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Topical Questions

Volume 634: debated on Tuesday 16 January 2018

My principal responsibility is to ensure the stability and prosperity of the economy, which means building on the ambitious steps laid out in the autumn Budget to tackle the key challenges we face so that we can create an economy fit for the future. I look forward to doing so, ably supported by my excellent ministerial team. Our balanced approach to the public finances enables us to give households and businesses support in the near term, and to invest in the future of this country, while also being fair to the next generation by reducing a national debt that remains too large.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that lowering business taxes, as this Government have done, is not a race to the bottom but is vital in building and maintaining the strong economy on which we all depend?

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. Keeping business taxes competitive so that we can attract international investment to this country is essential, but there is a quid pro quo: if taxes are low, they must be paid. We are determined to ensure full compliance and to lead in international forums in looking at ways of improving corporate tax compliance.

The NHS is in crisis due to the tight-fisted approach the Chancellor takes to the public finances—unless a big corporation, a railway company or a failing construction firm needs a handout or a bail-out. During any discussions he has had with the Health Secretary, has he raised the issue of the funding crisis? If so, what solution has he arrived at to fund it properly, or will he be sending in the receiver?

The hon. Gentleman may not have noticed but we have put an extra £6 billion into the NHS. The first two weeks of the year are traditionally the highest pressure weeks in the NHS, and we have seen extreme pressure over the past two weeks. He may also not have noticed that we have a flu crisis going on, which inevitably takes its toll. In an ethically based health service, we treat the sickest patients first, and it is right that we prioritise those with urgent needs over those with routine needs in our hospitals.

That was an insouciant attitude, if ever there was one. The Chancellor’s local media report that the A&E department in St Peter’s Hospital in Chertsey in his constituency had the highest number of 12-hour waits for patients in Surrey at the start of last year. What imaginative explanation does he have for his constituents, if not the whole House, as to why they, like many others, have to wait for so long to get emergency treatment? I ask again: what substantive funding will he provide to the NHS?

The answer to that is the £6 billion of additional money that we put in at the Budget. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised St Peter’s Hospital in my constituency, because that gives me the opportunity to make an important point. As other Members will know, whatever the media say about the NHS in general, when one speaks to one’s own constituents about their experience in their local hospital, it is invariably good and they invariably have nothing but praise for the service that they receive from our excellent national health service.

T8. The cost of the backlog of repairs to our historic buildings is now estimated to stand at an alarming £1.3 billion, in large part because of the changes to VAT levied on repairs. Will my right hon. Friend show that, as a Conservative, he genuinely believes in conservation and that something will be left standing for future generations to enjoy? (903323)

I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend’s assertion of the importance of our heritage, which was recognised when last year the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport gave grants of more than £140 million in that respect. On VAT relief for repairs to historic buildings, the situation that currently pertains to EU regulations is that if we were to make changes or reductions, we would have to apply them to all buildings in the UK, at onerous cost, but that is something we can look into as and when we leave the EU.

T2. The tampon tax fund gave a quarter of a million pounds to an anti-abortion group, so we are being taxed on our bodies to pay for people who do not think we should have control over them. Will the Minister look again at setting aside much needed funds to tackle period poverty instead? (903316)

As the hon. Lady will know, we have committed to zero-rate tampons at the earliest opportunity. The fact that we are not doing that at the moment is due to our membership of the EU. She will also know that we are providing to women’s charities an amount equivalent to what we raise through taxing tampons.

The Chancellor will be aware that Government debt per household is around £65,000. Another name for that debt is deferred taxation. Does the Chancellor agree that the best way to increase tax revenue and reduce our debt is to grow the economy, which is exactly what we are doing?

Yes. There are two ways to get our debt falling as a percentage of GDP. By far the easiest way, and the most agreeable way for our constituents, is to grow the economy so that the denominator shrinks.

T3. Together with the Department for Work and Pensions, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a Late, Missing and Incorrect initiative to look into the problems with real-time pay-as-you-earn information—problems that may well explain many of the errors we see in universal credit awards. The Financial Secretary gave me a helpful answer on this topic in October. What progress has he made on quantifying those three problems—late, missing and incorrect—and what hopes does he have for the improvement of RTI quality? (903318)

As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the Late, Missing and Incorrect initiative is there to drive up the accuracy of the real-time information as it passes between employers and HMRC. As he stresses, it is important to ensuring that universal credit is rolled out effectively. On his specific question about statistics, we believe that the level is around 5% or 6% across those three areas. We are continuously driving down those figures, particularly in response to the post-implementation review.

The European Free Trade Association, of which the UK was a founder member, would provide an excellent framework from within which to exercise a deep and special partnership with the EU. Would Her Majesty’s Government consider that as a sound way forward?

As my hon. Friend knows, we are seeking a bespoke vehicle for a deep and special partnership, and we are certainly prepared to look into any constructive suggestion from any part of the House.

T4. Last night, the chief executive of Airbus said that every Brexit scenario that is currently on the table will weaken British industry. Is the Chancellor listening? (903319)

Yes. We engage frequently with industry, and our No. 1 priority is obviously to ensure that we protect the UK economy as we exit the EU. In fact, as a manufacturer of aviation equipment, which has a zero EU tariff, Airbus should be relatively minimally affected. Nevertheless, I think the company’s particular concern is about the ability to bring EU nationals into the UK to work, and we have assured it that we will make sure that high-skilled individuals can continue to come.

I appreciate that the next stages of the negotiations with Europe are about to start, and what we want to see is a good deal for industry, business and the service sector. Does the Chancellor agree that membership of the European Free Trade Association could offer that opportunity for us?

Membership of the European economic area, which EFTA would entail, involves under current rules compliance with the four freedoms, and that means free movement of people, which the British people rejected in the referendum in 2016.

T5. With Carillion now the poster child for dodgy market capitalism, what duty does the Treasury owe to the wider public to prevent Government spending Ministers from engaging in inappropriate contracts, and what steps did the Treasury take? (903320)

We have very clear rules about managing public money. Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that we are not bailing out this company. It has gone into liquidation, and we are taking the proper steps to protect public services, which is the right approach to take.

Since 2010, unemployment in Cheltenham has fallen to just over 1%. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, to secure that jobs pipeline, the Government are right to continue backing Cheltenham’s GCHQ-supported cyber-innovation centre, which is creating opportunities for my constituents?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. I am shortly due to visit the centre in Cheltenham and I look forward to seeing him there.

T6. The East of England Ambulance Service experienced its busiest ever Christmas, and it had to rely on taxis to take patients to the hospitals. At least one patient died while waiting for an ambulance. How much worse does it have to get before this Government can meet the funding needed by the East of England Ambulance Service so that it can operate safely and efficiently? (903321)

It is important to note that we have 2.9 million more people visiting A&E than we had in 2010. That is why, as well as making sure that we are putting in place a proper modernisation of the health service, we are also investing more money, and we allocated £6.3 billion more at the Budget.

There are many small and medium-sized enterprises in the Carillion supply chain, as both contractors and direct suppliers. What discussions will the Government have with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and other businesses to make sure that these companies are able to continue to pay the tax liabilities and their employees?

HMRC already has a scheme that can assist companies that are having cash-flow difficulties in meeting tax liabilities. We agreed last night that HMRC will specifically signpost, via the Carillion-specific websites that are operating, that that facility exists.

T7. Greater Manchester police has faced eight years of real-terms cuts and has lost 2,000 officers. Week after week, constituents come to my surgery in deep distress over antisocial behaviour, muggings and burglaries to which the police cannot attend. As a former police officer myself, I know that they are doing the best that they can. Will the Minister commit to giving more funding for Greater Manchester police? (903322)

The hon. Gentleman will have noticed that, in the draft local government settlement, we have given police authorities the power to raise additional precept to be able to deal with those issues. Ultimately, it is a decision for Greater Manchester police.

The current funding formula for local government is opaque, historical and disadvantages Leicestershire. Does the Minister agree that it would be attractive to move to a transparent formula based on the real drivers of costs?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Government are committed to introducing a fair funding formula, and my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State, has committed to move forward with that programme this year.

T9. Yesterday saw the successful Second Reading of the Space Industry Bill, which could see Prestwick in my constituency become the UK’s first spaceport, but the Ayrshire growth deal is central to ensuring the widest economic impact from that development. The three local authorities and the Scottish Government are backing it, so will the Chancellor now commit to the Ayrshire growth deal? (903324)

I can assure the hon. Lady that I am in regular discussions with the Secretary of State for Scotland about the growth deals across Scotland. We have already committed to a number of growth deals and are certainly looking at further ones.

Councils such as Gedling Borough Council and Nottinghamshire County Council are setting their budgets now, and they face a funding crisis. What are the Government going to do about it?

We have given councils the power to raise more funds in the draft local government finance settlement, but councils also need to look at how they can become more efficient, share back offices and use modern technology.

Unemployment in my constituency is down by over 50%, but will my right hon. Friend consider a new round of enterprise zone bidding opportunities to help further that success story?

Will the Chancellor clarify whether the terms of the public sector private finance initiative contracts with Carillion allow for those contracts to be sold on to other private companies in the event of liquidation?

My understanding is that the contracts that are strictly PFI contracts are actually in joint ventures. In that case, it is most likely that the joint venture partner will take over. There are outsourcing contracts that, in theory, could be sold on, but as the Government Department, as the contracting party, will invariably have a right to cancel the contract on the insolvency of the company, in practice it will not be able to be sold on by the official receiver without the agreement of the contracting Department.