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Topical Questions

Volume 641: debated on Tuesday 22 May 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 and the spring statement. The Government’s balanced approach to the public finances enables us to give households, businesses and our public services targeted support in the near term, and to invest in the future of this country, while also being fair to the next generation by at last beginning to reduce a national debt that is far too large.

On prosperity, Mark Carney has just said that household incomes are now about £900 lower than was forecast in May 2016, before the referendum. How much lower still does the Chancellor estimate household incomes will be when the UK leaves the customs union and the single market? When will he publish his analysis?

On the publication of Government analysis, I have made it clear on several occasions that once Parliament is being asked to vote on a proposal—on a package—it will be appropriate for the Government to publish the analysis that they have, to make sure that that debate is as informed as possible. The future trajectory of household incomes will depend, in part, on the quality of the deal we negotiate as we exit the EU, and we are focused on getting the very best deal for British jobs, British prosperity and British businesses.

T2. Much champagne, or, in the more discerning households, English or Welsh sparkling wine, was drunk at the weekend, so what is the Chancellor doing financially to help promote and expand this excellent domestic wine industry? Post Brexit, will he address the anomaly whereby fizz is taxed more than still wine, which has a higher alcohol volume? (905496)

I know that my hon. Friend represents some of the finest English sparkling wine vineyards, and I am pleased to say that some new ones have recently opened in Norfolk. We now have record exports of more than £100 million a year of our fantastic sparkling wine and we will continue to look at our policies to promote this brilliant product.

T9. Contrary to the out-of-touch outlook presented by the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), Eurostat figures show regional inequality in the UK, measured in output per hour, to be the worst in Europe. There is a massive disparity across England, with households in the south-east, the richest area of the UK, having more than double the wealth of those in the north-east, where my constituency is. When will the Treasury finally act to meaningfully tackle this ongoing injustice? (905503)

The hon. Lady focuses rightly on output per hour. The problem is a productivity gap between the regions of the UK and the most prosperous areas of London. We have to close that productivity gap. That is in the interest of not only those individual regions, but our overall national economy. We will do so by investing in public infrastructure and in skills, and by ensuring that the conditions are right for business investment, both domestic and foreign.

T3. I have a constituent who, despite having ample equity in her home and never having been in arrears with her payments, is unable to extend her mortgage beyond the age of 75 because of Government rules. That means that she will have to sell the house that she loves. Will my hon. Friend look urgently at whether those rules are absolutely necessary? (905497)

Lenders are not restricted from extending mortgages beyond the age of 75, as long as the consumer can demonstrate affordability. Several lenders are currently looking into this issue. There is considerable merit in interest-only retirement mortgages.

What action are the Government taking to tackle payroll and umbrella companies, some of which—not all—are used to perpetuate bogus self-employment and undermine terms and conditions?

We are looking very closely at this policy area, not least in respect of the Matthew Taylor review of the different ways in which individuals choose to work. The Government’s overriding objective is to make sure that the way an individual works is reflected in the way they are taxed, and that they are taxed properly.

T4. Some of my constituents have reported ongoing confusion about child benefit. Some who admit that they have claimed child benefit inadvertently have not been told of the money that they owe to HMRC until interest has accumulated for as long as five years. What more can HMRC do to communicate errors more quickly? (905498)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. I can reassure him that HMRC has written to a total of 800,000 people to inform them of the issue he has raised, which is also set out and made clear on the very first page of the child benefit application form. I can also reassure him that we will review this policy area in the current period to see how we can make changes going forward.

T6. The Royal Bank of Scotland branch in Wick in my constituency has now closed, and a sad sight that is. Last week, we heard that the Homebase branch is also to close. The Chancellor may say that we have to accept change and live with it, but these are hammer blows for a community such as Wick, and I begin to wonder when we will see tumbleweed blowing down the street. Does the Chancellor agree that we should carry out some kind of assessment of the impact of such closures on the local economies of places like Wick and Caithness, before it is too late? (905500)

It is a matter for banks to make commercial decisions on the basis of their assessments, and there are rules on how they inform the affected constituents. I am, though, very concerned about the situation in rural and sparsely populated areas. I shall visit Scotland over the summer recess to address some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

T5. I welcomed the Treasury’s recently closed consultation on single-use plastics. Will my hon. Friend update the House on what his Department intends to do next to tackle this problem? (905499)

Sadly, it is a rare day on which a Treasury call for evidence on tax stirs the enthusiasm of the general public, but this one has. We received a record 130,000 submissions from throughout the country. We are determined to take the issue seriously and to tackle the scourge of single-use plastics. The Chancellor has been clear that we want to do so in a way that both tackles the environmental issues and drives innovation to support the jobs of the future.

I am sure that Ministers will be just as concerned as the rest of us about the startling revelations about the conduct of Lloyds and HBOS outlined in the Project Turnbull report. Will the Treasury now demand that, after three years, the Financial Conduct Authority pulls its finger out to expedite its investigation into this matter? Has the Treasury received any requests from police authorities to fund appropriate investigations into criminal activities? If so, will it look favourably on them?

The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that the events at HBOS in Reading constituted criminal activity. As such, it was right that those responsible were brought to justice. He referred to a report by an internal employee; that matter should be taken seriously by the FCA and is being taken seriously by Lloyds, and it will be followed up on in due course.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House how much additional tax revenue has been secured since 2010 by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs through tackling avoidance, evasion and non-compliance, and will he confirm that this policy will continue to exist in the Government? (905501)

I am very pleased to inform my hon. Friend that we have raised and protected £175 billion since 2010 by clamping down on evasion, avoidance and non-compliance. That comes as a direct result of investing in HMRC to the tune of £2 billion, and has resulted in the lowest tax gap in the world.

With child poverty set to increase by another 1.5 million by 2022, according to the Economic Council for Equality, what will the Treasury be doing to help the very poorest households?

What we have seen in the past few years, since 2015, is a 7% rise in the real wages of people on the lowest incomes, and a reduction in income inequality.

T8. With the full phasing in of the residents’ nil-rate band for inheritance tax by 2020, a couple will potentially be able to leave £1 million free of inheritance tax to descendants. That is all very welcome, but having worked through the legislation in a real example, it seems unduly complex. Will my right hon. Friend now consider simplifying the law to make the overall IHT allowance a simple, no-nonsense £500,000 each and remove the complexity of the residents’ nil-rate band rules? (905502)

My hon. Friend talks about complexity. The Office for Tax Simplification is looking into the way in which inheritance tax and the regime operate. Changing the way that tax reliefs operate in the way that he describes would add very significant cost. However, we do, of course, keep all taxes under review.

The TUC estimates that the number of working households in poverty has risen by 1 million since 2010. Inaction on low-paid, insecure work and punitive welfare reform measures have led to record numbers of people accessing food banks. A responsible Government would measure food insecurity to create policies that end hunger. My Food Insecurity Bill does that. Why will the Government not back it?

We are the Government who have introduced the national living wage. We have reduced tax bills for those on the lowest incomes, and we are keeping our food market competitive and have some of the lowest food prices in Europe.

The UK productivity and prosperity funds are meant to benefit all local authorities across the United Kingdom. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to talk about how Scottish local authorities can apply directly to those funds?

The cap on charges on payday loans legislated for by Parliament has made a huge difference in bringing down the costs, but it is now more expensive for a person to go into an unarranged overdraft at their own bank. Will the Government look to extend that legislation to cap also the rip-off fees and charges put on customers by our banks?

The hon. Lady makes a very sound point. The FCA is looking into four aspects of that. It is reporting next week, and I look forward to hearing what it has to say.

In the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced the extension of the railcard from age 26 to 30. When will my constituents be able to take advantage of that?

A pilot railcard for that age group was launched as a trial, and was fully subscribed very quickly. The Department for Transport will be announcing in due course when the continuation of the scheme will take place.

As the Minister knows, the communities that I represent in Carmarthenshire received the highest form of EU structural aid. Will he give a guarantee that they will not lose a single penny following the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund?

As I think I have already said earlier in this session, we will be consulting, during the course of this year, on the design of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, the scope and scale of the fund and how the money in the fund should be allocated. I look forward to the hon. Gentleman’s input to that consultation.

Research has shown that those who live in rural areas are getting hit harder at the fuel pump than those in urban areas. Can my right hon. Friend update me on what his Department is doing to ensure that motorists in Angus, and indeed across the United Kingdom, have their taxes cut?

I am clearly not going to speculate about future tax changes from the Dispatch Box this morning, but I point out that we have frozen fuel duty for eight successive years at a cost to the Exchequer of over £40 billion.

A Home Affairs Committee report published in summer 2016 found that the suspicious activity reporting system intended for use by the banks to crack down on money laundering was not fit for purpose. The Committee demanded immediate reform, but the Government stated that they would implement the reforms only by 2018. In the light of the Foreign Affairs Committee report on Russia, criminal financing and the UK, will the Minister immediately bring forward plans to reform and improve the system, as was recommended two whole years ago?

I refer the hon. Gentleman to the response I gave earlier. The Government are taking forward a range of options, but I will examine the issue he raises and write to him.

The people of Bloxwich will soon be hearing more about blockchain. Will the Chancellor confirm that the Government will continue to invest in this innovative technology to keep the public’s data safe?

The Government are committed to exploring all technologies that will keep data safe and create opportunities for innovation. Blockchain is one such technology, but the Government will also be examining other even more innovative distributive ledger technologies.

I look forward to learning more about blockchain. I am uninitiated on the matter, as the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) can tell, but I feel sure that he will put me in the picture erelong.

The Governor of the Bank of England has stated that economic uncertainty caused by the Brexit vote will knock 5% off wage growth and is costing the UK economy £10 billion a year. Does the Chancellor agree with the Governor?

We have not yet concluded our negotiations with the European Union, so it is impossible to make any assessment of the impact of our departure until we know what the future relationship with the EU will be. This Government’s agenda is to get the best possible deal for Britain that protects jobs, prosperity and businesses, so that we can protect our existing trade with the EU as well as build new trade opportunities beyond Europe.

The hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) need not worry; I am perfectly clear that he wishes to give us his thoughts. I am saving him up. It would be a pity to squander him at too early a stage of our proceedings.

Today’s figures from the Office for National Statistics reveal that we are at the lowest level of public borrowing since 2006. Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury set out what that will mean for future investment in public services, as opposed to maxing out paying off the nation’s credit card?

My hon. Friend is right that we have successfully turned the economy around. We have brought the deficit down, and next year, for the first time in many years, we will see debt fall as a proportion of GDP—[Interruption.] Some Members are laughing, but the same people are proposing that we increase our debt by half a trillion pounds and push our country into penury.

What will ministers do to support the “Great Western Cities” initiative, which promotes collaboration between Bristol, Newport and Cardiff and has enormous potential for the wider region?

We are already engaging with that important initiative. We continue to support the Mayor of the West of England in Bristol, and we are investing over £600 million through the Swansea and Cardiff city deals.

Manufacturing accounts for 24% of the west midlands economy but, as others pointed out earlier, there are skills shortages. Will the Chancellor therefore support any bid from the Mayor of the West Midlands for a devolution deal to take over responsibility for skills from the Department for Education?

I am tempted to wonder whether my hon. Friend might have discussed that question with the Mayor of the West Midlands before asking it. It would be remiss of me to stand at the Dispatch Box and say that I would accept any bid, but I am certainly willing to consider any proposals from the Mayor of the West Midlands, or from any other elected mayor, to address the skills challenge that we face across the country.

Several of my constituents who are highly skilled migrants made entirely legitimate and timely changes to their tax returns and are now facing removal by the Home Office under immigration rule 322(5). Will a Treasury Minister confirm that people should make entirely legitimate changes to their tax returns? Will they also have a conversation with their Home Office colleagues to prevent these highly skilled contributors from being removed from the UK?

The answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that people should clearly continue to make appropriate changes to their tax returns. I reassure her and the House that Treasury Ministers and HMRC officials are working closely across Government—particularly with the Home Office—on the issues that she raised in order to ensure that we get these matters right.

The Government have decided not to proceed with the legislation that they committed to bring forward to protect consumers from the rip-off practice of logbook loans, despite the Bill being prepared and ready to go through the accelerated procedure. Will the Minister explain why he is prepared to allow innocent buyers to continue to be exploited through this outdated, misused legislation?

The FCA is looking at a range of options, but I would be happy to meet the hon. Lady to discuss her concerns on this matter as soon as possible.