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Topical Questions

Volume 653: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2019

My principal responsibility is to ensure economic stability and the continued prosperity of the British people. At this juncture, the best way to achieve that objective is to support a negotiated Brexit, ensuring a smooth and orderly departure from the EU.

Cheltenham’s Government-backed future cyber-park will deliver jobs and opportunities for local people. What role will the Government’s university enterprise zones play in ensuring that this project is backed to its full potential?

I welcome the work that is going on in Cheltenham to build on the magnetic effect of GCHQ and to attract innovative cyber-based firms to the area. In autumn Budget 2018, I announced £5 million to support proposals for university enterprise zones, which will encourage collaboration between universities and businesses, promote knowledge and skills exchange, and deliver a boost to local productivity. The funding will allow excellent institutions such as the University of Gloucestershire to develop locally led proposals to build on strengths like cyber-security, technology and engineering.

Let me bring the Chancellor back to Brexit. He knows full well the impact that no deal would have on people’s everyday lives. As we have heard, the British Retail Consortium warned yesterday that a no deal would lead to higher food prices, and even to empty shelves. The Government’s own economic analysis suggests a 10% hit to real wages. Knowing all this, would not a responsible Chancellor—a senior member of the Cabinet—stand up to the Prime Minister to insist that she rule out a no deal?

We are absolutely determined to avoid no deal, but the way to avoid no deal is to deliver a deal. As the Prime Minister has said from this Dispatch Box many times, the choice is stark: do the deal or face no deal or no Brexit. No Brexit would be a betrayal of the democratic decision of the British people, and no deal would be a betrayal of our economic future. The deal is the only way forward that protects our democracy and our economy.

It is a deal that lost in this House by a majority of 230. Just as business leaders were not reassured by the Chancellor’s phone call, I do not think the House will be reassured by his response today. The Bank of England has warned that we are potentially facing an economic crisis even more severe than the financial crisis of 2008. Past holders of his great office of state would have had the strength and authority around the Cabinet table to prevent the Prime Minister from behaving so recklessly. At a time when the country is facing a potential national economic crisis, has there ever been a Chancellor so weak?

If the right hon. Gentleman believes what he has just told the House, he should get off his backside and get the Leader of the Opposition off his backside, and they should get themselves over to Downing Street to sit down and engage with the Prime Minister so that we can solve this problem in the national interest.

T3. The Chancellor will know that the great county of Essex is underfunded, on per capita measures, for education, health and policing, so will he use the forthcoming comprehensive spending review to ensure that Essex is at the top of the list so we can make sure that our services are well funded? (908891)

Mr Speaker is right: the only way is Essex. My right hon. Friend the Member for Witham (Priti Patel) is a great champion of the fantastic county of Essex, and she will have noticed that the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government has already launched a fair funding consultation on local government spending. In the spending review, we will, of course, look at the different funding streams and make sure they are fair for all parts of the country.

T2. In the north, we face years of disruption on the trans-Pennine line, but there is no money for electrification. In London, the Government bail-out Crossrail to the tune of £1.4 billion, in addition to what they have already spent. When is the Chancellor going to act to tackle these inequalities in transport infrastructure spending, which are damaging the economies of the north of England? (908890)

The hon. Lady is incorrect. Over the course of this Parliament, infrastructure spending will be highest in the north of England—higher than in London, higher than in the south-east and significantly higher than under the last Labour Government.

T7. Will the Chancellor give a firm commitment that debts owed to major Departments such as Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and the Department for Work and Pensions will fall within the breathing space scheme? (908895)

A consultation was launched in October, and we intend it to be as wide as possible. The consultation closes today and the Government will respond shortly, but we are very sympathetic to where my right hon. Friend is coming from.

T4. What discussions has the Chancellor had with the Transport Secretary about the economic impact of a no deal on cities that have regional ports? (908892)

We have a cross-Whitehall committee that regularly discusses impacts of a no-deal exit and makes preparations for them. The issues that the hon. Lady is raising have been and will continue to be considered in that forum.

T8. What is the Minister’s estimate of new start-ups in the creative industries and of their contribution to the economy? (908896)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. The creative industries are vital to our country. This Government have provided an array of very important tax reliefs to that sector—they were valued at £850 million in 2017-18. We will continue to support the sector.

T5.   Constituents such as mine are facing large retrospective bills because of the loan charge. What plans does HMRC have to litigate against those who have disguised remuneration arrangements since 2016? (908893)

As the hon. Lady may know, the way the loan charge works is that those who have been involved in this form of tax avoidance have until April to settle their affairs, in which case no penalty will be applied at all. We have also said that those earning £50,000 or less will automatically qualify for a five-year minimum repayment term. My message, as always in these circumstances, is that those who are involved in these schemes should come forward, speak to HMRC and sensibly sort out their arrangements.

T10. Forecasting has had a bad rap recently from some people. Will the Chancellor therefore join me in welcoming a report from Commerce Bank that found that economic forecasting is more accurate now than it has been for most of the past 30 years? (908898)

I agree with my hon. Friend on this. Forecasting has had a bit of a bad rap in this House over the past couple of years, but this report was interesting, because it showed that economic forecasts in fact have a good track record of delivering, and we should pay attention to what the experts are telling us.

T6. It is Independent Venue Week. Such venues are the research and development to a £4.5 billion music industry, but a third of them have closed in the past decade. Why is the Chancellor, who has Runnymede Jazz Club in his constituency, giving a rates discount to pubs but not to music venues? Will he look at that again? (908894)

Jazz is alive and well in Runnymede. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will give me the precise address of the Runnymede Jazz Club later. The measures we announced in the Budget to support high street and retail more generally apply to all retail outlets with a rateable value of less than £51,000. If he has a specific point to make about music venues, I or one of my colleagues would be happy to meet him to talk about it.

I welcome the future high streets fund and the various business rate reliefs that the Chancellor has provided. What more can he do to support bricks and mortar retailers who have a far greater business tax liability than the online giants they are now competing against?

We have made more than £1.5 billion available to reduce the impact of business rates on smaller retailers. At the Budget, we provided a 30% discount for small retailers, which will have a huge impact in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We have the £675 million future high streets fund, and we are also bringing forward planning reforms to make it easier for small businesses and entrepreneurs to change the use of their shops and restaurants.

T9. Last week, in an absolute hammer blow to the east end of Glasgow, Santander announced that it was closing the Parkhead branch and abandoning the east end. So when I meet Santander bosses this afternoon, can I have the UK Government’s support in saying that they should keep our branches open, rather than waffle about post offices? Will the Minister give a clear, unequivocal message at that Dispatch Box to save our Santander? (908897)

What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that banks must make commercial decisions on the basis of what works for them. When I visited Scotland, I found they were also keen to work with post offices and the Government’s provision to make sure that services can be delivered through the Post Office.

Average wages in my constituency are below the national average, with many people earning the living wage. Tax rates really matter to them, so is that not precisely why we Conservatives voted for a tax cut for 32 million people, by contrast with the Opposition? Will we continue to be truly the party for working people?

We are truly the party for working people, as my hon. Friend states, unlike the Labour party. We are the party that raised the personal allowance to £12,500 one year ahead of our manifesto commitment to do so, taking well over 4 million of the lowest paid out of tax altogether. We are also the party of the national living wage, which will go up by 4.9% this April and be of great benefit to the very lowest paid in our country.

We knew that shifting the BBC licence fee concession to the BBC has always been folly, but we now know from the BBC’s consultation that the £745 million cost is likely to mean either a reduction in output, pensioners losing the concession, or both. Will the UK Government finally reverse this ridiculous decision and bring the concession back to the Government?

A consultation is under way that I believe ends on 13 February. Once it is complete, the Government will consider it.

What is the Treasury’s view of the idea of opportunity zones to help to revitalise some of the more disadvantaged parts of our country, particularly in that they differ from enterprise zones because they involve a capital gains cut rather than other types of tax relief?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his article proposing new ideas. He raises one example of some of the exciting prospects for the post-Brexit economy that will help to revive some of the industrial areas throughout Britain.

Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer have any plans to meet Tom Enders, the chief executive of Airbus, to discuss his view that no deal will be disastrous for the UK economy?

I am pleased to say that I recently had an opportunity to talk to Tom Enders and his successor Guillaume Faury, the incoming chief executive of Airbus, and to assure them of the Government’s commitment to make the UK a hospitable and attractive place for Airbus to continue to do business.

UK corporation tax was already the third lowest in the G20, yet this year the Government are spending more on an unnecessary corporation tax cut than it would cost to end the cruel benefits freeze. Politics is about choices. Can the Chancellor not see that when the poorest are suffering, a race to the bottom on corporation tax is the wrong priority?

If we want to have well-funded public services and a generous welfare support system in this country, we also have to ensure that we have a solid business base creating the jobs and the tax revenues for the future. It is about getting that balance right, and in my opinion right now is not the time to be sending a negative message to businesses about the attractiveness of investing in the UK.

When is the Chancellor going to make money available to address the shortage of police officers in the west midlands? We are 3,000 short. I regularly have representations from residents in Finham, Willenhall and St Michael’s about the high increase of crime in their areas. When is the Chancellor going to make funds available to replace these officers?

As the hon. Gentleman will recognise, the recent police grant funding statement provided extra funding, both from grant and from precept, into the police, meaning funding will be going up in real terms.

Sirius Minerals already employs more than 800 people in North Yorkshire and Teesside in the world’s largest polyhalite mine, but to bring 50 years of growth and job opportunities to our region, it needs a Treasury guarantee on its funding. Will the Chancellor make that guarantee available today and unleash a whole new era of jobs and opportunities in my area?

I am familiar with the project in question and a discussion is going on between the company and the Treasury. Those discussions are of course commercially sensitive and confidential, so I cannot discuss them, but the conversation is ongoing.

I feel sure that the House will want to hear the Strangford Zebedee. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) has been bouncing up and down on virtually every question; I do not want him to feel socially excluded.

They always wish to hear the Strangford perspective on life, but that is by the bye.

Will the Chancellor outline the possible negative effects that reducing the deficit could and would have on the defence budget in the next three years?

The Government have made a commitment to maintain the real-terms value of the defence budget at 2% of our GDP, increasing defence spending in real terms in every year. We have no intention of changing that commitment to UK defence.

As I have just pointed out, we have given extra grant funding to the police forces. We are also achieving better efficiencies in conjunction with the Home Office, and we have covered the cost of additional pensions as well.

Workers at Dyson, Jaguar Land Rover and Ford are among the casualties of the threat of no deal. Given the number of jobs at risk, is it not time for the Chancellor to get off his backside and ask the Prime Minister to rule out the threat of no deal and to stop holding Parliament and the country to ransom?

Parliament speaks for itself, and Parliament clearly has the opportunity to speak on this issue. I will continue to work with the Prime Minister to try to ensure that the deal that we place before the House of Commons is improved in a way that allows Members of Parliament to get behind it to ensure that we are not faced with the unacceptable choice of either no deal or no Brexit.

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali), will my right hon. Friend find time to have a meeting with my constituent, Sir James Dyson, to ask for confirmation that, rather than taking people to Singapore, he is taking only two senior executives to Singapore? He has invested £200 million in a research and development facility at Hullavington in my constituency and £43 million in a college in Malmesbury. He is employing 4,500 people, and that number is increasing rather than decreasing.

I or one of my colleagues will be very happy to meet Sir James Dyson should he request such a meeting. We regularly meet industrial leaders, and we will continue to do so.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister announced her support for the Brady amendment, which will profoundly change the deal. What right has the Chancellor got to ask us to vote for a deal that the Prime Minister herself wants to tear up?

In a very short while, after a very important statement that is about to be made by my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, the Prime Minister will set out her case to the House, and the hon. Gentleman and all his colleagues will be able to consider carefully what is now in the national interest.

Can the Chancellor explain to people across the UK what the point is in balancing the books if it is done on the backs of the poorest in our society and they are being starved into shoplifting? In Dundee recently, a woman was left with £90 a month on which to live. The sheriff said that it was a matter of considerable concern that someone was trying to live on £90 a month. What does he say to the judiciary and what does he say to our citizens who are being starved into poverty?

Earlier in this session, I said that, if we want to have well-funded public services and a well-funded welfare support system, we must ensure that we have a sound economy. Part of having a sound economy is to get our deficit under control and our debt falling so that we are less vulnerable to shocks in the future. Our current levels of debt mean that this country is vulnerable in the event of an economic downturn. Such downturns come along from time to time, and we need to be able to manage them in order, precisely, to protect the poorest in our society.

Does the Minister agree that the Government’s idea of turning high streets into residential streets or office spaces is not a solution to solving our high street crisis?

That is not what the Government propose or have proposed, but we must recognise that retail is changing and that the nature of our high streets has to change. The future high street will probably be smaller than the high streets of today. It makes sense to use the land that is released around our high streets to develop residential accommodation, addressing the housing challenges that we face, but also bringing footfall back into our high streets and town centre areas to give them vibrancy and a decent chance for the future.

What procurement and budget advice did the Chancellor’s Department provide the Department for Transport before it awarded a ferry contract to a ferry company with no ferries?

The Department for Transport has complied with all the Treasury’s Green Book procedures in letting the contract in question, and the decision to go ahead will have been taken with the consent of the Department for Transport’s accounting officer.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I may have erroneously misled the House when I said that the Minister said that the Government were creating 75 businesses a minute. It has been pointed out to me that he actually said 75 businesses a second.

It is not for the Speaker to be the arbiter of truth. Knowing the ambitions of the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), it is important that he knows what he is letting himself in for. He would have important responsibilities, but the adjudication upon the matter of truth would not be one of them.

In deference to the seniority of the hon. Gentleman, I will hear his point of order if he insists.

I just wanted to thank you for correcting the record, Mr Speaker. I would be glad if the record could be put straight. As you said, the figure was 75 businesses a second. [Interruption.]

I am getting advice that is the product of the scholarly cranium of the Clerk of the House, but I think I will leave the hon. Gentleman to find his own salvation. We will leave it there.