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Topical Questions

Volume 664: debated on Tuesday 1 October 2019

I have three clear priorities as Chancellor: to ensure a strong economy, to get Brexit done and to deliver on the British people’s priorities. That is why I am pleased to confirm that this Government will bring an end to low pay. We are setting two new targets for the national living wage over the next five years: raising it to two thirds of median earnings and extending it to workers aged 21 and above. That will give 4 million workers an average pay rise of £4,000. I will set out further details in the next Budget. This Government are proving again that they are on the side of working people. Thanks to the hard work of the British people, we are moving from a decade of recovery to a decade of renewal.

When the Chancellor was Home Secretary, he told me and other More United MPs that officials were looking into the potential economic benefits of lifting the ban on asylum seekers working, which the Lift the Ban coalition says would bring £42 million into the economy. Now that he is Chancellor of the Exchequer, will he lift that ban in order to allow asylum seekers such as those in my constituency to contribute to the economy and to have the dignity that they deserve?

The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I am glad that she has brought my attention to it again. As Chancellor, I want to ensure that across Government every Department is doing its bit for the economy. Some of the people she is talking about will be vulnerable people and the current rules are worth looking at again. It is something that the Home Office is taking very seriously.

T5. As my right hon. Friend knows, those affected by the devastating loan charge have welcomed the independent review, but feel that it would be better conducted by a tax judge. Does the Minister agree? Does he also agree that a suitable outcome of the review would be to apply the loan charge only from when it was introduced, in 2016, not retrospectively? (912477)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I have addressed the substance of it, but let me make a point about Sir Amyas Morse. I think that Sir Amyas is a superb choice. As my hon. Friend may be aware, in a debate in the House of Commons on 6 March 2019, the Chamber united across the parties in praise of Sir Amyas. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), called him

“a fearless advocate for what is good in the public sector and for challenging Governments of whatever party”.

The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran), said that he was not only “unfailingly courteous”, but had

“an intelligence of steel. He has a knack for calling out obfuscation, fudge and imprecision”,


“a reputation for being completely fair.”—[Official Report, 6 March 2019; Vol. 655, c. 1004-05.]

He is a very good choice to lead this review.

Will the Chancellor give the House a quick fact-check of his speech yesterday? The Conservatives have cut funding for buses by £640 million a year. Yesterday, he announced nothing new; he simply reannounced £220 million from the spending review. His Government have cut £900 million a year from annual youth services budgets. Yesterday, he offered £500 million, possibly as a one-off. The National Infrastructure Commission says that we need £33 billion to roll out full-fibre broadband. Yesterday, he offered £5 billion. All of those promises will count for nothing if there is a no-deal Brexit. Has he not just followed the Cummings code: grab a headline, possibly wrap it around a bus and ignore the truth? But there is one figure that I would like to ask him about: 120,000. What significance does the figure 120,000 have for him?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the last time his party was in office, we had the biggest budget deficit in our peacetime history and the biggest banking collapse this country has ever seen, and our country was virtually bankrupt. Now our economy is strong, with the lowest unemployment rate in 45 years, and it is because the economy is strong that yesterday I could make the announcement of investments in buses, roads, youth facilities and full fibre. If he wants to see that kind of investment continue at the next general election, he should vote Conservative.

I did not ask about the Chancellor’s record at Deutsche Bank; I never asked about the products he was selling that brought about the financial crash.

Let me tell the Chancellor what the figure 120,000 means. It is the number of deaths linked by the British Medical Journal to the Conservatives’ cuts since they came to power in 2010. No amount of spin will wash away the memory of nine years of this scale of human suffering. He claimed yesterday:

“We believe in a society where everyone knows that if they work hard, and play by the rules then they will have every opportunity to succeed.”

But isn’t it true that the Conservatives have broken the link between people working and being able to lift themselves out of poverty, when 70% of our children living in poverty are in households where someone is at work? And isn’t it the case that, despite the Chancellor’s pathetic attempt yesterday at playing catch-up to Labour party policy, under the Tories’ plans no one will reach the Tories’ target minimum wage until five years from now? And isn’t it the truth that, with this Chancellor and Prime Minister in charge, the Conservatives will always be the party of tax avoiders, bankers and the super-rich?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman a fact: the Labour party no longer represents working people and it is no longer the party of working people. That stopped a long, long time ago. He should reflect on his own policies of renationalisation; mass confiscation of private property, including the shares and homes of individual investors; protectionism; and state control. He calls business the real enemy, but the fact is that the Labour party is no longer fit to govern. It would wreck the economy and it would be hard-working people who would pay the price.

I have had heartbreaking meetings with constituents from Hastings regarding the loan charge, where I have heard tragic and sad stories about the destruction of families and their finances. Although I of course welcome the review that is to take place, may I urge the Chancellor to reconsider the position of not suspending the loan charge during the review period?

I do not know whether my right hon. Friend caught the discussion we had about this matter earlier, but the purpose of the review is to establish whether the Government are pursuing the right policy. It makes no sense at all to change the policy until we have heard from the review. I absolutely sympathise with the concerns that have been felt across the House, and both the Government and HMRC itself have taken steps to try to mitigate them.

T2. The former coalfields of England, Scotland and Wales have a combined population of 5.7 million. If they were treated as a single distinct region, that would be the poorest region in the United Kingdom. By any measure or definition, the coalfield communities are left-behind areas, so what fiscal policy steps is the Chancellor taking to address the specific structural and economic weaknesses of former coalfield areas such as mine in going forward with the shared prosperity fund? (912473)

I share the hon. Gentleman’s desire to ensure that all parts of our great country are benefiting from our strong economy. We have seen a jobs boom since 2010, after the deepest recession in our peacetime history under the previous Labour Government. Of the 3.7 million jobs that have been created, 65% are outside London and the south-east, which will be benefiting his communities and so many more.

One of the ingredients of economic growth—we have talked about boosting small businesses—is improving the productivity within the economy. What are the ministerial team doing to boost productivity?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question; he was obviously responsible for this when he was Exchequer Secretary. Last week I met Charlie Mayfield for a very good discussion about the Be the Business fund that the Government have set up to support business-led movement to improve small business productivity. This includes running pilots in Cornwall to support the hospitality sector and in the north-west to support family businesses. There are other schemes, such as Made Smarter, which is a good pilot, in addition to a £31 million package announced at conference 2018 to improve SME management through peer-to-peer networks.

T3. The Cogent Power steel plant in my constituency is threatened with closure by Tata Steel but is the only plant in the UK that, with investment, could be capable of supplying electrical steels for the UK electric vehicle industry. If this Government are serious about building this new industry in the UK, will Ministers work with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to ensure that the plant has a future? (912474)

I will make certain that the Business Secretary is aware of the hon. Lady’s concerns. The Treasury obviously takes an interest in this issue but she will know that the Department for Business is taking the lead on it. Obviously, and rightly, she is concerned about jobs in her constituency. She would welcome the fact, I hope, that because of the policies of this Government more generally since 2010, we have seen in her constituency a 50% fall in the headline unemployment rate.

As we leave the EU, we need to reinforce our international reputation as a powerhouse of scientific excellence. In 2017 we spent 1.7% of national income on research and development, while Germany spent 3% and Israel 4.3%. So will the Chancellor use his next Budget to make substantial progress towards our 2.4% target and recommit to the medium-term target of 3% of national income going into research and development?

First, may I thank my right hon. Friend for his excellent work as Business Secretary, including in this hugely important area of research and development? He set some ambitious targets. We intend to stick to those targets, if not go even further, which I am sure he would welcome. Obviously I will not set out the Budget now, but I absolutely share his ambition, and I think he will be pleased with what we eventually do.

T4. Last week, it was 75 jobs at Portastor and jobs have been lost at Nestlé. This morning I heard about the loss of 60 more skilled jobs across my constituency. Week after week, I am hearing of skilled job losses in the constituency. Instead of the Government talking about outplacement schemes, my constituents want their jobs. So how is the Chancellor investing in economies such as York’s? (912476)

We are investing in York and investing throughout the country by creating a dynamic, free enterprise economy that is creating jobs. We have the lowest unemployment rate in our country in 45 years. I would think that a party that calls itself Labour would actually welcome that. In the hon. Lady’s own constituency, since 2010—since the Labour Government were kicked out—we have seen a fall of 12,300, or 64%, in the unemployment numbers. That is something she should welcome.

I welcome the introduction of the new business banking resolution service that will start to hear cases of historical problems later this year. In the previous Chancellor’s letter of 19 January, he stated that that scheme should carefully consider all cases that come before it. How is that possible when the research of the all-party parliamentary group on fair business banking determined that 85% of cases are excluded?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a powerful advocate for this redress scheme and I thank him for the work that he has done. In our conversation on 10 September, I reiterated the Government’s position that the scheme should not reopen complaints that have sometimes gone multiple times through the courts, but I welcome the fact that the new scheme will give access to 99% of those claims going forward, and I will continue to engage with him where I can to provide solutions on individual cases.

T6. Westfield and Hammerson are due to build a new shopping centre in my constituency. Westfield has been bought by Unibail-Rodamco, which is a large French developer, and it has concerns about the state of retail and Brexit, obviously. The previous Chancellor had just agreed to meet the chief exec of Unibail-Rodamco. Will the current Chancellor honour that commitment and meet them? (912478)

I can see that this is an important issue, and I will ensure that a meeting takes place with the appropriate Minister.

The hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), the House will want to know, is a former money and property editor of The Independent and a very distinguished fellow, I am sure.

I am sure whatever cachet I had has now been completely ruined; thank you, Mr Speaker. There are reports that the Government are looking at bringing forward the date of the banning of diesel and petrol cars. Does the Chancellor share my concerns about the fiscal damage of lower new car sales, the lack of electric car infrastructure and the negligible impact that such a virtue-signalling move will have on emissions?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a tireless champion of the motor industry, which we all take very seriously. The Government have made a commitment to delivering net zero emissions by mid-century; that is hugely important and has cross-party support across the House. We will not be making any precipitate moves that would concern him without proper consultation fully across Government about the ramifications of any change in that date.

T7. In June, HMRC said that at least 20% of the 10,000 trucks reaching Dover on day one of a no-deal Brexit will not comply with French customs, leading to very long delays and causing shortages of fresh food and medicines. How many non-compliant trucks does HMRC currently project at Dover on day one? (912479)

I do not have the number to hand, but I would be glad to write to the right hon. Gentleman with it.

I welcome the Chancellor’s commitment yesterday of £5 billion to support gigabit broadband across the whole of the United Kingdom. He will be aware that, historically, the Scottish Government have been responsible for the roll-out of superfast broadband, which is way behind what they promised, and not a penny of the £600 million that they announced in 2017 has been spent. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that future broadband funding will be paid directly to local authorities, bypassing the Scottish Government, who have failed rural constituents such as mine more than most?

The investment that I announced yesterday is hugely important for the entire country, including Scotland. My hon. Friend is right to point to the abysmal record of the Scottish Government in delivering broadband for their people, so we should certainly look at whether there is a much better way to deliver it.

T8. The real wages of working people are lower than they were before the global financial crisis, and while many Tory shires are better off, areas and residents like those in my constituency have been left behind by this Government. Is it not about time that this Government stopped lining the pockets of corporations and Tory shires and invested in people in communities like mine? (912481)

This Government passionately believe in helping those at the bottom end of the pay scale, which is why the Chancellor announced yesterday an increase in the national living wage, to abolish low pay in this country once and for all. Our track record over the last few years in this area has been exemplary. The fastest growth in incomes has been for those at the bottom end of the pay scale. Today, someone earning the national living wage is £3,500 better off than they were when we came into office. This is a Conservative Government on the side of those who are working hard.

I very much welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement of pound-for-pound replacement through the shared prosperity fund of the EU funding that Cornwall receives. We are really ready in Cornwall to drive our economy forward. Will the Chancellor meet the local enterprise partnership and all Cornwall’s MPs, so that we can make rapid progress in designing that fund?

My hon. Friend is right that we need to ensure that the UK shared prosperity fund works for all the regions and nations of our country. I would be delighted to meet her, to ensure that we get all the suggestions from Cornwall as part of the process of designing that new fund.

Can the Minister answer the question asked earlier by the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd): what is the reason for not suspending the loan charge scheme until the inquiry is completed? It is a request not for a change of policy, but just to suspend the scheme.

The reason is that the inquiry is designed to test the policy, and the policy remains in place until the inquiry is over. If the policy were ended now or suspended, all that potentially would occur is more confusion if the inquiry took the view that, ultimately, the Government were in the right.

I thank Ministers for providing funding to help evidence and establish the business case for reopening Middlewich railway station—a key priority for my constituents. What wider fiscal steps are they taking to support my constituency by supporting the northern powerhouse and midlands engine?

I thank my hon. Friend for working tirelessly on behalf of her constituents to ensure that more infrastructure, including rail and road, is delivered locally. She will know that one of the first commitments of the new Administration was to Northern Powerhouse Rail and further funding for the midlands engine. She may also know that yesterday I announced a White Paper on further devolution, which I think she will welcome too.

The social security benefits freeze has led many children and families into poverty and destitution. The Chancellor failed to answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bootle (Peter Dowd), so I ask him again: yes or no, will he lift the social security freeze next year?

Announcements on welfare will of course be for the Budget, but it is important to note that this Government have done the most important job in lifting people out of poverty, which is getting them into work. Today, a million fewer people are living in workless households as a result of the actions taken by this Government.

So many shining stars in the parliamentary galaxy and so little time. Which star shall shine? Justine Greening.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Government seem to be making pre-election spending pledges with all the velocity of a high-power water jet. I wonder whether the Chancellor will point it in the direction of Hammersmith bridge. It has been closed for several months, but even its repair plan would not enable it to take double-decker buses. Will he look at whether his bus pledge can extend to the capital required to enable it to be successful?

I know that this is a very important issue for my right hon. Friend and her constituents. I share some of her concerns, which is why it has troubled me that the Mayor of London is not taking this issue seriously. Why is that? He has the funding available if he chooses to deploy it. He can make a difference immediately, but he refuses to do so.