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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2022

Treasury

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Cost of Living

1. What fiscal steps he plans to take to help reduce the impact on households of the rise in the cost of living. (905371)

5. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of inflation on trends in the levels of living standards. (905375)

8. What fiscal steps he plans to take to help reduce the impact on households of the rise in the cost of living. (905378)

18. What fiscal steps he plans to take to help reduce the impact on households of the rise in the cost of living. (905388)

21. If he will offer further support to people struggling with the rise in the cost of living. (905392)

To help people with the cost of living, the Government are providing support worth around £12 billion in this financial year and next. That includes: cutting the universal credit taper rate to make sure that work pays; freezing duties to keep costs down; and providing support to households with the cost of essentials. In addition, the Government’s plan for jobs is helping people into work and giving them the skills they need to succeed—the best approach to managing the cost of living in the long term.

The Chancellor will have plenty of opportunities to get the answer right this morning. Data from the Office for National Statistics show that on average people aged 65 or over spend twice as much on energy compared with those under 30, so they will be hit twice as hard by escalating bills. Meanwhile, Energy UK tells us that without Government action there will soon be 6 million people, many of them pensioners, living in fuel poverty. Will the Chancellor persuade himself to really get into this and take up our pledge to remove VAT from energy bills and extend the warm homes discount? If he will not, what will he do, particularly for our most vulnerable pensioners who are suffering from this cost of living crisis?

I am proud of this Government’s track record in supporting pensioners. Thanks to the triple lock, in place since 2010, pensions are, relative to earnings, the highest they have been in more than three decades. However, I recognise the anxiety that many pensioners will feel about rising energy bills, and we are always looking at the best way to support people. To help with exactly that phenomenon, the winter fuel payment provides up to £300 for everyone over the state pension age.

With the cost of living crisis upon us, millions across our country must choose between heating their home or putting a meal on the table. Hunger is a political choice made by this Government and the buck stops with the Chancellor. Last week, he wrote off £4.3 billion of covid fraud. If he has the will, he can end the crisis of food insecurity for millions across our nation. Will he use his spring statement to implement a right to food, including universal free school meals and setting social security payments and the living wage at rates calculated to take account of the rising cost of food?

On providing food for those who most need it, I am pleased that the recent spending review confirmed £200 million of extra funding for the holiday activity and food programme to provide support to families and children outside term time. The national living wage, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is going up by 6.6% to £9.50 in April, putting an extra £1,000 in the pockets of hard-working people up and down the country.

A constituent wrote to me recently; she is 57 and works four days a week on the minimum wage. Her energy bill is rising from £95 to £220 a month, eating up an extra 11% of her take-home pay. Weekend reports suggest that Treasury action on the cost of living crisis has stalled due to the paralysis engulfing No. 10. Those struggling to heat their homes should not pay the price for the Prime Minister’s conduct, so will the Chancellor agree to extend eligibility for the warm homes discount further and increase it beyond the pitiful £10 that is planned?

Although I do not know the specific circumstances of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, it sounds like she will benefit from two measures that we have already announced: the significant increase in the national living wage by 6.6% in April; and the cut in the universal credit taper rate, which will mean that a single mother working full time on the national living wage will be an extra £1,200 better off. That will help significantly with energy and other bills, and of course the warm home discount provides a £140 rebate to those who need it.

I have met a number of pensioners in my constituency who are on the state pension, but who also worked hard and saved for a private pension; not a huge pension, but a pension that they believed would help them meet the cost of living. Unfortunately, years of low interest rates and now the rising cost of energy, food and other things have made them begin to worry and they are very concerned about the year ahead. Can the Chancellor provide more information on how he will monitor the situation, and support the families and pensioners whom we encouraged to get private pensions but now find that they cannot meet the cost of living?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight pensioners and their needs. As I said, I am proud of the Government’s track record in supporting them. I can also provide him with the reassurance that we continue to look at the best way to provide support to all those in need, as we have done over the last year of two. In the meantime, he will be reassured to know that we have protected pensioners this coming year with the double lock and, as I said, the winter fuel payments providing up to £300.

Energy prices are rocketing but the price of producing energy has not, meaning that energy companies are experiencing record bonanza profits this year if they are producers. The Chancellor is, of course, worth more than a billion pounds. Could he tell constituents struggling to pay their energy bills what should be taking the cut? Should it be the profits of the energy companies or the lifting of the energy cap that he proposes, costing constituents £1,800 on average a year?

The energy price cap has already protected millions of people against rising energy bills. On the taxation of companies, it is probably worth bearing in mind that one thing that the last few months have shown is that there is an opportunity to invest more in providing natural gas as a transition fuel as we make our way to net zero in a measured manner. To that end, we should be encouraging investment in exporting our natural resources, not disincentivising it.

While Ministers travel the globe in private jets, more and more families across the UK go hungry. Last year, the Trussell Trust delivered 2.5 million food packages through its food banks, which is 100 times more than in 2008-09. Now families face further cuts in benefits, increasing taxes and the cost of living crisis. Does the Chancellor not think that addressing that perfect storm of poverty drivers would be a better use of his time than plotting leadership bids as he waits for the downfall of his lame duck Prime Minister?

The hon. Lady talks about poverty, but the track record of this Government and the Governments since 2010 shows very clearly that more than 8 million fewer people are living in poverty as a result of the actions of those Conservative Governments. Income inequality today is lower than it was in 2010.

It is not good enough to simply say that work lifts people out of poverty when we know that millions of people up and down this country with one job, two jobs or three jobs are still not even making ends meet. The universal credit cut is having a devastating impact, combined with growing food prices and the rise in rents—not to mention the huge hike in national insurance contributions.

I know it is difficult, Chancellor, for someone with financial privilege to really understand what is facing people in communities like mine, but I must say that when I have got elderly people freezing in their homes and more people than ever before using food banks, we need some help from the Government. Poverty is a political choice.

Anyone who has questions about my values can just look at my track record over the last year or two. I am proud of this Government’s achievements in supporting those who most needed our help at a time of anxiety for our country. I respectfully disagree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman: I do believe that work is a route out of poverty. All the evidence shows that children who grow up in workless households are five times more likely to be in poverty than those who do not, which is why I am proud that there are almost a million fewer workless households today as a result of the actions of this Conservative Government.

The most effective sanctions that we could impose on Russia would be to block Russian banks’ access to UK and international markets. Will my right hon. Friend consider that and consider cushioning the inevitable blow to our banks, businesses and households from the financial impacts, including to the cost of living?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. With regard to sanctions, absolutely nothing is off the table. We are working extremely closely with our international allies to make sure that we can send a robust signal to deter Russian aggression, and we continue to explore diplomatic solutions at the same time. He should rest assured that nothing is off the table.

I visited the citizens advice bureau in Malvern and people there were sharing with me the fact that they still have tens of thousands of pounds in household support grants that they can give away between now and the end of March. Will the Chancellor join me in encouraging families who are struggling with the cost of living to apply for the help available?

My hon. Friend, as always, makes an excellent point. I join her in encouraging all those local authorities and others to get those funds out to people who need them as quickly as possible. That is why we have created the household support fund: half a billion pounds to provide £100 or £150 to millions of our most vulnerable families. It is there to help, and I hope we can get the rest of the money out as quickly as possible.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer is exactly right in all the measures that he describes the Government taking to protect families’ incomes. He has always shown a powerful instinct for protecting those on the very lowest incomes, but may I say respectfully to him that we must do something about energy costs? On Friday, I met a couple in my constituency who showed me their fixed tariff agreement with their energy company, which is coming to an end, and the new one coming on stream, which is more than double. They will really struggle to pay their energy costs this year, so may I ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to look at the issue? The warm home discount scheme is not perfect, but it is a useful vehicle for doing something to help those on the lowest incomes.

My right hon. Friend speaks with compassion and authority on these topics, and I join him in making sure that we are aware of the issue. I am, of course, aware of people’s anxiety about what is coming; he can rest assured that we continue to look at all the policies we have in place to make sure that we are supporting people in the best way possible through the months ahead.

With the risk of inflation becoming entrenched, we need fiscal discipline while the Bank of England undertakes the tricky task of monetary tightening. What does the Chancellor think of proposals that would break down that fiscal discipline and therefore risk increasing inflation and being completely counterproductive?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; given his career before he was in this place, he, too, speaks with authority on these matters. He is right to highlight that many of the proposals that people suggest would involve a significant fiscal loosening, which would be inflationary and counterproductive at this time. It is right that fiscal policy is supportive of people, but also mindful of the risks of rising inflation, not least because of the risks for the costs of servicing our debt.

The Chancellor will be aware that voters are being hit by a triple whammy on the cost of living: soaring energy bills, the Chancellor’s own tax rises and falling real wages. Next week, the energy price cap could rise by as much as £600. Labour has set out a fully costed plan to cut these bills, funded by a windfall levy on the oil and gas companies making the most money from the current spike in prices. Where is the Government’s plan for those energy costs? What has distracted them from producing one?

I would probably slightly disagree with the idea that Labour’s plans are fully costed, but it would not be the first time that its numbers do not add up. With regard to the responsible way forward, the right hon. Gentleman has talked about funding the NHS—a good example of something that is funded, because Government Members know that the NHS is the people’s No. 1 priority. It is right that we tackle the backlogs and reform social care, as the Prime Minister has set out, but it is also right that we fund that sustainably and responsibly, which is what this Government are committed to doing.

On Sunday, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor nailed themselves to the mast of the national insurance rise coming in this April—like Thelma and Louise, they have held hands and are going to drive off the cliff. The Chancellor says that it is all about public services, but we know that the real reason he is so desperate to stick to the timetable is so that he can implement planned tax cuts before the next election. Why should the cost of living crisis be made much worse for families this year just to fit in with the Tory party’s planning grid for the next election?

With regard to the cost of living, the Government have, as we have already discussed, put a range of measures in place to help people, not least the increase in the national living wage by £1,000 a year, the cut to the universal credit taper rate and the freezing of fuel duty. The Government will not shirk from funding the NHS sustainably and responsibly. It is the people’s No. 1 priority; the backlogs are rising at an unprecedented rate, and I think people would like to see them addressed, which can be done only with a sustainable funding stream. That is what we have created, and this is a progressive way to do it. Although these decisions are difficult, a responsible Government do not shirk from them.

Inflation is running at 5.4%, the highest level in nearly 30 years. It is already having a real and painful impact on people and businesses, with worrying reports today that increased bills are pushing businesses to lay off staff. The upcoming national insurance hike is a tax on jobs as well as on individuals. This is a cost of living crisis, yet today is the first time that the Chancellor has been to this House since the start of December, and we still do not hear a plan from him—he is too distracted by plotting for the Prime Minister’s job to help those affected by this crisis. People are struggling, so what additional practical financial support can they expect from this Chancellor, and when?

The hon. Lady talked about inflation; she is right and I am very cognisant of the anxiety that people are feeling about rising inflation. It is also right to put that in context. She said it is the highest tier since the early 1990s, and that is right. We are also seeing this as a global phenomenon—inflation in the US is running at its highest since the 1980s, and the highest since the eurozone was created—so we are not alone in facing those challenges. The Government have already set out a plan, but it is a plan that is working. In contrast to what she said about people losing their jobs, what we have seen is 11 months of falling unemployment, which is now back to the almost record pre-pandemic lows, and record numbers of people in work. That is the best way to tackle the cost of living—get people into work and make sure those jobs are well paid.

Business Investment

The Chancellor has brought forward a number of measures to encourage business investment, and I shall mention just two. Under the super deduction, from April 2021 until the end of March 2023, companies can claim a 130% capital allowance on qualifying plant and machinery investments. That is the biggest two-year business tax cut in modern British history. We have also extended the temporary £1 million annual investment allowance level until the end of March 2023.

That was an interesting answer. There is a business in my constituency, Cytronex, which has developed a green solution to increase cycling rates by converting existing bicycles into e-bikes—I recommend it. Last year, its product won the e-bike of the year award; as a result, international demand has far outstripped its ability to support it. Cytronex is passionate about manufacturing its product in Britain and even assembles its own lithium battery packs in Winchester. What more can we do to help small businesses such as Cytronex make the leap into mass production, and will one of the excellent Treasury Front-Bench team meet us to discuss how we can explore that?

Cytronex sounds like a fantastic company, and it is great to see it in Winchester. It is precisely the type of company that we want to support. As I mentioned, it could benefit from the super deduction that we have brought in. Under the super deduction, for every £1 a company invests, its taxes are cut by up to 25p. That type of investment will help manufacturing and the manufacturing sector.

Jobs and job security clearly depend on economic growth. The International Monetary Fund’s forecast putting the UK at the top of the G7 is an endorsement of this Chancellor’s and this Prime Minister’s approach to economic policy throughout covid. Will the Minister assure me and my Dudley constituents that we will increasingly return to revenue from growth as soon as possible, and continue investing in skills for jobs for the future, building on, for example, the successful delivery of Dudley’s institute of technology?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on skills, and that is exactly what the Chancellor did in the spending review, with an investment, over the Parliament, of £3.8 billion. My hon. Friend mentions the Marches institute of technology, and we are investing in a total of 21 of those innovative institutions across England. Employer-led training is key to growth, and that is why we are quadrupling the scale of skills boot camps in England, including digital skills boot camps, which are available in Dudley and funded by the Government.

Businesses in financial services are more likely to invest here as opposed to European markets if an agreement is reached with the EU on financial services regulation. Last March, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen), said that he expected such an agreement to be signed expeditiously. It still has not been. When does the Minister think the memorandum of understanding on financial services regulation will finally be signed?

The hon. Member makes an important point. Financial services are very important to the UK. We are ready to make a deal and we look forward to hearing from the EU.

A local businessman in my constituency would love to be able to invest, but he is facing business ruin because he made an order to China for some fireplace tiles worth £15,000 and, because of anti-dumping duty, customs duty and various other taxes, he is going to be charged £43,000 of costs for a £15,000 order. He is a sole business person and he is facing bankruptcy. I have contacted HMRC about this, but I seem to be hitting a dead end, so will the Minister please look into this matter and see if anything can be done to help him?

If the hon. Member wants to give me the details of her constituent’s case, I would be very happy to look into it.

Glasgow Climate Pact: Fossil Fuel Taxation

4. What assessment he has made of the compatibility of his policies on the taxation of fossil fuels with the Glasgow climate pact. (905374)

I am pleased to have an opportunity to underline the Government’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions through taxation and the UK’s success in limiting global emissions at COP26. The Government have reduced carbon emissions through their carbon pricing policies, including through the UK emissions trading scheme. We are committed to delivering on our carbon targets, and our net zero strategy sets out a roadmap for reaching net zero by 2050.

I thank the Minister for her answer, but she will know that the UK has one of the most lax tax regimes in the world for the oil and gas sector. In 2019, companies got away with paying 12.5 times less tax for a barrel of oil produced here compared with in Norway, for example. In 2020, Shell paid absolutely no tax in the UK, the only country in the world where it operates where that was the case. For 2021, HMRC expects that the industry will pocket £910 million-worth of tax reliefs for decommissioning. Given our commitments under the Glasgow climate pact, and given the fact that the oil and gas industry is currently making near-record profits while UK households are struggling with a real cost of living crisis, will the Minister address the imbalance and commit to a review of the tax regime?

The hon. Member will know that the oil and gas sector does pay significant taxes. Indeed, it pays additional taxes, and to date it has paid more than £375 billion in production taxes.

Insurance Industry Regulation

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Financial Conduct Authority on the regulation of the insurance industry. (905376)

I hold regular discussions, usually on a six-weekly basis, with the chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority on a range of issues regarding the regulation of financial markets, including the insurance market.

Insurance companies are exploiting the cladding scandal by charging leaseholders extortionate, punitive and unethical prices for their buildings insurance. The Treasury and the FCA have frankly done nothing while people are forced to find eye-watering sums of money because of a scandal that they did not cause, and there is no transparency as to how their premiums are being calculated. After many years, a Government Minister has finally written to the FCA, but will the Treasury now step up and ensure that the FCA not only looks into this matter but provides redress for my constituents and the thousands of people across this country who are experiencing severe financial distress?

The FCA has been looking at this matter, and last week my colleague the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities wrote to the FCA to ask it to look at whether there is a market failure. Since then, it has written back, with the Competition and Markets Authority, to say that they are engaging with the industry and will produce a statement on the matter in due course. I recognise the concerns that the hon. Member has raised and the dysfunctionality that may exist in the market, and it is important that that is looked at carefully.

Reform of Solvency II could unlock billions to create jobs, enhance prosperity and help to raise living standards. May I ask the Government to make some progress on this?

We are making progress. We are in deep conversations with the Prudential Regulation Authority and its actuaries on the way that the risk margin and the matching adjustments should be altered to release that additional capital. We are confident that progress will be made and we are also working closely with the insurance industry to see that that comes to pass.

National Infrastructure Projects

7. What recent estimate he has made of the value of infrastructure projects to be delivered through the national infrastructure and construction pipeline. (905377)

The 2021 national infrastructure and construction pipeline set out nearly £650 billion of planned and projected public and private investment in infrastructure over the next 10 years. Last year’s Budget and spending review set out how we will deliver on commitments in the national infrastructure strategy, and go further in providing more investment to every part of the UK.

The first great energy revolution of oil and gas saw Scottish communities largely miss out, other than in Shetland. The offshore renewables revolution is occurring off East Lothian’s coast and landing on its shores, largely then to be cabled south. Where are the jobs and benefits for the county, or the revenue that accrued to Shetland? Will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives of East Lothian Council to ensure that the offshore renewables revolution benefits the communities where it actually lands?

The Government are committed to ensuring that the whole of the United Kingdom benefits from our investment in renewables and our transition to net zero and the growth that that affords us, and I am happy to look into the matter that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Support for Lowest-income Households

9. What steps his Department is taking to increase wages and support the lowest-income households. (905379)

As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced, we are increasing the national living wage to £9.50 an hour for workers aged 23 and over from this April. That means a pay increase of £1,000 a year for a full-time worker earning the national living wage, and keeps us on track to meet our target to end low pay by the financial year 2024-25. As we have heard, we have taken further decisive action by cutting the universal credit taper rate and increasing the universal credit work allowances.

When it comes to high-paid jobs in the Ipswich area, Freeport East has generated great interest. However, my constituents are keen to see meat on the bones, and for that exciting principle to become a reality. Currently, the plan is to put in the full business case this April. Clearly, that is a most exciting prospect, being near to Ipswich. Will my right hon. Friend give me a firm guarantee that rocket boosters will be put under the plans, to ensure that the benefits of Brexit and the benefits of the freeport can be realised for my constituents as soon as possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. In the week that we announced the Brexit freedoms Bill, that is a really good example of why our decision on the Government Benches to honour the people’s decision to leave the European Union was the right one, and why the Labour party was so wrong to oppose it. The Prime Minister was at Tilbury only yesterday to identify the benefits of freeports, and I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are putting rocket boosters under this policy, for the benefit of places like Ipswich.

Does the Minister agree that some of the ways in which low-income families could be helped would be to drop the national insurance increase, which is wiping out part of the increase in the national living wage anyhow, and to drop many of the green levies, which have a massive impact on electricity bills—up to 20%?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He knows the high regard that I have for him. I do, however, respectfully disagree with him on these points. There is no other responsible way for us to finance the 9 million more checks, scans and operations that the health and social care levy will unlock than through a broad-based tax increase, which is highly designed to ensure that we protect vulnerable families, so that the 6 million lowest-paid will pay no extra tax at all as a result of the levy.

When it comes to the green levies, it is worth noting that we have reduced our reliance on natural gas, as a country, by 26% since 2010. That is saving taxpayers now, in an era of ultra-high gas prices. It is also worth noting that clean technologies are now the cheapest form of new energy to procure—cheaper than new gas.

Lower-paid, and especially young part-time workers, do not currently benefit from tax relief or employers’ contributions towards pensions under the auto-enrolment scheme. Will the Minister speak to colleagues across Government to look at extending auto-enrolment to lower-paid workers, to ensure that they get the long-term benefits?

My hon. Friend has campaigned consistently on this theme. I would certainly be very happy to have further discussions with him about it. It is worth noting, and celebrating, the fact that the proportion of people who are in low-paid work is actually at its lowest since records began in 1997.

The Trussell Trust finds that three out of four referrals are disabled people, and the Office for National Statistics finds that people who work online at home are more likely to work longer and not retire early, particularly if they are disabled. So will the Chancellor, the Treasury and the Minister look at the idea of promoting working from home after the pandemic, to help enable people with disabilities and other people to be more productive, and at the same time target more support for those in greatest need, as we have found from the Trussell Trust?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and for the spirit in which he asks it. Over the course of the spending review we are investing £1 billion in disability-related programmes, and that is an aspect that I am happy to look at further. More broadly, the Government as a whole spend £58 billion a year on wider disability support, so we certainly take that area very seriously.

Some of the lowest-income households are made up of pensioners, and important extra help for the most vulnerable is already available and budgeted for through pension credit, yet up to 1 million people—including, potentially, 4,500 pensioners in north Northamptonshire—are failing to claim up to £1.8 billion in pension credit. Please will the Government do more to promote the take-up of pension credit?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The state pension and pension credit are rising by 3.1%, which is helping to protect more than 12 million pensioners from cost of living increases. It is vital that people get the help to which they are entitled. If any Member has any practical suggestions to bring to our attention, we will happily look at those, and I will task officials to make sure that we are doing all we can.

Council Tax: Second Homes

10. What discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential merits of increasing council tax on second homes. (905380)

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman raised a similar question with the Chancellor when the Chancellor was a Local Government junior Minister. The hon. Gentleman will know that we announced in the middle of last month that we are closing a tax loophole that allowed owners of second homes who claimed that their often-empty properties were holiday lets to receive small business rates relief instead of paying council tax. We are also committed to ensuring that first-time buyers are able to get on and move up the housing ladder.

Rural Britain’s housing crisis has become a catastrophe over the last two years of the pandemic. The Chancellor will know all about that, given the kind of constituency he represents. Some 80% of all house sales in the lakes and dales in Cumbria have been to the second home market, and in some rural communities there has been a reduction in the private-rented affordable market of 70%. Local families are being forced out of our communities. The need for drastic and immediate action is obvious, well over and above what has been said. Will the Minister agree—or will she agree to persuade her right hon. Friend the Chancellor—to meet me, as the Chancellor’s constituency neighbour, to sit down and look at seven steps for saving our rural communities, so that we can prevent our towns and villages being emptied of their full-time populations? That will surely include giving councils the freedom to double council tax on second homes.

I am happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss the points he raises. We have taken a number of steps to ensure that people pay the full rate of council tax on second homes—96% of second home owners pay the full rate of council tax. He will know that the Government introduced the higher rate of stamp duty land tax for those purchasing additional properties, and only last year introduced a new SDLT surcharge of 2%, to ensure that houses are available for local people at reasonable prices. I am happy to discuss this further with him.

Kickstart Scheme

We know that young people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. I am delighted that, to date, more than 122,000 kickstart jobs have been started by young people across Great Britain, including in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall). Youth unemployment fell by 11.1% in the three months to November 2021 and is lower than it was prior to the pandemic, and in December there were half a million more employees aged under 25 than in December 2020.[Official Report, 7 February 2022, Vol. 708, c. 7MC.]

I recently visited Severn Trent Water in Gedling, and staff told me how impressed they were with the kickstarters that the company had taken on. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he is working hard to encourage more companies and organisations to get involved in the kickstart scheme, to get even more people back into work?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Kickstart is delivering valuable jobs and work experience to young jobseekers at risk of long-term unemployment. Although kickstart closed to new applications on 17 December, we are genuinely delighted at the response from employers. As I noted, more than 122,000 kickstart jobs have been started so far, and we expect more between now and the end of March. Employers should continue to engage with Department for Work and Pensions jobcentres and support the new way to work campaign to get more people into work.

In my constituency, 130 new jobs for young people have been created. A group of young people started this week at Ball Aerocan in my constituency. The company is very pleased with the scheme and the young people it found but said it took a little while to get through the system. What can the Government do to encourage businesses to make use of the scheme before it ends in March?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we want to encourage maximum uptake. Kickstart is only one part of the comprehensive package of support available to young people and, following the closure of this scheme, young jobseekers will still be able to benefit from the DWP’s wider youth offer, while work coaches across the country are working to support young people into jobs.

Young people who lost jobs during the pandemic have returned to less secure jobs, typically gig economy roles. The Resolution Foundation report published yesterday showed that one third of 18 to 34-year-olds who have returned to work have returned to atypical, insecure jobs. Almost 18 months ago, the Chancellor launched his kickstart programme, setting a target of 250,000. The Minister has said how many have found jobs, but, on the evidence of the Resolution Foundation report, those jobs just are not there and they are typically insecure.

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman confuses what he is talking about. The fact that we have not hit the target is precisely a reflection of the fact that the wider economic recovery has been so strong. It is a measure of the success of the wider recovery that we simply do not need to offer those opportunities and that the regular economy is generating them.

I have heard from so many on the Government Benches how good the kickstart scheme is. It has huge potential, but I keep telling the Treasury Bench to get their finger out and get on with it. It needs to be bigger and better; it must be linked to green skills and real opportunities for getting young people to roll up their sleeves and work in the community. It could be backed by a windfall profit tax on supermarkets and others, or on the gambling industry. Get on with it!

We are getting on with it. I remind the hon. Gentleman that when we compare the scheme to the last Labour Government’s future jobs fund, we see that we have already comfortably exceeded the number of young people it supported into work. Those are good, well-paying jobs in sectors that, he rightly highlights, are some of those of the future.

Public Spending: Value for Money

I will comment specifically on some of the fraud relating to Government economic support schemes put in place during the pandemic. My colleagues and I share the anger and frustration of hon. Members across this House and of people across this country that schemes designed to help businesses to get through an unprecedented crisis were exploited by a minority. We rightly placed an emphasis on speed when introducing those schemes, but we will robustly pursue anyone who has taken advantage of the Exchequer.

I welcome the Minister’s response, but does he realise that people in Blackburn are really concerned about our cost-of-living crisis? They have a right to expect this Government to be prudent with the public purse, but what they find is that this Government simply do not operate under normal rules. They have hit working people and ordinary businesses with tax rises, yet wasted billions of pounds on contracts, fraud and outsourcing. Does the Minister accept that people should not have to pay for a Conservative tax rise when billions in taxpayers’ money has been leaked due to fraud and mistakes—or, as Lord Agnew said last week, “schoolboy errors”?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I completely agree that we want to pursue fraud whenever it has occurred. That is why, at the March 2021 Budget, we established a £100 million taskforce with more than 1,000 employees, designed precisely to go after every penny that has been taken by people not entitled to it. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has already recovered and prevented £743 million-worth of loss; the taskforce is expected to recover £800 million to £1 billion from fraudulent or incorrect payments over the two years of its existence, and HMRC reserves the right to carry on for as long as it takes.

I welcome the Chancellor’s clear confirmation last week that, far from writing off any of that money, the Government are going after everyone who has claimed it fraudulently. However, it is important to remember the context. The businesses in my constituency know the jobs that were saved by the rapid roll-out of bounce back loans and furlough and know that the Chancellor had to balance those constraints: while it is right to go after criminals, it was also right to make fast, smart decisions to protect thousands of jobs across our nation.

My right hon. Friend puts it extremely well. We must remember the context: the economy was going through a heart attack at that time, owing to the necessary steps we took to support wider public health. I would remind the Opposition Benches that the shadow Chancellor wrote to the Chancellor at the time, describing the loan scheme application process as “cumbersome” and calling for access to be made easier. We were operating in that context of needing to ensure that businesses could access the support to which they were legitimately entitled.

What does the Minister think would happen to an employee in the private sector who lost more than £4 billion of someone else’s money to fraud, having ignored numerous warnings? Would they really be eyeing up a possible promotion, or is it more likely that they would be sacked on the spot?

We are running the Government of the United Kingdom, and we needed to respond at speed to an unprecedented public health emergency. If we had failed to provide the £400 billion of support that we gave, we would have seen the worst fears, with millions of people unemployed and thousands of companies closing. We struck the right balance in getting that support out to firms and then building in the protections needed to protect the taxpayer interest, and we are, as I have said, going to go after anybody who has defrauded the Exchequer.

Topical Questions

Thanks to our vaccine booster roll-out, we now have one of the most open economies in Europe, and thanks to our economic plan, we are set to have one of the highest growth rates in the G7 this year and last. We continue to deliver on our plan for jobs, doubling down with a new target to move half a million more people off welfare and into work by the end of June. Unemployment is falling and is now down to almost record lows. Youth unemployment is already at record lows. All of this shows that our plan for jobs is working.

People in Ukraine are living in dread at the prospect of Russian invasion. While the UK Government talk tough about sanctions, US think-tanks warn that the UK is such a haven for money laundering that such sanctions would not be meaningful. Will the Chancellor take heed of Lord Agnew’s powerful resignation speech and bring his powerful economic crime Bill before the House as soon as possible?

With regard to sanctions, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), nothing is off the table. It is right that we work with our international partners to develop the most robust sanctions package that we can. The hon. Lady can rest assured that I and my team are doing that. With regard to the economic crime Bill, which contains important measures to strengthen our ability to tackle money laundering, obviously it would not be right for me to pre-empt the Queen’s Speech, but the hon. Lady can be assured that I, the Home Secretary and others fully support the Bill.

T2.   Will my right hon. Friend urgently review the Government’s pothole fund and consider whether the level is sufficient to adequately maintain the road networks, given the current rising cost of materials and labour? Will he also consider setting the budgets for three or more years ahead, to allow councils to plan more effectively, rather than it being an annual allocation? (905363)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about giving local councils that certainty to plan budgets years at a time. That is why I am pleased that last year’s spending review was a multi-year spending review—the first we have had in some time—so there are now three-year budgets in place to enable that planning. In terms of the overall quantum, it is £2.7 billion, which represents a 10% increase on the amount we spent on local maintenance in the last Parliament. Hopefully that is reassuring to her and her local council.

Mr Speaker:

“Schoolboy errors… a combination of arrogance, indolence and ignorance… nothing less than woeful.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 January 2022; Vol. 818, c. 20-21.]

Those are not my words, but those of former Treasury Minister, Lord Agnew. Some £4.3 billion of taxpayers’ money has been written off as a result of the Chancellor’s fraud failures; a thousand loans were made to companies that were not even trading at the start of the pandemic; and £50,000 was awarded to a person with 48 criminal convictions, and £25,000 to a drugs gang. Is the Chancellor really saying that such examples strike the right balance between getting money to the businesses that need it and looking after the public finances? Will he inform the House of the total amount lost to fraud underwritten by the Treasury and the amount recovered to date?

First, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Lord Agnew for all his work. I am very grateful to him for everything that he did, and of course we will listen to what he has to say. With regard to the hon. Lady’s questions, she talked about fraud estimates. It is important to be clear, as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, that nothing has been written off in that regard—we are going after each and every person we suspect of defrauding the taxpayer. I am pleased to tell her that the original estimate of £4.9 billion of fraud—it was an estimate, independently provided—has already been revised down by a third since it was first published, thanks to the actions that we are taking. She asked how much has been paid out already, and I can confirm that the sum total to date is £13 million.

It is in black and white on the Government’s own website still today, and in the Government accounts—£4.3 billion written off. Despite the Chancellor’s words, “written off” means giving up on that money. This is just the tip of the iceberg. [Interruption.] It is on the Government’s website and in the Government’s accounts. Can he tell us how many of the covid fraud cases have gone to court? Given his failure, will he ask the National Crime Agency to conduct a full investigation into all cases of covid fraud and ensure that those responsible are held to account? It is not the Chancellor’s money to write off; it is the public’s money, and the public want their money back.

It is great that the Labour party has realised that it is the taxpayer’s money and not the Government’s money. I am glad that it has joined us in recognising that. I can say categorically that no one has written this off; we are going after it, as the Chief Secretary said. We invested £100 million last March in creating a taxpayer protection taskforce staffed with over 1,200 people to recover hopefully up to £1 billion. That is just one of the many things we are doing, as well as taking more powers to go after rogue directors, enabling Companies House to do exactly that. The hon. Lady asked about the National Crime Agency. I am pleased to tell her that it has already helped in investigations that have led to 13 arrests with regard to bounce back fraud, so that work is already under way.

T4. Does the Chancellor agree that one of the key lessons from the pandemic was about helping people to improve their own financial resilience by saving? Will he now finally support measures to extend auto-enrolment down to the first pound of earnings and down to those aged 18, so that we can help everyone start saving for a pension for their retirement? (905365)

My hon. Friend, who has great expertise in this area, makes a reasonable point. The Government’s Help to Save scheme is under way, but the Government continue to work very closely with the Money and Pensions Service to look at new ways of increasing financial resilience and getting young people to understand the opportunities of saving earlier.

Lord Agnew resigned because he could no longer defend the level of fraud in the bounce back loan scheme and the lack of action to tackle it. Much of that has been facilitated by the absolute shambles of the Companies House register. I do not want Ministers to fob this off to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, because that is exactly the disconnected approach that Lord Agnew criticised. If there is an economic crime Bill, will Ministers take action to give Companies House anti-money laundering responsibility, rather than watching as fraudsters using UK shell companies waltz off with billions of pounds of public money?

I am grateful to be able to confirm to the hon. Lady, as I have on numerous occasions in Committees over the last two or three years, that this is a key priority for us in the Treasury. Obviously, as the Chancellor said, we cannot comment on future legislative agendas, but the measures she mentions, picking up on the Financial Action Task Force report from 2018 with respect to Companies House, are something we agree with.

T5. Does my hon. Friend have plans to help high streets such as that in Barnstaple in North Devon, which has many large vacant units with several storage floors above them, with measures such as business rates reform or a redevelopment fund, to enable those empty buildings to be repurposed and become smaller units combined with much-needed housing, so that town centres can bounce back after covid? (905366)

Like my hon. Friend, I am keen to support high streets in towns such as Barnstaple. At the autumn Budget, we announced business rates relief for thousands of retail, hospitality and leisure businesses to help them get through the pandemic and adapt to wider economic changes. I would also point my hon. Friend to the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund and encourage Barnstaple to apply for round 2, which will be opening this spring.

Last month, the Government came out against Labour’s plan to help people on modest incomes pay their energy bills using a one-off £1.2 billion windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas producers. The Education Secretary complained that oil and gas companies are “already struggling”. The truth is that pensioners and people on modest incomes are the ones who are struggling. Oil and gas companies are expected to report near-record income this year. Will Ministers now admit that the Government have got it wrong and commit to looking again at our plan?

The hon. Member will know that the oil and gas industry pays a significant amount in taxation—I mentioned the figure earlier. In terms of helping people who are struggling with their bills, he will know that we already have the energy price cap, the winter fuel payment, the warm home discount and the cold weather payment. We are looking out for and supporting those on the lowest income to enable them to get through this difficult period.

T7.   Pubs, restaurants, cafés and hotels were brought to their knees again over the festive period as people simply stayed at home. Will the Financial Secretary consider extending the reduced rate of VAT on hospitality and tourism to help those hard-hit businesses? (905368)

My hon. Friend will know that we have already made a significant input to support those in the hospitality and tourism industries. He will know that we extended the 5% reduced rate of VAT for those sectors to the end of September. On 1 October, we reduced the rate to 12.5%. That relief has cost the Government and the taxpayer more than £8 billion. Although all taxes are kept under review, there are no plans to extend the 12.5% reduced VAT rate.

T3. Threats to Putin’s regime would be stronger if the Government had implemented the recommendations of the 2020 Russia report. The lack of progress in the registration of overseas entities Bill and the economic crime Bill rings alarm bells here and with our allies. Will the Chancellor explain his failure to take action in our national interest and name a date for that to be remedied? (905364)

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the measures that we can take to strengthen the powers against money laundering and illicit crime. Those measures require legislation, as he knows. Although I cannot pre-empt the Queen’s Speech, he should know that I, the Home Secretary and others strongly support the inclusion of the economic crime Bill, which contains those measures.

T8. I have heard a great deal from the local authorities that serve my constituency about the benefits of early intervention, especially when it comes to tackling poverty and disadvantage. What assessment is the Treasury planning to undertake to establish the benefits to taxpayers of that investment in vital services? (905370)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor worked closely with him in his previous post as a local government Minister. The supporting families programme provides funding for local authorities to deliver early intervention in children’s services. The programme was the subject of a robust national evaluation between 2015 and 2020, which demonstrated that in addition to improved outcomes for children and families, it delivered a return on investment of £2.28 of economic benefits for every £1 spent.

T6. Government Ministers will know that bus manufacture is an important skilled employment base in the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The zero-emission bus regional areas programme, which is due to bring in innovation in engine technology, is supposed to be technologically neutral, even though we know that hydrogen buses almost certainly create more jobs in the UK. In that context, can the Chancellor tell us why every scheme so far has been for electric vehicles and not hydrogen technology? Is that a Treasury bias or a bias in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy? (905367)

I am happy to look at the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. I do not think there is a bias against that. The spending review contained billions of pounds for new bus transformation deals across the country and thousands more zero-emission buses. I know that the Prime Minister is passionate about hydrogen buses, so we will look into it and get back to the hon. Gentleman.

I have no argument against compensation being paid to the victims of the London Capital & Finance scandal, but I am concerned that they were paid 80% of the losses, yet the 800,000 victims of Equitable Life received only 22%. Does the Minister agree that it is a principle of fairness and of ensuring that people who save for their retirement are properly compensated?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has a long-standing interest in the issue. The difference between the two is that people received compensation from Equitable Life on the basis of relative losses, which is the gap between what they received from their policy and what they could have expected from investing in a similar product. With LCF, the bondholders were expected to lose the majority of their principal investment and stood to get less back than they put in. The schemes were looked at in the context of their respective instruments and appropriate support was given. There are no plans to open up compensation for Equitable Life again.

The Budget confirmed that total funding through the UK shared prosperity fund will, at a minimum, match the size of EU funds in each nation, and in Cornwall. If the Treasury were to do the same with all the other less-developed regions, as it should, South Yorkshire would be on course to receive £900 million of investment over the next seven years. Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury give an assurance that we will get our fair share?

I have the highest regard for the hon. Gentleman, and he is a doughty champion for the people of South Yorkshire. The levelling up White Paper will be a key moment in setting out our plans in that space, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be coming to the House shortly to set out our plans in that regard.

I welcome the Government’s intent that levelling up should be measured by more than simply spending money. Indeed, the data that is collected across the UK to measure its effect varies. What is my right hon. Friend doing to address that, and will he reassure Aberconwy residents of an effective UK-wide levelling up?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we should indeed measure success in outcomes, not just inputs. The Department’s delivery of levelling up ambitions will be monitored, and it will of course be held to account. I point my hon. Friend towards the levelling up White Paper, which will be published shortly.

Going after money means that the Chancellor is recovering a debt, so there is a hole in the finances. Will the Chancellor tell the House this: why did Lord Agnew resign?

Lord Agnew, obviously, has spoken for himself, and I do nothing but thank him for his service. We look forward to continue working on all the areas he has mentioned, in most of which we are already undertaking work. We are relentless in our aim to tackle those who have defrauded the taxpayer, and we will not stop until we have got as much back as we can.

The Wrexham Gateway levelling-up fund bid attracts around £35 million of private finance. However, that investment in Wrexham will depend on a successful levelling-up fund bid the next time round. Will the Minister explain what considerations are made for bids with substantial private investment?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for Wrexham, and for wider pride in north Wales, which is incredibly important. I am happy to meet her to discuss any aspect of the bid process that it would be helpful to discuss further.

Will the Chancellor confirm or deny that millions of pounds of taxpayers’ funds have been sunk into an online gambling company with the Government’s start-up scheme? If so, is this the right time to invest in a private gambling firm, since a review of the Gambling Act 2005 is already being undertaken?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. This relates to the future fund, a rules-based scheme that means that any firm is eligible for funding, providing it meets the required eligibility criteria for the scheme and passes the necessary checks. Neither the Government nor the British Business Bank chose specific investments; it is about helping innovative equity-backed companies to weather the economic disruption caused by covid and continue their long-term growth projection.

I commend my right hon. Friend for the steps he has taken to level up in Darlington, with the establishment of the Darlington economic campus. Will he update the House on the progress to bring high-quality, well-paid jobs to my constituency?

I am delighted to update the House on the progress the Treasury is making with our Darlington economic campus. We have already recruited more than 100 Treasury employees to be based in Darlington, and we are on track for our ambition of 300 employees based there.