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Topical Questions

Volume 646: debated on Tuesday 11 September 2018

My principal responsibility is to ensure economic stability and the continued prosperity of the British people, both during this period of heightened uncertainty and beyond it after Brexit. I will do so by building on the plans that I set out in the autumn Budget and the spring statement. This Government will continue to take a balanced approach to the public finances that enables us to give households, businesses and our public services targeted support in the near term as well as investing in the future of this country and getting debt down to cut interest costs and deliver fairness to the next generation.

South Essex has the potential to play a huge part in delivering on those aspirations, as I and some of my Essex colleagues saw last Friday as we took a Clipper journey from Purfleet out to Southend and back. It was an extraordinary experience. May I therefore invite the Chancellor to come and join us and see the part that south Essex can play in making Britain great again?

There are only weeks to go now before a deal has to be agreed with our European partners, but there are still mixed messages coming from Government Ministers. The Foreign Secretary says that crashing out of the EU without a deal would be a

“mistake we would regret for generations”,

the Brexit Secretary says that no deal would bring “countervailing opportunities”, and the Prime Minister says that it

“wouldn’t be the end of the world.”

The Chancellor has a critical role to play in bringing some rationality to this debate. The Treasury has calculated that no deal could result in the UK’s GDP being over 10% smaller. Will he outline, and be absolutely clear to some of his colleagues, what that would mean for jobs, wages, investment and living standards?

There is no ambiguity at all about the Government’s objective. We want to strike a deal with the European Union based on the White Paper that we have published, which we believe will be good for Britain and good for the European Union. We are devoting all our efforts over the coming weeks and months to securing that deal and protecting the British economy.

The problem is that time is running out, and increasingly people on all sides of this issue are feeling let down, so let me put this to the Chancellor: can we both try to get the message across to the Prime Minister, who continues to insist that no deal is better than—[Interruption.] She continues to insist that a bad deal is better than—[Interruption.] I will negotiate that again, Mr Speaker. She continues to insist that a bad deal is better than no deal. Business organisations are clear. The CBI is warning of a “catastrophe”, the National Farmers Union says it would be “an Armageddon scenario”, and, according to the TUC, a no deal Brexit would be “devastating for working people”. So may I appeal to the Chancellor? He knows the consequences of a no deal scenario, so will he now show some leadership and make it clear to his colleagues that he will not accept it?

First, I would love to know what it actually said on the right hon. Gentleman’s bit of paper. Let me be very clear to him. I, the Prime Minister and all members of the Cabinet are committed to achieving a deal that protects British jobs, British businesses and British prosperity going forward. That is what we are committed to. He is absolutely right that time is running out. We are working against the clock; we understand that. We will be working flat out over the coming weeks and months to achieve that.

T5. The Treasury will be well aware of the passion that my residents in North Cornwall feel about the scourge of marine plastics. After the record response to the Treasury’s consultation on single-use plastics, can the Chancellor say how far he is prepared to go in the Budget? (906808)

First, I recognise my hon. Friend’s long-standing commitment to this cause and the role that his constituency has played in bringing to people’s attention the catastrophe going on with plastics in our oceans. We want to be the first generation that leaves the environment in a better state than we found it, and tackling the scourge of plastic waste is a clear priority to support that. As he said, the response to the call for evidence represents the level of public concern. I want to be clear that we are committed to acting to tackle plastic waste and to using tax alongside other tools to change behaviour. I am working closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and I will bring forward further proposals in the Budget.

T2. London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan is investing in frontline policing, but like police and crime commissioners across the country, he is swimming against the tide of deep Government cuts, which is why violent crime in the last three years has doubled in Essex, in Cambridgeshire, in Warwickshire, in Hampshire and in Norfolk—the Tory shires. Is it not time for the Government to accept that they need to refocus on cutting crime, not police, particularly in the light of the damning report from the National Audit Office today? (906804)

We have protected the police budget in real terms since 2015. Is it not time that the London Mayor started taking responsibility for what is happening in the city that he is meant to be leading? When it comes to Crossrail and crime, he is not taking responsibility, and he needs to stop passing the buck.

T7. Last week, the East of England all-party parliamentary group launched its Budget submission, prepared in conjunction with business and local government. Does my right hon. Friend recognise the region’s enormous economic potential, and will she work with us to unlock it? (906810)

I was delighted to visit my hon. Friend and see the booming businesses in Lowestoft and St. Peter’s Brewery, which is exporting around the world, and Baron Bigod, which I think has the only raw milk vending machine in the whole of the UK. We will look closely at his submission and continue to invest in this vital part of the country.

T3. With frontline police officers cut by over 22,000 since 2010 and police forces such as mine in Cheshire having their budgets slashed by a massive £56 million—that is a fact—surely the National Audit Office report exposing the crisis in funding for our police service is a wake-up call to the Treasury. (906806)

We have protected police budgets in real terms since 2015. Of course, the nature of crime is changing, and police forces across the country have to adjust to that. We also recently announced a 2% pay rise for frontline police officers.

T9. When this Government were first elected in 2010, their defining mission was to fix the deficit. Will the Chancellor update us on what progress has been made and how that has benefited my constituents in the north-west? (906812)

In 2010, the Government inherited the largest Budget deficit since the second world war, at 9.9% of GDP. Our balanced approach to fiscal policy means that we have significantly reduced the deficit by over four fifths, to 1.9% of GDP last year. That has had benefits for all our constituencies, as the economy has continued to grow. My hon. Friend’s constituents will have seen that benefit: in the north-west, more than 268,000 more people are in employment over that period, and there are 93,000 more businesses.

T4. Anyone who attended the Unison briefing this morning will know how worried local authority workers are about the impact of austerity on the services that they provide. Can the Chancellor reassure them that they will see in his next Budget a level of money that means we do not see many more authorities facing the catastrophe that Northamptonshire has had and that we have all witnessed this year? (906807)

When the Conservatives came into government in 2010, the vast majority of money spent locally was raised centrally, damaging accountability. We have now switched that around, and more money—the vast majority of it—is being raised locally. Of course, we have recently given councils more power to raise council tax, to meet growing demand in areas such as social care and children’s services, and we will continue to look at that.

This summer, we saw the devastation of the collapse of an elevated roadway in Italy. In Chelmsford, the main route into the city is over the Army and Navy flyover, which is now 40 years old. I am not suggesting that it is on the brink of an Italian disaster, but it will need replacing. What funds might be available to assist?

My hon. Friend and I met earlier in the summer to discuss the flyover, and she raised concerns then. I appreciate that it has been closed, owing to safety concerns, over the summer. Funding is available through Essex County Council, and of course through her local enterprise partnership, which has received almost £600 million over the spending period.

T6. The Chancellor will be aware of Macmillan Cancer Support’s long campaign to introduce a duty of care on financial services providers to ensure that vulnerable customers get the support they need to stop financial problems escalating. The Financial Conduct Authority has now published a discussion paper on the introduction of a duty of care. Will the Chancellor commit to meeting Macmillan to discuss the consultation after it closes on 2 November? (906809)

One of the first things I did was to encourage the FCA to bring forward that paper, and I would be very happy to meet those involved in Macmillan care again to discuss their concerns following its publication in July.

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury saw at first hand when he visited East Renfrewshire a couple of weeks ago how small businesses are utilising FinTech to become more efficient and agile. What are the Government doing to help more small and medium-sized enterprises, such as First Floors in Giffnock, which he visited, to understand and take advantage of the opportunities FinTech presents?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It was a privilege to meet David Hepburn at First Floors and see the value of new products. The Government are committed to stimulating more investment in FinTech, and it was a privilege to visit FinTech Scotland, which is doing a lot, too. We have invested a considerable amount to increase the numbers of people who are taking this step to innovate in finance, and with open banking we will see more.

T8. In response to a recent written parliamentary question, the Secretary of State for International Development confirmed that she paid her Department’s cleaners the living wage—the London living wage. Sadly, when I asked the same question of the Treasury, the response was that Her Majesty’s Treasury “does not hold” the information. Will the Chancellor take this opportunity to clarify why he and other Front Benchers do not know how much the cleaners who clean their desks every day are paid, and will he promise to introduce the London living wage not just in the Treasury but for every single cleaner who works in Whitehall? (906811)

I imagine the reason is that the provision of these services is contracted out, but I will investigate and write to the hon. Lady.

The Chancellor can rightly take pride in his policies which result in South Leicestershire having one of the highest employment rates in Britain. On Friday, I am meeting local businesses in Lutterworth, where Councillor Neil Bannister, leader of Harborough District Council, will be hosting a “Meet your MP” session with local businesses. What other positive messages does the Chancellor have for local businesses in Lutterworth and South Leicestershire?

In areas of the country like the one my hon. Friend mentions, we have seen a resurgence of the entrepreneurial spirit since the financial crisis, with high levels of employment and good levels of wages. Now we need to see businesses being prepared to invest and innovate to grow productivity so that we can carry on seeing wages rising to create the sustainable high-wage economy that we all want to see.

Starving the NHS of finance has led to South Tyneside Hospital being forced into an unpopular merger with Sunderland Hospital. Not only is South Tyneside Hospital losing key services, but staff are at risk of being placed into a private, wholly owned subsidiary where their terms and conditions are under threat. Cuts forcing back-door privatisation are either a deliberate design of the Government’s plans for the NHS, or incompetent financial management. Which one is it?

I find it astonishing that no Opposition Member is prepared to congratulate the Government on the announcement of the £20 billion that we are putting into the NHS because of increasing demand.

The Chancellor has been an outspoken advocate of a fairer distribution of regional spending. Has he read the letter that we sent him in late July? Will he commit to the Transport for the North strategic investment priorities in his forthcoming Budget?

I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has my hon. Friend’s letter. Over this Parliament, we will spend more central Government funding per capita on transport in the north than in, for example, London or the south-east. We will consider carefully the business case for Northern Powerhouse Rail when we receive it from Transport for the North later in the year.

This is further to the points raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury). In the light of the National Audit Office’s recent comments that there are signs that police forces are struggling to deliver effective services and that the Government do not know whether the police system is financially sustainable, what real reassurance can the Chancellor give me that police forces will be given a real increase in funding, so that they can cope with growing demand?

Police force funding has been protected in real terms. The nature of crime is changing, and police forces are reforming to reflect that.

Corby and East Northamptonshire are seeing considerable housing growth, and it is essential that the infrastructure keeps pace, so will my right hon. Friend consider a new round of enterprise zone bidding opportunities to support more growth and jobs?

For the past hour, we have heard everyone on the Treasury Bench spouting about this wonderful situation that they are in, with money to burn. Why then has Tory-controlled Derbyshire County Council’s first decision been to close 20 libraries and cut the hours of every librarian in the county? What is the Chancellor doing to stop it?

I suggest that the hon. Gentleman either has a hearing test or relies on the Hansard of this session, because he has misheard what we have been saying today.

Region deals are an excellent example of Scotland’s two Governments working together to make it a better place in which to live and work. Will my right hon. Friend outline the progress she has made with the Scottish Government to ensure that constituencies such as Angus benefit as much as cities?

My hon. Friend is right: we have seen a number of beneficial city deals in Scotland, and we have devoted £1 billion to them. I am delighted that we are making progress on the Tay cities deal; I will be visiting the Tay cities very soon to have further discussions.

A recent Treasury Committee report on household finances found that arrears to local authorities are growing, and there is an overzealous pursuit of those arrears by bailiffs. The same goes for some central Government Departments. What will the Treasury do urgently to ensure that people are not penalised, and vulnerable households are not criminalised, by the Government?

We have made several interventions since we responded in 2014 with bailiff law reform. I have spoken to the Ministry of Justice, and we continue to look carefully at the matter. We have arrangements in place through the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs time to pay scheme, and the Cabinet Office has its fairness group as well.

Next year, we move into a post-Brexit economy with new global trading opportunities for UK economic growth. Will the Chancellor update the House on his commitment to investing further in the Royal Navy, which is a vital tool for maintaining safe seas and oceans, so that trade coming out of north-east and other ports can be sustained and can underwrite economic growth?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that the Royal Navy is vital to the defence of Britain’s interests around the world, and in peacetime it is the principal way in which we can project our power and military influence around the world. We are waiting for the conclusion of the modernising defence review that is being undertaken by the Defence Secretary with the Cabinet Office. Once we have received that, we will be able to work with the Ministry of Defence to find a way forward out of the very considerable budgetary challenges that that Ministry faces.

In March, the Government postponed the closure of the childcare voucher scheme to new entrants to 4 October, during the forthcoming parliamentary recess, reflecting concerns about its impact on low-income families in particular. With the closure now imminent, what work have the Government done to assess the impact on low-income families?

The issue with the current childcare vouchers scheme is that only people whose employers sign up to the scheme are eligible. Under tax-free childcare, everybody will be eligible, regardless of whether they are self-employed or working for an employer. We wanted a bit more time to transition from one scheme to the other. Tax-free childcare is now up and running, and we are ready to transition to that system.