Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 658: debated on Tuesday 9 April 2019

My principal responsibility is to ensure economic stability and the continued prosperity of this country. I will do that through: supporting our vital public services, such as the NHS; investing in Britain’s future; keeping taxes low; and continuing to reduce the nation’s debt. Securing an orderly departure from the EU will allow our mutual trade to flourish and encourage businesses to invest more in Britain’s productive capacity.

Shoplifting crime is increasing, antisocial behaviour crime is increasing, violent crime is increasing. The Prime Minister said that austerity is over, so when can we expect to see the Treasury give the Home Office the funding needed to replace the 20,000 police officers lost since 2010?

In the Budget settlement at the end of the last year we made sure that there was extra money going into the police, increasing funding and increasing spending power in real terms. We have also allocated extra funding to deal with the scourge of knife crime.

The Government claim that spending on education is higher than it has ever been. Does that take into account the extra costs the Government have put on schools?

We have provided schools with additional funding to cope with the rise in pension contributions. We will be looking at school funding as part of the spending review and I will take my right hon. Friend’s representations into account.

With the Brexit dialogue ongoing it is best to leave exchanges on that topic to the negotiations, although I hope we can all count on the Chancellor, if not everyone on his own side, to continue to insist that no deal is not an option.

Turning to Google, when will the Chancellor tackle the scandal of Google’s tax avoidance? Google has an estimated taxable profit of £8.3 billion in the UK, so it should have a tax bill, according to the Tax Justice Network, of £1.5 billion. That would pay for 60,000 nurses, 50,000 teachers, seven new hospitals, 75 new schools. It pays £67 million. Why is the Chancellor, year on year, letting Google the tax avoider off the hook?

As the right hon. Gentleman probably knows very well, the issue is a good deal more complex than he suggested in his question. We have announced the introduction of a digital services tax to begin to address the challenge of shaping our tax system to respond to the digital age, but the problem is that we have a set of international tax rules that we are obliged to follow, which were invented in the age when international trade was all about goods. Nowadays it is mostly about services, and much of it is about digital services. The international tax system is simply not fit for purpose and the UK is leading the charge in international forums—including the G20, which will be meeting later this week in Washington—in looking for a new way to allocate profits appropriately between jurisdictions where digital platform businesses are involved.

After nine years in government, that smacks of an excuse, and let me say to the Chancellor that the Government’s digital services tax has been roundly criticised as being too narrow and having artificial carve-outs. Let me move on from one scandal to another: the scandal of London Capital & Finance. LCF collapsed in January, leaving 11,000 investors in the lurch. They had £286 million invested in the company and most of them were not wealthy people. The Financial Conduct Authority was repeatedly warned of LCF’s dubious structure and operations and failed to respond to those warnings. A decade on from the financial crash and our regulatory system is still not fit for purpose. What action is the Chancellor taking to secure justice for the LCF investors and to reform our regulatory system?

We take very seriously the failure of London Capital & Finance. Last week, my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary directed the FCA to launch an investigation into the company. We will carry that investigation out and look carefully at the findings.

In Question 2 the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) told us how warehousing across the country was full to bursting point as businesses prepared for a no-deal Brexit. In a leaked letter last week, the Cabinet Secretary implied that business was not ready for a no-deal Brexit. Which is correct?

We know that manufacturing companies have been building precautionary buffer stocks of imported components to give them resilience against any disruption at our ports in the event of a no-deal Brexit—this tends to be larger companies. However, it is also the case, as my hon. Friend knows very well from his work as a Minister, that despite the Government’s attempts to engage with business, there are still far too many businesses who have adopted the famous approach of the ostrich in the sand in relation to this eventuality and are not taking precautionary actions to prepare for the possibility of a no-deal exit.

T2. In keeping with the non-angry Yorkshire approach, as set out by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), if, indeed, this Chancellor is thoughtful, he will know that, according to research by the Centre For Towns, Yorkshire’s growing digital sector is being stifled by patchy broadband connectivity across the region, which is costing us money and jobs. Roles continue to flow down south and into London. With the roll-out of the next generation of 5G internet technology, will the Chancellor, in his thoughtfulness, commit to making funding available for the accelerated adoption of this in the Yorkshire region? (910321)

Rolling out full fibre is essential to Britain’s digital future. That will be done largely by the private sector. The public sector’s role will be to provide the appropriate support in areas where full fibre roll-out is not commercially viable, but supporting the urban centres in all our conurbations, including in Yorkshire, will be an early priority for the broadband roll-out programme. I should say to the hon. Gentleman—I hope this will cheer him up—that I recently met an Italian digital entrepreneur who has relocated his business from silicon valley to Sheffield and he said it was the best decision that he ever made.

Contrary to some reports, I have never advocated a second referendum. I simply observed that it is a coherent proposition along with many others that have been discussed in this House.

T3. My borough of Enfield has seven times more households living in temporary accommodation than the national average, with 18% of people in Enfield classed as being low paid. I have no doubt that the two figures are related so how can the Chancellor defend the Government’s record on in-work poverty, insecure work and zero-hours contracts, which have caused so much hardship for so many? (910322)

I think the hon. Gentleman should speak to his friend the Mayor of London about what he is doing to increase house building in London.

What plans are the Government making for a UK investment bank to take over the role of the European Investment Bank in the UK economy?

In the spring statement, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor launched a review of our infrastructure financing, which includes that question on whether the UK would benefit from institutional arrangements. We have also made significant funds available to ensure that there is no shortfall for businesses that rely on the EIB.

T4.   Last month’s Office for National Statistics figures show that life expectancy for the poorest has fallen whereas for the rich, it has increased. Analysis into the key drivers of that, including Public Health England’s investigations, shows that it is the result of cumulative tax and social security changes. I therefore ask the Chancellor, once again, what will he do about that, and particularly, will he stop immediately the benefit freeze that has such a devastating effect on people’s lives? (910323)

As I have said, we are moving on from the benefits freeze. We are in a position now where real wages are growing and benefits will increase in line with inflation from 2020. However, the best route out of poverty and to helping people is ensuring that children get a good education and that more jobs are available in our economy.

Does the Chancellor agree that, in view of the failure of London Capital & Finance, of Premier FX, of individual police forces around the country to investigate economic crime, and of the Serious Fraud Office in yet another case, it is time we had a single economic crime police force in this country to deal with things properly?

We have a single economic crime board, which was set up in January and chaired by the Chancellor and the Home Secretary, to look at how better collaboration can tackle those challenges more effectively.

T5. We all know that savings had to be made, but funding for schools, road repairs, social services, nurseries and youth clubs in Dudley has almost been halved because Dudley Council has been hit harder than councils elsewhere in the country. Will Ministers meet me and people from Dudley to discuss our case for fairer funding? (910324)

I was very pleased to visit the hon. Gentleman at Dudley College and see the fantastic work that it does. He put forward some interesting ideas about local transport. We are conducting a zero-based capital review as part of the spending review and of course we will look at proposals on all those fronts.

Does the Chancellor agree that the announcement that small shops will save up to £8,000 in business rates is a fantastic boost for our high streets? Will he please commit to supporting the bid from Redditch for the future high streets fund?

Of course, the rates relief that we have offered over a two-year period to smaller independent retailers will help the high street, but retailers have to use that breathing space to adapt to the changing environment that they face. We cannot freeze the high street in aspic and we must face the reality of the digitisation of our economy. So let us work together to transform our high streets so that they are sustainable for the future.

T6. The Chief Secretary said in response to the right hon. Member for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin), who is no longer in his place, that schools would be funded for the additional costs of the teacher pension scheme, yet the Minister for School Standards wrote to me yesterday saying that he was still in the process of reviewing evidence. Schools have not been informed. They have not been given those costs within their budgets and they are having to decide whether to make redundancies because they do not have the information. Please will the Chief Secretary provide clarification? (910325)

As I have said, we have committed ourselves to ensuring that schools will be funded for that purpose.

Will the Chancellor explain why the customs union is the wrong policy choice for the future strength of the UK economy?

The Prime Minister negotiated a deal with the European Union which gave us many of the benefits of being in a customs union, while preserving our ability to conduct an independent trade policy. We put that deal to the House effectively three times and it was defeated three times, so we have to pursue other options.

T7. Cuts in alcohol duty have cost the Treasury £4 billion over the last five years. What assessment has the Chancellor made of the impact of those cuts on public health and alcohol-related deaths? (910326)

I observe that the minimum alcohol price in Scotland has resulted in an increase in the consumption of alcohol.

The Chief Secretary has said yet again that the Government think building owners should pick up the cost of aluminium composite material cladding remediation. Does she understand that there is no legal means of enforcing that obligation? In the absence of such a means, will she please revisit the issue of direct funding for the leaseholders as a matter of urgency?

I note that a growing list of companies, such as Barratt Developments, Mace Group Ltd and Legal & General, are doing the right thing and taking responsibility for paying for remediation. The Government urge all other owners and developers to follow the leads of those companies.

T8.   Housing associations in Parkhead, Tollcross and Shettleston have high levels of tenement stock, and the cost of maintaining it is prohibitive. Will the Chancellor agree to meet me to discuss the case for a modest reduction in VAT to preserve tenement housing, which is a key part of our architectural heritage in Glasgow? (910327)

That is not an issue with which I am familiar, but I should be happy to hear more about it from the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he would like to write to me in the first instance, setting out the details of his argument.

In Chelmsford we love our high street. Does my right hon. Friend agree that giving nine out of 10 of our shops a business rates reduction of up to £8,000 a year will help to create a more level playing field between online and bricks-and-mortar shops?

Yes. As I said earlier, it is essential for the high street to evolve to respond to the digital age, but there is no doubt that smaller shops need a breathing space in which to do so, and reducing their business rates this year and next will help them in that regard.

T9. May I appeal to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to show some humanity to loan charge victims? They have been coming to me in tears, and we know that, nationally, some have committed suicide. Children are suffering because of tax arrangements made years ago. Will the Government please pause these punitive retrospective charges, and go after the providers with the same vigour with which they are going after the little people? (910328)

It is indeed incumbent on HMRC to take its duty of care towards customers—particularly vulnerable customers —very seriously, and I am confident that it does just that. There is a dedicated helpline for those who have been affected by the loan charge, and a vulnerable customers team provides one-to-one support. We recently announced that we would extend the needs enhanced support service to those who are subject to open investigations of their tax returns.

The hon. Lady mentioned promoters. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has already mentioned that more than 100 investigations of companies that promote tax avoidance are currently taking place. Other litigations in respect of offences relating to the disclosure of tax avoidance schemes have resulted in wins for HMRC. In the Hyrax case, which was concluded recently, it was found that the promoter was not behaving appropriately, and about £40 million worth of tax is likely to be recouped as a consequence.

Will we continue to invest in the northern powerhouse, and, in particular, will we fully fund the Transport for the North plan for a TransPennine rail upgrade?

As I said in my recent spring statement, the Government remain committed to the northern powerhouse and to Northern Powerhouse Rail, and I am working on the TransPennine rail upgrade with my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary.

T10.     I welcome what the Chancellor said to my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) a few minutes ago about investigations into the promoters of some of the disguised remuneration schemes, but that will not do many of the victims much good. A business in Chesterfield is facing bankruptcy because of the charge. How might his review actually help the people who have wrongly taken advantage of this advice? (910329)

It is largely companies that fall due to the loan charge, rather than individuals—of the 6,000 cases currently being settled, 85% by value relate to companies. HMRC has always been clear that appropriate payment arrangements will be in place to ensure that those outstanding amounts of tax, which after all have been avoided, aggressively and in a contrived way, can be settled sensibly.

What priority will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury give to reducing the tax burden in the coming spending review?

I hope to follow in the footsteps of former Chief Secretaries who have been keen to keep a tight rein on public spending and ensure that people can keep more of their own money, because ultimately every penny of public spending is money that people have earned and that they could be spending on other things.

Some 55% of Scots pay lower income tax than they would pay if they lived in England. Does the Chancellor not agree that he should take inspiration from the SNP’s progressive Finance Minister by protecting public services and the poorest, rather than the better-off?

The reality is that the SNP Government are putting people off relocating to Scotland and earning higher incomes in Scotland, because those earning £50,000 have to pay an additional £1,500 in tax every year.

What is the Chancellor going to do to help the WASPI women—Women Against State Pension Inequality Campaign—who have been denied their pensions? It has been going on for far too long and it is about time he did something about it.

We have had to take difficult decisions because of the state of the public finances that we were left with. We have already made improvements in relation to those women being able to retire, but it is right that we do not burden future generations as a result of our existing commitments.