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Topical Questions

Volume 636: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2018

My principal responsibility is to ensure economic stability and the continued prosperity of the British people, and I will do so by building on the plans set out in the autumn Budget. This Government are determined to meet the important challenges we face and to seize the opportunities ahead as we create an economy fit for the future. 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 far too large.

Reducing tourism VAT to 5% after we leave the European Union would create an extra 121,000 jobs and £4.6 billion in revenue to the Treasury over 10 years. It would be a great boost not only to our great cities, but to our great coastal towns, such as Exmouth, Sidmouth and Budleigh Salterton in my East Devon constituency. Will the Chancellor commit to looking again at this issue as we leave the EU?

My right hon. Friend is nothing if not persistent and consistent. I cannot remember how many times he has raised this issue. There have been numerous requests for new VAT reliefs since the referendum, some of which are currently not permitted under EU law. We have calculated that if we were to grant all the VAT relief requests that we have received, that would come to more than £38 billion a year. The Government have received representations on VAT and tourism, and we are looking again at the case for change.[Official Report, 1 March 2018, Vol. 636, c. 6MC.] We have issued a call for evidence on the impact of VAT and air passenger duty on tourism in Northern Ireland, and we will certainly keep this issue under careful review.

The Chief Secretary gave a speech last year calling for better value for money from the public finances and not spending money we do not have, and she has talked about not wasting money today, so how can she justify spending hundreds of millions of pounds on further tax giveaways worth £2,000 per child to the wealthiest families—those, for example, using private schools—via the tax-free childcare scheme? Is that not a waste of money and spending money we do not have?

I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that the voucher scheme invented by the previous Labour Government benefited only 600,000 families whereas our scheme is much broader—it benefits 1.5 million people—and the Labour Government’s scheme was open to private schools and private nurseries as well.

T3. Last week in the Chamber, we yet again heard an Opposition MP complain that they believed they should personally be paying far more tax. Will the Minister confirm the mechanism by which anybody can currently do exactly that voluntarily? (904057)

As a Minister at the Treasury, I am delighted if people voluntarily step forward to pay more tax than they are due. I am pleased to inform my hon. Friend that that is already possible by way of a gift to the Crown. I am looking at ways of raising awareness of that particular opportunity, and I would be happy to meet him to discuss such options. I would also point out to right hon. and hon. Members the very generous gift aid reliefs that the Treasury provides for those who wish to make direct payments to charities of their choice.

T2. Four in 10 of Enfield’s children are living below the poverty line, which is almost 34,000 children. The borough is the 11th most impoverished area for children in the UK, and my constituency is now among the top 20 constituencies in the country with the fastest growing levels of child poverty. Is the Chancellor pursuing any kind of joined-up policies with other relevant Departments to do what the Prime Minister said, and“make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”,including those 34,000 children? (904056)

The Government believe that work is one of the most important drivers of bringing people out of poverty, and we are rolling out universal credit as a consequence. There is evidence that that is more successful as a way of doing so than relying on legacy benefits. As the right hon. Lady will probably know, 200,000 fewer children are now in absolute poverty than was the case in 2010.

T5. What preparations has the Treasury been making for leaving the European Union, and will the Treasury be ready on day one to ensure frictionless borders when we leave the European Union—deal or no deal? (904059)

The Government are continuing with detailed preparations for all possible March 2019 scenarios, including ensuring that Departments have adequate resources to prepare effectively for EU exit. To date, the Treasury has allocated to Departments nearly £700 million for preparation activity, and we are currently in the process of allocating the 2018-19 funding from the additional £3 billion over two years that I announced at autumn Budget 2017.

T4. “The health and social care system has been pushed to its limits in recent weeks”—those are not my words, but those of my local hospital trust. Last month, it was forced to cancel about 325 operations and 640 outpatient appointments. That not only means that my constituents who are unwell or in pain are being made to wait longer for treatment but makes the trust’s already challenging financial situation even worse. When is the Chancellor going to give our health and social care system the sustainable funding it needs? (904058)

The hon. Lady should acknowledge that the NHS has been rated as the best healthcare system in the world. We recognise that there are extra demands on the health system and that is why we put in an extra £6.3 billion of funding at the Budget.

I am delighted to inform the House that considerable progress has been made in reducing the level of tax evasion, avoidance and non-compliance in the corporate sector. We have been at the forefront of initiatives launched with the OECD—the base erosion and profit shifting initiative, the profit diversion tax we brought in in 2015—and, as a consequence of clamping down in this area, we have brought in £53 billion from big business since 2010.

T7. Members have already raised the insufficient funding of local authorities by this Government. A recent campaign in Lewisham prevented local children’s and adolescents’ mental health services from being cut, but they are still facing a 5% loss in funding from national Government. When will the Government finally take this seriously and reverse the cuts to children’s mental health services? (904061)

We are putting additional funding and support into children’s mental health services and the Department for Education has recently announced additional support for children’s mental health issues in schools.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what assessment the Treasury has made either separately or jointly with the Department for Transport of how external initiatives on competitiveness and investment might help the rail sector and Network Rail in particular?

Strictly, this is an issue for my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary, and he is looking at how to improve productivity in the railway and how to ensure that every pound we invest in the railway delivers the maximum possible benefit to railway users. He will make further announcements in due course.

T8. Could the Chancellor set out the benefits or otherwise of the arrangements the Government appear to have for a customs union between Camden, Islington and Westminster? (904062)

I am sure that when I go home and reflect on it, the deep meaning of that question will become clear to me. What I will say to the hon. Lady is that if we look at how goods and services flow freely between different parts of our own economy, and indeed between different parts of the United Kingdom, we see at once the huge benefit that it brings to have frictionless borders as we move our goods and services.

I am very much in favour of gift aid, but some large charities say that they receive no direct support from Government but do receive gift aid and the Exchequer will not publish those figures. Will the Chancellor reconsider this?

The Revenue does not disclose the sums that individual charities receive from gift aid due to its obligations to respect taxpayer confidentiality under the 2005 legislation. Of course, some large charities do so voluntarily. Cancer Research is one example, and receives £31 million in this way. I am sympathetic to my right hon. Friend’s argument and will take the matter forward.

Ryanair has announced the slashing of more than 20 Glasgow airport routes, a cut of more than 1 million passengers and the loss of up to 300 jobs. The high level of APD and the delay in introducing the air departure tax—caused by this Government’s not notifying the European Commission regarding the ongoing exemption for the highlands and islands—have been cited as a reason. Another is the Brexit uncertainty in the aviation sector. With more routes and jobs likely to go, what are the Chancellor and his colleagues doing to support the aviation sector during Brexit negotiations?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the devolution of ADT has been delayed after consultations between ourselves and the Scottish Government. Both Governments are satisfied with the arrangements. As for Ryanair, I believe that part of the announcement was also that the company would be extending the number of routes out of Edinburgh airport.

If we want a sustainable rise in wages, we will need higher productivity. Does my right hon. Friend therefore welcome the recent improvement in the figures?

Yes. We have had two quarters of good productivity data, but we should recognise that the productivity challenge we face is long term. The Government have taken a range of measures to address it and we will watch the evolution of the data very carefully, but there is certainly absolutely no scope for any complacency about the scale of the challenge we face, and we are determined to rise to it.

Artificial intelligence brings huge economic opportunities, but to date big tech companies have seemed even more likely than traditional corporates to engage in aggressive tax avoidance and concentrate power in the hands of a narrow, homogenous group of people. What will the Treasury do to ensure that companies in this growing industry pay their own way fairly and take account of their wider corporate responsibility to society?

The hon. Lady will know that we made announcements in the Budget in respect of the taxation of digitally based businesses that operate from digital platforms and so create value as a consequence. We are consulting on the measures we may take. We said in our consultation document that it is possible we will look at revenue taxes as one particular approach. Our preference is a multilateral move with our partners in the European Union and the OECD, but we are prepared to go it alone if that proves necessary.

The services sector makes a huge tax contribution to the public purse. What confidence can the Chancellor give to my constituents who work in financial services that our new free trade agreement will cover services as well as goods?

We are clear that a future comprehensive trade partnership with the European Union must include goods as well as services. A deal can only be done if it is fair to both sides, and because of the shape of the UK economy it would be very difficult to see how any deal could be fair if it did not include services. We have heard it asserted that it is impossible for services to be part of a trade agreement. I do not believe that that is the case. Next week, I shall make a speech in which I will set out our view of how it is possible to include services within such a trade deal.

The Chancellor referred earlier to what he called the “continued prosperity” in the UK. Will he undertake to ensure that a simplification of the tax system is undertaken by looking at the level at which low paid full-time and part-time employees get the first £300 a week free of national insurance and income tax, to try to raise prosperity among all sections of the community?

We will continue to seek to simplify the tax system, although I have to say that my personal observation is that whenever there is a proposal to simplify, those who benefit from complexities quickly speak up. They are not always people on high incomes; they are often people on lower incomes. We shall continue to try to simplify the system in a way that is fair and appropriate for all.

While accepting that the Ministry of Defence is in need of serious reform as well as more money, will the Chancellor confirm that he has agreed with the Secretary of State for Defence that there will be no further reductions in capability while the modernising defence review takes place, and that the money required to do that, in the region of £2 billion, will be forthcoming?

As the House will know, I had the privilege to serve for nearly three years as Defence Secretary and I yield to no one in my admiration for the work of our armed forces. I also understand how complex and challenging managing the defence budget is: it is a multi-annual budget with many complex procurements. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I are working very closely with our right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary as he carries out the modernisation review. We will ensure that defence has the funding it needs to continue to defend this country appropriately.

North Derbyshire clinical commissioning group finished last year £27 million in the red, and £16 million of cuts were demanded. In spite of closing hospital beds at a time when they are most needed, it will again end this year £27 million in the red. When will the Government give the NHS a sustainable settlement to enable it to provide proper services?

We have given the NHS a sustainable settlement. It received an additional £6.3 billion, but it is also important that we reform our healthcare services, that we put in place sustainable transformation plans, and that we are investing in capital and new technology and making sure that we use our fantastic frontline workers—nurses and doctors—in the best way possible.

As the Chancellor knows, investment in infrastructure is key to ensuring that we can build the thousands of homes that this country needs. Will the Chancellor agree to meet me, other Hertfordshire MPs and the leader of Hertfordshire County Council to discuss how we might be able to do that in Hertfordshire, where we need to deliver about 100,000 new homes?

Yes, I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues. Hertfordshire is one of the high-pressure housing areas, where it is absolutely essential that we deliver additional housing if we are to improve affordability.

Cold weather payments were triggered in all postcodes in my constituency yesterday—information that I shared on social media—yet a constituent contacted me this morning to say that when she contacted the universal credit people, they said they knew nothing about it. Given the freezing weather and the fact that people will be nervous about turning on their heating if they do not know they can pay for it, will the Minister work with colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions to resolve the situation as soon as possible?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and I will look into the point that she raised immediately. This is obviously an immediate issue in relation to the cold weather that we are having now. I will find out and let her know later.

Order. I am awfully sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues. I allowed some injury time because a wholly disproportionate amount of time was spent discussing the policies of parties other than the Government, but we must now move on.