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Amendment of the Law

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:08 pm on 20th March 2014.

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Photo of Tom Blenkinsop Tom Blenkinsop Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:08 pm, 20th March 2014

First, I want to discuss the effects of the Budget on the steel industry. I welcome the news that the Government have announced their intention to introduce relief against the rapidly rising costs of carbon levies, and the mitigation of the renewables obligation is a particularly good step forward. As chair of the all-party group on steel and metal related industry, I, along with colleagues from the group, trade unions and the steel industry, have been campaigning hard on that for a long time. Having said that, however, I do have some concerns. The compensation is still two financial years away and the steel industry will continue to face considerable challenges in the interim given that the international demand for steel is still at mid-financial crisis levels and is probably worsening. Will the Minister clarify whether state aid clearance will take those two years and is there any way that the Treasury can bring the compensation forward so that the steel sector and other foundation industries do not have to wait?

I remind the House that the carbon price floor, which hits UK manufacturing four times as hard as our EU competitors, was introduced by this Chancellor and this Government. That has led to a number of jobs being lost, particularly at the Tata Steel site in Newport where 200 jobs were highlighted for potential redundancy last week. We have also seen the loss of Alcan in Northumberland as well as other manufacturing sites in the foundation sector.

I am similarly cautious about the Government’s proposals to increase the personal allowance. Although on the face of it that is an attractive policy, I am wary as increasing the personal allowance for income tax will do nothing for the millions of low earners who earn less than the current personal allowance.

It has recently been reported in the press that the Chancellor is considering renaming national insurance in the run-up to a potential merger with income tax, so I am surprised that the Budget does nothing to address the anomaly faced by millions of people who earn less than the annualised primary threshold and still face a class 1 national insurance contribution liability. For example, despite earning less than the annualised primary threshold in 2012-13 some 3.48 million people had an average national insurance liability of £172 simply because of the distribution of their earnings across the year. The anomaly is caused by the fact that national insurance liability is calculated per pay period rather than annually. That is particularly problematic for the 583,000 people working on zero-hours contracts—a figure that has trebled since the general election—whose pay varies significantly week to week. I urge Ministers to revisit this subject in addition to considering raising the personal allowance, as it would be a positive step to take those very low earners out of an unpopular and regressive tax. I also want to see an update from the Chancellor on his 2011 proposal to merge national insurance and income tax.

I also have some concerns about the Government’s proposed changes to ISAs and the proposed introduction of a pensioners savings bond. I have tabled a number of written questions on these issues, but I hope that Ministers will be able to address them today. As many hon. Members have stated, increasing the ISA limit does little to help those who could not dream of saving £15,000 a year. I think that is a legitimate concern, but I am also somewhat concerned by the removal of the distinction between a cash ISA and a stocks and shares ISA. My fear is that it might nudge savers to move investments from stocks and shares ISAs, the contents of which often include the most speculative investments necessary to allow for innovation and growth, to low-yield cash ISAs. Although savers have differing personal risk appetites, it would be interesting to see what assessment the Treasury has made of the effects of ISA simplification on capital markets.

I am also concerned about the pensioners savings bond. Although of course we all want pensioners to get the best possible deal, I am curious about how, at a time of austerity and cuts, the Treasury can fiscally justify paying 4% annual interest on a three-year bond for pensioners when a three-year gilt yield is less than 1.2%. I am also curious about how the Chancellor feels that it is justifiable to offer the product only to those who are over 65 and not to younger hard-working families who might want access to such a market-beating preferential interest rate or who, for reasons such as early-retirement caused by workplace injury or other anomalies, might financially depend on income from savings. I have tabled questions to ask how the Government will account for that and whether they will consider the 4% annual interest they will pay on the debt under the debt interest headings they use in their analyses. Furthermore, has the Treasury considered whether it will crowd investment out of the private sector by offering such an interest rate when banks and building societies are offering, at best, a 2.7% fixed annual interest rate on three-year bonds? In previous Budgets from this Government, we have heard arguments about the public sector crowding out the private sector. I would like to see a Treasury assessment of how the policy might crowd out the private sector.