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Topical Questions

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 19 December 2023

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.