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Commons Chamber

Volume 641: debated on Tuesday 22 May 2018

House of Commons

Tuesday 22 May 2018

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Support for Businesses and Entrepreneurs

One year on from the appalling Manchester Arena attack, I am sure that I speak for everyone in the House in saying that on this day our thoughts are with those who lost their lives and their families, and those who suffered life-changing injuries. We will remember them with a minute’s silence later today.

The UK’s 5.7 million small businesses make a vital contribution to our economy, employing 60% of the private sector workforce, and the Government are determined to facilitate their success. We are keeping taxes low and ensuring that firms can access the support that they need to thrive. Following the patient capital review, we are expanding the tax reliefs available to entrepreneurs that will support them in growing their businesses, and we have launched a patient capital action plan to unlock £20 billion of funding to help high-growth firms to reach their potential.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he will not raise taxes on small businesses, and will he share with the House what help the Government will give to entrepreneurs who are setting up for the first time, with particular regard to the business rate?

We have already introduced business rate concessions to reduce the burden of rates on small businesses, including by bringing forward by two years the switch in indexation from the retail prices index to the consumer prices index. We are ensuring that Britain is the world’s leading place to start and grow a business, including through reducing corporation tax rates. There are almost 7,000 small businesses in Southend-on-Sea alone, and this Government back them every step of the way. I can tell my hon. Friend who will raise taxes on small businesses, and has said so publicly: he is sitting opposite me.

In the rural and coastal parts of east Sussex that I represent, infrastructure delivery is key to bringing more businesses and entrepreneurs to the area. What plans does the Chancellor have to continue investment in road, high-speed rail and broadband connections so that we can attract more businesses to rural parts of this country?

The national productivity investment fund is investing in all those areas. We have the biggest rail investment programme since Victorian times and the biggest road building programme since the 1970s, and we are investing in superfast broadband, which is critical to this country’s future. As my hon. Friend will know, in his area we are investing in the A21, and we are working with Network Rail on exploring options for connecting HS1 services to Hastings via Ashford International.

Surely the Chancellor knows that the thing holding back most businesses—small, medium-sized and large—is the lack of good skilled people to work for them. When is he going to give the Secretary of State for Education a good shaking and make him do something about the apprenticeship levy, apprenticeship schemes and the higher education graduate apprenticeship scheme?

The hon. Gentleman is right that skills are a critical factor for business in an economy with such high levels of employment and low levels of unemployment as we have achieved. We are investing in apprenticeships with the new apprenticeship levy, providing funding for more and better apprenticeships; we are investing in T-levels, improving substantially the level of technical training for 16 to 19-year-olds; and we are reviewing the operation of tertiary education funding.

Marks & Spencer is closing 14 stores, affecting hundreds of jobs, and Debenhams and House of Fraser would be doing the same were it not for their longer lease commitments. The nature of the high street is changing, and the risk is the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs. What are the Government doing about this, and will the Chancellor consider meeting me and businesses in Croydon as we push ahead for a new Westfield shopping centre in what is undoubtedly a difficult environment?

The hon. Lady correctly identifies the underlying problem: the nature of retailing is changing. Britain is leading the world in the adoption of online retail, which has huge opportunities, but will also bring huge changes. This is a microcosm of the changes we will face in this economy over the next 10, 20 or 30 years, as the digital revolution changes fundamentally the way we do business. The answer is not to try to resist change, but to embrace it, and to make sure that we train our people so that they can take up the new challenges and have the new opportunities that this economy will bring.

20. Microbusinesses are a great British success story, with thousands of new businesses set up around people’s kitchen tables, but many are struggling with regulations and tax changes that are intended to constrain the actions of big business. Will my right hon. Friend advise us what steps he is taking to make sure that he controls regulation and reduces tax burdens affecting microbusinesses? (905488)

We have taken steps that I have already outlined this morning to reduce the burden of taxation on businesses large and small, although of course small businesses are most beneficially affected by the £10 billion programme of reducing business rates costs and through the reduction in corporation tax levels. But we are always looking for further ways to support the smallest businesses and to encourage them to become larger businesses.

I associate myself with the Chancellor’s remarks about the Manchester bombing.

For the Chancellor to make up his own small business tax policies on the hoof is one thing; making them up for the Labour party is a fantasy. The Government have ruled out a customs union with the European Union worth £16 trillion for an alternative customs union with British overseas territories worth only £22 billion. Is the Chancellor happy with that decision? Can he give us any clue about how such a decision will support businesses and entrepreneurs?

I do not know whether that was an announcement of a change in Labour party policy. My understanding is that the Labour party’s position is to increase corporate tax rates for small businesses. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will tell us whether he has changed his position.

On the question of our future customs arrangements with the European Union, the hon. Gentleman will know that I have consistently sought arrangements that will protect our existing trade with the European Union, allowing British businesses to continue to trade freely with the minimal possible friction at the border with the European Union. We do not believe it is necessary to be in a customs union to achieve that.

For the Chancellor’s information, he can easily find our policies on

When the Chancellor met David Cameron last October to give a thumbs-up emoji to Mr Cameron’s UK-China investment fund, presumably to help businesses and entrepreneurs, was he aware that the fund is to be domiciled in the Republic of Ireland? If so, did he think to ask the former Prime Minister whether that was for the purposes of tax avoidance?

I have already answered the hon. Gentleman’s questions about my meeting with Mr Cameron last October. In a meeting that ranged across a number of issues, Mr Cameron was good enough to inform me of his intention to take up this role with a fund promoting investment both in China and the UK. The Government support all initiatives that improve trade and investment between the UK and China.

Cost of Living

People’s disposable income is now 4.6% higher in real terms than in 2010. That is because we have turned around the economy and held taxes down.

According to recent figures from the Office for National Statistics, real household disposable income is £1,600 higher than in 2008, while the proportion of lower paid workers has fallen to its lowest level for 35 years due to the national living wage. Does my right hon. Friend think that those statistics would be as positive if we had taken the advice of the Labour party?

As my hon. Friend knows, the advice of the Labour party is that we need to “overthrow capitalism”. If we were to do that, there would be fewer businesses, fewer jobs, higher taxes and higher mortgage rates—and we would all be queuing for food, as people are in Venezuela.

Families with three children are at a greater risk of poverty than other families, and next year the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will take £1.2 billion away from them. Does she agree that this is the least family-friendly Government in history?

What we have done for families is make sure that more parents and families are in work than ever before, enabling them to look after and support their children. We are also investing a record amount in childcare—£6 billion a year—to help more parents into work.

19. Increases in the personal allowance and the national living wage, and the freeze to fuel duty, have helped my constituents with the cost of living. However, things are still tough and too many are just about managing. What further plans does my right hon. Friend have to continue to support my hardworking constituents? (905487)

My hon. Friend is right that we need to keep taxes down, but we also need to recognise the role that free enterprise and free markets play in encouraging competition, allowing new products to come to the market and keeping prices low. The reason why we have low food prices and cheap air fares is because we have successfully kept those markets open. The Labour party advocates abandoning that.

Tory austerity will result in annual social security cuts of £4 billion in Scotland by 2020. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that 1 million more children will be pushed into poverty across the UK. With planned devolution covering only 15% of social security spending, the blame lies firmly at the Chancellor’s door. Does the Minister think that is acceptable?

What I find incredible is that the Scottish National party, which has been in power in Scotland for many years, presiding over declining education standards and now raising taxes in Scotland, has the audacity not to take responsibility for its own policies and actions.

The Chief Secretary did not answer my question. Once a fortnight someone comes into my office with so little income that we have to refer them to a food bank. When will the Chancellor realise how much harm he is causing? When will he reverse the cuts and when will he end the hunger?

The reality is that we have seen more people in work in Scotland, as we have across the country, and that is delivering more real income. We have held taxes down across the country, to the tune of £1,000 per basic rate taxpayer, which means that people have more disposable income to spend.

Well, that was fascinating.

The Chief Secretary knows full well that 67% of children in poverty live in working households. The Child Poverty Action Group expects cuts within universal credit to push up to 1 million children into poverty by 2020. When all the Government’s policy changes are included, lone parents have lost an average of £5,250 a year since 2010. Families with three or more children have lost £5,600 a year. Families with a disabled parent and a disabled child have £6,500 less every single year. Is she complacent or just callous?

Surprise, surprise: we have not heard Labour acknowledge the excellent news from the Resolution Foundation that we now have the lowest share of low-paid employees for 35 years—before the Labour Government were in power. Under Labour, we saw rising unemployment and more people left on the scrapheap. We saw a welfare system that did not support people into work.

Order. We need to make faster progress. If people could keep their questions brief, and if answers could focus, as constitutionally they must, on the policies of the Government, that would be the proper procedure in the House. The right hon. Lady is very experienced and I know she knows that extremely well.

NHS and Adult Social Care: Multi-year Funding Plan

3. If he will bring forward proposals for a multi-year funding plan for the NHS and adult social care. (905471)

We will come forward with a new long-term plan for the NHS and provide a new multi-year funding settlement in support of that plan. What is also important is that we are developing policies on artificial intelligence and digital services to make sure that our NHS delivers better outcomes for patients.

To raise the amount we need for long-term sustainable services for my constituents and people across the country, will the Chief Secretary consider introducing a ring-fenced health and social care tax that would bring together spending on both services into a collective budget?

As the hon. Lady knows, the problem with such hypothecated taxes is that if the revenues from them go down, the consequence is a reduction in support for our NHS or our social care services. That is why we believe in funding those services out of general taxation. We put an extra £6.3 billion into the health service at the Budget. We are looking at the longer-term settlement, but it is important to note that this is about not just the money we spend, but how we spend it.

PFI Contracts

4. What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of his Department’s procedure for authorising and monitoring private finance initiative contracts. (905472)

The vast majority of PFI projects—86%—were signed off under the last Labour Government. Since 2010, we have reformed the approach so that PF2—private finance 2—contracts, in the selective circumstances in which they are used, now deliver better value for money for the taxpayer, so far delivering over £2 billion of savings.

Recent research from the University of Greenwich suggests that bringing existing PFI contracts back in house could pay for itself within two years. The National Audit Office has noted that Government Departments reported the “operational inflexibility” of PFI, so can the Chancellor explain why his Department is still pushing the increasingly discredited and scandal-ridden PFI model under the disguise of PF2?

Under the last Labour Government, the average number of PFI contracts signed per year was 55. In the last two years, the Treasury has signed off none. We will use this approach selectively when it delivers a genuine transfer of risk and provides value for money for the taxpayer, not as the last Labour Government did.

As the Minister said, PFI was hugely popular under the last Labour Government. Will he confirm whether PFI stands for “private finance initiative” or “pay for indefinitely”?

My hon. Friend highlights the cost and legacy of the PFI projects signed off under the last Labour Government. Hon. Members can be assured that we will use this approach wisely and selectively, in particular for the most complex infrastructure projects requiring a transfer of risk and the expertise of the private sector.

On PFI hospitals, the National Audit Office report recently found

“no evidence of operational efficiency”,

and that in the NHS,

“the cost of services, like cleaning…hospitals is higher under PFI contracts.”

Will the Chancellor explain why his Government persist with imposing higher costs than necessary on local health budgets instead of ensuring value for money for the taxpayer?

I think that the hon. Lady is having amnesia. These contracts—86% of the contracts and 91% by value—were signed under the last Labour Government. In respect of some of the items that she mentioned, such as cleaning and security services, we have reformed PFI contracts under PF2 so that those items are not included in the standard contract.

Would my hon. Friend be interested to learn that when I was a lowly Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Treasury in 1996 and 1997, John Major was constantly trying to make us finalise PFI contracts, but we in the Treasury refused because they were bad deals? As soon as Labour got in, they went straight ahead and entered into those bad deals.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The initial intention of PFI was to transfer risk, when appropriate, to the private sector, and to drive up innovation and quality in a very small number of selective cases. That was perverted under the last Labour Government by Gordon Brown.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

This Government have not. In the light of last week’s report on Carillion, we want to know whether the Minister can indicate which PFI contracts are being delivered by contractors that are deemed to be actually or potentially high risk. Following last week’s reports that failed bidders for PFI contracts will be compensated, can he rule out bailing out firms that fail even to win contracts? We need answers on these questions now, not a history lesson.

As I have indicated, this Government’s approach to PFI is entirely different from that of the last Labour Government. The hon. Lady says that she has learnt the lessons. Well, it is a pity for the taxpayer, and for our children and grandchildren, that they were learnt so late.

Lifetime ISAs

5. How many people have paid a 25% withdrawal charge to use their lifetime ISA savings since that scheme was established. (905473)

In the first financial year, 2017-18, there was no unauthorised withdrawal charge in place. The data for 2018-19 is obviously not yet known, but HMRC will publish it when it is available.

Will the Minister look at the effect of the withdrawal charge more closely? A first-time buyer has told me that he has found a home that suits his needs, but because his lifetime ISA is less than a year old, he will not only lose his Government bonus but have to pay a £375 penalty charge back to the Government out of his own money. Why are aspiring homeowners being penalised in this way?

I am of course happy to look at that case. Following my appearance at the Treasury Select Committee, I asked my officials to look at the guidance on the website, as I am anxious not to put misleading advice on there. The LISA is available for long-term savings. That was the scheme’s objective when it was set up.

I am pleased the Minister just mentioned his appearance before the Select Committee, where we explored the issue of the 25% charge and the fact that a further 6% of capital can also be lost. Will he update us? He has talked to officials about looking at the website. Will he ensure that the Treasury website is fully compliant with Financial Conduct Authority rules applicable to firms in the private sector?

I am taking this up further, but I am concerned not to put a misleading flat-rate percentage on there, given that most savers who make an unauthorised withdrawal will pay a different amount according to their circumstances.

We have junior ISAs, cash ISAs, stocks and shares ISAs and lifetime ISAs. Will the Minister consider simplifying the entire ISA system to help young people in particular with long-term, cost-effective saving?

The Government have developed a range of savings products and incentives, or encouraged providers to do so, to reflect the range of needs. We have also raised the ISA allowance to £20,000 and introduced the personal savings allowance, meaning that 95% of people do not pay any tax on their savings income. It is important that we have that range of options for all age groups.


The Budget showed our determination to improve productivity, increasing the national productivity investment fund by £8 billion to £31 billion. With substantial investment in the regions of the UK, such as the £1.7 billion transforming cities fund, we want to help all parts of the country achieve their potential.

I am sure the House will be united in rejoicing that the UK’s productivity last year grew by 0.7% and in the last quarter increased at its quickest pace in six years. Does my hon. Friend agree that raising our productivity is the only way to deliver higher-paid and better jobs for the future?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Raising productivity is the only sustainable way to grow the economy, boost wages and improve living standards, which is why we have given it such a clear and determined focus. With respect to Aberdeenshire, the North sea oil and gas industry is one of those sectors that have seen the greatest productivity increases in recent years. We will continue to support that with a highly competitive tax rate.

Given that average UK productivity is 30% below German levels, does the Minister agree it is now time to rebalance our economy and support further devolution for areas such as Cheshire and Warrington?

It was of course this Government who one year ago created the Mayors across the UK, including in Greater Manchester, and several of them, including Andy Street, have had a great impact on their local economies. I have had conversations with the leader of the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership and the Minister responsible at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to take such matters forward.

23. May I challenge the Government to maintain a strong emphasis on sound management of the public finances so we can invest in skills and apprenticeships to boost productivity and living standards? (905492)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is only with sound management of the public finances that we can continue to invest in the skills required to grow productivity, and that is exactly what we are doing with increasing investment in apprenticeships, through the apprenticeship levy, and with the T-levels, which will be largest change to our secondary education system since the introduction of A-levels and which we will be seeing in the coming years.

15. The unique cross-border region of north Wales and Cheshire is one of the most dynamic economies in the United Kingdom. Will the Treasury—which has promised a north Wales growth deal in, I think, at least three Budgets, but has yet to deliver a penny—please stop marking our homework, and give us the freedom to invest in the economy that we believe in? (905483)

We have had numerous conversations with local partners in north Wales, and with the Welsh Government. I urge the hon. Gentleman to take the message to the Welsh Government, but they also need to engage with the UK Government to secure that important deal, which, as he says, will link the economy of north Wales with the north-west and the northern powerhouse to drive productivity.

Does the Minister agree that cutting corporation tax to 19% has encouraged business investment, boosting productivity as well as encouraging the creation of 3 million new jobs?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When we reduce the tax to 17%, we will see those productivity gains increase—and, contrary to what the Opposition have claimed, revenues have increased.

Eurostat figures show regional inequality in the United Kingdom, measured by output per hour, to be the worst in Europe, and the Government have failed to close the gap since 2010. When will the Chancellor commit himself to making the investment that is needed to end regional imbalances that have seen the north of England set to receive just one fifth of the transport investment per capita in London?

The Infrastructure and Projects Authority, which has conducted the most rigorous analysis of Government spending on infrastructure, has made clear that the north of England will receive more funds from the present Government than any other region in the United Kingdom, including London and the south-east.

New Technologies

The Government are committed to helping firms to harness the benefits of new technologies, and we are taking action to do so. For example, we have set the annual investment allowance at £200,000 a year, its highest-ever permanent level; we have announced a 10-year action plan to unlock more than £20 billion to finance growth in innovative firms; and we have delivered the biggest increase in research and development investment in 40 years.

Britain is becoming a world leader in technology businesses at the cutting edge of the fourth industrial revolution. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that our tax system remains competitive, to maximise the support that we give to our business entrepreneurs?

Yes. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his commitment in this regard, especially in his role as chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the fourth industrial revolution. Science, research and innovation are areas in which the UK has huge strengths. Our challenge is to provide the right environment—including the right tax environment—to ensure that that potential stays in the UK, and is developed here. We have introduced a range of incentives through the tax system, such as R&D tax credits and entrepreneurs’ relief, as well as the lowest corporation tax rate in the G7.

Given that Northern Ireland is the cyber-security centre of the UK, what steps is the Chancellor taking to provide tax relief to encourage global businesses to consider using Belfast and other equipped cities as their bases?

We have a globally competitive offer for businesses seeking to locate in the United Kingdom, and, of course, Northern Ireland will have corporation tax flexibilities of its own in due course. However, we seek to make all parts of the UK attractive to foreign direct investment, and Northern Ireland has done extremely well from that.

Will the Government please explain what is being done to help firms in places such as west Oxfordshire to harness 5G and broadband, making them more competitive, making them raise more money, and creating the capital that will enable us to fund the public services that the Labour party wants to overthrow?

This is partly about public investment and partly about private investment to encourage the roll-out of full-fibre broadband technologies and give companies access to the funds that they need to make investments and take advantage of the public infrastructure. We will make further announcements about our forward broadband strategy during the summer.

The Scottish Government’s Budget included a 70% increase in investment in business R&D. To prevent that investment from being undermined by the Government’s approach to Brexit, will the Chancellor commit himself to maintaining the EU levels of R and D funding beyond the current cycle?

Once we have left the European Union the money that was reaching the UK from EU sources will be allocated to the UK shared prosperity fund, and over the course of this year we will consult on both the distribution and the application of those funds and the size that that fund should be.

First-time Home Buyers

In the last Budget we abolished stamp duty for first-time buyers for the first £300,000 of a property’s value up to £500,000 in total. That has meant that 95% of first-time buyers have paid less stamp duty and a full 80% of first-time buyers have paid no stamp duty at all.

Last November the Chancellor announced an ambitious package to tackle the broken housing market. How many first-time buyers have benefited from that package, particularly in Essex, and where can people find further information about this so we can make hopefully impressive numbers even greater?

Some 69,000 individuals have already benefited from this vital tax relief and over 1 million will do so over the coming five years. We do not have disaggregated data specifically for Essex, but I can tell my hon. Friend that within the south-east 12,900 individuals have benefited from first-time buyer tax relief.

17. My constituency tops the leader board for house building, building at the moment over three a day. Can the Minister give an assessment of how much my first-time buyers are saving because of the Government’s policies? (905485)

As I outlined to my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) who asked the preceding question, in the south-east 12,900 first-time buyers have benefited from this relief, of whom 9,000 purchased a property of a value of between £300,000 and £500,000 in total.

Tax Credits Overpayments

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has taken a variety of steps to reduce overpayments of tax credits including real-time income data in-year, guidance that is very clear on these matters, and of course providing appropriate contact routes with HMRC so that those who have changed circumstances can indicate that to our tax authorities.

Overpayment of tax credits can have disastrous impacts on families; a constituent of mine has been left with a bill of £8,000 as a result of purely administrative errors admitted by HMRC. Such errors can create real financial hardship and in the past have even pushed some families into poverty. Will the Minister start instructing Treasury and HMRC officials to do more to tackle this problem?

HMRC is doing a great deal, as I have already outlined to the hon. Gentleman, in terms of making sure that the correct information is provided. Overpayments do not solely emanate from HMRC; there is of course customer error and there can be negligence or a failure to report a change of circumstances. But I can assure the hon. Gentleman that HMRC is always sympathetic and careful in its approach to anybody in the kind of situation he described.

Economic Growth

The best way to drive economic growth is to raise our productivity growth rate. That is why since 2010 the Government have overseen over half a trillion pounds in capital investment including in the national productivity investment fund, have increased investment in skills and have reduced taxes for business, and I tell my hon. Friend that the way not to support economic growth is through more borrowing, more debt and higher debt service costs.

After we voted to leave the EU, a vote endorsed by huge numbers across the north of England, we were told by some that mismanagement of the economy would occur under this Government. The reality in the north, despite those who talk the economy down, is that we have record employment and some of our areas have the fastest growing economies in the country, so may I urge the Chancellor to continue investing in the north and to ignore those, on the Opposition Benches especially, who repeatedly talk down the north of England?

Since 2010 the shadow Chancellor has predicted that the UK would go into recession on no fewer than eight separate occasions—that is eight out of zero. But the UK economy is growing steadily and is now 10.7% bigger than its pre-crisis level, and the Office for Budget Responsibility expects it to continue to grow in each year of its forecast to 2022. While we know that the shadow Chancellor does not think that a growing economy matters, let me tell him why I do: a growing economy means more jobs, more prosperity and more security for working people.

What consideration has been given to the contribution that varying certain business taxes, such as VAT, according to the nation or region of the UK could make to encouraging economic growth?

The Government’s view is that a unified rate of VAT across the United Kingdom is an important part of our single market of the United Kingdom, which is an essential economic good for the whole of this country.

18. Economic growth in Moray will get a huge boost when the Moray growth deal is agreed. It has the support of businesses and communities throughout my area, and I back it 100%. Will the Chancellor meet me to discuss the Moray growth deal and the huge benefits that it will bring to my constituency? (905486)

We absolutely look forward to being able to make progress on the Moray growth deal, and I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I know that the Exchequer Secretary, who is dealing with this matter, would also be pleased to meet him.

The Government acknowledge that they want to spread wealth and economic growth across the United Kingdom through their industrial strategy. Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer therefore agree with the Welsh Affairs Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), that the money from the cancelled rail electrification between Cardiff and Swansea should be spent in Wales, so that we can have that shared prosperity?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I firmly believe that the service that will be provided on the route from London to Swansea will deliver exactly what passengers have bargained to get, without the need for the disruption and cost of overhead electrification. We will look at the funding needs of all parts of the United Kingdom appropriately, to support economic growth and to reduce regional disparities.

Order. The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) has question 21, which is not altogether dissimilar from the one with which we are dealing, but which will probably not be reached. If he wants to come in now, he can. If he does not, he need not do so. But he does, so he will.

21. Thank you, Mr Speaker. With regard to important infrastructure projects such as the north-west relief road in Shrewsbury, will the Chancellor give me an assurance that when the land frees up housing capacity when the road is built, that will be taken into consideration when the schemes are apportioned funding? (905489)

Precisely, Mr Speaker. It is the economic growth generation potential of housing development that we will take into account when evaluating transport proposals. In relation to the specific project to which my hon. Friend refers, the Exchequer Secretary advises me that the Department for Transport is eagerly awaiting a business plan for the project from the relevant local authority.

Does the Chancellor agree that a devolution settlement for all Yorkshire with an elected Mayor, as supported by all Conservative councils in the county, could improve economic growth in the region?

The Government will look carefully at proposals from Yorkshire leaders for a devolution settlement, provided that it does not undermine the existing South Yorkshire-Sheffield city region devolution settlement that has already been established, with a Mayor already elected.

The port operator Associated British Ports, the Hull and Humber Chamber of Commerce and many local businesses are giving serious consideration to free port status for the Humber ports in the post-Brexit world. Will the Chancellor or his Ministers agree to meet representatives of the business community in the area and to give serious consideration to this proposal when the idea has been further developed?

As my hon. Friend will know, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has a great interest in that proposal. Without even needing to consult her, I can say without hesitation that she will be delighted to meet him and his colleagues.

Wage Growth: Young People

13. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of wage growth for young people over the last 15 years. (905481)

From 2002 until the crisis, young people saw their real wages grow more slowly than the UK average. In fact, their wages fell more during the recession. Since 2014, young people’s wages have been rising faster than the UK average.

Young people are struggling to get a good start in the job market. They are earning less, working longer hours and commuting further than their parents’ generation. What are the Government going to do to transform their outcomes?

The most important thing is that those young people are in jobs, and under Labour we saw unemployment rise to 20%. Youth unemployment has reduced by 40% since 2010. I recognise that we need to see those young people get better skills. That is why we are investing in IT training, that is why we are developing the maths premium so that more students study science, technology, engineering and maths, and that is why we have developed the apprenticeship levy to get more people into apprenticeships.

Money Laundering and Criminal Finance

14. What recent estimate the Government have made of the cost to the economy of money laundering and criminal finance in the UK. (905482)

The social and economic costs of organised crime, of which money laundering is a key facilitator, total tens of billions of pounds a year. The Government are committed to tackling illicit finance in the UK and have implemented recent measures including the Criminal Finances Act 2017 and the updated money laundering regulations, both of which were brought into law in the past year.

The cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee said only yesterday that the Government should show stronger political leadership in tackling the importing of dirty money into the United Kingdom. Is it not time that the Government supported the Labour Front Bench’s proposals for an overseas register of interests?

I acknowledge the report of the Select Committee. This Government stand by the rule of law. We do not do random confiscations but, alongside the work being undertaken, work is under way across Whitehall to examine what further steps are necessary. I am eager that we go as far as we can, and we must do so in ways that are consistent with our values.

I associate myself with the Chancellor’s eloquent words on the Manchester tragedy. I also commend the emergency services that operated on that day.

“The Government cannot afford to turn a blind eye as kleptocrats and human rights abusers use the City of London to launder their ill-gotten funds”.

Not my words but the words of yesterday’s Foreign Affairs Committee report. For eight years this Government have turned a blind eye to the flow of dirty money through the City. Not only have they delayed until 2021 the introduction of a full public register of overseas companies that own UK property but they have refused to introduce the tougher scrutiny and regulation of City flotations that we have demanded, and they have failed to broaden the definition of “politically exposed persons” to include more individuals linked to crime or criminal regimes.

Will the Government do as the Foreign Affairs Committee has demanded and start taking money laundering and tax avoidance seriously by bringing forward the date for the register of overseas companies that own property in the UK?

We will continue to take these matters very seriously. We will freeze Russian state assets where we have evidence that they will be used to threaten the life or property of UK nationals and residents. As the Prime Minister made very clear in her statement to the House, the National Crime Agency will bring all UK capabilities to bear against serious criminals and corrupt elites. As somebody who has experienced that directly in my constituency in recent months, I stand by the Prime Minister’s statement. There is no place for these people and their money in our country.

That is just not good enough. We were promised a register in 2015, and we are still having to wait another three years. The Government are letting the crooks, the tax avoiders and the money launderers off the hook again. They have failed to introduce and enforce stricter due diligence for companies as registered companies, they have failed to take on the service providers that set up these laundering scheme, and they have refused to legislate to create a new offence of failing to prevent money laundering. Those are all amendments that the Opposition tabled to the recent Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. The people of this country are entitled to ask why this Government are soft on tax evaders and money launderers.

There is another issue that has to be addressed today, as highlighted by the allegations against Lycamobile. Will the Government bring forward legislation requiring any political party found to have accepted donations from money launderers and tax evaders to forfeit or return that money?

Obviously, it is impossible for a Minister to comment on live cases, but we will continue to use powers to disrupt and pursue money launderers and terrorists. We will use the anti-corruption strategy, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Economic Crime is committed to using the National Economic Crime Centre to pursue those who need pursuing, but we will do so within the rule of law, consistent with the values of this country.

Tax Evasion

16. What steps he has taken to give Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs the appropriate powers and resources to tackle tax evasion. (905484)

The Government have brought in more than 100 measures to clamp down on tax avoidance, evasion and non-compliance since 2010, and the associated powers that HMRC has had in that respect. We have protected and brought in £175 billion across that period, which is substantially more than we invest in our national health service every year.

Almost 15,000 HMRC and Valuation Office Agency jobs have been lost since 2010, and that is alongside tax office closures up and down the country. With potential changes to our customs border on the horizon, does the Chancellor not agree that now would be the time to invest in HMRC, and put a stop to all planned cuts and closures?

I am pleased to be able to inform the hon. Lady that we have been investing heavily in HMRC to clamp down on the issues she has raised—we are talking about some £2 billion since 2010. We have 23,000 staff in HMRC engaged in that purpose and we consequently have about the lowest tax gap in the entire world, at 6%, which is far lower than it was in any year under the previous Labour Government.

Topical Questions

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.

Transport Emissions: Urban Areas

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs what steps his Department will be taking to improve transport emissions in our urban areas.

Mr Speaker, thank you for granting this urgent question.

Air pollution is the greatest environmental threat to human health in this country and the fourth biggest public health killer after cancer, obesity and heart disease. Today marks the publication of the latest stage in this Government’s determined efforts to reduce and reverse the impact of air pollution on our health and on our natural environment. Our clean air strategy consultation, published today, outlines steps that we can all take to reduce the emission of harmful gases and particulate matter from all the sources that contribute to polluted air.

It is important to recognise, as I know my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) does, that air pollution is generated by a wide variety of sources—from the fuel used for domestic heating to the application of fertilisers on agricultural land, and from the use of chemicals in industry to sea, rail, air and road transport. The strategy published today outlines specific steps that we can take to reduce the use of the most polluting fuels, to manage better the use of manures and slurries on agricultural land, and to ensure that non-road mobile machinery is effectively policed, among other measures.

My hon. Friend asks specifically about urban transport pollution. Last year, the Government published their UK plan for tackling roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations. The plan allocated over £3 billion to help to reduce harmful NOx emissions, including £475 million to local authorities to enable them to develop their own air quality plans. Since then we have been working with local authorities to help them to deliver specific solutions. We have also issued ministerial directions to 61 local authorities to ensure that they live up to their shared responsibilities.

Our plan committed us to phasing out the sale of conventional diesel and petrol cars by 2040 and taking them off the road altogether by 2050. This is more ambitious than any European Union requirement and puts Britain in the lead among major developed economies. Alongside that commitment we are dedicating £1.5 billion to the development of zero and ultra-low emission vehicles, including support for new charging points across the country.

We were of course helped in the preparation of our clean air strategy by the excellent report produced earlier this year by the Chairs of the Select Committee on Health, the Select Committee on Transport and the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In their excellent report on air quality, the joint Select Committees recommended introducing a new clean air Act. We will indeed be introducing primary legislation to clean up our air. They suggested that we initiate a new health campaign. As the Secretary of State for Health has emphasised, we will be introducing a personal messaging system to ensure that those most at risk receive the information that they need about pollution risks.

It was also recommended that we place health and environment, rather than simply technical compliance, at the centre of our strategy. We do that with ambitious new targets that match World Health Organisation metrics on improving air quality. Of course, we were also asked to reduce emissions from tyres and braking—the so-called Oslo effect—and today we have announced action to work with manufacturers to do just that.

Emissions have fallen consistently since 2010, and my predecessors in this role are to be commended for the action that they have taken, but today’s strategy marks the most ambitious steps yet to accelerate our progress towards cleaner air. I commend the strategy to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State very much for publishing the clean air strategy today. I know that he feels very passionately about this and works very strongly to get our air cleaner in this country. I also welcome the proposals for improving air quality. That demonstrates progress. However, I am concerned that the strategy is not as wide-ranging as it could be. I welcome the fact that we seem to be cleaning up our wood-burning stoves. We also need to deal with agricultural pollution but, in particular, we need to deal with the hotspots in our inner cities.

The strategy says that, to reduce particulate emissions from tyre and brake wear, the Government will work with international partners to develop new international regulations for particulate emissions from tyres and brakes through the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe. I very much welcome that, but is it adequate? To cut the levels of particulate matter from vehicles, the Government should reduce the need for private vehicles in congested urban areas by improving public transport and by making sure that public transport is much cleaner. We have done a lot in London but we need to do much across the rest of our cities in this great country.

It is not clear that the Government have taken on board our report’s key finding that Departments are not necessarily working together effectively. This is not a criticism of the Secretary of State; it is very much to say that we need to work more with Transport to deliver many of the solutions.

Will the Secretary of State support our calls for conventional petrol and diesel engine cars to be phased out by 2040? Will he offer more support and resources to local councils to improve their air quality so that this can be tackled at a local level as well as a national level? Can we be sure that all the monitoring systems through DEFRA and through local authorities actually work?

I welcome the fact that there will be new powers for the Transport Secretary to compel manufacturers to recall vehicles for any failures in their emissions control systems and to make tampering illegal. I still continue to ask why Volkswagen has got away with what it did and why we did not do enough to make sure that it was brought to book. That is not you, Secretary of State—that is the Transport Secretary. However, can the Secretary of State offer more support for cleaner fuels that consumers can use in vehicles, especially bioethanol—E10—in petrol? That is good not only for the environment but for farmers who supply the wheat that makes the bioethanol in the first place.

As you have indicated, Mr Speaker, I think we are all admiring of the Select Committee Chair for managing to pack into his allotted time so much that was useful. I will do my very best to reply appropriately.

My hon. Friend is quite right to draw attention to the way in which tyres and brakes generate particulate matter that finds its way into the air and contributes to air pollution. We will be working with manufacturers, exactly as he says, in order to deal with this method of pollution. He is also right that particulate matter is a particular problem with regard to public health. One of the biggest generators of particulate matter is domestic wood burning and coal burning. The clean air strategy goes further than ever before in making sure that we can deal with both those means of generating particulate matter.

My hon. Friend asks that we improve public transport. Specifically with regard to NOx emissions, the diesel vehicles on which so many rely for public transport—buses and so on—do need to be modernised. We work with local authorities to ensure that there is appropriate retrofitting of these vehicles so that the diesel emissions that contribute to poor air quality can be effectively dealt with. We are spending £475 million with local authorities to ensure that they can have bespoke solutions. That can involve the retrofitting of public transport. It can also involve engineering solutions to bring down the concentration of harmful emissions in particular areas.

My hon. Friend makes a point about the 2040 target. I completely agree that it is important to hit that target. He also draws attention to the fact that some motor manufacturers, in effect, attempted to get around regulations in order to produce vehicles for sale that did not meet the requirements for air quality that we would all want to see. We can all reflect on the way in which the regulation, which was of course fixed at EU level, did not work effectively. There has been reference, and I know there will be subsequent reference, to the court cases that have found a number of EU countries, including Britain, to be in breach of EU law on this matter. The truth is that one of the reasons Britain and other countries are in breach of EU law is that there are vehicles on our streets that had technical compliance with EU rules but, in terms of real-world emissions, were not fit for our use.

What we needed from the Government today was a comprehensive clean air strategy to show that they are really serious about tackling this public health emergency, but what we have instead is yet another consultation, which has a focus on emissions from agriculture and wood burning and is weak on cutting roadside pollution from diesel vehicles. It is worth remembering that, since the general election, there have been 25 DEFRA consultations and not one piece of primary legislation delivered.

We know that air pollution is responsible for at least 40,000 premature deaths every year. We know that it is particularly harmful to our children and our vulnerable elderly people. Effective national action must be taken to address the emissions from road transport that are contributing to illegal and harmful levels of pollution. The UK is currently routinely responsible for exceeding the legal levels of pollution. Today’s strategy states that the Government aim to halve the number of people living in unsafe levels of pollution by 2025, but that is simply not good enough. If today’s announcement is the extent of their ambition, it poses a serious question about whether this Conservative Government can really be trusted with our environment and with dealing with illegal air pollution after the UK leaves the EU.

The strategy still does not legally provide for a network of mandatory clean air zones, which DEFRA’s own analysis shows is the quickest and most cost-effective way to bring NOx levels down to legal levels. Yet again, we see more shunting of new responsibilities on to our cash-strapped local authorities, which have been cut to the bone by the Government’s unrelenting austerity agenda. All the new promises we have heard today will mean very little if local councils do not have the money or the resources to implement them.

The Government say time and again that they are committed to this being the first generation to leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it in, but I see no evidence of actual action being taken to deliver that. Anything being mooted by the Government on tackling air pollution will be effective only if there is a serious and independent environmental regulator after Brexit to hold the Government to account, but the Government’s recently announced environment watchdog has been roundly condemned as entirely toothless.

Labour has been calling for primary legislation on air quality since the last election. This Government only ever take action on illegal air pollution when they have been held over a barrel in the courts. I remind the House that there have been three legal challenges and a referral to the European Court of Justice. When will the Government treat this issue with the seriousness that it deserves? The time for half-measures and public consultation has to end. We need real action now to tackle this public health emergency.

I thank the hon. Lady for her points. She asks for a comprehensive strategy. That is what we have produced today. She specifically refers to our target to ensure that half of the population live in areas that meet World Health Organisation standards for air quality by 2025. What she omitted to tell the House is that this Government are putting forward a more ambitious aspiration for the cleanliness of our air than any other Government in a developed nation. It seems that, in her desire to be grudging, she failed to share with the House the detail of our ambition.

The hon. Lady asked about clean air zones. Clean air zones can be implemented by local authorities if they believe that that is the right solution. We on the Government Benches believe in the “local” in local government. It is right for local authorities to make an appropriate decision, depending on the circumstances in that area. A one-size-fits-all approach imposed from the centre may be appropriate in the Marxist-Leninist world of the Corbynistas, but we believe that it is appropriate to work with local authorities and metro Mayors. When necessary, we will apply ministerial directions, but it is appropriate to have the right approach for each individual area.

The hon. Lady asked about primary legislation. Let me remind her that a Labour Government were in place for 13 years, and how many pieces of primary legislation did they bring in on air quality? How many? It was a Conservative Government who brought in the Clean Air Act 1956 and a Conservative Government who brought in clean air legislation when John Major was Prime Minister, but when Labour was in power, we did not have clean air Acts—we had dirty diesel subsidies.

It was the Labour Government who introduced a deliberate ramping up of the number of diesel cars on our streets. We had a confession recently from none other than the hon. Member for Brent North, a man to whom I always pay close attention. Barry Gardiner admitted—it is perhaps not the first confession he will be making this week—that there is “absolutely no question” that the decision the Labour Government took on diesel was “the wrong decision” and:

“Certainly the impact of that decision has been a massive problem for public health in this country.”

Until we have an apology from those on the Labour Front Bench for the errors that they made, we will take their words on air pollution for the hot air that they manifestly are.

I always richly enjoy the Secretary of State’s performances, almost as richly as he does himself. I hope, however, he will not take it amiss if I gently point out that to refer to the hon. Member for Brent North is in order, but to name him is not.

It is shocking, as the right hon. Gentleman observes in a disorderly manner from a sedentary position.

The clean air strategy rightly sets out the compelling case for action to reduce public exposure to air pollution in order to save lives and improve the quality of life for many. We also know that there is a compelling case to get Britain moving and get us out of our cars, and that cycling and walking, even where there is a lot of traffic, exposes people to less air pollution than driving. Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that there is only a single paragraph in the strategy on active travel? I urge him to go further by strengthening measures to get people out of their cars and, where possible, on to their bikes and walking for their benefit.

My hon. Friend makes a vital point. Today’s strategy deals with a number of sources of air pollution, and I commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport for showing leadership on precisely the area that she draws attention to. We have spent £1.2 billion on a cycling and walking investment strategy. When my colleague the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) was Mayor of London, he introduced a cycle lane network across the capital, which has contributed hugely to an increase in the number of people cycling across the capital. I absolutely believe that we need to have a switch away from an over-reliance on traditional internal combustion engines, towards new modes of transport, and part of that is making sure that we can cycle and walk wherever possible.

In Scotland we have achieved progressively clean air over recent years through increasingly strict control of industrial emissions, tighter fuel and emissions standards for road vehicles and control of smoke from domestic premises. However, after going to court numerous times, the UK Government are not taking serious action. They are just dragging their feet by announcing yet another consultation. As has just been said, the Secretary of State has issued more than 25 consultations since the 2017 general election, but none has yet produced new laws.

The Government’s own research shows that clean air zones are the most effective solution to air pollution, so why are they ignoring their own advice? Surely they should follow the Scottish National party Government, who are funding low emission zones to take the most polluting vehicles out of the most polluted areas of Scotland. The Health Secretary has said that

“Air pollution is contributing to a national health crisis.”

Why is the Environment Secretary ignoring his own Cabinet colleagues and not taking serious action now?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He makes the point about the number of consultations we have brought forward. Call me old-fashioned, but I think it is appropriate to consult before one legislates. I think it is absolutely right to make sure that we take account of the views of the citizens of this country and interested parties before moving to legislate. However, I note that in his demand for us to legislate was implicit Scottish National party support for the laws that we will bring forward. I will bank that kind offer of support from the SNP for the legislation that we will feel necessary to bring forward in due course.

The hon. Gentleman says that the Scottish Government have shown leadership on this issue. Indeed, I am happy to acknowledge that there are members of the Scottish Government, whether it is Roseanna Cunningham or others, who take an approach to the environment that dovetails with our own, and I enjoy working with them. The hard work behind the scenes that both Governments exhibit to improve our environment is sometimes not reflected in the exchanges we have on the Floor of the House, so I want to take this opportunity to thank the Scottish Government for the work that they do behind the scenes to advance our shared environment. It is vital, as we leave the European Union, that there is effective working across the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom to achieve the goals that we all share.

Is the Secretary of State aware that there is action he could take now that would not cost the Government money and would not require him to legislate further? Regulation 98 of the Road Vehicles (Construction and Use) Regulations 1986 states that it is already an offence to leave an engine idling when stuck in traffic or at traffic lights. Is he aware of Westminster City Council’s “Don’t Be Idle” campaign? Why do we not put some beef behind that campaign, spread it across the country and do something now that would really help, would not cost money and would make a big difference?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The phenomenon of idling engines—often, ironically, outside the very schools whose children we most want to protect from deteriorating air quality—does require action to be taken. I commend my hon. Friend for pointing out the leadership shown by Westminster, among many other councils, and I believe we need a wider application of the already existing powers that local authorities have to deal with this.

Our joint Select Committees report called for ambitious, co-ordinated cross-departmental action, yet there is virtually nothing in the Secretary of State’s new strategy to tackle the impact of road traffic. As the Chair of the Health Committee, the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) has said, modal shift gets two paragraphs and active travel just three sentences. He has clearly rejected a ban on diesel and petrol cars before 2040. Can he point to a single measure or funding pot that he is announcing today that will better align urban planning, public transport and fiscal incentives, as our Committees recommended?

It is important to realise that there was widespread recognition in the report produced by the hon. Lady and other Select Committee Chairs that road transport was simply one of the sources of air pollution. In this strategy, we are complementing what was already announced last year in our roadside NOx emissions strategy, with action on ports, air travel and trains, which is a signal of the determined efforts we are taking across the Government to deal with all the sources of air pollution.

The hon. Lady says that we should move faster than to get rid of internal combustion engines by 2040, but I have to say to her that no other major developed economy is taking that step. We need to take a balanced approach towards setting a firm deadline for moving away from conventional petrol and diesel engines, while also providing industry with the time to adjust.

I know that my right hon. Friend is one of the most responsible dwellers in the New Forest. He would never burn wet wood or coal with a high level of bitumen; only the driest and most parched twigs will find their way on to his fire and he will use only the appropriate and less smoky coal. I also know that he lives in one of the most beautiful parts of rural Hampshire, and as a result any emissions he generates are unlikely to form a particularly toxic cloud.

The Secretary of State is obviously immensely familiar with the right hon. Gentleman’s domestic arrangements, and we are all greatly fortified by the knowledge of that important fact.

For the benefit of those attending to our proceedings, the right hon. Gentleman says that the Secretary of State is very kind, but quite right, so there we are. We all feel a bit better informed.

Over the past 30 years, the cost of motoring has fallen by 20%, while the cost of bus travel has risen by 64%. Will the Secretary of State do what he can to reverse those figures? Will he look in particular at the situation in Brighton and Hove? He has written to me about my concern that data on NO2 exceedances in the city are not being taken properly into account by the Government. Does he acknowledge that we have such exceedances in our city, and if so, will he look again at our grounds for appealing the decision not to award us money from the clean bus technology fund?

Absolutely. I will look at that decision. I recognise that it is important to have accurate measuring of exceedances, but as the hon. Lady will acknowledge, one of the reasons why we have them is that the current Euro 6 diesel cars have been found to emit six times the lab test limit on average, and the new regulations that have come into effect do not accurately ensure that we can bring down exceedances to the level that we both want to see.

I appreciate that my right hon. Friend is a friend, rightly, of the bees and of the fish, but he also needs to be a friend of hard-pressed motorists. The fact is that, as he acknowledged, diesel motorists were told by the previous Government to buy such cars, and his plans will give a green light to many local authorities up and down the country to whack taxes on to diesel car owners. Will my right hon. Friend look at this again? It has happened in London, and motorists are taxed far too heavily, so will he change these plans?

My right hon. Friend has been a consistent champion of small businesses and of those who rely on diesel vehicles to provide the services on which we all, more broadly, rely. As the nature of the debate in the House indicates, a balance needs to be struck. That balance is between recognising that there is an appropriate place in the next couple of decades for diesel as part of the transport mix—where either the private sector or local authorities can find support for a scrappage scheme, we will of course endorse and do what we can to facilitate that—and, as well as making sure that small business can thrive, ensuring that our children, critically, are protected from the greatest concentrations of pollution that we find in some urban areas.

The Secretary of State is right that local authorities have a big role to play in this, but they could do an awful lot more if they had the resources. Central Government have an even bigger role to play. In Tinsley in my constituency, NO2 levels are regularly above safe limits because it is next to the M1 motorway, which is a central Government responsibility. What are the Government going to do about that, apart from adding an extra lane to the motorway? In Sheffield city centre, the pollution hotspot is around Sheffield station because of diesel trains, yet this Government have just cancelled the electrification of the midland main line. When are we going to get some joined-up government on this matter?