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Leaving the EU: UK Economy

Volume 619: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2017

5. What fiscal steps he is taking to improve the resilience of the economy in preparation for the UK leaving the EU. (908204)

We have committed to returning the public finances to balance as soon as possible in the next Parliament, and to reducing the structural deficit to below 2% of GDP by the end of this Parliament. As I have said, that strikes the right balance between restoring the public finances to health and giving ourselves enough flexibility to allow us, if necessary, to support the economy in the short term as we go through this period of greater uncertainty. We have also been able to commit an additional £23 billion to a national productivity investment fund to improve our economic productivity.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the resilience of our economy is best served by what the Prime Minister has said today, which is that Britain will be leaving the single market with no ifs and no buts?

For six months, we have kept open as many options as possible while we review the way forward in this negotiation with the European Union. We have heard very clearly the views and the political red lines expressed by other European leaders. We want to work with those leaders and to recognise and respect their political red lines. That is why the Prime Minister is setting out right now a position on which we will go forward, understanding that we cannot be members of the single market because of the political red lines around the four freedoms that other European leaders have set. She is expressing an ambitious agenda for a comprehensive free trade arrangement with the European Union that will allow our companies to trade in Europe, and European companies to trade in Britain, while minimising disruption to business patterns and to pan-European supply chains.

EU banks use passport arrangements to operate in the UK, and so provide us with jobs and the Exchequer with revenue. Given what the Prime Minister is saying at this moment, those arrangements are clearly at risk. How hopeful is the Chancellor that passporting will survive the exit from the European Union?

As the right hon. Gentleman says, EU banks use passporting to operate in the UK, and of course, vice versa: UK banks use passporting to operate in the European Union. It is important that EU banks are able to continue operating in the UK, and that UK banks are able to continue operating in the EU. He will know that City UK, the lead City pressure group on this issue, took the strategic decision last week to stop pushing for passporting rights and to focus instead on what I would describe as an enhanced equivalence regime. The important thing is not the mechanism, but the end result, and that is what the Prime Minister will set out today.

The Treasury Committee has challenged whether the Office for Budget Responsibility’s sustainability reports—the latest such report was published just an hour ago—are worth the effort, given that they amount to 50-year forecasting. The OBR’s latest effort does not even try to take account of Brexit at all. It is required to do this work by statute. Does the Chancellor not think that it might be a good idea to revisit that commitment?

My right hon. Friend has a point in one sense, in that economic forecasters admit that even with a five-year forecast, there will be a high degree of uncertainty about accuracy. On a 50-year forecast, there will be a very high degree of uncertainty indeed, but we will see how the debate goes on the fiscal sustainability report that is published today. I suspect that it will act as a very useful catalyst for discussing some of the really important strategic issues that we face as a nation, not in the white heat of immediate political debate, but over a much longer term—over a 50-year period—so that we can think about where we go in the balance between public spending and taxation, and how we support our vital public services.

24. The financial services industry employs 40,000 people in Edinburgh alone. Given the Chancellor’s comments on the single market, what impact does he think leaving it will have on jobs in Scotland? (908223)

My assessment is that by setting out our agenda and by setting out clear objectives, as the Prime Minister is right now, we are meeting the first ask of our European partners, which is to be clear about what we want. We are recognising the political red lines they have set out and saying that we will respect them. That is the first step towards sensible engagement with our European Union partners to reach an outcome that is positive for the UK and for the European Union. That of course must include freedom for financial services firms to continue doing their business.

I was going to call the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), but he does not seem to be standing—

15. What provisions has the Chancellor made for universities in this country after 2020? Will he match pound for pound the lack of EU money? (908214)

What we have said is that where EU funding is awarded to projects involving universities, businesses, external research institutes and farmers between now and the point of our departure from the European Union, provided those awards meet our value-for-money criteria and have the support of the UK or devolved Administration Department responsible, the Treasury will underwrite those awards. We expect that in any settlement with the European Union, the Commission will go on paying those awards after we have left, but if it does not we will stand behind them.

Many small businesses in Kettering are supplied by other British firms and sell their goods and services to British consumers, yet all are affected by often unnecessary EU regulation. Will the Chancellor join efforts post-Brexit to reduce this burden as quickly as possible?

The remedy to the problem my hon. Friend sets out will lie in the hands of this Parliament once we repatriate the acquis in the great repeal Bill.

In the seven years to 2014, Scotland’s trade with the EU rose by 20%, twice the rate of growth in trade to the rest of the UK and vital for a resilient economy. Today’s hard Tory Brexit puts that at risk, but is this not also a kick in the teeth to many of those who voted leave believing that a European economic area/European Free Trade Association-type arrangement would be put in place to mitigate the damage done?

I reject the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. We are engaging constructively with the real world and recognising the political red lines of our European Union partners. If we do not recognise them, frankly, we are banging our heads against a brick wall. They have to recognise our political red lines, we have to recognise theirs, and then we need to work together to find a pragmatic solution that works for all the people of the UK within those red lines, and that is what we are doing.

As we are looking for a pragmatic solution, Scotland’s trade with the rest of the world over the same timeframe grew by 50%, driven by EU trade agreements. Given that it takes an average of 28 months to conclude a single agreement, how many pragmatic decades does the Chancellor believe it will take to put in place the trade agreements that we need to mitigate the damage of a hard Tory Brexit?

I am disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman resorting to the soundbite; he is normally better than that. The discussions I have had with third countries that have free trade agreements with the European Union suggest that there is a strong appetite for a quick and simple agreement with the UK so that, as we leave the European Union, we can immediately enter into a successor agreement with those countries—Korea, for example—that will allow us to continue trading with them on the same terms.

At the weekend, the Chancellor told a German newspaper—not this House, you will notice, Mr Speaker—that he is prepared to turn this country into a tax haven. If that means competing with the likes of Ireland on a 12.5% corporation tax rate on top of existing Tory tax cuts it means, according to the House of Commons Library, giving away more than £100 billion to corporations over the next five. That is equivalent to almost 5p on the basic rate of income tax. How then does the Chancellor ever propose to solve the funding crisis in the NHS and social care, given that this morning the Office for Budget Responsibility thinks that public finances are on an unsustainable path?

Let us take that question apart. There are two points. First, the OBR’s 50-year forecast sets out a possible outcome if the Government take no action. As I made very clear in the autumn statement, we are acutely aware that action will be required in order to return the public finances to balance. Secondly, with regard to my interview with Welt am Sonntag, what I said very clearly—I am sorry if this did not come across in the UK reporting, but the right hon. Gentleman should read the original—was that Britain wants to remain in the European mainstream, with its economic and social model, but that can happen only if we get a sensible Brexit deal for continued access to the European market. If we do not, the people of this country will not simply lie down and accept that they will be poorer. We will do whatever it takes to maintain our competitiveness and protect our standard of living.

The threat is there on the record: this country will be a tax haven, according to the threats the Chancellor has issued today. We know from what the Prime Minister is saying right now that she is intent on pulling up the drawbridge and leaving the single market, and possibly the customs union, cutting us off from one of the largest markets on the planet, threatening jobs and public finances. This is not a clean Brexit; it is an extremely messy Brexit. We can already see the consequences in the rise in the rate of inflation. With real living standards squeezed by this policy announcement, is it not time for the Chancellor—I appeal to him—to reconsider his cuts to in-work benefits and withdraw them in full in the Budget in March?

No. What the Prime Minister is setting out today is an ambitious agenda for a Britain engaged in the world, and a Britain engaged with the European Union. What she is setting out is a broad-based offer for future collaboration on trade, investment, security, education, technical and scientific areas, and many other matters. We want to remain engaged with the European Union, and I am confident that the approach the Prime Minister is setting out today will allow us successfully to negotiate a comprehensive future relationship with the European Union.

Order. We do need to speed up, so short, sharp questions and comparably pithy replies are the order of the day.