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Topical Questions

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 20 June 2023

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While the Government squabble over parties and peerages, mortgage products are being withdrawn and replaced by mortgages with much higher interest rates.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?