Fiscal Responsibility and Fairness

Energy and Climate Change – in the House of Commons at 10:59 am on 19th March 2015.

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Photo of Danny Alexander Danny Alexander The Chief Secretary to the Treasury 10:59 am, 19th March 2015

Yesterday my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer set out the final coalition Budget of this Parliament. The policy measures contained in the Budget document were all agreed between us. I secured key Liberal Democrat commitments, including the significant increase in the income tax personal allowance, support for mental health and tax measures to support motorists, Scotch whisky and the oil and gas sector, because together they make our society fairer and our economy stronger.

However, I know that millions of people who watched yesterday’s exchanges between the Chancellor and the Leader of the Opposition were left wondering, “Isn’t there another way to do this?” Of course people want a stronger economy based on a credible plan, but they also want a fairer society based on modern public services. Therefore, to all those left cold by yesterday’s exchanges, to all those asking themselves whether there is another way, today I say, “Yes, there is a better way.”

Today I set out a better economic plan for Britain, a plan that is based on values of fairness as well as strength, a plan that delivers on our commitment to balance the books in a fair way, a plan that borrows less than Labour, cuts less than the Conservatives and enables our country to see light at the end of the tunnel. It is not a rollercoaster ride, but a steady path back to prosperity. It sticks to the path we have chosen in this Government, rather than lurching away from it by cutting too much or borrowing too much.

The fiscal forecast published by the Chancellor yesterday would, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, return Government consumption—the effective spending power of the state—back to levels last seen in 1964. But the era of “Cathy Come Home” is not my vision for the future of Britain. [Interruption.] Although, I can see why 1964 might appeal to some on the Government side of the House—after all, that was before Nigel Farage was born.

The economic plan that I am publishing today has been produced by the Treasury, based on assumptions I provided, using data from the Office for Budget Responsibility—[Interruption.]

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

Finishing the job we started in 2010 will require roughly £30 billion of fiscal consolidation by 2017-18. All parties in this House signed up to that in January, although the shadow Chancellor has been trying to wriggle out of that commitment ever since.

Our first priority must be to ensure that those with the broadest shoulders bear the largest share, so the fiscal plans I am setting out today are based on a further £6 billion from tax dodgers—an additional £6 billion of tax rises. We should expect those in high-value properties, the banking sector and others to pay more, rather than asking those working on low incomes to accept less. That would leave around £12 billion of departmental expenditure savings and the remaining £3.5 billion from welfare savings. Those measures would allow the structural current deficit to be eliminated in 2017-18. In fact, the coalition’s fiscal mandate is met with headroom of £7.7 billion.

Once that task is complete, we need to continue to cut the debt as a share of the economy, and we will not flinch from that task, because to do otherwise would be to leave an intolerable burden to future generations. Provided that we can meet that target, borrowing for productive investment in infrastructure—in roads, railways, broadband and housing—can and should be part of our plan. We will therefore grow public expenditure as the economy grows after 2017-18. Ten years on from the financial crisis is the right time for the public finances to turn the corner. To continue the pain beyond that date is unnecessary and simply making cuts for cuts’ sake. To go too slowly, as the Opposition recommend, would drag out the pain for too long.

The national debt as a share of the economy would fall in every year of this plan, from 78.2% in 2017-18 to 76.1% and then 73.9%. The implied spending envelope for Departments would be £314.3 billion in 2017-18, rising to £324 billion and then £348.1 billion in the last year. That is £25 billion, £36 billion and then £40 billion more money available for public services and infrastructure investment than in the plans presented yesterday. Just think what could be achieved with that. [Interruption.] They might not like to hear it on the Opposition Benches, but that money could be used—[Interruption.]

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

That money could be used to ensure that the NHS has the £8 billion it needs to secure its future, or to ensure that the education budget can be protected in real terms from cradle to college and not allowed to wither, or to support growth-enhancing spending of the sort delivered so effectively by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills—[Interruption.]

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

Order. Sir Bob, I do not think I require a lecture from you upon the matter of good order. Calm yourself, man; it will be better for your health.

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

Labour Members may not like it, Mr Speaker, but I am setting out the numbers in the Treasury document published today, which is an entirely legitimate thing to do.

This will also allow us to reward the hard-working public servants whose pay restraint has helped so much to balance the books. Public servants have made big sacrifices, and we need to repay that.

No Chief Secretary has ever had to control public spending in the way that I have, and no Chief Secretary should ever have to do so again. But this scenario proves that there is no need to shrink the state in the way that some in this House propose. The recovery secured, the fiscal mandate met, national debt down, public finances that have turned the corner, a stronger economy and a fairer society, and a better future for the United Kingdom: that is what these plans deliver.

However, fairness is not simply embodied by the numbers on a spreadsheet; it also about the actions that we take. Nothing makes people more angry than the sight of people refusing to pay the tax that they owe. Last month I committed to ensuring that any individual or company that facilitates tax evasion would face stronger criminal penalties and financial sanctions. Today we deliver on that commitment by publishing a substantial package of next steps in the clampdown on these immoral and illegal practices. We inherited—[Interruption.] If Andrew Gwynne would simply listen to what is being said instead of ranting like a lunatic, he would hear the measures that the Government are taking to clamp down on tax evasion.

We inherited from the previous Government a tax system that had more holes than a Swiss cheese and was more complex than a Rubik’s cube. The opportunities for those who wish to get away without paying were many and varied.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health)

Which page of the Budget is this on?

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

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not keep shrieking from a sedentary position, “Which page?” If the Chief Secretary wishes to go through page numbers, that is his prerogative, but if he does not, excessive gesticulation is rather unseemly. I have high aspirations for the hon. Gentleman’s future as a statesman, but I am not sure he is aiding his objective of becoming a statesman by this rather shrill shrieking, which in any case, as I am sure Mrs Gwynne will confirm, will be injurious to his health.

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

We would not wish to injure the hon. Gentleman’s health, Mr Speaker, nor to allow him not to hear the changes that we are making to deal with tax evasion.

For too long, our tax system struggled with the fact that a small minority felt it perfectly okay to indulge in tax avoidance and commit the crime of tax evasion. The public will not tolerate being stolen from any more. When this coalition Government came into office, we made it clear that we would eradicate loopholes that the previous Administration had left wide open. We said, “If you have not been compliant, we will give you the chance to put your affairs in order, but then we will come after you.” Since 2010, in every year of this Parliament we have put in place measure after measure to tackle the abuse of the tax system. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs will have secured £100 billion in additional revenue over the course of this Parliament. That includes more than £31 billion from big businesses and an extra £1.2 billion from the UK’s 6,000 richest people.

Yesterday’s Budget announced further measures targeting those who persistently enter into or market tax avoidance schemes that HMRC defeats. The Budget also announced game-changing information exchange agreements with over 90 tax authorities worldwide. Today I can announce the next steps—a tough, comprehensive new evasion-deterring package. First, for offshore evaders, following consultation we will introduce a new strict liability criminal offence so that people can no longer simply plead ignorance in an attempt to avoid criminal prosecution. Strict liability will bring an end to the defence of, “I knew nothing—it was my accountant, m’lord.”

Secondly, the Government will introduce a new offence of corporate failure to prevent tax evasion or the facilitation of tax evasion. No longer should any organisation be able to get away with facilitating or abetting others to evade tax. If people help a burglar, they are accomplices and criminals too. Now it will be the same for companies that fail to prevent their employees from helping tax evaders; they will be treated as accomplices too.

Thirdly, we will increase financial penalties for offshore evaders, including, for the first time, linking the penalty to underlying assets. A billionaire evading £5 million of tax will not just be liable for that £5 million. Fourthly, we will introduce new civil penalties so that those who help evaders will have to pay fines that match the size of the tax dodge they facilitate. If someone helps someone else evade £1 million of tax, they risk a penalty of £1 million, or even more, themselves. Fifthly, we will extend the scope for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to name and shame both evaders and those who enable evasion.

Our message is simple: “Come forward and settle your affairs, or be caught and face the consequences.” These measures are helping to put in place a far more effective tax system in the UK. Once again it combines fiscal responsibility with fairness.

I would like to mention one last measure. Mr Speaker, you and Hazel Blears have pioneered measures to open up politics and Parliament to people from a more diverse range of backgrounds. Following extensive discussions, I am delighted to confirm that the Treasury has agreed to provide reserve funding of £200,000 a year for the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme in both 2015-16 and 2016-17, to ensure that its excellent work can continue beyond this year. I pay tribute to the work done by you, Mr Speaker, and the right hon. Lady as the driving forces behind the programme.

Combining fiscal responsibility with fairness—that is the approach that we as Liberal Democrats have brought to the coalition Government. We will finish the job of dealing with the deficit, and do so fairly. We will get the national debt down, we will secure the economic recovery and we will have no tolerance for people who evade tax or those who help them. That is the approach that will deliver a stronger economy and a fairer society. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury 11:11 am, 19th March 2015

What a farce! Why has Danny Alexander been allowed to use the Government Dispatch Box for his party political pleading this morning? Is this a statement of the Treasury’s policy or not? He said he was publishing fiscal plans today—where is that document? I thought that statements in the House of Commons were supposed to be from Ministers speaking collectively on behalf of the Government, but the right hon. Gentleman has totally abused that privilege, assembling MPs this morning on a false pretence.

I know it is usual to have several days of Budget debates in the Commons, but not several Budgets. On a procedural point, I have to ask you, Mr Speaker: what recourse do we have, as the official Opposition, when statements are made that are not Government policy? [Interruption.] I do not know where the Deputy Prime Minister is going. I think that was his valedictory appearance in the House of Commons.

Can we all have a turn at giving statements and using civil service resources in this way? Will we get to vote on both Budget statements or just one of them? The Government refused to let the Office for Budget Responsibility to cost all the manifesto policies of the main parties, but then they waste Treasury time and money specifically funding a Lib Dem policy document. Will the Chief Secretary at least tell the House how much this morning’s phoney exercise cost the taxpayer? What better illustration can there be of the shambolic downfall of this miserable Government when we cannot even tell whether a Minister is speaking in an official capacity? This is an alliance driven totally by party political interests, rather than Britain’s best interests.

The right hon. Gentleman spoke about measures supposedly to tackle tax evasion and tax abuses. Are they actual Government policy or are they things that he would quite like to do but that other Ministers are squabbling about? Are they genuinely new powers to tackle tax evasion or just a series of press releases to give the impression of activity?

The OBR has expressed doubt about the right hon. Gentleman’s approach to common reporting standards and says that these plans have “very high” levels of uncertainty. Can he clear that up? The OBR also says on page 209 of its report that today’s announcement relies

“on extra HMRC operational capacity in order to be implemented as intended.”

How much additional HMRC resource will be committed to the measures? When will it be committed and with what guarantee?

With the tax gap widening a further £1 billion to £34 billion, why should we believe that these steps will be any different from the Government’s failed deal on tax disclosure with Switzerland, which has raised less than a third of the promised £3 billion and involved agreeing to turn a blind eye to abuses in the future? Would the new powers to tackle offshore tax abuses prevent what looks to have happened at HSBC? The ex-chairman of HSBC’s Swiss bank, Lord Green, apparently admitted last night to feeling “dismay and deep regret”, adding with enormous understatement that

“the real world of the markets is shot through with imperfections”.

You san say that again! Will the Chief Secretary at least now admit that it was an error for Lord Green to be appointed as one of his ministerial colleagues in the face of all the evidence, or did he sign up to that as well?

The Chief Secretary came to the Dispatch Box to set out an alternative Lib Dem Budget, desperately trying at the eleventh hour to distance himself from the extreme and hazardous fate that awaits our public services—our police, our defence, our social services and the NHS—if his boss is re-elected. Let us just get this straight: is he now saying he cannot sign up to the Chancellor’s Budget, as in the Red Book, this time around? We know, or at least I thought we knew, that the quad, of which he is a member, had signed off the Budget and autumn statement figures. Is he now saying he will not be voting for what is in the Red Book next week?

Are the Liberal Democrats ruling out a coalition with the Conservatives after the election? If they cannot even sign up to the Chancellor’s Budget when they are part of the Government, how on earth could they sign up for another five years? Does the Chief Secretary not realise how two-faced he looks? They want to have their cake and eat it—to be in government, but not in government. I can almost hear his constituents saying, “It’s too late, Danny. You’ve been propping up the Tories for five years—taking the NHS backwards, imposing the bedroom tax and trebling tuition fees, while slashing taxes for millionaires—so don’t come along now with your alternative plans and expect anybody to believe you.” It is too late for this: the Liberal Democrats have backed the Tories all the way—working families have paid the price—and now it is time for him to pay the ultimate price for his behaviour.

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

Frankly, the hon. Gentleman should know about farce—he has presided over the farce that is his own economic policy for the past five years.

The hon. Gentleman referred to collective agreement. I can confirm that the publication of “An alternative fiscal path beyond 2016-17” has been collectively agreed by the Government as an alternative fiscal scenario. He may not like this constitutional innovation, but he should get used to having coalition Governments in the future. The fact that he does not like constitutional innovation is perhaps why he and his colleagues blocked House of Lords reform earlier in this Parliament.

No Treasury resources were expended apart from in the work of the civil servants who calculated the numbers. It is entirely appropriate for civil servants to carry out work on a scenario on behalf of the Chief Secretary. In relation to the hon. Gentleman’s questions on tax evasion and avoidance, the new powers introduced by this Government are set out in a report today. I am sorry to hear that he opposes the common reporting standard. I would have thought that he welcomed the fact that there is UK leadership on ensuring that there are international agreements to open up offshore bank accounts to scrutiny by tax authorities from around the world. The new offences and penalties will of course hit any organisation, whether a bank or an accountancy firm, that facilitates others to engage in tax evasion.

On the hon. Gentleman’s last question, he knows very well that, as the OBR says in its own document, its forecast is constructed on the basis of a neutral fiscal assumption that is presented for the rest of the Parliament. That conceals a range of differences between the different parties in the coalition. It is entirely proper for me to set out today what I think we are undertaking, exactly as the Chancellor did in his speech yesterday. Instead of this pathetic display, the Labour party should get on with apologising for the economic mess it created, and it should congratulate the Liberal Democrats and the coalition Government on clearing up its mess.

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

Order. I must tell Greg Mulholland that he is a cheeky fellow. He came into the Chamber after the start of the statement, and I therefore know that he will not expect to be called to ask a question on it, for in parliamentary terms that would be inappropriate. I know that he would not knowingly commit a misdemeanour in that regard. He can sit and listen if he so wishes, but he will not take part in this particular exchange. That is only fair.

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Chair, Members' Expenses Committee, Chair, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

I have to say that I am stunned by this statement. The fact that not a single Conservative is on the Front Bench says an awful lot. This is the Westminster bubble at its absolute worst, and it represents everything that is wrong with politics today. The Liberal Democrats have betrayed their voters, and their voters know it; their own candidates are now pretending to be independents; and today’s display is an absolute betrayal of the role they have played in government. I have no question, Mr Speaker. I think the voters will make up their own minds.

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

Given that we have secured a substantial fall in the deficit, the strongest economic growth in Europe and the creation of jobs in numbers that are not being seen in the rest of the European Union, the hon. Gentleman ought to be congratulating me and my hon. Friends on our role in this Government, not criticising us.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

A fanfare went up around the country when, in the autumn statement, the Government announced that there was going to be a tax relief for orchestras. Now we learn that the Government’s definition of an orchestra says that an orchestra can get tax relief only if it has woodwind, strings, percussion and brass—all four. That means that no string orchestra is included, the London Sinfonia is not included, the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment is not included and nor, for that matter, is a single brass band in the land. If the Chief Secretary wants somebody to trumpet his orchestra tax relief, will he not have to change the rules?

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

I think that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make a serious point. Officials in HMRC have worked very carefully on writing a definition that is appropriate. I will certainly take his points back to HMRC and see whether they can be taken on board.

Photo of Ian Swales Ian Swales Liberal Democrat, Redcar

I welcome the Chief Secretary’s statements on tax evasion and avoidance. Does he agree that it should no longer be a respectable occupation to advise those who want to avoid paying their share towards our schools, hospitals, our armed forces, pensions and all the other things on which our country relies, and enable them to do so?

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

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend. I have championed action on that matter in the Treasury over the past five years, and today’s Government announcements show the next stage of that. As he says, this country does not and should not tolerate the abuse of the tax system that has gone on in the past.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie SNP Chief Whip, SNP Deputy Leader, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury), Deputy Leader, Scottish National Party

I have never seen a statement, other than a Budget statement, that is so heavily redacted. It is almost as if the Chief Secretary is trying to pretend that he is important. He sat there yesterday and grinned as the Chancellor announced £30 billion of cuts. He voted for £30 billion of cuts in January and he has boasted about it today. He has not laid out a plan that combines fiscal responsibility and fairness. The plan is in the Red Book. It is not responsible and it is not fair; it is just another five years of austerity and cuts, and he knows it.

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

Given that the hon. Gentleman speaks on behalf of a party that wants to break up and bankrupt the United Kingdom and that has set out plans to have the national debt higher at the end of the next Parliament than at the beginning, he has a cheek. The Scottish National party’s plans would do nothing to sort out this country’s economy. They would damage the recovery and cause jobs to be lost in Scotland. I think that the people of Scotland can make up their own minds about that.

Photo of Malcolm Bruce Malcolm Bruce Chair, International Development Committee, Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that he has done to ensure that the wealthiest pay a much higher contribution in taxes than they did under the last Government, who created more loopholes for the rich to avoid taxes than there are holes in a sieve. Surely it is perfectly legitimate for a coalition that has secured recovery and growth for five years to set out how that can be taken forward in the next five years. May I suggest that if coalitions are to become the norm, we need to find better ways of handling them, so that the two coalition parties can present their cases to the House? This statement is a perfectly reasonable way of doing that.

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

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend. I thank him for his support on the measures to support tax avoidance and evasion and on the package of measures that we announced yesterday to support the oil and gas industry, which has been widely welcomed in his constituency and elsewhere. He is absolutely right that although the Labour party might not like the fact that we have a coalition Government, it needs to get used to the idea that that may well be the norm for many years to come. Innovation will be needed in parliamentary procedures and other things to accommodate that.

Photo of Yvonne Fovargue Yvonne Fovargue Shadow Minister (Education)

At the beginning of his statement, the Chief Secretary seemed to express concern over the direction of the coalition Budget and some of its measures. Will he confirm that the Liberal Democrats will go through the Lobbies with their coalition partners?

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

As I said in my statement, all policy measures in the Budget have been agreed across the coalition. What is being set out is an alternative fiscal scenario for meeting the path of deficit reduction to 2017-18, which is an entirely legitimate thing to do. Labour Members may not like the fact that they crashed the economy, made a mess of the nation’s finances, and have no plan of their own to sort it out, but they should welcome the fact that an alternative plan has been set out today.

Photo of Duncan Hames Duncan Hames Liberal Democrat, Chippenham

I commend my right hon. Friend for the action he is taking in government to prevent tax dodging—not long ago it was relatively easy to take advice on that simply by watching the “Daily Politics”. Will he say how much extra revenue Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has been able to collect as a result of action he has already taken to prevent tax dodging?

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, which gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to the excellent people who work for HMRC. They work hard, day in, day out, on behalf of us all, to ensure that we bring in the revenue that is required, and that compliance procedures are in place to ensure that people cannot get away with dodging tax. As a result of the actions we have taken, more than £100 billion of revenue is being collected by the Exchequer that would not otherwise have been collected.

Photo of Tom Blenkinsop Tom Blenkinsop Opposition Whip (Commons)

A Budget, in other terms, is an estimate. Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury please tell us about estimates that the Lib Dems will have more or fewer MPs after the general election than the 16 who are currently in the Chamber?

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

I am not sure that is a matter for the House; it is a matter for the British people in the coming election, and I confidently expect that the Liberal Democrats will do far better than any of the pundits predict.

Photo of John Thurso John Thurso Chair, Finance and Services Committee

I commend my right hon. Friend in setting out a fair path to a stronger economy. Will he join me in congratulating Wick tax office, which has done such a sterling job on cracking down on avoidance through film partnerships, and which is still open despite many Treasury attempts to close it? As the economy grows, will he pay real attention to investing in infrastructure and education so that we can maintain a sustainable recovery and invest in our future?

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

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend and his work on the Treasury Committee, and to staff at Wick tax office for their work to ensure compliance in our tax system. They have brought in many millions of pounds of revenue that would not otherwise have been collected. He is right to stress the importance of investment in infrastructure. Under this Government, we have the largest programme of investment in our railways since Victorian times, and in our road network since the 1970s. The plans I am setting out today would allow and enable borrowing for productive capital investment after the books are balanced, which will allow us to do more of that still. That is the right, fair plan for this country.

Photo of Susan Elan Jones Susan Elan Jones Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury may be aware of a popular television programme in this country called “Pointless”—it would be unkind of me to use the same description about him, so I will not. Can he say in one short sentence what exactly was the point of what he has said today, apart from pacifying some of his colleagues?

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

The hon. Lady is a member of a party whose last Chief Secretary left a note boasting that there was no money left—I think “Cashless” might best describe the Labour party. The point of my statement is exactly what I set out. I do not intend to repeat the entire statement in response to the hon. Lady’s question, but it is clear that behind the neutral fiscal assumption on which the OBR constructs its forecast, many different paths are open to this country. The alternative scenario published by the Treasury today illustrates one such path, which I would endorse.

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

I commend the Budget and congratulate the Government on focusing on reducing national debt, which seems to have taken the wind out of Opposition sails. I thank the Chief Secretary for agreeing to a rural fuel duty discount for Hawes. Regrettably that is not in Thirsk, Malton and Filey, but I am sure my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague) will be very pleased. Will the Chief Secretary take heart that the £10 less duty paid on tanking up a car will bring great comfort to families in north Yorkshire?

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

I thank my hon. Friend for her consistent support for the rural fuel discount scheme. She was one of the Conservative Members who spoke up for this in the last Parliament, as well as in this one, and she makes the right argument. I am delighted that we are the first country in the EU to put in place a rural fuel discount scheme for remote mainland communities, and I hope in due course it will be possible to extend it—so I do not wish her constituents to think that the hope of its being extended to them is extinguished.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

The right hon. Gentleman has tried to give a very different impression today, but if he is still “all in it together” with the Chancellor, will he do what his boss has refused to do and tell us where the £12 billion of cuts to the welfare budget will fall?

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

It might have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge, but his Front-Bench team signed up to the revised charter for fiscal responsibility, which requires £30 billion of further deficit reduction. I can reassure him that I do not support the Conservative policy of £12 billion of welfare cuts in the next Parliament, but no doubt that matter will be debated in the election campaign. I believe Labour claims it has some plans for reducing welfare expenditure, though, as on everything else, it has not set out any detail.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Chair, Justice Committee, Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, National Policy Statements Sub-Committee

I commend my right hon. Friend for his determination in staying a course that avoids the excessive borrowing advocated by Labour and the ideologically based welfare cuts of the kind just mentioned. Without such a course, it will not be possible to deliver what he has given a personal commitment to—dualling the A1 and repairing the road into Rothbury taken away by a landslide. These and other measures have been based on the success of Liberal Democrat participation in the coalition.

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

I agree with my right hon. Friend. The plan I have set out today ensures that we would borrow less than Labour and cut less than the Conservatives, ensuring a fair path for the public finances, which is necessary to deliver in full on our plans to dual the A1—plans that he has championed relentlessly during his time in the House. I am pleased it has been a Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary who has enabled that scheme to be funded.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

This is clearly the Chief Secretary to the Treasury presenting an alternative Liberal Democrat Budget. He obviously did not hear your statement at the beginning, Mr Speaker. To press him on the point my hon. Friend Chris Leslie raised, how will he be voting on Monday, and if he is going to vote for his own alternative Budget, will he be resigning as Chief Secretary to the Treasury?

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

With the greatest respect, I think it was the hon. Lady who was not listening. I made it clear that the policy measures in the Budget were ones that I helped put together, on an equal basis with the Chancellor, and I will be voting in favour of all the Budget resolutions, as I think Labour should. If it wants to oppose income tax cuts for working people and measures to support first-time buyers, savers and motorists, it should tell the British electorate.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I am grateful to the Liberal Democrats for coming to the House and announcing their policies, because it will allow me to campaign in the election for the Conservative party manifesto and put clear blue water between our two parties. However, I have to congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his stance today. I think he has pulled off the neat trick of not only being a member of the Government but showing himself able to be part of the opposition—something that Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition have not been able to do in the last five years.

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

I think I will take that as a compliment, although I do not know if it was meant as such. The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. He and I are members of different political parties and have different visions of the future, but we have worked together in this coalition Government very effectively to clear up the mess left by Labour and get our country back on the right track. Of that, both coalition parties ought to be proud.

Photo of Mary Glindon Mary Glindon Labour, North Tyneside

How does the Chief Secretary expect to tackle tax evasion and avoidance if the Government go ahead with reducing the number of HMRC staff—the staff he was just praising—from 50,000 to 40,000 by next year?

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

As I explained in my statement, we have set out a range of measures in this Parliament to improve compliance activity, including by investing an extra £1 billion in precisely the areas of HMRC that focus on this, so there are more specialist tax inspectors, accountants, lawyers and so on focusing on this area. Yesterday, we announced the ending of the tax return and the move to a digital system for tax reporting, which will save money for both taxpayers and HMRC and allow even more resource to be focused on tackling avoidance and evasion.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Chair of the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Will he comment briefly on its implications for the future funding of our nurseries, our schools and our colleges—something very important to us on the Liberal Democrat side?

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

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. I believe that in the next Parliament, we should protect the budgets in real terms not just of schools, but of early-years education and 16-to-19 education as well. Saying simply that cash per pupil should be provided on a frozen basis across the Parliament amounts to real-terms cuts for education. That is what people will get from one party of this coalition, but from our part of it, people will get real-terms growth and expenditure in all parts of the education system. I think that is vital, given the role of those institutions in fostering opportunity for all in our society.

Photo of Jim Cunningham Jim Cunningham Labour, Coventry South

The Chief Secretary has just talked about education. If he is really concerned about the education of 16 to 24-year-olds, why is he cutting the further education budget in Coventry by 24%? He should look further at the validity of the claim that the Government are going to create more apprenticeships. That rings hollow, certainly in my ears, so will the Chief Secretary please clarify the answer he just gave to Dr Offord?

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

It is a matter of record that 2.1 million apprenticeships have been created under this Government. That was the result of substantial investment by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. I would have thought that apprenticeships, and their growth, would be welcomed on all sides, because it is an important way for people to gain skills, not least within this House. I very much hope that, on reflection, the hon. Gentleman will welcome that substantial investment.