Let me start by placing squarely before the House of Commons and the British public the economic situation facing our country. Much of Europe now appears to be heading into a recession caused by a chronic lack of confidence in the ability of countries to deal with their debt. We will do whatever it takes to protect Britain from this debt storm while doing all we can—[Interruption.]—all we can to build the foundations of future growth.
Today we set out how we will do that by demonstrating that the country has the will to live within its means and keep interest rates low; by acting to stimulate the supply of money and credit to ensure that those low interest rates are passed on to families and businesses; by matching our determination on the deficit with an active enterprise policy for business and lasting investment in our infrastructure and education so that Britain can pay its way in the future; and at every opportunity by helping families with the cost of living.
The central forecast that we publish today from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility does not predict a recession here in Britain, but it has unsurprisingly revised down its short-term growth prospects for our country, for Europe and for the world. It expects gross domestic product in Britain to grow this year by 0.9% and by 0.7% next year. It then forecasts 2.1% growth in 2013; 2.7% in 2014; followed by 3% in 2015 and 3% again in 2016.
The OBR is clear that this central forecast assumes that
“the euro area finds a way through the current crisis and that policymakers eventually find a solution that delivers sovereign debt sustainability”.
If they do not, the OBR warns that there could be a “much worse outcome” for Britain. I believe that it is right. We hope that this can be averted, but if the rest of Europe heads into recession, it may prove hard to avoid one here in the UK.
We are now undertaking extensive contingency planning to deal with all potential outcomes of the euro crisis. Like the Bank of England and the OECD yesterday, the OBR cites the chilling effect of the current instability as one of the central reasons for the reduction in its growth forecast. I want to thank Robert Chote and his fellow committee members, Stephen Nickell and Graham Parker, and their team for the rigorous work that they have done. Their forecast today demonstrates beyond any doubt their independence, but—[ Interruption. ] This is an important point for the House. If we accept their numbers, we must also pay heed to their analysis. In addition to the eurozone crisis, the OBR gives two further reasons for the weaker forecasts. The first is what it calls the “external inflation shock”—the result, in its words, of
“unexpected rises in energy prices and global agricultural commodity prices”.
The OBR’s analysis—independent—is that this explains the slow-down in growth in Britain over the past 18 months. Secondly, the independent OBR—[ Interruption. ]
Order. The statement by the Chancellor must be heard, and he should not have to fight to be heard.
Secondly, the OBR today has shown new evidence that an even bigger component of the growth that preceded the financial crisis was an unsustainable boom, and that the bust was deeper and had an even greater impact on our economy than previously thought. The result of that analysis is that the OBR has significantly reduced its assumptions about spare capacity in our economy and the trend rate of growth. That increases the OBR’s estimate of the proportion of the deficit that is structural—in other words, the part of the deficit that does not disappear even when the economy recovers. Our debt challenge is therefore even greater than we thought, because the boom was even bigger and the bust even deeper, and the effects will last even longer. Britain has had the highest structural budget deficit of any major economy in the world and the highest deficit in the entire history of our country outside war—and the last Government left it to this Government to sort that mess out.
The OBR’s analysis feeds directly through to borrowing numbers that are falling, but not at the rate that had been forecast. In 2009-10, the last Government were borrowing £156 billion a year. During the first year of this Government, that fell to £137 billion. This year the OBR expects it to fall again, to £127 billion, then to £120 billion next year, followed by £100 billion in 2013-14, £79 billion in 2014-15, then £53 billion in 2015-16 and £24 billion a year by 2016-17. However, I can report that because of the lower market interest rates that we have secured for Britain, debt interest payments over the Parliament are forecast to be £22 billion less than predicted.
The House might also like to know, given the economic events described by the Office for Budget Responsibility, what would have happened to borrowing without the action that this Government have taken. The Treasury today estimates that borrowing by 2014-15 would have been running at well over—[ Interruption. ]
Order. I am sorry, I know that the Chancellor is proceeding, but his statement must be heard. There are strong passions on this subject. There will be plenty of time for people to come in on the back of the statement, but the statement must be heard with a degree of courtesy.
The Treasury today estimates that borrowing by 2014-15 would have been running at well over £100 billion a year more and that Britain would have borrowed an additional £100 billion in total over the period. If we had pursued that path, we would now be in the centre of the sovereign debt storm.
The crisis we see unfolding in Europe has not undermined the case for the difficult decisions we have taken; it has made that case stronger. We held our deficit-reduction Budget on our terms last year, not on the market’s terms this year, as so many others have been forced to. In that Budget we set out a tough fiscal mandate: that we would eliminate the current structural deficit over the five-year forecast horizon. We supplemented the mandate with a fixed debt target: that we would get national debt as a proportion of national income falling by 2015-16. To be cautious, I set plans to meet both those budget rules one year early. That headroom has now disappeared, but I am clear that our rules must be adhered to, and I am taking action to ensure that they are. As a result, the OBR’s central projection is that we will meet both the fiscal mandate and the debt target.
The current structural deficit is forecast to fall from 4.6% of GDP this year to become a current structural surplus of 0.5% in five years’ time, and the debt-to-GDP ratio, which is forecast to stand at 67% this year, is now set to peak at 78% in 2014-15 and to be falling by the end of the current Parliament. So borrowing is falling, and debt will come down. It is not happening as quickly as we wished, because of the damage done to our economy by the ongoing financial crisis, but we are set to meet our budget rules, and we are going to see Britain through the debt storm.
There is a suggestion from some in the House that if you spend more, you will borrow less. That is something-for-nothing economics, and the House should know the risks that we would be running. Last April, the absence of a credible deficit plan meant that our country’s credit rating was on negative outlook and our market interest rates were higher than Italy’s; 18 months later, we are the only major western country whose credit rating has improved. Italy’s interest rates are now 7.2%, and what are ours? They are less than 2.5%. Yesterday we were even borrowing money more cheaply than Germany. Those who would put all that at risk by deliberately adding to our deficit must explain this.
Just a 1% rise in our market interest rates would add £10 billion to mortgage bills every year: 1% would mean that the average family with a mortgage would have to pay £1,000 more; 1% would increase the cost of business loans by £7 billion; 1% would force taxpayers to find an extra £21 billion in debt interest payments, much of it going to our foreign creditors. In other words, 1% dwarfs any extra Government spending or tax cut funded by borrowing that people propose today—and that is the cost of just a 1% rise. Italy’s rates have gone up by almost 3% in the last year alone. We will not take this risk with the solvency of the British economy and the security of British families.
The current environment requires us to take further action on debt to ensure that Britain continues to live within its means. This is what we propose to do. First, there is no need to adjust the overall totals set out in the spending review. Taken all together, the measures that I will set out today require no extra borrowing and provide no extra savings across the whole spending review period. Secondly, I am announcing significant savings in current spending to make the fiscal position more sustainable in the medium and long term; but in the short term—over the next three years—we will use these savings to fund capital investments in infrastructure, regional growth and education, as well as help for young people to find work. Every pound spent in this way will be paid for by a pound saved permanently. That includes savings from further restraint on public sector pay.
For some work forces the two-year pay freeze will be coming to an end next spring, and for most it will be coming to an end during 2013. In the current circumstances, the country cannot afford the 2% rise assumed by some Government Departments thereafter, so instead we will set public sector pay awards at an average of 1% for each of the two years after the pay freeze ends. Many people are helped by pay progression—the annual increases in salary grades to which many are entitled even when pay is frozen. That is one of the reasons why public sector pay has risen at twice the rate of private sector pay over the last four years. While I accept that a 1% average rise is tough, it is also fair to those who work to pay the taxes that will fund it. I can also announce that we are asking the independent pay review bodies to consider how public sector pay can be made more responsive to local labour markets, and we will ask them to report back by July next year. This is a significant step towards the creation of a more balanced economy in the regions of our country which does not squeeze out the private sector. Mr Speaker
Departmental budgets will be adjusted in line with the pay rises I have announced, with the exception of the NHS and school budgets, where the money saved will be retained in order to protect those budgets in real terms. This policy will save over £1 billion in current spending by 2014-15.
The deal we offer on public sector pensions is also fair to both taxpayers and public servants. The reforms are based on the independent report of John Hutton, a former Labour Pensions Secretary, and he says:
“It is hard to imagine a better deal” than this. I would once again ask the unions why they are damaging our economy at a time like this and putting jobs at risk. I say call off the strikes tomorrow, come back to the table, complete the negotiations and let us agree generous pensions that are affordable to the taxpayer.
Let me turn to other areas of public spending, starting with overseas aid. This Government will stick by the commitments they have made to the poorest people in the world by increasing our international development budget—and the whole House should be proud of the help our country is providing to eradicate disease, save lives and educate children—but the spending plans of the Department for International Development meant that the UK was on course to exceed 0.7% of national income in 2013. That I do not think can be justified and so we are adjusting those plans so we do not overshoot the target.
Turning to welfare payments, the annual increase in the basic state pension is protected by the triple lock introduced by this Government. This guarantees a rise either in line with earnings, prices or 2.5%, whichever is greater. It means that the basic state pension will next April rise by £5.30 to £107.45—the largest ever cash rise in the basic state pension and a commitment of fairness to those who have worked hard all their lives. I wanted to make sure that poorer pensioners did not see a smaller rise in their income, so I can confirm today that we will also uprate the pension credit by £5.35 and pay for that with an increase in the threshold for the savings credit.
I also want to protect those who are not able to work because of their disabilities and those who, through no fault of their own, have lost jobs and are trying to find work, so I can confirm that we will uprate working-age benefits in line with September’s consumer prices index inflation number of 5.2%. That will be a significant boost to the incomes of the poorest, especially when inflation is forecast to be considerably less than that by next April. We will also uprate with prices the disability elements of tax credits, and increase the child element of the child tax credit by £135 in line with inflation too. But we will not uprate the other elements of the working tax credit this coming year; and given the size of the uprating this year, we will no longer go ahead with the additional £110 rise in the child element, over and above inflation, that was planned. By April 2012, the child tax credit will have increased by £390 since the coalition came into power. The best way to support low-income working people is to take them out of tax altogether, and our increases in the income tax personal allowance this year and next will do that for over 1 million people.
Let me turn to future public spending. Today, I am setting expenditure totals for the two years following the end of the spending review period: 2015-16 and 2016-17. Total managed expenditure will fall during that period by 0.9% a year in real terms—the same rate as set out for the existing period of the spending review, with a baseline that excludes the additional investments in infrastructure also announced today. These are large savings and we will set out in future how resources will be allocated between different areas of government.
I am also announcing a measure to control spending which is not for today or next year, or even for the next decade, but it directly addresses the long-term challenge Britain and so many other countries face with an ageing population. Our generation has been warned that the costs of providing decent state pensions are going to become more and more unaffordable unless we take further action.
Let us not leave it to our children to take emergency action to rescue the public finances; let us think ahead and take responsible, sensible steps now. Starting in 2026, we will increase the state pension age from 66 to 67, so that we can go on paying a decent pension to people who are living longer. Australia, America and Germany have all taken similar steps. This will not affect anyone within 14 years of receiving their state pension today. By saving a staggering £59 billion, it will mean a long-term future for the basic state pension.
We are showing a world that is sceptical that democratic western Governments can take tough decisions that Britain will pay its way in the world. That is the first thing that the Government can do in the current environment: keep our interest rates low and protect our country from the worst of the debt storm. But we need to make sure that those low interest rates are available to families and to businesses. It is monetary and credit policy that is, in a debt crisis, the principal and most powerful tool for stimulating demand.
Last month, the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee decided to undertake further quantitative easing, and I have authorised an increase in the ceiling on its asset purchases to £275 billion. This will support demand across the economy, but we must do more to help those small businesses who cannot get access to credit at an affordable price.
We have already extended the last Government’s enterprise finance guarantee scheme, and we are today expanding it to include businesses with annual turnovers of up to £44 million and accrediting new lenders, such as Metro Bank. But this scheme is by itself not nearly ambitious enough and never will be within the constraints of state aid rules, so the Government are launching a major programme of credit easing to help small business. We have set a ceiling of £40 billion. At the same time, I have agreed with Mervyn King that we will reduce by £40 billion the asset purchase facility that the previous Government gave the Bank to buy business loans. Only a small proportion of the facility was ever used. I am publishing my exchange of letters with the Governor today.
We are launching our national loan guarantee scheme. It will work on the simple principle that we use the hard-won low interest rates that the Government can borrow at to reduce the interest rates at which small businesses can borrow. We are using the credibility that we have earned in the international markets to help our domestic economy. New loans and overdrafts to businesses with a turnover of less than £50 million will be eligible for the scheme, so that it stays focused on smaller companies. We expect that it will lead to reductions of 1 percentage point in the rate of interest being charged to these companies, so a business facing a 7% interest rate to get a £5 million loan could instead see its rate reduced to 6% and its interest costs fall by up to £50,000.
We have developed with the Bank of England a mechanism to allocate funding to different banks based on how much they increase both net and gross lending to firms. There will be a clear audit trail to ensure the banks comply, for we will use the experience of the European Investment Bank’s loans for SMEs programme here in the UK to ensure that it works. We are getting state aid approval, so that the national loan guarantee scheme will be up and running in the next few months. Initially, £20 billion-worth of these guarantees will be available over the next two years. Alongside it, we are also launching a £1 billion business finance partnership. That is aimed at Britain’s mid-sized companies—a crucial part of our economy, neglected for too long and now identified by the CBI director general and others as a future source of growth. The Government will invest in funds that lend directly to these businesses, in partnership with other investors such as pension funds and insurance companies. It will give these mid-cap companies a new source of investment outside the traditional banks.
If the business finance partnership takes off, I stand ready to increase its size; and we will develop further partnerships ideas and ideas for new bond issuance to help Britain’s small and medium-sized companies. No Government have attempted anything as ambitious as this before. We will not get every detail perfect first time round, but we do not want to make the best the enemy of the good. With the strain on the financial system increasing, the important thing is to get credit flowing to Britain’s small businesses.
The Government can use the low interest rates that we have secured to help young families, too, who want to buy a home but cannot afford the very large deposits that banks are now demanding. We will use mortgage indemnities to help 100,000 such families to buy newly built homes. We will also help construction firms that cannot get bank finance with a £400 million fund that will kick-start projects that already have planning permission; and we are going to reinvigorate the right to buy. This was one of the greatest social policies of all time. It brought home ownership within the reach of millions of aspiring families. It was slowly and stealthily strangled by the last Government, as discounts were cut and cut again. We will bring it back to life. Families in social housing will be able to buy their own homes at a discount of up to 50%. We will use the receipts to build, for every home purchased, a new additional affordable home—so new homes for families who need them; new home ownership for families who aspire to it; and new jobs in the construction industry, so that we get Britain building. That is what our new right to buy will bring.
In the years leading up to the crash, our economy became dangerously over-dependent on the success of a poorly regulated City of London. Meanwhile, employment by businesses in a region such as the west midlands actually fell. By 2007, the previous Government were relying on finance for £1 in every £8 raised in taxation. That left Britain completely exposed when the banks failed, and I can confirm that, next month, we will publish our response to the report that we commissioned from John Vickers to protect taxpayers better.
It is this Government’s policy to ensure that we remain the home of global banks and that London is the world’s pre-eminent financial centre. That is why we will not agree to the introduction of an EU financial transaction tax. It is not a tax on bankers; it is a tax on people’s pensions. Instead, we have introduced a permanent bank levy to make sure that the banks pay their fair share. I have always said that we wished to raise £2.5 billion each and every year from this levy. To ensure we do that, I need to raise the rate of the levy to 0.088%. That will be effective from l January next year. We will also take action to stop some large firms using complex asset-backed pension funding arrangements to claim double the amount of tax relief that was intended. This will save the Exchequer almost £500 million pounds a year.
Financial services will always be a very important industry for the UK, but we have to help other parts of the private sector in other parts of the country to grow. That means uncongested roads and railways for businesses to move products that cannot be reduced to a screen on a City trading floor. It means providing secure power sources at reasonable prices. It means creating new superfast digital networks for companies across our country. These do not exist today. If we look at what countries such as China or Brazil are building, we see why we risk falling behind the rest of the world. So today we are publishing the national infrastructure plan. For the first time, we are identifying over 500 infrastructure projects that we want to see built over the next decade and beyond: roads, railways, airport capacity, power stations, waste facilities and broadband networks. We are mobilising the finance needed to deliver them, too.
The savings that I have announced in the current Budget have enabled me today to fund, pound for pound, £5 billion of additional public spending on infrastructure over the next three years. New spending by Network Rail, guaranteed by the Government, will bring £1 billion more. We are committing a further £5 billion to future projects in the next spending period, so that the planning can start now. This is public money. By exploring guarantees and letting city mayors borrow against future tax receipts, we are looking for new ways to deploy it. But we need to put to work the many billions of pounds that British people save in British pension funds and get those savings invested in British projects. You could call it British savings for British jobs, Mr Speaker.
The Government have negotiated an agreement with two groups of British pension funds to unlock an additional £20 billion of private investment in modern infrastructure. We can today give the go-ahead around the country to 35 new road and rail schemes that support economic development. In the north-west, we will electrify the trans-Pennine express between Manchester and Leeds, build the Manchester airport and Crewe link roads and work with Merseyside to turn the vision of the Atlantic gateway into reality. In Yorkshire and Humber, there will be new stations and new tram capacity, and we will halve the tolls on the Humber bridge. I want to pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Beverley and Holderness (Mr Stuart) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy), and indeed other local MPs who have campaigned for years to make this happen. Under this Government it has.
In the north-east, we will bring forward investment on the Tyne and Wear Metro. In the midlands, the A45, the A43, the A453, the Kettering bypass, the Ml and M6 will all be improved. In the south-west, the Bristol link road and the A380 bypass will go ahead. For families across the south-west facing the highest water charges in Britain, the Government will cut the household bills of all South West Water customers by £50 a year. In the east of England, we are going to make immediate improvements to the Al4. In the south-east, we will build a new railway link between Oxford, Milton Keynes and Bedford that will create 12,000 new jobs. We are going to start working on a new crossing of the lower Thames, and we will explore all the options for maintaining the UK’s aviation hub status, with the exception of a third runway at Heathrow.
Here in London, we will work with the Mayor on options for other new river crossings, for example at Silvertown. We are going to support the extension of the Northern line to Battersea, which could bring 25,000 jobs to the area. Devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will get their Barnett share, and we are working with them to improve the links between our nations, such as the M4 in south Wales and the overnight rail service to north of the border.
This all amounts to a huge commitment to overhauling the physical infrastructure of our nation. We will match it by overhauling the digital infrastructure, too. The Government are funding plans to bring superfast broadband to 90% of homes and businesses across the country, and extend mobile phone coverage to 99% of families. This will help to create a living, economically vibrant countryside.
Our great cities are at the heart of our regional economies, and we will help bring world-leading, superfast broadband and wifi connections to 10 of them, including the capitals of all four nations. We will go ahead with the 22 enterprise zones already announced, plus two further zones in Humber and Lancashire confirmed today. I can also confirm that capital allowances of 100% will be available to encourage manufacturing and other industries into the zones in Liverpool, Sheffield, the Tees valley, Humber and the black country. Those allowances will also be available to the north-eastern enterprise zone, and we will consider extending to the port of Blyth to create new private sector jobs there, too.
This Government’s new regional growth fund for England has already allocated £1.4 billion to 169 projects around the country. For every one pound we are putting in, we are attracting six pounds of private sector money alongside it. I am today putting a further £1 billion over this Parliament into the regional growth fund for England, with support as well for the devolved Administrations. If we do not get the private sector to take a greater share of economic activity in the regions, our economy will become more and more unbalanced, as it did over the last 10 years.
Government should not assume that this will happen by itself. We must help businesses to grow and succeed, and we can do that at a national level too, with our commitment, for example, to British science. At a time of difficult choices, we made ours last year when we committed to protect the science budget. Today we are confirming almost half a billion pounds for scientific projects, from supercomputing and satellite technology to a world-beating animal health laboratory, and Government can encourage many more of our small firms to export overseas for the first time. We are doubling to 50,000 the number of SMEs we are helping, and extending support to British mid-caps, who sometimes lack the overseas ambition of their German equivalents.
We will make it easier for UK-based firms to compete for Government procurement contracts and make new applications out of government data. We will provide funds for smaller technology firms in Britain that find it difficult to turn their innovations into commercial success. We have listened to the ideas from business groups about encouraging innovation in larger companies, and we will introduce a new “above the line” research and development tax credit in 2013 that will increase its visibility and generosity.
We will give particular help to our energy-intensive industries. I have not shied away from supporting sensible steps to reduce this country’s dependency on volatile oil prices and reduce our carbon emissions. I am the Chancellor who funded the first ever Green investment bank and introduced the carbon price floor. Our green deal will help people to insulate their home and cut their heating bills. I am worried about the combined impact of the green policies adopted not just in Britain but by the European Union on some of our heavy, energy-intensive industries. We are not going to save the planet by shutting down our steel mills, aluminium smelters and paper manufacturers. All we will be doing is exporting valuable jobs from this country, so we will help them with the costs of the EU trading scheme and the carbon price floor, increase their climate change levy relief and reduce the impact of the electricity market reforms on those businesses, too.
This amounts to a £250 million package over the Parliament, and it will keep industry and jobs here in Britain. It is a reminder to us all that we should not price British businesses out of the world economy. If we burden them with endless social and environmental goals, however worthy in their own right, not only will we not achieve those goals, but the businesses will fail, jobs will be lost, and our country will be poorer.
Our planning reforms strike the right balance between protecting our countryside while permitting economic development that creates jobs, but we need to go further to remove the lengthy delays and high costs of the current system, with new time limits on applications and new responsibilities for statutory consultees. We will make sure that the gold-plating of EU rules on things such as habitats do not place ridiculous costs on British businesses. Planning laws need reform. So too—
Order. The House needs to calm down. One hon. Member has probably shouted enough for one day.
Planning laws need reform, and so too do employment rules. We know many firms are afraid to hire new staff because of their fear about the costs involved if it does not work out. We are already doubling the period before an employee can bring an unfair dismissal claim and introducing fees for tribunals. Now we will call for evidence on further reforms to make it easier to hire people, including changing the TUPE regulations; reducing delay and uncertainty in the collective redundancy process; and introducing the idea of compensated no-fault dismissal for businesses with fewer than 10 employees.
We will cut the burden of health and safety rules on small firms, because we have regard for the health and safety of the British economy too. This Government have introduced flexible working practices and we are committed to fair rights for employees. But what about the right to get a job in the first place or the right to work all hours running a small business and not be sued out of existence by the costs of an employment tribunal? It is no good endlessly comparing ourselves with other European countries. The entire European continent is pricing itself out of the world economy. The same is true of taxes on business. If we tax firms out of existence, or out of the country, there will not be any tax revenues for anyone. We have set as our ambition the goal of giving this country the most competitive tax regime in the G20. Our corporate tax rate has already fallen from 28% to 26%, and I can confirm that it will fall again next April to 25%.
We are undertaking major simplification of the tax code for businesses and individuals, including, this autumn, consulting on ideas to merge the administration of income tax and national insurance. We are publishing next week rules on the taxation of foreign profits, so that multinationals stop leaving Britain, and instead start coming here, and we will end low-value consignment relief for goods from the Channel Islands, which has been used by large companies to undercut shops on our high streets. We have supported enterprise by increasing the generosity of the enterprise investment scheme. Today, we are extending this scheme specifically to help new start-up businesses to get the seed investment they need. Even at the best of times they can struggle to get finance, and in the current credit conditions that struggle too often ends in failure. From April 2012, anyone investing up to £100,000 in a qualifying new start-up business will be eligible for income tax relief of 50%, regardless of the rate at which they pay tax, and to get people investing in start-up Britain in 2012, for one year only, we will also waive any tax on capital gains invested through the new scheme. We can afford this with a freeze on the general capital gains tax threshold for next year.
I also want to help existing small businesses which find the current economic conditions tough. Business rates are a disproportionately large part of their fixed costs. In the Budget, I provided a holiday on business rates for small firms until October next year. I am today extending that rate relief holiday until April 2013. Over half a million small firms, including one third of all shops, will have reduced rate bills or no rate bills for the whole of this year and for the whole of the next financial year too. To help all businesses, including larger ones, with next year’s rise in business rates, I will allow them to defer 60% of the increase in their bills to the two following years.
I also want to help any business seeking to employ a young person who is out of work. The OBR forecasts that unemployment will rise from 8.1% this year to 8.7% next year, before falling to 6.2% by the end of the forecast. Youth unemployment has been rising for seven years and is now unacceptably high. It is little comfort that this problem is affecting all western nations today. The problem is, of course, primarily a lack of jobs—[ Interruption .] But it is made worse by a lack of skills. Too many children are leaving school after 11 years of compulsory education without the basics that they need for the world of work.
Our new youth contract addresses both problems with the offer of private sector work experience for every young person unemployed for three months. After five months, there will be weekly signing on. After nine months, we will help pay for a job or an apprenticeship in a private business. Some 200,000 people will be helped in this way but, as the Deputy Prime Minister has said, this is a contract. Young people who do not engage with this offer will be considered for mandatory work activity, and those who drop out without good reason will lose their benefits.
If we are to tackle the economic performance of this country and tackle Britain’s decades-long problems with productivity, we have to transform our school system too, so that children leave school prepared for the world of work. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is doing more to make that happen than anyone who ever had his job before him. The previous Government took six years to create 200 academies. He has created 1,200 academies in just 18 months. Supporting his education reform is a central plank of my economic policy, so today, with the savings that we have made, I am providing an extra £1.2 billion—as part of the additional investment in infrastructure—to spend on our schools.
Half of that will go to help local authorities with the greatest basic need for school places. The other £600 million will go to support my right hon. Friend’s reforms and will fund 100 additional free schools. These schools will include new maths free schools for 16 to 18-year-olds. This will give our most talented young mathematicians the chance to flourish. Like the new university technical colleges, these maths free schools are exactly what Britain needs to match our competitors and produce more of the engineering and science graduates so important for our long-term economic success.
To ensure that children born into the poorest families have a real chance to become one of those graduates, we will take further steps to improve early education. Last year, it was this coalition Government who not only expanded free nursery education for all three and four-year-olds, but gave children from the poorest fifth of families a new right to 15 hours of free nursery care a week at the age of two. I can tell the House today that we can double the number of children who will receive this free nursery care: 40% of two-year-olds—260,000 children—from the most disadvantaged families will get this support in their early years.
On education and early years learning, this is how we change the life chances of our least well-off and genuinely lift children out of poverty and that is how we build an economy ready to compete in the world. It will take time. The damage that we have to repair is great. People know how difficult things are and how little money there is, but where we can help with the rising cost of living, we will. I have already offered councils the resources for another year’s freeze in the council tax. That will help millions of families, but I want to do more.
Commuters often travel long distances to go to work and bring an income home. Train fares are expensive and they are set to go up well above inflation to pay for the much needed investment in the new rail and new trains that we need, but RPI plus 3% is too much. The Government will fund a reduction in the increase to RPI plus 1%. This will apply across national rail regulated fares, across the London tube and on London buses. It will help the millions of people who use our trains.
Millions more use their cars to go to work, and pick up the children from school. It is not a luxury for most people; it is a necessity. In the Budget I cut fuel duty by 1p. The plan was for fuel duty to be 3p higher in January and 5p higher by August next year. That would be tough for working families at a time like this, so despite all the constraints that are upon us, we are able to cancel the fuel duty increase planned for January, and fuel duty from August will be only 3p higher than it is now. Taxes on petrol will be a full 10p lower than they would have been without our action in the Budget and this autumn. Families will save £144 on filling up the average family car by the end of next year. At this tough time, we are helping where we can.
All that we are doing today—sticking to our deficit plan to keep interest rates as low as possible, increasing the supply of credit to pass those low rates on to families and businesses, rebalancing our economy with an active enterprise policy and new infrastructure, and providing help with the cost of living on fuel duty and rail fares—all that takes Britain in the right direction. It cannot transform our economic situation overnight.
People in this country understand the problems that Britain faces. They can watch the news any night of the week and see for themselves the crisis in the eurozone and the scale of the debt burden that we carry. People know that promises of quick fixes and more spending that this country cannot afford at times like this are like the promises of a quack doctor selling a miracle cure. We do not offer that today.
What we offer is a Government who have a plan to deal with our nation’s debts to keep rates low; a Government determined to support businesses and support jobs; a Government committed to take Britain safely through the storm. Leadership for tough times—that is what we offer. I commend this statement to the House.
Order. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to resume his seat. I said very clearly that people should not shout and yell at the Chancellor. He should be heard in respectful quiet, as the public would hope. The same goes for the reaction to the shadow Chancellor. Let us try to operate at the level of events.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Let me start by thanking the Chancellor of the Exchequer for advance notice of his statement, and the Office for Budget Responsibility for ensuring that the Chancellor is today setting out to the House the truth about the state of the British economy and the truly colossal failure of the Chancellor’s plan.
Let us be clear about what the OBR has told us today, which the Chancellor could not bring himself to say: growth is flatlining and will be down this year, next year and the year after; unemployment is rising; and there will be well over £100 billion more borrowing than he planned a year ago, and more than was set out in the plan he inherited at the general election. As a result, his economic and fiscal strategy is in tatters. After 18 months in office, the verdict is in: plan A has failed, and failed colossally. With prices rising and unemployment soaring, families, pensioners and businesses already know that it is hurting. With billions of pounds more in borrowing to pay for rising unemployment, today we find out the truth that it is just not working.
The Prime Minister likes to say, “You can’t borrow your way out of a crisis.” Will the Chancellor confirm that that is exactly what he has been forced to do? He has been forced into higher borrowing to pay for the crisis in growth and jobs in Britain, the higher unemployment and higher benefits bill that his failing plan has delivered.
The Chancellor’s out-of-touch and complacent hubris of a year ago now seems such a distant memory. The Prime Minister boasted that Britain was out of the danger zone and the Chancellor claimed that the UK was a safe haven, but we know the truth: cutting too far and too fast has backfired and all his claims of a year ago have completely unravelled. It is not as if they were not warned, including by their coalition colleagues. Before the election, we said that, like every country after the global financial crisis, we had to get our deficit down, which meant tough decisions on tax and spending cuts. The question is not whether that should be done, but how. That is why the Opposition warned that trying to cut spending and raise taxes too far and too fast risked choking off recovery and pushing up unemployment and borrowing. We said that the Chancellor’s plan was reckless, not cautious, and that he was ripping out the foundations of the house, leaving our economy not safe, but badly and deeply exposed to the growing global storm.
Let me remind the Chancellor what the managing director of the International Monetary Fund warned this summer. She said that
“slamming on the breaks too quickly will hurt the recovery and worsen job prospects.”
What has happened? Consumer and business confidence has slumped in the past year. Our recovery was choked off over a year ago. Since then, Britain has had slower economic growth than any G7 country other than Japan, and it had an earthquake. Unemployment is at a 17-year high and over 1 million young people are out of work. Today we hear that growth this year will be not the 2.3% he so confidently predicted in the June Budget this year, but just 0.9%. It will be even lower next year and lower than forecast the year after. It is the fourth time the OBR has downgraded his growth forecasts in just 18 months.
Today we learn that the Chancellor, even when judged by the one objective he set himself—getting the deficit down—is failing. With lower growth and rising unemployment pushing up the cost of failure, will he confirm that he will now have to borrow not £46 billion more than set out in his autumn statement last year, as he said in March, but a staggering £158 billion more? Will he also confirm that, despite the pain of the £40 billion of extra spending cuts and tax rises he boasted about a year ago, because the recovery has been choked off and unemployment is higher he will be borrowing more at the end of this Parliament than he would be under the balanced plan inherited from the Labour Government at the last election? That is a fact.
A year ago the Prime Minister told the CBI:
“In five years’ time, we will have balanced the books.”
That was not some kind of dodgy rolling target, but a clear commitment to eliminate the deficit by 2015. Can the Chancellor tell the House whether he will meet that fiscal mandate? Is not the truth that, with unemployment and borrowing up, going further and faster has been utterly counter-productive and self-defeating and has backfired? We have had all the pain, but none of the gain.
The OBR forecasts show that the Chancellor’s entire economic and fiscal strategy is now in complete disarray, yet all we get are excuses. He has blamed anyone and anything, including the Labour Government, the snow, the royal wedding, the Japanese earthquake, higher inflation, VAT, the eurozone and low-paid dinner ladies and teaching assistants—anybody but himself. [ Interruption. ] It is he who is to blame. It is his failing plan that has pushed up unemployment and borrowing. It is his reckless gamble that has made things worse here in Britain, not better.
If eurozone countries continue to fail to sort out their problems, of course that will have an impact here. [Hon. Members: “Ah.”] However, Britain’s economic recovery was choked off a year ago, before the euro crisis. The OBR has downgraded growth in Britain this year but upgraded growth in the euro area. Of the 27 countries in the EU, only Greece, Portugal and Cyprus have grown more slowly than Britain in the past year. Not only is it not too late for the Chancellor to change course, but the deepening euro crisis makes it even more important that he sees sense. Instead he is still clinging to the fantasy that any change of course would make things worse. He still clings to the illiterate fantasy that low long-term interest rates in Britain are a sign of enhanced credibility and not, as they were in Japan in the ’90s and in America today, a sign of stagnant growth in the economy. [ Interruption. ] This summer the head of the IMF warned the Chancellor—[ Interruption. ]
“growth is necessary for fiscal credibility”, but he said that a change in his plans would lead to a loss of credibility, even though he has been forced to confirm today that his growth and borrowing targets are wildly off track. Last month the IMF advised the Government that
“If (economic) activity were to undershoot current expectations and risk a period of stagnation or contraction, countries that face historically low yields (for example, Germany and the UK) should also consider delaying some of their planned consolidation.”
With the world darkening and with today’s news that here in Britain we are set to see stagnant growth not just this year, but next, is it not time the Chancellor listened to the IMF? How much worse does it have to get? How many more young people have to lose their jobs, how many more businesses have to go bankrupt, and how many more times does he have to come here to downgrade his growth forecast and upgrade his borrowing forecasts? How many more billions in borrowing do we need to pay for failure before he finally sees sense?
These would be difficult times for any Chancellor, but our fear is that once again in his statement today the Chancellor is making a catastrophic error of judgment. He is refusing to learn the lessons of history or economics; he is refusing to switch to a more balanced plan; he got it wrong 18 months ago, and he is getting wrong again today. Repeating the mistakes he made last year will only make things worse. Is it not now time to listen to the IMF, to cut taxes and to have a slower pace of spending reduction? Is it not time for him to change course before it is too late?
What do we have instead? We have a cobbled together package of growth measures, which the Chancellor must know, and the OBR forecast confirms, do not address the fundamental problem—that his rapid, reckless and deflationary plan is choking off recovery and pushing up borrowing. We have been here before. This is the third emergency growth package in a year, so the last thing our economy needs is yet another fantasy growth package.
Hon. Members do not have to take my word for it. Let us look at the OBR’s own forecast. Does the OBR think that the Chancellor’s plans are going to boost growth? No, it has revised growth down next year, from 2.5% to 0.7%; and for the following year it has revised growth down from 2.9% to 2.1%. Does the OBR think that the Chancellor’s plans are going to increase employment and cut unemployment? Let me tell the House two things from the OBR forecast which the Chancellor chose not to tell the House. Unemployment is not only higher next year than this year, but higher the year after than this year; and employment is expected to fall by 100,000 next year.
We were promised a game-changer of a statement and a growth plan that would secure recovery. Instead, we have a plan for growth which leads to lower growth and higher unemployment. It is not a game-changer; it is just more of the same.
Let me turn to the measures that the Chancellor has announced. He has announced a new youth jobs fund, but why did he abolish the future jobs fund in the first place? The Government abolished it in their first month in office; their new plan will not be up and running until the middle of next year.
The Chancellor claims to have increased the bank levy, so why is he cutting taxes on banks this year compared with last year—down from £3.5 billion last year to £2.5 billion this year? Why will he not repeat the bank bonus tax and do something proper about youth jobs?
The Chancellor has announced a sensible halt to January’s fuel duty rise, but will he confirm that, as a result of last January’s VAT rise, motorists are paying 3p a litre more on petrol? He has belatedly announced a plan on Labour’s enterprise finance guarantee, relabelled as credit easing, but why did he wait so long, and why did he put his faith in Project Merlin, which has patently failed and, as the Bank of England confirms today, seen net bank lending to small businesses fall over the past year? As for his equally belated decision to set up a new infrastructure fund, this is from the same Chancellor who abolished the Building Schools for the Future programme at a cost of tens of thousands of construction jobs.
How much of this new investment has been pre-announced? How much will happen this year and next year? How much of it is pre-announced funding from the next spending review after the next general election? Will the Chancellor confirm that the new off-budget infrastructure fund will be subject to a National Audit Office value-for-money test to ensure that projects are not more expensive to the taxpayer than direct Government borrowing?
The Chancellor has also announced a rebate for energy intensive industries to correct the chaos caused by his botched carbon floor price. He has reinstated just 10% of his planned £4 billion cut in housing, but even in the past few minutes, as we have studied the small print, and despite all the bluster of the new measures, we have found that because this Chancellor is so determined not to break from his failing plan, he is once again giving with one hand and taking with the other.
How are these new growth measures being paid for? By hitting families and savers. How much will the Chancellor’s cut in tax credits cost a working family on average incomes? With inflation so much higher, is he still meeting the Prime Minister’s pledge to deliver real-terms rises in NHS spending in this Parliament?
As a result, and taking into account pre-announced measures in the Chancellor’s Budget and spending review, are the Government still hitting women harder than men? Are they still increasing child poverty and not reducing it? Given that he has already cut child care support by more than £1.5 billion, is he helping women who want to go out to work, or is he making it harder?
If we are all in this together, why with this Government is it always families, women and children who pay the price? It is clear: the Chancellor’s plan is not working. The OBR knows it, the markets know it, the IMF knows it, we know it and so, increasingly, do the Chancellor’s coalition colleagues. His arch rival, the Mayor of London, certainly knows it.
We all know why the Chancellor cannot change course. We know why he cannot accept the IMF’s advice. We all know why—even as the euro crisis deepens and he is borrowing £158 billion more than he planned—this oh-so political Chancellor will not budge because to change course now would be to admit that he has got the key economic judgments of this Parliament absolutely, catastrophically wrong.
If, after just 18 months, the Chancellor’s plan is leading to falling growth, rising unemployment and £158 billion more in borrowing, the country needs either a new Chancellor or a new plan—a balanced and credible plan on jobs, growth and the deficit. We need real tax cuts, real investment, a real plan for jobs, growth and deficit reduction: Labour’s five-point plan for jobs, growth and deficit reduction.
Protecting our economy, businesses, jobs and family finances is more important than trying to protect a failed economic plan. For his sake, for his party’s sake, and in the national interest, the Chancellor needs to change course, and he needs to do so now.
As far as I can tell, the shadow Chancellor complains that we are borrowing too much—and then proposes that we borrow even more. It is completely unconvincing and a reminder to Government Members why we are so pleased that he is in the job that he is doing, for he is a constant reminder of everything that went wrong with Labour’s economic policy—a permanent advertisement for why we should never trust Labour with our money again.
Let me answer the right hon. Gentleman’s specific questions. He welcomes the fact that we have open and honest figures from the OBR. When did we never get them when he was at the Treasury? He complains about the bank levy. He was the City Minister, so why did he not introduce a bank levy? It will raise £2.5 billion a year. In the Labour policy document on the bonus tax that he proposes, his party costs its measure at £2 billion a year. That is less—a tax cut for banks, if can I put it like that.
The right hon. Gentleman complains about off balance-sheet borrowing. That is from Mr PFI. He says that we should have kept the future jobs fund, but 50% of all people who left that scheme were unemployed within 12 weeks, which is in part why we have an unemployment problem.
Yes we are committed to real increases in the health budget, and yes the OBR confirms that we will meet our fiscal mandate and our debt target—[ Interruption. ] In the terms set out by me in the emergency Budget.
The right hon. Gentleman told the House this extraordinary thing—that the OBR forecasts that growth in the UK will be less than in the euro area. That, I am afraid, is simply not true. I am not going to use unparliamentary language, but it is in the OBR document in black and white: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015—every single year, growth unfortunately is slow in the eurozone and slower than in the UK. That is one of the problems we are facing.
Let me respond to the three arguments that the right hon. Gentleman advanced in his reply. First, he said that we should try to borrow our way out of a debt crisis; he talked about extra borrowing. His plans—the plans of the previous Government—would have led to an additional £100 billion on top of borrowing over the course of the Parliament. Let us look at the facts. There is not a single credible political party in the entirety of Europe that is proposing more spending at the moment, apart from—and it is not credible—the Labour party. This is what Tony Blair said this morning on the radio—
Go on—have a go at booing him! Tony Blair said on the radio this morning:
“frankly whatever government is in power it is going to be pursuing a pretty tough programme at the moment”.
Blair or Balls—I think the British public made their mind up on Labour politicians long ago.
The second astonishing argument that the right hon. Gentleman deployed was to say that low interest rates in Britain were a sign of failure. Presumably that means that he wants interest rates to be higher in Britain. Presumably the fact that Italian interest rates are over 7% is a sign of success. Presumably the fact that Greek interest rates are 30% is an economic miracle. His policy for higher interest rates would put families’ mortgage bills up, increase debt interest charges for taxpayers, increase the cost of loans for small businesses, and put people out of work. Now people know—you vote Labour, you get higher interest rates.
The third and final argument that the right hon. Gentleman advanced is that the events happening in Europe will have almost no impact on anyone in Britain or on the British economy. [Hon. Members: “That’s not what he said.”] He mentioned it once in passing. That flies in the face of what the Bank of England says and what the OECD said yesterday. He quoted the IMF. The IMF supports our deficit reduction plan. It explicitly asked itself the question, “Should Britain change course?”, and said no. He quoted the independent OBR’s numbers, but he refuses to accept its analysis. Anyone who turns on the television and listens to the news knows that his argument is completely absurd, so we have to ask ourselves why he advances it. Why does he alone advance the argument that Britain is not affected by what has been going on in the world—by the external oil shocks, by the size of the financial crisis, by the eurozone crisis? There is a very simple reason: because if he admits that we are in a debt crisis, then he has to admit that we borrowed too much when he was in office, that the crash here was deeper than anywhere else, and that the effects were longer lasting. It would be an admission of his personal failure.
The right hon. Gentleman was the City Minister who let the City explode. He is the author of the golden rules that failed. He does not have the excuse of the Leader of the Opposition that he was only photocopying orders: he gave the orders; the orders came from him. Labour’s economic credibility will never recover while he remains the shadow Chancellor.
The whole country, I think, will welcome the supply-side measures announced today, which are an essential counterpart to the deficit reduction plan. Britain’s recovery depends on thousands of small businesses in our constituencies that need the confidence and the cash to invest and grow. That is why the credit easing package that has been announced today is so welcome. Does my right hon. Friend agree, though, that the recovery can be secured in the long term only when we have banks that are operating normally —when we have a return to more normal lending conditions? Does not that reinforce the need for him to work extremely closely with the regulators and the banks to achieve this?
I agree with the Chair of the Treasury Committee that the impact of the financial crisis and the deleveraging in the British financial system and other financial systems are having a huge impact not just on our recovery but on recoveries around the world. I completely agree that we need to try to clear the impaired balance sheets of the banking system. We need to try to get new lenders on to the high street. That is why we took the decision we took on Northern Rock—to get Virgin Money out there on the high street. I will have more to say on the banking system next month when I respond to the Vickers report and to the very good report from the Treasury Committee.
I welcome the announcement of more investment in infrastructure, but the more I hear about the proposal, the more it sounds like PFI by any other name. Pension funds will invest in public projects only if it is a good deal for them. As with PFI, any sweetener that the Chancellor offers to the private sector will be at the expense of the taxpayer, both in the short term today and for future generations, so what precisely is he offering and proposing to attract pension fund investment, and how is he going to ensure that his scheme represents value for money for the taxpayer?
Let me explain to the right hon. Lady that what we are seeking to do is to get the pension funds investing in British infrastructure. We are not proposing to provide, in this respect, guarantees for these projects. There are some guarantees set out for specific Government infrastructure projects such as the Thames tidal waste tunnel. What I am talking about with the pension funds is not guaranteed projects like PFI; it is simply about trying to get private sector money invested in British infrastructure. [ Interruption. ] Let me explain, briefly.
We have Canadian and Australian pension funds investing in Britain, but not British pension funds investing on a sufficient scale. We are going to try to bring them together, through a private sector agreement, into vehicles where they can co-operate and then invest in infrastructure. This is not about the Government underwriting those investments; it is about trying to get the industry together to make private sector investments. There is a memorandum of understanding which sets out how this is done.
I welcome the Chancellor’s statement. It is a great shame that the shadow Chancellor appears to be living in a parallel universe to that of Government Members. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in view of his desire to set up a better and a stronger economy for the future, it would be a good idea to look again at the prospect of account portability in the banking system to create a truly free consumer choice for the future in terms of personal current accounts and small business lending?
I agree with my hon. Friend that that is a very important part of making sure that customers get the best possible deal. It was the part of the Vickers report that got the least coverage because of the interest in things like ring-fencing. We are determined to introduce changes that allow people to switch their current accounts very easily, and we hope to have them in place before the end of the Parliament.
The Chancellor has recognised that 260,000 young people have been unemployed for more than 12 months—that is over 100,000 more than 18 months ago. He has rejected the argument for a job guarantee and instead embraced wage subsidies, which he says will help about 53,000 young people. For the sake of those young people, will he look at the similar scheme announced by his right hon. and learned Friend the current Secretary of State for Justice, in 1995? That scheme promised 130,000 jobs, but only 2,300 applications came forward. Will the Chancellor look at that experience to make sure that we do not have a repetition of the very low take-up of wage subsidy schemes?
We have worked with the business groups and businesses to make sure that the youth contract is going to be effective. I respect the fact that the right hon. Gentleman told us some days ago that the problem of youth unemployment was not invented by this Government. I respect his honesty in saying that. This is a problem that all western countries are facing at the moment. Frankly, in Britain youth unemployment has been going up for the past seven years. A subsidised job in the private sector is part of the answer. The work experience places are already working well, and we are adding to those. Of course, there is some conditionality in all this, so we are introducing, for example, weekly signing on after five months.
I welcome what the Chancellor has said about protecting our economy from the external pressures that we face and rebalancing and strengthening it for the future. Will he confirm that despite these difficult circumstances, this Government are acting to raise the income tax threshold so that the poorest in society do not pay income tax, are fully increasing out-of-work benefits by 5.2%, and are increasing the state pension by £5.30? Does not that demonstrate that this coalition Government are determined to protect the poorest in society despite the very difficult circumstances in which we operate?
My hon. Friend is right. We are uprating out-of-work benefits and the basic state pension. The coalition Government are committed to the triple lock. People can see the benefit of that today. He is also right that we are committed to real increases in the personal income tax allowance. We have already had two of those. The coalition agreement is absolutely clear on that. I also support it as a tool of economic policy. We want to lift more people out of tax altogether.
What is the right hon. Gentleman’s precise estimate of the overall growth, if any, that will arise from today’s package, given that there is no net increase in demand? Is not his core £5 billion infrastructure package—just 0.7% of current expenditure—merely tinkering at the edges and completely incapable of pulling Britain out of its deepening slump?
As I said in my statement, I believe, particularly in a debt crisis, that monetary policy is the most powerful tool for supporting demand. The Bank of England has undertaken the quantitative easing programme, which the previous Government thought was the right policy as they authorised the Monetary Policy Committee’s request. We can also do a lot to try to improve the credit conditions for small businesses, which do a huge amount to employ people in our country. That is why we have taken action on credit easing. The right hon. Gentleman has to balance the cost that a 1% rise in interest rates would have for mortgage bills, debt interest bills, family business loans and the like, which I set out, with the need for the additional billions of pounds of borrowing that he is proposing on top of the borrowing that we are already doing and what that might do to the credibility of this country in international markets.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the welcome opportunity for private pension funds to invest in infrastructure will also give a good return for those pension funds by unlocking the growth that can come from such infrastructure, particularly in rural areas such as East Anglia?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is why we have made a particular commitment to two roads in East Anglia: the A11 and the A14. The A14 is a real challenge, as he knows, because it is a vital artery for the entire national economy. We are announcing particular commitments today to improve the A14. We want to work with local councils and local communities to make even greater lasting improvements to the A14 in the future.
The Chancellor ended his statement by talking about quack doctors. Of course, in the book “George’s Marvellous Medicine”, George makes a potion to shrink his grandmother. Does the Chancellor of the Exchequer not understand that he will not grow the British economy by cutting tax credits, because that will make it uneconomic for many women to go out to work?
I am confused and am hoping that the Chancellor can help me to sort something out. On page 82 of its document, the OBR states that it has cut its forecast for European growth to 0.5%. On another page, it states that it has cut the British forecast to 0.7%. Under the shadow Chancellor’s quack-onomics theory, interest rates should therefore be higher in Britain than in the eurozone, but they are not. Can the Chancellor explain why?
Because we have earned credibility for this country. That is what this Government have done. That has not been an easy thing to do, but it has brought our borrowing costs down while other countries’ borrowing costs have gone up. When this Government came to office, the interest rates in Italy were lower than the interest rates in Britain. They have gone up in Italy and come down in Britain. Of course, we now have the new Labour party policy, which is that it wants to see higher interest rates. I am not sure that the Labour Back Benchers have fully realised what a completely stupid policy that really is.
With regard to the capital infrastructure investment, will the Chancellor confirm that the whole figure of £30 billion will be spent proportionately in Wales and the other devolved nations, and that in the case of Wales that will amount to £1.5 billion?
We absolutely will apply the Barnett formula to the infrastructure spending. I can confirm that. We specifically want to work with the devolved Administration on the M4 corridor in south Wales and, if possible, to do a deal on the future of the Severn bridge and its tolls. We are holding open the opportunity for discussion on that matter.
I thank the Chancellor for his announcement about the Humber bridge and commend the work of the Transport Secretary. Does he agree that that proposal will benefit low-paid workers, especially in the Humber, who have suffered even in the times of growth, when the number of private sector jobs in the Humber decreased?
Absolutely, I happily pay tribute to all the MPs of north Lincolnshire and Humberside who have campaigned for the reduction of the tolls. This was an injustice. The bridge was built many years ago and the debt was paid off, but the tolls were still very high. I am glad that we have been able to help. Along with our enterprise zones in Humberside and our commitment to the renewable energy industry in the area, this will really help the economy.
The Chancellor’s statement reminded me of the Budgets not of the last Chancellor of the Exchequer but of the one before that, because it included so much, and almost the kitchen sink. To change the mood in the country, most of which is now deeply in recession—certainly Yorkshire and the Humber are—were we not expecting some imaginative, bold policies today to end youth unemployment?
I know that the Chancellor will ignore the pleas of the Labour party, given that it more than doubled the national debt when it was in power, but will he revisit the massive net increases in our contribution to the EU that will come through over the next seven years? They will amount to something like £20 billion, which would fund a 5p to 6p cut in small business corporation tax.
We have negotiated the first real freeze in the EU budget. Important negotiations are coming on the future financial perspective. I am absolutely clear, as are some other member states, that the EU has to live within its means as well.
As I said, we have introduced and funded the green investment bank, and we are supporting the green deal. The hon. Lady did not mention that there are £200 million of incentives to make the green deal work so that people can insulate their homes, their bills can come down and we can reduce our carbon emissions. I do not see how we would save the climate of our country and the world by pricing ourselves out of steel making, operating chemical factories, aluminium smelting and so on. If anything, it is likely that those industries would continue in other countries and be more polluting because those countries do not have the same regimes. I think that it supports our effort to reduce carbon emissions around the world that we keep those industries in Britain.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and in particular the announcements on rail fares and the fuel duty. Does he agree that those policies and others that he has expressed today show that the Government are helping hard-working people with the cost of living wherever they can?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. We have been able to take action on fuel duty so that taxes on petrol will be 10p lower than they would otherwise have been. We have taken action to reduce the increase in rail fares. I also stress that we have helped small businesses that employ people by extending the business rate freeze.
If we are all in it together, why has the Chancellor announced further restrictions on pay for working people and their families, while the bankers who caused the recession are taking home salaries of up to £4.5 million? Is it because the people on that side on millionaire’s row are looking after their friends in the banking system, while kicking the workers in the teeth?
I think the hon. Gentleman will find that it is half of the last Labour Cabinet who are working in the City at the moment.
If the hon. Gentleman is so passionate about this issue, why did he not press the Government he supported for 13 years to introduce a bank levy? On public sector pay, the shadow Chancellor was completely silent about whether the Labour party supported 1% average increases after the freeze ends. No doubt we will find out more about that later this afternoon.
The Black Country chamber of commerce reports that 400 new businesses started in our region this year, 170 with help from the Government. I particularly welcome the national loan guarantee scheme. Does my right hon. Friend anticipate that that scheme might support business start-ups?
I think it will help new businesses borrow, but of course we have also announced today the seed enterprise investment scheme, a new scheme that will specifically help start-up businesses. It will give 50% income tax relief to anyone who invests up to £100,000 in a new company. Also, for one year only, we are allowing people to put capital tax-free gains of up to £100,000 into the scheme. It is all about trying to get investment into new companies such as the ones in the black country that my hon. Friend talks about.
We absolutely want to support carbon capture and storage technology in this country. I confirm that we are still committed to a £1 billion investment, which is a very significant investment in a technology, but it cannot be on an unrealistic time scale. [Interruption.] Well, the previous Government—indeed, the Energy Secretary in the previous Government, who of course is the Leader of the Opposition at the moment—made all sorts of promises about getting carbon capture and storage demonstrations up and running, and that did not happen. We are operating on a more realistic time frame, but we are committed to a £1 billion investment in that technology.
There is so much to welcome in this statement, and I especially welcome the £1 billion increase in the regional growth fund and the infrastructure changes to the A45. Will the Chancellor set the record straight and say that our youth jobs fund is nothing like Labour’s future jobs fund, under which only 2% of the jobs in the west midlands were in private companies, and that our scheme will create real jobs for young people?
Not only was the future jobs fund primarily aimed at the Government employing people in the public sector, which of course was unsustainable with the very large deficit that Labour was running, but actually it did not work on its own terms, because 50% of the people who used the fund were unemployed within 12 weeks. The youth contract that the Deputy Prime Minister has worked on, which he presented last week, will make a real difference.
There were two key announcements today. One was the national loan guarantee scheme and the £20 billion of credit easing, and the second was the investment in infrastructure of perhaps £30 billion. When does the Chancellor expect the business finance backed by the scheme to start flowing, and how much infrastructure spend does he expect this year and next, when it will have the biggest effect?
We are undertaking an ambitious programme of credit easing, and I hope to get it running in the next couple of months. We have to clear the state aid hurdles, and we are working flat out to do that, but I am confident that because we are partly following the European Investment Bank’s scheme in the UK, a lot of the work has already been done. The precise numbers on infrastructure in the next two years are set out in the book.
I warmly welcome the statement on behalf of families and businesses in my constituency, particularly the billions for infrastructure, the strong support for science and innovation and the very imaginative scheme for unlocking credit easing for small companies. Does that not show that this Government are laying the foundations for sustainable economic growth, while the Labour party has nothing to offer but more debt, more tax and higher interest rates?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. What was really striking in the shadow Chancellor’s response was that the heart of his argument was, “We’re borrowing too much, so let’s borrow more.” I do not think that is a very convincing argument. The only reason why he advances it is that he, almost alone in the Labour party, cannot admit that the last Government borrowed too much.
Can the Chancellor confirm that it is “rest in peace” for the “greenest Government ever”? As far as Stoke-on-Trent is concerned, can he tell the House why there is nothing in the autumn statement about why the Prime Minister came to Stoke-on-Trent and promised us a local enterprise zone? There have been two extra ones announced today, and still nothing for Stoke-on-Trent.
I completely understand why the hon. Lady is fighting hard for her constituency and her city. In the end, the proposal put forward by Stoke for an enterprise zone was not as compelling as the other enterprise zone proposals that were put forward at the same time. That was independently assessed by the civil servants. I am very happy to sit down with her, and indeed other Members from Staffordshire, to work with them on what we can do to make the proposal a success. I am very much open to considering whether we can get the enterprise zone bid into a state where it is successful and we can go ahead with it.
There were many measures in the statement that will help businesses with their cash flow, which is truly to be welcomed, for example extending the small business rate relief and credit easing. Will the Chancellor clarify that where business rates go up in line with RPI next year, there will be the ability to defer 60% for two years interest-free?
The Chancellor has announced a number of supply-side measures designed to help small businesses. However, that is only one part of the equation. One of the main obstacles now for small businesses applying for loans or investment is the squeeze on personal incomes in their market. Can he explain to me how removing current expenditure and squeezing incomes further at this time, albeit for some very worthy projects in two or three years’ time, will benefit unemployment and alleviate the feeling of deep insecurity that there is in my area at this moment?
I would argue that we are not squeezing incomes. We have frozen fuel duty in January and taken measures to uprate non-working benefits in line with CPI, which is a very big increase, and pensioners are getting the largest ever increase in the basic state pension. However, we cannot afford the additional £110 on top of the uprating that we promised on the child tax credit.
My hon. Friend is a powerful champion for Nuneaton, and I am glad that the enterprise zone is going to help his town. He specifically raised with me the issue of whether we could introduce an above-the-line R and D tax credit. I listened to his arguments and those of business organisations, and I am delighted that we are able to go ahead with that. We will set out the precise details of the rate and so on in the Budget.
In view of the fact that the published Treasury tables suggest that the poorest fifth of the population have lost more from the Chancellor’s statement than anyone else apart from the richest fifth, will he tell the House what impact his announcements will have on child poverty?
The Treasury is very clear that in the precise way in which child poverty is measured against the baseline, it has gone up. We have been honest about that in the document. However, there is also an inflationary increase in the child tax credit and other benefits, so the picture is more mixed and better for tackling child poverty. I would also make the broader argument that investing in early years education and schools, and so transforming people’s life chances, will do more to lift people out of poverty. That is surely a lesson that we have learned over recent years.
I commend the Chancellor on his statement, particularly the parts about young people and small businesses, which will be gratefully received in my constituency. I am sure that he shares my concern about the shadow Chancellor’s seeming lack of interest in interest rates and the amount of national debt. With that in mind, will my right hon. Friend confirm that a top priority of the Government is to reduce the £130 million per day that taxpayers in my constituency—and all taxpayers—pay to get the interest on the debt down?
I welcome the Chancellor’s statement on the 100% capital allowances for the enterprise zones in the Tees valley. I refer him to his statement that he will target £20 billion from pension funds for infrastructure investment. May I draw his attention to the fact that the industry has something like £80 billion in its kitty? I invite him to go back and raise more money for more investment in the same project.
I would certainly like to see even more money coming from British pension funds, but £20 billion is an ambitious target. It is a shame that we have not been able to mobilise private sector resources from the pension funds in the past decade in the way that we should. The Government are making a determined effort to change that, and I hope that the memorandum of understanding that we signed with two groups of pension funds will lead to more infrastructure investment in the Tees valley and elsewhere.
I commend my right hon. Friend for his statement and for doing so much for hard-pressed families and working people. Today, Italy had to borrow billions of pounds at almost 8% interest. The UK borrows at German rates because of the confidence in our economic policy. The strikes planned for tomorrow will damage confidence in the British economy. Will the Chancellor condemn the strikes and urge the Opposition to come out and condemn them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Let us look at the Italian bond auction this morning—that is the sort of interest rate we might have to pay if Britain’s ability to pay its way in the world lost credibility. Was it not surprising that the shadow Chancellor did not mention the fact that there are strikes tomorrow? It is because he is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Unite union.
The giving with one hand and taking away with the other for child care plays with children’s lives and is disgraceful. By how much will the Chancellor increase the early intervention grant to pay for the child care pledge that he announced today? How much capital funding will he provide to local authorities so that they can expand and build nurseries? From what children’s pot will he rob that money?
We have introduced, for the first time, an entitlement for disadvantaged two-year-olds to get 15 hours of free nursery care. Such a policy was never introduced in the 13 years of a Labour Government. We have increased the figure to 40% of all children of that age and the cost is just shy of £500 million by the end of the period.
Erewash is at the heart of the manufacturing base in the east midlands. I therefore welcome the commitment to improving the infrastructure in the UK. To maximise that opportunity, reopening the train station at Ilkeston would really help us in Erewash, assisting businesses and commuters. Would my right hon. Friend or a colleague from the Treasury kindly meet me to discuss how the project can form part of the Government’s plans?
The Transport Secretary sitting next to me has just genuinely volunteered to meet my hon. Friend. We will look at improvements to Ilkeston train station. I did not set it all out in detail today, but there is scope for further smaller investments in rail stations and pinch points on our road network—we have set aside considerable sums of money for that. I will ensure that my hon. Friend meets the Transport Secretary soon to put her case.
On credit easing, how will the Chancellor’s announcement today apply in Northern Ireland? He knows that some 60% of bank lending to business in Northern Ireland is done by non-UK clearing banks, so I would be grateful if he elaborated on how he thinks it will apply in Northern Ireland. Will he work with the Finance Minister there to find a way through the current credit crunch for business?
First, I am happy and keen to work with the devolved Administration in Belfast on how the scheme will apply in Northern Ireland, given the specific issues that Northern Ireland faces with the involvement of the southern Irish banks. It is certainly a UK-wide scheme and we are particularly aware of the acute problems that the financial crisis south of the border have caused in Northern Ireland.
Today, we have seen a clear difference between a Chancellor who wants to manage and invest in our economy and an Opposition who spent and taxed their way through boom into bust. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House, for the sake of every home owner and small and medium-sized business with a mortgage, overdraft or long-term loan, that he will follow a fiscal policy that delivers low interest rates for the long-term future?
As I said, the future jobs fund meant that 50% of people who went on it were unemployed within 12 weeks. David Miliband was very honest in saying that this Government did not create the problem of youth unemployment. Frankly, if we had more honesty from the shadow Chancellor, he would have a bit more economic credibility. I cannot help noticing that the British public think that the right hon. Member for South Shields would do a better job as shadow Chancellor than the man opposite jabbering at me.
Last year, the Chancellor cut £4 billion from housing investment. Does he accept responsibility for the catastrophic 99% collapse in affordable house building in the past six months, which is 187% in the west midlands? Does he agree that today he is restoring but 10% of what he cut, when the need for building homes and jobs has never been greater?
The Government’s capital spending plans are higher than those that the Labour party put forward in March 2010, which the Dromey family enthusiastically endorsed and tried to persuade the country to vote for. It is striking that, with the hon. Gentleman’s background, he has not mentioned the strikes, which will do huge damage to our economy and jobs. Why do not he and his colleagues condemn them and make sure that our country is working?
I warmly welcome the Chancellor’s announcements on infrastructure. In particular, there is a hugely warm welcome for the announcement of Government backing for the Northern line extension to Battersea, which is key to unlocking many new jobs and homes in the Nine Elms/Vauxhall/Battersea development area. Does he agree that it is also important for the existing communities in that area, many of which are among the most disadvantaged in my constituency? It is good news for them, too.
I had the opportunity yesterday, with my hon. Friend and the Mayor of London, to visit one of the development sites between Nine Elms and Battersea. It is fantastic to see that project going ahead and I hope that the support and commitment we are giving to help with the borrowing required to fund the Northern line extension will help to create 25,000 jobs in that area of London.
The £5 billion programme of capital infrastructure is to be welcomed. What is not to be welcomed is that it will be paid for out of the pay packets of individuals in both the private and public sectors. Last year the Chancellor said that he believed that the British public were able to spend their money better than the British Government. When did he stop believing that?
Perhaps I can explain to the hon. Gentleman that taxes come from people working in the public and private sectors. Money spent on infrastructure is well spent. For every £1 spent on infrastructure we have made savings in current spending, so we are not adding to borrowing in order to fund it. It will help to create jobs and support the economy.
Did my right hon. Friend hear Opposition Members laughing when he initially mentioned help with the cost of living? Does he agree that that is backed up by the shadow Chancellor’s refusal to recognise that low interest rates have kept many families in their homes over the past couple of years, including the very women and children that he says he cares about?
My hon. Friend is right. Low interest rates are helping to keep people in their homes, mortgage payments down and businesses going. If hon. Members want to know what the alternative would be, they should look across the Channel to European countries in the middle of the debt storm, with interest rates going up. We can see that is a path that we must avoid, but we will only do so if we do not follow the policies advocated by that lot opposite.
Will the Chancellor now take the opportunity to admit at the Dispatch Box that £158 billion is the deterioration in the forecast that has just been announced? How long will it now take to balance the books, and is not the statement today an admission that this country will have more severe austerity going forward?
I said that the borrowing forecast had deteriorated, and—unlike the Labour party—I set up an independent body to ensure that those figures are independently verified and not fiddled, as they were by the shadow Chancellor when he was in office. I can confirm that borrowing would be £100 billion higher if we had pursued the spending policies set out by the Labour party.
May I welcome the Chancellor’s statement today, especially in its support for small business? I recently visited a company in my constituency, Somers Forge, which is growing and providing young people with training and support. Does he agree that that is precisely the sort of business that will benefit from some of the measures that he has announced today?
Absolutely. We are doing a huge amount to support small businesses through our rate policy, the national loan guarantee scheme that we have announced and the support that we have given to companies that innovate and want to bring those innovations to market. We are doing all those things to help the small businesses of this country so that they can create jobs and grow.
The announcement of new investment in transport infrastructure is very welcome. Can the Chancellor confirm that that investment will not be funded by reducing or delaying existing projects, and what will his announcement mean for the future of the northern hub and investment in rail across the north?
I can give that confirmation. This is additional money that has come from savings in current spending. Specifically on the northern hub, the first part of that is the electrification of the Manchester to Leeds trans-Pennine express, but that will also benefit train travel times from Liverpool across the Pennines. We have also made other improvements like the Ordsall chord, which will help. We want to go further on the northern hub and the Department for Transport will produce proposals on that early next year.
Mr Speaker, you, I and many other hon. Members have campaigned long and hard for east-west rail and today’s announcement is tremendous news for Milton Keynes. As the Transport Secretary is in her place, can my right hon. Friend the Chancellor confirm the possibility that we will have east-west rail and, at the junction between east-west and High Speed 2, could there perhaps be a Buckinghamshire Parkway station so that residents of Buckinghamshire could enjoy the benefits of High Speed 2 as well as the pain?
I do not think that a decision has been taken on stations, but I agree with my hon. Friend that we need to bring home to the people of Buckinghamshire the benefits of high-speed rail.
The Chancellor stressed the importance economically both of regional connectivity and infrastructure. Can he confirm whether the Northern Ireland Barnett consequentials of the infrastructure changes will be ring-fenced? Further, can he offer any good news on air passenger duty for those who rely entirely on regional flights for that connectivity?
It will be up to the devolved Administration to choose how to spend the money that is allocated to them, but of course as it is one-off money—being capital spending—they will need to think carefully about how they spend it. On aviation, the Department for Transport will set out an aviation strategy, but it is confirmed in today’s document that we were able to take the decision that saved the long-haul flight from Belfast to north America.
I welcome the Chancellor’s statement and the announcement today that the Manchester airport A6 link road will be brought forward. That will be a real boost for Manchester and north-east Cheshire. Does my right hon. Friend agree that capital investment is the right way to strengthen our regions, rather than relying on the increases in public sector spending that we saw from the last Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As my constituency is affected by that road link, I very much welcome it, although I stress that the decision was not taken by me for that reason. He will know, and local people will remember, that that road scheme was cancelled in the first week of the Labour Government in 1997, and I am glad that we have now been able to take steps to help south Manchester and north Cheshire grow.
The Chancellor has already announced 500,000 job cuts in the public sector alongside pay freezes, both of which have deflated demand, reduced growth and helped to increase the deficit by £158 billion. He is now imposing a 3% income tax on all public servants dressed up as a pension contribution for a lower pension after working longer. Will he accept that that will mean a 3% reduction in the spending power of all public servants, which will be deflationary and which, as well as being unfair, unwise and discriminatory, will provoke an unnecessary strike tomorrow?
We are basing our pension reforms on the report from Lord Hutton. He particularly focused on the benefit, but he said that there was a case for the increase in contributions. He also said recently that it was frankly difficult to imagine a better deal. That was the former Labour Pensions Secretary. What I do not understand is what exactly the policy of the Labour party is on this. They are absolutely silent. Are you in favour of increased contributions? [ Interruption. ] If you are not in favour of the increased contributions, where in your so-called five-point plan are you spending the money to stop those contribution increases? It is completely economically illiterate—[ Interruption. ] Ian Austin talks about negotiations. Why do he and his party not condemn the strike, urge the unions to sit round the table and negotiate with us to get a deal, especially as the former Labour Pensions Secretary, John Hutton—a man I know the hon. Gentleman really admires—says that it would be difficult to get a better deal?
Order. I may or may not be economically illiterate, but I gently, tentatively and courteously point out to the Chancellor that I do not have a five-point plan.
I thank the Chancellor for listening to millions of hard-pressed motorists and the Fair Fuel UK campaign and for not raising fuel duty next year. Is he aware that that will save 37,000 Harlow motorists more than £1 million next year? Will he listen to Essex man once again and set up a commission to look at the long-term problems of petrol and diesel price rises and see whether anything more can be done?
I should pay particular tribute to my hon. Friend, who has led a dogged campaign on behalf of the people of Harlow and of the whole country to get some relief from the increases in petrol taxes that were planned by the last Labour Government. I am delighted that we have been able to help. I always listen to Essex man, who is represented in the form of my hon. Friend.
Of course people who work in the public sector pay taxes and make an enormous contribution to the British economy, but the hon. Lady should recognise that public sector pay restraint and pension reform at a time such as this is one of the ways in which we can reduce the impact of the very large deficit that her Government ran up on the public sector work force.
I give a wholehearted welcome to the announcement concerning the lower Thames crossing, which will make a big difference to Kent, as will the massive help for small business finance. May I make a plea to the Chancellor to look further at small business equity finance? In particular, will he consider whether there is scope for expanding, or possibly floating, the business growth fund?
I am very happy to look at ideas to enhance the business growth fund, which is principally operated by the banks, under which they have committed to invest in the equity of small companies. We have already announced the seed enterprise investment scheme, which will help angel investments in companies. I am glad that my hon. Friend supports the commitment that we made to the new crossing at the lower Thames.
The Chancellor has proclaimed support for business and jobs in the present climate. He also puts at a premium innovation, productivity and exports. Do his plans therefore extend to assisting firms in the sterling zone—I am talking particularly about the areas of medical devices, life sciences and sustainable technologies—that are finding the flow and scale of orders from eurozone countries compromised and the reliability of payments damaged because of austerity measures in those countries?
I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that austerity measures are to blame, but I certainly agree that that is a real problem. Of course one of the consequences of the ongoing eurozone crisis has been an increase in bank funding costs across the European continent. The further disruption to the financial system is having an impact on exports to the eurozone, which is one of the reasons that this crisis is having a chilling effect on the British economy. Later today, I will be going to another meeting of European Finance Ministers in Brussels to try to get a better resolution of the problems.
In my constituency in the London borough of Hounslow, we have a real and immediate shortage of school places. I therefore welcome the Chancellor’s announcement today of the £600 million investment in school places. Will he confirm that that will mean an extra 40,000 places for school children and will he say when that money will become available?
We are addressing the problem of basic need, which was ignored by the previous Government. I know in places such as my hon. Friend’s constituency, the problem is acute. Let me write to her about the specific impact on her constituency and how many additional places the investment will create in the surrounding area.
In my constituency, religious and community organisations are now providing food parcels to poor families. At the same time, we are seeing executive pay and remuneration soar. There was nothing in the Budget statement that addressed executive pay or remuneration. Are the Government going to bring forward some controls to tackle that obscene inequality?
I know that the previous Government were
“intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”.
We are introducing transparency in pay. We are bringing regulations before the House to force banks to disclose the incomes of their eight highest paid employees. We are also consulting on high pay more generally. We have introduced the bank levy, which the previous Government failed to introduce in 13 years and which the shadow Chancellor could have introduced when he was City Minister, but never did.
I congratulate the Chancellor on his support for micro-businesses, which, as he well knows, I extensively champion. The extension to small business relief is great and the new seed enterprise investment scheme is fantastic. Can we hope to have more focus on the very important tiny companies that are too often overshadowed by the big brother SMEs? They are the area for new jobs and for growth in the economy.
My hon. Friend is indeed a powerful champion of micro-businesses. She has spoken to me about them on a number of occasions in the past year. We have set out a number of measures that will help such businesses, including the rate relief holiday, the seed investment scheme and the support for innovation. We are consulting and having a call for evidence specifically on compensated no-fault dismissal for firms of fewer than 10 employees.
It was the Labour Government who let the City explode. They allowed that to happen when the shadow Chancellor was the City Minister. They had 13 years to regulate the City and I suspect that on not one occasion did the hon. Lady write to either Tony Blair or the last Prime Minister calling for that regulation. The Labour party presided over the biggest financial crisis in our country’s history. We are properly regulating the banks and introducing ring-fencing. We have brought in a permanent bank tax and transparency in bankers’ pay. None of those things existed in the 13 years of Labour Government.
I welcome the Chancellor’s statement which includes measures that will really help Staffordshire such as the M6 managed motorways scheme and the announcement on energy-intensive industries. How much does my right hon. Friend expect to make from the anti-tax avoidance measures that he has taken and that the previous Government did not?
I am glad that my hon. Friend welcomes the support that we have given to businesses and families in Staffordshire. I am also glad that he welcomes the M6 managed motorways scheme. We have taken specific measures to deal with both tax avoidance and unfair tax treatment. For example, the measures that I have announced to deal with double tax relief and asset-backed pension contributions will raise £450 million and the measures to deal with low-value consignment relief, which was strangling music shops on our high street, will raise £100 million. We have taken action, which the previous Government failed to take, to ensure that everyone pays their fair share.
Regarding lending to small business, can the Chancellor confirm that under his loan guarantee scheme, the credit risk will remain with the banks? If so, how will it work in practice given that the banks have been averse to lending and expanding their balance sheets? Furthermore, what safeguards will there be to ensure that they do not largely fatten interest margins and their profits under his scheme?
Of course I am happy for the hon. Gentleman to be part of those discussions on enterprise zones. Many areas of the country put in bids for enterprise zones. We were able only to give the go-ahead to the 22 that we announced previously and the two now for Humber and Lancashire, which I have confirmed today. There is also the expansion of the north-eastern one to the Port of Blyth, which is warmly welcomed on the Opposition Benches. I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the problem. On the national loan guarantee scheme, he is right to say that we have to get the audit trail right. We are looking very closely and seeking to model a lot of what we are doing on the European Investment Bank’s scheme, which already delivers lower rates to small businesses in Britain. It is a small scheme but the procedures are already in place. I can confirm that the credit risk of the small business loan sits with the banks.
Does the Chancellor agree that the Government must continue to oppose the calls from the Labour party to adopt its plan B? When in government, it took our country to the brink of bankruptcy, and adopting its plan B would risk pushing it over the edge. The B in Labour’s plan B stands for bankruptcy.
It is indeed a plan B for bankruptcy. It is striking that no mainstream or centre-left party in Europe, other than the Labour party, currently advocates more spending. I can reach only one conclusion: the Labour party does so only because the man that it has chosen to be its shadow Chancellor is the man more identified than almost anyone else apart from the previous Prime Minister with the financial and economic mess that this country got into.
The Chancellor claims to support the manufacturing industry and told the House at the conclusion of this year’s Budget speech that he wanted to be
“carried aloft by the march of the makers” —[Hansard, 23 March 2011; Vol. 525, c. 966.]
in order to create jobs and support families. Will he explain, therefore, why he thinks it a good idea that the Government are undermining and potentially destroying the British train-building industry by building trains for the Thameslink line in Germany rather than at the Bombardier factory in Derby?
The hon. Gentleman should be straight with the House. That was a contract signed by the previous Labour Government—[Hon. Members: “No it wasn’t.”]It was a procurement process initiated by the previous Labour Government that left no other option for the British Government than the contract signed. That was the contract that we were forced to deal with under the rules of the previous Labour Government. In the autumn statement document, we set out changes to procurement rules to ensure that these sorts of things do not happen again. I can also confirm that we have committed to building 130 carriages on Southern Rail, and I very much hope that they can be built in Britain.
From his statement, it is clear that my right hon. Friend has listened carefully to businesses in the port of Falmouth, where we want to strike the right balance between protecting our environment and developing a sustainable regional economy and new jobs. Will he detail what measures he has put in place to overcome the obstacles in our way?
I remember visiting the Falmouth estuary with my hon. Friend and talking to the local harbour master, the port authority and others about the ridiculous situation whereby we cannot dredge the Falmouth estuary and expand the port. The specific reference in my speech to the EU habitats directive was in part a reference to what was happening in Falmouth. As Members will know, I am working extremely hard to overcome these problems so that we can get the estuary dredged, as it has always been dredged, create jobs in Falmouth and address the ridiculous imbalance in our society whereby, in order to protect seaweed at the bottom of the Falmouth estuary, we cannot dredge it and create hundreds of jobs in Falmouth.
In view of the decision that the Chancellor has announced regarding the reduction in tolls on the Humber bridge, may I ask him—he, too, is a Cheshire MP—whether he will consider what can be done to reduce the proposed level of tolls on the Mersey gateway? More specifically, will he consider the condition limiting how much of the toll revenue Halton council can use to give discounts to local residents? As he knows, they can travel across the current bridge for free, but when the new bridge is built, both bridges will be tolled.
I very much want the second Mersey crossing to get the go-ahead, and the Government have committed the support, including financial support, to the specific plan. It has to be tolled to be paid for, however, as I am sure people understand, but I would draw a distinction with the Humber bridge: the debt on the Humber bridge was paid for many years ago and so the tolls were unreasonable. However, when providing new infrastructure, we have to find a way of funding it. It has to come either from general taxation—we are providing tax support—or out of the tolls. However, I shall consider the hon. Gentleman's specific point about the arrangements with Halton council, speak to my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary and get back to him.
Just three weeks ago, I set up an all-party group to campaign for the reopening of the east-west rail link. May I thank the Chancellor for agreeing to our requests, and will he confirm that the project has a benefit-cost ratio of more than 6:1 and is line to generate up to 12,000 high-quality jobs along the route?
This is evidence of what a powerful campaigner my hon. Friend is on behalf of his constituents and Milton Keynes, and I am delighted that we can develop these plans, which have the potential to create many, many thousands of jobs. It would be good to reopen a railway line in Britain.
I am concerned that the Chancellor might be missing a trick. Hundreds of millions of pounds of European regional development funding are waiting to be drawn down by the UK, including £100 million for the north-east alone. Is the Government’s failure to take steps to secure match funding—for example, through the regional growth fund—a deliberate policy or simply an oversight?
We are keen to make use of European funds where available, but there are issues of affordability with match funding. I can assure the hon. Lady, however, that if she contacts me with specific examples of European funding that she wants us to draw on, I will see whether it can be done.
The Chancellor will be aware that in the last year of the previous Government, the discrepancy in gross value added between London and the English regions reached 100%—the worst for two decades—so can he confirm that it remains at the forefront of his policy to fix this appalling situation?
Yes, absolutely. We must get the private sector in our regions growing. It is striking that, through all the years of the Labour Government—with the regional developments and their like—the disparity between the English regions actually grew. That is what happened under their regional policy. That was because they did not focus enough on getting the private sector growing. The Government can do that by supporting things such as the regional growth fund and through investment in transport infrastructure. I know that my hon. Friend has made a powerful case for improvements to Warrington town centre and traffic flow in the borough.
The Government have today announced plans that take three times as much from families as from banks. Given that, as we now see, half of all households cannot make ends meet at the end of the month, does the Chancellor think that, under his plans, more or fewer people will be forced to borrow from legal and illegal loan sharks?
That is a pretty ludicrous question. We have tried to help families through the freeze in fuel duty in January and with rail fares, and we are uprating working and non-working-age benefits in the way that I set out. We were unable to pay the additional £110 on the child tax credit child element, as I explained. That is because of the substantial increase that the uprating will provide.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on focusing firmly on monetary policy. May I urge him to consider the box-ticking farce that is the lending policy of most banks and to focus his excellent credit-easing policy on those sectors, such as suppliers to the construction industry, that are particularly disadvantaged by it?
I want to ensure, in the way that I set out, that the national loan guarantee scheme is available to companies with a turnover of less than £50 million. As I mentioned in my statement, the business finance partnership, which has not had as much attention as the national loan guarantee scheme, is a £1 billion fund—it can be more if it succeeds—specifically targeted at mid-cap companies to provide non-bank financing for those companies alongside, for example, pension and insurance funds.
At a time when inflation is 5% and when the average nurse in this country has had a two-year pay freeze, faces two years of a 1% pay limit, a 3% theft on her pension and frozen or capped increments, does the Chancellor agree that over this Parliament the average nurse’s living standards will fall by 10%, and that, if the plans for regional pay go through, people in the regions might be even worse off?
Well, the pay comes out of the health budget, and the official policy of the Labour party is not to increase health spending in real terms. [ Interruption. ] This is rubbish: that is the stated position of the shadow Health Secretary; that is what he says. On pay, I want to hear from the shadow Chancellor at some point this evening whether he supports a 1% average pay rise in the next few years, because then we will know whether the complaints that the hon. Gentleman has just made have any force.
My hon. Friend is right. The OECD was absolutely explicit in saying yesterday that we were right to be dealing with our debts, and if one looks, the forecasts for the UK were tough, but they were worse for many eurozone countries, which I am afraid is just an indication of the difficult world that we are in.
The Chancellor will be aware of the widespread calls from manufacturing businesses to increase the range and extent of capital allowances. Did I hear him correctly that his proposal to increase them to 100% is restricted to some enterprise zones and is not available to others? If that is the case, how will he ensure that this will lead to an increase in investment, rather than displacement investment? In a place such as the west midlands, which already has some of the poorest areas in the entire country, how would a public sector worker reach any conclusion from today’s announcement other than that he or she is being asked to work harder, for longer and for less, for doing the same job as somebody in the south-west or south-east?
First, we are today asking the independent pay bodies—which I think everyone in this House supports—to look at more local pay. That is the start of this process. Secondly, we increased capital allowances for short-life assets in the previous Budget. On the enterprise zones and the 100% relief that I have announced, there were specific proposals from the enterprise zones that I mentioned to attract new manufacturing and business into the zones. We are conscious that we want to avoid displacement activities, so we have given those capital allowances not to all enterprise zones, but to the enterprise zones that we think have the most compelling plans to create new businesses, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman would welcome that.
Hard-working commuters and others in Orpington who depend on Southeastern trains have for years been hit by a fare increase regime of RPI plus 3%. May I therefore welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision to cap rail increases at RPI plus 1%, which will provide hard-working families with much needed support in these difficult times?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s support. I hope that this measure will help people living in Orpington who commute into London to work and that it will really enable us to help local people at this difficult time with their costs of living.
I welcome the Chancellor’s statement on the port of Blyth, which is something for which I have been fighting for a long time—I asked the Business Secretary about that only last week, so this is good, quick thinking. However, is the Chancellor aware that south-east Northumberland, where Blyth and the estuary are, has the highest unemployment in the north-east and perhaps the country? Will he consider making the estuary and all the land around it into an enterprise zone, bringing the jobs to where the unemployment blackspots are?
I think I had better capture the moment when I get a compliment from the hon. Gentleman. We have acted quickly on a specific proposal that was made for the port of Blyth. We are going to consult on it and get the detail right. I am happy to consider the proposal that he makes. It has to be affordable, of course, and it has to work in terms of encouraging enterprise and new business, but we are absolutely committed to the north-eastern zone and to the port of Blyth being a successful part of it.
I congratulate the Chancellor on a statement that is absolutely right for these tough times and, particularly for Londoners, on his investment in infrastructure projects. Will he consider, in discussion with the Transport Secretary, bringing forward the Crossrail infrastructure project to parts of London? That would be good not only for parts of London, but especially for my constituents. We have a station—Ealing Broadway station—that has been urgently in need of an upgrade for many years now.
I can give my hon. Friend an assurance that we are certainly not going to delay on Crossrail, which is currently being built—we can see that at the moment around London. We have looked at this, but with such a complicated project, I do not think that it is possible to advance it faster than it is going at the moment, because it is going as fast as it can.
I welcome the Chancellor’s plan B. It is a small start, but at least it shows that his previous plan A—reduction of public infrastructure investment—was a mistake. Can he tell me what steps the Government will take to ensure that the construction companies that pick up contracts under his infrastructure investment scheme will take on apprentices, and also say how many jobs in the construction industry he thinks will be created by this £30 billion of investment?
I explained that, pound for pound and in each year, we were paying for infrastructure spending with savings in current spending or underspend, so the position is absolutely consistent with the plan that I set out before. On jobs, I have not put a figure on the total number of jobs created by all this infrastructure—I do not want to over-promise and under-deliver. It will create jobs, but we do not have a figure. We are dramatically expanding the number of apprenticeships. I want to ensure that they are in the construction sector, and I would certainly hope that large firms taking part in Government infrastructure investment projects—and, indeed, firms in our small business scheme—are also taking on apprentices.
May I welcome the Chancellor’s vote of confidence in the space sector today? I hope that Portsmouth, via Astrium, might benefit directly from that investment, but wherever the money goes, can he confirm that this Government will be—if he will forgive the expression—a “launch customer” and that our procurement will support those companies in massively increasing their exports?
We are giving specific support to new satellite manufacturing, which is a real success story in Britain—it is one of those untold stories. I know that the sector is particularly successful in the area that my hon. Friend represents. From memory—I will certainly correct the record if I have got this wrong—we are providing £25 million to support the development of new satellites, as a result bringing, we think, an additional £150 million of private sector investment into the small satellites sector, which I think is also taking place in the area that she represents. That is a good example of the Government trying to encourage the private sector and get jobs across the country.
The retail sector is finding it extremely difficult and is being hammered in the current economic climate, yet it is a sector that usually provides lots of jobs for young people. Did the Chancellor not consider a scheme to help underwrite credit insurance, in particular to help independent retailers?
If the hon. Gentleman has specific proposals on credit insurance, I will be very happy to look at them. When it comes to credit easing more broadly, I have set a £40 billion envelope, although I have committed only £21 billion today, as it covers the two schemes that were ready to go: the national loan guarantee scheme and the business finance partnership. We are looking at partnership schemes and other things that might work within the envelope, and of course we are vigilant about conditions in the broader economy—including issues such as trade finance—that might be affected by the eurozone crisis.
I am sure that the Chancellor is aware that Jaguar Land Rover is currently constructing an engine plant in an enterprise zone in my constituency of South Staffordshire. Does he agree that measures on enterprise zones, R and D tax credits and infrastructure development will help the continued manufacturing revival?
Yes, I of course agree with my hon. Friend. Again, another success story at the moment is the car industry. I am absolutely delighted by Jaguar Land Rover’s announcement, which is a real vote of confidence in the UK—the company could have constructed that engine plant elsewhere in the world. The announcements that I have made on R and D above-the-line tax credits will also help larger companies do their R and D in Britain.
One of the biggest problems of modern society is youth unemployment. The Chancellor said that companies would be given national insurance discounts and other incentives to recruit and train young people. What other help will they be offered for that purpose?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and welcome his announcement of a national infrastructure plan, particularly in the context of south Essex. There is no doubt that investment in vital infrastructure is a key driver of growth. Will he agree to work with Members in areas that will benefit from the investment, to ensure that we obtain the best return on it both locally and nationally?
I certainly give that commitment, and I hope that south Essex will benefit from the commitment that we have already given today to work on a third crossing over the lower Thames. There are a number of possible locations for it, but it will definitely help economic activity both north and south of the Thames.
Before the general election, growth was increasing, the deficit was being reduced and unemployment was falling. Since the election, growth is down, borrowing is up and unemployment is going through the sky, and ordinary people are feeling the pain. Can the Chancellor truthfully tell us that his plan is working?
I had probably forgotten that we had inherited a golden economic legacy from the Labour party. What I remember is that we inherited a country that did not have a credible plan to deal with the deficit, which the credit rating agencies had put on negative outlook, and which the CBI, the OECD and all the other international organisations said lacked a credible plan.
Of course, as the OBR has made clear in its independent report, we are dealing with the consequences of the catastrophic failure of the last Labour Government to regulate financial services better, not least during the period when the shadow Chancellor was City Minister. That caused one of the deepest crashes of our country’s history. [Interruption.] We no longer hear the phrase “No more boom and bust” from the shadow Chancellor. He invented that phrase, and he gave us the largest boom and the biggest bust in our entire history.
The seed enterprise investment scheme will provide 50% tax relief for all who invest in a qualifying start-up, even if they do not pay the 50% rate of income tax. The investment can be up to £100,000, although of course it can be much less. The companies involved can receive a maximum of £150,000. Those who have a capital gain can invest up to £100,000 of it in the scheme, and the amount will be tax-free for the next financial year. The scheme is aimed at small as well as slightly larger investors, and is designed to help start-up companies to obtain the finance they need.
The last Chancellor to see interest rates go through the roof was not a Labour Chancellor, but the one who was advised by this Chancellor’s right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. If the Chancellor seriously thinks that the current level of interest rates is a sign of his success, will he consider any increase in interest rates to be a sign of failure?
We are doing all we can to keep our country safe in a debt storm. We need only look at the Italian bond auction today to see the market rates that
Italy is paying. We are currently, in a debt crisis, borrowing money more cheaply than Germany. That represents a vote of confidence in the deficit plan of the United Kingdom.
I thank the Chancellor for listening to the representations of energy-intensive industries, and I welcome the measures that he has announced. They will be examined closely by companies such as CEMEX, which is in my constituency. Can he give us an estimate of the number of UK jobs that will be saved as a result of his measures, both directly and in the supply chain?
We have not made an exact estimate of the number of jobs that will be saved, but I am certain that these measures will help to keep such industries in the United Kingdom. It is important that we do not price our industry out of the world market. That would do nothing to reduce our carbon emissions, but it would damage our economy. We have worked with the energy-intensive industries and the business organisations to develop our package, and I think that it achieves the right balance between ensuring that those industries remain competitive and meeting our international environmental obligations.
The Government have made a virtue of wanting to make work pay. How does it make work pay first to reduce child care tax credit, and then not to upgrade working tax credit in the same way as out-of-work benefit?
We are uprating the child care element of child tax credit, along with other elements of child tax credit, in line with September CPI inflation, so it is not true to say that we are not uprating child tax credit. We had to make a difficult decision on working tax credit, but we think that one of best ways of supporting low-income working people is to take them out of the tax system altogether.
Last week I met members of the committee of the Federation of Small Businesses in my constituency to hear about their principal difficulties, one of which was gaining access to affordable finance. Today I believe that both they and manufacturers in Gloucester will be especially pleased to hear about the Chancellor’s creation of a national loan guarantee scheme to provide more and affordable finance. As he said, that will be the best key to increasing growth and the number of apprenticeships and reducing unemployment in our city and elsewhere. When does he expect the scheme to be open for business?
We hope to get it up and running in the next couple of months. We must clear the state aid hurdles—I am afraid that that is a fact of life—but we have been making good progress, and we hope that following the European Investment Bank scheme that already exists will make the process relatively simple. We are open to other credit-easing programmes such as partnership schemes, which some people have suggested, and we want to work with the Federation of Small Businesses and others to ensure that small businesses receive their money in the form of reduced rates for those who participate in the scheme.
I said explicitly in my statement that we would not make the best the enemy of the good. We must get the scheme up and running as quickly as possible in order to help companies in Gloucester and elsewhere that have found it difficult to gain access to finance over the last three or four years.
The issue of the Severn bridge tolls is different. There will come a point later in the decade when the question arises of what we do with the toll income and how it is allocated between England and Wales. I want to establish, in discussion with the Welsh Government in Cardiff, whether we can arrange to use the money from the tolls to support the M4 corridor in south Wales.
It does. It is an illegal policy, which is a novel thing for an Opposition to advance. As I have said, fuel duty and taxes would be 10p higher if we had not acted in the Budget or in the autumn. [Interruption.] I still have not heard whether the shadow Chancellor supports what we have done on fuel duty. He will probably say yes, but he will not say how he would fund it. As, unfortunately, he did not discover at the Treasury, we must make the sums add up in order to keep the country’s books balanced and ensure that we stay out of a debt storm.
In the first nine months of this year, on the Chancellor’s watch, long-term youth unemployment in my constituency increased by 192%. I ask the Chancellor this: how can it be right that young people in my constituency are paying the price for the Government’s abject failure to get the economy moving?
Unfortunately, the young people the hon. Lady refers to are paying the price for the biggest boom and bust in our country’s economic history, which the Government she supported presided over. What this coalition Government are doing is introducing a youth contract to help those people in Lewisham and elsewhere. It will provide work experience after three months for the unemployed, it will require weekly signing on after five months, and it will provide subsidised jobs in the private sector, encouraging businesses to get people into work and offer apprenticeships. In return, it will ask those young people actively to look for work, and there are sanctions if they do not do so. That is what we are offering the young people of Lewisham, who were so badly betrayed by a Labour Government.
I thank the Chancellor for his £110 million vote of confidence in Kettering with the approval of two major road schemes:
the widening of the A14 Kettering bypass, and the go-ahead for the A43 Corby link road, which is also known as the Geddington bypass. When does he anticipate the diggers will move in and construction can start?
If I may, I will write to my hon. Friend with a specific answer on when the diggers will start on the widening of the A14 Kettering bypass and on the Corby link road, but these are commitments for this spending review so it is in the next few years and not at some future date. I know how important both those roads are for the local economy and for local people, and I am really pleased that, thanks in part to the campaign and the support of the local Member of Parliament, we have been able to give them the go-ahead.
We look forward to hearing about the dates for the diggers, as I am sure do the people of Kettering.
May I push the Chancellor a little further on borrowing, because so far in the exchanges he has not quite brought himself to admit that he is going to be borrowing £158 billion more than he planned to borrow a year ago? Will he confirm that that is the case—yes or no?
I set out the borrowing figures to Parliament and what the hon. Gentleman should admit is that the plan he is pursuing would add to the borrowing. We cannot borrow our way out of a debt crisis, and as long as the Labour party goes on advocating that approach, I suspect that its credibility will fall and fall.
On behalf of my constituents, I thank the Chancellor for the many initiatives that he has introduced for northern Lincolnshire and Humberside. Of course I cannot let the moment pass without a particular word of thanks for what he has done on the Humber bridge tolls, as it will be a great boost to the local economy. The national infrastructure plan rightly says that we have to wait until the new planning framework is in position before we can speed up the planning process. A number of major investments are pending in my constituency. Can he assure me that the full weight of the Government will be behind them to speed them along?
My hon. Friend absolutely has my assurance. If he wants to contact me with specific proposals that will create jobs in Cleethorpes and elsewhere in Lincolnshire, would he please let me know and I will do what I can to advance them, within the rules and the planning laws. As he knows, I am trying to reform those laws to make it easier to get the go-ahead for development that is sustainable and in tune with our broader environmental objectives. I want to make the planning system more rapid, and I should put on the record that the campaign that he has fought with other Members to get those Humber bridge tolls reduced shows that Cleethorpes has a powerful champion in my hon. Friend.
As a Yorkshire MP, I strongly welcome the Government’s decision to electrify the trans-Pennine rail link between Leeds and Manchester and the huge boost that that will bring to our northern economy. As a York MP, too, may I ask the Chancellor whether the Treasury has examined the strong economic case for linking Leeds to York?
There are many substantial measures to welcome in this package, but I wish to focus on the national loan guarantee scheme, because it will help many small businesses in my constituency, particularly those in the manufacturing and engineering sector. Does the Chancellor agree that what we should be hoping for from banks is more sophistication when they allocate money to small businesses and more analysis of what the prospects of small businesses actually are?
Yes, I think that we all want to see a move to a banking system that is more responsive to local businesses and local people and that is not just based on a computer model that allocates credit and the computer says no. We want to return to having local bank managers empowered to make decisions, and a number of banks are doing this. One of the notable successes at the moment is Handelsbanken, which is out there lending money to small businesses and taking more of this local approach.
The Chancellor’s statements of support in favour of energy-intensive industries will be welcomed in south Wales, the midlands and the north, which are areas that have seen a particular decline in manufacturing over the past decade. The statements will be particularly welcomed by Dow Corning, a chemical manufacturing company in Barry in my constituency. How will they work in practice in order to support these companies in reducing their energy bills?
We are going to provide specific compensation for electricity-intensive businesses affected by the EU trading system and by the carbon price floor. We are also going to increase the climate change levy relief and work to make sure that those businesses are not adversely impacted by the electricity market reforms. We have a suite of measures, but the overall intention is clear: we want to help businesses such as the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I should say that I was first alerted to what we can do by a visit before the election to the steel works in Port Talbot, where I was very struck with the argument made there that the business could simply be moved to Holland if we did not act. We have been able to come forward with help that I think is going to support industries in south Wales.
I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, the many measures in it and, in particular, the reaffirmation of his commitment to ensuring that we overcome Labour’s debt storm. Many hard-working families in my constituency who aspire to buy their own homes will be pleased with today’s measures to ease the housing market. Will he confirm how many people nationally he expects the mortgage indemnity scheme to help, when it might start and how many jobs it is likely to create?
From memory, I think it is going to help 100,000 people, and that is a real boost. With the other housing measures we are taking, including the support for stalled sites—the £400 million package we are providing—we hope that that is going to create several hundred thousand jobs in the construction industry over the period going forward. The 50% right-to-buy discount we are introducing revives one of the most effective social policies of the past few decades—one that the Labour leader recently had to admit had worked and that the Labour party was wrong to oppose. A crucial additional element is that we are going to use the money to build social housing, which is why I think it is a policy appropriate to the modern age.
One of the key inflationary pressures on the cost of housing is the level of housing benefit available, which was scandalously allowed to rise out of all proportion under the previous Government. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there will be no slackening of controls over housing benefit, so that housing costs can be controlled?
I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that we are going ahead with the cap on housing benefit, which is an important part of controlling costs. It is not fair that working people pay taxes to fund the rent for people who live in houses that those working people could never afford out of their salaries. It is quite right to introduce a cap to try to control those costs. Of all the benefits provided under the previous Government, this was one that really went through the roof, so to speak. Dealing with it and controlling it is a very important policy and it is a tragedy that the Labour party opposes the measure and no doubt wants to get rid of it at the next election.
Mrs Evans informs me that my three children will be on an unforeseen holiday tomorrow and I wondered whether my right hon. Friend would join me in urging the unions to call off tomorrow’s irresponsible strike. Does he agree with the shadow Chancellor’s “huge sympathy” for those going on strike tomorrow?
We should not be having a strike tomorrow. Negotiations are ongoing and we want those negotiations to conclude. I urge the unions, even at this late hour, to call off the strike and stop doing something that will damage the British economy and potentially cost jobs. Let us get around the table and try to get a deal, because I think that what is on offer is not only generous to the public sector and people who rely on public sector pensions but is also fair to the taxpayer. As Lord Hutton, the former Labour Pensions Secretary, has said,
“it is hard to imagine a better deal”.
I urge the trade union movement to take the deal.
I am grateful to the Chancellor and to colleagues, whose succinctness has enabled 96 Back-Bench Members to question the Chancellor in 97 minutes of exclusively Back-Bench time. That shows what can be done.