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Topical Questions

Volume 671: debated on Tuesday 11 February 2020

We have ended the uncertainty over our departure from the European Union, and we stand at the beginning of a new chapter. I know that the future is bright as we level up our country and unleash Britain’s potential. We have confirmed that 31 million people will receive a tax cut in April, and in the Budget on 11 March I will continue to lay the foundations for a decade of renewal. We will also set out our plans for an infrastructure revolution and for better investment in our most important asset of all, our human capital.

Will my right hon. Friend reaffirm that when we talk about levelling up, we are indeed talking about levelling up the whole United Kingdom—all regions and all nations? May I encourage him to show real determination to ensure that the devolved nations also see and feel the benefit of his ambitious infrastructure proposals?

I can absolutely confirm that to my right hon. Friend. We are blessed with talent throughout our country. Wherever we look, we have talent. Our country is oozing with talent, and that, of course, includes Wales: we have just seen a demonstration of that talent. We need to ensure that there is much more opportunity, which means investment in infrastructure and skills and retaining a dynamic, competitive economy.

In the last month we have seen the Financial Times predicting that the Chancellor will miss his balanced budget target, and today we have seen zero growth in the economy. At the same time, Mr Dominic Cummings has demanded cuts in taxes and massive spending commitments, so the Chancellor has resorted to floating a possible raid on middle-income pensions, a mansion tax—once described as Marxist—and a 5% cuts round to find some money to pay for Mr Cummings’s demands. Yet in the real world out there, the victims of Wonga, the payday loan company, were told a fortnight ago that they would receive less than 5% of the compensation that they are owed. Will the Chancellor take a break from his arm-wrestling with Mr Cummings, and introduce measures to compensate the Wonga victims fully?

I think that I have to correct myself. I said that there was talent throughout the country, but, judging by what we have just heard, I do not think that that includes the Labour party.

There is all sorts of speculation about the Budget, and I am not going to respond to that. However, the right hon. Gentleman will know that when the Budget is published, it will be published alongside a report by the independent Office for Budget Responsibility. Those are the figures that are going to matter, not the ones that are speculated about in the press. As for growth, the right hon. Gentleman will also know that although there has been a fall in global growth, the International Monetary Fund forecasts that Britain will grow faster this year than France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

I asked about Wonga. [Hon. Members: “You did.”] On the basis of that answer, I can see why No. 10 nicknamed the right hon. Gentleman CHINO: Chancellor in name only.

Wonga is just one example of the recent scandals in the financial sector. We have seen the scandals of closet tracking last year, London Capital & Finance, Woodford Investment Management, the tax avoidance by Lycamobile —a Tory party donor—NMC Health’s misreporting today, large-scale money-laundering, and audit failure after audit failure. Regulation of the finance sector—I say it again—is clearly failing, and now there is the risk to jobs resulting from the tardiness of a post-Brexit settlement. Let me put this to the Chancellor: can he assure me that the White Paper that he has promised today will address the failure of regulation and the culture of recklessness and abuse that has developed in some sections of the City, in addition to the risks from Brexit, so that we can plan a long-term stable future for our finance sector?

I remember that not long ago the shadow Chancellor stood here and said that he wanted to be known as the “people’s Chancellor”. I think the people had a very different idea, however. On his question about high-cost credit, when I was last in the Treasury as Economic Secretary, that was the first time that any Government had introduced proper regulation around high-cost credit. This is something that we keep under review, which is why, as we present our White Paper, we will be looking to see what more we can do.

T2. Many in financial services will warmly welcome the Chancellor’s remarks in the papers yesterday about equivalence arrangements, but does he agree that the real value to those arrangements is in the length of the revocation period? Will he therefore press for revocation notices of a minimum of a year and preferably three years? (900749)

Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. Equivalence arrangements, done properly, would require a period of stability to be agreed, and that is exactly what we are working on with our European friends.

T3. Funding for coal mining ended in 2012, but it carries on for oil and gas, as we saw at the recent Africa summit and in the lobbying for the Petrofac oil refinery in Bahrain. When is the Chancellor going to end funding for fossil fuel projects and take the action that is needed to tackle the climate crisis? (900750)

The UK takes our climate commitments exceptionally seriously, and we have pledged to end the use of unabated coal here in the UK by 2025. Clearly we want to ensure that that applies to our work overseas as well, and that is something that the Government as a whole take very seriously. It is the subject of ongoing ministerial discussions and we are determined to ensure that we support the right initiatives across the world.

T4. Over the past few weeks, I have met a number of businesses in the Meon Valley whose growth is being held back by poor internet connectivity. What funding exists to help businesses in rural areas to boost their productivity and growth by improving their broadband? (900752)

My hon. Friend is right to raise this matter. The Government have already put in place the gigabit broadband voucher scheme and the rural gigabit connectivity scheme, which is available to small and medium-sized enterprises and gives support of up to £3,500 per company. She will also be pleased to know that the Government have committed £5 billion to invest in new infrastructure to ensure that every part of our country has the best possible broadband.

T8. Will the Chancellor ensure, in the Budget in March, that the automotive manufacturing sector gets the support it requires? He will know that there was a decline of 14% in our manufacturing production last year, which represents a big hit to the Treasury. Will he put in place the support to ensure a transition from fossil fuels, so that we can still produce vehicles such as diesel-powered units in good numbers while supporting the switch to electric vehicles? (900756)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Tomorrow I am attending a roundtable at 11 Downing Street with representatives of the advanced manufacturing industry, and we are determined to take their views into account as we make this transition. We are supporting the industry through initiatives such as the Advanced Propulsion Centre and the Faraday battery challenge, and we are determined to ensure that the sector evolves in a way that boosts our growth prospects as we decarbonise.

T5. Last year my town of Southport benefited from a £25 million town deal. What more is my right hon. Friend doing to help other towns up and down the country to level up? (900753)

As the Chancellor said, the Government are committed to levelling up across the country, and part of that involves our town deals to help to revitalise our high streets. Also, as the Prime Minister will say later, we have unveiled a £5 billion package to improve local connectivity, including bus and cycle lanes, to improve the quality of life and economic opportunity in local towns.

T9. In September last year, standing at the Dispatch Box the Chancellor declared that austerity was at an end, but just last month he demanded that each Department cut 5% of its budget—hardly a glowing endorsement of the end of austerity. Will the Chancellor now admit that the Government never had any intention of ending austerity or easing the pain felt by millions around the country? (900757)

With respect, I think the hon. Gentleman is confusing cutting spending and tackling waste, and we know that the previous Labour Government was good at neither of those, with overspending and loads of waste. It is right that as a Government we look carefully at every single pound that is spent and make sure it is done so appropriately.

T6. Creditor enforcement action can greatly exacerbate the problems that people going through mental health crises can experience. May I commend the Chancellor and the Economic Secretary for the breathing space initiative, which will help to ease the pressure on those people and so many more? (900754)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments, and I am very pleased that the breathing space scheme is moving forward. We published the impact assessment last week, and 700,000 people will benefit from the scheme next year when it comes into force. That number will rise to 1 million in the following year.[Official Report, 24 February 2020, Vol. 672, c. 2MC.]

Depending on which briefing to today’s newspapers was accurate, the infrastructure announcement will fund a grand total of either 250 or 1,000 miles of new designated cycleway. That is to be compared with the 1,800 being provided by the Labour Mayor in Manchester alone. How can a small city such as Exeter hope to get any of the help, resources or the powers it needs to deliver on the cycling infrastructure as it desperately wants to do?

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the announcement today was of £5 billion of fresh funding for local transport—buses and cycling. When it comes to cycling—something we all want made easier to access for all our constituents—there will be 250 miles of new dedicated cycle track.

T7. I know that the Government are committed to renewing and improving our national infrastructure. However, those improvements have to represent value for money. I therefore urge the Chancellor to question both the cost and effectiveness of the current proposals for a new lower Thames crossing and suggest that he re-examines both the business case and the alternative options. (900755)

I understand my hon. Friend’s concerns and he is right to raise this. He will be pleased that Highways England is conducting a supplementary consultation on the lower Thames crossing to make sure that any benefits are maximised. The consultation will close on 25 March, and I will then look at it carefully. I would encourage him to have his say.

As a former teacher, I know that a good education is a key driver to economic opportunities for young people, but sixth forms have been heavily damaged by years of under-investment. Will the Chancellor commit to implementing the recent recommendation from the Education Committee and Ofsted to raise the rate of funding per pupil to at least £4,760 in next month’s Budget?

Post-16 education and skills are a priority for the Chancellor and the Government. I am pleased to say that the recent spending round delivers a £400 million increase in funding for post-16 education, which makes it the fastest rise in a decade and means that the per pupil base rate that the hon. Lady mentions will go up faster than the schools total.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor will know that I have written to him about the legal duty that the OBR has to produce two economic forecasts in each financial year, which of course has been complicated by the cancellation of the last Budget. Can I ask him to set out for the House the approach that he intends to take and how he will avoid the necessity of having two forecasts very close together saying essentially the same thing?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on being elected as the Chair of the Treasury Committee. I look forward to working with him and to the scrutiny that he will provide, as he is doing right now. The issue about the forecasts the OBR needs to provide is a live one, and we will make sure that the OBR meets its statutory requirements. I am pleased that the head of the OBR, Robert Chote, has discussed it with my right hon. Friend, and I would be happy to discuss it with him too.

The Chancellor will know of the association between productivity, economic opportunity and regional productivity. Noting that Flybe is in the news again today, and knowing how important it is to Belfast City airport in my constituency and regional hubs throughout this United Kingdom, will he remember those three principles as he charts a course to find a permanent solution for that aviation company?

Of course I will keep that in mind. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are absolutely committed to spreading opportunity throughout the country—throughout each of the nations that make up the United Kingdom—and we want to look at all the ways we can improve connectivity.

The Goodwin International training school in my constituency is an exemplar of skills training by a successful modern manufacturer with a world-class reputation. For less established firms such as challenger small and medium-sized enterprises, what support is on offer to level them up to Goodwin International standards?

I had a good meeting yesterday with my hon. Friend and fellow Stoke and north Staffordshire MPs. The Government are supporting small firms across England through the network of 38 growth hubs, one of which is based on Stoke-on-Trent. In our manifesto, we announced our intention to create a national skills fund, which will help to transform the lives of people who have not got on the work ladder and lack qualifications, as well as people looking to return to work or to upskill.

Every year Scotland exports a quarter of a billion pounds worth of salmon to the European Union. This week, the Scottish Salmon Producers’ Organisation expressed serious concern about the continuing uncertainty of Brexit. What assessment has the Chancellor of the Exchequer made of the impact on this vital industry of the Chancellor of the Duchy Lancaster’s announcement that “as friction-free as possible” trade with the EU means “not friction-free at all”?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working closely with the fishing industry, including salmon producers, to make sure that as we put in place our new free trade agreement, it will continue to thrive.