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Topical Questions

Volume 639: debated on Tuesday 17 April 2018

My principal responsibility is to ensure economic stability and the continued prosperity of the British people. I shall do so by building on the plans set out in the autumn Budget and the spring statement. The 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.

The Treasury is holding on to £10 million from the Roadchef employees benefit trust following a High Court dispute. Can Ministers ensure that HMRC returns the money to the trust with interest so that the 4,000 workers and former staff, including a number of my constituents, can finally receive what is owed to them?

We touched on this matter earlier, I think. It is important that HMRC deals with matters separately from Ministers, but we are aware that HMRC is in discussion with the trustees in this case and we hope for a resolution soon.

T2. Does the Chancellor agree that consideration should be given to making expenditure such as gym membership tax deductible in recognition of its health benefits and, ultimately, cost-saving benefits for the NHS? (904800)

Perhaps I am in need of the gym, Mr Speaker.

I shall take that as an early Budget representation, and my hon. Friend should be aware that we already have various tax-free reliefs in respect of health in the workplace—check-ups, eye tests, the cycle to work scheme, on-site workplace gym membership and welfare counselling. Of course, our soft drinks industry levy has led a number of companies to improve the quality of their products healthwise.

In advance of today’s debate on Syria, I welcome financial measures to sanction the Syrian regime. According to past Government figures, £151 million of assets belonging to leading figures in the Assad regime in Syria have been frozen by authorities here. Since then, 261 Syrian individuals have been listed as financial sanctions targets in the UK. Can the Chancellor tell the House what the Treasury’s best and latest estimate is of the total value of assets held in the UK by individuals connected with the Syrian regime?

I do not have a figure for the latest valuation of those assets. Many of the assets in question will be property assets, I suspect, meaning that the values will move from time to time. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Treasury is fully engaged in the process across Whitehall of seeking to deal with unacceptable behaviours of the type that we have seen in Syria. Financial sanctions will remain an important tool in our armoury, whether we are dealing with chemical attacks in Syria or attacks on the streets of the UK.

I welcome the Chancellor’s response, but the problem is that the lack of transparency in our financial system makes it virtually impossible for him to know exactly how many assets linked to such regimes are owned in the UK. It is estimated that more than £5 billion of assets owned by Assad and his associates are being held overseas and, according to international reports, the UK is recouping far less of the corrupt assets owned by individuals linked to the Syrian regime than is being recouped by other countries. For example, assets linked to the Assad regime worth more than half a billion pounds have been not just frozen but seized by the Spanish authorities. So far, no unexplained wealth orders have been used against Syrian regime figures.

The Government promised to give a date for the publication of a register of owners of UK property based overseas back in 2015, but now, three years later, we are told that a register will not be published until 2021. Will the Chancellor bring forward the date for the introduction of what is an essential defence against corruption?

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is being a little bit harsh on the unexplained wealth orders. The legislation has been in place for only a couple of months, and we will of course look at opportunities to use it. As for his challenge on the date for the registers, I will look into the matter, as he has asked me to do. I will then write to him to let him know the reason for the date that we have set, and whether there is any opportunity for it to be brought forward.

I think that we are all in the same place on this issue. We all want to ensure that London cannot be used as a route for dirty money—for the ill-gotten gains of regimes that are stealing from their people and channelling money offshore. It must be recognised that London is the world’s largest global financial centre, which presents us with some challenges, but we will continue the work.

T4. High street retailers such as Toys R Us and Carpetright are closing branches because of the rise in online sales. What measures are Ministers taking to reduce business rates, which currently penalise property-based businesses to the advantage of online retailers? (904802)

My hon. Friend puts her finger on the significant structural challenge that we face. This country has a higher penetration of online retailing than any other major economy—we are at the cutting edge—but that, of course, has an impact on traditional retailing, and we have to expect that patterns of retailing will change. We have brought forward by a year the switch to three-year business rates reviews, and we have introduced a package of £9 billion of business rates relief, but we will have to consider this major structural challenge over the coming years as a nation.

T3. The European Commission has hinted that the UK may be given access to the European financial services market, but only on the basis of equivalence. Does the Chancellor support the preferable basis of mutual recognition for that future arrangement, and what prospect does he see of securing it? (904801)

As the right hon. Gentleman will well understand, I much prefer a system based on mutual recognition. There are problems with the EU’s equivalence regime: it is arbitrary, it is unilateral, and it can be withdrawn with zero notice. No one can operate a multitrillion-dollar business on the basis of such arbitrary arrangements. However, we are working with the Commission and key member states, and I am optimistic that we will reach a satisfactory solution.

As my hon. Friend will know, this morning we were given the good news that we are now back in positive real-wage territory. He will also know from the projections of the Office for Budget Responsibility at the time of the last Budget that we anticipate an increase in real wages throughout the projection period.

T6. The number of people with unmanageable payday loan debt has more than halved since the Financial Conduct Authority introduced a total cost cap more than three years ago following pressure from Members on both sides of the House. New analysis by Citizens Advice suggests that extending the cap to doorstep-loan and rent-to-own markets would have the same impact on problem debt in those sectors, and could save consumers up to £154 million a year. Will the Chancellor consider taking such action? (904805)

The hon. Gentleman has made a very sensible point. The FCA is looking into that proposal and will publish another report in May. I met Andrew Bailey just a few weeks ago to underscore the importance of the issue, and as we proceed with the construction of the single financial guidance body that will deal with some of the challenges of problem debt, I know that this will be another focus of its work.

Automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence have the potential to offer huge productivity gains. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with colleagues across Government about providing leadership in this important field so that we can reap the maximum productivity boost and be at the forefront of this exciting technology?

As I have said many times in this House, we have two choices: we can either run away from this challenge; or we can run towards it and embrace it. In fact, if we want to maintain the living standards of our people and the status of our economy in the future, we have no choice but to embrace it—and we are doing so. I announced at the autumn Budget funding to support the uptake of digital technologies across Government, allowing the Government to be an exemplar, but we are also promoting these technologies to private business. The UK is at the forefront of many of these cutting-edge technologies.

T8. The housing crisis has gone on for far too long under this Government. Lewisham’s Labour council is about to build its 500th new council home since 2015, but many people still come to my surgeries because they reside in temporary accommodation. Will the Chancellor now commit to reversing the 63% cut in funding to the council’s budget so that Lewisham can get on with building more homes? (904807)

First, we have committed to building 300,000 homes per year over the next decade, which is vitally important to address the issue. Also, when we came into government, 80% of local government funding was being provided centrally, but we have now enabled local councils to raise that money. That is the right thing to do—people vote locally and councils should be accountable locally.

We have heard encouraging news today about wages, but what more can Ministers do to help my constituents with the cost of living?

There are a number of challenges that need to be overcome for the poorest. We have increased the national living wage by 4.4%—to £7.83 an hour—and also the allowance that applies before people pay tax. We have made other changes, such as freezing fuel duty, to ensure we are doing all that we can for the hardest-working people in our communities.

Order. I exhort the Minister to face the House; I understand the temptation to look backwards, but one should always look at the House.

T9. Many NHS trusts have set up subsidiary companies to take advantage of a VAT loophole to save money, often at the cost of the lowest-paid staff. Does the Chancellor have any plans to close this tax loophole and place the NHS on the same VAT footing as local government? (904808)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Perhaps this is something that I could take up with her offline so that I fully comprehend the exact point she is raising.

Last year, more businesses were created in the UK than in any other developed economy. Does that not show that the Government’s policy towards businesses is working, and what will the Treasury do to build on that success?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that a record number of businesses are starting. We saw double the amount of investment in tech companies last year compared with the previous year. Britain is booming, and that is because we have taken the important measures of reforming our welfare system, making it easier to take on staff and reducing corporation tax. The Labour party wants to stop all that, raise taxes and make it harder for businesses to succeed.

The Government’s green rhetoric is nothing more than empty promises. They say that they have ambition, so when will the Chancellor commit funding for onshore wind, solar and, importantly, the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon? The benefits of these investments would boost not only our green economy, but the supply chain and jobs.

I have already answered the question on the Swansea Bay lagoon—we are studying the project. All of these projects have to meet value-for-money tests. We already have a fantastic offshore wind sector, with record low costs to the consumer through offshore wind generation. We have to decarbonise our economy in a way that also keeps electricity prices as low as possible for consumers and businesses.

Last night, the pound hit its highest rate against the dollar since the referendum. Will the Chancellor join me in welcoming this sign of international confidence, which is so contrary to the run on the pound predicted by the shadow Chancellor?

I welcome all signs of international confidence, but I never comment on the exchange rate of the pound.

Six in every 1,000 people in the UK have lymphoedema. What commitment will the Government make to deliver a comprehensive and equitable strategy for NHS England and to end the postcode lottery for lymphoedema patients in the United Kingdom?

That is a question for the Secretary of State for Health, but I would point out that we are putting extra funding into the health service, including an extra £10 billion to help with nurses’ pay and to ensure that we are investing in the technologies for the future.

The shadow Chancellor mentioned frozen Syrian assets. There has been a long-running cross-party campaign to unfreeze frozen Libyan assets so that that money can be spent compensating the victims of Libyan-sponsored IRA terrorism. Will my right hon. Friend look at that again? Is he aware that it would require a UN resolution? Is that the case with Syria’s assets, and does he think that all the members of the UN Security Council would be in favour of such a move?

My hon. Friend tempts me down a complex route. I will look at that again; I am familiar with the issue from my time as Foreign Secretary. The decision that Ministers have to make around the freezing of assets is a quasi-judicial one, and it has to be made very carefully in the light of the specific facts. There are great complexities in Libya, where in some cases competing authorities are claiming ownership of assets.

You are a patient fellow, Mr Stone, and you have been waiting for a long time. Let’s hear you.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. One way to boost the UK’s productivity is to give disabled people employment opportunities. Can the Chancellor of the Exchequer tell me what discussions he has had with the Department for Work and Pensions and possibly the Scottish Government about maximising the potential of our disabled people?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that getting more disabled people into work is vital for our economy and also for helping with their quality of life. I am very happy to look at what he has suggested.

Last year, the Department of Health announced £7.8 million for building a cancer unit in my constituency, which of course I was delighted about. However, the money is stuck in the Treasury and the Humber NHS Foundation Trust is unable to withdraw it in order to start the building work. Please can the Minister urgently unlock that money so that the trust can start to build that desperately needed cancer unit straight away?

I will look at what the hon. Lady has said, but I very much doubt that an amount of money of that size will be stuck in the Treasury, because of the NHS’s delegated limits. But let me look at it, and I will write to her.

In Bury, a small business and its supply chain are still owed £4.1 million by Carillion for their work on the Royal Liverpool Hospital. Will the Chancellor agree to meet me and them to hear their ideas about how we can prevent the likes of the Carillion collapse from happening again and protect our small employers from the changes in the construction industry?

The important thing about the issues with Carillion was that, first, we made sure that public services operated, and that, secondly, we did not give rewards for failure in a company that went bust. I would be very happy to look at the specific situation that the hon. Gentleman has outlined and to meet him.

Very well done. Unfortunately, it was so well done that the Chancellor did not hear it. Blurt it out again, man!

What message will the Chancellor be sending to the thousands of public and civil servants who will be at the march organised by the TUC on 12 May asking for a fully funded, above-inflation pay rise?

The Government have been clear that the cap on public sector pay has been abolished and that it is for individual Departments and bodies to talk to their workforces about how pay can be increased in a self-funding way through productivity enhancements. We have seen that being done in the NHS with the “Agenda for Change” deal, which is now with the unions and staff for voting. It is a very good pay deal, but it will be supported by significant improvements in productivity. If we can do it there, we can do it across the piece.

Order. One colleague has been standing for a long time and has not asked a question. I call Jim Shannon.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; it is a straightforward question. In this age of online shopping, what help is available for start-up businesses that are focused on internet shopping?

Start-up businesses involved in online shopping are able to avail themselves of the full range of support for any start-up business. There is no specific regime for online shopping businesses.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. An elderly couple in my constituency, Mr and Mrs Fitzgerald, are about to lose their home. They have an interest-only mortgage with Santander, which does not allow mortgages for people over 75, although the Nationwide allows them for people up to 85. Will the Minister help me to persuade Santander so that Mr and Mrs Fitzgerald do not lose their home in the coming weeks?

Clearly, the lending decisions of individual banks are a matter for them, but I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to consider the case and see what has happened.