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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 705: debated on Tuesday 7 December 2021


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

UK Ports: Prevention of Disruption over Christmas Period

1. What recent steps he has taken with HMRC to help prevent disruption at UK ports during the Christmas 2021 period. (904596)

The Government’s priority is to keep goods moving and avoid delays at the border. To ensure that, we have set up a new Cabinet Committee on logistics to deal with supply chain issues. I recognise that the new customs controls come in on 1 January. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is supporting traders and hauliers to adjust to their new obligations following the end of the transition period.

I am glad that the Minister is setting up a Cabinet Committee—that is lovely—but let me tell her what is impacting people on the ground. Daniel Lambert Wines, an importer in my constituency, for example, has gone from taking seven to nine days to import wine from the EU to 12 weeks. That is really not acceptable. The national Food and Drink Federation says that it is causing huge problems for the supply chains when it comes to bringing wine into the UK, and Christmas is one of the biggest periods for purchasing. Can the Minister set out what she will do to start tackling the issues around the delays in importing wine, so that everyone can have a sensible tipple over the Christmas period?

The hon. Member will know that it is important to have committees to work across Government, because the supply chain issues affect all Departments. He will know of some of the actions that we have taken—30 actions to tackle HGV issues to increase efficiency in the supply chain. We have temporarily extended drivers’ hours, relaxed late-night delivery restrictions, and deployed the Ministry of Defence’s driving examiners to increase HGV testing capacity. Yesterday, the policy director of Logistics UK said that she saw a number of signs of improvement.

I am sure that my right hon. and learned Friend and HMRC are working very hard to ensure that the changes to the import processes coming in on 1 January run smoothly and do not result in lots of additional friction at the border. However, the Federation of Small Businesses has estimated that just one in four smaller companies is actually prepared for the changes that are about to happen. Is she aware of that particular issue? If she is, what action is she taking in the short time that remains?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The Government and HMRC have taken significant action to ensure that hauliers and carriers are ready. HMRC has weekly meetings with strategic operators. It has conducted webinars for well over 1,000 haulage businesses and it sends monthly emails to more than 14,000 hauliers on the next steps. I appreciate that it might be that big businesses are more ready than small businesses, but we have done work there as well. I am very pleased to have met the Federation of Small Businesses about two weeks ago to discuss these issues.

Economic Inequality

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.

High-skilled Jobs: Young People

Through our plan for jobs, more than 100,000 young people have started kickstart jobs, including more than 9,300 in the west midlands, but that is not all that we have done. The spending review provides for investment of £1.6 billion in high-quality education, £554 million in the national skills fund, £2.7 billion in apprenticeships, and £60 million in the youth offer to help young jobseekers find lasting work.

Last month when I presented awards at the Crimson Academy apprenticeship awards event, I met some incredibly talented apprentices who were raring to go and get into the world of work. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in congratulating them, and will she confirm that apprenticeships are a great way for young people to obtain high-skilled jobs that can help to bridge the UK skills gap?

I do of course join my hon. Friend in congratulating those apprentices. The Government are continuing to invest in high-quality technical education and to reform the skills system so that it is employer-led, to give young people the right skills and training to enable them to succeed in life. More than 100,000 apprentices have been hired under our new incentive payment scheme, 75% of whom were under 25. Skills boot camps are upskilling people into high-growth sectors, including the digital sector.

Red Diesel Fuel: Planned Tax Changes

5. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of the planned tax changes to red diesel fuel on (a) employment and (b) profitability within the UK construction industry. (904601)

To help ourselves achieve net zero and improve UK air quality, we are reducing the entitlement to use red diesel, which currently enjoys a duty discount, from next April. The full duty rate more fairly reflects the damaging impact of diesel emissions, and will incentivise the development of greener alternatives.

In my constituency and across Northern Ireland, small family-run construction companies and those operating on a larger scale are telling me that this move will cripple their profitability, and that alongside the significant increase in the cost of materials in the last year, it will make their operation even more challenging. Will the Chancellor and the Minister agree to meet industry representatives to hear about the real-life impact, and to explore how it can be addressed and how jobs and profitability in Northern Ireland can be protected?

We recognise that this is a significant change for some businesses, but we have consulted on it since it was first announced in 2020. Those whom we have consulted include representatives of the construction sector and representatives from Northern Ireland, and the case simply is not compelling in comparison with the importance of reducing our harmful emissions. Red diesel leads to 14 million tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions each year, and we need to incentivise greener alternatives as part of our transition to net zero.

I fully support the Government’s push towards net zero. Drainage boards do vital work to protect people, businesses and livelihoods from flood risk. Does the Minister agree that as they come to set their budgets it is vital that the Government provide assurance that their work will not be affected by changes to red diesel duty?

My hon. Friend is right to say that drainage boards do really important work. The fact is that the public sector, as well as the private sector, needs to decarbonise. In fact, in a low-lying constituency where there is a great awareness of flooding and climate change it is probably even more important, and I am sure his constituents appreciate the importance of reducing our carbon dioxide emissions. I know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is working with the Association of Drainage Authorities on the point that he makes.

Self-employed People: Covid-19 Support Schemes

6. What recent assessment he has made of the availability of (a) mortgages and (b) credit for self-employed people who utilised the Government’s covid-19 support schemes. (904602)

Previous receipt of covid-19 support should not, in and of itself be a barrier to credit provided that the applicant meets the lender eligibility criteria. It remains important that lenders carry out checks to ensure that they do not lend to individuals in an unaffordable way.

I take the Minister’s point and I agree with what he is saying, but that is not the reality of what people are finding in my constituency. Business owners as diverse as a music teacher, a house renovator and an airport taxi driver have been told that the reason they cannot get a mortgage or other credit arrangements is that they have availed themselves of the Government’s schemes. Their businesses are up and running, and it is concerning if no assessment has been performed. Will the Minister get in touch with people at the high street banks and prevail upon them to ensure that businesses with a sustainable track record that simply used those schemes are not penalised for that reason?

The Government have worked with the Financial Conduct Authority and we will continue to work with it and with credit agencies to ensure that those payment holidays have no impact on borrowers’ credit ratings. However, the checks that banks and financial institutions undertake need to reflect changes to individuals’ income. We do not seek to involve ourselves in commercial decisions. The mortgage lending rates to the self-employed are in line with those overall for the self-employed, but of course I will continue to work with the banks and financial institutions, and the regulators, to keep the situation under review.

Levelling Up: National Retrofit Strategy for Homes

7. What fiscal assessment he has made of the potential merits of a national retrofit strategy for homes as part of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. (904603)

The Government’s heat and building strategy announced £3.9 billion of funding to decarbonise buildings over the next three years. This included £1.8 billion of support for low income households. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that her constituency was recently allocated £5.2 million to retrofit low-income homes.

A retrofit strategy also requires established accreditations that customers can trust and training that workers will want to re-skill into. SGS College, the Active Building Centre and others in my patch across Stroud are uniquely placed to create those programmes and certifications for the whole country so that we can implement the Government’s ambitions. Will my hon. Friend be working with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Department for Education to ensure that funding is available for this crucial work?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right say that we need to have the right skilled workforce for our transition to net zero, and training is part of that. This year we have provided £6.4 million to help 18 training providers to train around 8,000 people, and our £2.5 billion funding for the national skills fund includes funding for employer-led boot camps. I would be very happy to meet her to discuss the part that SGS College and the Active Building Centre in her constituency could play in making sure that we have the workforce we need for the net zero transition.

A decade ago we saw the failure of the green new deal, and only recently we have seen the complete and woeful failure of the green homes grant scheme. These were supposed to retrofit homes, create jobs and boost the economy. Will the Treasury work with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to get a grip on this, so that they invest taxpayers’ money in achieving net zero and creating jobs rather than throwing good money after bad?

The green homes grant and its associated scheme for the Chancellor’s plan for jobs saw £1.75 billion invested in improving more than 100,000 homes. We are now bringing in a more targeted replacement, the home upgrade grant, to support low-income households, and that received £950 million at the spending review. We will continue to support low-income households to ensure that they become more energy efficient, which is good for keeping bills down and an important part of our net zero transition.

Regional Growth

Levelling up is the core mission of this Government. At the autumn Budget we announced the first awards from the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, together with £5.7 billion for transport investment in eight city regions and £3.8 billion for investment in skills over this Parliament. Our levelling up White Paper will be published in January.

I know the passion of the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary for levelling up, and I welcome the creation of a Treasury campus in the north-east. When the Treasury next relocates, may I encourage my right hon. Friends to look at Huddersfield, Marsden and Slaithwaite in my Colne Valley constituency? They are strategically located on the TransPennine rail route between Leeds and Manchester, and we are set to have millions invested thanks to the integrated rail plan. We have fantastic former mill sites ready for regeneration, and the Chief Secretary and the Chancellor would be welcome to join me on a visit.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) for his invitation, and I look forward to being in Darlington at the Treasury’s northern hub this week.

I am glad to hear of my hon. Friend’s support for the wider investment on the TransPennine rail route, which will improve connectivity between Manchester, Leeds and York, including Marsden and Huddersfield, with benefits starting this decade. Diary permitting, I would be delighted to discuss a visit to see that investment in action.

Thank you, and happy Christmas to you, Mr Speaker.

Connectivity is critical to levelling up, which is why I have advocated and secured significant infrastructure improvements in Lincoln since 2010. The recent counterproductive 25% cut in Lincolnshire’s highways maintenance grant is not levelling up, and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor was sitting next to the Prime Minister when I raised this issue at Prime Minister’s questions a fortnight ago.

If the Treasury does not provide the funding to return Lincolnshire’s highways maintenance grant to 2019-20 levels, at the very least, there will be a significant impact on improvements and repairs to the highways network in our county. Will the Chief Secretary agree to return the funding to pre-pandemic levels, or at least to put pressure on our colleagues in the Department for Transport to do so?

I hope I can reassure my hon. Friend. The spending review confirmed that local road maintenance funding will be held at 2021-22 levels, which include the £500 million potholes fund committed to in our manifesto for places not receiving city region settlements. This represents a 10% increase on 2019-20 local road maintenance funding, with the exact allocations to be confirmed by the DFT shortly.

Lincolnshire will also benefit from the £2.6 billion committed in the spending review for local road upgrades, including the North Hykeham relief road, as well as more than £5 million from the integrated transport block to spend on small local transport priorities. I am, of course, happy to continue this conversation, but there is significant funding coming and specific allocations are imminent.

My right hon. Friend knows the importance of local rail connections to regional growth in the north. With the publication of the integrated rail plan, will he confirm that the Treasury stands ready to approve full funding for new stations such as Haxby in my constituency, which is ready to go?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The centrality of good local transport connectivity to regional growth cannot be overstated, which is why we have provided £96 billion for the integrated rail plan, the largest ever Government investment in our rail network.

Last year the Government provided £400,000 to support plans for a new station at Haxby. I understand Network Rail has been working in close partnership with the council to develop that work and, in conjunction with other Ministers, I am happy to make sure the work is supported by both HMT and DFT.

The Scottish Commercial Music Industry Taskforce understood that the extra money put into the culture recovery fund in the Budget will produce £40 million of Barnett consequentials for the Scottish Government. To date, the taskforce understands that only £9 million of that money has been released, putting our creative and cultural sector at a significant disadvantage. Will the Chief Secretary tell me today, or perhaps in correspondence, when the Scottish Government will receive the remaining £31 million?

The Budget provided the largest ever block grant settlement for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as part of the Barnett consequentials, of which we are very proud. On the right hon. Gentleman’s specific point, I am happy to reply to him in correspondence when I have further detail.

The western gateway partnership covers a cross-border area with 4.4 million people and brings huge economic potential across south Wales and the south-west, but it is still yet to receive the same level of recognition from the Government as other pan-regional partnerships, such as the northern powerhouse. Will the Government address that and get behind the western gateway?

The hon. Lady raises a really important point: the western gateway is a phenomenally important part of our wider UK growth package. I engaged closely with it last year when I was the Minister for Regional Growth and Local Government and I am always happy to support its work. The western gateway has equal standing alongside the northern powerhouse and the midlands engine. I can certainly confirm that I and, indeed, Ministers in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities are always happy to engage substantively with the hon. Lady and with the leadership of local authorities in that area.

One way to reduce regional inequality is to encourage investment, which creates jobs, generates tax revenue and brings opportunities for supply chains. Does the Minister therefore understand many people’s bewilderment at the fact that the Scottish Government have lobbied for there to be no development in the Cambo oilfield? That will cost 1,000 jobs, lose the revenue from 175 billion barrels of oil, push up oil prices, make us more dependent on foreign supplies and create a chilling environment for investment. Does the Minister agree that the economic madness of the Green tail wagging the SNP dog is going to cost Scotland dearly? What assurances can he give to the oil industry that the UK is a place for investment?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the importance of oil and gas to the UK economy and, of course, in particular to Scotland’s economy. My colleagues on the Government Benches would join him in saying it is really important that we support the success of the North sea oil and gas industry into the future. The SNP’s lack of support is a serious disappointment and a serious concern. The Government are committed to supporting the transition to net zero, but that must involve the word “transition”, so that industry will be of importance for decades to come.

I thank the Chief Secretary for what he said in support of the western gateway, but may I draw to his attention the importance of skills to improving regional growth? On Thursday this week, the AccXel construction skills accelerator centre will open in my constituency. It is a partnership, supported last year by Government money that a fantastic private sector business has already turned into the centre that will open this week. It will take students at the beginning of next year and drive construction skills to a high level throughout the south-west of England.

Skills are at the heart of our wider work on levelling up, which is why £3.8 billion has been allocated throughout the course of this Parliament to make sure we get the right skills for the right people in the right sectors, so that we can grow the economy in the way that is needed. I warmly commend what is going on in my right hon. Friend’s constituency, because it is precisely that kind of work that will ensure that jobs and growth really level up opportunity throughout the country.

Gender Equality: Fiscal Policies

Our fiscal policies support the Government’s ambition of creating a fairer and more equal society, and women are among those who will benefit the most. For example, women are expected to benefit disproportionately from the Government’s increase to the national living wage to £9.50 for workers aged 23 and above, as well as the rise in the national minimum wage for young people and apprentices.

I am glad you found someone to answer, Mr Speaker.

Some 6,500 women in my Livingston constituency are WASPI women and they are furious. When I recently met them with the Women Against State Pension Inequality co-ordinator Carla O’Hara, there was anger and anxiety and there were many, many tears. Will the Minister tell me and the WASPI women from his constituency and from the constituencies of Members throughout this Chamber whether the

“fresh vigour and new eyes”

that the Prime Minister promised back in July 2019 is still on the table? Or is it, yet again, another broken promise?

The Government have always considered this issue, which goes back over the past decade, very carefully. For the purposes of intergenerational fairness and the wider sustainability of our pension settlement into the future, it is vital that that settlement is reflective of longer life expectancy. I am afraid that is the underpinning principle of the Government’s work and we stand resolutely behind it.

Inflation: Living Standards

The Government recognise that inflation is rising, and are closely monitoring the situation. The Bank of England is responsible for keeping inflation at its 2% target. As my colleagues mentioned earlier, we are working with international partners to tackle global supply chain disruption, and are taking targeted action worth more than £10 billion over the next five years to help people with the cost of living.

As food and energy bills are skyrocketing this winter, far too many of my constituents face the appalling choice between heating their homes and putting food on the table. Will the Minister therefore confirm how much more my constituents on average earnings will be paying in income tax and national insurance from next April, as a result of the Government’s decision to freeze the income tax personal allowance and to increase national insurance contributions?

The Government very much recognise the challenge that people are facing, which is why we have introduced a range of interventions, including: the warm home discount; the household support fund, giving £500 million to local authorities to distribute; changes to the taper rate; and an increase in the national living wage. That range of interventions will help with the cost of living challenges, and will help many of the hon. Lady’s constituents.

Is it not the case that the dreadful seeds sown by years of ultra-cheap credit and quantitative easing are now bearing their awful fruit through inflation, the ultimate stealth tax?

I do not agree with my hon. Friend’s characterisation of the causal relationship, but I recognise that the Bank of England continues to be responsible for monetary policy. My hon. Friend has always held distinct views that represent a particular school of economists, and I will continue to listen carefully to what he has to say to the House.

There is a cost of living crisis, temperatures are falling and Ministers are ignoring average households, who are struggling to pay enormous bills. Household energy bills have increased by more than £230 since last winter and are set to increase even more early next year, and we have recently seen higher tax receipts from energy bills. Will the Minister back Labour’s policy of using this money to cut VAT on people’s energy bills to zero over the next six months?

I welcome the hon. Lady to the Front Bench. I draw her attention to the answer that I just gave concerning the number of interventions that the Government have made, including the warm home discount and additional support through local authorities. Households in the lowest income decile receive on average more than £4 in public spending for every £1 that they pay in tax. The Government are acutely sensitised to the challenges that we face this winter.

Pooled Client Bank Accounts: Guidance

12. What assessment he has made of the effect on businesses of the Joint Money Laundering Steering Group guidance on pooled client bank accounts. (904608)

The Joint Money Laundering Steering Group guidance helps firms to meet their obligations under the money laundering regulations. Banks should take measures to assess risks presented by pooled client accounts to ensure that the accounts are not abused for criminal purposes.

Yacht brokers have been using pooled client accounts for years to protect large sums of their clients’ money, without issue. Changes to the guidance have meant that banks are now closing some of these accounts, putting some of these professional, long-established businesses at risk. Will my hon. Friend meet me, UK Finance, and the Association of Brokers and Yacht Agents, to find a solution quickly? This is an important sector of the economy for some of our coastal communities, such as my constituency.

My hon. Friend knows a lot about this matter and the industry, and I take her concerns very seriously. Although the Government will never insist on individual lending decisions and behaviours of banks, we will engage closely. I will meet her, and the Association of Brokers and Yacht Agents, and I will write to UK Finance to ensure that the guidance that is posted is being used effectively in the circumstances that she has raised.

The Pandora papers show how overseas shell companies secretly buy up luxury property in the UK. In 2018, the Government published draft legislation for a new register of such entities to crack down on the use of UK property for money laundering. This is a matter of law and order. Ministers promised to deliver that register in 2021, yet for some reason, since the current Prime Minister took office, that commitment seems to have been abandoned. Will the Minister now, four years since the UK anti-corruption strategy was published, finally admit that the promise of delivering a register in 2021 has been broken, and will he give us a firm date by which the register will be in place?

I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the financial action taskforce report in December 2018 that gave the UK the best ever evaluation in terms of anti-money laundering. There are two or three areas where we have taken action.

The hon. Member keeps asking “Where is the register?” I will answer the question in a moment. What the Government have done is put in an additional £63 million in the last Budget to deal with Companies House reform, which is one of the areas. We have been the world’s leader in terms of common reporting standards. We were the first country, five years ago, to raise the standard in terms of transparency. We will implement that register when legislative time becomes available.

Topical Questions

A month ago, I set out our plan for a stronger economy, protecting and supporting jobs, driving up economic growth and cutting the universal credit taper rate, giving the lower-paid in our society a tax cut worth £2.2 billion.

In the 2019 Queen’s Speech, the rationale for reform was set out as being to

“ensure our tax system is supporting Scottish whisky and gin producers and protecting 42,000 jobs”—

including many in my constituency. How would the Chancellor square that with the actual proposals, which will tax domestic producers more than those of imported cava, prosecco and champagne; do not take into account how people consume spirits with mixers, the sugar and calorific content or his own Government’s health policies; and actually increase the competitive disadvantage of an important domestic sector compared with the international one?

Our reforms of the alcohol duty system usher in a system that is simpler, fairer and better for public health. I am not entirely sure that the hon. Lady has got the details right on this. In fact, for Scotch whisky, this is an improvement because we have levelled the playing field for higher-strength drinks, which the Scotch Whisky Association had been calling for. With regard to the differential between domestic and foreign producers, because English sparkling wine is produced to a lower alcohol content naturally than foreign sparkling wine, it will actually, for the first time, enjoy a tax advantage under the new system. Perhaps most relevant immediately, we also froze all alcohol duties—a half-a-billion-pound tax cut for British people this year.

I want to take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to the Mother of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who, in the nearly 40 years that she has been in this place, has done more for the rights and representation of women than anyone else.

At the weekend it was briefed that the Government will set up a star chamber to crack down on waste—which, frankly, has been the hallmark of this Government. Indeed, the Government’s own accounts show that the incompetent way in which the business support schemes were structured meant that the Chancellor has allowed fraudsters to walk away with £6.5 billion of taxpayers’ money. That would be more than enough to cut the basic rate of income tax by a penny in the pound, worth £370 a year to basic rate taxpayers. So can the Chancellor explain why quick electronic checks such as cross-referencing with HMRC tax data were not conducted before money was handed out? Given this huge waste of taxpayers’ money, can the Chancellor confirm that he will be the first witness in front of his own star chamber?

The hon. Lady would usually be on top of the numbers. She will understand that there is a difference between a one-off saving of £6 billon and an annual saving on a tax cut of £6 billion. Those two things are not like-for-like comparable. On the numbers she refers to, I am happy to tell her that in the most recent analysis from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s independent adviser, the estimate of fraud was reduced by a third because of the actions that the Government had taken, which is welcome news. But of course we remain committed to tackling fraud. That is why in the spring Budget we invested an extra £100 million in HMRC, with 1,200 new people to tackle fraud, and they are expected to recover over £2 billion over the next 12 months. With regard to bounce back loans, 55,000 loans worth up to £2 billion were recovered and stopped. We are absolutely committed to tackling fraud wherever we see it.

The Chancellor might be relaxed about handing out £6.5 billion, or perhaps it is £4 billion, to companies that did not deserve it, but we on this side of the House are absolutely not. It is reported that a £4.7 million loan was given to a business founded just two days before it was handed the cash. It should not be beyond the wit of Government to get money to where it needs to go—to great British business—without allowing fraudsters to steal taxpayer funds. Leaving the till open and unattended for thieves to clear out would be a sackable offence for a shop worker, yet apparently it is acceptable for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Staggeringly, only one in 40 cases where fraud has been reported is actually being pursued. Let me ask the Chancellor this: when was he first alerted to this fraud, and how much does he think taxpayers will get back from the billions of pounds lost to fraudsters?

As I have said, the new taxpayer protection taskforce at HMRC is expected to recover between £1 billion and £2 billion in the next 12 months, and has already made a good start on that. It is fair to reflect on where we were in spring 2020. I remember being at this Dispatch Box every other day. I remember Members from all parts of the House rightly holding the Government to account for getting money to businesses in a matter of hours and days, not weeks. In fact, I heard from the hon. Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds), the shadow Chancellor at the time:

“We need a full guarantee for…some loans…We are running out of time, so how will the Chancellor ensure that the bounce-back loans get to the businesses that need them?”—[Official Report, 27 April 2020; Vol. 675, c. 110.]

The then shadow Business Secretary, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), said that the Government should:

“urgently look at 100% underwriting of loans and simplified lending criteria.”

Indeed, the hon. Lady herself wrote to me and said that

“the process for SMEs to apply for such loans appears cumbersome.”

I make no apology for making sure—

Order. He might want to apologise now—we cannot take so long on the first two questions from either Front Bench.

T5. I thank the Chancellor for his hugely successful plan for jobs. I recently visited an organisation in Telford called Teach A Trade, which successfully trains long-term unemployed and older people changing careers to get gas and electrical qualifications, which are in short supply in my constituency. What is his Department doing to work with organisations such as Telford’s Teach A Trade to make these courses more accessible to more students? Can he please tell me what his Department can do to help Telford’s Teach A Trade so that it can expand the excellent work it is doing? (904627)

Order. I appeal to Members that if you all want to get in, you have to help each other. If you are not going to help each other, do not be disappointed when you do not get in. It is not fair, and the same goes for the Front Benchers. Topicals are meant to be quick, short and speedy to keep the business going. We are not being fair. Whoever is answering that question, please do so briefly.

As we build a strong economy, we need to raise skills. That is why we announced in the spending review an increase of £3.8 billion in skills spending over this Parliament. The spending review included funding for a specific 50-plus training scheme to support people like those being helped by Teach A Trade so that they can retrain and stay in work. I am happy to speak further to my hon. Friend about how we can support Teach A Trade and others like it to do what they do.

In this season of generosity and good will, will the Chancellor deliver a gift to the hard-pressed hospitality and tourism sector and amend the Finance (No. 2) Bill to extend the lower rate of VAT beyond March next year?

I am glad that our VAT cuts extend all the way to spring. It is a £7 billion tax cut, and next year, as I have said, there is a 50% discount on business rates.

T7. The recently announced coalition deal between Welsh Labour and Plaid Cymru contains a tourism tax, which is likely to do significant damage to Porthcawl, a seaside town in my Bridgend constituency. Does my right hon. Friend agree that imposing a new tax on a sector already hit hard by Welsh Government restrictions is further evidence that Labour-nationalist coalitions are bad for business, bad for the economy and bad for our United Kingdom? (904629)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about the Welsh Government. This Government are supporting hospitality businesses with a lower rate of VAT till spring worth £7 billion and a business tax cut next year that has Barnett consequentials for the Welsh Government, so hopefully they can do the same.

T2. New research from the TUC shows that 647,000 workers in sectors such as hospitality, retail and entertainment do not qualify for statutory sick pay. Before the Chancellor points to the Government’s temporary support scheme, 64% of people who apply for it are told that they do not qualify. The Government have been quick to hand massive contracts to their friends, so why can they not improve statutory sick pay for workers so that more people can afford to self-isolate and recover from illness when they need to? (904622)

At the beginning of the crisis, we improved how statutory sick pay works, making it payable from day one. We also changed some things in universal credit and indeed expanded its definition. We also put in place self-isolation payments to help.

I chair the caucus of 40 Conservative MPs who have the River Severn—Britain’s longest river—flowing through their constituencies. The river is causing increasing destruction and chaos for our communities with the increasing floods. Will the Minister meet the River Severn Partnership, a consortium of councils up and down the River Severn, to hear what the flooding Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow)—heard earlier this year during her visit to Shrewsbury, that there will be a gross value added uplift of up to £150 billion if we find a solution for managing Britain’s longest river?

We recognise the important work of the River Severn Partnership. Between now and 2027, £170 million will be invested in flood and erosion risk management in the English Severn and Wye region, but I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and colleagues to talk further.

T3. The decay of NHS dentistry and indeed the cavity of NHS dentists across the country affects my constituents in Lancaster and Fleetwood, but I note that on 7 February 2018 the Chancellor spoke on his own website about the lack of NHS dentists in his constituency, too. Now that he is the Chancellor and holds the purse strings, how much longer do my constituents and his have to wait to find an NHS dentist? What financial support is he giving to ensure that NHS dentists are available to all our constituents? (904625)

The hon. Lady raises an important point. Of course, we delivered a record settlement for the Department of Health and Social Care at the recent spending review. That budget will rise to £177.4 billion in 2024-25. NHS dentistry is a top priority of that spend.

Can the Minister confirm that the £1,000 a year tax cut delivered through changes to the universal credit taper rate will begin to be seen in people’s bank accounts this side of Christmas?

T4. The Government have confirmed that eight people facing the loan charge have lost their lives to suicide. One of my constituents recently told me that they are a totally nervous wreck and have contemplated ending their life on numerous occasions. In the light of the heavy toll that the loan charge is taking on the lives of those facing it, will the Government commit to a fresh and independent review of the loan charge? (904626)

The hon. Member will know that an independent review has already been carried out by Lord Morse, and the Government accepted all but one of its recommendations. HMRC does have a helpline, but it is important to continue to ensure that we look after those who are most vulnerable.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Chancellor for all that he is doing on levelling up and, in particular, for the establishment of the Darlington economic campus. Can he update the House on how things are progressing and how many of his team are now enjoying life in Darlington?

We are seeing a growing number of Treasury staff working in Darlington along with many Ministers spending time there. I am due to be there tomorrow and I think that my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will also be there this week.

T6. The Chancellor was evasive when interviewed by the media last week, but we need a clear answer on this very important point because many people across the country made great personal sacrifices during the lockdown. So will he categorically deny in the House that he or any of his officials or Spads attended any of the Downing Street Christmas parties on 27 November or 18 December last year? (904628)

May I advise my right hon. and learned Friend that the Government’s step in the Budget last month to cut business rates by 50% for retail, hospitality and leisure companies, which means that 90% of all eligible businesses will see a cut of at least 50%, has been warmly welcomed across my Borough of Bexley? It will help many business to not only survive, but flourish.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for mentioning that. We have business rates relief of almost £1.7 billion next year for retail, hospitality and leisure, which is part of a package of £7 billion over the next five years.

T8. I understand that the Department for Transport made an autumn spending review funding application for the western rail link to Heathrow, but it was rejected by the Treasury. Given that the Government made a solemn pledge back in 2012 to build it, can the Chancellor please advise me on when it will finally be built—or will this be yet another broken Tory promise? (904630)

Transport sits at the heart of the spending review that has just concluded, and of course we have the £96 billion integrated rail plan. I am very happy to look at the scheme to which the hon. Member refers, but obviously Transport Ministers are engaged in a constant process of making sure that we deliver the projects that are the best value for money and result in the greatest transport bonuses across the country.

Can the Chancellor confirm that, contrary to industry suggestions, the Government remain committed to legislating for access to cash as soon as possible?

Florence Roby Ltd was turned down when it bid for Government contracts for personal protective equipment last year, despite a 50-year track record of high-quality production. It was not asking for special favours; all it wanted was a fair chance of winning Government contracts. Some £3.5 billion was handed out to friends and donors of the Conservative party through a VIP lane. That is in stark contrast to the experience of Florence Roby Ltd. When will good people such as my constituents get access not to a VIP lane, but to a level playing field?

We worked at speed to secure the PPE needed to protect our frontline workers, and we supplied over 58,000 different healthcare settings. We now have a four-month stockpile of all critical PPE to make sure that the NHS can continue to be protected. All these bids are assessed in line with standard guidance to make sure that there is total equity in that process. Any suggestion to the contrary is fundamentally misleading.

Harrogate has been the trial and development location for universal credit, and I have seen how it helps people make work pay. Does my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agree that rolling it out further, and migrating people currently on legacy benefits, will help even more people make work pay?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This Government are committed to making sure that work always pays, and that is why universal credit is such an improvement on the previous system—an improvement that the Opposition did not support at all.

The Minister will be aware that Viktor Fedotov, the secret co-owner of Aquind, has been implicated in a £72 million fraud scheme linked to Putin’s Russia. Can the Minister say what due diligence has been done on the project company and its owners, and if he and ministerial colleagues will protect our national infrastructure from these alleged fraudsters by stopping the disastrous project once and for all?

The Government remain absolutely committed to protecting this country from illicit finance. We have been a leader in the global community, making this place the safest place to do business, and we will continue in that vein.

A key way to support economic growth is to help level up our forgotten high streets, such as Eston Square, where the old precinct building is blocking key investment and preventing new businesses from moving in. When the Chancellor is next up in Teesside, will he come with me to Eston, and meet leaders at Redcar and Cleveland Borough Council to see what can be done to level up Eston Square?

Yes, I would be very happy to. I am fresh from my visit to Yarm High Street last week to see levelling up in action, and I am back up in the north-east this week.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer will be aware of the considerable public unease about the proposed demutualisation of Liverpool Victoria. Will he therefore consider sympathetically the cross-party letter he has received from over 100 parliamentarians calling for a review of the law governing mutuals?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have had considerable engagement on this subject. This is a matter for the Financial Conduct Authority, and we have discussed it. Obviously, members will now vote on the proposal. On the broader issue of how this sector is treated, I remain willing to engage with him on further changes and reforms that may help it in future.

Ministers will know of the importance of the Humber ports to the regional and national economy. Access to Immingham and Grimsby ports is in part via the A180, which has an old concrete surface that is crumbling and in need of urgent repair. This afternoon I will meet Highways England to discuss that. May I tell it that the Chancellor will fund those improvements?

I commend my hon. Friend for his inventiveness. Our ports lie at the heart of our prosperity, and I am delighted that the Humber freeport is imminently going live, alongside the Teesside and Thames freeports. I wish him the best of luck in making his case for that investment.