Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Treasury – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 9th December 2014.

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Photo of Fiona O'Donnell Fiona O'Donnell Labour, East Lothian 11:30 am, 9th December 2014

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

The core purpose of the Treasury is to ensure economic stability, promote growth and employment, reform the banking system and restore sanity to the public finances.

Photo of Fiona O'Donnell Fiona O'Donnell Labour, East Lothian

On Wednesday I asked the Chancellor about public registers of beneficial ownership in the Crown dependencies and overseas territories. He replied that

“they are all consulting, right now, on the creation of these registries.”—[Hansard, 3 December 2014; Vol. 589, c. 328.]

The fact is that two are not consulting and the others have all finished their consultations, although none has published its submissions or its policies. Will the Chief Secretary now set the record straight?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I will set the record straight. The record shows that under the previous Labour Government the Crown dependencies and these bodies did not make any progress on registers of beneficial ownership. Progress is being substantially made now because of the lead this Government showed at the G8. By the way, these same places have also now agreed to the automatic exchange of tax information, to make sure that for the first time—this is something the Government of the hon. Lady’s party never did—we can get tax from people who are trying to hide it in these jurisdictions.

Photo of Stewart Jackson Stewart Jackson Conservative, Peterborough

My constituents in Peterborough who work at Thomas Cook and many families with young children will have been delighted by the announcement on children’s air passenger duty in last week’s autumn statement. Will the Exchequer Secretary give an undertaking that she will continue to monitor the impact of air passenger duty on tourism and the family budget and not rule out further cuts in the near future?

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel The Exchequer Secretary

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The reductions in air passenger duty announced last week are to be welcomed not just by his constituents and by Thomas Cook but by hard-working families across the country. As with all other taxes, air passenger duty will be kept under review, taking into account our commitment to creating sustainable public finances alongside helping households and, of course, the tourism industry.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

Will the Chief Secretary confirm that table 2.3 on page 67 of the autumn statement shows that total managed expenditure will fall to 35% of GDP by 2020? According to the Office for Budget Responsibility, that is a level not seen since the late 1930s. Does he stand by the autumn statement or not?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

The way in which the autumn statement is constructed is that the OBR is given an assumption about the path of the public finances over the course of the whole of the next Parliament. As I explained yesterday to readers of The Daily Telegraph—perhaps the hon. Gentleman does not count himself as one of them—a neutral assumption is built into the public finances post 2017-18 which assumes that spending will stay flat in real terms. That enables the OBR to construct its forecast. In my view, when we have finished dealing with the structural deficit post 2017-18, public expenditure will be able to grow faster than that.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury

It does not sound as though the right hon. Gentleman stands by the autumn statement much, Mr Speaker. On Wednesday, the chairman of the Office for Budget Responsibility wrote to the Business Secretary confirming that the autumn statement and all the policy assumptions leading to this figure of 35% were

“signed off by the ‘quad’”.

Is the Chief Secretary still a member of the “quad”, and is that actually true? Why is he now pretending to distance himself from his consistent record of Tory collaboration when he has been as thick as thieves with them in vote after vote, year after year, time and time again?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I guess it is a tough job being shadow Chief Secretary: he has to deal with the shadow Chancellor. I saw a quote from the previous Chancellor just this weekend, in Alan Cochrane’s diaries. It said, “I don’t think Miliband gets much of a look-in on the economy now. He’s a difficult man, is Balls.” I guess that is what they mean by a zero-zero economy: one Ed has zero influence; the other has zero credibility. Let me say this to the Labour party and to the Conservative party: both of them, in different ways, are advocating relentless austerity for the whole of the next Parliament, and it is only the Liberal Democrats turning around the public finances after 2017-18 who offer any hope of a change in the future.

Photo of John Glen John Glen Conservative, Salisbury

Public Health England at Porton Down in my constituency is at the centre of the global life sciences industry and works with 250 partnerships across the globe. The outline business case is currently before a number of Government Departments. Will the Minister assure me that the fullest range of options will be considered, including a proposal to set up a UK centre for a global response to infectious diseases, which I believe would reduce the call on the British taxpayer?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that this is an important and, I understand, sensitive decision, which Public Health England is considering in all its aspects. The outline business case is currently with Treasury officials for scrutiny. I know that this work is incredibly important, not least given the recent Ebola outbreak in west Africa, but it would be inappropriate for me to give any further details on the business case until the review has been completed.

Photo of Jim McGovern Jim McGovern Labour, Dundee West

I am sure that those on the Government Front Bench will be aware of just how important the video games industry is to Dundee and to my constituency. The Chancellor said last week that he would support exports. Businesses in the video games industry are often started by university graduates with little or no financial support, yet they end up employing people. What will the autumn statement mean for the video games businesses in Dundee?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I absolutely recognise the importance of the video games industry to Dundee and other parts of the country, and indeed to many hon. Members. I do not know whether Candy Crush was developed in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, but it is clearly very popular in the House. The package of measures in the autumn statement to support exporters will benefit the video games industry, as will the improvements to tax relief for research and development, which will particularly benefit small and medium-sized enterprises. If he has further ideas for measures that might benefit that industry in his area, I would be glad to hear them.

Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire

On small business Saturday I visited retail businesses in Brecon, Llanwrtydwells and Talgarth. They told me how pleased they were with the employment allowance, which gave them a reduction of up to £2,000 in their employer national insurance contributions. More than 1,000 businesses benefit from that in my constituency, but up to 500 that are eligible have not applied. What can we do to encourage them to take up this important measure?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me the opportunity to highlight the importance of these changes. As a local Member of Parliament, he has a particularly important role to play in promoting them, as he has done for the businesses already taking them up. I encourage him to continue to do that and to talk to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about whether there is more we can do to get that message across.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Last week, the Chancellor said:

“What I reject is the totally hyperbolic BBC coverage on spending cuts. I had all that…four years ago and has the world fallen in? No”.

At my surgeries, I meet mothers dependent on food banks to feed their families, fathers desperate at lost Sure Start services, and disabled pensioners choosing between heating and eating. They tell me that their world has fallen in. Does the Chief Secretary agree with the Chancellor that they are being “hyperbolic”?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I am sure the hon. Lady explained to those constituents that the severe economic problems this country is experiencing and recovering from were caused on her party’s watch when it was in office. Although I share the view that these are difficult issues, I hope she would also highlight the fact that her constituency has seen 5,200 jobs created in the past 12 months.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Conservative, Basingstoke

The confidence to create a new business is a true barometer of the progress this Government are making on the long-term economic plan. Will the Chief Secretary join me in welcoming the 1,000 new businesses that have been created in my constituency in the past 12 months? What is he doing to encourage more people to find their entrepreneurial spirit?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

The right hon. Lady is right about that, and I join her in congratulating all 1,000 of those businesses in her constituency and millions more nationwide. We are talking about people who have set up their own businesses and are working hard to create wealth, jobs and growth for this country. That is why a range of the tax and regulatory changes we have put in place have been designed precisely to make the UK the best place in the world to start and grow a business.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

A few weeks ago, the Chancellor rushed off to Europe to try to get the cap on bankers’ pay lifted. Will he do the same for public sector workers, and, in particular, nurses?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I am not sure that that is a matter for discussion at a European Union level.

Photo of Gordon Birtwistle Gordon Birtwistle Liberal Democrat, Burnley

Rebalancing the economy has been crucial in delivering the coalition Government’s economic plan. Delivering skills for the future is vital. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the funding of professional careers advice must be part of the plan, to ensure that the growth in manufacturing is secured for the future?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend on that. He has done more than most Members of this House to promote apprenticeships, the creation of skills and the manufacturing industry, and I pay tribute to him for his work. I ask him to look at what we have said about this in the autumn statement, which contains particular measures to promote the provision of better careers advice in schools.

Photo of Kelvin Hopkins Kelvin Hopkins Labour, Luton North

This week, growth forecasts for the eurozone economies have again been downgraded, but the European Central Bank is refusing to adopt counteracting measures of quantitative easing. What plans do the Government have for protecting Britain’s economy in the event of a full-blown euro crisis?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

The best protection for the UK is to stick to the economic plan that is creating jobs and growth up and down this country. That is what the coalition has done and will continue to do. The OBR’s forecast, published last week, showed that it expects the UK, despite the difficulties to which the hon. Gentleman refers, to continue to have economic momentum over the next few years.

Photo of Anne McIntosh Anne McIntosh Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

Rural communities are clearly not part of the city regions and possibly will not form part of the northern powerhouse. What assurances can the Chief Secretary give us that rural communities will benefit from the increased prosperity from the long-term economic plan?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

My hon. Friend makes an important point, although I would say to her that rural communities are part of local enterprise partnership areas that benefit from the growth deals announced last year. The city deals and the devolution process we are engaged in benefit all parts of the UK. I highlight to her the investment this Government are making in transport and in broadband as particularly important in driving growth in rural communities.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Shadow Minister (Education)

The Office for Budget Responsibility has forecast that individual unsecured debt will rise over the next five years by a staggering £360 billion, which is a record 55% of total household income. More people will be thrust into poverty and forced to go to food banks, and that will not be because more of them know about them or that poor people cannot cook. Does the Chief Secretary agree with the Chancellor that the best way to reduce his borrowing is to increase everyone else’s debts?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

That same economic forecast suggests that an extra 1 million people will be in work from the record levels that we have at the moment; that there will be a consistent rise in real incomes over the next five years; and that the United Kingdom has the strongest economic growth of any developed country in the world and the strongest job creation. Those are the facts about the United Kingdom and the hon. Lady should welcome them.

Photo of Mark Menzies Mark Menzies Conservative, Fylde

May I put it on the record that I support the Government’s drive to create a northern powerhouse? What assurances can the Chief Secretary give me that constituencies such as my own in Fylde will benefit from such a move?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I can honestly say to my hon. Friend that his constituency will benefit. It has already benefited from the growth deals, and it is benefiting from investment in energy infrastructure, which is a particular interest there. It is also benefiting from the transport investment, and as we take forward this agenda to improve the economy in the north of England, we will ensure that every part of the north of England, including his constituency, benefits from that process.

Photo of Ian Paisley Jnr Ian Paisley Jnr Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Was the Chief Secretary as alarmed as I was by this morning’s comments by the Northern Ireland Attorney-General that the Royal Bank of Scotland has been involved in “criminal fraud” with regard to its banking treatment of those who fell behind in their mortgages? If that is the case, will he make a statement to the House, telling us how he intends to deal with the matter so that we can bring back certainty to customers?

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

This Government take very seriously any accusations of wrongdoing by the banks. We will be looking at this case. As the hon. Gentleman knows, those comments have been strongly denied by RBS, and we will certainly be taking advice on the matter and looking into it carefully and taking appropriate action.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Chair, Speaker's Committee for the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons, Speaker of the House of Commons

Order. Jenny Willott would have been called earlier, but she was not here. She is now, and she can have a go if she prefers asking a question to talking to a Government Whip, albeit a distinguished Government Whip.

Photo of Jennifer Willott Jennifer Willott Liberal Democrat, Cardiff Central

Thank you, Mr Speaker, and my apologies. I wanted to ask about tax avoidance. At a time of falling incomes when many people are finding it difficult to make ends meet, does the Minister agree that those on high incomes should avoid using expensive lawyers—if they can afford to use them—to assist with tax avoidance? Does he share my hope that tax avoidance, like drink-driving, will become a moral taboo?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

I agree with my hon. Friend. This Government have taken consistent action to tackle tax avoidance and to reduce tax evasion, raising billions of pounds to help avoid some of the pressures to which she refers. Dodging taxes is as morally reprehensible as claiming the wrong benefits or doing what she described. Those are all things that we, as a society, want to see stopped, and the Government are taking action to see that they are.

Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

On infrastructure spending, the Government’s claims earlier this year that flood defence spending had increased were rubbished not by insignificant people but by Sir Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics Authority, the Channel 4 “FactCheck” programme and many others. On that basis, what confidence can we have that spending on flood defence will increase, when it went down £200 million in the first four years of this Government?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

This Government’s investment in flood-risk management has increased in real terms by 5% compared with spending in the previous five years. We will be spending more than £5.2 billion over the course of this Parliament on flood and erosion risk management compared with £2.7 billion in the previous five years. That is a record of which I am proud.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Stuart Andrew Stuart Andrew Conservative, Pudsey

As my right hon. Friend heard earlier, there is currently a connectivity study on Leeds Bradford International airport. As someone who has been campaigning for that rail link, because the road network is always so congested, may I urge him to look at that study in great detail, as it will help us to contribute to that great economic powerhouse in the north?

Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the importance of the study. We noted it in the national infrastructure plan as something that has produced some new arguments about that link. Clearly, the case must be developed locally, given the more devolved framework in which we are now operating. If he wants to join my hon. Friend Greg Mulholland in the meeting that my hon. Friend suggested, I would be delighted to talk to him about how we can take this important project forward.