Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2022

My Christmas wish for the economy is that 2023 is the year when we bring down inflation, and that means staying the course outlined in the autumn statement and giving people as much help as we can with the cost of living crisis. I am pleased that, yesterday, my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury was able to announce that we are freezing alcohol duty for a further six months.

This morning, I met nurses on the picket lines outside St Thomas’s Hospital. They do not want to be there, the unions do not want them to be there and the public do not want them to be there, but we understand why they are: it is because of the Government’s inflexibility over pay. The Government have deep pockets for bankers and their bonuses, dodgy personal protective equipment and fly-by-night Prime Ministers who blow up the economy. I took the Chancellor at his word when I was with him on the Health and Social Care Committee. Now that he holds the purse strings, will he enter into discussion with the unions and unlock this untenable situation?

I enjoyed working with the hon. Gentleman on the Select Committee. One thing that we both said needed to happen was to have an independently reviewed workforce plan for the NHS, so he will be pleased that I was able to announce that in the autumn statement.

T3. I welcome the steps that the Treasury has taken to support Carshalton and Wallington residents with the cost of living. What steps is the Department taking to signpost people to the help and support that is available? (902908)

The Government have announced cost of living support worth £26 billion in 2023-24. More than 8 million of the most vulnerable households across the UK will continue to be supported through to next winter via additional cost of living payments. In my hon. Friend’s constituency, that equates to 11,600 households who will be eligible for £650 of extra support this year through the means-tested benefits cost of living payment. I urge all colleagues across the House to look at the help for households website— —which can signpost people to the various funds and ways in which they can get support.

The end of the year is a moment for reflection, so let us look at the Government’s report card: a Tory mini-Budget that crashed the economy, waiting lists and times at record highs, trains delayed and cancelled all over the place, billions wasted on dodgy contracts, and a reshuffle policy that means everyone in the Conservative party gets to be famous for 15 minutes. Why is it that when nothing is working under the Tories, even at this time of seasonal gift giving, they still insist on making everyone else pay the price for their Government’s failures?

First of all, may I wish the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), a merry Christmas in her absence and a speedy recovery from the lurgy that I gather she has? I look back on the last 12 years of this Conservative Government with a great deal of pride. What the right hon. Gentleman never likes to mention in his comparisons is that Labour had a golden economic inheritance from the Conservatives in 1997 and left us with an economy that had run out of money. What have we done? We are the third highest-growing economy in the G7.

T4.   Before I came into this House I was a chartered accountant. The VAT threshold rate has remained at £85,000 for the last six years, including at the moment when inflation is at nearly 10%. Many of my constituency businesses are smaller trader entities in the leisure, tourism and hospitality sectors, and they are really struggling. What assessment has the Chancellor made of increasing the VAT threshold, and, if he will not look at that, of lowering VAT rates on the sectors I mentioned? (902909)

I welcome my hon. Friend’s strong support for his local economy and the small businesses that play such a vital part in his constituency. The VAT registration threshold, at £85,000, is more than twice as high as the EU and OECD averages, which keeps 3.2 million small businesses out of VAT—the majority of businesses in this country. I hope my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that since the start of the pandemic more than £35 billion has been provided to the tourism, leisure and hospitality sectors in grants, loans and tax breaks. As a Government, we recognise their incredible value and how important they are to the wellbeing of our constituencies.

T2.   Further to my previous question on best value in the public sector, can the Minister confirm how much money the civil service strike is costing the taxpayer and whether any cost-benefit analysis has been carried out on the merits of giving civil servants a decent pay rise? (902906)

The cost of strikes is always regrettable. It is regrettable to those who rely on the services that those individuals deliver.

T6. Hampshire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is waiting for Treasury allocations to be made that would allow the start of a public consultation on our new hospital in Basingstoke, funded by the Government’s flagship hospital infrastructure plan. Can my right hon. Friend confirm when Basingstoke might be getting news on those allocations—perhaps even an early Christmas present? (902911)

I am sorry that I cannot give an early Christmas present. Allocations from that funding are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. I encourage my right hon. Friend to speak to the Health Secretary, who is working hard with the Treasury and other parts of Government to look at capital projects across the whole of health. Announcements will be made in due course, early in the new year, I hope.

T5. Changes to the eligibility criteria for the warm home discount mean that those in receipt of disability living allowance, personal independence payment and attendance allowance can no longer claim it. I am sure the Minister will tell me that disabled people are being compensated via the two disability cost of living payments, but new research by YouGov has found that millions of disabled people are spending this winter living in cold and damp homes. What is he doing to ensure that no disabled person has to choose between eating and heating? (902910)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that important point. Yes, I would draw attention to the cost of living support for those on disability benefits, which is extremely important, together with the energy price guarantee. On the specific point about the warm home discount, I am happy to look into that and write to the hon. Lady, but I remind her that in the autumn statement the Chancellor made a very significant commitment to energy efficiency which will apply to the whole country: the 15% target and £6 billion more funding for energy efficiency.

Inflation is high in the UK, but I understand that it is lower than the EU average. Why do we not do what they do in France? All the funding that goes into supporting people with the cost of energy is given to the utility companies so the bills are lower, thus reducing inflation.

Few colleagues put a question about inflation more eloquently than my hon. Friend. He makes an interesting suggestion. The support we have put in place has come through a variety of mechanisms, such as direct support for our constituents to help with cost of living and the energy price guarantee. He asks about how we ensure that that reduces inflation; the key point is that the OBR has confirmed that because of the energy price guarantee, the peak of inflation will be 2.5% lower than it would have been. That shows that our support is not only making a difference to our constituents this winter but is reducing the underlying cause of inflation, and that is in the best interest of the whole of the United Kingdom.

I am sure that like me, Mr Speaker, you long for the days of cool Britannia under a Labour Government. Touring musicians and performers are now hamstrung with restrictions and red tape because of the Government’s botched Brexit deal. We need a Christmas miracle, don’t we? When will the Government accept that this as a problem, and what are they doing about it?

I hope that, in the spirit of Christmas cheer, the hon. Lady will accept that the trade and co-operation agreement is the world’s biggest zero-tariff, zero-quota trade deal. It provides a strong base for UK businesses to trade with the EU. We continue to support businesses trading with the EU, as well as helping them seize new opportunities with fast-growing economies around the world through our free trade agreements.

The Chancellor was absolutely right in Edinburgh to include environmental, social and governance ratings agencies within the regulatory perimeter. But will he ensure that in the guidance, ESG objectives are consistent with the long-term actuarial goals of pension funds, to ensure that money is available in 20 or 30 years’ time, when people wish to retire?

My hon. Friend is an expert in this area. He is absolutely right to point to that concern. We must ensure joined-up regulatory innovation to make sure there are no unforeseen circumstances. He puts his finger on a very important point.

I refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The Chancellor knows that a workforce plan cannot work if the Government cannot retain staff in the NHS. We cannot retain staff in the NHS if we do not pay them—that is why they are out on strike today. Will the Chancellor, instead of hiding behind the pay review body, admit that the Government set the remit for the pay review body? The only way to end this dispute is for Government to sit down with the trade unions and negotiate.

The hon. Lady is right about the importance of retention. That is why we are pleased to have 32,000 more nursing staff than at the start of the Parliament, which takes us some way towards our 50,000 additional nursing staff target. When there is a cost of living crisis, as we have at the moment, the best way to resolve this is an independent process. It is an independent process; when I was Health Secretary, it often made rulings that were not comfortable. The best way to resolve the situation is to respect that process.

Pensioners are increasingly worried about the fact that, although they have paid high—and now higher—taxes all their life, the service they get from the NHS seems to get worse. Will my right hon. Friend consider an idea put forward and implemented by his great predecessor, Ken Clarke, to give tax relief on private health insurance for pensioners? If we were to have a meeting, could he invite his hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary, who campaigned for this idea before higher office silenced him?

My right hon. Friend always asks important and challenging questions. I do not agree with the way forward that he has outlined, but Ken Clarke revolutionised our education system by introducing Ofsted, which has led to a massive increase in standards in our schools. That was the reason I introduced the Ofsted system in our hospitals through the Care Quality Commission, which is also seeing a big improvement in standards.

God’s richest blessings to you in this Christmas season, Mr Speaker.

My constituent, who owns a small business, paid VAT on goods that they had ordered and brought back to Northern Ireland, only to receive a second VAT bill from the Republic of Ireland because of the Northern Ireland protocol. That makes doing business totally unaffordable. A previous Prime Minister said that businesses could tear these documents up. Can my constituent tear these documents up?

For the majority of businesses trading in Northern Ireland, VAT continues to be accounted for in much the same way as when they trade in the rest of the UK. We are confident that the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol for VAT mitigates the risk of double taxation in Northern Ireland. We know of one example and HM Revenue and Customs is working with that business to see what more can be done, but I am happy to take up the hon. Gentleman’s question outside the Chamber.

Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker.

Rural poverty is devastating, but it is often hidden by the relative affluence of surrounding rural areas. To ensure that councils have the funding that they need to support those who are living in rural poverty, will the Chancellor and his officials meet me to discuss putting social mobility into funding formulas alongside deprivation, to get councils what they need and to end rural poverty?

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. Representing a rural constituency myself, I totally understand the tension in fully reflecting the needs of a sometimes diverse set of communities. I am happy to meet her to discuss the matter further.

A happy Christmas to everybody.

The latest estimate that I have seen is that the Government’s failure to clamp down on tax havens in our overseas territories and Crown dependencies has cost us £65 billion—almost half what we spend on the NHS, or a third of our education budget. Does the Chancellor agree that our public finances would be in a far better shape, our taxes would be far lower and our tax system would be far fairer if we had cracked down on our tax havens?

We always need to be vigilant about tax evasion and work closely with the overseas territories and Crown dependencies on those matters. A lot of progress on registers has been made in recent years, and more is due to be made. I will continue to reflect carefully and work with the Economic Secretary on further improvements to get things to where they need to be.

Does the Chancellor agree that investor confidence in the United Kingdom will be increased only if we bring forward the overdue reforms to the law of corporate criminal liability? If so, will he and the Treasury support further amendments to the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, including those that would implement the Law Commission’s recommendations to create further “failure to prevent” offences?

My right hon. and learned Friend is one of the people who knows most about corporate criminal liability. I would be happy to take his question away and discuss it with him, because it is critical that the justice system addresses not just individuals who have criminal liability, but companies; indeed, I have prosecuted many companies across a range of offences. We understand that they can commit crimes too, so I am very happy to take his question away.

Will Treasury Ministers work with Transport Ministers to give Avanti West Coast’s customers an early Christmas present by removing the contract from it, putting it into public ownership and saving the taxpayer an absolute fortune?

I recognise the significant concerns about the delivery of that service. I am in ongoing conversations with the Secretary of State for Transport to look at what more can be done.

The people of Doncaster will be eternally grateful for the help that they received through the pandemic and for what they are receiving through the cost of living crisis, but Doncaster still needs a new hospital. Although money is tight, will the Chancellor meet me with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to see how we can achieve that goal in the new year?

I am more than happy to meet my hon. Friend again to discuss the matter in detail. As I mentioned in my reply to my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), the situation with the capital programmes is under urgent review across the country. I hope that further announcements will be made in the new year, but I will certainly meet my hon. Friend anyway.

A few months ago, the Chancellor promised at the Dispatch Box that he would make a further announcement about the energy bill relief scheme before Christmas. Nothing has yet been forthcoming. Small businesses, charities and schools in my constituency either face going under or face huge deficits in the coming year. Will he confirm when he will make a further announcement about support for businesses, the public sector and charities, and whether this House will have the opportunity to scrutinise it?

I can absolutely confirm that the House will not have to wait very long for that announcement—and yes, it will have a chance to scrutinise the announcement in detail.

As well as reassuring financial markets and bringing down mortgage rates, the autumn statement did a great deal to help consumers and businesses through winter energy prices. When my right hon. Friend comes to announce what further help might be available for businesses after March, will those in the Treasury also highlight the opportunities for business from the increased business rate discounts for the hospitality and leisure sectors that will come in the spring?

We will certainly do that. I know that the 75% discount we announced for retail, hospitality and leisure businesses will make an enormous difference to businesses in Gloucester, as will the £2.5 billion annual discount in business rates overall as we make the transition to the new system.

A very Merry Christmas, Mr Speaker.

With oil and gas companies making grotesque profits from high global prices, it is beyond belief that the Chancellor does not scrap the so-called investment allowance announced in the autumn statement, which means that companies are still able to claim £91.40 in tax relief for every £100 invested in oil and gas infrastructure. Will he now come clean about the cost to the taxpayer of this perverse and utterly unjustified subsidy?

I am happy to confirm that that levy will raise £40 billion. As I said earlier—and this is very important—the support that the hon. Lady’s constituents, and indeed all our constituents, will receive this winter has to be paid for somehow. A key purpose of the levy is to help fund support for businesses and for our constituents, with higher cost of living payments for the most vulnerable and those on benefits. It is extremely generous, and, as I have said, it is bringing down inflation for the whole country.

Over the weekend, an anonymous Conservative MP admitted to a newspaper:

“We’ve got no ideas and people feel abandoned.”

This was an

“economy that’s in recession with 10 per cent inflation”


“possibly one of the least successful governments in modern Europe.”

My constituents are going into Christmas poorer as a consequence of 12 years of Conservative government. Is the Chancellor proud of that?

I am very proud of the fact that, having inherited an economy that was bankrupted by the hon. Lady’s party, we have given it one of the strongest growth rates in the developed world.

I know that the Chancellor has invested in public health personally, but may I urge him to invest, in a fiscal sense, in beer and alcohol duty, and to create a differential between off-sales and on-sales? On-sales are where jobs and tax and employment are generated, and off-sales are where all the harmful drinking comes from.

In my statement yesterday I not only confirmed a six-month extension of the alcohol duty freeze, but announced that next August we will introduce an ambitious reform package which will include—this is happening for the first time ever, and is only possible because of our departure from the European Union— a duty rate differential between what is on tap, namely draught beer, cider and so on, and what is in the supermarkets. That will create a level playing field which I think is in the best interests of our pubs.

Asylum seekers, who are at the very sharpest end of the cost of living crisis, have seen only a 13p increase in asylum support payments. Will the Chancellor uprate that? It should not fall to brilliant charities like Refuweegee to ensure that asylum seekers get a Christmas this year.

I think that communities up and down the country are doing amazing work to support, in particular, the Ukrainian visitors who came here this year at very short notice. We have just agreed a new package of support with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which gives guarantees going forward into next year.