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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2022


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Core Northern Powerhouse Rail: Public Funding

1. What recent estimate he has made with Cabinet colleagues of the level of public funding that will be required to build core Northern Powerhouse Rail. (902877)

May I begin, Mr Speaker, by wishing you and all of your brilliant House of Commons staff a very merry Christmas?

The integrated rail plan, published last November, set out an estimate of £17.2 billion at 2019 prices for the core Northern Powerhouse Rail network, with a further £5.4 billion for the TransPennine route upgrade. That includes building 40 miles of new, high-speed line between Warrington, Manchester and Yorkshire, as well as upgrading and electrifying the rest of the route between Liverpool and York, and the existing line between Leeds and Bradford.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. The Chancellor has rightly spoken about the importance of capital investment to the long-term growth of the economy but, at the same time, he has downgraded the £40 billion vision of Northern Powerhouse Rail, which was agreed on a cross-party basis with northern leaders, to the much-reduced £17 billion core scheme. Decisions on Northern Powerhouse Rail will shape the future of the railways in the north of England for generations to come and unlock massive economic benefits. Will the Minister look at refocusing Treasury appraisal of NPR on its long-term transformative benefits and whole-life value, rather than on short-term factors? Otherwise, a massive opportunity, not just for the north, but for the whole of the country, will be missed.

I commend the hon. Gentleman, who speaks with great passion on these issues. He is right that the Chancellor is absolutely committed to the long-term benefit to the economy of capital investment and infrastructure schemes like these. Just to be clear, the IRP set out the Government’s view that the core NPR network is the most effective way to deliver rail connectivity benefiting the north. Our plans would deliver substantial journey-time saving and capacity benefits all the way from Liverpool to York. It will do so far more quickly and cost-effectively than alternatives.

Energy Producer Profit Trends

2. What assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of trends in the level of energy producer profits in the last 12 months. (902878)

The structure of the electricity market means that the price of electricity is tied to the wholesale gas price. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine triggered an unprecedented increase in gas prices, driving energy prices to eight times their historic levels. As a result, many energy generators’ profits are well above pre-crisis levels. As announced at the autumn statement, the Government are introducing a temporary 45% tax on extraordinary returns made by some UK electricity generators from 1 January.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

Shell announced worldwide profits of £8.2 billion and £9 billion for the three-month period between July and September and the three months to June. BP announced more than double its profits for the same period. They have increased their dividend payments and spent billions buying back their own shares from the market. Shell says that it does not expect to pay any windfall tax at all this year and BP said that it would pay £678 million. Does the Minister agree that, if the Government had implemented a proper windfall tax that captured these things, we could be supporting offshore customers such as my own in North East Fife?

Obviously, the hon. Lady knows that we do not comment on the commercial decisions of individual companies. What I can confirm is that the specific levy to which she refers—the energy profits levy—will contribute £40 billion to the Exchequer. We must remember that that £40 billion will play a key part in enabling us to afford the support that we are giving to constituents throughout the United Kingdom this winter and next year, which will total, for businesses and households, more than £100 billion, and the Office for Budget Responsibility has already found that that will help to reduce inflation overall.

May I begin, Mr Speaker, by wishing you, the Minister and the whole House a jolly Christmas?

If the Government had implemented Labour’s windfall tax, they would have raised an additional £16.8 billion. Why have the Government chosen to leave this windfall of war on the table and not put it to use to support families and businesses in the tough winter ahead?

I do not entirely accept that. I would be interested to know the detail behind that figure. What we can confirm is that we have two specific levies: one on oil and gas, and one on certain electricity generators. We think that these are being applied in a very fair way. The levy to which the hon. Member refers does include an allowance for investment but this is the point. That level of support cannot continue for ever. The long-term answer is energy security—investment in new energy sources and, indeed, investment in the North sea, supporting UK jobs and the transition to net zero.

Financial Conduct Authority: Loyalty Penalties in Insurance Market.

3. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Financial Conduct Authority in protecting customers from loyalty penalties in the insurance market. (902879)

The Government welcome the Financial Conduct Authority’s pricing rules, introduced in January this year, which require insurers to offer a renewal price no greater than the price the firm would offer to a new customer for the same policy. The Financial Conduct Authority has confirmed there is no evidence of widespread non-compliance with those rules.

The FCA’s cheap and, we hope, effective measures to stop insurance company customers being ripped off is in stark contrast to the energy price cap, which was introduced for exactly the same reason, but has not held down the price of energy and has larded hundreds of pounds of extra hedging costs on to every household’s energy bills to boot. Since the Treasury is spending vast amounts of taxpayers’ cash on energy subsidies at the moment, will my right hon. Friend speak to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy about replacing the failed energy cap with a version of the FCA’s much cheaper and more effective approach as soon as energy prices return to normal?

I am very happy to look at that question further. The Government previously considered, but rejected, asking Ofgem to implement a relative rather than an absolute price cap in energy markets, which would have similarly prevented energy suppliers from charging those large differentials, because it was judged that it was more likely to distort competition in the fixed-term tariff market. As ever, I am happy to continue the conversation with my hon. Friend and I know he will take the matter up further with the regulator.

Subsequent to the changes to the insurance market to protect people from the loyalty payment, the Chancellor announced his Edinburgh reforms to wider financial services regulation and a great many consultations. At a quick glance, many of them closed very quickly—on 5 February, 17 February, 3 March, 5 March and 17 March. Given that the Treasury Select Committee warned over a decade ago that the Government

“needs to take the time required to get its reform of financial regulation right”,

how can we be convinced that the rather painful lessons of the financial crash have not been forgotten?

For four and a half years, I was the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, and many of those reforms were baked up over a lot of consultation with industry over many months. The Edinburgh reforms represent an incremental advance on those reforms and have high prudential regulatory standards very much at their core.

I will come to that, because the Minister is absolutely right. I did quote from a 2010 report. But in June this year, the Treasury Committee, in its report on the future of financial services regulation, warned:

“Weakening standards could reduce the financial resilience of the UK’s financial system and undermine international confidence in that system and the firms within it.”

Given the intention to review capital requirements, and the new remit letters and secondary objectives for the Prudential Regulation Authority and the FCA, how will the Chancellor and the Minister ensure the regulatory focus on stability is maintained?

I gave evidence to that inquiry and I heartily agree with its conclusions. Stability is at the core of the regulators’ objectives, but so is the need to look at the competitive landscape across the globe and ensure that the UK, with the city of London as a global hub for financial services, evolves and remains competitive, taking account of the risks but also developing frameworks in line with expectations, so that we can remain that world-leading global hub.

Poverty Levels in Scotland

5. What recent assessment he has made of the potential impact of his policies on levels of poverty in Scotland. (902881)

The Chancellor published the “Impact on households” document alongside the autumn statement 2022, containing analysis of how policy announcements affect household incomes. The results show that the autumn statement decisions on tax, welfare and changes to the energy price guarantee in 2023-24 benefit low-income households across the UK, including Scottish households, the most. The autumn statement announced further support targeted at 8 million of the most vulnerable households across the UK, who will benefit from additional cost of living payments in 2023-24.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that, by October this year, one in five households in Scotland had already had to go without food or without heat because they could not afford both—and that was before the recent severe cold snap. The JRF also described the Scottish child payment, introduced by an SNP Government, as

“a watershed moment in tackling poverty”.

Does the Minister have any plans to speak to the Scottish Government to find out how the Scottish child payment works so it can be introduced here? Who knows—they might give him some tips on how to avoid a nurse’s strike at the same time.

I am, as ever, grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his advice. Of course, we engage closely with the Scottish Government. The latest official statistics from the Department for Work and Pensions, based on data up to 2019-20, show that, compared with 2009-10, there were 55,000 fewer people in absolute poverty after housing costs in Scotland. But I think the key point is that we are supporting everyone in every single part of the UK with their energy bills this winter. It is a challenging time, but our extraordinary help is making a real difference.

Levelling Up Communities: Fiscal Steps

The Treasury is making significant investments to level up communities across the UK—101 towns, including Dewsbury, will benefit from more than £3.2 billion from the towns fund, supporting long-term economic and social regeneration. Of course, communities will also benefit from the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund, the £2.6 billion shared prosperity fund and the £250 million community ownership fund.

The decision on the £47 million Penistone line levelling-up fund bid is due to be announced shortly. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that this important round 2 category 1 bid will be subject to the same financial considerations and eligibility as bids submitted in round 1?

I can absolutely reassure my hon. Friend that all round 2 bids are undergoing a robust and thorough assessment through that decision-making process. That is consistent with the approach taken in round 1. Of course, the individual decisions will be made in due course in the very near future.

One way the Government could level up low-income families with young children is through healthy start vouchers. This year, I have tabled four written questions asking what the take-up rate of that scheme has been since digitisation in April, but the Government have been unable to give me an answer, despite the fact that we are eight months on and in the middle of a cost of living crisis. How do the Government know what the take-up rate of the scheme is and whether it is working in balancing out inequalities?

I obviously cannot answer that specifically, but I can say that the Government have, over recent weeks, shown the commitment to helping the most vulnerable across the United Kingdom. But I take the hon. Lady’s question seriously, and I am very happy to look into that and to work with colleagues across Government to find an answer.

As the Minister will know, fiscal steps in investment zones can help to boost and level up communities—I am thinking in particular of Paignton in South Devon, where South Devon College and the photonics industry exist side by side. Will he meet me to discuss how that initiative could help to support growth in Paignton?

I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend, who is, as ever, fighting strongly for his constituents. As he knows, the investment zones are designed to be a meaningful mechanism to catalyse growth, sometimes, although not exclusively, through university, looking at where we can find clusters across the United Kingdom to drive the economy forward.

Clearly, we need to level up on housing. In my constituency, many people just cannot afford a private rented home or to own their own home, and we need more social housing, but that is not possible without Government subsidy. What is the Treasury considering to make sure that people who desperately need a permanent roof over their head can get it?

We are working very closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to look at specific interventions. We have just released an extra amount of capital money to work alongside the Ukraine support scheme. But I totally recognise that this is a critical issue, and we will make further announcements about it in due course at the next fiscal event.

I fully support my hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mark Eastwood) in his levelling-up bid for the Penistone line, as it goes through my constituency, with stations in Brockholes and Honley. I also have my own levelling-up bid to regenerate a disused mill in Marsden for commercial space. These bids are good not only for connectivity and regeneration, but for the economy, because they create jobs and growth. Does the Minister agree that this allocation of funding therefore makes sense?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend—perhaps unsurprisingly. The Government have developed a bespoke and objective index of priority places. We are very keen for this investment to work effectively, wherever it is. I very much respect the representations he has made this morning for the bid in his own constituency.

An important part of levelling-up communities is to invest in the community transport network. Last week, I visited Shettleston-based Community Transport Glasgow alongside Councillor Laura Doherty. They were telling me that they were having real difficulty attracting volunteers because of HMRC rules around mileage rates. Is that something that the Government are willing to look at? Will the Minister be willing to meet me and Community Transport Glasgow to discuss that issue?

We keep these matters under review, but I am sure my colleague the Financial Secretary, who takes a close interest in these matters, will follow up in the appropriate way.

Public Spending: Value for Money

Value for money is a central priority for the Government and at the heart of every decision we take. The Government take our responsibility for managing the public purse seriously. The Government recently launched the efficiency and savings review, and that will help to keep spending focused on the Government’s priorities and manage pressures from higher inflation. It will include renewing our efforts to drive efficiency, tackle waste and re-prioritise spending away from lower value and lower priority programmes.

I hear what the Minister has just said, but he will be as aware as I am that, in the 2020-21 annual report from the Department of Health and Social Care, the Government wrote off a total of £8.7 billion-worth of the personal protective equipment they had acquired in the first year of the pandemic. When families are facing a choice between heating and eating this Christmas, does the Minister understand the real public anger that people are facing these difficulties at this time, when the Government are having such rampant waste of public money?

I acknowledge that figure in that report, but it refers to the write-down that was necessary following a situation where we acquired a lot of PPE at a time of acute demand and shortage of supply. It was an adjustment for that. Of course, 97% of all PPE was suitable for use in healthcare and non-healthcare settings. While I take the general point that the hon. Lady is making about concern for the most vulnerable in communities, which has been addressed by the £37 billion of support we have put in this year, those are the facts around the figure that she raises.

Figures suggest that at least £3 billion has been spent on agency staff in the civil service over the past three years, plugging the gaps in our public sector at a huge premium to employment agencies. With Public and Commercial Services Union members in the civil service now out on strike for fair pay and terms and conditions, and thousands of contingency staff already drafted in to break the strikes, can the Minister say how much this dispute is costing the taxpayer? Does he agree that it is a false economy not to give these dedicated public servants a decent cost of living pay rise?

Strikes are obviously very regrettable, and we as Ministers work closely with civil servants day in, day out, and we very much value the contribution they make to government. I will be looking carefully with Secretaries of State in the coming weeks at efficiencies across government and how we can get the economy, the country and public finances in the best possible place as we move forward through the pay review round next year.

Are the Government not just paying lip service to the need to get improved productivity in public services? For example, the NHS produced an internal report in April on its efficiency, or lack of productivity. I requested that that report be made available in the Library more than one month ago, and I have not even had a reply to the question. Why are the Government not more open with Members about the need for productivity improvements?

I can be very open with my hon. Friend today. We are absolutely committed to driving forward productivity across the economy and in the public sector. I will look into the specific question he has not had answered. That will involve conversations with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, as well as across the Cabinet.

I just remind everybody that Members’ letters must be answered when they put requests in, please. We now come to the shadow Minister.

I echo the good wishes to you, Mr Speaker, to the Minister and to the whole House for a very happy Christmas.

Last year, the then Prime Minister and the then Chancellor, who is now the Prime Minister, announced a star chamber to crack down on waste and fraud in public expenditure. How often has the star chamber met, and how much of the £6.7 billion estimated to have been lost to covid fraud and error has been recovered?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have instituted a range of interventions, investing in His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs fraud prevention measures to embed those in business as usual. I have been in post for the past eight weeks, and I will be having a series of meetings in January.

The Minister could not tell us whether the star chamber has met at all.

On top of all the examples that have been cited today, the rescue of the energy company Bulb is estimated by the Office for Budget Responsibility to be costing another £6.5 billion, partly as a result of our hedge fund Prime Minister’s failure to hedge against rising energy prices. Why do the Government not show more respect for public money and chase down every penny of these losses before putting up taxes for 30 million people at a time when the public already face the biggest cost of living crisis for generations?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the imperative of chasing down all waste. The Government are providing continued funding for the Bulb Energy special administration regime while the sale of Bulb’s customers to Octopus is pursued by the energy administrator as an exit route from the SAR, but I will look at what the right hon. Gentleman said and reflect carefully on what we can do further.

Inflation: Student Maintenance Loan Increases

8. Whether he has had recent discussions with the Secretary of State for Education on the potential merits of increasing student maintenance loans in line with actual rather than forecast levels of inflation. (902885)

Treasury Ministers meet regularly with Ministers at the Department for Education to discuss matters of shared interest, including student finance. The Government are considering options for changes to loans and grants for 2023-24, and an announcement will follow in due course.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies reports that the real value of maintenance loans is the lowest for seven years. Rents, which account for 45% of bills, are rising; food costs are rising; one in 10 students are using a food bank; and 80% say they cannot make ends meet. Why does the Minister not make his Christmas present a proper increase in the level of maintenance loans? Because it is a loan, he would not even have to pay for it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I have a lot of respect for him and I recognise the issue that he refers to. Of course, many higher education providers have hardship funds that students can apply to, and there is £261 million—a quarter of a billion pounds—of student premium funding available this year to support disadvantaged students. On the specific issue of the uprating, of course there needs to be a delay to operationalise those additional sums. That is at the core of the issue. However, as I said, the Department for Education will report on the matter in due course.

Tax System: Fairness

Merry Christmas to you, Mr Speaker, to all the House staff, to the Members in the Chamber, and to our parliamentary staff, who do such a good job for us all year round—[Interruption.] And to the Doorkeepers—thank you very much.

It is right that everyone contributes to sustainable public finances in a fair way. The autumn statement tax reforms mean that those with the broadest shoulders contribute the most. We are also implementing the OECD pillar two reforms so that multinational corporations pay their fair share of tax, and we are introducing measures to address tax avoidance and evasion to ensure that people pay the right amount at the right time.

Does the Minister think it is fair that landlords and those on high incomes earned through trading stocks and shares pay less tax than those paid a salary?

I do hope that the hon. Gentleman noted the announcements by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor in the autumn statement in relation to dividends and corporation tax allowances. We want to ensure, where we can, that unearned income is roughly comparable to earned income. That is precisely why the principle running through the autumn statement was that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden.

I welcome the Edinburgh reforms, which help to make our financial services sector more competitive. I urge my hon. Friend to adopt the same approach to R&D tax reliefs and capital allowances, so that our world-class entrepreneurs, start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises can benefit from the same advantages.

We all have campaigns to which we devote a great deal of time and for which we build a reputation. My hon. Friend has had a reputation for campaigning on and highlighting the fourth industrial revolution since he was elected in 2015, so I am not surprised that he asked that question. I am delighted to say that we very much support innovation and the critical work of our entrepreneurs, start-ups and SMEs, which is why we are setting the annual investment allowance permanently at £1 million from 1 April, and reviewing the research and development tax reliefs to ensure that, while we are rebalancing the rates of relief out of fairness to the taxpayer, we are also targeting that relief at the knowledge-intensive and innovation-intensive businesses that we all care so much about.

For a bit of Christmas cheer, I agree with the Minister for once as she says that she wants those with the broadest shoulders to pay the most in the tax system. Why, then, did the Chancellor pick the pockets of hard-working people in the autumn statement through stealth taxes, such as freezing tax allowances, rather than tackling non-doms, which could have brought in £3.2 billion to the Exchequer?

I feel a little slighted, because the hon. Gentleman and I agree on an awful lot behind the scenes—I wish him a very merry Christmas. On non-doms, we know that they paid £7.9 billion in UK taxes last year, which is a significant sum of money. The Chancellor has been clear that when we look at those rules, we have to bear in mind that they pay a significant sum of money in their UK taxes that obviously contributes towards the public services that we all care so much about.

The success of our fantastic town deal in Redditch, which is thanks to record-breaking investment from the Government, relies on our amazing SMEs, who tell me that they need to compete against the online giants. What more can the Minister do to ensure that our businesses play a full part in our vision for the future, so that we can continue to unlock Redditch?

My hon. Friend has done so much for her constituency through her campaigns, including by securing the investment that her local hospital needs. In relation to her high streets and small businesses, she is right that we are the Government of small business. That is why, although we had to make some difficult decisions in the autumn statement, we were determined to protect our precious high streets and small businesses, particularly in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors, through the business rates support package, which totalled £13.6 billion.

I echo the consensus about the importance of a merry Christmas. In the last month, I have asked Treasury Ministers three simple questions: whether the Chancellor has considered abolishing non-dom status; whether the Prime Minister was consulted about doing so; and whether, when the current Prime Minister was Chancellor, he recused himself from discussions on the matter. I have asked those questions four separate times, but four times Treasury Ministers have refused to answer or even acknowledge them. Once might be an oversight and twice might be careless, but three times seems deliberate and four times feels like stonewalling. Will the Minister finally show that they have nothing to hide by answering my questions today?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman is entering into the spirit of pantomime season with his questions. We have been clear that non-doms paid £7.9 billion in UK taxes last year—a number that he does not seem able to accept—which is a significant sum of money. Although we keep the scheme under review, as I have said many times—perhaps he is choosing not to hear it—we must recognise their contribution in UK taxes, because that £7.9 billion helps to pay for the services that we all care so much about.

Well, that was the fifth time; I wonder what people will make of that.

We believe that to be trusted and effective, the tax system must be fair, yet while millions of working people and businesses across Britain are paying the highest tax burden in decades, those who use tax havens are playing by different rules. Those who benefit from tax havens are undercutting responsible businesses, undermining our public services and breaking the basic principle that we must all play by the same rules. Will the Minister agree that creating a fair tax system must involve challenging tax havens and those who avoid paying their fair share?

I ought to declare an interest at this point: I used to prosecute tax fraudsters for HMRC before I came to this place. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman and put my money where my mouth is when it comes to tackling those fraudsters.

On the income tax take, the top 10% by way of income paid 36% of all tax in 2020-21. We are proud of the fact that our distributional analysis for the autumn statement shows that decisions made at that fiscal event are progressive: the lowest income households will receive the largest benefit in cash terms and as a percentage of income, and will on average be net beneficiaries of decisions made on tax, welfare and amendments to the energy price guarantee.

Energy Costs: Fiscal Support

11. Whether his Department plans to take further fiscal steps to support (a) households, (b) local authorities, (c) charities and (d) businesses with energy costs. (902889)

Merry Christmas to you and your staff, Mr Speaker; as your fourth Chancellor of the year, I sincerely hope that I am here this time next year to wish you merry Christmas as well.

The Government are very conscious that these are tough times for businesses as well as families. That is why in the autumn statement I announced, among many other measures, a package of business rates support worth £13.6 billion over the next five years, including a 75% relief for retail, hospitality and leisure properties. That will help thousands of businesses in Scotland.

A very merry Christmas to you and yours, Mr Speaker, and a happy new year to boot.

My constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath plays host to energy giants Shell and ExxonMobil; Seagreen and Berwick Bank wind farms, which supply 2.8 million homes in England with energy, are just off our coastline. In such a land of energy plenty, it is perverse that so many people live in poverty and that businesses struggle to survive. Kirkcaldy ice arena is the oldest rink in the United Kingdom and home to the Fife Flyers ice hockey team. It survived world war two, fire, the financial crash and covid, but in energy-rich Scotland it is struggling to pay its unavoidable energy costs. What targeted support is the Chancellor going to make available for energy-dependent companies such as the rink? Will he meet me to discuss how best to tackle the problem?

We have announced a package of support for businesses this winter worth nearly £20 billion; it will help businesses throughout the United Kingdom, including in Scotland. It includes special measures for energy-intensive industries. We will shortly announce plans that will take effect from next April.

Cost of Living: Fiscal Steps

Because of these unprecedented and difficult times, the Government have chosen to make more than £100 billion of additional support available to families this winter and next winter, on top of increasing the national living wage by a record 9.7% and uprating benefits by inflation.

Businesses do not know what Government help, if any, will be available for energy bill support from April next year. They include nursing homes, supported housing schemes and older people’s schemes, which have been able to pass on lower costs to vulnerable residents. Without help, costs will significantly increase for those vulnerable people and affect the long-term viability of care and support services. What are the Government doing to address the issue?

I am very grateful that the hon. Lady asked that question. She is absolutely right; a number of businesses, charities and organisations such as care homes are extremely vulnerable because of the big increase in energy prices. All I would say is that she should look at what the Government have done this winter. With around £18 billion of support, we have demonstrated that we are aware of those concerns. Early in the new year, we will bring forward an appropriate package on what will happen from next April.

Energy Costs: Fiscal Support

17. What recent fiscal steps his Department has taken to support families with the cost of energy bills. (902895)

We have reaffirmed our commitment to help hard-pressed families this winter with support for energy bills. We have introduced a range of measures to help those families, including capping energy bills at £3,000 this year and £2,500 next year.

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition has called for an immediate ban on the installation of prepayment meters made under court warrants, because of fears that energy suppliers are using them to disconnect the poorest and most indebted customers by the back door, and it claims that transferring households to prepayment meters often prompts people in debt to self-disconnect. Citizens Advice said that an extra 450,000 people could be switched to prepayment meters by the end of the year because of debt, and a record number of people could not afford to top-up their prepayment meters—the eighth time that record has been broken in the past nine months. This is a crisis made in Downing Street, and it is having a grave impact on a growing number of the most vulnerable households in my constituency and across the country. What will the Chancellor do to support people in that grave situation?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that issue. There are 4.1 million people across the country on prepayment meters, and the Ofgem energy price cap covers all prepayment meter customers and ensures that they pay a fair price for their energy. Licence conditions require energy suppliers to provide extra support for those customers because, as the hon. Gentleman said, we recognise how vulnerable they are. We will continue to monitor the situation over the months ahead, because we are aware of the extreme vulnerabilities of that group.

A great number of my constituents who live in park home sites such as Willowgrove park in Knott End-on-Sea or Smithy Park in Winmarleigh, as well as boat dwellers on the Galgate marina, are concerned about their energy bills but seem to have been forgotten about by the Government. When is the £400 payment of support likely to be made to people in park homes and on boats, and what support will be available from April onwards?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for asking that question because I have a number of park home residents in my constituency. The answer is that they can apply online for that support from January.

I have heard from many voluntary groups in Warrington South, including organisations, such as the Scouts and Guides, that provide important extra-curricular activities for young people’s development, especially after the impact of the pandemic on their education and wellbeing. What steps are the Government taking to support charity and voluntary organisations, many of which have seen their energy costs increase by five times over the past year?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for standing up for businesses and charities in Warrington, as he always does so ably. As he knows, this winter the energy business relief scheme is providing £18 billion of support for businesses and charities, and early in the new year we will announce how that support will continue after April. I reassure my hon. Friend that we are particularly concerned about the impact on charities, which see their costs go up but without a corresponding ability to increase their income.

I wish you, Mr Speaker, your team and the Treasury team a merry Christmas. Has the Chancellor had a chance to read the Treasury Committee’s report, published last week, about the welcome that we give to the cost of living support that he has announced for next winter? Did he also note our points about the potential cliff edges in that £900 support, and the recommendations we made to spread those payments more evenly over the course of next winter?

I wish my hon. Friend and all members of the Treasury Committee a merry Christmas. I have read a summary of their report, but I have saved the entire document for my Christmas reading, and I am immensely looking forward to that. The most important thing is that we are offering extra support for people who are vulnerable—support that amounts to £13 billion next year—and that comes before the support with people’s energy bills and a lot of other measures. My hon. Friend makes a very important point about cliff edges, which we will reflect on carefully.

Education Sector Funding

At spending review 2021, the Department for Education was allocated a total of £87 billion, providing a cash increase to our education system of about £18 billion by 2024-25. Young people and adults benefited from the biggest long-term settlement for post-16 education in England since 2015. Of course, at the recent autumn statement, an additional cash increase of £2 billion was provided for both 2023-24 and 2024-25.

There have been significant improvements in special educational needs and disabilities provision in Ipswich in the last few years. Just last week, the Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), was at the Sir Bobby Robson School, which has 66 new places. Suffolk has had 1,000 new SEND places since 2019, and all of that is because of the investment that my right hon. Friend just mentioned. However, it is ever so slightly frustrating that Suffolk is still unfairly funded compared with other areas, including not just London but Norfolk, where a SEND pupil will get £99 more per head than those in Suffolk. I want young people with SEND in Norfolk to have every chance, but there is no reason why young and vulnerable people in Suffolk and Ipswich should get any less funding and investment. Will he commit to reviewing the bizarre quirk that means that Suffolk SEND kids get less than kids elsewhere?

My hon. Friend is somewhat of an expert in the subject. I agree that it is critical that we get it right. Decisions on the distribution of high-needs funding are a matter for the Department for Education, but I reassure him that, as a result of the additional funding announced at the autumn statement, Suffolk’s high-needs funding is increasing by 11% per pupil in 2023-24 compared with this year. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Claire Coutinho), who has responsibility for children, families and wellbeing, will be happy to meet my hon. Friend to describe and discuss the different mechanisms of allocation and, indeed, how the high-needs formula works across different local authorities.

A merry Christmas to everybody when it comes. What steps is the Minister taking to review further education funding for people with disabilities? It is very important that people have equal opportunities across the United Kingdom and that our education system has inclusion at its core.

I completely agree with the hon. Lady, and I am working with colleagues in different Departments looking at the challenges to help people back into the workplace. It is particularly difficult when people need support for such a range of needs and conditions. We must treat everyone as an individual and be ever more creative in the solutions that we bring forward. I look forward to working with her and colleagues in Government to try to assist in improving the situation.

Topical Questions

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.