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Topical Questions

Volume 669: debated on Tuesday 7 January 2020

The year 2020 marks the end of a decade of economic recovery—10 years of uninterrupted growth, which is only the third time this has been achieved since 1700. At the election, I warned of a double whammy of uncertainty that risked the economy: continued Brexit delay and an agenda from the Labour party that would bankrupt our economy. We have removed those uncertainties and the markets have welcomed that. Now, since the election, I have appointed an excellent new Governor of the Bank of England, I have confirmed the national living wage will rise by 6.2% in April and I can confirm that I will bring the Budget to this House on 11 March. This Government will lay the foundations for a decade of economic renewal for every corner of our great country.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s having further reduced business rates for small and medium-sized enterprises in rural areas. However, for businesses that do not fall within the rate relief levels, such as South Brent village shop in my constituency, will he work with me to see those rates reduced and review all business rates?

I welcome my hon. Friend to his place. He is absolutely right about the importance of business rates, which are a real burden, particularly on smaller community and village shops. That is why we have made our exemption for the smallest businesses—some 675,000 businesses—permanent, and we have a rural and retail discount scheme. He will also know that in our manifesto we committed to a fundamental review of our business rates schemes. I look forward to working with him and hearing his ideas.

Mr Speaker, may I associate myself with your words about the tragedy taking place in Australia?

Let me say to the Chancellor that I welcomed his statement yesterday that we are to have a Budget at last, as well as that the Green Book is to be rewritten—only two years after Labour proposed it; and that there is a new fiscal rule to accommodate new investment—only four years after Labour proposed it. But there was another statement, which he made reference to, which was the statement before Christmas about appointing Mr Andrew Bailey to be the Governor of the Bank of England. During Mr Bailey’s tenure as chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority, we saw the scandals of London Capital & Finance and the Woodford Equity Fund, and the continuing saga of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Global Restructuring Group. In all those scandals, many people—many on low incomes—were hit extremely hard. May I ask the Chancellor: did he consult any of the victims of these scandals before he appointed Mr Bailey?

First, I welcome the shadow Chancellor to his seat. He fought a hard campaign and I commend him for his efforts. As he noted, just before the Christmas recess, I announced the new Governor of the Bank of England—I have just referred to that. Mr Bailey was an outstanding candidate—the stand-out candidate to be the next Governor of the Bank of England. That is one of the most important public sector jobs that our country has to offer, and it is hugely important that it goes to a rightly qualified person. Any reasonable person who looks at Mr Bailey’s track record of outstanding public service will see that he is eminently qualified.

You will note, Mr Speaker, that I asked whether the Chancellor had consulted any of the victims of these scandals, and no response was received. Clearly, he did not. I referred to the Woodford Group, and in the filings lodged today at Companies House, it is reported that £13.8 million of dividends were received by Mr Ian Woodford, and his chief executive, in the 12 months leading up to the crisis that engulfed Woodford Investment Management and affected so many investors deleteriously. That adds to concerns already expressed by others that Mr Bailey was asleep at the wheel during his period of office at the FCA. Labour has already called for a short, sharp inquiry into the recent scandals and into the regulation of the financial services sector. May I suggest to the Chancellor that it would be appropriate to postpone Mr Bailey’s installation in office until an independent inquiry into those failures of financial regulation had taken place?

I believe the right hon. Gentleman means Mr Neil Woodford, not Mr Ian Woodford. The ongoing inquiry is, rightly, being led independently. It is not a matter for Ministers, and neither should it be. We are, of course, interested to ensure that an inquiry takes place and that we learn all necessary lessons. I believe the Economic Secretary to the Treasury again has a meeting with the FCA on this issue tomorrow, but we will let the inquiry take its course independently. Once it is complete, we will ensure that all necessary lessons are learned.

T2. The midlands engine for growth shows the Government’s commitment to the midlands, which is welcomed by me and by Derbyshire colleagues. What plans does the Chancellor have to push the engine forward and deliver investments and jobs for Derby North? (900061)

May I warmly welcome my hon. Friend back to her rightful place? Last month, I visited with her some excellent businesses in her constituency, and I want to see more such businesses, not just in Derbyshire and the midlands, but throughout the country. There is so much more we can do with the midlands engine, and in this coming Parliament we are going to really fire it up and spread opportunities. I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and colleagues in doing just that.

T5. Let me wish you, Mr Speaker, and every Member a happy new year. The London Stock Exchange already has more bonds from African countries listed for trading than any other international stock exchange. What steps will the Chancellor take to support his colleagues in the Department for International Development to generate private sector investment in financial markets across Africa, so that services, businesses and start-ups can grow and create 50,000 jobs? (900064)

The Government are always willing to work with the City and interested parties to consider how we can advance investment across all those sectors, and I would be happy to discuss such matters with the hon. Gentleman.

T3. When my right hon. Friend the Chancellor joined me in King’s Lynn during the election campaign, he heard from Merxin, an innovative medical company, about how our infrastructure revolution could benefit west Norfolk. Will he work with me, ahead of the Budget, to ensure that dualling the A47, and half-hourly rail services, are part of that investment programme? (900062)

I will work with my hon. Friend, and I welcome him to his place. I was incredibly impressed by Merxin, the company we visited together. It was a reminder of the difference the right infrastructure in west Norfolk can make and how it can attract even more local business success. I will work with him. We will have an infrastructure revolution. It will benefit Norfolk and it will transform the local economy.

T7. Durham County Council has developed a housing regeneration masterplan to tackle issues relating to absentee landlords, poor quality and low housing demand, but the scale of the investment requires a commitment from central Government. Will the Chancellor meet me and representatives of Durham County Council to discuss how the housing masterplan can be financed to deliver much needed regeneration in Horden? (900066)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. Work has been done on absentee landlords, but there is always room for new ideas. I will make sure that the relevant Minister meets him.

T4. Now that Lord Berkeley has laid bare the overspend and lack of return on investment of HS2, will the Chancellor pull the plug on this white elephant project and ensure that the money is spent on infrastructure projects across the north to benefit the regional economy, starting with northern powerhouse rail, with a station stop in Bradford, and the much needed and long-awaited Shipley eastern bypass? (900063)

I thank my hon. Friend for his characteristically robust Yorkshire question. As a fellow northern MP, I am obviously very keen to get cracking with higher transport infrastructure investment in the north, which the Government are absolutely committed to do. On HS2 specifically, as he knows, the Government have commissioned the Oakervee review to evaluate the scheme. It will report in due course and we will lay its findings before the House.

Can I first congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your first and second election as Speaker? You are looking very well on it.

May I ask the Chancellor about the problem facing many people who are worried about whether they have cancer? The best way to save the lives of people with cancer is early detection and ensuring that tests come back very quickly. Unfortunately, nine out of 10 pathology labs in England, Wales and Scotland are short of pathologists, which means that people are waiting six and seven weeks. Is it not now time we had a major financial incentive to persuade more people to become histopathologists and pathologists in the NHS?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this issue, which is such an important issue for all our constituents. It is important that we ensure that at all times the NHS has enough funding to meet all demand, but especially for something as acute and as important as treating cancer. He is right about the need for more skills. Much more is work being done by the Secretary of State and we are looking to see what more can be done. If more funding is required, we will provide it.

T6. South Ribble is blessed with many creative and hard-working smaller businesses whose products can and do grace the world. Will my hon. Friend confirm how small business exports are growing our national economy and set out what the Government are doing to support them? (900065)

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. I know she has great experience as an SME leader. The Government recognise that SMEs are the backbone of the economy. We have international trade adviser networks giving peer-to-peer support to encourage more exports. The Government’s export strategy, launched in August 2018, lays the foundations of how to extend that. I hope she will be able to make use of it during her time in the House.

The “back of a cigarette packet” policy to increase road duty by more than 700% for motor homes and camper vans is reminiscent of the caravan tax of 2013, which I think was invented by the Chancellor’s predecessor George Osborne. That would have decimated manufacturing industry in Hull. Will the Chancellor meet me, colleagues and those in the industry, who are very concerned about this policy, so that they can explain directly to him how disastrous this policy will be for manufacturing industry in Hull?

I thank the hon. Member for his question. I met the National Caravan Council in October to discuss precisely these issues. We are clear that we need to incentivise the production of lower emission vehicles, but none the less we are sensitive to the concerns of the industry. I will happily meet him for further talks on this issue.