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Topical Questions

Volume 648: debated on Tuesday 6 November 2018

My principal responsibility is to ensure economic stability and the continued prosperity of the British people, and I will do so by building on the plans set out in last week’s Budget. This is a Budget that supports our vital public services, such as the NHS, invests in Britain’s future, keeps taxes low and continues to reduce the nation’s debt. It is a Budget that shows that the hard work of the British people is paying off and that austerity is finally coming to an end. We have turned an important corner in this country and a bright, prosperous future is within our grasp.

As our economy is cyclical and sooner or later there will be another recession, will the Chancellor take this opportunity to deny the claim that by spending an extra £30 billion by 2023, we are going to be taking out of the economy exactly the same proportion as Gordon Brown did at the end of his chancellorship? Will the Chancellor assure me that we remain as committed as ever to fixing the roof while the sun shines and that he has a firm plan to reduce the debt?

Yes, I have a very firm plan to reduce the debt. My hon. Friend will see from the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast published last week that the debt will fall from over 85% of GDP to below 75% by the end of the forecast period. But my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have decided to take a balanced approach, where reducing the debt has to take place in tandem with keeping taxes low, supporting our public services and, probably most important of all, investing capital in Britain’s future.

There are reports that the Cabinet has been briefed on a possible deal with the EU that includes a customs union that can be ended through a review mechanism at any stage in the future. So after two years of uncertainty, of business holding back investment and of jobs relocated abroad, we are now presented with a fudge that gives no guarantees on a long-term basis of our future trading relationship. Investment in our economy today is the lowest in the G7 and falling. If a customs union with our largest trading partner can be ripped up at any stage, how does the Chancellor expect businesses to have the confidence to bring forward the long-term investment needed to support our economy?

That was a perfectly reasonable—if a little long—question, but unfortunately, it was built on a false premise. The Cabinet has received no such briefing.

Well, it is interesting, because the Chancellor knows then that a free trade agreement without a permanent customs union will not protect our economy from the damage that a hard Brexit would cause, so to guarantee frictionless supply chains, we need a secure, permanent customs union with the EU. Businesses and workers are looking to the Chancellor to fight their corner, so will he join me and MPs across the House in calling on the Prime Minister to do the sensible thing and agree a permanent customs union that protects our economy, and yes, the livelihoods of millions of our people?

The right hon. Gentleman and I do not share very much in common, but we do share the desire to maintain frictionless trade between the UK and the European Union to protect British businesses and British jobs. His preferred way of achieving that is through a customs union; the Prime Minister has set out an alternative plan that will ensure that we can continue to have frictionless trade with the European Union. I prefer the Prime Minister’s plan.

T2. Four thousand current and former employees of Roadchef, many of whom are elderly, including some 150 who worked at Sandbach services, will be pleased that there has been success in their campaign for money that they are entitled to from HMRC, but can Ministers provide an assurance from HMRC that there will be no tax payable on these moneys going in or out of the Roadchef employee benefit trust? (907492)

I obviously cannot comment on the specific case of the Sandbach services employees, but I assure my hon. Friend that I have looked extensively at this matter and consulted various Members across both sides of the House. I am satisfied that HMRC in general has conducted itself appropriately over this whole issue, but I am happy to meet her to discuss the specific point that she raised.

T3. There were over 9,000 words in the Chancellor’s Budget speech, but not one mention of Nottingham or the east midlands. In the east midlands, we have multiple investable schemes that will drive growth in our region. When will the Treasury back the east midlands? (907493)

The hon. Gentleman obviously missed the Chancellor’s speech at the Conservative party conference, in which he announced the creation of a special area of economic activity at Toton, just south of Nottingham, which we expect to become one of the UK’s leading areas of economic growth. We also announced in the Budget an increase in the transforming cities fund, which will directly benefit Nottingham.

T5. I welcome the announcement in last week’s Budget of investment in our high streets, which will be particularly welcome in Bedworth in my constituency. I had meetings with local businesses recently on this very issue, and particularly on their frustrations at the lack of ambition of the local borough council. Can the Minister advise how local councils such as Nuneaton and Bedworth can best take advantage of this excellent opportunity? (907495)

I recognise the huge amount of work my hon. Friend has put into the issue of revitalising our high streets, and his representations to me and other colleagues. The £675 million future high streets fund will be bid for on a competitive basis through local authorities, so it is very important that all Members encourage their local authorities to come forward with their bids.

T4. The co-operative movement in the UK has a turnover of £36 billion. Given that it employs thousands, and that thousands will benefit as a result of the economic and social benefits that co-operatives bring, why was there no mention of the co-op movement in the Budget? (907494)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the co-operative movement is very important to our economy; we have met to discuss various aspects of its future. I am happy to meet him again to discuss the matters that he wishes to bring forward.

T7. Does the Budget not demonstrate that we have turned around the economic catastrophe left to us by the Labour party to deliver billions of pounds for public services, and tax cuts for millions of people up and down this country? (907497)

Yes, my hon. Friend is right. The Government have delivered eight straight years of economic growth, over 3.3 million more people in work, and higher employment in every region and nation of the United Kingdom. Wages are growing at their fastest pace in almost a decade, and the deficit is down by well over four fifths. In the Budget, we have gone further, cutting taxes and funding our vital public services.

T6. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Schools are still reeling from the Chancellor’s “little extras” quip, while colleges and sixth forms were given no thought at all in the Budget. Further to the letter of 15 October from the Education Committee to the Chancellor, will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury accept our invitation to give oral evidence to our inquiry on school and college funding? (907496)

As the Chancellor pointed out, we have already put an additional £1.3 billion into schools’ budgets, which means that they are rising in real terms, and it is entirely proper for Education Ministers to appear in front of the Select Committee to discuss those issues.

T10. Some people are worried about the end of Help to Buy in five years’ time. Given that it is a subsidy on demand, why not soften the blow with a subsidy on supply through a help to build programme, which would help more ordinary people bring forward their own schemes at prices they can afford? (907500)

I have heard my hon. Friend’s representations on behalf of self-builders; twice in one sitting is probably a record. I will treat them as representations for the next fiscal event and will look at them accordingly.

T8. Some 37 million packs of medicines are imported each month into the country from the EU, and people are rightly concerned about security of supply next year. The Government have advised the industry to stockpile. Will the Chancellor tell the House how much the Government are paying for that? (907498)

That is a matter for the Department of Health and Social Care, and I know that the Health Secretary is in discussion with the pharmaceutical industry. We are supporting the Department with allocations from the £3.5 billion I have allocated for Brexit preparations. We will ensure that adequate supplies of medicines are stockpiled if there is any risk of disruption at the channel ports.

One way both to reduce the deficit and to deliver a reduction in tax rates would be to do something about stamp duty land tax. Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts show over the scorecard period a £4 billion reduction in stamp duty land tax receipts—down a staggering £800 million since the last forecast in March. Can the Chancellor give me an assurance that the Treasury is actively looking at this issue and designing a solution?

What I can do is assure my right hon. Friend that we look actively at all taxes at every fiscal event. He will know that stamp duty land tax has been a subject of some interest and, indeed, controversy. We do look very carefully at the receipts data, but we also have to look at the distributional impact of different taxes. As my right hon. Friend will understand, doing anything about high rates of stamp duty land tax would have a very uneven distributional impact.

T9. Renewable energy developers working on wave and tidal power have presented a proposal for what they call innovation power purchase agreements, a mechanism whereby they might finally get their devices over the line into commercial deployment. Will the Chancellor, or perhaps the Chief Secretary, work with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on a proposal that could allow them and the developers to see the fruition of what could be a very important part of the Government’s industrial strategy? (907499)

As part of the spending review, we will look at the most efficient way in which we can meet our carbon targets. I am working closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in that regard.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s announcement of £150 million of new money for the Tay cities deal, but may I ask him to direct some of his officials to speak to colleagues in BEIS to establish what support could be given to the devolved Administration and to Michelin, which is to close its tyre factory in Dundee? The closure could mean the loss of 850 jobs, which could not only have an impact on Dundee but cause ripples throughout the region.

I am sure that both BEIS and the Department for Work and Pensions are already aware of that very large job loss, and I will ensure that my colleagues are looking at it.

What role, if any, have the readiness for Brexit and resource levels of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs played in influencing the Prime Minister to consider extending the customs transition period?

HMRC has a central role in ensuring that we are ready for Brexit, specifically in the unlikely event of a no-deal day one scenario. That has included the recruitment of 2,300 additional staff, and we will have an additional 5,000 staff by the end of the year. We are ready, and we will be ready, for wherever this deal lands.

Motorists want to see the earliest possible end to the traffic misery on the A417 caused by the air balloon pinch point. Does my hon. Friend recognise that the Budget, through its extra firepower for roads, provides the best possible platform for such a vital scheme?

I have met my hon. Friend and his Gloucestershire colleagues to discuss this matter. It was with strategic roads and roundabouts, such as the air balloon roundabout, in mind that we made the largest ever investment in our strategic road network. Decisions on specific roads will be made next year.

I welcome HMRC’s rather belated decision to return tax wrongly paid by the Roadchef employee benefit trust. It is clearly now necessary to honour previously made commitments in respect of tax implications for beneficiaries. Did HMRC use its discretion to make that payout, and, if so, on what basis?

The hon. Gentleman and I have had a number of discussions about this issue, both formal and informal, and have engaged in an Adjournment debate on it. I have always been very attentive to his specific questions, but if he would like me to meet him again to discuss the issue further, I should be more than happy to do so.

Previous independent assessments of the impact of air passenger duty have shown that it costs the economy more than it brings into the Exchequer. May I have an assurance that the Treasury will do its own modelling to ensure that this island trading nation can compete better in the future?

Yes. The Treasury regularly receives independent assessments that tell us that taxes cost us more than they deliver to us, and I can assure my hon. Friend that the Treasury always does its own modelling to reach its decisions.

The Chancellor is aware of the sad news about the Michelin plant in my constituency; its potential closure in 2020 would mean the loss of 850 jobs. It is early days, but may I ask the Chancellor for a straightforward commitment to work constructively with the Scottish Government and others—who are meeting representatives of the business today—to do whatever he can to preserve quality manufacturing on the site, and to protect and preserve as many jobs as possible?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Of course we will work constructively with the Scottish Government to ensure that we can mitigate in every way possible the impact on the community of these very large numbers of job losses.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

This morning, the European Automobile Manufacturers Association released research demonstrating that all 270 new-generation diesel vehicles tested to date are below the emissions threshold on the road. In the light of this, will the Treasury team meet me and other colleagues to discuss how we can construct a road tax system that promotes clean diesel over old diesel and protects 9,000 jobs in my constituency?

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend, who I know is a champion for Jaguar Land Rover. I hope it will reassure him to know that I will discuss these issues with the chief executive of that company later today.

If we took every single person who has suffered a major traumatic brain injury—for instance, from a car crash—from needing four people in order to be able to wash, clothe and look after themselves to needing just one, and thereby leading a more independent life, we could save the taxpayers £5 billion a year. May I meet with the Chancellor to explain all this?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have a previous interest in this subject. I commend the excellent work he has done with the all-party group on acquired brain injury, and am happy to meet him to discuss the matters he has raised.

Before we come to the first of the two urgent questions, I remind the House that the sitting will be suspended at 1.45 pm and will resume at 3.15 pm. That is to accommodate the fact that significant numbers of colleagues are going to the commemorative Remembrance service in St Margaret’s church. It might be useful for colleagues to know that both urgent questions will therefore finish by 1.45 pm.