Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 627: debated on Tuesday 18 July 2017

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

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?

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.”

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?

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.

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)

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?

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?

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.

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

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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)

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.]

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?

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.

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)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.