The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
I would like to inform the House that the Chancellor is not with us today because he is at the G7 in Japan.
The refocused investment zones programme will grow the UK economy and bring investment to areas that have traditionally underperformed economically. The programme will catalyse 12 high-potential, knowledge-intensive growth clusters across the UK, including four across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, in our key future sectors.
I warmly welcome the Government’s announcement that the Tees valley will be the location of one of their new investment zones, and this £80 million investment will unlock new opportunities for my region. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is further evidence of levelling up for Darlington and the Tees valley? Can he outline a timescale for when we will see things start to happen?
The Tees Valley investment zone will boost productivity and drive sectoral growth while providing benefits for the local communities that my hon. Friend represents. The Government want to make rapid progress on delivering investment zones. We are engaging with partners to ensure that we can support those with the ambition to move at speed, and we intend to have all proposals agreed by the end of the financial year, and sooner if at all possible.
Business investment and wealth creation will clearly be central if we are to rebalance the economy and close the gap between less successful and more prosperous areas. Would the Minister therefore agree that prioritising investment zones in areas that need a helping hand is the right course of action? And does he envisage an investment zone in the borderlands area in the near future?
My hon. Friend is tireless in his advocacy for his constituents. The areas of England that are eligible to host an investment zone were identified through a rigorous analytical assessment that reviewed every place in England and shortlisted based on their strengths in innovation, productivity, potential and levelling up need, as well as the strength of local leadership, knowledge assets and sectoral strengths.
The borderlands area is already benefiting from the £452 million borderlands growth deal, which was signed just two years ago and aims to create 5,500 jobs. My hon. Friend is also familiar with the recent £134 million investment signed off through the housing infrastructure fund, leading to 10,325 homes in St Cuthbert’s garden village.
The Minister mentioned the four investment zones, including one for Northern Ireland, in his opening answer. Of course I make a plea for my constituency, as everyone will. What discussions has he had with the Department of Finance back home about a potential investment zone in Strangford, to ensure that people in my constituency can have the same opportunities as people across the United Kingdom?
I think the whole House will agree that the hon. Gentleman must be the most effective advocate for his constituents. We will see what happens. There will be a rigorous process, including wide consultation, and we expect to have an outcome that benefits his constituents and people across Northern Ireland.
The incentives offered by investment zones include 100% business rates relief and enhanced capital allowances. With the exception of reduced national insurance contributions, it is hard to see the difference between an investment zone and an enterprise zone. What additional fiscal support are the Government providing to differentiate these investment zones from enterprise zones?
The key distinction is that we have identified areas that have clusters, often relating to a university, and that have potential in a key sector. The investment zones will be worth £80 million over five years, and we are obviously working very closely with partners. It is difficult to be precise about the numbers, because there will be bespoke collaborations depending on which sectors are involved.
I thank the Minister for his answer but, of course, enterprise zones and, indeed, their near cousin, the freeport, also spoke about clusters in the same kind of language. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that investment zones do not suffer from the same problem as enterprise zones and freeports, which was a woeful failure to deliver the number of permanent, good-quality jobs that was initially promised?
That is a legitimate concern to raise and it is why we have followed the analytical approach to which I referred. We will be working closely with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to look at each proposal by the end of the year. We will be having that certainty on the tax incentives over those five years and making local authorities an accountable body for the delivery of this. The right hon. Gentleman’s whole political doctrine is about the distinctions that exist in different communities around the United Kingdom, and that is why we have a variety of interventions designed to make an effective impact in different places across the UK.
School Meals: Impact of Inflation
The Chancellor has regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues on a range of issues. The autumn statement 2022 provided an additional £2.3 billion in funding for schools this year and next, over and above the totals announced at the spending review in 2021. That means that school funding next year will be £58.8 billion, exceeding 2010 levels of per pupil funding in real terms. That will help schools to manage costs, including those of school meals.
Since Liberal Democrats in government rolled out universal infant free school meals in 2014, funding for them has increased by just 11p. Given the soaring food costs, that is resulting in a real shortfall in meeting schools’ costs, which is having to be subsidised by cutting teaching budgets. The shortfalls range from 11p per meal in my local authority area of Richmond upon Thames to as much as 39p per meal in Hampshire. Will the Treasury provide the extra cash so that free school meal funding reflects the true costs that schools face or will the Minister continue to leave our schools and children short-changed?
I do not agree with that analysis. The free school meals funding for 2023-24 was set in line with precedent every year, using inflation forecasts in the autumn prior. About 1.9 million pupils are claiming a free school meal at lunchtime, which equates to 22.5% of pupils in state-funded schools; together with the 1.25 million infants supported through the universal infant free school meal policy, this is having an impact. However, I recognise the pressures across the whole economy, which is why, as I said, the Government gave those additional funds in the autumn statement last year.
Financial Services Sector: Regulatory Framework
The Edinburgh reforms take forward the Government’s ambition to maintain the UK’s position as a world-leading global financial centre, while ensuring that our financial sector remains robust in the face of market shocks. In particular, they introduce a new secondary duty of facilitating growth and international competitiveness, which is a first for UK regulators.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Clearly, the culture and performance of regulators is one key consideration for firms when they choose to invest in the UK. What steps is he going to take to introduce key performance indicators for financial regulators to report on their delivery against the new growth and competitiveness objective in the Financial Services and Markets Bill? Is he considering adding any measures to the Bill that would strengthen the independent scrutiny of regulators?
My hon. Friend does great service as chair of the all-party group on personal banking and fairer financial services, so he knows of what he speaks. Today, the Government published a call for proposals on the metrics that regulators should publish to support scrutiny of their work; as every business leader knows, what gets measured gets managed. That responds to the significant interest shown by industry and Parliament in ensuring that appropriate and transparent public measures are in place to support scrutiny of the regulators’ performance. The Government are clear that with great power must come greater accountability.
One measure that would improve the regulatory framework for mutuals in the financial services sector, such as Royal London or Liverpool Victoria, would be the introduction of permanent mutual shares. Given that such a reform would allow a new safe route to access the capital that such financial mutuals need to expand—and without having to demutualise—will the Minister explain why the Treasury is still dragging its feet on the introduction of such a significant reform?
The hon. Gentleman and I have talked a number of times about this. I do not think it is fair to say that the Treasury is dragging its feet. We have supported reform of the mutuals sector. We welcome a diversity of provision, which involves a greater expansion of and more commercial freedom for the mutuals sector. With the Law Commission, we are looking to take its work forward to see whether we can help, and I am always happy to sit down with him, or with any representatives from the sector, as part of my widespread programme of engagement.
Energy Costs: Support for Businesses
The energy bills discount scheme will provide all eligible businesses and other non-domestic energy users with a discount on high energy bills for 12 months from 1 April 2023 to 31 March 2024. It will also provide businesses in sectors with particularly high levels of energy use and trade intensity with a high level of support. The scheme will help those locked into contracts signed before recent significant falls in the wholesale price manage their costs and provide others with reassurance against the risk of prices rising again.
Speaking to businesses in my constituency of Edinburgh West over the past week, I have been hearing that they are not finding the help that they need. The combination of the cost of living crisis, energy costs and business rates is pushing them towards a crisis. The Federation of Small Businesses estimates that 93,000 small businesses could go out of business this year because of high energy costs. Do the Government accept that more will have to be done, particularly to help small companies renegotiate tariffs, and will they tell me what they intend to do about that?
The hon. Lady raises an incredibly important point, and this Government are very alive to the issues that businesses face across the country. She will be aware that, last year, the energy bill relief scheme was unprecedented in its nature and scale, and that the Government were always clear that that would be time limited and intended as a bridge for businesses as wholesale gas prices come down. Those prices have now come down quite significantly, but we do have the energy bills discount scheme, which strikes the right balance between supporting businesses for another year, but also limiting the taxpayers’ exposure to volatile energy prices.
The Treasury was quick to act during the pandemic when hoteliers in Aberconwy told me that banks were directing them to their premium lending products instead of the Government’s coronavirus business interruption loan scheme. Now those same hoteliers are telling me that the energy supply market seems to have failed. They are seeing their bills tripling just as market rates drop below Government support levels. They fear that the supplier’s thumb is on their side of the scales. None of this will be new to the Minister, so can he please tell me what he is doing and can he meet me and sector representatives to make sure that some common sense is brought back to energy supply contracts?
My hon. Friend is a great champion of businesses in his constituency. In the first instance, I advise businesses always to contact suppliers to discuss their contracts. We are alive to the fact that some businesses are having difficulties securing the benefit of falling wholesale prices from their energy suppliers. In January, the Chancellor wrote to Ofgem, which oversees the energy market for consumers, and Ofgem has now launched an investigation into the non-domestic energy market. We await its conclusions, and, at that point, I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend.
The Government’s three economic priorities this year are to halve inflation, grow the economy, and get debt falling. This will require patience and discipline. Countries around the world are facing rising prices and we will not be able to make that go away overnight, but by sticking to our plan, we will halve inflation this year and help to ease the pressures that people are facing.
Food price inflation is increasing far faster than the overall average increase in prices. This is affecting the poorest the hardest in Kettering and across the country. Is there any good news at all from His Majesty’s Treasury about the prospects for food price inflation over the next 12 months?
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for his constituents. The Office for Budget Responsibility this year does expect food, tobacco and alcohol inflation to fall significantly, and that is not all. The Government recognise the challenges facing households due to the elevated cost of living in general, including food, so we took action at the spring statement to support struggling families. Taken together with previous action, support to households to help with bills is worth an average of £3,300 a year across this year and next.
The Government are absolutely right to prioritise reducing inflation given the significant impact it is having on families and businesses across the country. I welcome the support that the Minister has just outlined for families in my constituency of Old Bexley and Sidcup. Can he confirm what assessment has been made by the Treasury of the impact of more than a decade of abnormal monetary policy following the global financial crisis?
As my hon. Friend knows, monetary policy is the responsibility of the independent Monetary Policy Committee and the Bank of England. We will continue to work closely with them to ensure that monetary and fiscal policy are well co-ordinated. The Chancellor reconfirmed the inflation target of 2% at the autumn statement and confirmed that this Government will not change the target.
While inflation is now heading in the right direction, the effect of the price rises is still being felt by Fylde’s older people. What steps is my hon. Friend taking and what conversations has he had with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that Fylde’s retired residents are well protected?
I and my colleagues work closely with colleagues in the DWP, as my hon. Friend knows, on behalf of pensioners in Fylde. More than 8 million pensioner households will receive a cost of living payment of £300 this winter, but more than 12 million pensioners have benefited from a 10.1% increase to their state pension. That is the biggest percentage rise in the state pension for more than 30 years and its biggest-ever cash increase.
As the Minister rightly said, monetary policy is made independently by the Monetary Policy Committee in this country. However, the Government are responsible for economic stability, and for that we need investment. What policies of the past couple of years does the Minister believe have got us into this position with inflation, and how are the Government going to make sure that we have better economic stability, given their recent record?
The hon. Lady omits to mention both the headwinds from the global pandemic and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Any financially literate conversation on this subject has to acknowledge that we see very similar rates of increase in inflation and rising interest rates across the developed world. In that context, this Government are focusing on stability, ensuring that we continue to pay down debt over the cycle and do not do as the previous Labour Government did and leave a note behind for their successors saying that there is no money left.
Food price inflation stood at 19.2% in March, up from February. That is causing severe problems for many in my constituency, particularly those who have no recourse to public funds status, meaning that they are not entitled to any support from the Government whatsoever. What will the Minister do to help those people, who are struggling and heading for the food banks because they cannot afford to make ends meet?
In the interest of time, I will not repeat for the hon. Lady the support for households, which averages £3,500 across the United Kingdom. If she has constituents with particular needs, the Government have recently extended the £1 billion household support fund and I suggests she works with her local authority to try to meet their needs through that.
Inflation is hitting not just individuals and families, but councils and potentially infrastructure projects. Lodge Hill junction on the A34 in Abingdon is one such key piece of local infrastructure, and when completed, will support jobs and housing across Oxfordshire and Science Vale and the economy as a whole. Homes England and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities say that the final piece of that funding now sits with the Treasury in the brownfield, infrastructure and land fund. Will the Minister meet me so that I can explain why this is such an important piece of funding to be released, and please can the Government supply the last piece of this puzzle so that we can deliver Lodge Hill junction once and—
Hair and Beauty Sector: Disguised Employment Practices
As the Minister responsible for His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, may I wish His Majesty the King and Her Majesty the Queen a very long and successful reign and say that its 63,000 members of staff will be proud to try to help His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, as they are bound to do? The Government are aware of concerns about employment practices in the hair and beauty sector. The concerns are largely focused on the so-called rented chair model, which is a long-standing practice and a legitimate alternative to employing stylists, provided that the parties involved follow the relevant rules. The Government are committed to tackling disguised employment and HMRC will consider any evidence suggesting that businesses have misclassified individuals for tax purposes.
It is estimated that 70% of the hairdressing industry is currently operating under a self-employed model to avoid pay-as-you-earn, national insurance and VAT. According to His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs guidelines, those salons often amount to disguised employment. The problem is that all apprentices—and 90% of hairdressers learn through apprenticeships—must be trained in salons that pay their tax, an increasingly unattractive model. Will the Minister consider how we can taper VAT rates or enforce disguised employment rules more stringently to ensure that we have appropriately trained hairdressers in future?
I am sure that I am joined by all Members of the House in thanking my hon. Friend for her interest in ensuring that we have hairdressers in 15 years’ time. We recognise the important role that hairdressing salons play in the education and training of apprenticeships. Indeed, funding for employer-led apprenticeships will grow to £2.7 billion in 2024-25, which will help to pay for the cost of training and assessment. However, she is quite right to pinpoint the need for those participating in the hairdressing industry to ensure that they are following the rules correctly. It is not their choice; there are very strict criteria, and they must make sure that they follow them. I very much look forward to discussing this in further detail with my hon. Friend later this week or next week.
The hair and beauty industry is characterised by a high percentage of female entrepreneurs and young people. However, that workforce continues to be at risk of disguised employment. What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that self-employed individuals are aware of their tax expectations so that women and young people can continue to thrive in that sector?
Is it not wonderful that we have so many women setting up their own businesses and taking that step into entrepreneurship? [Interruption.] Oh, there is chuntering from those on the Labour Benches; they seem to disagree. The hon. Lady is right that we should ensure that we help entrepreneurs, whether male or female, to understand the rules when it comes to tax. That is why we provide guidance and support for customers to help them understand employment status, and we have agreed guidelines specifically with the National Federation of Hairdressers to help it communicate with its industry about which rules apply to which hairdressers.
People on Lower Incomes: Financial Support
The Government are taking action to protect struggling families by providing support, worth £3,300 per household on average over this year and last, to help with higher bills. That includes targeted support for the most vulnerable in our society through additional cost of living payments and the uprating of benefits by 10.1% this year. The Government have also increased the national living wage by 9.7%, representing an increase of more than £1,600 in the annual earnings of a full-time worker on the national living wage.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best support in the cost of living crisis, beyond the £94 billion that the Government have already spent, is the cutting of inflation to ease pressures—especially on food, fuel and energy—for families in Rother Valley and up and down the country?
I absolutely agree. The Government are doing three things to reduce inflation: we are remaining steadfast in supporting the independent Monetary Policy Committee at the Bank of England as it continues to take action to return inflation to target; we are making responsible decisions on tax and spending, so that we are not adding fuel to the fire; and we are tackling high energy prices by holding down energy bills for households and businesses, alongside investing in long-term energy security.
Lowest-income households in my constituency are the biggest beneficiaries of a strong economy. Does my right hon. Friend agree that reducing debt, reducing inflation and balancing the books are the most effective Government interventions to support low-income households?
Absolutely. It is right that we continue support for the cost of living challenges. I have mentioned the energy price guarantee; we are also sticking to that plan to avoid unnecessary inflationary pressure. [Interruption.] On average this year, as a result of Government decisions made from—[Interruption.]
As a result of Government decisions made from autumn statement 2022 onwards, households in the bottom half of the income distribution will see, in cash terms, twice as much benefit from Government support as households in the top half of the income distribution.
I listened with interest to the answer that the Minister gave about support for households, but it does not match the reality in Rotherham, where constituents have had increases in rent, mortgages, fuel and food, as well as cuts to public services. What is he going to do to deliver the support that we need to make ends meet, because the offers on the table are not cutting it?
Everyone can see that the Government have made a range of interventions over the past two years, which means support for all of those on means-tested benefits—8 million people. Eight million pensioner households will benefit from the non-discretionary payments, effectively. The household support fund, which we repeated, provides another £1 billion to give local authorities discretion in individual circumstances to offer supplementary support. Of course, I recognise that this is an incredibly challenging time for the most vulnerable, but we have tried to target those interventions on them, listening to the Low Pay Commission and increasing the national living wage to £10.42. We recognise that these are difficult times, but we will get through them.
Tax System: Fairness
It is right that everyone contributes to sustainable public finances, and the Government are ensuring that those with the broadest shoulders pay their fair share. The spring Budget took steps to tackle avoidance and to improve the ability of His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to collect tax debts. That is alongside taking millions out of tax altogether by consistently raising personal tax allowances. An average of more than £3,300 of assistance per household in the UK has been provided for help with the cost of living over this year and last.
Last week, energy companies announced record profits—some £60 million a day from North sea oil and gas. Today, the Daily Mirror reports that last month 2 million people were unable to pay a bill, so why on earth do the Government not close those huge, huge holes in the levy on North sea oil and gas profits, and get that money to the people who need it?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is being quite fair, as he neglects to tell the House the rate of levy for those companies. He will understand why we have said to businesses that want to invest to improve energy security in the United Kingdom that we will support such investment. That is in our interests, as we have heard today concerns raised by Members of Parliament on behalf of their constituents about the cost of living and the impact particularly of energy prices.
The Government recently announced a huge tax giveaway to the very wealthiest, allowing them to stash vast sums in their pensions tax-free. The £1 billion annual cost of that handout would cover the cost of free school meals. Food banks gave out a million food parcels for children last year, so why do the Government think that this tax cut for the super-rich is a priority?
I gently remind the hon. Gentleman of the conversation that happened at the Budget—I hope he recalls it—about the need to get doctors, consultants and those in the public sector back into the NHS. We heard from doctors themselves—the British Medical Association and others—that there were barriers in the pension tax rules which stopped them continuing to serve. I am delighted if those rules help more doctors to serve our NHS and help our constituents who are patients—helping doctors to continue to serve in that vital public service. The difference between Conservatives in government and Opposition Members is that we listen to people, and we deliver what we need to keep the economy going and help our NHS.
One of the best ways to ensure fairness in the tax system is to let people keep more of their hard-earned money. Last summer, the Prime Minister outlined a plan that would cut the basic rate of income tax to 15p in the pound by the end of the decade. Can the Minister let me know when that plan will be outlined in more detail?
I hope my hon. Friend has been listening to what the Chancellor said at spring Budget and in speeches since then about the need for fiscal responsibility. We have to be fiscally responsible; we have acknowledged that. We have had to make some very difficult decisions along the way, but we are clear that halving inflation, tackling our debt and growing the economy will enable us to make the sorts of tax cuts that he and I both want to see so much.
Tens of thousands of people have been affected by the loan charge, with some having faced well-documented distress and harm as a result of HMRC’s approach. At the same time, HMRC has been issuing fewer than two fines a year against the architects and enablers of failed tax avoidance schemes. It is absolutely right that disguised remuneration schemes are tackled fairly and effectively, so how on earth can the Conservative Government justify such a light-touch approach for the promoters of such schemes, while many of those caught up in them face such a nightmare?
I draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to the strengthening of HMRC’s powers to tackle promoters of tax avoidance in the Finance Acts of 2021 and 2022, with a further tough new package of measures to ensure that promoters face stronger sanctions much more quickly. These measures will raise £130 million over the next five years and are already being used. We have already published the details of promoters and tax avoidance schemes in order to help consumers, and we have also published HMRC stop notices, because we want to help taxpayers who want to do the right thing to understand which promoters should be avoided.
Inflation and Economic Growth Forecasts: G7 Countries
Compared with the G7, the UK had the highest rate of growth in each of the past two years. The International Monetary Fund UK growth forecast for 2023 has been upgraded by more than that for any other G7 country, and the IMF has said that the UK is “on the right track” for economic growth.
The Minister paints a pretty picture. The British people want hope for the future, but all they see is Britain continually lagging behind on the global stage and prospects for their families getting worse. The IMF says that Britain will have a smaller economy by the end of the year and the poorest growth of the G7 over this year and next. In March, UK inflation was the highest in western Europe, and projections show that it will be the highest in the G7 this year, while food prices are rising 50% faster than in the G7. Whose fault is it?
It is certainly the hon. Gentleman’s fault if, having asked that we assess performance across the G7 and we do precisely that, he does not like the answer. The reality is that across the G7, growth has fallen and inflation has risen, but we know the sources of that—it is not this Government; it is the fault of Putin and the global covid pandemic, whether the Opposition like it or not.
My hon. Friend is right to ignore the gloom and negativity coming from the Opposition Benches. They will always find a reason to talk down the British economy. Is it not the case that today, with more people in our country going out to work than ever before, our economy is demonstrating a dynamism and resilience that few other economies around the world can emulate and a dynamism that we do not get with a Labour Government?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Resilience is a strong word, and thanks to the actions that this Government have taken over the past six months, the Office for Budget Responsibility has confirmed that the UK is now expected to avoid a recession this year.
Withdrawal from the EU: Economic Impact
The UK has grown faster than France and at a similar rate to Germany since leaving the single market. It remains challenging to separate the effects of Brexit and wider global trends on the UK economy, such as the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, adding pressures to trade, prices and the wider economy. We continue to support businesses trading with the EU and help them to seize new opportunities with fast-growing economies around the world, including through our free trade agreement negotiations.
Happy Europe Day, Mr Speaker. In recent months, we have seen tech companies attack Brexit. The world-leading chip company Arm opted to float stock only in the US because of how bad a place the UK is to do business, so we have culture, tourism, the NHS and now tech all suffering because of Brexit. How grateful does the Minister feel that the Leader of the Opposition has dropped his and his party’s principles and are supporting this costly Brexit?
Crikey, I am going to leave it to the Leader of the Opposition to flip-flop his way through that particular policy. What I can tell the hon. Lady is that we are the best place in Europe to invest in tech. We are only the third economy in the world with a $1 trillion tech sector; we are ranked as the world’s fourth most innovative economy; and we have created more unicorns than France and Germany combined.
Unicorns and fantasies are largely what we hear from Members on the Government Benches these days. The reality is that the Music Venue Trust reckons that grassroots venues are closing at a rate of one per week, bands from Europe find it increasingly difficult to travel here, and our hospitality sector more generally is experiencing catastrophic staff shortages. Is Lord Heseltine not right when he says that Brexit has been
“a classic mistake, a terrible”
horrible miscalculation, and the
“elephant in the room of our present economic difficulties”?
I am interested that the hon. Gentleman dismisses these incredibly successful unicorn start-ups in the UK economy. I hope that he will not dismiss their continuing success as we continue to support them through the various tax reliefs we are offering them and investment, including our most recent research and development tax reliefs. I would also point out to him that of course Scotland will benefit from some 73 trade deals secured with non-EU countries—benefits that include control of our fishing waters, something that I know is a matter of great concern to Scottish residents.
I am never quite clear why, if we do not like trade barriers, the answer is to erect even more of them. The Government said that through the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill, they would get rid of 4,000 laws built up during our time in the EU. The Prime Minister even got his shredder out to show us what this would look like, and the Government said there would be a sunset clause to make sure all this happened by the end of the year. Voices from both business and the trade unions have said that this could cause even more chaos and uncertainty and undermine workers’ rights, in breach of the promises made by Ministers at the time of the referendum. Can the Minister confirm whether, after marching their troops up to the top of the hill and getting the Back Benchers very excited, the Government are keeping the sunset clause to have all this done by the end of the year?
I do not know whether I can speak on behalf of the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, who is the portfolio holder for that piece of legislation. What I do know is that the Bill is currently before the House of Lords, and will no doubt be scrutinised very carefully by their lordships. I can also reassure the House that we are taking a careful and considered approach to the benefits—the regulations, the laws—that Brexit presents to us, and we know from our discussions with businesses that business certainty is something that we all want to strive for and achieve. I am sure that once this Bill has been scrutinised by the House of Lords—[Interruption.]
I think business certainty might be improved by an answer to the question.
Inflation is at 10%, the highest in the G7, and food inflation is at 19%. The former Prime Minister—the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), to avoid confusion, because there are a few former Prime Ministers—promised us that
“there will be no non-tariff barriers to trade”,
but we already know that many small businesses are giving up exporting to the EU altogether because of costs and delays. With inflation already at those levels, the Government have picked this moment to impose a new system for checks on EU goods that is estimated to add £400 million a year to the cost of goods coming into the UK. Can the Minister tell us why the Government are picking this of all moments to add these new costs and price rises to UK consumers who are already struggling to make ends meet because of the biggest cost of living crisis in decades?
Just to clarify, I was being respectful of not just this House, but the right of the other House to scrutinise legislation. I hope the right hon. Member would agree with that, as the fine parliamentarian that I know he is. On business certainty, through this legislation, and also importantly through the measures we are setting out through the Windsor framework and the arrangements at borders, we are seeking to give businesses exactly the certainty they need after Brexit. We all accept that leaving the European Union and the single market was a generational change—a seismic change in how we wish to do business—but unlike the Opposition, we believe in Brexit and the opportunities it can provide our businesses, and that is why we are taking these measures through carefully and considerately with businesses.
Public Spending: Value for Money
As the Minister for public spending, I oversee the Government’s budgeting system, and a key element of that is incentivising Departments to manage spending effectively so that value for taxpayers’ money is maximised. That is why the Government launched an efficiency and savings review at the autumn statement 2022. Through the review, Departments re-prioritised and identified further efficiencies, building on the 5% efficiency challenge set out in the spending review 2021, to better deliver value for money for the taxpayer.
The then Chancellor, now Prime Minister, spent £1.3 million of public money on focus groups, which included asking what the public thought of him. Following the public’s resounding rejection of the Tories in last week’s elections, we now know what the public think of him. Will the Government stop wasting taxpayers’ money to boost the Prime Minister’s ego, do the right thing and call a general election?
Some £7.9 billion was wasted on useless and overpriced personal protective equipment; meanwhile, opportunists who saw the Tories coming are now profiteering on the back of the public purse. Does the Minister regret that this money was not spent wisely? Nearly £8 billion could buy us 20 new hospitals.
Our priority was clear throughout the covid crisis, and that was to get PPE to the frontline as quickly as possible. Due diligence was carried out on all companies that were referred to the Department. Despite all those steps being taken, some instances of fraud did occur with unscrupulous suppliers taking advantage of the situation. This Government take that fraud seriously, and the Department of Health and Social Care is exploring every available option to bring those who commit fraud to account. We have also made a number of other interventions, including investment in the taxpayer protection taskforce to normalise higher compliance activity in HMRC, alongside other measures to deal with fraud elsewhere in some of the emergency schemes that we set up to help this economy and this country get through covid.
Last week, the Public Accounts Committee revealed that our country lost £9 billion-worth of tax revenue during the pandemic because HMRC redeployed 4,000 staff members whose jobs were to chase down tax avoiders. The Prime Minister was Chancellor at the time and presumably signed off that decision. Can the Minister tell me whether the Prime Minister did that as a deliberate act to give the green light to tax avoiders, or is it just another example of Tory incompetence?
I think that is a ridiculous suggestion, to be honest. HMRC received £863 million to modernise the tax system, and that included £136 million invested over the spending period to deliver improvements in terms of a single customer record and account. On what happened over covid, I have already set out the investment we made, including the £100 million in the taxpayer protection taskforce. We take fraud very seriously. Now it is about HMRC looking at financial records of excessive trading to come to terms with those businesses that used some of those schemes fraudulently. We will continue to work on that.
Three of the Prime Minister’s five priorities are economic priorities: to halve inflation this year, to grow the economy and to reduce debt. We are on track to halve inflation this year to ease the cost of living. We have taken the difficult, but responsible decision needed to get net debt falling and secure the future of public services, and we have a clear plan to grow the economy to create better paid jobs and opportunity right across the country.
The consumer voice organisation Which? has recently found that 2 million UK households missed a key payment for their mortgage, rent, loan or credit card. Last month alone, 700,000 of these related to housing, so when will the Tory Government wake up to the fact that the cost of living crisis is far from over and what do they intend to do about it?
In previous answers, I have set out a number of the interventions the Government have taken to help the most vulnerable. I have mentioned the household support fund, the benefits that accrue to all those who are on means-tested benefits, particularly pensioner households, and those who are eligible for disability benefit. As I have also said, the money that the Government have made available is designed to focus on those who are most in need, and we will continue to look out for the most vulnerable through this difficult time.
I could not agree more. Responsible public spending is at the core of getting our economy into a state where it can grow, and the £90 billion of unfunded spending pledges made by Opposition Members will be scrutinised very carefully, I am sure, by many in the months ahead.
The Conservatives have now had 13 years in office—wages lower, the weekly food shop astronomical, energy bills unprecedented, 24 Tory tax rises and the national debt has ballooned —so can I ask: after 13 years of Conservative Government, does the Minister think that people feel better off, or worse off?
What I can tell the right hon. Lady is that, since 2010, there has been a 25% increase in real take-home pay for workers on the national living wage and, recently, the national living wage increased to £10.42 an hour—a 9.7% increase—for those over the age of 23. In 2009-10, there was a deficit of £158 billion. Before we got into covid, it was down to £38 billion. We have gone through the most tremendous challenges that this country has seen for about 100 years. I think most people in this country understand that this Government have acted on the challenges we have faced in office.
The Government have had 13 years, and the answer to the question “Do people feel better off?” is a resounding no. This morning, I met 22 newly elected council leaders from the Labour party, who are creating emergency plans to help to tackle the cost of living crisis in their communities. Why will the Conservative Government not play their part, do the right thing, close the loopholes in their oil and gas tax and help working people in Britain, as a Labour Government would do?
I congratulate those successful across the country in last week’s elections, but what business leaders want and what the country wants is steady policy making, delivering growth in the economy, dealing with the biggest scourge on the economy, which is inflation—[Interruption.] The right hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that we have had 13 years. We spent £400 billion when we had a global pandemic, where we had to shut down the economy. When we came out of it, we had high inflation consequential on a war that we have not had in Europe for over 70 years. Those are the realities and that is what this Government have responded to.
I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend. I congratulate him on his leadership of his council candidates last week and the excellent result that he secured. Of course, we have invested in many coastal communities across the country, and we are keen to discuss the specifics of how the Government can support him as he drives that local constituency and economy forward.
No, I do not recognise that characterisation. What I recognise is that the Government are determined to see the economy grow. I see investment in investment zones focused in the hon. Lady’s region, working with the excellent universities that she is familiar with. I see a Government who are putting £100 million into the foundation model taskforce, £900 million to invest in a supercomputer to fund AI, a quantum strategy that is generally seen as world leading, as well as £160 million of investment in the tech sector. So this is a Government who are committed to the growth industries of the future.
Delivery of new hospital infrastructure and prioritisation within health budgets is a matter for the Department of Health and Social Care, but I know from frequent conversations with the Secretary of State that he is working tirelessly to ensure as many new hospitals as possible, and that wider improvements to the health estate can occur. I shall make representations to him after these questions.
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury knows that the long hidden business case for East West Rail represents a bad deal for taxpayers, and that MPs from across Parliament have written about greener, better alternatives for growth in the Ox-Cam arc. He will know that on Thursday the Conservatives won the mayoralty in Bedford for the first time because the Conservative candidate, Tom Wootton, called for a review of Bedford Council’s working and its support for East West Rail. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss that further urgently?
We are clearly falling pretty short of where we need to be if we are to tackle net zero. Recent research by E3G and the World Wide Fund for Nature into clean investment showed that the gap is currently between £81 billion and £111 billion between now and 2030. That is equivalent to a quarter of the investment required in that crucial economic sector and every other sector of the economy. Public investment clearly needs to be a key driver in reaching net zero, so I wonder whether Ministers would consider increasing the capacity of the UK Infrastructure Bank on that.
The Government are leading the way with the recently published green finance strategy, but that stands as part of a broader piece of work, unleashing productive finance into all parts of the economy and in particular funding the transition, which is capital intensive.
I thank the Chancellor for two weeks ago meeting Leicestershire MPs and the senior leadership of the county council to discuss funding there. Of particular concern is the core funding of special educational needs and disabilities, social care and transport such as buses. What more can the Minister do to address the problems with county council funding that we have in Leicestershire?
I know my right hon. Friend the Chancellor welcomed that meeting on 25 April. The Government remain committed to improving the local government finance landscape, and in doing so they will work closely with local partners, including Leicestershire, and take stock of the challenges and opportunities across the sector. I thank my hon. Friend for his deep thinking into how improvements can be made.
I hope the hon. Gentleman knows that we are spending record amounts on the NHS. We are also mindful that non-doms pay some £7.9 billion in UK taxes on their UK earnings and have invested some £6 billion since 2012. So we are mindful of the very real impact that they make on our revenues, but we have managed to tighten the rules around non-dom status, and that is why—
Day one on the job and Labour in Stoke-on-Trent talk about cancelling the £56 million of levelling-up funding, which is UK-leading, going to the great city of Stoke-on-Trent. Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury confirm that the Conservative Government will have the backs of the people of Stoke-on-Trent and deliver this important levelling up?
We are very committed to the people of Stoke-on-Trent and recognise that enormous investment, thanks to my hon. Friend’s work in campaigning for investment through the levelling-up fund. It is down to the council to deliver on that significant investment and make a difference on the ground.
The transition to net zero should be the overarching priority for all of us. With that in mind, when will the Treasury finally get its act together with the Acorn project in the north-east of Scotland and accelerate its funding to ensure that the people of the north-east of Scotland do not just have to listen to warm words about the just transition, but can get a job in the just transition?
The Financial Times is reporting today that there have been meetings between the Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care about compensation for victims following the infected blood inquiry. Will the Minister confirm that those meetings have taken place and who was present, and offer reassurance to those who were infected and affected that compensation will be implemented in full, as Sir Brian Langstaff has recommended?
This morning, before I left my constituency, I attended a rally organised by “Hands off Howden Park” and “Save our Pools”, which are two incredible campaigns in my constituency trying to protect our arts venues and pools from closing. Unfortunately, they have been mismanaged by the Labour and Conservative administration, and those results are the reality to be faced after a decade and a half of austerity has decimated public funding. When will the Government stop wasting money on things like Brexit and nuclear weapons and properly fund our pools and arts venues?
We do not typically make specific decisions on local authorities from Whitehall, but we have committed to significant additional funds for local authorities and funding for the Scottish Government through the Barnett formula. I will leave the hon. Member to continue to lobby and campaign with her constituents to get those decisions made on the ground.