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Topical Questions

Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2016

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.