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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2023


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Landfill Tax Relief: Local Authorities

1. If he will make an assessment of the potential merits of introducing landfill tax relief for local authorities who are responsible for hazardous waste after companies go into liquidation. (900732)

A very merry Christmas to you and your staff, Mr Speaker. Landfill tax provides an economic incentive to manage waste more sustainably, which has contributed to a 90% reduction in local authority waste sent to landfill in England since 2000. However, it was not intended to act as a barrier to the remediation and redevelopment of contaminated land. In the autumn statement the Government announced the land remediation pathfinder fund, which will provide £78 million of targeted support to local and mayoral authorities.

Happy Christmas, Mr Speaker. For two weeks now the old Supa Skips site in Lancaster has been burning, and it looks as if Lancaster City Council will be left to pick up the tab for the clean-up. Some of that money has to be spent on landfill tax. Will the Minister meet me and Lancaster City Council to discuss what options are open to my local council to ensure that local ratepayers are not left footing the bill for rogue companies that walk away from sites, such as Supa Skips?

As I mentioned in my previous answer, the landfill tax has been hugely successful but it was never intended to act as a barrier to remediation. The fund that was announced in the autumn statement will be open for bids in early 2024, and I encourage the hon. Lady’s local authority to apply through the normal way. Secondly, there is an ongoing review into the landfill tax, and reform of current exemptions are within scope of that review. Our belief is that the fund may offer more targeted support in the way that she desires.

Anglesey Freeport: North Wales Economy

2. What recent assessment his Department has made of the potential impact of Anglesey freeport on the economy in North Wales. (900733)

Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker. Today is the funeral of former Chancellor Lord Darling, and if I may, I will make some comments about that in my topicals statement. Anglesey freeport will be a national and international hub for trade, innovation and commerce, regenerating communities by attracting new business, and spreading jobs, investment and opportunity.

Nadolig llawen pawb. I was delighted that the Chancellor extended freeport tax reliefs in England in his autumn statement. Does he agree that if those extensions are realised in Wales, it will give companies the confidence to invest and help deliver the £1 billion investment, and thousands of jobs forecast for our Anglesey freeport? Will he join me in thanking all those at the Isle of Anglesey County Council and Stena Line who worked so hard recently to submit the outline business case?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in thanking all those involved in promoting the Anglesey freeport, which we think may create 5,500 jobs. We are working closely with the Welsh Government to agree on how the 10-year window to claim reliefs can be extended across freeports in Wales. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has done more than anyone to put Ynys Môn on the map.

Thank you very much for doing the funnies, Mr Speaker.

Freeports can certainly be a catalyst of economic growth and prosperity in north Wales and the east midlands, but they must be in the right place. Putting a freeport in North West Leicestershire, which already enjoys some of the highest economic growth in the country, has low unemployment, and is capable of filling its industrial sites without incentives, makes little sense. Will the Chancellor agree to meet me to discuss better alternatives for the east midlands than the Diseworth freeport site?

I would be happy to ask one of my colleagues to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss why freeports are not appropriate in his part of Leicestershire.

Farm Budgets 2024-25: Scotland

3. What recent discussions he has had with his Scottish counterpart on farm budgets for the financial year 2024-25. (900734)

A very merry Christmas, Mr Speaker. The Government guarantee to maintain the £2.4 billion annual budget for farmers across the UK for every year of this Parliament. As agriculture is devolved, it is ultimately for the Scottish Government to decide how to allocate that money to farming in Scotland.

The Minister will be aware of the frustration that is felt by many farmers and crofters in Scotland that the £33 million that was given to the Scottish Government for a specific purpose as part of the Bew review has been deferred hitherto. What will she do in future to ensure that where money is given for the express purpose of supporting Scottish agriculture, it is in fact used for that purpose?

The right hon. Member raises an excellent question. The SNP Government are yet to clarify when this ringfenced money will be returned. I hope they will do so this afternoon at the Budget.

May I echo your comments, Mr Speaker, with Christmas wishes for all the House staff, your staff and Members? The UK Government’s attempt to overhaul the EU subsidy scheme has left English farmers 50% worse off in cash terms than in 2020. While the Scottish Government have sought to protect our farmers’ payments, can the Minister guarantee that the UK Government will not try to undermine their payments and devolution by back-door use of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020?

I note that the hon. Member did not answer my question, nor that of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) about when the ringfenced money will be returned.

Very good point, but I still maintain that the hon. Member needs to clarify that matter. It is up to the Scottish Government if they would like at any point to top up the amount that goes to Scottish farming. I encourage them to do so this afternoon at the Budget.

I do not think any Scottish farmer will be reassured by what the Minister has just said. I just said that the Scottish Government are protecting those farmers’ payments, while English farmers are losing out, as we know. What we do not have from the UK Government is detail on what they will be doing after 2025. If we had remained in the European Union, we would know that figure for farming subsidies so that the Scottish Government could make plans to help farmers plan ahead. Can the Minister apologise for that situation and guarantee that in the early months of next year we will have clarity on farming payments?

The UK Government have laid out plans for the agriculture transition in England that go beyond the current spending review, giving farmers increased certainty over policy and spending intent for years to come. The Scottish Government could decide to provide farmers in Scotland with similar certainty if they chose to do so.

Small Businesses: Fiscal Support

A very jolly Christmas to you and all, Mr Speaker.

Small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of the economy, and we support them to thrive using levers across government. Our small business rate relief means that one third of business properties in England already pay no business rates. We provide tax reliefs benefiting SMEs, such as annual investment allowance and employment allowance, we support investments in SMEs through the British Business Bank programmes and we fund the schemes offering SMEs training and advice.

Merry Christmas to you and yours, Mr Speaker. The autumn statement was a huge success for small businesses across the country, with the Federation of Small Businesses describing it as “a game changer”. Will my hon. Friend outline to the House how the autumn statement package will benefit those small businesses in my constituency on which my towns and villages rely?

I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing support for small businesses in his constituency. Measures in the autumn statement to help them include extending the retail, hospitality and leisure relief for another year, which will support around 230,000 properties in England. That tax cut is worth nearly £2.4 billion. Meanwhile, by freezing the small business multiplier for a fourth consecutive year, we will be protecting more than a million properties from a multiplier increase. Other announcements that could benefit his constituents include the Help to Grow, management and Made Smarter programmes and moves to tackle late payments.

The new 55-day payment rule will apply to only a few hundred companies contracted by the Government, yet microbusinesses, which do not typically have Government contracts, wait on average 68 days for payments. Those businesses make up the majority of small businesses across our country. Why will the Government not back the Micro Business Alliance’s “Pay in 30 days” campaign?

As I mentioned, we are well aware of the issue of late payments, and we are in constant dialogue with the key stakeholders in this area, as well as colleagues at the Department for Business and Trade. We will always keep an eye on the measures, but the moves we have already made to tackle late payments, as announced recently, will make a big difference.

Reducing Taxes

Thanks to the difficult decisions the Government have taken on inflation and debt, the autumn statement this year was able to deliver the biggest package of tax cuts to be scored since 1988.

I very much welcome the tax cuts recently announced by the Chancellor and hope to see more announced soon, especially a rise in the higher rate threshold. As the Conservatives look to reduce the tax burden on working people, does the Chancellor share my concern that £28 billion-a-year unfunded spending commitments would likely see taxes rise and lead to higher interest rates if Labour were ever in government?

It is not just me but Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies who, when talking about Labour’s plan, has said that

“additional borrowing…drives up interest rates”,

which is, of course, a back-door tax rise on families with mortgages. But as it is Christmas, perhaps I could explain it this way: if Santa borrowed £28 billion, he might have more toys to give out this year, but he would also have debt interest to pay and fewer toys to give out next year.

Record funding is going in to support the cost of childcare, to allow more parents to stay in the workforce. This is very welcome, but the tax burden on single-earner households puts the choice to be a stay-at-home parent beyond the reach of too many. Raising the youngest generation must count as a top investment, so may I ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor what recent analysis has been undertaken on the transferable allowance? At up to £252 per annum, it is currently not designed to facilitate that choice.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. As she knows, the marriage allowance is currently £1,260 per year, and it has been fixed at 10% of the personal allowance since it was introduced in 2015. On this side of the House, we believe it should be a woman’s choice, and we want to make that choice as real as possible for every family. For that reason, we think the best thing we can do is to bring down the taxes paid by working people to put more money into the family budget, and we were happy to make a start on that in the autumn statement.

Like many of us in this place, I am a big supporter of Small Business Saturday, and it is important to remember that small businesses are the backbone of local communities all year round. Many are unlikely to be able to take advantage of the Chancellor’s very generous and welcome expensing package, so what additional measures will he continue to consider to support all businesses great and small, including perhaps even corporation tax reductions?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. She will know that 70% of trading businesses only pay the lower corporation tax rate of 19%. That covers the vast majority of small businesses. I used to run my own business; I ran it for 14 years before I came into Parliament. I could not agree with her more: small businesses are the backbone of the British economy, which is why we are tackling the scourge of low payments and we rolled over the 75% discount on retail, hospitality and leisure business rates in the autumn statement.

Will the Chancellor confirm how much higher the tax burden is forecast to be at the end, compared with at the start, of this Parliament?

What I can confirm is that, as a result of the measures I took in the autumn statement, it will be lower at the end of the scorecard period than it would otherwise have been, and a lot lower than it would be under any Labour Government.

May I ask the Chancellor how many middle-income taxpayers have been paying the higher rate of tax since 2019?

I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the exact numbers, but for people on low incomes—people being paid the lowest legally payable wage—their post-tax real income has gone up by 30% since 2010, because the Conservative party believes in making work pay.

Why is the fiscal situation strong enough to cut national insurance, but not strong enough to return the overseas aid budget to 0.7% of GNI?

Because the way we return the overseas aid budget to 0.7% is to grow the economy. By cutting national insurance, we put nearly 100,000 more people into the national workforce, filling nearly one in 10 vacancies in companies up and down the country.

Banking Services: Access

The Government believe that all customers should have appropriate access to banking services, which is why we have legislated to protect access to cash. We also support the FCA’s bank branch closure guidance as well as industry initiatives to provide in-person access, including shared banking hubs at post offices, and access via digital means.

More than 5,000 bank branches have closed since 2015. Sadly, the Lloyds bank in Withington village will join the many more branches closing in the coming months and leave Withington without a bank branch, but by the end of the year the industry will have delivered only 30 shared banking hubs. Does the Minister think that the pace and scale of that roll-out is good enough?

First, it is worth stating that, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the decisions on whether to open or close branches are commercial ones, and the Government do not interfere with that. However, we have legislated to protect access for cash. The banks need to abide by the Financial Conduct Authority’s guidance, with the latest guidance published only last week. In relation to shared banking hubs, we should indeed increase the pace at which they are rolled out, and I am talking with the industry about how to do that.

It is pretty clear that most legacy banks do not give a stuff about their customers and just want to screw as much money out of people as possible. After the scandal of Coutts’s debanking of Nigel Farage, the Government acted swiftly to try to make that much more difficult for other customers, but many businesses face the same problem. What will the Government do to stop businesses being debanked in the same way as individuals?

I am not sure that I quite accept my hon. Friend’s characterisation of the banking industry, but I am happy to meet him and discuss the problems he outlined in relation to specific businesses and access to bank accounts.

Before I ask my question, I want to convey the apologies of the shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves). She is delivering the eulogy at Alistair Darling’s funeral today.

I want to say a few words about Alistair Darling—I am sure you will agree, Mr Speaker—a dedicated public servant, who was respected across both Houses. He led the country’s economic response to the global financial crisis with integrity, honesty and sound judgment, and we will all miss him. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”]

As my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) just said, nearly 6,000 bank branches have closed since 2015, and only 30 banking hubs are up and fully running. That has left countless people financially excluded and affected lots of small businesses. I ask the Minister once again: will he accelerate the roll-out of banking hubs properly? Why are his Government not doing anything to reverse the decline of the great British high street?

I agree with the hon. Lady’s words about Lord Darling and echo the words of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

On bank branches, I will repeat my position: it is important that the Government do not decide when a branch opens and when it closes, but it is a concern when communities are left without appropriate access to cash. That is why we were the first Government to legislate for access to cash, as we did earlier this year, and that is why I believe we should speed up the roll-out of banking hubs. I am working with the industry on ways in which we can do that.

If the Minister is serious about protecting the future of the great British high street, will he back Labour’s pledge, which has been welcomed by Cash Access UK and the wider sector, to guarantee face-to-face banking in every community and give the FCA the powers it needs to roll out hundreds of banking hubs across the country?

As the hon. Lady knows, the industry leads the roll-out of banking hubs. We are supporting it—I say this again—to speed that up as much as possible. I have not seen the Labour pledge—I suspect that I will not support it—but it is important that the industry hears the views of constituents and Members from across the House and that we speed up the roll-out of banking hubs in communities that need them.

Pension Schemes: Incentivising UK Investment

At the autumn statement, we set out a series of measures to improve pension saver returns, increase opportunities for investment and boost the UK’s capital markets and high-growth companies.

Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, and to all those in the House. The UK’s pension funds lag behind their counterparts in the USA, Scandinavia and Australia for investing in technology firms. Can my hon. Friend continue his work on reforms and ensure that more pension fund investment stays in the UK, to boost our tech sector?

Under the industry-led Mansion House compact, 11 of the UK’s largest defined contribution pension schemes have signed up to the objective of allocating at least 5% of their funds to unlisted equities by 2030. We believe that could unlock £50 billion of investment in high-growth companies and should help increase returns to savers.

The Minister will appreciate that the greatest investment that anyone can make is in themselves and their own country—Northern Ireland and all the United Kingdom. What steps can be taken to ensure UK-wide investment by pensions schemes in cutting edge businesses such as Wrightbus and Thales?

There are a couple of things that we need to do. We need to ensure that the industry abides by its commitment to the 5% target. Working with the Exchequer Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Gareth Davies), we must present the right investment opportunities so that the capital goes into the UK in the right way.

Taxation of Long and Short-term Lets

9. Whether his Department is taking fiscal steps to reduce differences in the levels of taxation between long and short-term lets. (900741)

The Government provide a different income tax regime for short-term lets compared with long-term lets if they qualify as furnished holiday lets, for which there are stringent conditions. As with all aspects of the tax system, the Government keep the tax treatment of property landlords under review. Any decisions on future changes will be taken by the Chancellor in the context of wider public finances.

The changes to landlord tax relief, which fully came in during the pandemic, exclude holiday lets. That has contributed to a significant decline in residential landlords in tourist areas like North Devon. The lack of affordable rental properties has priced out workers, particularly in the hospitality sector, resulting in businesses reducing their opening hours and therefore their tax contribution to the Treasury. Can my hon. Friend provide any hope of levelling the tax playing field to encourage long-term landlords back to the market?

I thank my hon. Friend for her continued interest in this area on behalf of her constituents. The Government want to ensure a diverse and sustainable visitor accommodation offer while protecting local communities, including ensuring the availability of affordable housing to rent or to buy. That is why we are introducing a registration scheme for short-term lets in England, which will be a vital step towards achieving that aim. The Government keep the tax treatment of property landlords under review, but I would be happy to meet her to discuss these issues further.

Throughout Westmorland and Lonsdale we see people, particularly in social care, hospitality and tourism, ejected from their communities because of the collapse in the long-term rental market into a short-term rental market, principally through Airbnb. Will the Minister go further on fiscal controls to make sure that we keep homes available for local people to live in? Will he put pressure on ministerial colleagues to change planning law to make short-term lets a separate category of planning use, so that communities in the lakes and the dales can prevent the collapse of their communities into places only for those who can afford to visit?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. We have talked about this topic in my previous roles over many years. He is aware that the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities has published a consultation on the introduction of a planning use class for short-term lets. He will also be aware that, through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023, the Government have introduced a new power to allow councils to apply a council tax premium on second homes. There is progress in this area, but we are always open to new ideas.

Creditors Contacting Customers in Debt: FCA

10. What recent discussions he has had with the Financial Conduct Authority on how creditors contact customers in debt. (900742)

I was pleased to speak at the launch of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute’s report on this subject last week, alongside the FCA. It is worth saying that I used to be on the advisory board of that institute. The Government and the FCA will continue to work closely to ensure that consumer protections are fit for purpose, including through our upcoming reform of the Consumer Credit Act 1974.

A constituent who was a victim of domestic abuse and whose ex-husband fraudulently took out a loan in her name was constantly harassed by creditors as she tried to clear the debt, and, according to a recent report by the organisation that the Minister mentioned, that is an experience shared by others. Will Ministers discuss with the FCA imposing legal limits on arrears communications in cases such as this, as other countries have done?

Let me say two things. First, I pay tribute to the former Financial Secretary, now the Health Secretary—my right hon. Friend the Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins)—who did a great deal of work in relation to economic abuse. I am committed to continuing that work with the Treasury to ensure that we limit the circumstances in which the incidents described by the hon. Lady can occur. As for the broader question of what the regulator does in such cases, we have put a record level of funding, to the tune of some £93 million, into working with regulators on debt advice. I shall be happy to discuss with the hon. Lady the details of how we can help her constituents in the way that she suggested.

Household Income: Mortgage Interest Rates

11. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of changes in mortgage interest rates over the course of this Parliament on household income. (900743)

As the hon. Lady knows, the path to lower interest rates is through low inflation, and the independent Bank of England has the Government’s full support as it takes action to return inflation to target. The Government’s mortgage charter, brokered by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor earlier in the year, is available to 90% of borrowers. Real disposable income per person is about £800 higher than the Office for Budget Responsibility predicted in its March forecast.

The expiry of 1.5 million fixed-rate mortgage deals next year will mean even more people paying sky high-costs. It comes at a time when many are suffering increased financial hardship and personal debt, which is having an impact on their mental and physical health. Does the Minister think it fair that families are paying hundreds of pounds more each month to cover the costs of the Government’s mini-Budget disaster?

Mortgage costs and interest rates have gone up throughout the world, and we are in more or less the middle of the pack—they are higher in the United States, for example—but what will definitely make things harder for the hon. Lady’s constituents, and indeed all our constituents, is borrowing an extra £28 billion that will only serve to increase inflation and keep rates higher for longer.

Living Standards: OBR Growth Forecasts

12. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of the OBR’s growth forecasts on living standards. (900744)

13. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of the OBR’s growth forecasts on living standards. (900745)

14. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of the OBR’s growth forecasts on living standards. (900746)

The OBR revised up its growth figures after data revisions by the Office for National Statistics indicated the economy had recovered more fully from the pandemic than had been expected, which means that the current level of real GDP is nearly 3% higher than was predicted in March forecasts.

The Government put a positive spin on the provisional local government finance settlement yesterday, but the Local Government Association said that it did not provide enough funding to meet the severe cost and demand pressures on councils, and assumed that all councils would increase their tax bills by the maximum allowed next year. What will that do for my constituents’ living standards?

As the hon. Lady will know, we put billions of pounds into councils this year, and the provisional settlement is above what is expected to be the inflation rate next year. If she has specific issues with her local council, I shall be happy to take that up with her.

We have seen one of the greatest falls in living standards in a generation, and the Chancellor has callously removed the household support fund from councils. In Brighton the fund pays for free school meal vouchers in the holidays, the warmth and wellbeing scheme, career centres, family hubs, and food banks such as the one in Whitehawk where my constituency office has its surgeries. Will the Minister think again about scrapping the household support fund, so that councils can support the very worst off?

I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman: no decision has been made about the household support fund. More broadly, however, we have pulled in an average of £3,700 per household this year to help people with exactly what we are talking about. This Government are on the side of people during what is a very difficult time.

According to the Low Pay Commission, one in five people who should be receiving the national minimum wage do not even get that. This is a huge failure of enforcement. How can we have increased living standards if people do not even receive the legal minimum to which they are entitled?

If the hon. Gentleman can give individual examples, I ask him please to let us know. It is, obviously, extremely important that we enforce this, but I should point out that we will increase the levels by 9.8% next year, which will make a significant difference to households up and down the country.

Is not the more fundamental problem with the question posed by Opposition Members the fact that the OBR’s forecasts are never right?

All I can say is that they have definitely gone in the right direction, because the economy next year will be billions of pounds bigger than we thought it was going to be in March.

Public Spending: Value for Money

Value for money is at the heart of Government spending and it is one of the key considerations for any decision involving the use of public funds across Government. As Chief Secretary, I am committed to tackling waste and promoting productivity across the public sector.

Last year, Government officials admitted that they were paying companies to burn and destroy 15,000 pallets of unusable personal protective equipment each month. Does the Treasury have any idea how much wasted PPE has gone up in smoke this year?

During the pandemic our priority was absolutely clear: to get PPE to the frontline as quickly as possible. There was an unprecedented global increase in demand for PPE during the emergency response to the pandemic and items were procured at pace. The Department of Health and Social Care continues to seek to recover fraud losses to ensure that public funds are protected.

Throughout the pandemic, people across the country made extraordinary and heart-wrenching sacrifices, yet as they did so, a small minority were instead making millions of pounds by ripping off the taxpayer. With conflicts of interest, defective goods and exorbitant profit margins, it has been greedy and grubby and this Conservative Government have enabled it all. As taxpayers, we want our money back, so Labour will create a covid corruption commissioner to chase down every pound we can. Does the Minister have any idea just how angry people are that our country has been taken for a ride?

The hypocrisy is absolutely astonishing. During the pandemic the shadow Chancellor wrote that the strategy of turning to big-name UK manufacturers was not delivering the supply that was needed. Yes, we procured things very fast—we needed to do that to get things to the frontline—and we are trying to get back every single penny that was lost to fraud, but we make no apology for doing whatever we could to get PPE to the frontline as quickly as possible.

The Minister’s response really does not reflect the seriousness of the situation. This is not just one bad apple; this is a rotten culture that goes to the very top, with £8.7 billion lost on wasted PPE and £7.2 billion lost to covid fraud. That is £15.9 billion of public money gone at a time when people and public services are struggling. Can the Minister remind the House who was Chancellor at the time that all of this was signed off?

I do not know what more I can add to my last answer. This was done very quickly, at pace, because we were desperate to get PPE to the frontline as quickly as possible. We have set up initiatives to recoup money from fraudulent activity including the Public Sector Fraud Authority, which has already saved taxpayers £311 million in the first year of operation.

Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures: Recommendations

16. If he will make mandatory the recommendations on reporting of the taskforce on nature-related financial disclosures. (900748)

This Government have been one of the largest donors to the global market-led taskforce on nature-related financial disclosures—TNFD—initiative. We will consider how best the TNFD’s recommendations should be incorporated into policy and legislative architecture in a manner that is coherent with global sustainability reporting.

Merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker, and to the officers, Clerks and staff of the House. I am encouraged by my hon. Friend’s answer. It was a year ago today that the global biodiversity framework was agreed in Montreal, and it was absolutely necessary to restore biodiversity loss. The TNFD initiative was launched by the UK G7 presidency in 2021 and it featured in the green finance strategy that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I did the ministerial foreword to earlier this year. He will be aware of the recommendations that were launched in September. I am conscious that there was a lot of support from the Treasury previously and that we should try to accelerate the International Sustainability Standards Board standards so that we can bring in this initiative just as successfully as we have done for the TCFD—the taskforce on climate-related financial disclosures.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. She mentions the Treasury’s green finance strategy, which contains plans to bring forward the sustainability disclosure requirements, building on the global commitments. We have already implemented the climate-related financial disclosures, and we are looking very carefully at the nature-related financial disclosures. We hope to update the House in due course.

Business Investment

In the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced an ambitious growth package that will boost business investment by making full expensing permanent, by removing barriers to business investment, by reforming our inefficient planning system, by speeding up electricity grid connection times and by making £4.5 billion available for strategic manufacturing sectors over the next five years, among other measures.

I thank the Minister for that response. It is very welcome to see full expensing, which will help businesses to invest in the plant and machinery and the technology that are needed. It would also help the ceramics sector, in particular, if it were exempted from the emissions trading scheme. Will my hon. Friend speak to the Chancellor about the possibility of exempting the ceramics sector from the ETS, which would help to give the sector the breathing space to invest in productivity and energy efficiency gains?

I can think of few greater champions for Stoke’s ceramics sector than my hon. Friend. We recognise that carbon leakage is a significant risk for the ceramics sector, so I can offer him two pieces of information. First, we provide free allowances to the ceramics sector under the ETS. Secondly, just yesterday we announced that ceramics will be included in the UK’s carbon border adjustment mechanism.

Fuel Duty: Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism

18. If he will make an estimate of the potential impact of a carbon border adjustment mechanism in the form recommended by the Commission for Carbon Competitiveness on fuel duty. (900750)

The Government have announced that they will implement a CBAM from January 2027. The UK CBAM will place a carbon price on some of the most emissions-intensive industrial goods imported to the UK and will ensure that the UK’s decarbonisation efforts lead to a true reduction in global emissions, rather than simply displacing carbon emissions overseas. The delivery of a CBAM will be the subject of further consultation in 2024.

I congratulate the Minister. A CBAM is the cheapest and most future-proof way to save the planet and UK manufacturing jobs at the same time, but some of the details look troubling. Why have some manufacturing industries been left out entirely? Why are others arriving late, so they will be vulnerable to dumping? And how will he ensure that this is not just a tax and price rise for already hard-pressed families and businesses?

I recognise and thank my hon. Friend for his work as chair of the Commission for Carbon Competitiveness. I will directly address his two main questions. On speed, implementation by 2027, at the latest, will allow the Government to engage with businesses to ensure that they are well prepared, but next year’s consultation will provide more information on timings. We have identified eight sectors that have the greatest exposure to carbon leakage, from both a trade and an emissions perspective.

Investment Zones

Since the spring Budget, the Government have announced seven of the eight English investment zones and confirmed the location of four places eligible to host investment zones in Scotland and Wales. The Government are committed to ensuring that funding and tax sites go live in the 2024-25 financial year.

I welcome the investment zone in Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire. Will the Minister confirm that some of the benefits of these zones are not only available in the small number of large sites but are available to any business across the whole zone to apply for?

My hon. Friend is right to recognise the east midlands investment zone, which will bring significant benefits across the region in the advanced manufacturing and green industry sectors. I am pleased to tell him that it started with a £9.3 million anchor investment and, over time, will leverage some £323 million in private investment, supporting 4,000 jobs overall.


Inflation has now halved from 11.1% in October 2022 to 4.7% in October 2023, delivering on the Prime Minister’s pledge. This has happened not by accident but as a result of difficult decisions made by the Government and the Bank of England—Government decisions that were opposed every step of the way by the Labour party.

Thank you for calling me to ask a question while I catch my breath, Mr Speaker!

A major component of inflation over this past year has, of course, been the energy price shock. What are the Government doing to ensure the continued expansion of renewable energy so that we have greater energy security, and so that we are more resilient in the face of energy price shocks from overseas?

My right hon. Friend is right, and she nailed the delivery of her question while out of breath.

At the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced measures that demonstrate the Government’s ongoing commitment to renewable energy as a priority growth sector essential to our energy security and net zero ambitions. The announcements made include a new investment exemption from the electricity generator levy and a £960 million green industries growth accelerator.

Topical Questions

Today is the funeral of Lord Darling, who will be greatly missed by many in this House, as well as by Maggie and his family. Civil servants are known for being good at concealing their private feelings about more challenging Ministers, but that was never necessary with Alistair Darling. He was Chief Secretary to the Treasury and then Chancellor during the global financial crisis, and despite the many stresses and strains of that period, he was uniformly admired and much loved for his kindness, decency and dry sense of humour. He took decisions in that period that have stood the test of time and put him on the small list of Chancellors whom history will remember for wise decision making in an unprecedented crisis. We will always remember him.

Finally, Mr Speaker, may I wish you and all the staff in the House a merry and peaceful Christmas?

I, too, send my full sympathy. I also wish everyone across the House a merry Christmas.

Industry has fully supported the Prime Minister’s vision of the UK becoming a cryptocurrency hub, but many licensed companies are still finding it difficult to open bank accounts here. So will the Chancellor meet the all-party group on crypto and digital assets to discuss what progress can be made on digital Britain?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking that question, because the UK, and London in particular, has become the global crypto hub. To make sure that the market can really take off in the way that was intended—in a responsible way—we need to regulate it, which is why we have introduced regulations on stablecoins and on the promotion of crypto services. My hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury would be more than happy to meet her.

Merry Christmas to you and to the House, Mr Speaker. Let me start by thanking the Chancellor for his kind words about the late Lord Darling, which I think show the gratitude of Members from across the House for his lifetime of public service.

The public have a right to know why so many billions of pounds of their taxes have been wasted by this Government. Baroness Mone has claimed today that Conservative Ministers knew about her personal connections to the company PPE Medpro from the very beginning. So why did the Government not correct the record when a misleading picture was being painted in the media about Baroness Mone’s personal connection to PPE Medpro in the first place?

I am not going to comment on allegations by Baroness Mone or, indeed, on the individual case, but let me say this: we put together a taskforce of more than 1,000 people that opened 46,000 investigations and so far has made more 80 arrests, so we will stop at nothing to tackle fraud and bring to justice anyone who was responsible for wrongdoing. But what we did in a moment of extreme crisis was to make sure that we got personal protective equipment to the frontline as quickly as we could, and had we not done so many more lives would have been lost.

We all know that Baroness Mone’s enrichment via PPE Medpro is subject to an investigation, but that does not allow Ministers to refuse to answer questions here in the House today. So let me ask another: Baroness Mone’s husband, Doug Barrowman, alleged that in November 2022 he was approached by a Government official asking if they would

“pay more for the other matter to go away.”

Is that specific and incredibly serious claim now being investigated and, if so, by whom?

If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence of people behaving improperly or illegally, he should tell the police, and he will get the full support of this Government and the whole House in bringing the matter to justice. But let me just say to him that any responsible Opposition should understand that in a crisis there is a trade-off between speed and taking longer to prevent fraud, and we took the right decision to save as many lives as possible.

T3.   I am hearing from a concerning number of small businesses in my constituency that they are slowing down as they approach the VAT threshold, rather than doing what the whole economy needs them to do and going for growth. Ahead of the spring Budget, will my right hon. Friend look at substantially shifting the VAT threshold upwards? (900760)

My hon. Friend is a great advocate for small businesses. The Government recognise that accounting for VAT can be a burden on businesses, but that is why, at £85,000, the UK has a higher VAT registration threshold than any EU member state and the second highest in the OECD, keeping the majority of UK businesses out of VAT altogether. In the 2022 autumn statement, it was announced that the VAT threshold would be maintained at its current level until 31 March 2026. As always, the Government keep taxes under review.

T2. I echo the Chancellor’s generous and well-judged tribute to Alistair Darling. At the autumn statement, the Chancellor said—mistakenly, as it turned out—that the household support fund was being extended into the next financial year; the Chief Secretary to the Treasury clarified the position a few moments ago. Does the Chancellor recognise that there is a compelling case for him to announce exactly that extension in the Budget, so that councils can continue to provide the last-resort safety net that has been such a valuable feature of the household support fund over the last three years? (900758)

I recognise the important role the household support fund has played. As my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said earlier, no decisions have been made about what will happen going forward. There were a lot of anti-poverty measures in the autumn statement, including increasing benefits next year by double the rate of inflation, increasing the full-time national living wage by £1,800 a year and increasing the local housing allowance, providing an average of an extra £800 to 1.6 million households.

T7.   Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker, to you, your team and the Treasury team. Between now and the next Treasury questions, millions of our constituents will be required to file a self-assessment tax return, yet this week we learned that His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has suddenly shut down its hotline for the majority of people and their advisers. Our most law-abiding citizens are trying to get their taxes right, so what advice can my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury give to them as to how they can contact HMRC? (900764)

I thank my hon. Friend the Chair of the Treasury Committee for raising this issue with me. We want to ensure that people can be served accurately and effectively through the most efficient channels. Two thirds of calls to the self-assessment line could be resolved online, through other channels—I highly recommend the app, for example. Last year, HMRC received over 3 million calls on three issues—resetting a password, getting a tax code and getting a national insurance number—that could easily be resolved digitally. People will still be able to call in, but we need to redeploy resources away from very simple questions towards those most in need, which will help those who are digitally unaware.

T5.   Mr Speaker, I wish you, your staff and everyone across the House a very happy Christmas. It has been reported that the Prime Minister instructed a £40 million VIP helicopter service that had been earmarked for closure to continue to provide him with flights. Will the Treasury publish a cost-benefit analysis of that decision for taxpayers to see? (900762)

I do not know the details of the issue raised by the hon. Lady, but I assure her that the Treasury is ferocious in its determination to ensure that every penny of the public’s money is spent wisely.

T8.   The electrification of the north Wales main line has been a vital issue to Delyn and the rest of north Wales for many years. Back in 2015, when it was judged as costing about £850 million, it was kiboshed by the Treasury as not being value for money. Now that it is expected to cost over £1 billion, will the Chancellor guarantee that the project will definitely go ahead and that the Treasury will not put a stop on it again? (900765)

T6. Mr Speaker, I wish you, those across the House and my constituents a very merry Christmas. People in rural areas suffer more than their urban counterparts because of the rural premium they encounter in their daily lives. With food inflation at around 10%, people in Somerton and Frome are once again facing a choice between heating and eating. What recent assessment has the Department made of the effect of inflation on food prices? (900763)

I know that the hon. Lady will have welcomed the most important change to cost of living pressures, which is inflation coming down. In addition, we have had the cost of living payments this year, and also benefits going up by 10.1% this year and by more than the expected level of inflation next year. We as a Government have done all we can to support people and will continue to do so.

T9. Mr Speaker, as mine is the last name on the Order Paper, may I wish you and Mrs Speaker, and the two Front-Bench teams, a very happy Christmas? Notwithstanding his predilection for myrrh and frankincense, may I ask the Chancellor to comment on the state of our gold reserves and whether, in a world where peace to all men seems to be in rather short supply at the moment, he anticipates adding to them in 2024? (900766)

As I go to carol services over the festive period, I will make sure that I am suitably inspired by what the three wise men brought to the crib. I can tell my hon. Friend that I am actually visiting our gold reserves this week, so I will see at first hand just how important they are.

Right now, council leaders up and down the country are having to make very difficult decisions on cutting vital services—not because of profligacy, but because of Government cuts to their funding. What steps is the Chancellor taking to ensure that local authorities—such as that in York, which is the lowest-funded area—are adequately funded?

The hon. Lady will have heard my answer to a previous question where I stated that we have put billions of pounds of extra money into local government this year to cover pressures. We recognise that those pressures are real, which is why the provisional settlement proposes an above-inflation rise for next year.

A fortnight ago, Kaye Adams, a TV presenter, won her case against His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on IR35 status. Despite the fact that she won her first tax tribunal on the issue, HMRC took her to either a tribunal or court four times over a nine-year period, forcing her to spend £200,000 in legal fees. HMRC spent many times that, using two King’s counsel at the last hearing alone. This was over a net tax bill of £70,000. There is no conceivable economic case for that. What HMRC is trying to do is move the guidelines by coercing Ms Adams and using her as an example to intimidate other self-employed workers to give in to HMRC’s bullying. This is a disgrace. It has gone on for too long. The 2021 revisions were inadequate and ministerial oversight is too weak. When will the Government review IR35 and, ideally, abolish it?

It is our duty to ensure that everyone pays the right tax under the law regardless of wealth or status. We note the decision of the tribunal and will carefully analyse the outcome before considering the next steps, but the off-payroll rules ensure that people who work like employees, but through their own limited company, are taxed like employees, creating a level playing field for other workers.

UK capital requirement regulations mandate a 50% level of capitalisation to be held by lenders for longer terms as opposed to 20% for shorter terms. Car manufacturer banks, such as Renault’s RCI Financial Services, underpin every franchise car dealer across these islands and operate on a seven-day notice period to terminate in order to minimise their capital requirements at 20%. The problem arises when a bank such as RCI maladministers a serious activity report, panics over its obligations under the regulations and terminates an award-winning Renault, Nissan and Dacia dealer such as Mackie Motors in my constituency with seven days’ notice. Will the Chancellor or one of his Ministers meet me to discuss this crisis?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Indeed, I will meet him to discuss the matter to make sure that this regulation does not have the adverse effects that he has outlined.

Since the Prime Minister’s speech on net zero in September, Nissan has announced a £2 billion investment in Sunderland, which comes hot on the heels of Tata’s £4 billion investment in batteries. EDF Masdar has announced an £11 billion investment in offshore wind in Dogger Bank. In his autumn statement, the Chancellor announced a tripling of tidal energy contracts for difference. We had 11 hydrogen projects announced last week. There are six companies bidding for small modular reactors. [Interruption.] Is it not the case that, hot on the heels of yesterday’s announcement of a £6 billion allocation of energy efficiency funding and the carbon border adjustment mechanism—

Order. We had this last time with you. I’m sorry, but I am trying to be generous because it is Christmas. Do not take advantage of other Members; I still have others to get in. It is just not fair, and it is very selfish to carry on when I have asked you not to. I do not find it acceptable. I look forward to the apology shortly. Would someone like to answer that question, briefly?

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question and for his campaigning on these issues. I just note that on electric vehicle manufacturing alone, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders says that in the past year we have had more investment pledged for UK electric vehicles than in the previous seven years combined.

The life sciences sector is worth £2.4 billion to the Northern Ireland economy. What steps have been taken, with counterparts in the Northern Ireland Assembly, to increase funding for employment within this worthy sector?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right that life sciences is one of the key growth industries for this country. I would be happy to meet him to discuss all the things we are doing for the sector, particularly in Northern Ireland.

Our economy continues to be impacted by the war in Ukraine and denial across the Black sea, and we now must brace ourselves for further economic shocks as global shipping avoids the Red sea. Does the Minister agree that we should be protecting these shipping lanes? Our Navy is now too small by half to protect our maritime interests, so will he now look at investing in our surface fleet to protect our economy?

As my right hon. Friend knows, I have long believed in the importance of investing in our armed forces, but that ultimately depends on a strong economy that will pay for sustained investment, and that is what is happening under this Government.

Will the Chancellor update the House on how he plans to move forward with some of the key recommendations from Lord Harrington’s review into foreign direct investment in the UK?

I am happy to do that. In fact, I hosted a reception for Lord Harrington and the people responsible for that review last week. We will start by increasing the budget of the Office for Investment so that it can give a more bespoke service to potential overseas investors.

We are all mindful of the need to control public finances and slim the civil service, but can my right hon. Friend reassure my constituents that the Darlington Economic Campus will receive the jobs that were promised, and will he give consideration to my proposal to name their permanent home of DEC William McMullen House, in recognition of the sacrifice William made for people of Darlington?

My hon. Friend is a brilliant advocate for his constituency. I hear what he has to say and I am happy to meet him to talk about it.

My right hon. Friend is well aware of the threat to thousands of jobs at Scunthorpe steelworks and many more in the supply chain that supports it, all of which would have a devastating effect on the economy of northern Lincolnshire. Can he and his colleagues in the Department for Business and Trade bring a speedy conclusion to the negotiations and lift the cloud over Scunthorpe?

I thank my hon. Friend for his campaigning on that issue and reassure him that we in the Treasury completely understand how vital steel is to the future of his area and to his constituents. We will continue to do everything we can to resolve the situation as quickly as possible.