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House of Commons Hansard
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18 July 2017
Volume 627

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Wages

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1. What fiscal steps he is taking to help increase the average level of wages paid by employers. [900546]

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The key thing that we can do to increase productivity is to ensure that we invest in education and improve skills. We have more people going to university and doing apprenticeships, and we are investing in our rail and roads.

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Unlike the Scottish Government, the UK Government voted for the public sector pay cut. Moreover, this Government’s so-called national living wage is not based on the cost of living. What new measures will this Government bring in to provide people with a wage that they can live on?

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We have made sure that basic rate taxpayers are paying £1,000 less tax by raising the personal allowance. We are also introducing the national living wage, bringing in a £1,400 rise in take-home pay for the lowest earners.

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The important thing for ensuring that people get a wage from an employer is to make sure that they have a job. Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury welcome the record fall in unemployment to a 42-year low, particularly among young people, which is giving them much better opportunities in Britain than those available in most other European Union countries?

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My right hon. Friend is right. We now have the lowest levels of unemployment since 1975, thanks to the economic policies pursued by this Government to improve skills and infrastructure, and to take sensible decisions on public sector pay.

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As has been clearly demonstrated, the Government are celebrating falling unemployment without any critical analysis of the nature of the employment being created. Many residents of North West Durham are in work that exacerbates their financial difficulties because their pay is low, their terms and conditions are poor, and they do not have regular hours. Will the Minister update the House on the number of people who are currently working on zero-hours contracts? Will she also accept that looking at employment figures in a vacuum does nothing to help us to understand whether people are any more secure or any better off?

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Fewer than 3% of people are on zero-hours contracts and, as Matthew Taylor recognised, many people want that flexibility so that they can combine their work with the other things in their lives. We need to ensure that people have the skills to get better jobs in the future, and that is exactly what this Government are investing in.

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Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury join me in welcoming the fact that 75% of the 2.8 million jobs created since 2010 are full-time jobs, and that zero-hours contracts account for just 3% of all jobs?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Is it not amazing that not one Labour Member has welcomed the fact that we have the lowest unemployment since 1975, or that we have lower youth unemployment? In fact, the Opposition model their policies on countries such as Greece, which has exceptionally high youth unemployment, and they take for granted the progress that we have made over the past seven years.

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First, let me welcome any increase in jobs in our society, but when it comes to commenting on wages, does not the Chief Secretary to the Treasury agree that it ill becomes a multi-millionaire earning £145,000 a year, admittedly in a temporary job, and living in two grace-and-favour properties at the taxpayer’s expense to attack public sector workers—our hospital cleaners, nurses, teachers and firefighters—as being “overpaid”? Public sector workers’ pay has fallen on average by £4,000 in the first six years of this Government. One in five NHS staff are forced to take a second job, and teachers are facing a further cut to their salaries of £3,000 by 2020. Does she not think that the Chancellor should just do the right thing and apologise?

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Yet again, the right hon. Gentleman is not giving the House the full picture of what is happening with public sector wages. Last year, teachers’ pay went up by 3.3%. More than half of nurses and other NHS workers saw a pay rise of over 3%, and the armed services saw a pay rise of 2.4%. The cleaner he talked about was employed not by the public sector but by Serco. The right hon. Gentleman needs to get his facts right.

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That is true—the Government privatised the jobs.

I note that the Chief Secretary did not dispute the fact that the Chancellor said that staff were overpaid. The Chancellor tried to justify his attack on public sector workers by trying the classic divide and rule between public and private sector workers, citing public sector pensions. Is the Chief Secretary aware that those supposedly generous pensions across several professions pay on average the princely sum of just £5,000 a year, and that low pay has forced many public sector workers to opt out of their pension scheme? Eleven per cent. of those in the NHS have opted out; if that figure continues to rise, the whole scheme could be undermined. Will the Chief Secretary recognise the damage that the Chancellor is causing and lift the pay cap so that public sector staff can have some hope of a fair wage settlement—and, yes, a decent future pension?

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The right hon. Gentleman still has not acknowledged the truth of the figures that I cited—the 3% pay rise for over half of nurses and the 3.3% rise for teachers. He simply will not look at the facts. The reality is that public sector workers are, rightly, paid in line with the private sector to allow the public and private sectors to flourish so that we can create wealth in this country. In addition, public sector workers have a 10% premium on their wages in pension contributions, and that is in the Office for Budget Responsibility report.

National Debt

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2. What progress is being made on reducing the national debt. [900547]

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6. What progress is being made on reducing the national debt. [900551]

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Debt has climbed steadily since 2009 as a result of the high levels of deficit. Since 2010, we have reduced the deficit by three quarters, so national debt will now peak at just under 90% of GDP this year. As the OBR’s “Fiscal risks report” of last week makes clear, that level of debt—a legacy of Labour’s recession—leaves us vulnerable to future shocks, which is why the Government have committed to eliminating the deficit and reducing the level of debt as a share of GDP. As a result of the actions taken to bring the public finances back under control, the OBR now forecasts that debt will start falling next year and will be below 80% of GDP by 2021-22.

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Those figures are welcome, but will my right hon. Friend confirm that were the Government to pursue a policy of wiping all outstanding student debt, that would cost in excess of £100 billion and cause the national debt to surge? Will he also confirm that the biggest beneficiaries by far would be the top-earning graduates in the country?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He might have added that were anyone to suggest that they were able to do that, they could be accused of practising a deception on the people to whom they were offering that proposal. The cruelty of that would become apparent when it would have to be admitted that the proposal could not possibly be delivered. We face a debt challenge in this country, and we cannot borrow our way out of debt. The Opposition would do well to acknowledge that. Stronger growth and sound public finances are the only sustainable way to deliver better public services, higher real wages and increased living standards.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that last week’s OBR study shows that the debt level is 89% of GDP, highlighting that we must continue to be responsible with the public finances to weather any future uncertainty and to ensure that the Wiltshire economy continues to thrive?

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My hon. Friend is right to express concern about the vulnerability created by the high level of debt. As the OBR made clear last week, that debt means that if the economy were to face an external shock, we would not be in a position to respond in the way that we would ideally like. That is why we have to get debt down, and the only way to get debt down is to get the deficit down. That means responsible fiscal policy, not the kind of rubbish we hear from Labour Front Benchers.

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Was it not clear from the OBR report last week that it is a hard Brexit that presents the biggest threat to our national finances? Just a 0.1% decrease in productivity could lead, over 50 years, to a 50% increase in the ratio of debt to GDP. If the reports are true that the Chancellor is prepared to champion a longer transition from the single market for the UK, such welcome news might secure a lot of support on both sides of the House.

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I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s contribution. On an issue as important to our nation’s future as our exit from the European Union, I welcome any opportunity to build consensus across the House and the nation. He is right to draw attention to what the OBR said. Even a very small decline in our productivity performance would add huge amounts to the debt and would reduce, by significant amounts, our projected growth in GDP. That is why it is so important that we now act responsibly in maintaining fiscal discipline and ensuring that we reduce our debt over time.

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How is the Chancellor’s consensus building around the Cabinet table going? Will he update the House on his assessment of the trade deals that will be done after we leave the single market? He knows that Brexit is going to cause a fiscal shock. Is it true that he has challenged the Secretary of State for International Trade to disprove Treasury calculations that show there is no trade deal we can do after leaving the European Union that will make up for the huge loss of trade that Brexit will create?

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The hon. Lady is assuming that we will lose trade with the European Union. It is clear to me that, all other things being equal, the ability to enter bilateral trade deals with third countries will be a positive for our economy. Of course, we also want to protect our trade with the European Union. My focus is on ensuring that we get a Brexit deal that protects our existing patterns of trade and commercial engagement with the European Union, as well as, over time, allowing us to explore new opportunities beyond the European Union.

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The Chancellor will be aware that the current cost of Government borrowing is at a historical low, with gilt yields at 1%. Does he agree that, if markets lose confidence in our ability to live within our means, the cost of that borrowing would spiral, costing us billions of pounds? That would mean less to spend on our public services.

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My hon. Friend is right to warn of the danger of a loss of market confidence in UK fiscal policy—I am looking very hard at the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). If markets lose confidence in UK fiscal policy, they will re-price lending to the United Kingdom. We already spend more every year on servicing our debt than on our armed forces and police services together. It would do a huge disservice to taxpayers in this country if we created conditions that would cause the cost of that debt to rise.

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An enfeebled Chancellor has been forced to give a £1 billion bung to the Democratic Unionist party, to cough up £1.3 billion for a schools funding U-turn, to scurry around to find £2 billion to pay for his humiliating national insurance contributions debacle and to bail out his nightmare neighbour’s social care retreat with £2 billion. Why should this House believe a word, a promise, a claim or a target on reducing the debt?

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I was glad to see the hon. Gentleman smiling by the end of that little rant. I do not know which planet he lives on, but I do not feel particularly enfeebled. I do not know what the Labour Treasury team does all day, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education made it clear in her statement yesterday that she has put extra money into the frontline schools budget by reprioritising the wider education budget and finding efficiencies across her Department. That is the way to do a fiscally prudent protection of our public services.

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Yes, the Government have taken it off some children and given it to others.

The national debt has risen by £707 billion since 2010 and is rising. It is barely a year since the Chancellor was given the keys to No. 11, and in that time public sector net debt has not been reduced. According to the Office for National Statistics and the OBR, it has increased by £122 billion. Given that lamentable record, has he been given notice of eviction by the woman in the bunker next door? Perhaps they may leave Downing Street in the same removal van.

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The hon. Gentleman will know—I say that, but perhaps he will not—that public sector net debt will continue to grow until the deficit is eliminated. That is a simple arithmetic fact. His Government pushed our deficit up to almost 10% of GDP, and we have spent the past seven years getting it down to 2.4% of GDP. We will carry on getting the deficit down so that this country’s public finances get back into balance. We are a responsible Government, planning for Britain’s future.

Infrastructure: Private Sector Investment

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3. What steps he is taking to incentivise private sector investment infrastructure projects in the nations and regions. [900548]

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This Government are committed to supporting private investment, which finances about half our infrastructure. We have a trusted and stable regulatory system, and through the UK guarantees scheme we have supported projects worth more than £4 billion. We are also introducing innovative support such as the digital infrastructure investment fund, which will accelerate the roll-out of the ultrafast network.

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The north Wales Mersey Dee region hosts world-beating businesses such as Kellogg’s, Airbus and JCB, but we need competitive infrastructure in order to ensure that we remain competitive. For that reason, and in the absence of the public sector investment we are crying out for, may we please have the ability to deliver private sector investment? What are the Government going to do to deliver roads and rail?

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I simply do not recognise what the hon. Gentleman says; investment in our infrastructure is at a record high. We are seeing investment in roads, rail and south-east air capacity—in all modes of transport. The point is how we deliver that investment, and it is a combination of public and private. He is clearly right to champion the requirement for infrastructure in his area and to highlight its impact on the economy, but to say we are not doing anything is just factually wrong.

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One disincentive for the private sector to invest in infrastructure is the delay that sometimes occurs in bringing major projects through to completion and commencement. The private sector is already committed to making a significant contribution to the funding package for Crossrail, but we have been waiting since March for a decision to take it forward. Will the Minister do all he can, across government, to speed up that regional and national infrastructure project?

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I see significant merits in Crossrail 2, just as I see them in northern powerhouse rail and projects right across our country. I will of course take on board my hon. Friend’s point and relay it to the Transport Secretary.

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Private investment thrives on stability, but we have a Cabinet in a state of anarchy when it comes to the terms of our exit from the European Union. Do the Government agree with Labour Members that an early announcement on transitional arrangements is therefore essential? If the Minister does agree with that, will he tell us the Government’s position on the latest date such arrangements could be announced—or are we more likely to see a transitional Chancellor than a transitional deal?

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I am not going to speculate on the negotiations, as that would be way above my pay grade. I just refer the hon. Gentleman to the Chancellor’s answer a moment ago on the merits of a Brexit deal that secures our economic future.

Infrastructure: Government Investment

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4. What assessment he has made of the effect of Government investment in infrastructure since 2010. [900549]

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7. What assessment he has made of the effect of Government investment in infrastructure since 2010. [900552]

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Infrastructure is at the heart of this Government’s economic strategy, and our investments will boost productivity and growth. Since 2010, more than a quarter of a trillion pounds has been invested by the public and private sectors, about 3,000 individual projects have been completed, we have almost completed Crossrail, and more than 4 million homes accessed superfast broadband for the first time.

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Nearly 100 years ago, the world’s first radio broadcast was sent out from Britain—from Chelmsford. Does my hon. Friend agree that the digital infrastructure investment fund will give a massive boost to fibre and superfast broadband so that the UK can continue to lead the world in the digital and communications sectors?

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I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I have just learned something about Chelmsford and its history in the development of our digital and radio infrastructure. The investment will boost Britain’s internet, making it more reliable and consistent and easier for people to live and work more flexibly, which will of course boost productivity right across the UK. Fibre is the technology of the future, just as radio was 100 years ago, and this fund will significantly assist small and medium-sized enterprises with capital to roll it out, with both Chelmsford and the UK benefiting.

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Investment and infrastructure projects are absolutely key to keeping our nation moving. As the Minister knows, Chickenhall link road and Botley bypass in my constituency were helped to do just that and to improve the quality of life of my constituents. I welcome road funding through the national productivity investment fund. Will Ministers meet me to discuss the delivery of those projects, which will affect my constituency in Eastleigh?

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My hon. Friend is a great champion for her constituency and for these projects. I have absolutely no doubt about the importance of them locally. If nothing else, we have met on the subject a number of times, and she is very tenacious. These projects not only open up opportunities for development, but help to relieve the congestion in the heart of her constituency. I will of course ensure that she meets the Transport team as soon as possible to progress those projects.

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The electrification of the Great Western Railway between Paddington and Swansea was to provide huge economic benefits for businesses along that line. Unfortunately, the project has now overspent by £1.2 billion, and not a yard of the line has been electrified. What are the Government doing to ensure that projects such as this do not run over and waste taxpayers’ money in future?

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The efficiency in the way that we deliver our infrastructure is a critical consideration when the Government are putting in so much money to transform our infrastructure. The points that the hon. Gentleman makes about Network Rail will have been heard by my hon. Friends in the Transport team, and I will highlight his comments to them.

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Last month, the Institute for Government produced a report on infrastructure spending that said that decision makers do not know whether projects deliver value for money. It also believes that Parliament and the public are misinformed. What action are the Chancellor and his Department taking to ensure that future infrastructure spend delivers value for money and that costs do not spiral out of control like they have for Hinkley Point C?

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I simply highlight the extremely rigorous business case process, which every single project has to go through before it receives approval. The idea that these schemes are not considered is just wrong.

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The Scottish Government have committed to delivering 50,000 affordable homes by 2021. We recognise the calls that are being made by organisations such as Shelter Scotland and Big Issue, which believe in prioritising affordable housing. Why are the UK Government committing to build only 40,000 affordable homes in the same period?

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Again, that is a question that will have to go to colleagues in another Department. I will make sure that they hear the hon. Lady’s comments.

Corporation Tax

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5. What assessment he has made of how to balance the needs of (a) business and (b) the Exchequer in setting the corporation tax rate. [900550]

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This Government believe in a tax regime that is fair and competitive. Since 2010, we have reduced the headline corporation tax rate from 28% to 19%, allowing companies, big and small, to invest in expanding their business, boost wages, create jobs and lower prices. Onshore corporation tax receipts have also increased by over 50% despite the rate being lowered.

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Does the Minister agree that if we raise corporation tax, it is normally passed on by business to customers, and that if we lower it, we hope that prices will come down?

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. It is important to remember that the burden of corporation tax does not just fall on shareholders. If we were to follow Labour’s policy of increasing corporation tax, we would see less investment, lower growth, lower productivity and, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies has said, lower wages and indeed higher prices.

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Earlier, the Chancellor acknowledged that productivity is the key to economic growth and eliminating our public sector deficit. When manufacturing businesses invest, they often lose any benefits of corporation tax reduction because of higher business rates. That acts as a disincentive to invest and increase output and productivity. Why does he not cut business rates instead?

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This Government have done a great deal in terms of providing business rate reliefs, which were announced in previous Budgets and are, I think, well known to the House. There will be more to come on that in the Finance Bill.

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Will the Minister tell the House by how much the corporation tax take has gone up since the corporation tax rate was cut?

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This is an important point. As the corporation tax rate has decreased to 19%—it will go down further to 17%—we have seen a 50% increase in the take, which is an amount in the order of £18 billion.

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Most economists prioritise building business confidence and improving infrastructure and skills over cutting corporate tax rates. Is the Minister aware that lowering corporate tax rates now presents the appearance of Britain trying to undercut countries with which we need to agree a decent Brexit deal—at a time when businesses are not confident in the Government’s leadership, but are instead “aghast” and “confused” at their approach to Brexit?

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We have seen a huge increase in employment in this country to a record level, and a record drop in unemployment to the lowest level since the mid-1970s. A lot of that has been driven by business. If the hon. Lady is seriously suggesting that the recipe for increasing the confidence of business is putting up its corporation tax to 26%, she has, I am afraid, missed the point.

Economic Growth

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8. What assessment he has made of recent trends in economic growth. [900553]

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13. What assessment he has made of recent trends in economic growth. [900558]

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Short-term indicators of growth are volatile. Quarterly growth was 0.2% in the first quarter of this year, but this followed strong growth of 0.7% in the quarter before. The underlying economy is robust, thanks to record employment levels. Although a recent rise in inflation, caused mainly by the depreciation of sterling last year, may temporarily dampen consumer spending—today’s inflation figure for June is a little lower at 2.6%—there are signs from surveys of business that export orders and business investment intentions are up.

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I call the Chair of the Select Committee on the Treasury, Nicky Morgan.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. Would the Chancellor not agree that a growing economy is necessary to pay for our essential public services? The Office for Budget Responsibility’s “Fiscal risks report”, which has already been referred to, says that

“governments should expect nasty fiscal surprises from time to time”—

I am not referring to the shadow Chancellor there—and “plan accordingly”, but this Government also have to manage the uncertainties posed by Brexit. Should not a responsible Government not worsen uncertainties and risks by the decisions that they take?

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Let me first congratulate my right hon. Friend; it was remiss of me not to do so in my first answer. I very much welcome her to her role on the Treasury Committee, and I look forward to being grilled or toasted by her, or whatever the correct expression is. She is of course exactly right: the only way to build resilience into the economy is to have strong public finances, and the only way to have a sustainably growing standard of living is to have rising productivity over the medium and long term, and that is what the Government’s policy is focused towards.

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These are obviously still worrying times for many in north-east Scotland, with the continued low oil price still causing concern, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the strength of the United Kingdom’s economy, now the second highest growing in the G7, has enabled this Government to provide over £2.6 billion of support to the industry, securing jobs in West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine?

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Yes. The UK oil and gas sector has made a huge contribution to the UK economy, having paid over £330 billion in total in production taxes to date, and supporting over 300,000 jobs. In the next phase of the life of the North sea basin, as many fields come towards the end of their life, we are working with the industry to ensure that we extract every drop of oil and gas that it is economic to extract, that we enable decommissioning, and enable end-of-life fields to be operated in the most effective way.

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17. Much of the growth is due to the fact that we are spending more on imports, due to the low cost of the pound. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that our trade in goods deficit has risen by £2.6 billion over the past quarter and now stands at a staggering £34.4 billion. Does not the extra cost of imports have an impact on the cost of our exports and affect our productivity? [900562]

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As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know, the short-run effect of a depreciation in sterling would be expected to be a decline in our trade balance performance as we suck in more expensive imports, in sterling terms. But over time the economy will adjust—there are signs that this is happening now—with exporters increasing their output to take advantage of weaker sterling and their greater competitiveness in international markets, and indeed not just exporters, but those who would substitute imported products with domestically produced products, which is often the best way forward for smaller companies.

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One of the ways of reducing the deficit is by increasing economic growth, rather than increasing taxes or reducing spending. What steps is the Chancellor taking to produce economic growth, and how are his efforts being affected by those who continually talk the economy down and predict dire effects from Brexit, even though their predictions to date have been proved wrong?

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The hon. Gentleman is exactly right; those who talk the economy and its prospects down are not doing the country any favours. It is not about borrowing more or taxing more; it is about growing our economy faster and increasing productivity so that we can have sustainable jobs and economic growth that produces the taxation to support our public services as well as rising living standards for our population.

Youth Unemployment

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9. What progress is being made on reducing youth unemployment. [900554]

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Youth unemployment is at a record low: 5.1% of 16 to 12-year-olds are unemployed or not in full-time education. That compares with 9.4% in 2009, under the previous Labour Government.

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Although I welcome the record unemployment figures that the Minister has given this morning, youth unemployment is still higher in my constituency and in Scotland than the UK average, so will he work with me and others across the House to encourage more investment in my constituency and in Scotland as a whole?

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I will be very happy to work with my hon. Friend, because we recognise that work is the best route out of poverty. Indeed, unemployed households are 13 times more likely to be in relative poverty than those with people in full-time work.

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I understand what the Minister says about less unemployment, but my concern is that this is not just about employment, but about retention. Does he agree that now is the time for hard-working, tax-paying public sector workers to get the pay rise that they have earned, and that he should scrap the cap?

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We can see the effects, were we to follow the hon. Lady’s policy, by looking at youth unemployment rates elsewhere in Europe. In Greece it is 45.9%, and even in France it is 22%. The best way of addressing poverty is by keeping young people in work.

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18. Government investment in Cheltenham’s cyber-accelerator since 2015 is now yielding results, with numerous cyber start-ups benefiting from local mentoring from experts at GCHQ. Does my hon. Friend agree that mobilising the UK’s sovereign expertise in areas such as cyber boosts jobs for young people and opportunity in places such as Cheltenham? [900563]

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The GCHQ cyber-accelerator in Cheltenham is part of the Government’s £1.9 billion cyber-security strategy. It allows business start-ups to gain access to GCHQ’s world-class personnel and expertise, and the accelerator helps these businesses to expand, contributing to jobs and opportunities, including in Cheltenham, and it makes the UK a safer place online. I know that my hon. Friend has worked very hard on this for a considerable period of time. He makes an important point as he speaks up for his constituency, and how it is leading in the UK and across the world.

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How does the Minister expect to reduce youth unemployment, given the further education budget cuts across the country, particularly in Coventry, where the budget has been cut by 27%?

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Actually, we are seeing record numbers of people, in particular disadvantaged students, going to university. The situation will not be helped if people are conned with the idea that student debts will be written off.

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Well, that was a first in this place, certainly during my time in the Chair: I have never known a ministerial swap to take place mid-answer. I assume that it was inadvertent; the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury is nothing if not immaculate in his parliamentary manners. I put it down to error. But I hope that the Ministers know their own identities. I would be worried for them if they did not.

Rooftop Solar

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10. What fiscal steps his Department is taking to incentivise businesses to invest in rooftop solar. [900555]

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Immaculate parliamentary manners, but not immaculate parliamentary procedure—sorry about that, Mr Speaker; I thought we had moved on from that question.

Solar is a UK success story. In 2013, solar capacity was expected to reach between 10 and 12 GW by 2020; we now expect Government support to bring forward about 13 GW by then. Feed-in tariffs provide an incentive for businesses to invest in rooftop solar.

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The sun might be going down on the Chancellor’s time at No.11, but it remains an important source of energy and income for 44,000 microgenerators, including schools and hospitals. But since April they have seen their business rates increase by up to 800%, in some cases. Some major deployers of the technology are now pulling out of the rooftop market. Will the Government reassess the business rate levy paid on rooftop solar, so that we can give real growth to this important environmental sector?

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The Government are continuing to support the take-up of solar panels through business rates by maintaining the exemption for new installations of solar power generating less than 50 kilowatts of power; of course, we also have all the transitional relief schemes and the cut in business rates announced in the Budget last year, which cost nearly £9 billion. The Government have listened to the voice from solar. We are keen to see progress on solar, and these schemes will help that.

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Will not the roll-out of solar panels be greatly helped by Brexit, when the very high tariffs imposed on cheaper Chinese photovoltaic cells are removed and we will no longer be protecting the inefficient German industry?

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I thought my hon. Friend was going to say that the sun may be shining more brightly post-Brexit. We are very keen to see the progress of solar as well as all other renewables. We will have to see what happens with pricing, but the key thing is that we will be supporting solar, as it is a key part of our power mix for the future.

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There was I thinking that the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) was taking an interest in energy saving because he has six children. Apparently not.

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Have not the Government actually cut support for solar because, together with new storage technologies, it threatens to become so successful that it would kill off any case for horrendously expensive nuclear?

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The support for solar comes directly from people’s bills. When the costs of installation and generation come down, through efficiencies and economies of scale and production, so should support. We are taking steps to control the cost of support schemes and putting solar on the path to delivery without subsidy.

Tax Avoidance and Evasion

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11. What plans he has to introduce measures to tackle tax avoidance and evasion carried out through non-domiciled status and offshore trusts. [900556]

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The UK has effective legislation to tackle avoidance involving offshore structures and we have announced our intention to legislate further, making it harder for non-doms to avoid paying tax on funds withdrawn from trusts. I am also pleased to say that we have been at the forefront of international work that has seen 100 countries commit to exchange financial information automatically.

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The Conservative manifesto said that the Government would

“take a more proactive approach to transparency”.

Does the Minister believe that enough is being done to tackle companies that promote tax-avoidance schemes, or is there still a tendency for the big four accountancy firms to regulate the big four, via the big four, in order to protect the big four?

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The hon. Lady asks if enough is being done to clamp down on tax avoidance. I can assure her that it certainly is. Since 2010, we have raised £160 billion by way of clamping down on exactly those behaviours. In the forthcoming Finance Bill there will be further measures to make sure that over the scorecard period we are bringing in between £7 billion and £8 billion in addition, in corporate tax avoidance measures.

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Will the Minister confirm that due to steps taken by this Government, the top 1% of people now pay 27% of income tax, and that that is a higher proportion than under the previous Labour Government?

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. The Labour party would constantly have us believe that somehow we are being soft on the wealthy and hard on the less well-off when the precise opposite is true. The top 1% pay over 27% of tax, and the wealthiest 3,000 people in our country pay as much as the poorest 9 million. Under Labour, the poor paid more tax relative to the wealthy, not less. No wonder that under our policies income inequality is at a 30-year low.

Income Tax/National Insurance

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12. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of merging income tax and national insurance. [900557]

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The Government are committed to simplifying the tax system. In 2015, we asked the Office of Tax Simplification to provide an independent assessment of the alignment of income tax and national insurance contributions. We have already taken action in a number of places highlighted by the report. However, alignment now would cause significant upheaval for millions. Now is not the right time for further reform in this area.

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I welcome my right hon. Friend to his new ministerial role. Last year the Office of Tax Simplification said that bringing national insurance and income tax closer together would create a simpler and fairer system for business and taxpayers. As national insurance and income tax revenues go into the same pot, would it not be simpler and clearer to merge the two and have one single income tax?

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As I said, we recognise the value of merging national insurance and income tax where that is practical and achievable, and there are some measures coming up in the Bills in the autumn that will address that in certain circumstances, but to do it right across the piece at this stage is perhaps a long-term aspiration rather than one we will be addressing in the short term.

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The Minister will know that as people go into the higher tax threshold they stop paying more national insurance, so would one of the impacts of merging the two be to reveal that the British tax system is not as progressive as people think, and make the case for those with the broadest shoulders to pay more?

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The hon. Gentleman needs to recognise that national insurance and income tax function in different ways and have different roles in the tax system. We have one of the most progressive tax systems in the entire country. If we look at, for example, those earning above—[Interruption.] Well, by raising the personal tax allowance we have taken 3 million to 4 million people out of income tax altogether. For those earning over £100,000, where we removed the allowance, that, plus national insurance, means that the marginal rates are up to 62% at that level of income.

Public Sector Pay

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14. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of public sector pay since 2010; and if he will make a statement. [900559]

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We hugely value the work of public servants—teachers, police and nurses. That is why they are paid in line with the private sector, and, in addition, receive a 10% increment, on average, for their pensions.

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We all agree that MPs’ pay recommendations are decided independently and go through automatically. However, other public sector pay review bodies take into account Treasury submissions but then find that their recommendations are vetoed by Ministers. If it is good enough for Members of Parliament, why is it not good enough for nurses, the armed forces, firefighters and teachers?

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We do take notice of what the independent pay review bodies say. We have just approved the recommendations of the teachers pay review body and of the nurses pay review body. Listening to their recommendations, the pay review body for the NHS said:

“We do not see significant short-term nationwide recruitment and retention issues that are linked to pay.”

We followed that advice and gave the pay accordingly.

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Increases in the tax-free personal allowance since 2010 have put £1,000 into the pocket of each basic rate taxpayer, including those who work across the public sector. Will the Chief Secretary continue to help public sector workers to keep the money they earn, through lower taxes?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The worst thing that we could do is to support the Labour party’s policies, which would, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, lead to the highest levels of taxation in peacetime history.

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19. I think the Treasury response today to the questions about the 1% pay cap are profoundly disappointing. This is the single biggest thing ensuring that inflation erodes living standards. It is impoverishing workers, and it is driving up consumer debt. When will the Treasury agree with the Foreign Secretary that the time has come to end this cap? [900564]

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I point out to the hon. Gentleman that, in fact, teachers have seen a 3% pay rise, many nurses get progression pay and people in the armed forces get an X-factor supplement that is worth 2.4% a year. Their salaries are in line with private sector salaries. It would be wrong to have a significant differential between the public and private sectors, because we need businesses to thrive in addition to having well-funded public services.

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Time is against us, but I want to hear a couple more of the Order Paper questions.

Government Investment in Skills

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15. What discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Education on the effect of Government investment in skills since 2010. [900560]

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Treasury Ministers have engaged on a regular basis with the Secretary of State for Education. We will double spending on apprenticeships over the decade to 2020, allowing 3 million apprenticeship starts in England by 2020 and giving people the best start in their career.

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Since 2010, the substantial increase in apprenticeships has helped many young people into work. Stansted airport in my constituency is a great provider of apprenticeships, and its employment academy placed 700 people into work in the last year alone. Does the Minister agree that apprenticeships have contributed to the record low level of youth unemployment?

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I very much agree with my hon. Friend. In fact, there are 55,000 fewer young people unemployed than there were a year ago, thanks in large part to the investment that this Government are putting into apprenticeships.

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Is the Minister aware that if we are going to do anything about skills or productivity in our country and our communities, we have got to look to local further education colleges? Will he support, with money, resources and leadership, the introduction of a practical maths course to help young people who are waiting in colleges up and down the country, struggling to get apprenticeships? Will he talk to the Education Secretary about doing that, to get these young people on their way?

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The hon. Gentleman will welcome the Government’s record investment of £500 million in T-levels, to tackle exactly the issue that he has raised in technical education. The Government’s commitment can also be seen in apprenticeships. Whereas under the last Labour Government there were just 280,000 apprenticeship starts, there were more than half a million last year under this Government.

Corporation Tax: Receipts

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16. What effect the reduction in corporation tax rates has had on receipts from that tax. [900561]

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Since 2010 the headline corporation tax rate has been cut from 28% to 19%. Despite that, onshore corporation tax receipts have increased by more than 50%, from £36.2 billion in 2010-11 to £55.1 billion in 2016-17.

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According to KPMG, we have the second-most competitive tax regime anywhere in the G7. Does my hon. Friend agree that that encourages businesses to locate here and boosts our tax receipts?

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. The OECD has made it very clear that corporation tax increases are the most harmful tax increases for economic growth. By keeping business taxes down, in 2015-16 we saw a record number of inward investment projects creating more than 1,600 jobs per week.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

[900536]

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My priority is to ensure that the economy remains resilient as we negotiate our exit from the European Union. That means building on this Government’s achievements in reducing the deficit by two thirds, delivering record levels of employment and getting unemployment down to the lowest rate since the mid-1970s, while continuing to tackle the long-term challenge of productivity enhancement and making steady progress towards balancing the budget

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I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Raising the personal tax allowance has been a key achievement of this Government. What recent assessment has he made of the number of my Hazel Grove constituents who have benefited from that policy?

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I agree with my hon. Friend. The UK will have increased the tax-free personal allowance by over 90% compared with 2010, completing a decade of sustained tax cuts for working people. Over 31 million taxpayers will pay less tax in 2017-18, including 3 million taxpayers in the north-west. Since 2010, more than 4 million taxpayers have been taken out of income tax altogether.

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Personal contract purchase plans for financing cars have gone up by 394% in the past five years, and the Governor of the Bank of England has said that we are failing to learn the lessons of the past when it comes to easy credit. What action is the Chancellor taking to ensure that lending is affordable and does not pose a risk to the wider economy?

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May I first congratulate the hon. Lady on her appointment as Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee? As she will be aware from her Bank of England days, this is a matter for the Financial Policy Committee. Indeed, the FPC noted in its recent report that consumer credit is growing at a lower rate than it was under the previous Labour Government, but loss rates on lending remain low, as they are at present.

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T2. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will know from his time in the Foreign Office that one of the great strengths of our great kingdom is the perception of fairness we enjoy around the world. Will he talk a little about fairness in financial transactions, as the hidden taxes imposed by many companies on investment are grossly unfair on those who are saving in pensions for the future? [900537]

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There is a theme here, because I should congratulate my hon. Friend on his election as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The Government are committed to the principles of transparency. He will have noted the recent Financial Conduct Authority report on the asset management market study. Indeed, we are seeing technology—in particular, through FinTech—driving the sort of transparency to which he refers.

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T9. As chair of the all-party group on refugees, I am told by refugees that they are desperate to work once they have achieved such status, but are hindered by various fixable problems in the system. Will the Minister tell us what the Government are doing to make it easier for refugees to have bank accounts? [900544]

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The hon. Lady will be aware that when the Home Office grants refugee status, it includes the biometric residence permit as proof of the holder’s right to stay, but I am very happy to discuss with the hon. Lady any further measures that she feels would be helpful.

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T3. To promote the drive towards world free trade, will the Chancellor of the Exchequer assure the House that he is absolutely, personally and enthusiastically committed to following our manifesto commitment to leave not just the EU at the end of 2019, but the single market and the customs union? [900538]

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Yes, I have made it clear on many occasions that when we leave the European Union on 29 March 2019, we will also leave the single market and the customs union. Those are matters of legal necessity. My focus is on ensuring that thereafter we put in place the closest and deepest possible partnership with our European neighbours that will allow us to continue the patterns of trade and business, patterns of security co-operation and patterns of educational exchange and scientific and research collaboration that we enjoy now. That is the best way to protect Britain’s prosperity.

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Unsecured borrowing has rocketed, and lenders warn that default rates on credit cards and other products this summer will be at their highest level at any point since the height of the financial crisis. Instead of simply passing the buck to the Financial Policy Committee, what are the Government going to do in public policy to alleviate the serious risk of a household debt crisis?

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The hon. Gentleman misstates the position. It is an independent responsibility of the Bank of England to address that—[Interruption.] It is. It is of course an area where there will always be frequent discussions with the Treasury, but it is a Bank of England matter.

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T4. The UK Government have a strong record of supporting Scottish businesses, and the British Business Bank has provided nearly £1.5 million of support to small businesses in East Renfrewshire. However, many businesses in my constituency are disadvantaged compared with competitors and counterparts in England due to the Scottish Government’s approach to business rates. Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling for the Scottish Government to reverse their decision to double the large business supplement, restore rates parity on both sides of the border and allow Scottish businesses to compete on a level playing field? [900539]

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My hon. Friend is entirely right. The large business supplement is a devolved tax matter and the supplement in Scotland is double that in England. The consequences were best summed up by Liz Cameron, the chief executive officer of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce:

“Here in Scotland, we must ensure that we are seen to be the best place in the UK to do business and that will require a fundamental reassessment by the Scottish Government of its tax policies.”

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The Chancellor will know from his own officials’ analysis that the difference between staying in the European economic area and a Canadian-type deal, which is essentially what the Government are now aiming for, is a hit to GDP of £16 billion, which is equivalent to a 4p rise in the basic rate of income tax. How can it not be right to stay in the EEA, at least for transition?

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The hon. Lady is now asking a different question. The Prime Minister has been very clear that Britain is a very large economy in relation to our European neighbours and we would expect to have a bespoke arrangement with the European Union as our long-term future status quo, and indeed a bespoke arrangement for any interim period that is agreed. The hon. Lady is quite right that as we go forward with this process, we need to deliver on our commitment to leave the European, but to do so in a way that protects the British economy, protects British jobs and protects Britain’s prosperity, and that is what we will do.

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T5. Will my right hon. Friend, for the benefit of the House, confirm the cost to the economy of cancelling student debt, say whether that is affordable and explain what effect it would have on the work we have done to reduce the deficit? [900540]

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As the Labour party admits, cancelling student debt would cost £100 billion. The Opposition made that reckless promise, which would see the debt soar, during the election campaign, but now they say it is just an “ambition”. Are they going to say sorry to the people they made their promise to, and are they going to say sorry to the British public for threatening to bankrupt the economy?

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Further to the questions asked by my hon. Friends the Members for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander), will the Chancellor confirm, as he failed to do before, that the cost to us of Brexit will be as described by my hon. Friends some moments ago?

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The hon. Lady, I think, knows that there can be no definitive answer to that question. We do not yet know what the form of our agreement with the European Union will be and we do not yet know what arrangements will be in place for any kind of interim or transition period, so she is speculating. What I can tell her is that the Government are 100% focused on getting the best deal for Britain and delivering it in a way that protects British business and British jobs.

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T6. Several of my Beckenham constituents have suggested that the winter fuel allowance might be a taxable benefit. Is that being considered? [900541]

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We have no plans to tax the winter fuel allowance.

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One of the best boosts to economic growth is Government infrastructure spending, so will the Chancellor look down the back of the sofa where he found the £1 billion for the deal with the Democratic Unionist party and find more change to sign the Edinburgh city growth deal?

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At the autumn statement, I made a conscious decision to borrow an additional £23 billion for investment in economically productive infrastructure projects—a conscious decision to address one of the challenges we face in improving Britain’s productivity. The Government will continue to combine a prudent fiscal approach with investment in our future through productivity-raising measures.

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T7. The new Conservative Mayor of the Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, is setting up the first mayoral development corporation outside London on the former SSI site in Redcar. The regeneration of the site and the attraction of inward investment are obviously vital. Will my hon. Friend work with me and the Mayor to deliver the best outcome for the site and the local economy? [900542]

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The South Tees Site Company is currently undertaking ground investigations to assess the levels of any contamination on the SSI site. The mayoral development corporation is leading on the development of plans for the future of the site. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend, the Mayor of the Tees Valley and others to promote the economy of the area.

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In the Budget, the Chancellor promised a consultation on business rates, but we have not yet seen that. Businesses in York are really struggling and some are leaving the city because of the astronomical business rates. When will we have that consultation—what is the date?

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We have to deal with two issues. One is the process by which we uprate business rates, and we all saw earlier this year that long periods followed by dramatic revision are not good for anyone. They cause disruption to business, so we are looking at how we can smooth the process. Secondly, we need to look more broadly at the way in which we address the perceived unfairness that companies that operate in bricks and mortar are effectively treated differently from companies that do not. That is not an easy challenge, because many of the digital companies operate internationally and it requires international co-operation.

The consultation that the hon. Lady asks for will be issued by the Department for Communities and Local Government and I will pass on to the Secretary of State her concerns about the date.

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T8. Noting that the unemployment rate is at a 42-year low, may I inquire of my right hon. Friend what the effect has been on average personal incomes for workers in Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock—and, indeed, the rest of the UK—of increases in the minimum wage and the national living wage? [900543]

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The increase in the national living wage to £7.50 an hour means that a full-time worker on minimum wages has had a pay rise of £2,800 since 2010. More than 150,000 low-wage workers in Scotland are benefiting from that extra money.

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The Tyne and Wear Metro is in urgent need of investment if we are to see the new rolling stock rolled out by 2021. What conversations has the Chancellor had with the Transport Secretary about funding that vital piece of infrastructure for the north-east?

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As the hon. Lady may know, I take a clear view about the confidentiality of conversations between Cabinet Ministers—[Laughter.] While I have had many conversations with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, I make it a rule that it is for departmental Secretaries of State to make announcements when appropriate.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that lowering corporation tax to 19% has incentivised business investment in North Warwickshire and Bedworth by companies such as Aldi, which has its headquarters there, and throughout the UK?

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My hon. Friend is right, and he is rightly a champion of business in his constituency. There is no doubt that lower taxes create wealth and in turn pay for the public services that we all desire—contrary to the party opposite. I share one exchange with the House—when my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) asked the shadow Chief Secretary if he was

“aware that tax as a percentage of GDP is going to be at its highest level since Harold Wilson was Prime Minister?”,

his response was:

“Let me put it like this: if we had a Labour Government, the percentage would be even higher.”—[Official Report, 18 April 2017; Vol. 624, c. 579.]

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The TUC estimates that nurses, firefighters and border guards face losing more than £2,500 in real terms by 2020. For ambulance drivers, who earn significantly below the UK average wage, the figure is more than £1,800. Does the Minister agree that it is about time that we gave hard-working public sector workers the pay rise they deserve?

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The hon. Lady should be aware that more than half of nurses and NHS workers saw a 3% pay rise last year. She needs to check her facts.

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T10. Last night, I met a major financial institution. Does my hon. Friend agree that for London to retain its place as the leading financial centre we need a regulatory regime based on mutual recognition and an early-agreed transitional phase to provide certainty? [900545]

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My hon. Friend rightly champions that key sector which provides £71 billion of tax to fund public services. It is in the interests of the UK and the EU to avoid fragmentation because that will increase costs, and the Prime Minister has made it clear that we are ambitious, in terms of the trade deal that we reach with the EU, to come to an arrangement that delivers regulatory equivalence.

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Does the Chancellor accept that the confusion and conflicting ambitions of the Government’s policy on Brexit are already having an impact on investment? In the long run, that will be massively damaging to the economic prospects of this country.

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No, I do not accept that. However, I readily agree with the hon. Gentleman that, as I have said many times in the Chamber, the process of negotiating our exit from the European Union and then executing that exit is bound to create uncertainty, and uncertainty is always unwelcomed by business. The challenge for us is to secure as much certainty as possible as early as possible for business, and that is our focus.

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On a point of order, Mr Speaker.

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I am advised that the point of order flows from Treasury questions, and I will therefore take it, but if it turns out to be just a continuation of the debate, I will be pretty intolerant of it; so I hope it is pithy and something approaching a genuine point of order.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I very much appreciate your taking my point of order.

During Treasury questions, I asked the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), a question that specifically concerned an announcement in the Chancellor’s autumn statement. He did not answer it, saying that it was not within the remit of his Department. May I ask for your guidance, Mr Speaker? Whom should I ask questions about Treasury documents, if not Treasury Ministers?

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If memory serves me correctly, the Minister indicated that he would pass the matter on to the relevant departmental Minister. These are matters not of precise fact but of judgment, and also of some discretion so far as the Minister answering questions is concerned. Of course, when the Chancellor delivers either his Budget or an autumn statement, he inevitably makes announcements that concern expenditure covering all sorts of different Government Departments. If subsequently a Treasury Minister is asked a question relating to expenditure in a particular area to which, because of his or her natural self-effacement and modesty—in the case of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough—he feels that another Minister would be better equipped to provide an informative answer, there is nothing disorderly about that. It may be disquieting for the hon. Lady, but that is not the same as the Minister’s behaviour being disorderly. I hope the hon. Lady will accept that for now—and I see that the Minister is beaming with contentment, although it has to be said that there is nothing new there.