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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 740: debated on Tuesday 14 November 2023


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Pensions Triple Lock

1. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of maintaining the pensions triple lock on the economy. (900035)

As a result of the Government’s triple lock, the basic state pension is now more than 50% higher in cash terms than it was in 2011. The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is undertaking his review at the moment, and I cannot pre-empt that.

Now that Lord Cameron has returned to the Cabinet, it is probably a good time for us to remember that the pensions triple lock was a Liberal Democrat initiative. The 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto said:

“We will uprate the state pension annually by whichever is the higher of growth in earnings, growth in prices or 2.5 per cent.”

Given that the triple lock has now been operational for more than a decade, will the Chancellor and his team commit to putting the triple lock in the next manifesto?

Nice try. The triple lock was a Conservative invention, delivered by the Conservatives, and it is something to which we remain committed.

I welcome my hon. Friend to her new role. Given that it is right that we look after our pensioners and ensure that people are well looked after in later life, it is important that we have the right tax base to fund our pensions. Will she meet me to consider ways in which we can make our taxation system more family friendly, to encourage more people to have more children and to ensure that we can pay for our pensions in the years ahead?

My right hon. Friend is a brilliant advocate on these issues, and of course I would be delighted to meet him.

Food Inflation

3. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of trends in the level of food inflation. (900037)

4. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of trends in the level of food inflation. (900038)

20. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of trends in the level of food inflation. (900054)

UK food inflation has been driven largely by global factors and has already fallen from 19.6% to 12.3%, and external forecasts expect it to continue to fall.

Between March 2021 and April 2023, the cost of first infant formula increased by 24%, on average, with the cheapest formula on the market increasing by 45%. That is an absolute catastrophe for families who rely on infant formula, but a bonanza for the formula companies, which are making significant profits out of this. Can the Chancellor tell me why he believes it is right for companies to profit while families struggle to feed their babies?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to draw attention to the pressures on families caused by very high food inflation in a number of areas, but I can tell her that the Competition and Markets Authority, which undertook a review of the groceries sector earlier this year, has not yet found evidence that high food price inflation is being driven by weak competition. But it is continuing its review and looking at the supply chain, and we will wait to hear what it says.

Recent research showed that the most significant decline in UK children’s height in the global ranking came after the UK coalition Government launched their austerity programme in 2010. An expert in child growth rates at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health said of that 30-place drop in ranking that austerity

“has clobbered the height of children in the UK.”

What lessons has the Chancellor learned from the UK Government’s previous disastrous errors of judgment in this area, and how will he be supporting vulnerable groups in the future?

The lesson I have learned is straightforward: if we had not reduced the deficit by 80% between 2010 and the start of the pandemic, we would not have been able to help families across the United Kingdom with payments of more than £3,000, on average, including 700,000 households in Scotland and more than 1 million pensioners.

Even if the inflation rate is falling, food prices are still going up considerably. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation reckons that they have gone up at least twice as fast as the value of benefits since September 2021. At the very least, can the Chancellor commit to ensuring that the Department for Work and Pensions has enough resource to raise benefits at least in line with September’s inflation rate?

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is doing his review at the moment to decide the correct amount by which to uprate benefits. If the hon. Gentleman looks at this Government’s record, he will see that we took the decision a year ago to uprate benefits by inflation, and we committed to £94 billion of measures to help families get through the cost of living crisis.

Food inflation will only get worse if our self-sufficiency in food production drops. Will my right hon. Friend consider fiscal measures to discourage the transfer of food-producing land to other uses such as solar industrial installations?

My hon. Friend is right to say that our food industry is very important to food security. We need to keep the priorities constantly under review. Nature is a very important part of that, but so too is food production.

It is good to be addressing an elected Minister this morning. The consumer organisation Which? has described Tesco and Sainsbury’s as committing “dodgy” practices over food prices and loyalty schemes, and Marks & Spencer has just posted record profits on food sales, yet people up and down the nations of the UK are struggling to pay their food bills. Will the Chancellor tell us which supermarkets he has held to account over rising food prices?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we had the supermarkets in over the summer to make sure that they were doing everything they could to bear down on food price inflation. However, the correct way for politicians to look at this is at arm’s length. We have the independent Competition and Markets Authority, which does a rigorous job and often does things that politicians disagree with, and it is looking at the issue right now.

In Canada, Ministers met the five largest grocery chains to get commitments on stabilising food prices. Other Governments are doing similar things. France’s Finance Minister held extensive talks with the food industry to get it to commit to freezing or cutting prices on 5,000 everyday products. Is it not the case that, for people facing crushing food bills in Scotland and across the nations of the UK, this Westminster Government are doing absolutely nothing?

I think £94 billion of support to help families up and down the country, including with food prices and energy prices, is a rather different answer from saying that we are doing nothing.

Energy Sector

Since March 2021, the Government have committed a total of £30 billion in public investment for the green industrial revolution. Since then, the Chancellor has announced £6 billion for clean heat and improving energy efficiency, and £20 billion for carbon capture, usage and storage. Alongside the launch of Great British Nuclear and the small modular reactor competition, the Government have also invested £1 billion in Sizewell C.

According to a recent survey, 90% of North sea oil and gas operators have reduced spending since the energy profits levy was introduced. I therefore welcome recent announcements on new North sea licences and the announcement before the summer of the energy security investment mechanism, by which the EPL will be removed when appropriate. Can my hon. Friend tell me when we can expect a response to the consultation on the ESIM and what plans this Government have to legislate for the mechanism? Will he meet me to discuss how investor confidence in our home-grown industry can be assured further?

Introducing the price floor for the oil and gas industry comes from the principle that, while it is right that oil and gas companies pay a higher share of tax during exceptional times, it is also right that when prices fall to normal levels, so do their tax rates. That is why we introduced the price floor in June and we have extensively engaged with the industry since then. I know that legislating will provide some certainty; we are looking carefully at that and will respond soon. I will always be happy to meet with my hon. Friend.

The Labour party and the Co-operative party have set out a shared ambition for more community-owned energy. That is not new: in Denmark, 52% of wind energy is community owned, and in Germany half of all onshore wind is community owned. Will the Government do far more to join that ambition of community-owned energy here in Britain?

We have ambitious plans for energy generation and our energy security. We want to bring communities with us, and we look at all options as we do so.

Wealth Tax

Of course, the UK does not have a single wealth tax, but it does have several taxes on wealth and assets, and those generate substantial revenues. The Government are committed to keeping taxes low so that working people keep more of what they earn. The Government’s approach to delivering fiscal sustainability is underpinned by fairness, with those on the highest incomes paying a larger share.

But the burden of tax is increasingly falling on working people’s incomes, while the richest 50 families in the UK have alone accumulated a combined wealth equivalent to that of half the population. Research from the University of Greenwich shows that a wealth tax could generate £70 billion for much-needed public services, so will the Government at least put forward a commission to investigate the matter and introduce a fair taxation policy?

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is lobbying me or Opposition Front Benchers with her comments, but she will be well aware that we do have a progressive tax system in the UK. It is important to remember that the top 5% of taxpayers are projected to pay nearly half of all income tax in 2023-24; and the top 1% as much as 28%. Compared with what we inherited from Labour in 2010, when the top 1% of income tax payers paid 25% and the top 5% paid 43%, the tax system is fairer and more progressive under the Conservatives.

Those who live in homes with driveways pay just 5% VAT when they charge their cars from their home electricity, but those who live in terraced houses have to pay 20% VAT to charge commercially. Given that those who live in terraced houses are often less wealthy, will the Minister, whom I congratulate on his new role, meet me and other members of the Conservative Environment Network to look at how we might level out that anomaly?

My right hon. Friend is a great champion of such issues in her constituency and beyond. I am aware that she has already spoken to the Chancellor about this issue, but I would be delighted, as always, to meet her and discuss it further.

The Government have done a lot to raise personal allowances, for which our party has advocated for many years. However, given that that is an improvement for people at the bottom end of the income scale, will the Treasury now turn its view towards hard-working, middle-income families, who also want a reduction in their tax burden?

We appreciate the support for taking 3 million of the lowest-paid people out of paying income tax altogether since 2010—an important and significant change. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s comments, but I cannot comment further, especially this close to a fiscal event.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new post. Does he share with me the humour that Opposition Back Benchers have proposals for new taxation that the Opposition Front Benchers are trying to bat away, while those of us on the Government Back Benches are telling the Government to cut taxes, and our Front Benchers keep batting that away?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I am afraid that what we are probably seeing is “same old Labour”—we have heard this all before. What they are proposing did not work in the ’70s and it will not work now. We are very proud of our tax record, particularly taking the lowest paid out of income tax.

I welcome the Minister to his place. The Government have the opportunity next week to right an historical wrong by abolishing non-dom tax status. The Chancellor could use that money to get our NHS back on its feet and to provide free breakfast clubs for all primary-age children, just as Labour has called for. Is the abolition of non-dom tax status under consideration, or has the Prime Minister ruled it out again, for personal reasons?

The hon. Gentleman is well aware that there are real dangers that what he is proposing would make the UK a less attractive destination—that is a very important issue. The City pays for a huge amount of our NHS, for example, and non-dom taxpayers were liable to pay £8.5 billion in UK income tax in 2021-22 and invested more than £7 billion in the UK.

Benefits Uprating

7. If he will have discussions with the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the potential merits of uprating benefits in line with inflation. (900041)

The Government are committed to supporting households with the cost of living, delivering over £94 billion of support, including uprating benefits by 10.1% this year. As I have said, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is undertaking his review, and I cannot pre-empt that.

Figures from the Trussell Trust show that food bank usage is at its highest ever level, and over the summer months a record 41,878 parcels of food were provided to 21,000 children in Scotland alone. Meanwhile, child poverty costs the Government £39 billion per year in poor health and educational outcomes. In order to tackle child poverty properly, will the Government commit to keeping benefits in line with inflation and lifting the two-child cap?

We understand that things are really tough at the moment, which is why we have put in place £900 of cost of living support this year, but we also all need to work on bearing down on inflation. We are seeing it start to come down, but we know it is still too high, and we hope we will reach the Prime Minister’s pledge of halving inflation, because that is the biggest help we can give to households this year.

Defence Sector Investment

8. What steps his Department is taking to help mitigate the potential impact of environmental, social and governance practices of financial institutions on levels of investment in the defence sector. (900042)

The Secretary of State for Defence and my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), recently set out that the values within ESG practices of financial institutions should never undermine capabilities developed to help us preserve peace and security. The Treasury recently consulted on a potential regulatory framework for ESG ratings providers, which aims to improve transparency and promote good conduct. I hope this will address some of the issues that defence companies have raised.

ESG is so vital when it comes to investing in all our services, including defence. We were promised that the “Greening Finance” road map would come out at the end of 2022. Then we were told that the consultation would come out by autumn this year. It is still just about autumn, and it is yet to come out. Why are the Government kicking ESG down the road? Why have they stopped caring about ESG, and when will we have the consultation to get a UK green taxonomy sorted?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. [Interruption.] I do; I know how much he cares about these issues and campaigns on them frequently in the House, and I commend him for it. The Government are committed to delivering on a UK green taxonomy to provide investors with clarity on which economic activity should be labelled as green. We expect to consult this autumn. The green taxonomy will provide an important tool for enabling the supply of relevant and reliable sustainability information for the market, and information will come in due course.

One of the things that concern Northern Ireland MPs is the fact that when it comes to defence jobs and getting contracts, Northern Ireland falls behind. The Minister will be aware that Thales, on the border of my constituency, was recently able to secure its workforce. What steps can he take to ensure that each region of the United Kingdom, but especially Northern Ireland, can benefit from defence spending for the workforce? We can do the job the same as everywhere else; we just need the opportunity.

I thank the hon. Member for his question, which is incredibly important. As he knows, this Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that jobs in the defence sector, within an ESG framework, are protected. I am happy to meet him to discuss further the issues relating to his constituency and Northern Ireland.

Student Loan Repayments: Inflation

9. What assessment he has made of the potential impact of inflation on the ability of graduates to repay student loans. (900043)

Tuition fees have been frozen for 2023-24 and 2024-25, which will help affordability for future graduates. For new graduates, interest rates will move with the retail prices index but will have nothing added.

I thank the Minister for that response but, of course, interest rates have made matters much more difficult for graduates, who cannot afford to both pay off their student loan and buy their own property. Is there anything further that the Government can do to help graduates, who are struggling to do both? One of the things we could do is raise the threshold at which they start to pay back the loans.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The most important thing we can do is bear down on inflation, because that will bear down on interest rates, which affect us all. I would also point to the cost of living support that the Department for Education is providing for students. I would be happy to discuss the matter with him further.

Economic Growth

10. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of the economic growth rate. (900044)

Our policies are increasing economic growth, as the Office for Budget Responsibility confirmed following last year’s autumn statement and the spring Budget, but the only way to secure higher, sustainable, long-term growth is to bring down inflation.

The OBR judged the Chancellor’s last Budget to have no overall long-term impact on the level of potential productivity. Does he expect the OBR to make a similar judgment of his next Budget?

I remind the hon. Gentleman of what the OBR actually said about the spring Budget:

“the overall impact on GDP is around 0.2 per cent in 2027-28. This is the largest upward revision we have made to potential output within our five-year forecast as a result of fiscal policy decisions taken by a Government”.

Economic growth in northern Lincolnshire will be severely impacted if changes go ahead at British Steel’s Scunthorpe works, which will result in redundancies and a massive impact on the supply chain. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that the Government will not proceed with any support for those changes until a full economic assessment of the impact on the local area has been carried out?

I thank my hon. Friend and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Holly Mumby-Croft) for their extensive lobbying on this very important issue. I have had meetings with him and her, and with many others, to discuss it. I reassure him that we are absolutely committed to steel production in the United Kingdom, and to making sure that any changes that are necessary support the local communities that depend on steel production.

I welcome the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott) to her place. I look forward to holding her to account.

Last month, the Chancellor’s National Infrastructure Commission said that in order to unlock the billions of pounds of private investment that is available to get our economy growing, we need a Government who can “make good decisions, fast.” Why does the Chancellor think his Government have been making bad decisions slowly for quite so long?

It might help the hon. Gentleman if I tell him some of the facts on infrastructure. Since we made some reforms to the asset pooling framework in 2015, UK and global infrastructure investment by pension funds has grown from £1 billion to around £27 billion, and the Solvency 2 reforms could potentially unlock a further £100 billion-worth of investment.

That, Mr Speaker, was a list of very slow decisions still being badly taken. The Labour party has a raft of plans available to help drive economic growth and investment in every corner of our country, from speeding up the grid to accelerating planning for critically important infrastructure. Today, I am making them available to the Chancellor for free. Would he like them, or would he rather call a general election?

Unfortunately, nothing is free from the Labour party. Funding plans by increasing borrowing by £28 billion a year leads to higher bills for families, higher energy prices and higher mortgages.

Pension Scheme Investment

In my speech at Mansion House in July, I announced reforms to boost pensions, increase investment in UK businesses, and improve UK capital market competitiveness. Those reforms could result in over £1,000 a year of additional retirement income and unlock £75 billion-worth of investment in high-growth businesses.

Many local authorities have given the investment managers for their pension funds a mandate to invest in infrastructure. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to encourage greater infrastructure investment by UK public sector pension funds?

I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in this issue—of course, he has great experience of local government. Working with the former Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith), who I see is in the Chamber, we announced major reforms in July to help local government pension funds lead the way in the transformation we are looking for, in particular by sending a direction that they should invest in pools worth more than £50 billion. That will make it easier for them to have the expertise necessary to invest in infrastructure.

I welcome the proposals that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made in his Mansion House speech, which will increase investment in the United Kingdom. In his upcoming autumn statement, I implore him to build on his Budget announcement with a policy that was originally advocated for in a paper by the Adam Smith Institute, a think-tank I am proud to be patron of, as is set out in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I implore him to make full expensing permanent and to scrap the hated factory tax.

I have a very small bone to pick with my right hon. Friend, because when I became Chancellor I was hoping to say that I was the first Chancellor who was once an entrepreneur, but he pipped me to the post. However, he is absolutely right to say how important it is to have competitive business investment taxes. I was very proud in the spring Budget to introduce full expensing for three years, which gives us some of the most competitive business taxes in the OECD. Only five other countries do that, and I will of course keep under review any possibility to extend that tax break.

Is investment not needed in the UK given that 13 years of Tory rule have resulted in a £137 billion UK deficit? Meanwhile independent Ireland has a €10 billion surplus from its economic growth and investment. That is an Ireland without the oil or natural resources of Scotland, which is now about to start a sovereign wealth fund. Where did the failing crisis-hit UK go wrong and independent Ireland go right? The clue, by the way, is in the question.

I find that a very curious question. If the hon. Member is proud of Scotland’s natural resources, why does he want to cancel North sea oil and gas exploration, which is the very thing that can give families across the United Kingdom security from the energy shocks we have seen from things such as the invasion of Ukraine?

There is encouraging news in that the Pension Insurance Corporation has recently announced that it is going to invest in helping to support the building of 1,200 new affordable homes in this city. Does the Chancellor agree that pension funds could be a very important source of capital for developing social rented housing around the country—Eden Housing Association, South Lakes Housing, and Westmorland and Furness Council, for example? Will he look at the rules and bring in greater incentives for pension investment funds to invest in affordable housing across the country?

We are already working on proposals in that very area. Broadly speaking, we have one of the most robust and resilient pension fund sectors in the world, but we are doing a lot of work to remove the barriers to investing back into the UK. Things such as affordable housing, infrastructure and our growth businesses are areas of great potential.

Public Sector Productivity and Public Spending

My hon. Friend is rightly very focused on making sure that every single pound of taxpayers’ money is spent wisely, and I can assure him that the Government share that goal. In June, the previous Chief Secretary to the Treasury launched the public sector productivity programme, and we will provide an update at the autumn statement.

Estimates show that the public sector today is 7.5% less productive than in the environment just before covid. Does the Minister agree that this could possibly be down to a continued more liberal working from home ethic? How much is this costing the taxpayer?

My hon. Friend is right that public sector productivity must be improved. That is exactly what the review is looking at and what we will address. I look forward to talking to him more about it in due course.

I welcome the fact that the taxpayer has spent hundreds of millions of pounds on remediation work at the Teesworks site in Redcar. I do not welcome the fact that the assets, including 90% of the operating company and tens of millions of pounds of scrap, have been handed over by the Tees Valley Mayor to two private companies, whose owners are laughing all the way to the bank. Is that really good value for taxpayers’ money?

I think these claims have been addressed by the Mayor, and I will not have anything further to say about them.

Fuel Poverty

The Government have taken significant action to help households with rising energy prices and the costs of living by providing one of the largest packages of support in Europe, totalling £94 billion.

Orkney and Shetland have the worst rates of fuel poverty of anywhere in the country. Provisional figures show that, for last winter, both Orkney and Shetland recorded record levels of winter mortality. In his new office, will the Minister bring his colleagues together from across Government to hear from agencies such as THAW—Tackling Household Affordable Warmth —in Orkney that are working to tackle fuel poverty, because if we can tackle fuel poverty in Orkney and Shetland, we can tackle fuel poverty?

We are incredibly sympathetic to the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents, who have suffered a very difficult time. That is why we introduced the energy price guarantee, which will remain in place until March 2024 as a safety net. We continue to engage with lots of stakeholders and we are very happy to include the ones he suggests.

Mortgage Support

21. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of changes in mortgage interest rates over the course of this Parliament on household incomes. (900055)

The path to lower mortgage rates, as everybody in this House knows, is through lower inflation, which is why the Prime Minister and the Chancellor made halving inflation one of our five priorities for this year. The latest Bank of England forecast shows that we are on track for that. In June, lenders representing more than 90% of the mortgage market agreed to our new mortgage charter, which includes new flexibilities to help customers manage their repayments, backed up by UK Finance’s advertising campaign encouraging anyone worried about their repayments to contact their lender.

Does the Minister agree that the best way we can help the next generation of homeowners is to increase the supply of homes, bring back the help to buy ISA and stop the 35-year mortgage shared-ownership models, which only increase house prices?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. On his first point, we are increasing the number of homes and we are optimistic that we will reach our target of delivering 1 million new homes over this Parliament. Secondly, the help to buy ISA was closed to new accounts in 2019, but existing holders can continue to save into their accounts. On his third point about stopping 35-year mortgages, it is important to have choice in the market and for people to make those choices for themselves. As a Government we are committed to supporting people doing just that.

According to the Centre for Economics and Business Research, mortgage increases are expected to cost UK households £9 billion this year and next. How on earth do the Government defend that?

As the hon. Member knows, the reason why we are in this position is that there is a global phenomenon. We are doing what we can. We are working closely with the Bank of England and, over time, due to the policies of the Chancellor, the Prime Minister and this Government, interest rates will come down.

I welcome the hon. Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston) to his post as Financial Secretary.

It has been a year since the Conservatives crashed the economy. In 2023 so far, 1.5 million fixed-term mortgages have expired, leaving working people facing sky-high increases in their mortgage costs. For people living in Wellingborough, for example, this Tory mortgage penalty means that households are paying another £190 a month on top of everything else in a cost of living crisis. The truth is that working people are paying the price for the Conservatives crashing the economy last autumn. Does the Economic Secretary think that is fair?

I thank the shadow Minister for his kind words, at least in relation to me.

It is important to recognise that in the eurozone, the United States and the UK there have been broadly similar increases in inflation and interest rates. We as a Government are confident that our policies will bring those down in due course.

Cost of Living: Scotland

17. Whether he has had recent discussions with the Secretary of State for Scotland on the impact of increases in the cost of living on the Scottish economy. (900051)

We have announced UK-wide support for households, including cost of living payments, the energy price guarantee and the energy bills support scheme. Taken together, support for households is worth £94 billion and is among the largest packages in Europe.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies recently reported that wages in Scotland have risen by 1.5% since 2015, compared with 5% in England. In the face of a cost of living crisis brought about by the Conservative party’s disastrous mini-Budget, wages simply are not keeping up with the cost of living. What can the Minister commit the Government to doing next to help make work pay? Will she, for example, support Labour’s new deal for working people?

I was pleased to see this morning’s figures, which show that wages are going ahead of inflation. This is very good news and I hope it spreads to Scotland.

Non-domiciled Residents: Tax Status

The Government want the UK to have a fair and internationally competitive tax system, designed to bring in talented individuals and investment that contributes to the growth of the UK economy. Non-domiciled individuals play an important role in funding our public services through their taxation contributions, and they pay UK tax on their UK source income and gains in the same way as everybody else.

The non-dom tax status allows people to dodge millions in taxes. Germany, France and Canada have closed their non-dom tax loopholes. Can the Minister explain to taxpayers in Plymouth and across the country why he thinks it is fair that people who live here do not pay their taxes here?

As I said in the answer I gave some moments ago, non-dom taxpayers make a significant contribution to UK tax, worth £8.5 billion in 2021-22, with £7 billion more invested. The City, for example, pays half the cost of the NHS.

Mortgage Interest Rates

19. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of trends in the level of mortgage interest rates. (900053)

The Government’s mortgage charter is providing support to vulnerable households, and arrears and repossessions remain at historic lows. Government support has helped real household incomes rise by 2.7% year on year in the latest data.

With the economy flatlining and interest rates remaining at 5.25% and more than likely to remain above 5% next year, it simply follows that households’ disposable incomes will continue to be squeezed throughout 2024. Surely the Chancellor agrees that mortgage interest tax relief must be reintroduced to support households facing high interest rates alongside inflation.

As the hon. Member has already heard from the Chancellor, the economy is still growing. The latest labour market data shows that incomes are going up at a higher rate than inflation, so I do not recognise the picture that he paints.

Household Finances

22. What assessment he has made of the financial position of households during winter 2023-24. (900056)

The Government continue to stand by households with one of Europe’s largest support packages, amounting to some £3,300 a household on average across 2022-23 and 2023-24.

The Minister will be aware that a big concern for rural constituencies is the cost of fuel. The RAC has found that the margin enjoyed by the big supermarkets on fuel sales in October was double the figure for the year to date at 14p per litre. That reflects concerns raised by the Competition and Markets Authority that although wholesale fuel prices fell in September and October, retail prices did not. What is the Treasury’s assessment of the impact that these higher margins will have on households in the coming winter?

Fuel duty is a major cost for households and businesses. We recognise that. That is why in the spring Budget 2023, the Chancellor extended the 5p temporary duty cut. That was a £5 billion saving for motorists, worth £100 for the average motorist, but we always keep these things under review.

Economic Growth: Essex

As my right hon. Friend knows, the Government are committed to supporting economic growth all over the country, but particularly in the wonderful county of Essex. The recently announced £1.1 billion long-term plan for towns will, for example, provide £20 million of flexible funding over 10 years to Clacton, and there are many other measures.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his new role. I hope that he will know not only that the only way is Essex, but that Essex is a net contributor to the Treasury. We want more economic growth in Essex. In a week’s time, we will have the autumn statement, so may I give a message to those on the Treasury Front Bench? May I appeal to the Chancellor in particular to look at lowering the rates of personal and business taxation, particularly the areas of business rates, corporation tax and all aspects to do with enabling people to keep more of the money they earn?

My right hon. Friend tempts me to make tax policy. What I will say to her is that she will know that the Chancellor always keeps these things under review, as do the Government. Indeed, we have a fiscal event shortly.

Can I ask the Minister why he said he wants particularly to support investment and growth in Sussex? [Interruption.] Is that the Tories reverting to type in terms of the blue wall?

Life Sciences Sector

Life sciences are one of the Chancellor’s key growth priority areas. In May, he announced a significant new policy package, backed by more than £650 million of funding, reaffirming the Government’s commitment to supporting a thriving life sciences industry.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Life sciences are incredibly important, so will he focus investment on them in projects such as BioYorkshire on the edge of my constituency, which brings together private, public and academic institutions for huge benefits right across the board?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the benefits and importance of life sciences to the country. We are genuinely a world leader: I was out in Boston in the United States seeing the other world-leading area for life sciences, and it is not a patch on ours. That is why, as an example, we are looking to support life sciences through the investment zone programme, but, as I said, they are a key priority for the Chancellor as part of his growth agenda.

Topical Questions

As we have a debate this afternoon, I will limit my comments to welcoming my outstanding new colleagues. The new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Laura Trott), will brilliantly solve the problem of how we stop the state expanding, building on the work of her wonderful predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen). The new Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Bim Afolami), will single-handedly ensure that the City and stock market remain competitive, building on the superb foundations laid by his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith). The job of the new Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Nigel Huddleston), will be to work out how to bring taxes down, following in the footsteps of his excellent predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), who as Health Secretary will no doubt be trying to push them up.

There is widespread consensus that growth is essential to the economy. With 800,000 fewer self-employed in the economy post covid and post IR35, does the Chancellor agree that increasing the VAT threshold to £250,000 for new registrations would boost growth and be a net gain in revenue terms in the long run?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the support we give to small businesses. As he will know, supporting small businesses, particularly by rolling over the retail, hospitality and leisure business rates discount of 75%, was a major feature of the autumn statement. We will continue to keep under review anything that we can do to help our small businesses.

I welcome all the new Ministers to their roles and wish them well in them. The covid inquiry is uncovering unsavoury examples of Government mismanagement. We already know that Ministers ignored warnings that their business loan schemes were vulnerable to organised crime, yet the Prime Minister left the vaults open to fraudsters. Will the Chancellor update the House on the latest estimates of taxpayers’ money lost to fraud from the covid support schemes?

I am happy to tell the shadow Chancellor that as of September 2023, HMRC’s compliance effort on covid-19 support schemes, which started when the schemes were set up in spring 2020, had prevented the payment of or recovered the overpayment of more than £1.6 billion of grants.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer, but according to the House of Commons Library’s most recent numbers, covid fraud losses total a staggering £7.2 billion—that is bigger than the fiscal headroom that he had in his spring Budget. More stories are coming to light about companies with undeclared interests and personal protective equipment contracts not delivering to the standards required. Ahead of the autumn statement, will he confirm that the Government have also had to write off more than £8.7 billion from pandemic PPE contracts?

Let me say two things. First, we have no quarter with any incidence of fraud. We have commenced 51 criminal investigations into suspected fraud cases and there have been a total of 80 arrests so far. Let me also say that during the pandemic we introduced £400 billion of support to businesses and families up and down the country and, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, the result is that our economy is nearly 2% bigger than pre-pandemic, while Germany’s, for example, is only 0.3% bigger.

T3. Primary care capital allocation has pulled the short straw for decades. May I encourage Treasury Ministers to look across Government and with developers —retrospectively if necessary—to ensure that when we build huge new housing estates, the primary care promised in the planning permissions is actually provided? (900062)

I will take this question as well because my hon. Friend has lobbied me personally on this issue. Literally no one in this House has worked harder on it than he has. I have an example of the very problem he is talking about in my own constituency. He is right that it takes too long for housing development capital to reach NHS primary care projects. We will look into the issue carefully.

T2. In my constituency we are faced with the potential closure of vital public services such as Cleckheaton town hall, Claremont House dementia care home and Batley sports and tennis centre. Ultimately, that comes down to cuts imposed on Kirklees Council of more than £1 billion since 2010. Ahead of next week’s autumn statement, what conversations has the Chancellor had with his colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that our local authorities are properly funded and the future of our vital public services is protected? (900061)

I am answering a lot of the topical questions today because I have a new team. I want to reassure the hon. Lady that we are very aware of the financial pressures that local authorities are under. I am having extensive discussions with the Communities Secretary.

On the Conservative Benches we all agree that the way to sustainable economic growth without inflation is through business investment. It is early days, but I wonder whether we have indications of how well full expensing is working for encouraging business investment in this country. Is the Chancellor considering making that full expensing permanent next week at the autumn statement?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest in the topic. One of the reasons why our productivity is 15% lower than Germany’s, for example, is that it invests 2% more as a proportion of its GDP than we do in the UK. Improving the rate of business investment is one of the most effective ways to boost productivity and people’s real disposable income. We are proud of what we introduced in the spring Budget, and we will continue to see whether it is possible to extend it further.

T4. London’s homelessness challenge is at crisis point. More than 1 in 50 Londoners is in temporary accommodation. That equates to one child in every classroom. Given that in some boroughs, only around 2% of properties are affordable for rent on local housing allowance, what assessment has the Chancellor made of the adequacy of local housing allowance rates? (900063)

With the Work and Pensions Secretary I continue to keep under review all the things that have an impact on poverty rates. We are proud to have made progress in reducing the number of people living in absolute poverty after housing costs by 1.7 million since 2010. When it comes to homelessness, we are investing £2 billion over the next three years. Rough sleeping is down 35% since its peak.

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Member’s Financial Interests. The Chancellor has acknowledged that investment trusts, which make up one third of all FTSE 250 companies, are being plagued by misguided cost disclosure legislation, which is making them appear unduly expensive. That is restricting investment and does not happen in any other country. In addition to the positive dialogue between us and with the Financial Conduct Authority, will he consider supporting the First Reading of Baroness Altman’s private Member’s Bill in the other place next week, which helps to address this issue? Will he also address it in his autumn statement?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s expertise in this area, which is of great benefit to the House and to me as I consider fiscal measures. As we are so close to the autumn statement, I would say that the way that we treat costs in our investment and pension funds industries is not optimal, and we need to reform it.

T5. A short time after the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen), said he was “alarmed” by the amount of tax people are paying, he was out of a job. Was he sacked for highlighting the Government’s tax burden, the highest for 70 years? (900064)

My right hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) did an excellent job and we all salute his brilliant work. If he were here now, he would remind the hon. Gentleman that we have the lowest tax burden of any European country in the G7.

I know that the Chancellor is aware of just how important the whisky industry is to the economy of rural Scotland. It was very disappointing that the policy of a duty freeze was not continued in the Budget. Can he offer any reassurance that we will return to the policy of duty freeze in the autumn statement, and in next year’s Budget?

We are incredibly supportive of the Scotch whisky industry. In fact, the Scotch Whisky Association was my first meeting in post. In nine out of 10 previous fiscal events we either cut or froze duty on whisky, and we have acted to remove punitive tariffs on Scotch whisky in the US market. It will not be a surprise to my right hon. Friend that all taxes remain under review and he will not have long to wait until the next fiscal event.

T6. Banks are taking advantage of higher interest rates to make bumper profits. A new poll shows that people have had enough, with big support for a one-off windfall tax on bank profits, yet the Government have chosen to slash the surcharge on bank profits. Is it not time for a windfall tax on excess bank profits to help people who are hit hard by this crisis? (900065)

There are two things I would say in response to that. First, it is important, when we talk about banks, that we have a globally broadly competitive tax regime, and we do not apologise for that in the Treasury. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the reduction he talks about in terms of the levy on banks was offset by rising corporation tax.

I thank the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies) for his recent visit to Darlington, where he opened a new branch of Darlington Building Society. He will know from that visit the impact that Treasury jobs are having locally, including an additional £80 million of spending in our local economy. Does he agree with me that Darlington Economic Campus is a fantastic levelling-up project, ensuring that people can stay local but go far?

It was a great pleasure to visit my hon. Friend and open the Darlington Building Society in his town, a very prominent business that is important for in-service banking facilities. The Darlington campus is an important part of our Treasury levelling-up agenda and long may that continue.

T8. More than 3 million households in the UK owe an estimated £2.7 billion in the unregulated buy now, pay later sector. The Labour party has set out plans for urgent regulation of the sector. Can the Minister confirm when the Government will do the same? (900067)

This is a complicated area of regulation and we are looking at it very closely. The consultation closed in April and we are working on it because it is very important we get it right, but I hear the hon. Lady’s concerns and will update the House in due course.

While the shadow Chancellor was busy scrolling through Wikipedia to copy and paste, the actual Chancellor has to look no further than the New Conservatives tax plan, which outlines scrapping the IR35 reforms, increasing the VAT registration threshold to £250,000, and delivering on the Prime Minister’s pledge when he was Chancellor to bring a 1p cut in income tax in 2024.

I thank my hon. Friend for adding to the litany of options I have in front of me for the autumn statement. What I can say to him is what I said in my party conference speech: we are committed to lowering the tax burden and will do so as soon as it is responsible to do so.

T9. Some 28% of people in Chester have a mortgage and they are still bearing the burden of the Government’s disastrous mini-budget. They deserve peace of mind that mortgage rates will come down soon, so what is the Chancellor going to do about it? (900068)

Can I say gently to the hon. Lady that interest rates have gone up by 3% in the UK since then? That is just above the United States and just below the eurozone, so this is a global phenomenon. There is no short cut to bringing down interest rates. We have to support the Bank of England as it bears down on inflation and then we can bring mortgage rates down.

Will the Chancellor look at the red tape around the apprenticeship levy? Many businesses in my area, such as Asda, Amazon and DPD, all say that they want to take on more apprenticeships but that the red tape around how they spend the money is very difficult. This is something that he could change overnight, and really help to grow and boost our economy.

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the apprenticeship levy, which has been a tremendous success in bringing a rigour to technical qualifications that was not there before. We are very open to reforms to the apprenticeship levy, providing they stick to the fundamental principle that any investment is not in in-house training that would otherwise have happened, but in transferrable, passport-able training that someone can take with them if they move to another business.

T10. The NHS dental plan has been stuck in the Treasury for months, while my constituents are waiting years to see an NHS dentist. When the Chancellor makes his autumn statement, will he also release the dental plan with the funding that is required so that we can get dental treatment back on track for our constituents? (900069)

I will not pre-empt what I am going to say next week, but I will say to the hon. Lady that, as a former Health Secretary, I am well aware of the pressures on NHS dentistry and its importance to all our constituents.

Given that inheritance tax is the least popular of all taxes at every income decile and that scrapping it would not be inflationary, will my right hon. Friend consider doing so?

Opt-out savings are a little like auto-enrolment in pensions. They help those on lower incomes to save for a crisis—for the proverbial rainy day. Given that more than 9 million people in this country are in work with no savings at all, will the Chancellor note the impressive results of a small trial of the opt-out savings system in Manchester, and encourage its expansion?

I would be happy to do that. The hon. Gentleman is right: if we are to grow faster as an economy, the other side of the coin is we that need to save more, and we should be encouraging everyone in all income groups to do so.

Will my right hon. Friend seek to fix the anomaly that sees man-made fully synthetic fuels taxed at the same rate as their fossil equivalents?

Yesterday in the House, in the context of Labour’s plan for a health service, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions referred to the “poor old non-doms”. Does the Chancellor agree with his colleague that people who live in this country but do not pay their taxes here can be accurately described as poor?

Because we attract wealth creators from all over the world—and this may be uncomfortable for those on the Opposition Benches—we generate huge amounts of tax revenue. Financial services pay for half the cost of running the NHS. I am in favour of getting everyone to pay their fair share of tax, but I will not make reforms that mean less tax revenue for the NHS.

The Westminster-made cost of living crisis is having a devastating impact on household incomes, particularly in Broomhouse, where many young homeowners are seeing mortgage prices soaring. Will the Chancellor use the autumn statement to introduce mortgage interest tax relief to help people across Glasgow to deal with the cost of living crisis?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have taken enormous steps over the past year to help families throughout Scotland to deal with cost of living pressures. If he really thinks that people in Scotland believe that this was a “made in Westminster” problem, when we have experienced an invasion of Ukraine and a global pandemic, I simply say to him in return that after 16 years of SNP rule, GDP per head in Scotland is lower, productivity is falling, employment is lower, and inactivity is higher—[Interruption.]

Members need to give me a good reason not to bring them in at the end again: be careful! Let us come to the statement—[Interruption.] Angus, you’ll find the door, I think, in a minute.