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Volume 745: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2024

The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Tax System: Fairness

Regarding fairness, we have a progressive tax system where the top 5% of income tax payers pay nearly half of all income tax, while the top 1% pay more than 28%. In addition, the national insurance reforms announced at the autumn statement cut taxes for 29 million people. That package also strengthens the fiscal position by helping taxpayers to get their taxes right, while bearing down on the small minority who seek to avoid paying their fair share.

The Minister talks about tax cuts, but in April most households in this country will receive a 5% increase in their council tax. That is not because local councils have mismanaged their finances, but because after 13 years of austerity, the local government finance system is essentially broken and relies on a regressive and unfair council tax. Why in the autumn statement did the Chancellor freeze the budgets of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities for the whole of the next Parliament, leading the Office for Budget Responsibility to forecast a further £13 billion rise in council tax? Does that not show that the Chancellor has no regard at all for councils and the services they provide, or is he simply deferring a problem that his Government has created for the next Government to sort out?

I am afraid that is a ridiculous characterisation. We on this side of the House care, including about our vibrant, important local councils. That is precisely why they just received an additional £600 million, and future spending will be a matter for future fiscal events.

I am a strong believer in fairness in taxation. Would my hon. Friend care to advise the House about who would bear the heaviest burden of taxation, should His Majesty’s Government choose to adopt the £28 billion spending commitment that the Labour party announced on the radio this morning?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, we never know from day to day exactly what Labour’s policy is, and I understand there are even differences among its Front Benchers at the moment, but we heard a firm commitment, without any promises at all about where the money would come from. We therefore know where it would come from: it would come out of taxpayers’ pockets or further borrowing, which is deferred taxation. Everybody will pay for it.

The Labour party has set out clear proposals to close tax loopholes on non-doms, private schools and private equity to give a much-needed boost to our public services. Will the Treasury Minister confirm whether the Government have assessed, or plan to assess, the merits of such a policy?

I am pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for closing down tax loopholes and going after the abusers. It begs the question why Labour did not vote in favour of the Finance Bill last night, which included measures along those lines.

That is a short answer, but the answer to the wrong question—perhaps the Minister can have a second go. While he is thinking about the answer, I point out that the Comptroller and Auditor General has highlighted that the Government are wasting up to £28 billion a year on mismanaged procurement and governance of major projects. Does the Minister agree that the Conservative Chancellor and his predecessors have had to raise taxes so much partly because they are wasting so many billions of taxpayers’ money each and every year?

The reason we have had to raise taxes is £350 billion of support during the pandemic, which I did not hear the Opposition oppose, and an additional £100 billion to help people during the cost of living crisis, which I did not hear the Opposition oppose. We therefore had to increase taxes out of necessity, but we reduce them out of choice, which is exactly what we are doing. Labour increases taxes out of necessity and then continues to increase them out of choice.

Economic Growth in Scotland: Tax Policies

2. If he will make an assessment of the impact of his Department’s tax policies on economic growth in Scotland during this Parliament. (901357)

The Government remain committed to increasing economic growth in Scotland and right across the UK. As part of 110 growth measures in the autumn statement 2023, the Government introduced tax policies that are projected to stimulate economic growth in Scotland and across the country. That includes making full expensing permanent and the largest ever cut to employee and self-employed national insurance contributions, which means more people working.

The EY Independent Treasury Economic Model Club forecast published yesterday found that the UK’s growth forecast of 0.8% this year is only slightly outperformed by the even more disappointing 0.7% growth in Scotland. Given this Parliament has hiked taxes 25 times, and the Scottish National party now think that those on modest incomes in Scotland should pay even more tax, does the Minister agree that the people of Scotland are simply paying the price for two Governments with no economic credibility?

No, I do not agree. The hon. Member should be aware that the OECD suggests that in the coming years we will be growing faster than France, Italy and Germany. Of course, the Government have a strong track record against our OECD friends over the last 14 years, and Scotland benefits from this economic growth.

As in Scotland, business rates are devolved in Wales. With business rates relief set to fall from 75% to 40%, businesses in Wales will pay almost twice as much as in England. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Welsh Labour Government should be supporting local businesses such as the Kinmel Arms in Moelfre and not increasing the number of Senedd Members by a staggering 60%?

My hon. Friend puts it well. Of course, we have seen the considerable protections and support given in retail, hospitality and leisure business rates relief in England. That has not been extended to the same extent in Wales, and Scotland failed to extend it as well. She makes an important point.

Contrary to what the Minister said, OECD forecasts show that the UK will have the lowest growth in the G20 and the highest inflation in the G7. Ministers like to pretend that there is no real cost of living crisis, but there is one, and it is biting hard. How long will Ministers—and their Labour counterparts—continue to peddle the fantasy that Brexit is somehow good for the Scottish people?

I am afraid that the thing that would most impoverish the people of Scotland is separation from the UK. After 16 years of SNP rule—longer than the Conservatives’ in England—GDP per head in Scotland is lower, productivity is falling, employment is lower and inactivity is higher. That is not exactly a proud record.

The Minister talks about GDP. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast that GDP in the UK will be 4% lower in the long term due to Brexit. Meanwhile, independent Ireland in the EU is booming with a giant fiscal surplus. Given that the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems are all now champions of Brexit, is it not the case that the only way for Scotland to rejoin the EU is through becoming an independent country?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the IMF has forecast us greater growth than France, Italy and Germany over the next few years. If he is so enthusiastic about supporting growth, including helping businesses across the United Kingdom, perhaps Scottish National party Members could have joined us in the voting Lobby last night instead of voting against, for example, full expensing and investment in research and development. They voted against that—how on earth is that in the interests of their constituents?

Business Investment: Fiscal Measures

Mr Speaker, may I add my comments to yours yesterday about His Majesty the King? I wish him and his family well, as well as saluting his courage in being so open about his condition.

At the autumn statement last year, I announced an ambitious growth package, which will boost business investment by about £20 billion a year. We are making full expensing permanent, which the CBI welcomed as a game changer that will fire up the British economy.

I also welcome those measures. Business rates are among the biggest issues for small businesses in Meon Valley, so I welcome the Chancellor’s £4.6 billion package of support in the autumn statement. However, following covid, there are a number of empty offices where landlords are still having to pay business rates. Does the Chancellor have any measures to support those who are struggling with a lack of income to pay business rates?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the pressures caused by business rates. That was why in the autumn statement we introduced the 75% discount for retail, hospitality and leisure. All I would say is that the reason we were able to introduce those large cuts in business rates was that we did not embark on a spending spree of £28 billion a year, which is Labour’s policy on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but not apparently on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

I will try to be nice to the Chancellor, but he seems to be living in a parallel universe. If he came to Huddersfield and talked to my businesses and manufacturers, he would find them at the lowest ebb that I can ever remember. It is time that the stimulus was there to make people invest and create jobs. Get on with it, Chancellor!

If that was being nice, I am relieved that I have not seen the other type of questions that the hon. Member asks. I agree that manufacturing is central to our economic fortunes, which is why it was good news that last year we overtook France to become the eighth-largest manufacturer in the world. But we have gone even further: in the autumn statement, we announced a £4.5 billion manufacturing strategy to give further support to make our manufacturers the best in the world.

Yesterday, we had the pleasure of discussing the very many benefits from the autumn statement, including research and development grants and simplification of the tax code. However, I wonder whether the Chancellor might go a little further and see whether cutting VAT for the tourism and hospitality sector, perhaps by 10% over five years, would be advisable to help the economy across the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend is an assiduous supporter of the many pubs, restaurants and shops in Devon, and I commend him for that support. We will, of course, keep all those measures under review ahead of the Budget.

Hair salons are a vital mainstay of our high streets, but many employers are worried about the sustainability of their businesses; a huge issue is their tax bills, with VAT a significant concern, making further business investment very difficult. Cutting VAT to 10% would make an important difference to local businesses, high streets and apprentice training. Will the Chancellor look at doing that to support all our local economies?

I will always look at anything that helps businesses to grow and expand. I set up and ran my own business for 14 years. Can I gently say to the hon. Lady that it is slightly incongruous to argue for lower taxes when the SNP has given Scotland the highest taxes in the United Kingdom?

Loan Charge: Bankruptcy

4. If he will make an assessment of the potential impact of the loan charge on levels of bankruptcy. (901359)

I have heard the concerns expressed by hon. Members on the impact of the loan charge, and I have pushed His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for firm assurances on the safeguards that it has in place. No one will be forced by HMRC to sell their main home or access their pension funds early to pay their loan charge debts, nor has HMRC petitioned for bankruptcy, which would be only a last resort and is in nobody’s interest. There is substantial support in place to help people in debt, including agreeing time-to-pay arrangements with them.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that answer and his engagement with the loan charge and taxpayer fairness all-party parliamentary group, including a meeting this evening with its officers. In an internal document that surfaced as part of the 2019 Morse review, HMRC admitted to around 100 bankruptcies from the loan charge. Can the Minister tell the House why that figure has never been given publicly by HMRC, and what the figure is today?

Again, I thank my hon. Friend for championing this area and his great concern for the human stories behind the difficult circumstances resulting from some of these schemes. As I have said, I am constantly seeking reassurance from HMRC on this matter, and my understanding is that where bankruptcies have occurred, it has often been because of requirements outside of the loan charge, not from HMRC; indeed, some people have declared bankruptcy of their own volition. However, if my hon. Friend has evidence to the contrary, I would like to know about it.

The original Treasury impact statement for the loan charge stated that it would have no material impact on

“family formation, stability or breakdown”,

yet there have been countless divorces, family break-ups, mental health breakdowns and bankruptcies, and at least 10 suicides. That impact statement was grossly wrong, but also surely negligent. We now need a full investigation, including how and why Parliament was so misled over the dangerous and unfair loan charge.

I hear the House’s concern about this issue, on which we had a debate not so long ago. Of course, the suicides the hon. Gentleman mentions concern us, and independent reviews have taken place. However, I want to provide the House and anybody listening with reassurance that the best thing to do if people have concerns is to engage with HMRC, because very generous and long-term plans can be put in place to help people to repay. As I said, there are fears out there—there is a bit of scaremongering—that homes are being taken over or people are having to give up pensions. That is not the case. Engagement with HMRC to establish reasonable time to pay would therefore be reassuring for many of the people who fear much worse consequences. My appeal is to engage with HMRC.

The Government’s approach to the loan charge has become a nightmare for ordinary people across the country who are the victims of mis-selling and facing financial ruin. The torment and devastating reality is the clearest possible proof that the Government need to think again. Those facing the loan charge ordeal cannot bear to hear yet again that the Morse review is the final word on this matter. Will the Minister finally agree today to commission a new, truly independent review?

We had an independent review in 2019 under Lord Morse. The Government accepted 19 of its 20 recommendations. The review has taken place, but as I have said repeatedly, I am challenging HMRC and listening to colleagues. If action needs to be taken, I will take it, but I do not believe that there is a case for another review, because we have already had one, and the Government have already taken action.

Homeowners with Mortgages: Support

As the House knows, the path to lower interest rates is through lower inflation, which is why the Government are fully committed to supporting the Bank of England to get inflation back down to its 2% target. If mortgage borrowers fall into financial difficulty, our mortgage charter, which covers about 90% of the market, includes new flexibilities to help customers manage their repayments, on top of the Financial Conduct Authority’s rules on how lenders must treat borrowers.

Given that a lot of mortgage payers are suffering because of the rapid hike in interest rates, will the Government continue to talk to the Bank of England and mortgage lenders to see what can be done to bring interest rates down? That would help most people.

I completely agree on the absolute need to drive mortgage rates down, which is why we are supporting the Bank of England’s independent remit to bring interest rates down. We are also ensuring that we do not do things to make inflation worse, such as adding £28 billion to Government borrowing, which would increase inflation.

The rate for a two-year fixed mortgage remains more than double the level of December 2021. More than 900,000 borrowers are set to see their monthly payments rise by £500 or even £1,000 a month. Government Ministers are having to resign because of increasing mortgage payments. How does the Chancellor expect people in Scotland to cope with increased mortgage rates if his Ministers cannot?

I would say two things in response to the hon. Lady. First, the best thing we can do is to help people with the cost of living, not increase their taxes, as the SNP in Scotland proposes, and to maintain—[Interruption.] I will not get bored of saying this. Secondly, we maintain our support for the Bank of England driving inflation down. We have more than halved it. We will continue to do that, and interest rates will come right down.

Economic Growth Forecasts: 2024 and 2025

6. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of economic growth forecasts for 2024 and 2025. (901362)

We announced 110 growth measures in the autumn statement. Taken together with the measures in the spring Budget, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility says that they will have the biggest impact on output that it has ever measured in a fiscal event, increasing GDP by 0.5% by 2028-29.

The UK economy is set for slower growth than previously thought. The International Monetary Fund predicts that next year we will have the second worst growth in the G7. In Scotland, the SNP has increased taxes, which we have heard about already, and Scots now face six bands. Stagnation there is even worse, and businesses and households in my constituency need reassurance. Will the Chancellor tell us what he will do to give confidence to people up and down the country that we will soon see economic growth?

May I gently correct the hon. Lady on the IMF? It said that over the next four years, UK growth will be higher than in Germany, France, Italy and Japan. I agree about SNP tax rises, but I point out that the Liberal Democrats have some tax rises of their own. They want to increase capital gains tax, which would be incredibly damaging for Scotland’s financial services industry, which employs thousands of people.

Has the Chancellor had the opportunity to look at the New Conservatives’ budget proposal, a budget for families? It has a six-point plan, with two points to help unlock growth, particularly for the many small, family-run businesses in places such as Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. Those plans to increase the VAT registration threshold to £250,000 and to abolish the IR35 reforms would surely help us unlock the growth of our great nation.

I have been talking with my hon. Friend about these issues recently. In fact, we were discussing increasing the VAT threshold only last night—such are the interesting evenings I have in this job! We will look seriously and carefully at any measures that help small businesses. They are the lifeblood of the country.

Cost of Living

7. What recent assessment he has made of the impact of increases in the cost of living on living standards. (901363)

The Government stand by households, with one of Europe’s largest support packages, worth on average £3,700 per UK household, but we all know that the key to reducing cost of living pressures is to bring down inflation, which we have more than halved, delivering on the Prime Minister’s promise.

Families in Luton and Bedfordshire, and indeed the rest of the country, are worse off because of 14 years of economic chaos and incompetence under the Conservatives. Does the Minister concede that, even if the Government’s inflation target is met, families will still be paying £300 a month more for their household bills than they were just 18 months ago?

Fourteen years of the Conservatives has halved unemployment and increased employment by 4 million. Crucially, poverty is down: we have 1.7 million fewer people in poverty now than in 2010, including 400,000 children and 200,000 pensioners. That is a legacy to be proud of.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s report on poverty in the UK in 2024 reiterates that, consistently, the demographic with the highest poverty rates is children. Although 29% of the children in my constituency live in poverty, the Scottish Government are doing what they can with their limited powers via the Scottish child payment. Will the Chancellor and his team use their powers to make a concerted and determined effort to tackle the scourge of poverty, which is so damaging to our children?

I reiterate: we have 400,000 fewer children in poverty now than in 2010. In addition, the national insurance contributions cut that we have introduced has been shown to cut child poverty dramatically. Crucially, the leading indicator of whether a child is in poverty is whether their parents are in work, and that is what we have delivered over this Parliament—[Interruption.] Yes it is—it absolutely is. Getting more people into work will help to solve child poverty.

The British public are still struggling with the Conservative cost of living crisis, and the Government are now forcing up council tax. Last week, for the first time in my life, a Conservative MP spoke for me when he said:

“There’s almost no point chopping £100 off tax bills nationally if you’re adding on to it with council tax.”

Labour Members agree with the hon. Member for Mansfield (Ben Bradley). Does the Chief Secretary agree with her hon. Friend and colleague?

Council tax is a matter for councils, but we put in place a limit, which I do not believe existed under the previous Labour Government. More than that, the most difficult thing for councils and consumers more broadly is the £28 billion-worth of tax rises that Labour is planning in government.

Bankers’ Bonuses: Removal of Cap

8. If he will make an assessment of the potential impact of removing the cap on bankers’ bonuses on the financial sector. (901364)

Removing the bankers’ bonus cap was a decision made by the independent Prudential Regulation Authority, which has long said that the cap was completely ineffective; it did not limit pay or make banks safer.

The cap on bankers’ bonuses might have been a great newspaper headline, but it did little to tackle the City’s excesses. Financial institutions quickly changed remuneration packages and structures so that risk takers still receive substantial pay-offs, sometimes even taking them through offshore mechanisms. Does the Chancellor agree that what we need is enhanced regulation to mitigate excessive risk taking in the square mile? That could require, beyond merely capping bonuses, a move toward an alignment of interests focused on the form of bonus payments, share allocations and deferred amounts, and robust clawback mechanisms for those who have behaved maliciously, in order to deter misconduct in the square mile more effectively?

I suspect that when the hon. Gentleman tabled his question, he was not expecting that the biggest supporter of abolishing the bankers’ bonus cap was not the Chancellor but the shadow Chancellor. I hear what he says, and indeed those are some of the reasons we abolished it, because it was not working. If Labour is going to change its mind on that policy, may I ask—just to take a totally random example—when will it change its mind about the planned £28 billion of additional borrowing?

Non-dom Status: Abolition

9. Whether he has made a recent assessment of the potential merits of abolishing non-domiciled tax status. (901365)

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

The Minister talks of fairness, but the fact is that during the cost of living crisis nearly a million more struggling pensioners will start paying income tax, because of the freeze in personal allowance rates, while the Government protect some of the richest members of society through non-domicile status. Scrapping that status could bring the Treasury an extra £3 billion a year. Why do the Government not do the right thing and bring in that extra money to protect pensioners and the lowest paid?

Non-doms contributed about £8.5 billion in taxes in 2022, and have contributed to investment to the tune of £7 billion since 2012. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that scrapping their status would not be risk-free in a world in which people can be quite mobile, and could damage the UK’s competitiveness. As for the need for other support, that is exactly why we have been reducing national insurance rates, for example.

Mortgage Interest Rates: Impact on Disposable Income

10. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of changes in mortgage interest rates during this Parliament on household disposable income. (901366)

Mortgage interest rates have fallen by more than 100 basis points from their peak in the summer. None the less, the Government have prioritised support for households that are vulnerable to cost of living pressures. We have introduced one of Europe’s largest support packages, and it is partly thanks to those measures that real incomes have proved more resilient than was anticipated. In the third quarter of 2023, real household disposable income per person was just 0.5% lower than in Q4 2019, versus the Office for Budget Responsibility’s autumn statement 2023 forecast that it would be almost 3% lower.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but since his party’s disastrous mini-Budget fiasco under the previous Prime Minister, food prices have soared, extreme damage has been done to the economy and mortgages have skyrocketed. Every month 200,000 people are having to remortgage, the average monthly rate has risen by £240, and 1.6 million people will have to remortgage this year. Overall, after 14 years of a Conservative Government, people are more than £10,000 less well off than they were on pre-2010 trends. Is it not time that the Chancellor and his ministerial team looked again at the possibility of additional support for those who are facing mortgage and other financial distress? The Chancellor is frowning, but it is time that he took further action to support people in distress.

This Government have introduced one of Europe’s largest support packages, worth more than £100 billion during 2022 to 2025. That is an average of £3,700 per household. The point about mortgage rates is that they went up everywhere across the world, to a higher level than ours in many jurisdictions such as the United States. I have already mentioned the work that we have done on the mortgage charter, helping hundreds of thousands of people to manage their mortgages, but the critical thing that we need to do is bring inflation down. She needs to talk to her shadow Chancellor and the shadow Treasury team about their plans, which would make inflation higher.

Infected Blood Compensation: Funding

11. Whether he has had recent discussions with Cabinet colleagues on funding for a UK-wide infected blood compensation scheme. (901369)

13. Whether he has had discussions with Cabinet colleagues on the potential cost to the Exchequer of compensation for people infected and affected by contaminated blood and blood products. (901372)

This is an appalling tragedy, and my thoughts remain with all those affected. We understand the strength of feeling, and the need for action. The Government have accepted the moral case for compensation, and have acknowledged that justice needs to be delivered for victims. As such, the Government intend to respond in full to Sir Brian Langstaff’s recommendations for wider compensation following the publication of the inquiry’s final report in May this year.

The Minister’s answering that question has brought forth another question. The Chancellor was previously Secretary of State in the Department of Health, and three of his former colleagues all gave a commitment to address the issue. Now that the Chancellor is in a position to do something about that, how long is it going to take? As this Government’s days are numbered, the difficulty I have is whether this will be in place before we have an election. Will they ensure that the commitment is there?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has a lifelong friend who has suffered from this terrible tragedy, and I can reassure him that we are determined to do right by the victims and those who have tragically lost their loved ones. The victims of the infected blood scandal deserve justice and recognition. On his question on timing, Governments of all colours have failed to sort this out, but I am pleased that the interim payments at least have been paid. As I have said, the Government are committed to the moral case for compensation and we are expecting the final report very soon. We will move as quickly as possible afterwards.

We have had Sir Brian Langstaff’s recommendations since April 2023. Mrs Dorricott, the wife of the Chancellor’s constituent Mike, told the inquiry that the Chancellor, when he was Health Secretary, told Mr Dorricott:

“Don’t worry about this, we’ll sort it.”

He is now the Chancellor, with his hands on the purse strings, so will he now—through his colleague the Chief Secretary to the Treasury—confirm that the Government have identified the contingencies to pay the compensation to the people hit by the infected blood scandal?

I can confirm that we are working with the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that we can respond as quickly as possible once the inquiry reports.

Small Businesses: Support

Small businesses are the engines that drive our economy and we support them to thrive using levers right across Government. Our small business rates relief means that one third of business properties in England already pay no business rates. We provide tax reliefs benefiting small and medium-sized enterprises, such as the annual investment allowance and employment allowance, and we support investment in SMEs through British Business Bank programmes and a variety of other support measures.

What consideration has been given to reducing employer national insurance contributions to help small businesses to sustain employment following the record increase in the national living wage from April, particularly in the tourism and hospitality industries?

My hon. Friend and I have spoken about these policy areas on a number of occasions. In terms of supporting small businesses, the employment allowance enables businesses with employer national insurance contributions bills of £100,000 or less to claim up to £5,000 off those bills. That was increased in April 2022 from £4,000 to £5,000, so the smallest 40% of businesses have already been taken out of paying employer national insurance contributions, and many of those are in the hospitality and leisure sector. We always keep policies under review, and I know that my hon. Friend will always be lobbying on this issue.

Becoming an entrepreneur in this country has become increasingly purgatorial over the past 25 years. Does the Minister agree that what small businessmen want is not more handouts and allowances from the Government but lower, simpler and flatter taxes, and less regulation not more? They want the Government to get off their backs and shove off.

That was very interestingly put by my right hon. Friend. I completely agree with his instincts, though, and those instincts are completely shared on the Conservative Benches. When we are able to reduce tax and release the entrepreneurial spirit, independence and innovation that exist right across the UK, the country thrives and all of us thrive.

In 2020, the former Chancellor set a public sector net investment target of 3% of GDP, but that was abandoned after the 2022 debacle and today we have the second lowest business investment among advanced economies, partly because of that failure on public sector net investment. Can the Minister offer us any reassurance on the future trajectory of public sector net investment?

Of course, Labour left us in pretty terrible financial circumstances back in 2010. Instead its figure is up £28 billion in real terms at the start of the next Parliament, an increase of 40% in real terms or 7% annually—the biggest ever published.

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, but they have a constant problem with late payments, which increased by 7% last year, and that is driving many of them into insolvency. Given that the Government are a major contractor, what are they doing through project bank accounts to reduce the impact of late payments?

The hon. Lady makes an important point, and I know there is agreement on this issue across the Chamber. We made statements last year along those lines, putting particular pressure on the public sector. I am sure there will be continuing pressure on the private sector, too.

Financial Services: Growth Support

The Government are taking ambitious steps to grow the UK’s world-leading financial services sector, with widespread industry support. To take one example, reforms to Solvency II will help to spur a vibrant, innovative and internationally competitive insurance sector. The reforms will unlock £100 billion-worth of productive investment to grow the economy in every constituency over the next 10 years.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer but, clearly, to grow the financial services industry, investors must have confidence that their money is safe. I have written to him about the Woodford equity scandal, of which there are many thousands of victims across the country. The Financial Conduct Authority refused to intervene, so will he now intervene and take action to ensure that the investors get at least a large part of their money back?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, for writing to me and for standing up for the rights of his constituents. It is important the House knows that over 90% of investors voted to accept the scheme of arrangement. It is now up to the court to decide whether to approve it, and I therefore will not comment on it any further. I am happy to be in constant dialogue with him on this matter, as on many others.

As the Minister knows, the Northern Ireland Assembly sits for the first time today to make a change for Northern Ireland. We would very much like to be part of the financial services sector, so what can he and the Government do to support the Northern Ireland Assembly in relation to the financial services sector, and to ensure that we in Northern Ireland can be part of this great country of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Always better together.

I strongly echo the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. I am very happy to engage with him and his colleagues from Northern Ireland to see what more I can do in the Treasury to work with him and, indeed, the Northern Ireland Executive, particularly to encourage our financial services institutions to invest more in Northern Ireland. I am very happy to discuss ways in which we can do that.

Regional Economic Inequalities: Fiscal Steps

This Government are committed to supporting all parts of the United Kingdom. In October we announced the £1.1 billion long-term plan for towns, which gives 55 towns up to £20 million of endowment-style funding. We are delivering an ambitious programme of investment zones and devolution deals, we ae continuing to support local growth through the UK shared prosperity fund and we are investing billions to improve local transport connections in our regions outside London.

By their own measures, the Government are failing on almost half of their levelling-up missions in the east of England. Meanwhile, the Cambridge sub-region, which is a net contributor to the Exchequer, has vital transport projects on hold or awaiting finance. When will the Treasury stop stalling growth and give power back to the regions, which know best what needs to be done in their area?

This Government are committed to levelling up by boosting growth, raising living standards and spreading opportunity throughout the country in several different ways. The hon. Gentleman talks about giving more power to local areas, and he will know that the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority is getting a £97 million devolution deal. He will also know that Cambridge received some £14 million as part of the shared prosperity fund to spend on local projects. I reject his assertion; the people of Cambridge are benefiting from this Government.

The way to reduce regional inequality is to ensure that growth happens everywhere across the country. One way to do that is to support small and medium-sized enterprises and community enterprises, which are particularly located in under-served regions. I commend the Government for the recovery loan scheme, which has been a lifeline to many small businesses and community enterprises. Can the Minister tell us whether that scheme is likely to be renewed? Hundreds of millions of pounds of private investment is waiting on the Government to make a decision.

My hon. Friend has a long history as a great champion for community organisations. I will write to him on his specific question.

National Living Wage

The Government are committed to ending low pay. From 1 April 2024, the national living wage will increase by 9.8%, to £11.44. That represents an increase of more than £1,800 to the annual earnings of a full-time national living wage worker and it is expected to benefit about 2.7 million workers.

I congratulate the Government on increasing the national living wage, because that will make a huge difference. However, after speaking to not only those in the public sector, at the likes of my local Leicestershire County Council and Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council, but small businesses in the private sector, I know that there is a trade-off, because they have to foot that wage bill. What steps can the Government take to make sure that those businesses and the public sector have the money to pass on to those who are earning so well?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I will take the two parts of it in turn. The Government continue to support businesses with the higher costs through a generous package of support. At the autumn statement, we showed our commitment to supporting small businesses by extending the 75% retail, hospitality and leisure relief, and by freezing the small business multiplier, which will protect more than 1 million properties from the multiplier increase. Yesterday, we announced a wide-ranging package of support worth £600 million for local councils, including £500 million of new funding for social care.

I understand that concerns were expressed some years ago about how a significant increase in the minimum wage may well have a knock-on effect, particularly on the hospitality sector. Given that that did not come about with previous living wage increases, will the Chief Secretary commit her Government to ensuring that future increases will be monitored closely to enable and assist small businesses to increase wage levels systematically and sustainably over the longer term?

I can commit to the hon. Gentleman that we are absolutely monitoring the effects, but, as I said, a good package of support is in place for businesses.

Topical Questions

I would like to update the House on a couple of data releases published since our last oral questions. Total greenfield foreign direct investment since 2010 has not just been higher than that of France, Germany and Italy, but in the past two years has overtaken that of China to be the second highest in the world. Yesterday’s labour force survey said that unemployment fell to a quarterly average of 3.9%, meaning that unemployment has halved and Conservative Governments have overseen the creation of more than 800 jobs every day since 2010.

Can the Treasury find funds for an increased pay offer for junior doctors? I completely agree that we must safeguard the public finances and have regard to affordability, but if ever a group deserved a pay rise, it is junior doctors, and we need to get the dispute settled.

As my right hon. Friend knows, as Health Secretary I campaigned for extra money for the NHS to make sure that we could pay NHS staff fairly, but I do believe that junior doctors have had a very fair offer—one that is higher than was recommended by the independent pay review body and is about double the rate of this year’s predicted inflation. I know that the Health Secretary is willing to talk about anything else that could help make their working conditions better.

Last week, at Prime Minister’s questions, when asked about the Tory mortgage penalty, the Prime Minister boasted that someone coming off a fixed-rate mortgage

“will be able to save hundreds of pounds.”—[Official Report, 31 January 2024; Vol. 744, c. 857.]

But the small print was that they had to add many years to their mortgage. Three million people have been coming off fixed-rate mortgage deals this year and last, so does the Chancellor agree with the Prime Minister that British homeowners have never had it so good?

The way we are helping families with mortgages is not just through the mortgage charter, which is a lifeline to many families, but by bringing down inflation. We have been having a few pops about Labour’s confusion about its £28 billion policy, but the real reason we are against it is that going on a borrowing splurge pushes up inflation, pushes up interest rates and makes mortgages more expensive.

It is under a Conservative Government that interest rates, inflation and mortgage costs have gone up. The Government need to take responsibility because, after 14 years, this out-of-touch Government are making it harder for ordinary people to get on. If the Chancellor decides to campaign in next week’s by-elections, what will he say to the 3,100 people in Wellingborough who are remortgaging and paying £210 more on their mortgages every month, and to the 2,800 people in Kingswood paying £270 more a month because of the Conservative mortgage penalty?

What I will say to them is that responsible, difficult decisions, the vast majority of which the shadow Chancellor opposed, have seen the inflation rate more than halve and interest rates likely to have peaked. Last year, we built more houses in one year than in any single year under the previous Labour Government. We are doing everything we can to help bring down mortgage rates, but a £28 billion borrowing spree will make them worse not better.

T4.   In 2011, the Government quite rightly set up the fund to compensate victims of the Equitable Life scandal. Notwithstanding the fact that the Government did not give them enough money, we know that the fund will not be fully spent on the people being compensated. Will my right hon. Friend ensure the fund is used for the benefit of the people who suffered in the scandal, rather than being returned to the Treasury? (901385)

T2. Many of my constituents whose lives have been destroyed by the loan charge scandal feel the central injustice is that the Government are focused on pursuing the victims rather than the companies responsible. They were dismayed to read recent allegations that individuals linked to such companies have donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to the Conservative party. Will the Chancellor confirm why exactly the Government are ignoring the providers and operators of the schemes? How many have been prosecuted specifically for their involvement in disguised remuneration, and not for other misdemeanours? (901383)

Eighty-five per cent of the funds recovered from the loan charge so far—about £3.9 billion in total—have come from the employers, therefore those who were running those schemes, so the hon. Lady is mischaracterising where we have gone so far. There has been one criminal conviction so far; others are in place. I repeat what I said to the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Ealing North (James Murray), earlier: if they were that concerned about ensuring we go after the wrongdoers, they would have voted with us last night in the Finance Bill.[Official Report, 22 February 2024, Vol. 745, c. 12MC.] (Correction)

T9.   At the meeting this evening, will the Financial Secretary review the injustice that prevents loan charge victims who have engaged with His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, but who cannot agree with their assessment, having any access to a tribunal? (901390)

I know my right hon. Friend has been campaigning on the issue. I respect and appreciate the information he has provided, and his contributions to the debate. I assure him that I am in listening mode and looking forward to the meeting this evening, because I want to ensure that I hold HMRC to account to make sure everyone involved is treated fairly and respectfully.

T3. Last week, the International Monetary Fund joined many others in urging the Chancellor to prioritise public spending and investment above tax cuts. Rather than seeking to appease his Back Benchers with tax cuts in the next Budget, will he finally deliver the level of public investment this country is crying out for, including in a nationwide energy efficiency programme that would shield households from volatile gas prices, get their fuel bills down for the long term and create jobs? Or is he yet another one who is running scared of green investment? (901384)

I am sure the hon. Lady understands that I cannot talk about what will be in the Budget ahead of the Budget because no decisions have been made. I celebrate with her that the UK recently became the first major economy in the world to decarbonise by more than 50%, ahead of France, Germany, Japan and the United States.

If the Chancellor had an ambition to spend an additional £28 billion a year on something, will he explain to the House what level of tax that would impose on ordinary households?

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question. I am curious to know where that figure of £28 billion has come from, but as she has asked the question, I will tell her that, if we were to stick to the fiscal rules, as the Labour party claims it will do, to increase spending by £28 billion would mean increasing income tax by 4% or increasing corporation tax, which Labour says it will cap, by 8%.

T5. With winter still upon us and fuel bills still rising, Ofgem is advising that the level of domestic energy debt is approaching £3 billion. When people cannot meet their current bills, how can they possibly be expected to meet that level of arrears? Is it not time to fund a debt write-off scheme, as proposed by National Energy Action and other fuel poverty campaigners, before hypothermia and misery worsen? (901386)

The Government continue to work with Ofgem. In fact, I met the chief executive officer very recently. Ofgem continues to monitor the levels of energy debt to ensure that consumers are protected. The hon. Gentleman will know that, last year, the Chancellor announced measures to ensure that households with prepayment meters paid no more than those with standard meters, and that is on the back of the energy price guarantee, which effectively paid 50% of people’s household energy bills.

The Chancellor will be aware of a proposal from the World War Muslim Memorial Trust to establish a memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum, honouring an estimated 750,000 Muslims who have fought for the British armed forces, with tens of thousands of them paying the ultimate sacrifice. Previous Budgets have supported memorials that honour those who have given us the freedoms that we enjoy. May I ask the Chancellor to personally consider this proposal and help make it a reality?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right: we must remember and honour the sacrifices made by those of all nationalities and religions who fought for our freedom, including, I believe, nearly 150,000 Muslims who died in the second world war. My officials would be happy to engage with him to identify how best the Government can help make this vision a reality.

T6. Business owners and high street businesses in Oswestry told me that their biggest challenge is business rates. In his upcoming Budget, will the Chancellor consider a radical reform of business rates that puts the high street on an even keel and on a level playing field with the online retailers? (901387)

Over the past few years, we have helped to support our high streets by freezing multipliers and, importantly, targeting further relief at the retail, hospitality and leisure sector. Frequent revaluations are now par for the course, because of the recent changes we have made.

Last July, following a debanking scandal, I wrote to the Economic Secretary to the Treasury about the risks of implementing so-called diversity, equity and inclusion policies. Far from being inclusive, their implementation has often been divisive, yet Labour put such policies at the heart of its financing and growth strategy just last week. Will my hon. Friend assure us that he will give clear direction to the Prudential Regulation Authority and the Financial Conduct Authority to avoid all the risks of so-called DEI policies?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I am studying those policies carefully. I am concerned about certain aspects of what is proposed, and I will be discussing the matter with the PRA and the FCA to make sure that we have sensible policies on this matter.

T7. At the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that he would explore selling off the Government’s remaining stake in NatWest this year. As it stands, does he anticipate that this will result in a better or worse return for taxpayers, compared with the previous sales? (901388)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Indeed, the Chancellor announced at the autumn statement last year that, over the next 12 months, the Government will consider selling shares in NatWest. That is all subject to value-for-money concerns and other matters, as he will appreciate, and it is market sensitive. Of course value for money will be at the heart of any consideration of the sale of shares, and the House will be kept fully informed over the coming weeks and months.

My right hon. Friend and his colleagues will be aware of the challenges that businesses and households face in coastal communities. As the Budget approaches, may I urge him to be ever mindful of how we maintain the vitality of the economies in our coastal areas?

I absolutely will; that is a core part of the levelling-up agenda, and my hon. Friend will be pleased to know that, since we started on that agenda, two thirds of all new jobs created have been outside London and the south-east. We will continue to look at any proposals he may have in that respect.

T8. The Government have deliberately created a funding model for universities in which they are dependent on income from international students. Does the Chancellor share my concern about ensuring that nothing is done to undermine that income? (901389)

The university sector is one of the jewels of this country and I am proud that we have four of the world’s top 20 universities. I am happy to look at any individual proposals from the hon. Gentleman.

Last June the Exchequer Secretary announced the energy security investment mechanism, and I welcomed the announcement in last November’s autumn statement that the floor price would rise with inflation from April. How and when will that be legislated for, and will he look at alternative ways of setting that floor price, other than the 20-year reference period that is already used?

The energy security investment mechanism was designed, as my hon. Friend points out, to give more certainty not only to the oil and gas sector, but to investors, ensuring that the energy profits levy is disapplied when prices return to historically normal levels. To provide additional certainty, on the back of urging from him and the industry, we have agreed to legislate for ESIM and will be announcing that shortly.

Regardless of what the Chancellor tells us, the reality remains that people in Bradford are worse off after 14 years of this Government. Healthcare, GPs and dentists are less accessible, homes are more expensive, colder and riddled with mould, jobs are less secure and badly paid, with stagnating wages, and household savings have been wiped out by rising food, water, energy and fuel bills. Ahead of the last Budget he will deliver before the general election, will the Chancellor apologise for 14 years of disaster that have devastated our communities?

Let me tell the hon. Gentleman some positive messages he can take home to his constituents in Bradford: violent crime and burglaries have been halved, school standards are up, the NHS has more doctors and nurses than ever in history and real after-tax income for people on the minimum wage or national living wage is up by 30% if they are working full time.

Can my hon. Friend tell me how many staff are now employed across the eight Departments based at the Darlington Economic Campus? What progress is being made on naming the new building “William McMullen House”?

I can tell my hon. Friend that 750 staff are employed across all Departments at the Darlington Economic Campus. The Treasury’s aim is to reach 355 full-time staff by March 2025, and we are on track to meet that target. The official name of the campus will be decided closer to the 2025-26 delivery date and will be consulted on by the Government Property Agency, but we have heard very clearly his suggestion of William McMullen House, and we will consider that in due course.

The Chancellor knows jolly well that in April 2023 Sir Brian Langstaff made his final recommendations on compensation for those infected and affected by the contaminated blood scandal. The Chancellor also gave evidence in July to Sir Brian and said that work was under way. In December, this House voted for a compensation body to be set up. I would like the Chancellor to answer my question, please, not a junior Minister, and explain exactly what is going on in the Treasury, what work is being undertaken and whether there will be an announcement in the Budget.

With great respect to the right hon. Lady, who has campaigned formidably on this issue, I do not think she is giving a fair representation of what the Government have done. I stand by every word I said as a Back Bencher, and as Chancellor I have tried to do everything I can to speed the process up. She has not mentioned that the Government have already given £100,000 to the families affected. We have accepted the moral importance of the duty to give compensation, and we will now work with colleagues in the other place to make her amendment workable.