Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2022

Thanks to our vaccine booster roll-out, we now have one of the most open economies in Europe, and thanks to our economic plan, we are set to have one of the highest growth rates in the G7 this year and last. We continue to deliver on our plan for jobs, doubling down with a new target to move half a million more people off welfare and into work by the end of June. Unemployment is falling and is now down to almost record lows. Youth unemployment is already at record lows. All of this shows that our plan for jobs is working.

People in Ukraine are living in dread at the prospect of Russian invasion. While the UK Government talk tough about sanctions, US think-tanks warn that the UK is such a haven for money laundering that such sanctions would not be meaningful. Will the Chancellor take heed of Lord Agnew’s powerful resignation speech and bring his powerful economic crime Bill before the House as soon as possible?

With regard to sanctions, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), nothing is off the table. It is right that we work with our international partners to develop the most robust sanctions package that we can. The hon. Lady can rest assured that I and my team are doing that. With regard to the economic crime Bill, which contains important measures to strengthen our ability to tackle money laundering, obviously it would not be right for me to pre-empt the Queen’s Speech, but the hon. Lady can be assured that I, the Home Secretary and others fully support the Bill.

T2.   Will my right hon. Friend urgently review the Government’s pothole fund and consider whether the level is sufficient to adequately maintain the road networks, given the current rising cost of materials and labour? Will he also consider setting the budgets for three or more years ahead, to allow councils to plan more effectively, rather than it being an annual allocation? (905363)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about giving local councils that certainty to plan budgets years at a time. That is why I am pleased that last year’s spending review was a multi-year spending review—the first we have had in some time—so there are now three-year budgets in place to enable that planning. In terms of the overall quantum, it is £2.7 billion, which represents a 10% increase on the amount we spent on local maintenance in the last Parliament. Hopefully that is reassuring to her and her local council.

Mr Speaker:

“Schoolboy errors… a combination of arrogance, indolence and ignorance… nothing less than woeful.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 January 2022; Vol. 818, c. 20-21.]

Those are not my words, but those of former Treasury Minister, Lord Agnew. Some £4.3 billion of taxpayers’ money has been written off as a result of the Chancellor’s fraud failures; a thousand loans were made to companies that were not even trading at the start of the pandemic; and £50,000 was awarded to a person with 48 criminal convictions, and £25,000 to a drugs gang. Is the Chancellor really saying that such examples strike the right balance between getting money to the businesses that need it and looking after the public finances? Will he inform the House of the total amount lost to fraud underwritten by the Treasury and the amount recovered to date?

First, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Lord Agnew for all his work. I am very grateful to him for everything that he did, and of course we will listen to what he has to say. With regard to the hon. Lady’s questions, she talked about fraud estimates. It is important to be clear, as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, that nothing has been written off in that regard—we are going after each and every person we suspect of defrauding the taxpayer. I am pleased to tell her that the original estimate of £4.9 billion of fraud—it was an estimate, independently provided—has already been revised down by a third since it was first published, thanks to the actions that we are taking. She asked how much has been paid out already, and I can confirm that the sum total to date is £13 million.

It is in black and white on the Government’s own website still today, and in the Government accounts—£4.3 billion written off. Despite the Chancellor’s words, “written off” means giving up on that money. This is just the tip of the iceberg. [Interruption.] It is on the Government’s website and in the Government’s accounts. Can he tell us how many of the covid fraud cases have gone to court? Given his failure, will he ask the National Crime Agency to conduct a full investigation into all cases of covid fraud and ensure that those responsible are held to account? It is not the Chancellor’s money to write off; it is the public’s money, and the public want their money back.

It is great that the Labour party has realised that it is the taxpayer’s money and not the Government’s money. I am glad that it has joined us in recognising that. I can say categorically that no one has written this off; we are going after it, as the Chief Secretary said. We invested £100 million last March in creating a taxpayer protection taskforce staffed with over 1,200 people to recover hopefully up to £1 billion. That is just one of the many things we are doing, as well as taking more powers to go after rogue directors, enabling Companies House to do exactly that. The hon. Lady asked about the National Crime Agency. I am pleased to tell her that it has already helped in investigations that have led to 13 arrests with regard to bounce back fraud, so that work is already under way.

T4. Does the Chancellor agree that one of the key lessons from the pandemic was about helping people to improve their own financial resilience by saving? Will he now finally support measures to extend auto-enrolment down to the first pound of earnings and down to those aged 18, so that we can help everyone start saving for a pension for their retirement? (905365)

My hon. Friend, who has great expertise in this area, makes a reasonable point. The Government’s Help to Save scheme is under way, but the Government continue to work very closely with the Money and Pensions Service to look at new ways of increasing financial resilience and getting young people to understand the opportunities of saving earlier.

Lord Agnew resigned because he could no longer defend the level of fraud in the bounce back loan scheme and the lack of action to tackle it. Much of that has been facilitated by the absolute shambles of the Companies House register. I do not want Ministers to fob this off to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, because that is exactly the disconnected approach that Lord Agnew criticised. If there is an economic crime Bill, will Ministers take action to give Companies House anti-money laundering responsibility, rather than watching as fraudsters using UK shell companies waltz off with billions of pounds of public money?

I am grateful to be able to confirm to the hon. Lady, as I have on numerous occasions in Committees over the last two or three years, that this is a key priority for us in the Treasury. Obviously, as the Chancellor said, we cannot comment on future legislative agendas, but the measures she mentions, picking up on the Financial Action Task Force report from 2018 with respect to Companies House, are something we agree with.

T5. Does my hon. Friend have plans to help high streets such as that in Barnstaple in North Devon, which has many large vacant units with several storage floors above them, with measures such as business rates reform or a redevelopment fund, to enable those empty buildings to be repurposed and become smaller units combined with much-needed housing, so that town centres can bounce back after covid? (905366)

Like my hon. Friend, I am keen to support high streets in towns such as Barnstaple. At the autumn Budget, we announced business rates relief for thousands of retail, hospitality and leisure businesses to help them get through the pandemic and adapt to wider economic changes. I would also point my hon. Friend to the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund and encourage Barnstaple to apply for round 2, which will be opening this spring.

Last month, the Government came out against Labour’s plan to help people on modest incomes pay their energy bills using a one-off £1.2 billion windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas producers. The Education Secretary complained that oil and gas companies are “already struggling”. The truth is that pensioners and people on modest incomes are the ones who are struggling. Oil and gas companies are expected to report near-record income this year. Will Ministers now admit that the Government have got it wrong and commit to looking again at our plan?

The hon. Member will know that the oil and gas industry pays a significant amount in taxation—I mentioned the figure earlier. In terms of helping people who are struggling with their bills, he will know that we already have the energy price cap, the winter fuel payment, the warm home discount and the cold weather payment. We are looking out for and supporting those on the lowest income to enable them to get through this difficult period.

T7.   Pubs, restaurants, cafés and hotels were brought to their knees again over the festive period as people simply stayed at home. Will the Financial Secretary consider extending the reduced rate of VAT on hospitality and tourism to help those hard-hit businesses? (905368)

My hon. Friend will know that we have already made a significant input to support those in the hospitality and tourism industries. He will know that we extended the 5% reduced rate of VAT for those sectors to the end of September. On 1 October, we reduced the rate to 12.5%. That relief has cost the Government and the taxpayer more than £8 billion. Although all taxes are kept under review, there are no plans to extend the 12.5% reduced VAT rate.

T3. Threats to Putin’s regime would be stronger if the Government had implemented the recommendations of the 2020 Russia report. The lack of progress in the registration of overseas entities Bill and the economic crime Bill rings alarm bells here and with our allies. Will the Chancellor explain his failure to take action in our national interest and name a date for that to be remedied? (905364)

The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the measures that we can take to strengthen the powers against money laundering and illicit crime. Those measures require legislation, as he knows. Although I cannot pre-empt the Queen’s Speech, he should know that I, the Home Secretary and others strongly support the inclusion of the economic crime Bill, which contains those measures.

T8. I have heard a great deal from the local authorities that serve my constituency about the benefits of early intervention, especially when it comes to tackling poverty and disadvantage. What assessment is the Treasury planning to undertake to establish the benefits to taxpayers of that investment in vital services? (905370)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor worked closely with him in his previous post as a local government Minister. The supporting families programme provides funding for local authorities to deliver early intervention in children’s services. The programme was the subject of a robust national evaluation between 2015 and 2020, which demonstrated that in addition to improved outcomes for children and families, it delivered a return on investment of £2.28 of economic benefits for every £1 spent.

T6. Government Ministers will know that bus manufacture is an important skilled employment base in the north of England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The zero-emission bus regional areas programme, which is due to bring in innovation in engine technology, is supposed to be technologically neutral, even though we know that hydrogen buses almost certainly create more jobs in the UK. In that context, can the Chancellor tell us why every scheme so far has been for electric vehicles and not hydrogen technology? Is that a Treasury bias or a bias in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy? (905367)

I am happy to look at the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. I do not think there is a bias against that. The spending review contained billions of pounds for new bus transformation deals across the country and thousands more zero-emission buses. I know that the Prime Minister is passionate about hydrogen buses, so we will look into it and get back to the hon. Gentleman.

I have no argument against compensation being paid to the victims of the London Capital & Finance scandal, but I am concerned that they were paid 80% of the losses, yet the 800,000 victims of Equitable Life received only 22%. Does the Minister agree that it is a principle of fairness and of ensuring that people who save for their retirement are properly compensated?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has a long-standing interest in the issue. The difference between the two is that people received compensation from Equitable Life on the basis of relative losses, which is the gap between what they received from their policy and what they could have expected from investing in a similar product. With LCF, the bondholders were expected to lose the majority of their principal investment and stood to get less back than they put in. The schemes were looked at in the context of their respective instruments and appropriate support was given. There are no plans to open up compensation for Equitable Life again.

The Budget confirmed that total funding through the UK shared prosperity fund will, at a minimum, match the size of EU funds in each nation, and in Cornwall. If the Treasury were to do the same with all the other less-developed regions, as it should, South Yorkshire would be on course to receive £900 million of investment over the next seven years. Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury give an assurance that we will get our fair share?

I have the highest regard for the hon. Gentleman, and he is a doughty champion for the people of South Yorkshire. The levelling up White Paper will be a key moment in setting out our plans in that space, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be coming to the House shortly to set out our plans in that regard.

I welcome the Government’s intent that levelling up should be measured by more than simply spending money. Indeed, the data that is collected across the UK to measure its effect varies. What is my right hon. Friend doing to address that, and will he reassure Aberconwy residents of an effective UK-wide levelling up?

Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we should indeed measure success in outcomes, not just inputs. The Department’s delivery of levelling up ambitions will be monitored, and it will of course be held to account. I point my hon. Friend towards the levelling up White Paper, which will be published shortly.

Going after money means that the Chancellor is recovering a debt, so there is a hole in the finances. Will the Chancellor tell the House this: why did Lord Agnew resign?

Lord Agnew, obviously, has spoken for himself, and I do nothing but thank him for his service. We look forward to continue working on all the areas he has mentioned, in most of which we are already undertaking work. We are relentless in our aim to tackle those who have defrauded the taxpayer, and we will not stop until we have got as much back as we can.

The Wrexham Gateway levelling-up fund bid attracts around £35 million of private finance. However, that investment in Wrexham will depend on a successful levelling-up fund bid the next time round. Will the Minister explain what considerations are made for bids with substantial private investment?

My hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for Wrexham, and for wider pride in north Wales, which is incredibly important. I am happy to meet her to discuss any aspect of the bid process that it would be helpful to discuss further.

Will the Chancellor confirm or deny that millions of pounds of taxpayers’ funds have been sunk into an online gambling company with the Government’s start-up scheme? If so, is this the right time to invest in a private gambling firm, since a review of the Gambling Act 2005 is already being undertaken?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. This relates to the future fund, a rules-based scheme that means that any firm is eligible for funding, providing it meets the required eligibility criteria for the scheme and passes the necessary checks. Neither the Government nor the British Business Bank chose specific investments; it is about helping innovative equity-backed companies to weather the economic disruption caused by covid and continue their long-term growth projection.

I commend my right hon. Friend for the steps he has taken to level up in Darlington, with the establishment of the Darlington economic campus. Will he update the House on the progress to bring high-quality, well-paid jobs to my constituency?

I am delighted to update the House on the progress the Treasury is making with our Darlington economic campus. We have already recruited more than 100 Treasury employees to be based in Darlington, and we are on track for our ambition of 300 employees based there.