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Volume 630: debated on Tuesday 24 October 2017

In 2010, we inherited the UK’s largest deficit since the second world war, at 9.9% of GDP. We set out a clear fiscal framework to restore confidence in the economy and reduce the deficit, which has subsequently fallen by more than two thirds.

We have delivered the lowest corporation tax rate in the G20 and cut employment costs through the employment allowance. Our unemployment rate, in consequence, is at its lowest level for more than 40 years, and since 2010 we have seen 3 million more people find work. With the economy operating at near record high employment, our focus now must be to increase productivity and, thus, real wage growth.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that despite all the fearmongering from many, including Opposition Members, since the Brexit referendum, we have the best growth rates and best inward investment rates in the whole of Europe, and the lowest unemployment rates for four decades? Is that not a ringing endorsement of this Government’s policies?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we have the lowest unemployment rate for four decades, and that is a remarkable achievement. The British economy has performed with remarkable resilience since June 2016. Last year, we had the second highest growth rate in the G7. The British economy is fundamentally strong and resilient. Yes, we have some short-term uncertainty, but underneath that is a strong and resilient economy ready to go forward and reap the benefits that are available in the future.

A fortnight ago, at the International Monetary Fund, the Chancellor was talking about the fiscal and unemployment consequences if a transition deal on Brexit is not achieved by the first quarter of next year. He was right then, so what is he doing to help secure a specific transition agreement in that first quarter of next year?

We are preparing for all outcomes in our negotiations with the European Union, but the Government’s objective is to reach a deal. As the Prime Minister made clear in her Florence speech, as part of that deal we want to agree an implementation period, during which businesses and Governments can prepare for the new relationship, and we want to agree the principles of that period as soon as possible. Last week, at the European Council, the 27 agreed to start internal preparatory discussions on guidelines in relation to an implementation period. Together with the broad support for the idea in Parliament, this should give British businesses confidence that we are going to provide them with the certainty they require.

Will the Chancellor welcome the fact that there are more women in work than ever before and set out what steps we can take to ensure that this is one of the best countries in the world for women to set up and run their own businesses?

One of the remarkable achievements of the past seven years has been the increase in participation in the workforce, particularly in the number of women participating in the workforce. That is in large part due to the family-friendly policies this Government have pursued, with huge increases in the availability of childcare—free childcare—and in the tax deductability of childcare. We will continue to drive a set of policies that encourages women into the workforce, both because it is economically sensible and because it is socially inclusive.

One of the biggest fiscal steps that can be taken to reduce unemployment is public sector investment in housing. May I therefore welcome the Communities Secretary’s statement yesterday that the Treasury has agreed to increase net borrowing by, I believe, £50 billion in order to enable this to happen? Will the Chancellor confirm that this is Government policy?

No, and that was not what my right hon. Friend said, as the right hon. Gentleman very well knows. I would, however, agree with him that increasing activity in the construction sector is a very good way of creating jobs, but he will know that at 4.3% our economy is approaching full employment and the output gap is extremely small.

Given that more people are in employment, there is more opportunity for people to take advantage of employee share ownership saving schemes. Unfortunately, the maximum amount of time someone can pause one of those schemes is six months, which means that many women on maternity leave for up to a year have to cash in their schemes and cannot take advantage of them to maximum effect. I am sure that is an out-of-date anomaly, so in the Budget will the Chancellor extend the period of time that an employee share ownership saving scheme can be paused to up to 12 months? In that way, women on maternity leave can enjoy the same benefits of those schemes as everybody else.

The hon. Gentleman used the words “employment” and “employee” and just about got his question in order.

I am sure he did, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend raises an interesting but technical point that has been raised with me by others, including the TUC. I will take what he said as a Budget representation and look into it carefully.

Getting second earners and couples into work is one of the best ways to reduce family poverty and protect women economically for the future. Rather than putting money into continuing to increase the tax threshold, which rarely benefits low-income families, will the Chancellor consider measures in his Budget on the work allowances in universal credit, which are currently a real deterrent to second earners looking to increase their labour market participation?

The Government made commitments on the personal allowance and higher-rate threshold in their previous election manifesto. We reiterated them in the 2017 manifesto, and we remain committed to those policies. Of course, I will take into account all the representations I receive from right hon. and hon. Members, and I shall take the hon. Lady’s comments on the work allowance as such a representation.