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Topical Questions

Volume 619: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2017

My principal responsibility remains delivering near-term measures to ensure stability and resilience as the UK exits the EU, while also addressing the UK’s long-term productivity challenge. My immediate focus is on preparing the last ever spring Budget for delivery on 8 March.

Many of my constituents are concerned about the future of the Green Investment Bank in relation to possible asset stripping, the worth of the golden share and the suitability of the buyer. What is the Department doing to ensure that the UK taxpayer is given a fair deal on the sale of the bank and the bank retains its green focus?

Those are two of the criteria that we have set: there should be value for money for the taxpayer; and the bank’s focus for future operations should be retained and protected. We are reviewing the sale process as it goes forward, and we will make sure that those outcomes are protected.

T2. The latest fiscal sustainability report was published by the Office for Budget Responsibility just over an hour ago. Knowing what a quick reader my right hon. Friend is, what assessment has he made of the implications for the long-term health of the public finances? (908191)

I am not only a quick reader, but able to read the report while also answering questions in the House.

The OBR’s report shows that, under certain circumstances, the UK public finances will come under increasing pressure over the next 50 years. As I said earlier, this creates a catalyst for a discussion, which we need to have, about how we maintain the sustainability of our crucial public services, given the pressures, including demographic pressures, that they will face. I believe that the report serves a useful purpose. Given that the point 50 years out is sufficiently far away, I hope that we will be able to have a mature, cross-party discussion about how we address these issues in the long term.

T5. The autumn statement revealed the Brexit bombshell that growth will be a massive 2.4% lower than previously predicted. What further impact does the Chancellor expect that leaving the single market will have on GDP growth in the years to come? (908194)

The Office for Budget Responsibility set out its projections under different scenarios at the autumn statement. It is the OBR that makes the forecasts. It will, of course, produce a revised set of forecasts that will be published on 8 March—Budget day.

T4. Businesses, including restaurants and guest houses in my constituency, curtail their business to keep within the VAT threshold, but that has a negative impact on economic activity and jobs in west Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. Will the Chancellor consider increasing the VAT threshold as soon as the opportunity arises? (908193)

I thank my hon. Friend for that point, which I am happy to discuss. It is worth putting on record that VAT is projected to raise £138 billion for the public finances this year. We have one of the highest thresholds in the EU, but I am always happy to listen to colleagues. I know that the concerns of the tourism industry are to the fore in the minds of many colleagues.

T6. Last week, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority began a statutory consultation on UK Government plans to cut final salary pensions across the nuclear estate, which will have an impact on 16,000 workers, including hundreds in my constituency. Is the Chancellor aware that this is a betrayal of promises made by Margaret Thatcher to nuclear workers when the electricity industry was privatised? (908195)

The Government and the relevant agency recognise the importance of the employees who work in this sector, but it is necessary to have terms and conditions that reflect the modern situation that applies across the economy as a whole.

T7. The Solent region has a deficit of 6% in its gross value added compared with the rest of the south-east. Much of that is due to the lack of investment in local transport infrastructure; for example, there has been no significant rail investment for 50 years. Can Ministers confirm that the new national productivity investment fund can be used to address that deficit? (908196)

I can say to my hon. Friend that the very purpose of the national productivity investment fund is to support economic growth across all regions of the country. Further details specifying how and where the fund will be invested will be set out by the relevant Departments and agencies in due course. The Solent will not be forgotten, and we are taking action to improve rail services, with a new franchise expected to deliver more services and quicker journey times on South West Trains.

It is simply not good enough to throw Concentrix under the bus. Today’s National Audit Office report finds that HMRC was at fault in the writing of the contract, in failing to monitor it, and in intervening to make things worse after a poor performance in summer 2015. Who at HMRC will be held accountable for the gross failings of this contract from beginning to end?

The hon. Lady and I have debated this issue. We are looking at the significant criticisms in the report. We have accepted a number of the criticisms that have been made about the handling of this matter, but a lot of money has been saved by addressing error and fraud in the tax credits system. HMRC will respond in more detail at next week’s PAC hearing, and I will be considering the report in detail.

T8. The Halifax reports that the number of first-time buyers is at its highest since 2007 and cites Government schemes such as Help to Buy as making a major contribution. What more can the Government do to back aspiration and get more people on the housing ladder? (908197)

The Help to Buy scheme has helped more than 220,000 households to buy a home, including more than 180,000 first-time buyers. In the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that the Government will invest an additional £1.4 billion in affordable housing to deliver 40,000 new homes for shared ownership, rent to buy and affordable rent, bringing the total funding of the affordable homes programme to £7.1 billion.

Will the Chancellor state unequivocally the Government’s commitment to the 0.7% aid target in this and future spending rounds?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the 0.7% target is enshrined in primary legislation, and the Government have no intention of changing that.

T9. The Government are investing in major infrastructure projects, including Heathrow airport, HS2 and, I hope, a new A36-A46 link road through my constituency. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that we provide sufficient funds so that this work can be conducted in a timely fashion? (908198)

The Government are committed to supporting the skills we need to deliver our national infrastructure. In the transport infrastructure skills strategy for 2016, we committed to creating 30,000 road and rail apprenticeships by the end of the Parliament. In addition, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is investing £40 million in the national college for high-speed rail, with additional funding for the college coming from local government and industry. Finally, Heathrow airport has committed to double the number of its apprentices to 10,000 by the time the new third runway is operational.

Changes to the rateable value for solar panels for organisations mean that business rates for organisations with solar rooftop installations, such as schools, hospitals and SMEs, could increase dramatically—six to eightfold—in April. Do the Government recognise the huge damage that this will cause to organisations that have installed panels in good faith, as well as the solar panel industry?

The installation of solar panels is only one of the factors that determines the rateable value. That said, a £3.4 billion transitional relief scheme will support businesses facing an increase in business rate bills, while businesses with solar panels will also benefit from the £6.7 billion package—the biggest ever—to reduce business rates.

T10. The Government will be aware that north Wales has among the lowest productivity rates in the UK, at about 73% of the UK average. With that in mind, what plans do they have to work with the six north Wales councils, the Mersey Dee alliance and the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership to deliver a local growth deal? (908199)

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that Treasury Ministers have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues about how the Government can boost growth and productivity across Wales and the UK. At autumn statement 2016, the Government confirmed that the door was still open for a growth deal with north Wales, and we are committed to negotiating a city deal for the Swansea Bay city region in south Wales. I look forward to receiving proposals from partners in the north Wales region over the coming months.

The right hon. Gentleman is always very well briefed for these topical questions—reading out the screed! Very good.

The International Monetary Fund yesterday highlighted widening inequality and stagnation as key drivers of social dislocation, while the Institute for Fiscal Studies has recently warned of the biggest pay squeeze in the UK for 70 years. What is the Chancellor’s strategy to ensure that growth in our economy benefits everybody?

Income inequality has been falling, but of course we face challenges as the depreciation of sterling works its way into inflation in the economy. That is an issue on which we will remain very much focused, and I will address it in more detail in the Budget.

Alongside other elements driving recent extremely successful purchasing managers’ index surveys were seven consecutive months of export growth. Does the Minister agree that this is a fine way to underpin our already record rates of employment?

I agree. The PMI surveys show significant resilience in the UK economy since the referendum. The Prime Minister recently made it clear that we will make a success of leaving the EU.

Given the Chief Secretary’s earlier comments about attempts to stimulate house building, can he guarantee that at the end of this Parliament the supply of rented homes will be larger than it was at the beginning?

We are likely to build more affordable homes in this Parliament than have been built since the 1970s.

There are currently 87,000 ultra-low emission vehicles on our roads, but the Committee on Climate Change says that we need 1.7 million by 2020. What more can the Treasury do to help us to reach that challenging target?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s concern. This matter was on my agenda when I was Transport Secretary in 2010. The roll-out of ultra-low emission vehicles has been disappointing—it has not been as fast as I would have hoped—and that will be one of the issues we consider as we try to respond to concerns about air quality, which have been reinforced by recent court decisions requiring the Government to review their approach on that.

In his previous Budget, the Chancellor stuck in a £7 billion investment line for the year 2021-22, which is beyond the remit of this Parliament, so will he explain what that money is for?

It is customary to present forecasts for fiscal events over the forecast period which, as we progress through this Parliament, will stretch beyond its end. That is how it has always been done, and it would not be helpful to give the House only a shorter horizon.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This is a London-related question. Major infrastructure investment will form a vital part of our economy in post-Brexit Britain. Will my right hon. Friend confirm his support for London’s major infrastructure project—Crossrail 2?

The Government will, of course, consider all proposals for infrastructure investment on their merits. When the industrial strategy Green Paper is published, it will set out the Government’s approach to prioritising infrastructure to support the economy.

When the Chancellor considers the effect of bringing in quarterly reporting, will he look at the figures showing that only 25% of our smaller businesses have maintained electronic accounting records and that 38% lack basic digital skills? Will he listen to what the Chair of the Treasury Committee said when he described this as a potential “disaster”?

I always listen to what the Chairman of the Treasury Committee says. I am considering the Committee’s very useful report carefully. Of course, it acknowledged that the digitisation of the tax service represents the direction in which we should be travelling, but we are looking carefully at the possible impacts on small businesses, many thousands of which we have already exempted through our existing announcements.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. On the subject of berries, does my right hon. Friend the Chancellor share my concern that too many JAMs are becoming jam tomorrow with the ballooning of household debt? What steps will he take to stop inappropriate and irresponsible lending by credit card companies and banks to low-income households?

The Government and the regulatory authorities take appropriate measures to prevent inappropriate lending and to make sure that credit products are not mis-sold, and we will continue to do so.

The hon. Member for East Lothian (George Kerevan) always looks so happy. We will make him happier by calling him.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; it is your presence that makes me happy.

While the Chancellor has been answering questions, the Prime Minister has said in her Lancaster House speech that the UK will most likely continue to pay into EU budgets. Will the Chancellor acquaint the House of that?

We have always said that if, as part of our future arrangements with our former European Union partners, we continue to collaborate in certain areas, such as scientific and technical research programmes, we will of course have to expect to contribute. All this is for the negotiations ahead. The Prime Minister has today set out a 12-point plan for Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, which is exactly what our partners have been demanding from us. I hope that this will now signal the beginning of serious engagement on Britain’s future relations.

I heard this morning that an overseas insurance company had chosen Zurich over London as its European base because it felt that the Swiss authorities were much quicker to engage with it than the London authorities. Will the Chancellor ensure that we are the most competitive financial services market in the world and that we really take overseas investment seriously?

Of course. I thought that my hon. Friend was going to tell me that the company had chosen an EU location over London, so I am interested to hear him say that it has chosen Zurich—the only other possible non-EU location. I will look at the issue that he raises. It is our objective to have the most attractive location on this continent for inward investment and for foreign businesses to do their business.

Inflation is still below the Monetary Policy Committee’s official target, and the economy has long been at greater and more worrying risk of deflation than inflation. Will the Chancellor therefore be seeking to dissuade the Governor of the Bank of England from any thoughts of raising interest rates, which would simply inflict wholly unnecessary damage on the economy?

No. It is not for me to dissuade or persuade the Governor of the Bank of England in relation to interest rate policy. However, I will say this to reassure the hon. Gentleman: although this morning’s inflation figure—1.6%, as measured on the consumer prices index—is below the Bank of England’s target rate, the forecasts of the OBR and, indeed, the Bank suggest that the figure will meet and exceed the target rate later in the year.

More than a year ago, the Treasury promised to consult on breathing space to assist people in debt and protect them from interest and other charges while they seek help. In view of the high levels of personal debt, will the Minister commit himself to proceeding with that as a matter of urgency?

I can tell the hon. Lady that we are looking closely at the issue and will see some progress in the very near future.