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Treasury

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 20 June 2023

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Financial Ombudsman Service Decisions: Cost of Implementation

1. Whether he has held discussions with banks on the costs of implementation of Financial Ombudsman Service decisions. (905496)

The Financial Ombudsman Service offers a proportionate and informal resolution of disputes that is cost-free for consumers. Where it upholds a complaint against a firm, it can award redress for that concern to that consumer. I work very closely with my officials and with the Financial Ombudsman Service to make sure consumers have the justice they require.

I thank the Minister for that that response. This has been an ongoing issue in the House for some time, and I spoke to some of the Minister’s colleagues beforehand. The Chancellor and the Minister will know that the parliamentary ombudsman found that 1 million Equitable Life savers lost money as a direct result of Government decisions. Why, then, are the Government holding themselves to a different standard and ignoring the wishes of the parliamentary ombudsman, having paid victims of the Equitable Life scandal only 22% of the money they lost from their pension funds? I say that with great respect, but I do think we need an answer.

I respect the hon. Member for raising this issue. It has however, been raised many times before in this House, and answered from this Dispatch Box as well.

Cost of Living

2. What fiscal steps he plans to take to help reduce the impact of recent increases in the cost of living on households. (905497)

5. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effects of his policies on inflation on the cost of living. (905500)

12. What recent assessment he has made of the potential effects of his policies on inflation on the cost of living. (905509)

We know the pain that households up and down the country are going through as a result of the cost of living pressures at the moment, and have announced one of the largest support packages in Europe, worth around £3,300 per household this year and last.

The latest report from Which? highlights that even supermarkets’ own budget brands of food have increased in price by 26.6%. There are security locks on baby formula milk, at the same time as corporations are making vast profits. The Government have signed up to the United Nations’ sustainable development goal of eradicating poverty by 2030. Surely, in the light of those commitments, now is the time for the Chancellor to act. Will he cap essential food prices and tackle the grotesque profiteering in the food industry that is driving many of my constituents in Liverpool, West Derby into poverty?

I totally respect the hon. Gentleman for raising the concerns of his constituents in the way that he has done. I do not believe that capping prices is the right long-term solution, but we are doing a lot, including payments of £900 per household for people on means-tested benefits, £150 for households with someone disabled living in them and £300 for households with pensioners living in them, precisely because we want to help the people that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. I will be meeting the regulators next week to talk further about what needs to be done with respect to supermarkets.

Over the weekend, the former Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, spoke about how before the Brexit referendum, the Bank of England had set out that the likely consequences of Brexit were

“a weaker pound, higher inflation and weaker growth”.

Does the Chancellor think it is fair that the UK Government’s decision to ignore the stark warnings from the Bank of England are now being paid for by the households who can least afford it?

I am afraid that I do not buy this Brexit narrative from the SNP. Food price inflation has been around 20% in Germany, Sweden, Portugal and Poland in recent times, so this is not a UK-specific issue. We are all dealing with the consequences of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the aftermath of the pandemic, and we are all tackling it with one central focus, which is to bring down inflation as our overriding priority.

The former US Treasury chief said earlier this month that Brexit was a “historic economic error”, and described the UK Government’s economic policy as having been

“substantially flawed for some years”.

Will the Chancellor finally face up to what the rest of the world can see, and admit that leaving the world’s largest single market has not only had a significant impact on inflation, but a deleterious impact on household finances across the country?

The issue with that argument is that the UK has actually grown faster than France or Italy since we left the single market, and according to the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, the UK economy is “on the right track”.

I thank my right hon. Friend for all he has done for people in Rossendale and Darwen to help them through this cost of living crisis, but people are very concerned about what is being described as the mortgage bomb about to go off. Is now the time for him to look at reintroducing the bold Conservative idea of mortgage interest relief at source? If we do not help families now, all the other money that we spent to help them will have been wasted if they lose their home.

No one in Rossendale and Darwen could have a more doughty champion than my right hon. Friend, and I listen to what he says carefully, but I think he will understand that those schemes that involve injecting large amounts of cash into the economy right now would be inflationary. So much as we sympathise with the difficulties and will do everything we can to help people seeing their mortgage costs go up, we will not do anything that would mean we prolonged inflation.

The cost of a two-year fixed mortgage in March 2021 was 2.57%; this week, it reached 6%. The Chancellor and the Economic Secretary have said there are no plans to change the Bank of England inflation target, meaning that the base rate that drives the mortgage rate will continue to rise as inflation stays stubbornly high, and mortgages will go up. In the absence of such a change, what do the Government plan to do to actually tackle the mortgage pain people are suffering?

First, I would say to the right hon. Member that he is talking about something that is being experienced across the world. In fact, interest rates have risen faster in the United States and Canada than they have here. The answer is that we will look at doing everything we can to help people under pressure, but we will not do things that would prolong the inflationary agony that people are going through. We have to be very careful, because a lot of the schemes that are being proposed would actually make inflation worse, not better.

On the issue of inflation, the Office for Budget Responsibility said in March that inflation was due to peak at 2.9% at the end of this year. By May, the Bank of England had forecast that it would be 5% at the end of this year, so it had almost doubled in the space of two months. Given that headline inflation is still 8.7% and food inflation is 16.5%, will the Chancellor guarantee today that inflation will be halved to 5%, as promised by the Prime Minister in January of this year?

The IMF, the OBR and the Bank of England all predict that we will hit our target to halve inflation, and I give the right hon. Member this guarantee: we will stick to the plan to do so.

Growth Plan of 23 September 2022 and Cost of Mortgages

3. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of the growth plan of 23 September 2022 on mortgage rates. (905498)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of the growth plan of 23 September 2022 on mortgage rates. (905504)

10. If he will make an assessment of the implications for his Department’s policies of the cost of mortgage products. (905506)

We recognise that this is a concerning time for homeowners and mortgage holders, but we cannot ignore the fact, much as some may wish to, that interest rates have risen across western economies as a result of the covid pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine. The Bank of England sets the base rate, which can have an effect on mortgage pricing, and the Bank has been independent since the decision of the then Labour Government in 1997. We remain committed to responsible management to bring inflation under control, which is the only sustainable way to lower interest rates and lower mortgage rates.

The former Prime Minister has apologised for the mistakes in her so-called growth plan and the damage it caused. Families across the UK will soon start paying thousands more in mortgage interest payments. Given the Prime Minister’s comments yesterday, it appears that there is little or no further support coming. Will the Minister join the former Prime Minister and apologise to the nation for the impact of the Conservative party’s misguided economic experiment?

Much as the Opposition would prefer this not to be the case, it is a fact that this is impacting across western economies. Although market-to-market comparisons are not always easy, in the United States of America the average 30-year mortgage has now increased to above 6%. As I have said, this Government will do what we can sustainably to lower interest rates, and thereby ease the burden on mortgage holders.

This is the second time I am putting it to the Government that the Conservatives are no longer the party of home ownership, and I do not think it will be the last time either. I say this because the average interest rate on a new two-year fixed mortgage is now above 6%. The Chancellor has already said that they will do everything they can, but what does that actually mean, because the public would like to know?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Not only are we taking action and taking the tough decisions to sustainably improve the nation’s finances, but we are working with lenders—the Chancellor and I regularly meet the mortgage industry—on the support they can provide to mortgage holders if they do get into financial difficulties. There is a range of measures, which includes term extensions and switches to interest-only payment holidays. The Financial Conduct Authority guidance is very clear that any repossessions—and they are currently running at a historical low—should be an absolute last resort.

As a result of the 6% rate that we have heard about, more than 1 million households on flexible-rate mortgages have already faced increases this year, and 1.8 million more will see their fixed-rate deals come to an end and face increases in this year. It is not just homeowners. The knock-on effect has meant that in my constituency in Edinburgh, we have had the highest rental inflation anywhere in the country at 13.7% in the last financial year, because landlords are facing increases in their mortgages. The Government have said that they are willing to support people, so would they be willing to consider the Liberal Democrat idea of a mortgage protection fund to protect those on the lowest incomes, and support those who are struggling?

I thank the hon. Member for her question, but regrettably the proposal that she and her party put forward would not only delay the point at which we are able to bear down on inflation and deliver the nation’s mortgage holders the lower interest they need but, as I understand, it would do nothing for the plight of private renters.

The growth plan in September obviously had an impact on the mortgage market, but is the Economic Secretary to the Treasury aware that by November, the Governor of the Bank of England said, when he gave evidence to our Committee, that the increases in mortgages henceforth were down to the Bank of England’s own increases, because that temporary effect from the growth plan had dissipated? Increases since then have been largely due to the fact that inflation has been worse than the Bank was forecasting. Did the Economic Secretary note that this week I received a letter from the Chair of the Court of the Bank of England, saying that they are going to undertake the request that I sent for them to look at their inflation modelling and at why it has been incorrect?

Not for the first time, the Chair of the Treasury Committee is on the money in her understanding of what is driving the markets, and in her advocacy and championing of the fact that our lending banks need to do a good job not just for mortgage holders, but also for savers. I am happy to meet her to talk about how we can ensure that they do the best job they can.

In his earlier reply the Minister talked about mortgages in the United States. He will know that in the United States it is common to fix a mortgage for 15 or 30 years, which gives certainty about monthly repayments and can of course be refinanced if mortgage rates go down over the term of the mortgage. I understand that the UK Treasury looked at the UK mortgage markets and at introducing long-term fixed rates, and found that at that time there was not much potential. Will he consider looking at that again?

As ever, my hon. Friend’s question is apposite when it comes to Treasury matters. There are indeed long-term fixed-rate mortgages on the market, and I have taken advice from officials on that. The constraining factor is consumer demand, and that is not a pattern of behaviour we have seen. Clearly for some mortgage holders such mortgages do offer long-term certainty, and it is certainly my objective for us to see the broadest range of choices for householders and for their own individual patterns in the market.

Mortgage payers in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke are rightly worried at this moment in time, with the impending re-brokering that they are facing. To support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Sir Jake Berry) said earlier, is it time to return to a Conservative principle of introducing a mortgage interest relief at source-type scheme, which allows borrowers tax relief for interest payments on their mortgages?

I always listen enormously carefully to my hon. Friend’s powerful advocacy for Stoke-on-Trent, and his constituents put their trust in this Government. One thing they put their trust in, is that this Government would not come forward with the sort of unfunded spending commitments that we see on the Labour Benches. That would be disastrous for my hon. Friend’s constituents because it would see inflation remain higher for longer.

The only thing that grew as a result of what the Government did last September was people’s mortgage payments. Two-year fixed rates are now more than 6%, and payments for householders are up £2,900 over the next year. Have the Government learned the lesson from the previous Prime Minister’s decision—I stress that word; it is nothing to do with international events—to use the country as a giant economic experiment that hurt homeowners, pushed up interest rates and shook international confidence in the United Kingdom? If they have, will the Minister now apologise to the householders who are paying the price for that mistake?

As ever, I listened carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s rhetoric. I ask him whether he has learned the lesson from what we saw with the last Labour Government, who spent their way through the nation’s finances and whose most lasting contribution to the economy was a note that we inherited from the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury saying there was no money left.

Back to 2023. This is a real crisis, affecting real people as a result of the real decisions of the Minister’s Government. Figures out today show that the average UK tenant is spending more than 28% of their income on rent, and rents have gone up by more than 10% in the past year. Rents are being forced up because the landlords who people rent from are seeing their mortgages go up, too, and sometimes even faster than mortgages in general. The Chancellor and the Prime Minister were supposed to be the team that would come in and sort everything out. Can the Minister tell us what went wrong?

What went right is the fact that we on the Government Benches not only always focus on the stability of the nation’s finances to get inflation and interest rates falling further and faster than the Opposition would, but even within that envelope, we found £3,300 on average to support households over last winter and the upcoming winter. That will have a significant impact on the difficulties that mortgage holders and renters are facing because of the higher interest rates that are a feature across the western world.

Financial Sanctions Regime

The Government undertake extensive assessment of the effectiveness of the sanction regimes, which are eroding Russia’s financial base. We have sanctioned 28 Russian banks, covering 80% of Russia’s banking sector, and frozen more than £18 billion of Russian assets, and we have implemented unprecedented trade sanctions in addition.

Constituents in Luton South have raised concerns about the financial sanctions regime with me. Can the Government confirm whether it is still the case that Russian account holders in the UK can hold £50,000 or more in their accounts? What is to prevent individuals of concern simply parcelling up assets through proxies into a large network of accounts below the permitted level?

The Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation works closely with our allies across the G7 to ensure that we have co-ordinated action among our international partners on this unprecedented package of sanctions. We have frozen the assets of 1,600 individuals and entities. We have implemented 35 different sanction regimes across government. I would be happy to take away the specific question that she has asked, because it is technical, and respond.

A multimillion-pound start-up project that could be transformational in my constituency is now at risk because the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation is yet to process an asset freeze licence application in respect of just 0.002% of the company’s capital, which was submitted in April. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that such applications are dealt with swiftly? If I provide him with details of the company, will he ensure that the application’s progress is expedited?

I am happy to take up my right hon. Friend’s case. We have expanded the OFSI resources. We have a monthly monitoring and efficiency dashboard. I accept how frustrating it can be for constituents’ businesses when such situations arise, and I am happy to take the matter away and get back to him swiftly.

As the war in Ukraine continues, we must not let up for a second on efforts to tighten the net on the accomplices and beneficiaries of Putin’s regime. We welcome the direction of the measures announced yesterday. Can the Minister confirm whether those measures will close all the loopholes and specifically the ownership thresholds, which Russian oligarchs and their enablers have been able to exploit to evade the bite of sanctions?

The Government will be relentless in their pursuit of illicit assets. As I said, we have sanctioned 24 banks with global assets of over £940 billion and 120 elites with a combined worth of £140 billion. Working closely with our allies, we have incrementally and sequentially tightened that net and immobilised more than 60% of Putin’s war chest of foreign reserves worth £275 billion. We continue to work closely with our allies to intensify those measures as opportunities arise.

I have one or two constituents in Poole who lost their jobs because they were in companies owned by Russians who were sanctioned, and they have found it difficult to have an orderly wind-up because banks run a mile from loaning those businesses a reasonable amount of money to sort them out. I know of one situation where people have not been able to get P60s as the business cannot get money from any of the banks—they do not want to be involved in anything to do with sanctions—so it cannot pay the accountants who would produce them. May I have a word with the Minister about that? In some cases, we are going over the top, and it is affecting our constituents.

Those points demonstrate how serious and extensive the Government’s actions are, but I recognise that sometimes unfortunate situations arise and I am happy to look at that case and take it back to the Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation.

To pursue the issue of proxies raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), am I right in thinking that the Minister said a few minutes ago that he was prepared to examine the possibility of taking action against proxies and those persons of interest who use proxies?

What I would say is that the Government are committed to an ever-tighter grip on illicit finance and those individuals close to Putin who make a material contribution to his regime. Obviously, I will not commit on the Floor of the House to individual extensions to what we have already done, but I have set out the range of sanctions regimes that exist across multiple Departments of Government and I am happy to receive representations on whatever case the hon. Member wishes to bring to me.

Consumers of Financial Services: Compensation

6. What steps he is taking to support consumers of financial services who have not received compensation in cases where action by a third party has led to financial loss. (905501)

My hon. Friend is a strong champion of consumers who have suffered financial loss, particularly through his chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary group on personal banking and fairer financial services. He understands that the UK does not operate a zero-loss regime where consumers of financial services are automatically compensated, but it is important that regulators make very clear where the scope of protection lies and who is eligible for compensation.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. It is clearly important that where the ombudsman recommends that compensation be paid, banks pay it. Equally, the Government should pay compensation, such as when the parliamentary ombudsman found against them on Equitable Life policyholders, as was mentioned by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I understand that the budget to pay compensation to those policyholders has been underspent by some £300 million, so rather than return the money to the Treasury, will my hon. Friend use it to compensate the Equitable Life policyholders who have suffered in the long term?

We set out the terms of that settlement in 2010 and there is nothing to update the House on today.

For over five years, I have campaigned on behalf of steelworkers who were part of the British Steel pension scheme. Many were ripped off by sharks posing as financial advisers. While a redress scheme is now in place, legal advisers for steelworkers report claim processing delays of six months at the Financial Conduct Authority, 12 months at the Financial Services Compensation Scheme and two years at the Financial Ombudsman Service, which suggests that all is not right. Delays to cases can have a big impact on possible payouts, so will the Minister please look into the performance of those organisations? Steelworkers and other financial consumers deserve much better than this.

Yes, I will. I have had conversations with the hon. Member about that, and I will take up the case of any unwarranted delays.

Technology Sector

I have set out our national ambition to be the world’s next silicon valley. We are making good progress; last year we were ranked the world’s third largest technology market after the United States and China.

Ultimate Battery in Thurcroft in Rother Valley is developing groundbreaking battery technologies and is on track to create 500 new jobs by 2025. What help can the Department give me and my constituents to help burgeoning businesses such as Ultimate Battery, to make Rother Valley and other places across the north technology hubs?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support for this really important sector in Rother Valley. We have a number of schemes, including £541 million of funding available in the Faraday battery challenge. We also have the £1 billion automotive transformation fund. As a result of the efforts that he and many others have made, we now get 40% of our electricity from renewable sources—the second highest in Europe—and much more progress is to come.

I recently convened a roundtable in my constituency with the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman) and a number of science and tech businesses. Their No. 1 question was what fiscal support was available for their sector. I am aware that there are numerous schemes, grants and tax relief, but it was notable that they were not well understood by the businesses, and I could not find them published anywhere on the new Department’s website. Could my right hon. Friend put together and publish a package of all the support available to investors and innovators, and how it can be applied for, to maximise the potential of this vital new frontier in west Berkshire and beyond?

That is a fair point. I thank my hon. Friend for the fact that Newbury is a hotbed of technology businesses, with Roc Technologies, Stryker, Edwards Lifesciences and a range of other businesses that she gives a lot of support to. I will write to her listing all those things and I will make sure that it is available on the website of the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology.

The tech sector in rural Cumbria depends on reliable broadband. Communities in Warcop, Sandford, Coupland Beck, Blea Tarn and Ormside in Westmorland have signed up to the community interest company and volunteer group B4RN to provide a gigabit connection for just £33 a month, but the communities have been suddenly designated a low priority area, which means that their vouchers have been removed, putting the whole project at risk. Will the Chancellor commit to supporting those communities, residents and businesses to ensure that they get the vouchers that they were initially promised?

I will happily look into what has happened. We strongly support all rural areas having access to gigabyte broadband, as an important part of our policy. We have made a lot of progress on that. I will look into detail of what is happening in the hon. Gentleman’s area and get back to him.

Hospitality Businesses

Hospitality businesses play an important role in local communities and the UK economy. They will benefit from business rates support worth £13.6 billion over the next five years, which includes increased generosity from the retail, hospitality and leisure relief scheme from 50% to 75% in 2023-24. There is also our Brexit pub guarantee, which means that the duty on a draught pint in a pub will always be lower than its equivalent in the supermarket.

The Minister will be aware of long-standing calls from the sector to reduce VAT to bring it into line with European equivalents. Will the Treasury undertake an assessment of the economic benefits of doing so? Will it consider that as part of a package, alongside increasing the threshold for VAT registration from £85,000 to £100,000 to support smaller businesses?

The hon. Gentleman poses many questions for me, some of which are very complicated. VAT relief for the hospitality sector was important in the aftermath of the pandemic, but it cost us a great deal of money and we have had to raise it back up to 20%. We keep the other VAT matters under review, and I would be delighted to meet him to discuss the complexities behind them.

A great many of the new job opportunities and career paths being created in Pembrokeshire are in the tourism and hospitality sector. Does my hon. Friend agree that the very last thing that business people who are creating those growth opportunities need right now is a tourism tax of the kind being brought forward by the Welsh Labour Government in Cardiff, which will hit businesses with new burdens and raise the cost of going on holiday in Wales?

The sun always shines in my right hon. Friend’s corner of Pembrokeshire when he speaks up for it. He is quite right to identify how the Conservatives in Government are trying to help businesses through our business rates relief in England, through our energy support scheme over recent months and, of course, through the Brexit pub guarantee. Welsh Labour, on the other hand, wants to call last orders and have higher taxes for the businesses he is so keen to support.

The 2019 Conservative manifesto, some three Prime Ministers and four Chancellors ago, promised a fundamental reform of business rates. This is another broken Tory promise. Will the Minister admit that only a Labour Government will end the chaos, scrap business rates and replace them with a fairer system, so that our amazing hospitality sector can thrive and grow faster?

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Lady, but I must point out to her gently that we have, in fact, conducted that review. In the autumn statement, we were able to announce a £13.6 billion package of help over the next five years, including a multiplier freeze for all ratepayers, large and small; a transitional relief cap funded by the Exchequer; retail, hospitality and leisure relief; and a small business support scheme, which will help to cap bill increases at £600 per year for any business losing eligibility for some or all small business rate relief or rural rate relief at the 2023 revaluation. We have done that review and are supporting businesses that need help.

Cost of Living: Energy Prices

13. What recent assessment he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential effects of energy prices on the cost of living. (905510)

Advanced economies around the world share the challenge of high inflation from the energy shock, and the UK has been affected by those global factors. The Government have taken significant action to help households with rising energy prices and the cost of living by providing a significant support package totalling £94 billion. That includes supporting households with energy bills by extending the energy price guarantee and removing the premium paid by 4 million households using prepayment meters. Overall, the Government have paid about half of a typical household bill since October 2022.

Many people in the highlands and islands of Scotland will have had their taxes used to help pay for the construction of the gas grid, despite the fact that they are off the gas grid themselves and do not get the benefits of being connected to it. Their area supplies the oil and gas, and now the cheap renewable energy, that is facilitating lower energy bills across Great Britain, yet they are more likely to be fuel poor. To rub salt in the wounds, many pay a surcharge on their electricity bills. When will the UK Government address those inequities?

I would simply point out that across the United Kingdom we have provided extensive support, as I said in my answer to the substantive question. I am very happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with details on his specific point.

When the energy profits levy was introduced to help the Government’s support of household energy bills, I welcomed the investment tax allowance that was introduced along with it on new oil and gas for energy security. In recent weeks, I also welcomed the Exchequer Secretary’s announcement in Aberdeen of a price floor in the form of an energy security investment mechanism, at which the EPL will be removed. The devil, of course, will be in the detail. I welcome the Treasury’s ongoing engagement and dialogue with the oil and gas industry, but will the Minister commit to a regular, perhaps quarterly, fiscal forum with the industry, as used to happen prior to covid? Does he agree that Labour’s plans to ban all new oil and gas is based on ideology and not a pragmatic approach to this country’s energy security and net zero?

Order. The hon. Gentleman ought to put in for an Adjournment debate. It would be easier for all of us.

I can think of few better advocates for the oil and gas industry than my hon. Friend. I was very pleased to meet industry leaders and the chair of the oil and gas forum in Aberdeen recently. We had a very good discussion and I am grateful to the industry for its ongoing engagement with Ministers and officials. I can assure him that the Government are very committed to engaging with the oil and gas sector, as we have been doing for a long time.

Leaving the EU: Economic Impact

14. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of withdrawal from the EU on the economy. (905512)

As per my previous response to the same question by the hon. Gentleman in the last Treasury oral questions, I note that the UK has grown at a similar rate to comparable European economies since 2016, and that it still remains challenging to separate out the effects of Brexit and wider global trends on the UK economy. We remain absolutely committed to seizing the opportunities we now have, free from the EU.

That is very convenient. Only the UK has to deal with Brexit. Everyone has had to deal with covid and everyone has had to deal with Ukraine, but only the UK has had to deal with Brexit. That is why, according to the London School of Economics, customers have collectively paid nearly £7 billion extra in their food bills as a direct result of all the checks and frustrations that have come with Brexit. Is the Minister honestly saying that it was a good idea, and that it has not hurt the UK economy?

Let me again gently remind the hon. Gentleman to look at what is happening in the rest of the EU. For example, the eurozone is suffering from the effects of mild recession. All this is due to the global headwinds that we are all facing. However, I know that the hon. Gentleman will be delighted by the recent growth upgrades from the Office for Budget Responsibility, the Bank of England and the OECD. We do face challenges, and of course we have to work with our global counterparts to try to deal with those global headwinds, but we are focusing very much on the Prime Minister’s priority of halving inflation, because that is what will make a real difference to our constituents.

Does the Minister agree that, despite “Project Fear” forecasts, we have record employment, very low unemployment, good inward investment and trade deals in abundance? Perhaps the Scottish National party should focus on its poor record on the economy and, indeed, on financial transparency, and get over the fact that we have left the EU.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend on his recent honour, which is extremely well deserved? He has made his point very succinctly. We have an exciting future ahead of us—we are already signing trade deals with non-EU countries, and we have a fantastic deal with the EU—and it is now up to us to make a real success of it.

People on Lower Incomes: Financial Support

The Government recognise the challenges facing households as a result of the elevated cost of living, and we took further action in this year’s spring Budget to provide targeted support to protect the most vulnerable. That included the new cost of living payments this year, help with the cost of essentials through a further extension of the household support fund in England, and the uprating of benefits in line with inflation in April this year.

One of the best ways of supporting those on lower incomes is to remove the barriers that prevent them from acquiring the new skills that are necessary for better-paid jobs. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Treasury is working closely with the Department for Education and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that the Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Bill gets rid of those obstacles, and can she provide an update on the progress of the Barber review?

I know that you like Ministers to answer briefly, Mr Speaker, so, if I may, I will answer my hon. Friend’s first question now and respond in writing to his question about the Barber review.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor made employment one of the four Es in his drive for growth in the spring Budget, and we are working closely with the Department for Education to invest in exactly the way that my hon. Friend describes. That includes investment in free courses for jobs, which enable people to study high-value level 3 subjects and gain free qualifications, and employer-led skills bootcamps in high-growth areas—a phrase that I never thought I would find myself uttering—which, apparently, involve sectors such as digital, and are available to those who are either unemployed or in work and wanting to retrain.

Food banks, playgroups and warm spaces are among the services provided by mosques, temples, synagogues and churches for all our constituents to help them cope with the cost of living crisis, but many of the buildings are creaking and falling apart. Will Ministers consider extending Gordon Brown’s policy of VAT relief on building works for listed places of worship to all such places, to recognise their role in providing social good and to alleviate the pressure on multiple systems?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising an important point. There has been an incredible outpouring of support across communities—not just in religious communities, but at village and town halls around the United Kingdom—in an effort to help people with the cost of living pressures that we face in the winter. The picture is quite complicated, but perhaps I can write to the hon. Lady with a fuller response to her question, because I want to do it justice and I know I will get in trouble with you, Mr Speaker, if I do so now.

Inflation

The Government are doing three things to reduce inflation. First, we remain steadfast in our support for the independent Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England as it takes action to return inflation to its 2% target. Secondly, we are making difficult but responsible decisions on tax and spending so that we do not add fuel to the fire. Thirdly, we are tackling high energy prices by holding down energy bills for households and businesses, alongside investing in long-term energy security.

The rich and powerful have repeatedly sought to blame workers for high inflation, even though workers’ real wages have been falling as inflation soars. Many leading economists now say that profiteering by certain corporations, not wages, is driving price rises. The French Government have taken action to limit food prices, and Spain has introduced rent controls. When will this Government start targeting the profiteering that is helping to drive inflation?

We continue to have constructive dialogue with industry and different sectors. I met supermarket representatives a few weeks ago, and the Chancellor and others in the Treasury will continue to have these conversations. I think most people recognise that we face common global challenges and that different economies will respond in different ways.

Topical Questions

We will not hesitate in our resolve to support the Bank of England as it seeks to strangle inflation in the economy, and the best policy is to stick to our plan to halve inflation. I also want to make sure that we do everything possible to help families paying higher mortgage rates in ways that do not themselves feed inflation, so later this week I will be meeting the principal mortgage lenders to ask what help they can give to people who are struggling to pay more expensive mortgages and what flexibilities might be possible for families in arrears.

Despite being the gateway to most financial services in the City, I suggest that the London stock exchange is ailing, with CRH and Arm being the latest canaries in the coalmine. While welcoming the Edinburgh reforms, what further consideration has the Chancellor given to my suggestion that tax incentives be introduced to encourage our British pension funds—the big beasts—to invest more in UK equities, given that, since the financial crisis of 2008-09, they have reduced their exposure to equities by 90%, unlike in most other developed economies?

My hon. Friend always speaks extremely wisely on financial matters, and he is absolutely on the money when he talks about the opportunity that would present itself by unlocking £3 trillion of pension fund assets, many of which would get a better return for pensioners if they were invested more in our high-growth businesses, as well as that being a good outcome for the London stock market. All I will say is: watch this space.

While the Government squabble over parties and peerages, mortgage products are being withdrawn and replaced by mortgages with much higher interest rates. This is a consequence of last year’s Conservative mini-Budget and 13 years of economic failure, with inflation higher here than in similar countries. Average mortgage payments will be going up by a crippling £2,900 this year, so where does the Chancellor think families will get the money to pay the Tory mortgage penalty?

At the autumn statement, we announced £94 billion of support to help families going through very difficult times. That is more support than was ever proposed by Labour. The answer to these pressures is not borrowing an extra £28 billion a year, as people like Paul Johnson are saying that more borrowing means higher inflation, higher interest rates and higher mortgage rates.

Is the Chancellor for real? These are the real-life consequences of what is happening under the Conservative Government today, so do not try to pass the buck.

Let me bring this home. In Selby and Ainsty, 12,000 households will be paying, on average, £2,700 more on their mortgage. In Uxbridge and South Ruislip, 10,000 households will be paying, on average, £5,200 more. Each and every family know who is responsible for trashing the economy: the Conservative party. Will the Chancellor apologise for the harm that his Government have caused with the Tory mortgage penalty?

I am proud of our economic record, which has seen our economy grow faster than those of France and Japan since 2010, and at the same rate as Germany. Those mortgage holders in Selby, Uxbridge or Mid Bedfordshire will be paying even more for their mortgages if a Labour Government borrow £100 billion more in the next Parliament, and we will not let that happen.

T3. As the Minister knows, having a strong insurance and financial services sector is vital to the growth of our economy, which is one of the Prime Minister’s pledges. So will the Minister confirm that he is doing everything in his power to make that happen, particularly with a view to our international competitiveness in those key sectors? (905524)

I can give my hon. Friend the assurance he seeks. He will know from his significant contribution to the Financial Services and Markets Bill as it has gone through this House that it introduces a new duty on our financial regulators to promote the growth and international competitiveness of the United Kingdom. Thanks to him, the Bill also contains specific reporting measures as to how they are going to achieve that important objective.

T2. I recently met the Minister for Schools to present him with a costed proposal for piloting universal free school meals in Liverpool. He said that he was not ideologically opposed to that but all roads lead to the Treasury, so here we are. Will the Chancellor work with me and that Minister to enable this pilot, which would transform the education, health and wellbeing of thousands of children across my great city? (905523)

I will be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman to talk to him about that initiative. We are making great progress in our schools—we have risen to fourth in the global league table for reading—but we can always do more.

T6. I welcome my right hon .Friend’s commitment to making inflation and the cost of living his top priority, as it is also a top priority of my constituents. Does he agree that the Institute for Fiscal Studies is entirely correct to say that Labour’s plans for £28 billion of borrowing in its green prosperity plan would simply lead to higher rates of interest and higher inflation? (905528)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; the answer to inflation is to tackle it, not to make it worse.

T4. Real-terms wages are lower now than they were in 2008, which is a disgrace. The north-east has been hit harder than other regions, worst of all on child poverty. The rates of child poverty have shot up, with the result that we have 67% of children in working families living in poverty. Is the Chancellor’s deliberate, brutal policy of wage suppression working? If so, who for? (905525)

We understand the pressures that families are going through up and down the country, but we have responded with generous support this year and last of more than £3,000 for the average household. Not only that, but since 2010 the number of children in absolute poverty has fallen by 400,000.

T7. Paying around half the cost of people’s energy bills and freezing fuel duty has been crucial in helping people with the cost of living, but is there further action the Government can take to get inflation down? Are we on track to halve it by the end of the year? (905529)

Controlling public spending and ensuring that the interventions we are making prioritise growth enablement is a relentless activity. The household support fund of £2.5 billion continues to be an additional source of support for households, but there are no quick fixes; there is a relentless pursuit of the goals that we have set out at the start of this year.

T5.   How on earth can the Chancellor begin to understand the worries of ordinary homeowners when it would seem that in 2018 it slipped his mind to declare that he had spent £3.5 million buying seven luxury flats in Southampton as an investment opportunity? Is the reality not that he and the Treasury Front-Bench team are completely out of touch with what homeowners are facing? (905526)

With respect to the hon. Gentleman, he should get his facts right before making that kind of suggestion. He got them wrong.

In-person banking facilities are vital to everyone in Southend West, yet in recent years we have lost all but one of our bank branches. A new community-based post office banking hub model is being rolled out, so will the Minister support my efforts to get one of those into Leigh-on-Sea?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She will be aware of what is in our Financial Services and Markets Bill, and I can update the House by saying that the Government have tabled an amendment to protect free access to cash withdrawal and deposit facilities. I would be happy to meet her to discuss her constituency’s needs.

T8. I remind the House of my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Recent Government pronouncements relating to food security have been welcome, but if they are to be meaningful then farmers and crofters need certainty about the future of Government support and, critically, the amount of money that will be available to fund that. Will the Chancellor tell us when he will engage with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the devolved Administrations about the size of the budget that will be available? In the meantime, will he meet with me and the National Farmers Union Scotland? (905530)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the farming support payment is ported to Scotland and operates on a different basis because it is devolved. We have committed to the sum of £2.4 billion for the duration of this Parliament and there are a number of schemes where the uptake is now increasing. I will continue to engage with my colleagues at DEFRA as those schemes develop further.

The last bank in the entire constituency of Cheadle is about to close, so I was delighted when, following my interventions and direct conversations with LINK and appeals from the community, Bramhall was chosen to be LINK’s 100th banking hub recommendation. It will be invaluable for residents, but they will be left without banking services until it is open. Will the Minister look into bridging options in the interim, between the bank closing and the hub opening, or consider imposing requirements on banks to remain open until a hub is implemented?

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about the range of options. I am delighted about the solution proposed for Bramhall, in her constituency. Last week, I visited the new banking hub in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq). I hope the whole House will wish the operator, Vip Varsani, well in that new endeavour.

For the first time in my 20 years as an MP we have a real housing crisis in the Rhondda. Two thirds of people own their own homes, but lots of people who have relied on the commercial rented sector are finding that landlords are selling their properties because of decisions made about taxation and, because there is a cap on housing benefit, they do not want to continue in that market. Dozens of people are being evicted week in, week out. Will the Government look closely at what is happening to protect people in constituencies such as mine, so that they can keep their own homes?

I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss what is happening in his constituency. Obviously, there have been a series of changes since the section 24 change in the Finance Act 2015 and there are particular pressures in the housing economy at the moment, but I am happy to meet him to discuss that further.

I welcome the work that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister have done to promote work on artificial intelligence done here, and in developing an ecosystem for that. It is clear that the UK has an opportunity to lead on this, especially on regulation, if we get it right, but only if we seize that opportunity now. What is the Chancellor doing to make that happen?

My right hon. Friend is right to say this is a big opportunity. We are home to a third of Europe’s AI start-ups, but we are very aware of the risks of AI. The Government are hosting a global AI summit, with the support of President Biden, this autumn, to ensure we get that regulation absolutely right.

Quite rightly, this Question Time has been dominated by questions about inflation and the cost of living. One policy that has not been mentioned is the Government’s net zero policy and the inflationary costs included in it, from green levies of £12 billion to the cost of strengthening the infrastructure and the favourable treatment given to renewable energy firms. While the Minister may condemn the Labour party for its £29 billion green policy spending plan, what is the cost of the Government’s net zero policies to consumers? Are they not picking their pockets dry?

We have a world-leading track record on net zero, but we must balance that correctly with who bears the cost. Critical to the nature of the right hon. Gentleman’s question is mobilising more private capital, and we are making great strides on that front.

Can my hon. Friend update the House as to when we will see spades in the ground on the Brunswick site in Darlington for the Darlington economic campus?

My hon. Friend is a great champion of Darlington, and Darlington’s economic campus is a critical part of levelling up. The Government Property Agency has been working hard to finalise commercial negotiations. I would be happy to write to my hon. Friend when I have a more substantive update.

Ever-increasing food prices mean that some families are having to cut down on the amount they eat. Will the Minister support Labour’s plan to negotiate a new veterinary agreement for agriculture products to reduce the cost for food producers and bring down those crippling food prices?

Clear policy direction and a strong regulatory framework have led to the UK being the world’s leading centre in financial technology. Does my hon. Friend agree that the crypto industry offers the same opportunity for the UK to exploit?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I was pleased to join him in a Westminster Hall debate about the regulation of the cryptoassets sector. I commend the work done in this House by the crypto and digital assets all-party parliamentary group. He might join me in welcoming the decision by Andreessen Horowitz, one of the world’s largest technology companies, to locate its only international office outside of San Francisco here in the UK and to run its 2024 cryptoassets school here.

In 2016, Exercise Cygnus tested the country’s preparedness for a pandemic. Was the Government’s response at that time adequate, and what can the Chancellor do in his current role to make sure that we are properly prepared in the future?

I am looking forward to answering questions about that tomorrow afternoon at the covid inquiry. We did what was recommended following Exercise Cygnus. Certainly, Ministers did what they were advised to do, but the operation was focused on pandemic flu. The question that we must ask ourselves is why we did not have a broader focus on the different types of pandemic that could have happened, such as covid.

The Government’s business rates review last autumn was anything but fundamental, because it did not even look at the calculations for fair and maintainable trade, which are hammering the viability of pubs in St Albans. If the Chancellor has in fact abandoned his commitment for a fundamental review of business rates, which he himself called for last summer, will he at least look at the calculations for fair and maintainable trade before any more of our valuable pubs have to close?

We conducted a review and put in place the £13.6 billion package of support to help businesses on our high streets. If the hon. Lady is able to look at, for example, the multiplier freeze, she will see that that has had a significant impact on those rates, as has the retail, hospitality and leisure business rates relief, which will help raise the rate of relief from 50% to 75%. We have targeted this very carefully at exactly the businesses that she mentions.

The Chancellor was shaking his head during my question earlier on, so will he say whether he accepts the findings from the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics that shows that Brexit is responsible for a third of UK price inflation since 2019? Regulatory sanitary checks and other border checks added almost £7 billion to total domestic grocery bills over the period from December 2019 to March 2023. Does he accept that?