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Topical Questions

Volume 622: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2017

As we approach the beginning of the UK’s negotiations with the European Union, my principal responsibility remains delivering near-term measures to ensure stability and resilience in our economy, while also addressing the UK’s long-term productivity challenges. The package that I will announce at spring Budget next week will address both objectives.

Not replacing teachers, scrapping subjects, and even going to a four-day week are just some of the measures that our hard-pressed schools are having to take given what the Institute for Fiscal Studies has confirmed are the first cuts to schools’ budgets in over 20 years. Will the Chancellor use his Budget to invest in our future, reduce the productivity gap, and ensure a high-skilled, high-wage economy?

Yes. There was a slight disconnect in the hon. Lady’s question, but I will certainly do those things. Investing in our future, addressing the productivity challenge, and dealing with the skills gap will be at the centre of the Budget.

T2. What steps are the Government taking to support economic growth in Medway through investment in transport infrastructure, such as the lower Thames crossing and roads, and help for small businesses? (908975)

The Government are taking forward plans for the lower Thames crossing and major road upgrades, such as at junction 5 on the M2. We are also establishing a Thames estuary 2050 growth commission, which will set out a vision for development in the area.

Last week, the Government snuck out a statement on regulations denying 150,000 disabled people access to personal independence payments awarded by the upper tribunal. That was brutal. Last year, the previous Chancellor absorbed the costs when the Government were forced to halt cuts to personal independence payments to disabled people. In this case, are those disabled people being denied benefits because the Chancellor has refused to absorb the costs resulting from the upper tribunal decision?

What we are doing is restoring Parliament’s original intention for the payments, ensuring that they go to the people to whom they were intended to go and that the benefits cap, which is in place as part of our fiscal rules, is able to be met.

One of those people contacted us. She has type 2 diabetes, fibromyalgia, depression, and anxiety. As a result of the Government’s action, she will now not be extended the support that the courts awarded her. It is clear from last night’s announcement of further austerity measures for Departments that the Government are all about forcing Departments to meet the Chancellor’s spending targets so that he can pay for further tax giveaways to the wealthy. Will he rule out further unfair tax giveaways, such as cutting the top rate of income tax to 40p in this Parliament? Otherwise, it is clear that he wants tax giveaways for the wealthy few and austerity for the most vulnerable in our society.

The right hon. Gentleman will have to wait until next week to find out what my proposals are, but let me be clear that we have no plans for further welfare reforms in this Parliament. However, the reforms that we have already legislated for must be delivered, and Parliament’s original intent in legislating for those reforms has to be ensured.

T3. In constituencies in London suburbs such as mine, ordinary family homes are caught by the upper levels of stamp duty land tax, and estate agents regularly tell me that that is creating cirrhosis in the market. If people are not moving at that level, people are not moving further down, meaning that others are unable to get on to the housing ladder. Is it not time to look again at the unintended consequences of the upper levels of that tax on home ownership and mobility? (908976)

It is worth noting that the SDLT reforms in the 2014 autumn statement reduced the tax for the vast majority of homebuyers and that all transactions up to £937,000 now pay the same or less in SDLT. As a London MP, I am obviously aware of the phenomenon to which my hon. Friend refers, but from the available data we do not yet have a clear consensus on the market impact of the higher rates of SDLT for additional residential properties or those at the upper end. We will continue to look carefully at that.

T7. The systemic maltreatment of businesses, as exemplified by the Royal Bank of Scotland’s dash for cash, requires action. Does the Chancellor accept the case for imposing a duty of care on the banks, particularly in their dealings with small and medium-sized enterprises? (908980)

The Financial Conduct Authority has published a summary of the main findings of its skilled persons report on RBS’s global restructuring group. The FCA is carefully considering that, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment while the process is ongoing.

T4. I have been conducting a survey in my constituency with local campaigners Peter Booth and Nick Craker, and many people have raised concerns about road safety in our towns and villages. Can my right hon. Friend inform me of any additional funding for road safety improvement? (908977)

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and road safety is a key priority for the £15.2 billion road investment strategy. In November 2016 we announced an additional £175 million to improve the 50 most dangerous roads in the country. As she will be aware, Cornwall has received £78 million from the local growth fund, including for investment in local roads.

Our biggest businesses are already benefiting significantly from the cut to corporation tax, yet today we find that profit-making Caffè Nero has paid zero in corporation tax. Given that the Chancellor is trying to balance the Budget on the backs of the disabled and the ill, what more will he do to stop profit-making companies avoiding tax on his watch?

As the hon. Lady will know, I cannot discuss the affairs of an individual taxpayer in this House, but this Government and their immediate predecessor have taken more steps over seven years than the previous Labour Government did over their whole 13 years in office to address the abuse of the tax system and aggressive tax avoidance and evasion.

T5. In the past year international tourist rates and spend grew faster in the south-west than in London, and the south-west also attracted more domestic tourists than any other region. Given the Mayor of London’s plans for a hotel levy, will the Chancellor look again at cutting the rate of VAT on tourism? (908978)

I agree that when a man is tired of London he should visit Somerset. Although tourism growth across the UK is indeed very welcome, and the Government will look at all opportunities to support it, reducing VAT would cost up to £10 billion, which is money that is needed to underpin our public services and to help to deal with our deficit.

I am glad that the Chancellor is in listening mode on the mess created by the Government on business rates. Can I urge him similarly to be in listening mode on the potential mess that will be created by the provisions of the Local Government Finance Bill on funding local authorities?

I will take the hon. Gentleman’s comments as a Budget submission, and I will pass them on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

T6. Does the Chancellor share my concern about reports that billions of pounds in VAT and customs duties are not being accounted for? Will he look carefully at the role of fulfilment houses such as Amazon and eBay to ensure that we get the money that is due to the Exchequer? (908979)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and at Budget 2016 the Government announced new measures to better enable Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to tackle just such activity. The measures are forecast to raise £875 million in total by 2021. Over the past year, HMRC has already seen a more than tenfold increase in online non-EU businesses applying to register for VAT.

A week before the election, the Chancellor’s predecessor came to Sussex and pledged support for infrastructure improvements to the rail line between London and Brighton. He commissioned a £100,000 study that has never been released. When will the Government release the south coast and London main line upgrade programme report?

T9. For many of my constituents in Kettering even a small amount of household debt can turn out to be unaffordable and can turn into a personal financial nightmare for them and their family. When will the Treasury respond to the excellent “Breathing Space” proposals to help people who are trying to get on top of their household debts by giving them statutory protection from unscrupulous, ruthless lenders? (908982)

The “Breathing Space” proposals are being carefully considered by the Government and we will report on them shortly.

Unsecured consumer credit is rising at a level last seen before the banking crisis. Does the Chancellor accept that that is unsustainable?

Clearly, it cannot go on forever, but households do have some capacity for debt, and consumer borrowing and consumer spending have been an important component of the robustness of the economy over the past few months. What I hope to see is business investment and exports providing a greater share of the growth during 2017.

I very much welcome this Government’s healthy commitment to scientific spending over several years, but it seems that our business investment in research is below the OECD average. May I urge the Chancellor to examine measures that will increase private company business expenditure on research?

As the Chancellor announced at the autumn statement, the Government are significantly increasing investment in research and development, rising to an extra £2 billion a year by 2020-21. We have also made the R and D tax credit regime much more generous. We want to ensure that the UK remains an attractive place for business to invest in innovative research.

Given the shameful neglect of social care spending in the autumn statement and straws in the wind about how that is going to be put right in the Budget, will the Chancellor take account of the fact that authorities such as ours in Wirral are having to deal with £45 million-worth of pressure due to the number of our older people who are needing help, and that a 3% increase in council tax will deliver us only £22 million?

I generally find it best not to comment on straws in the wind, but I recognise the pressure that many authorities are under from underlying demographic trends. As we have said before, we are alert to that concern and will seek to address it in a sensible and measured way.

For people moving into a residential care home the means test takes into account the value of their home, whereas it does not do so if they are applying for care in their own home. Does the Chancellor agree that there should be one simple system of means-testing, for whatever state funding people are applying?

The system that my hon. Friend refers to has been around for many years and predates the deferred purchase agreements which all local authorities now offer to people contributing to their care. We do not just need to look at individual, specific aspects of this challenge; we need to look broadly at the question of how to make social care funding sustainable for the future, in the face of a rapidly ageing population.

Since 1994, the Government have received £10 billion of pension cash which could have benefited miners. A Treasury written answers says that a further £153 million will be pocketed in the next three years. Will the Chancellor use the Budget to look again at the injustice of the mineworkers pension scheme?

I do not recognise the numbers the hon. Lady has given the House, but I will look at them and write to her accordingly.

Estate agents report that the number of transactions of so-called “prime properties” in London and elsewhere fell by 50% last year and that at the beginning of this year the situation is even worse than it was the year before. If it were proven that tax revenues had fallen as a result of policy, would the Chancellor be willing to review and change it?

As we have mentioned, it is not really clear that there is a consensus on what the data are saying. However, as with all taxes, we keep this one constantly under review.

Oil and gas received only a passing mention in the industrial strategy and was classed as a low priority for the Brexit negotiations. Will the Chancellor commit to actually doing something to support the future of the oil and gas industry in next week’s Budget?

The hon. Lady will have to wait and see, but I am well aware of the concerns that the industry is expressing. My hon. Friend the Financial Secretary met industry representatives last week and we understand their principal asks.

Will the Chancellor of the Exchequer give a guarantee to the House that the details of the Budget will be first revealed to this House, and that we will not find out about them in this weekend’s press?

What I can do is give my hon. Friend a guarantee that I will follow all proper procedures. Unfortunately, I cannot give him a guarantee that that will necessarily lead to the outcome that he seeks.

The former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), has said that withdrawing from the single market would be

“the biggest single act of protectionism in the history of the United Kingdom”

and that the Government have chosen not to make the economy the priority. Is the former Chancellor launching a soft coup, or has he got this Government absolutely bang to rights for their economic vandalism?

The hon. Gentleman understands very well that being a member of the single market was not an option for the UK given the clear views expressed by the electorate in the referendum, but having comprehensive access to the single market will deliver the great majority of the benefits that he seeks from single market membership.

Some 100,000 UK businesses have already registered companies in the Republic of Ireland to hedge their bets given the policy and regulatory uncertainty caused by the vote to leave the European Union. Will the Chancellor urge his Cabinet colleagues, when they are negotiating around the table, to give policy and regulatory certainty to industries such as the chemical industry, which are not waiting to see what the Government are doing, but are simply haemorrhaging jobs and investment out of this country?

I agree with the hon. Lady that certainty as soon as possible is important, as are understanding of what implementation arrangements will look like and over what timescale. However, I urge her not to be hysterical about these things. [Interruption.] Many companies are making contingency plans, including setting up and incorporating subsidiaries in other European Union countries. It is another step altogether to be moving jobs and enterprises abroad. Most of the companies that we talk to have made it clear that there is more time yet for them to be reassured during this process before we see irrevocable moves.

The Treasury supported the launch of the National Needs Assessment’s infrastructure report, which clearly states that carbon capture and storage is required as part of energy policy going forward. When will the Treasury do the right thing and reinstate the funding for carbon capture and storage?

I think the hon. Gentleman was talking about carbon capture and storage. That is a matter for my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and I will raise with him the point that the hon. Gentleman has made.