May I start again and say that, subject to your agreement, Mr Speaker, I may be talking for rather a long time on Thursday, so I will be brief today? I will just say that, despite the difficulty of the package I will be announcing, I will sadly not be drinking any whisky as I do so.
I thank the Chancellor for the work he is doing and congratulate him on his new post. We hope that he lasts the week, or maybe the fortnight. The Government scandalously allowed organised criminals and fraudsters to take billions of pounds of public money through covid loan fraud as a result of the lack of proper checks. Estimates suggest that that has cost taxpayers £33 billion. Why should hardworking people pay for the Prime Minister’s fraud failures when he was Chancellor, and for the mini-Budget fiasco of the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), who crashed the—
Of course, there are lessons to be learned about the way those schemes were administered, but I am very proud that unemployment remains at a 50-year low because of the decisions that the Prime Minister took on the furlough scheme and Government-backed loans. That was the right thing to do.
I regularly visit small businesses and entrepreneurs across my constituency of Bexleyheath and Crayford. They are the backbone of our local economy, but like families, they have been badly hit by the cost of living. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that this Government will do all they can to help small businesses across the country to thrive?
That is what Conservatives are all about so I am happy to give him that assurance. It is not just words; it is action: the halving of business rates for most retail, hospitality and leisure businesses; the freezing of the multiplier on business rates; the furlough scheme; the Government-backed loans and the energy price support that we are giving businesses. All that is because this Government back business.
Today’s numbers show that real wages are down £1,000 a year. The Chancellor himself has admitted that the NHS is on the brink of collapse, and he is preparing for more stealth taxes on working people later this week. Getting our economy firing on all cylinders is essential for fixing this mess, so will the Chancellor tell the House where the UK is projected to finish in OECD growth rates over the next year?
May I say what a pleasure it is to do my first questions session with the right hon. Lady? I will very happily tell her about the international situation. Inflation is higher in Germany, the Netherlands, the eurozone and Italy. Our growth forecasts are falling less than the forecasts in Germany. Interest rates since the pandemic have gone up less here than in America, Canada and New Zealand.
“Despite what some…suggest, the recession has not been restricted to the UK, nor did it begin here.”—[Official Report, 24 March 2010; Vol. 508, c. 249.]
Those are not my words, but those of Alistair Darling in 2010. If the right hon. Lady wants to be the next Chancellor, she should listen to the last Labour Chancellor.
It would be nice if the Chancellor tried to answer some of the questions.
Out of 38 advanced OECD economies, the UK is forecast to finish last. That is 38th out of 38. All industrialised economies have had to face covid and the consequences of Russia’s illegal war, yet our country is trailing behind because of Conservative choices and Conservative failure. There is an alternative. Why does not the Chancellor match Labour’s ambitions for British industries in hydrogen, insulation, carbon capture, solar, nuclear and wind power to create new jobs here in Britain?
We will have many exchanges, so I ask the hon. Lady, when she picks a statistic about next year’s growth, not to do so too selectively because this year, we have the fastest growth in the G7. Since 2010, we have had the third highest growth rate in the G7, and we have the lowest unemployment for more than 40 years. That is because Conservatives take the difficult decisions that are necessary to make our economy thrive.
Further to my previous answer, the Government are serious about delivering cheaper, cleaner and more secure power. That is why we included onshore wind and solar in the latest contracts for difference auction round, and we will include them in future rounds. The Government recognise the range of community views on onshore wind and the need the prioritise our most productive farmland for food production. It is important that the Government strike the right balance between community interests, food security and securing a clean, green energy system for the future. That is why the planning system is designed to take account of those issues.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Austerity is a damaging Tory political choice, which is responsible for 330,000 excess deaths. A responsible and compassionate Government would explore all options to avoid it. Will the Chancellor consider taxing share buy-backs, as the US and Canada have done? The Institute for Public Policy Research and Common Wealth have pointed out that oil and gas, financial services and other companies have funnelled their mega-profits into share buy-backs. Does the Chancellor agree that that is inexcusable when he wants to hike taxes on working people and slash public services?
The hon. Member had better listen to what we say on Thursday before she jumps to conclusions. We will approach the difficult situation that we face progressively. We will ask those who have more to give more. I advise her not to talk down the financial services and energy industries, which employ thousands of people in Scotland.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the challenge of the past two years. Nationally, we are spending £140 billion more on energy. That is almost like supporting an entire second NHS. We have to have a long-term solution that is about energy independence and energy efficiency.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I represent a rural constituency, where probably the majority of households use heating oil. As he knows, the alternative fuel payment will ensure that all households that do not benefit from the energy price guarantee receive support for the cost of the fuel they use. We are currently consulting the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on the timing and delivery mechanism for the alternative fuel payment. We are committed to delivering it this winter.
My hon. Friend, like The Sun newspaper, is a champion of motorists, hauliers and all those in his constituency who rely on petrol and diesel vehicles for their—[Interruption.] Opposition Members laugh, but my hon. Friend is standing up for his constituents and doing the right thing. He is absolutely right to highlight the huge tax cut we put in place in the spring statement, worth £2.4 billion, through 5p a litre off the duty rate on petrol and diesel for 12 months. Of course, I cannot make fiscal decisions at the Dispatch Box, but we do keep these matters under review.
The Government are completely committed to levelling up. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a second round of bids for the levelling-up fund. The results will be announced in due course, but he has made a very effective representation on behalf of his constituents and local authority.
As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on personal banking and fairer financial services, I have been in protracted correspondence with the Financial Conduct Authority about the Blackmore Bond scandal. Despite receiving more than 30 complaints and a whistleblower producing evidence, the FCA refused to investigate. I realise that it predates my hon. Friend’s appointment, but will he investigate this and force the FCA to take action?
I thank my hon. Friend for raising this case. It was, sadly, outside the FCA perimeter, but I would be happy to meet him, because I understand that it raises important issues for him and his constituents.
I welcomed the Chancellor’s predecessor to Rother Valley in the summer, to show him Dinnington high street and the money that was needed to upgrade it. He agreed to meet me further about levelling up. Will the Chancellor come to Rother Valley and Dinnington high street to see the levelling-up fund money that we need when the bid is in, and will he look kindly on our bid and make sure the whole of Rother Valley is levelled up?
I will happily meet the hon. Member to understand more details of the case. It is important that the FCA provides protection for consumers. That is one of the objectives of the Financial Services and Markets Bill, which is currently going through Parliament.
OnSide’s youth centres do an incredible job of transforming people’s lives, and I think young people in my constituency deserve that opportunity too. Will the Chancellor support my calls for the levelling-up fund to be spent on that important project in West Bromwich?
I believe it will do that, because the cost of living crisis is at the top of our minds. We recognise the hard work that public servants do in a whole range of sectors and, as I know, with my background, in the health service as well. We must tread a fine line, however, because if we give inflation-busting pay awards to people who may deserve them and may be working extremely hard, that will fuel further inflation. We need to get the right long-term solution that brings down the root cause of people’s anger, which is over-high inflation.
The Bedford to Cambridge section of East West Rail is rated “unachievable” by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority and a “waste of taxpayers’ money” by the Business Secretary, and growth in the Ox-Cam arc does not depend on it. Can the Chancellor use the autumn statement to finally clear the uncertainty around this deeply flawed project?
I paid tribute to my hon. Friend’s huge business experience and his time at the Treasury on Second Reading of the UK Infrastructure Bank Bill. Perhaps we should both read the report that my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart) referred to earlier, because as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) knows, we strongly support the growth potential of the Ox-Cam arc. After all, that part of the country is internationally competitive, so it is the sort of place that we need to grow if we are to compete internationally.
Government advice to sit in the shade is not enough to protect our skin. Sunscreen products need to be more affordable. Will the Minister work with me and support my VAT Burn campaign to save the NHS money, keep more cash in our constituents’ pockets and help to protect our skin from melanoma and non-melanoma cancers?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. The Government received about £143 billion in the last financial year from value added tax, which helps to pay for the services that we all care about, such as the national health service, so strict restrictions have been placed on the goods that can be exempted from VAT. I understand her concerns, however, and I would be happy to meet her to discuss what other forms of support we can provide. For example, we can commend Tesco, which has taken the decision not to charge VAT on its products.
The noble Lord Berkeley in the other place has estimated that scrapping HS2 would save the British taxpayer £147 billion—more pessimistic estimates have the saving at £100 billion. With a day of difficult decisions coming up on Thursday, surely scrapping HS2 is an easy one?
My hon. Friend is consistent on this point. We are always keen to hear savings suggestions from colleagues, but to be clear, HS2 is a long-term investment that will bring our biggest cities closer together and boost productivity. It currently supports 29,000 jobs and will create 2,000 apprenticeships. Through better connecting the country, it will open up new employment and leisure opportunities for millions of people.
The Chancellor just mentioned my good friend Lord Alistair Darling. He should also look at the recent speech made in Huddersfield by another former Chancellor, Sir John Major. His analysis of what has happened to our economy since the Conservatives took over in 2010 is an absolute masterclass in what has gone wrong and what needs to be put right. Will the Chancellor read it and think about it before Thursday?
As the Chancellor prepares for his autumn statement, will he remember the good voters of middle England—people who have rarely, if ever, been on benefits and who have worked all their lives for their mortgage and pension pot? They fear that more and more of them will be dragged into becoming higher rate taxpayers and that their pension pot will be attacked so that the state can get larger and more can be spent on those on benefits.
Absolutely. I say to my right hon. Friend that it is the good voters of middle England who want us to be a country that pays its way, that does not borrow at the expense of future generations, and that can be trusted when it comes to sound money. That is what we will deliver.
Skyrocketing inflation, much of it caused by calamities on the Government Benches, means that the Scottish Government’s annual budget is worth up to £900 million less than it was just a few weeks ago. When will the UK Government devolve more borrowing powers to Scotland, so we can give the extra, desperately needed assistance to those struggling the most in our country?
I spoke about such matters with Jon Swinney, in my second conversation with him since appointment three weeks ago, last evening. We discussed a range of matters, and I will always try to be as constructive as I can to find ways forward when the whole of the United Kingdom faces the inflationary scourge everywhere.
In a letter to the Chancellor last week, Lord Deben, the chair of the Climate Change Committee, said clearly that demand reduction is “now the biggest gap” in UK energy policy. Will Thursday’s autumn statement include an emergency investment of at least £3.6 billion over the course of this Parliament, so we can finally roll out the long-awaited and very overdue home insulation programme that this country needs?