the adult social care budget. Will Ministers assure me that that will be considered when allocating departmental budgets?

Yes, demographic trends are of course at the heart of our considerations when budgets are allocated.

With just one in six people with autism in employment, would it not have been better to invest in improving the Work and Health programme, rather than cutting it, to assist people to gain employment and thereby save on benefits? They want to work.

The reforms that we have announced will enable us to spend £330 million on practical support to ensure that people in the work-related activity group can work. May I point out that, over the past three years, the number of disabled people in employment has increased by nearly 600,000?

The key insight of the Government’s productivity plan is that value can be unlocked through more timely implementation, so will the Chancellor have a word with the Transport Secretary to see how he can speed up the completion of the final part of the Oxford to Cambridge link from Bedford to Cambridge?

I will certainly have a word with my right hon. Friend. This is partly about smart delivery, but it is also about having certainty and a pipeline that allows contractors in the supply chain to plan ahead.

Does the Chancellor realise that if he tries to push the funding gap in social care on to local councils, it will be grossly unfair for areas such as Doncaster, where a 1% increase in council tax would raise 21% less than it would for the council in the Prime Minister’s constituency? Will he commit to funding social care fully?

As I said on Wednesday, with the additional social care precept and the better care fund, we have measures in place that will make £3.5 billion of additional funding per annum available for social care by the end of this Parliament. But we recognise that local authorities have a challenge in the profiling of that money. My right hon. Friends the Health Secretary and the Communities Secretary are very much aware of that and are in discussions about it with health bodies and local authorities.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement in the autumn statement of £1.7 million of LIBOR money going to Sea Sanctuary to help with mental health provision in Cornwall. Does he agree that that will be a huge help for people all over Cornwall who in the past have had to travel many hundreds of miles to access such services?

I am very pleased that the money will deliver that effect in Cornwall. It is always good to see fines levied on the appalling behaviour of the few making such a positive difference to the many.

To follow on from the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster Central (Dame Rosie Winterton), the demand for social care services in my constituency is set to rise by 10% in just one year, so will the Chancellor take the opportunity today to commit to additional funding for social care?

No, these are not the occasions when we commit to additional funding. We have a funding settlement in place and substantial increases in social care funding will become available by the end of the Parliament. But as I have said, we recognise that some authorities are facing some challenges on the profiling of that funding, and my right hon. Friends the Health Secretary and Communities Secretary are discussing that issue with local authority leaders.

Does the Chancellor agree that one way to improve productivity in the west midlands economy is to agree a more ambitious second devolution settlement, building on the success of the devolved settlement agreed with the West Midlands Combined Authority?

I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said on Wednesday, the Government continue to discuss with west midlands authorities the possibilities for further devolution in the west midlands. The other way to get the west midlands economy motoring is to elect a mayor with genuine business experience, like Andy Street.

The Scotch whisky industry is the largest net contributor to the UK’s balance of trade and goods. In the light of Brexit, what options is the Chancellor examining to make sure the industry can keep that privileged position of exporting?

We will have discussions with the Scotch Whisky Association, as we do with many trade associations. Without getting into a technical discussion, I should say that dutiable goods are less likely to be adversely affected by a change in the way we trade with our European neighbours than many other goods, because there is already a specific regime for dealing with them that is unlikely to have to change as a result of Brexit.

Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but I have extended the envelope as far as I felt it in any way reasonable to extend it.