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Economic Inequality

Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 7 December 2021

I am pleased to say that the distribution analysis published in the Budget showed that the actions of this Government since 2019, over this Parliament, will benefit those on the lowest incomes the most. Income inequality is also lower than it was in 2010, and we on the Conservative Benches know that the best way to reduce inequality is to get people into fantastic, well-paid jobs, which is exactly what we are doing.

Income inequality in the UK has barely changed over the past 10 years, so how can it possibly be fair to ask working people to pay even more tax through the national insurance increase next year, while the Government are also giving away a £4 billion tax cut for banks’ profits through cutting the banks’ surcharge from 2023? Will the Chancellor set out the combined impact of those two decisions on inequality?

Income inequality on the last published statistics is lower than it was in 2010. There are also fewer people living in absolute poverty. With regard to national insurance, we took a decision to fund the NHS in a progressive manner to clear the backlog and usher in reforms to the social care system that will benefit everyone in this country. As for banks, I am not sure whether the hon. Lady has seen that the rate of corporation tax that banks will pay is going up from 27% to 28% while the rest of the UK corporate base will pay 25%. It is right that the banks pay a fair contribution to our coffers, but we should also recognise that financial services is a fantastic UK asset that employs 1 million people, two thirds of whom are outside of London and the south-east.

Although discussions about regional inequality between the north and south in the UK are important, this must not be reduced to a simple and misleading binary. My area of Edmonton, north London, has an unemployment rate of 9.7%, almost double the national average. Will the Chancellor assure the House that he will provide the investment that London needs, starting by providing the funding that Transport for London requires to maintain its services, particularly the bus services, on which lower-income Londoners are disproportionately reliant and which face 20% reductions without support?

If Londoners are worrying about the state of their transport system and who is responsible for it, I think we all know, and those problems were there before coronavirus. What we are responsible for is making sure that people have access to high-quality work, and I reassure the hon. Lady that we are investing in our plan for jobs right across the country. I have visited jobcentres in London. We are helping to get people into work and helping them to get the skills they need. I hope that I can work with her local area to bring that unemployment rate down.

Covid has accelerated the decline of bank branches, so Acton now has none and no cashpoints, because our post office has gone. The resultant cashless society has hit constituents hard, from the chap who came to see me who has come a cropper because of Trump’s sanctions regime—he has had all his accounts frozen—to my son and his pals who cannot get a hot snack after school without plastic, to businesses that want to bank their takings. Will the Chancellor urgently look into this gross economic inequality that is hitting so many of the constituents of all of us?

The hon. Lady makes a fair point; the Economic Secretary to the Treasury is doing work on exactly that issue. The Government have committed to bringing forward legislation, if required, on access to cash, but I would be very happy to look into the specific circumstances of her constituent. If she writes to me, we will do that.

As ever, the Chancellor’s warm words do not match the reality faced by so many people across the country. Take disabled people, for example—[Interruption.] Rather than groaning, will hon. Members please listen? Disabled people have been disproportionately attacked by Tory Governments over the past decade through austerity, cuts to benefits and, most recently, a cruel lack of support during covid. Nearly 2 million disabled people were not given the £20 uplift in benefits, including thousands of households in my seat of Leeds East. Every December, we mark the United Nations International Day of People with Disabilities, so if the Government are genuinely interested in tackling economic inequality, will they—[Interruption.] It is not funny, grow up. Will the Government backdate the payments to disabled people and others on so-called legacy benefits who have been left out and let down over the past 18 months? Disabled people deserve to be treated better.

I am enormously proud of the Government’s commitment to those who are disabled. We looked after them during the crisis and we continue to support them. We recently announced £500 million for the disabled facilities grant, more investment in the Department for Work and Pensions to help close the disability employment gap and—this is something I am personally proud of—investment in Changing Places, which means that those with disabled children or adults will have access to the high-quality facilities that they need to enjoy days out with their family. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I and the Government are committed to helping all those who need our help, and we will continue to deliver on that promise.

There is currently huge inequality between the taxation of businesses online and those of bricks and mortar. I thank the Chancellor for the support that he has given to the high street during the pandemic through business rate relief. However, as I know that he believes in low taxes, I ask him: when will business rates be modernised so that we can get an even playing field for online and high street businesses, which is very important to the Blue Collar Conservative group?

My right hon. Friend has rightly campaigned on this issue and she raises an excellent point. The good news on business rates is that, next year, thanks to the tax cut that we announced in the Budget, 90% of retail, hospitality and leisure businesses will see at least a 50% cut in their business rates bill. That is worth £1.7 billion; it is the biggest business rates tax cut since the system was created, other than during coronavirus. On her point about offline and online, she will know that we have helped to bring in an international tax treaty to tax large multinational digital companies, and we continue to consult on the pros and cons of an online sales tax.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways in which we can reduce inequality is by ensuring that young people are equipped with the skills that they need to succeed, wherever they live? That is why the additional £126 million of funding for work placements and training is so important for young people in Grantham and Stamford.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; I know that he is a staunch supporter of skills and getting young people into work in his constituency. He mentions traineeships, which are fantastic initiatives with a 75% success rate in helping young people and a great example of our plan for jobs in action, spreading opportunity right across the country.

Boosting the minimum wage, reducing the universal credit taper rate and increasing the work allowance will make a tremendous difference to the real-world choices of people living and struggling on low incomes. Does my right hon. Friend agree that, along with those Budget measures, the fact that we now have a record number of job vacancies means that we have a tremendous opportunity as a nation to really bear down on long-term unemployment and reduce economic inactivity, especially among the most disadvantaged groups?

My right hon. Friend obviously speaks with authority on the topic; I am grateful for his support and engagement on these matters over the past year and a half. He is absolutely right: thanks to the actions of this Government’s plan for jobs, unemployment has now been falling for nine months in a row, record numbers of people are in work and wages are rising. As my right hon. Friend says, that is the best way to help people. That is what this Government are doing.

My Ynys Môn island constituency has one of the lowest gross value added levels in the UK and is in desperate need of investment to reverse that inequality. Can the Chancellor confirm that the match funding announced in the nuclear sector deal is in place for the proposed thermal hydraulic testing facility on Anglesey?

I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for not treading on the toes of the Business Secretary, but what she will know is that we allocated £120 million for future nuclear development in the Budget and spending review. I know that the subject is of keen interest to her and that she has long campaigned on it in her area. I am happy to support her in her conversations with the Business Secretary as he decides how to allocate that funding.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

It takes some doing to come up with an inheritance tax aimed at people in the lowest-value properties, but that is exactly what the Chancellor and the Conservatives have done in the way they have designed the social care cap. Even the original author of the policy, Sir Andrew Dilnot, has said that the changes that the Government have made mean that

“the less well off will not gain any benefit from the cap.”

When it comes to tax, we should look at what the Government do, not what they say or the newspapers they brief. Why is the Chancellor imposing a tax rise on almost everyone to pay for a policy that will hurt those with the lowest-value properties in the country?

Our social care reforms will benefit millions of people up and down the country, because they will remove the anxiety that the entirety of their assets will be swamped by ever-escalating social care costs, but that is not all they do. It is important to recognise that they also invest in the social care workforce—half a billion pounds over the next few years to upskill, train and provide development for the social care workforce, which will benefit all of us. Critically, they will also help us to tackle the social care and elective backlog that has built up. I am sure that everyone in this House will want to see that. The waiting lists were scheduled to get to unprecedented levels; we wanted to tackle that, and that is what this funding will do.

Families are heading into the winter facing a cost of living crisis with rising prices and the Chancellor’s tax rises on the way. Last week, the Bank of England produced even lower growth forecasts than the Office for Budget Responsibility did at the time of the Budget, and now the Bank is forecasting that inflation will rise above 5% next year. Why does the Chancellor think that the Conservatives have produced such low levels of economic growth over the past 10 years? Has this lost decade of low growth not led directly to the cost-of-living crisis, the high taxes and the inequality that people are facing today?

Forgive me, Mr Speaker; I should have welcomed the right hon. Gentleman to his new position. I look forward to working with him in his new role.

With regard to the winter and energy prices, of course many people are anxious about inflation. It is something that we are grappling with. What I will say to people is that we have put in place multiple interventions to help with those costs, notably the household support fund—half a billion pounds to help millions of our most vulnerable. That comes on top of our existing support, whether it is for pensioners or for those on lower incomes, to help with energy bills that were already in place. This Government remain committed to helping people with the cost of living. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will continue to look at the situation carefully.

Regional mutual banks are a feature of all the other G7 economies, which have much lower levels of regional inequality. They are key to the provision of small and medium-sized enterprise finance. We have a number around the UK that are ready to go, led by experienced professionals; all they need is some pump-prime funding. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me to discuss this very exciting policy area?

I am always delighted to meet my hon. Friend and neighbour, and if we could do that in north Yorkshire, it would be fantastic. He is right—as he always is—to champion the need for small and medium-sized enterprises to have access to the finance that they need, and if he has come up with yet another idea to ensure that that happens, I should be delighted to learn more.

The Chancellor likes to talk a good game on the universal credit taper rate and his pretendy living wage, but that only benefits those who are lucky enough to be in work and ignores many people who are disabled, carers or out of work, and those who are still on legacy benefits. Why has he abandoned and forgotten that group when they face a cost-of-living crisis this winter which will often affect them more than the rest of the population?

It is simply not right to say that we have forgotten anyone. We remain committed to supporting all the most vulnerable in our society. I have mentioned previously the various different mechanisms that we have to help people with energy bills, and indeed the recent increase in the local housing allowance.

The hon. Lady says that we talk a good game. Those of us on the Government Benches believe fundamentally in the power and ability of work to transform people’s lives. We want to make sure that people have great jobs, and we want to make sure that those jobs are well paid. The cut in the universal credit taper rate will ensure that there is a £2.2 billion tax cut for those on the lowest incomes, and we are insanely proud of that.