Topical Questions

Treasury – in the House of Commons at on 14 November 2023.

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Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

As we have a debate this afternoon, I will limit my comments to welcoming my outstanding new colleagues. The new Chief Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend Laura Trott, will brilliantly solve the problem of how we stop the state expanding, building on the work of her wonderful predecessor, my right hon. Friend John Glen. The new Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend Bim Afolami, will single-handedly ensure that the City and stock market remain competitive, building on the superb foundations laid by his predecessor, my hon. Friend Andrew Griffith. The job of the new Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend Nigel Huddleston, will be to work out how to bring taxes down, following in the footsteps of his excellent predecessor, my hon. Friend Victoria Atkins, who as Health Secretary will no doubt be trying to push them up.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

There is widespread consensus that growth is essential to the economy. With 800,000 fewer self-employed in the economy post covid and post IR35, does the Chancellor agree that increasing the VAT threshold to £250,000 for new registrations would boost growth and be a net gain in revenue terms in the long run?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the support we give to small businesses. As he will know, supporting small businesses, particularly by rolling over the retail, hospitality and leisure business rates discount of 75%, was a major feature of the autumn statement. We will continue to keep under review anything that we can do to help our small businesses.

Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

I welcome all the new Ministers to their roles and wish them well in them. The covid inquiry is uncovering unsavoury examples of Government mismanagement. We already know that Ministers ignored warnings that their business loan schemes were vulnerable to organised crime, yet the Prime Minister left the vaults open to fraudsters. Will the Chancellor update the House on the latest estimates of taxpayers’ money lost to fraud from the covid support schemes?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

I am happy to tell the shadow Chancellor that as of September 2023, HMRC’s compliance effort on covid-19 support schemes, which started when the schemes were set up in spring 2020, had prevented the payment of or recovered the overpayment of more than £1.6 billion of grants.

Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer, but according to the House of Commons Library’s most recent numbers, covid fraud losses total a staggering £7.2 billion—that is bigger than the fiscal headroom that he had in his spring Budget. More stories are coming to light about companies with undeclared interests and personal protective equipment contracts not delivering to the standards required. Ahead of the autumn statement, will he confirm that the Government have also had to write off more than £8.7 billion from pandemic PPE contracts?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

Let me say two things. First, we have no quarter with any incidence of fraud. We have commenced 51 criminal investigations into suspected fraud cases and there have been a total of 80 arrests so far. Let me also say that during the pandemic we introduced £400 billion of support to businesses and families up and down the country and, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, the result is that our economy is nearly 2% bigger than pre-pandemic, while Germany’s, for example, is only 0.3% bigger.

Photo of Andrew Selous Andrew Selous The Second Church Estates Commissioner, The Second Church Estates Commissioner

Primary care capital allocation has pulled the short straw for decades. May I encourage Treasury Ministers to look across Government and with developers —retrospectively if necessary—to ensure that when we build huge new housing estates, the primary care promised in the planning permissions is actually provided?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

I will take this question as well because my hon. Friend has lobbied me personally on this issue. Literally no one in this House has worked harder on it than he has. I have an example of the very problem he is talking about in my own constituency. He is right that it takes too long for housing development capital to reach NHS primary care projects. We will look into the issue carefully.

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Opposition Whip (Commons)

In my constituency we are faced with the potential closure of vital public services such as Cleckheaton town hall, Claremont House dementia care home and Batley sports and tennis centre. Ultimately, that comes down to cuts imposed on Kirklees Council of more than £1 billion since 2010. Ahead of next week’s autumn statement, what conversations has the Chancellor had with his colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that our local authorities are properly funded and the future of our vital public services is protected?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

I am answering a lot of the topical questions today because I have a new team. I want to reassure the hon. Lady that we are very aware of the financial pressures that local authorities are under. I am having extensive discussions with the Communities Secretary.

Photo of Harriett Baldwin Harriett Baldwin Chair, Treasury Committee, Chair, Treasury Committee, Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee on Financial Services Regulations, Chair, Treasury Sub-Committee on Financial Services Regulations

On the Conservative Benches we all agree that the way to sustainable economic growth without inflation is through business investment. It is early days, but I wonder whether we have indications of how well full expensing is working for encouraging business investment in this country. Is the Chancellor considering making that full expensing permanent next week at the autumn statement?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest in the topic. One of the reasons why our productivity is 15% lower than Germany’s, for example, is that it invests 2% more as a proportion of its GDP than we do in the UK. Improving the rate of business investment is one of the most effective ways to boost productivity and people’s real disposable income. We are proud of what we introduced in the spring Budget, and we will continue to see whether it is possible to extend it further.

Photo of Virendra Sharma Virendra Sharma Labour, Ealing, Southall

London’s homelessness challenge is at crisis point. More than 1 in 50 Londoners is in temporary accommodation. That equates to one child in every classroom. Given that in some boroughs, only around 2% of properties are affordable for rent on local housing allowance, what assessment has the Chancellor made of the adequacy of local housing allowance rates?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

With the Work and Pensions Secretary I continue to keep under review all the things that have an impact on poverty rates. We are proud to have made progress in reducing the number of people living in absolute poverty after housing costs by 1.7 million since 2010. When it comes to homelessness, we are investing £2 billion over the next three years. Rough sleeping is down 35% since its peak.

Photo of John Baron John Baron Conservative, Basildon and Billericay

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Member’s Financial Interests. The Chancellor has acknowledged that investment trusts, which make up one third of all FTSE 250 companies, are being plagued by misguided cost disclosure legislation, which is making them appear unduly expensive. That is restricting investment and does not happen in any other country. In addition to the positive dialogue between us and with the Financial Conduct Authority, will he consider supporting the First Reading of Baroness Altman’s private Member’s Bill in the other place next week, which helps to address this issue? Will he also address it in his autumn statement?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

I welcome my hon. Friend’s expertise in this area, which is of great benefit to the House and to me as I consider fiscal measures. As we are so close to the autumn statement, I would say that the way that we treat costs in our investment and pension funds industries is not optimal, and we need to reform it.

Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Shadow Minister (Justice)

A short time after the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the right hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen), said he was “alarmed” by the amount of tax people are paying, he was out of a job. Was he sacked for highlighting the Government’s tax burden, the highest for 70 years?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

My right hon. Friend John Glen did an excellent job and we all salute his brilliant work. If he were here now, he would remind the hon. Gentleman that we have the lowest tax burden of any European country in the G7.

Photo of David Mundell David Mundell Conservative, Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale

I know that the Chancellor is aware of just how important the whisky industry is to the economy of rural Scotland. It was very disappointing that the policy of a duty freeze was not continued in the Budget. Can he offer any reassurance that we will return to the policy of duty freeze in the autumn statement, and in next year’s Budget?

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies The Exchequer Secretary

We are incredibly supportive of the Scotch whisky industry. In fact, the Scotch Whisky Association was my first meeting in post. In nine out of 10 previous fiscal events we either cut or froze duty on whisky, and we have acted to remove punitive tariffs on Scotch whisky in the US market. It will not be a surprise to my right hon. Friend that all taxes remain under review and he will not have long to wait until the next fiscal event.

Photo of Richard Burgon Richard Burgon Labour, Leeds East

Banks are taking advantage of higher interest rates to make bumper profits. A new poll shows that people have had enough, with big support for a one-off windfall tax on bank profits, yet the Government have chosen to slash the surcharge on bank profits. Is it not time for a windfall tax on excess bank profits to help people who are hit hard by this crisis?

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

There are two things I would say in response to that. First, it is important, when we talk about banks, that we have a globally broadly competitive tax regime, and we do not apologise for that in the Treasury. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that the reduction he talks about in terms of the levy on banks was offset by rising corporation tax.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

I thank the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend Gareth Davies for his recent visit to Darlington, where he opened a new branch of Darlington Building Society. He will know from that visit the impact that Treasury jobs are having locally, including an additional £80 million of spending in our local economy. Does he agree with me that Darlington Economic Campus is a fantastic levelling-up project, ensuring that people can stay local but go far?

Photo of Gareth Davies Gareth Davies The Exchequer Secretary

It was a great pleasure to visit my hon. Friend and open the Darlington Building Society in his town, a very prominent business that is important for in-service banking facilities. The Darlington campus is an important part of our Treasury levelling-up agenda and long may that continue.

Photo of Stephanie Peacock Stephanie Peacock Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

More than 3 million households in the UK owe an estimated £2.7 billion in the unregulated buy now, pay later sector. The Labour party has set out plans for urgent regulation of the sector. Can the Minister confirm when the Government will do the same?

Photo of Bim Afolami Bim Afolami The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

This is a complicated area of regulation and we are looking at it very closely. The consultation closed in April and we are working on it because it is very important we get it right, but I hear the hon. Lady’s concerns and will update the House in due course.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

While the shadow Chancellor was busy scrolling through Wikipedia to copy and paste, the actual Chancellor has to look no further than the New Conservatives tax plan, which outlines scrapping the IR35 reforms, increasing the VAT registration threshold to £250,000, and delivering on the Prime Minister’s pledge when he was Chancellor to bring a 1p cut in income tax in 2024.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

I thank my hon. Friend for adding to the litany of options I have in front of me for the autumn statement. What I can say to him is what I said in my party conference speech: we are committed to lowering the tax burden and will do so as soon as it is responsible to do so.

Photo of Samantha Dixon Samantha Dixon Opposition Whip (Commons)

Some 28% of people in Chester have a mortgage and they are still bearing the burden of the Government’s disastrous mini-budget. They deserve peace of mind that mortgage rates will come down soon, so what is the Chancellor going to do about it?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

Can I say gently to the hon. Lady that interest rates have gone up by 3% in the UK since then? That is just above the United States and just below the eurozone, so this is a global phenomenon. There is no short cut to bringing down interest rates. We have to support the Bank of England as it bears down on inflation and then we can bring mortgage rates down.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Conservative, Bosworth

Will the Chancellor look at the red tape around the apprenticeship levy? Many businesses in my area, such as Asda, Amazon and DPD, all say that they want to take on more apprenticeships but that the red tape around how they spend the money is very difficult. This is something that he could change overnight, and really help to grow and boost our economy.

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing attention to the apprenticeship levy, which has been a tremendous success in bringing a rigour to technical qualifications that was not there before. We are very open to reforms to the apprenticeship levy, providing they stick to the fundamental principle that any investment is not in in-house training that would otherwise have happened, but in transferrable, passport-able training that someone can take with them if they move to another business.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

The NHS dental plan has been stuck in the Treasury for months, while my constituents are waiting years to see an NHS dentist. When the Chancellor makes his autumn statement, will he also release the dental plan with the funding that is required so that we can get dental treatment back on track for our constituents?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

I will not pre-empt what I am going to say next week, but I will say to the hon. Lady that, as a former Health Secretary, I am well aware of the pressures on NHS dentistry and its importance to all our constituents.

Photo of Ranil Jayawardena Ranil Jayawardena Conservative, North East Hampshire

Given that inheritance tax is the least popular of all taxes at every income decile and that scrapping it would not be inflationary, will my right hon. Friend consider doing so?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

That was a very nice try, but my hon. Friend will have to wait for a week.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas Shadow Minister (International Trade)

Opt-out savings are a little like auto-enrolment in pensions. They help those on lower incomes to save for a crisis—for the proverbial rainy day. Given that more than 9 million people in this country are in work with no savings at all, will the Chancellor note the impressive results of a small trial of the opt-out savings system in Manchester, and encourage its expansion?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

I would be happy to do that. The hon. Gentleman is right: if we are to grow faster as an economy, the other side of the coin is we that need to save more, and we should be encouraging everyone in all income groups to do so.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

Will my right hon. Friend seek to fix the anomaly that sees man-made fully synthetic fuels taxed at the same rate as their fossil equivalents?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

I shall be happy to look into that issue in detail and get back to my hon. Friend.

Photo of Alison McGovern Alison McGovern Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

Yesterday in the House, in the context of Labour’s plan for a health service, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions referred to the “poor old non-doms”. Does the Chancellor agree with his colleague that people who live in this country but do not pay their taxes here can be accurately described as poor?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

Because we attract wealth creators from all over the world—and this may be uncomfortable for those on the Opposition Benches—we generate huge amounts of tax revenue. Financial services pay for half the cost of running the NHS. I am in favour of getting everyone to pay their fair share of tax, but I will not make reforms that mean less tax revenue for the NHS.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Social Justice)

The Westminster-made cost of living crisis is having a devastating impact on household incomes, particularly in Broomhouse, where many young homeowners are seeing mortgage prices soaring. Will the Chancellor use the autumn statement to introduce mortgage interest tax relief to help people across Glasgow to deal with the cost of living crisis?

Photo of Jeremy Hunt Jeremy Hunt The Chancellor of the Exchequer

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have taken enormous steps over the past year to help families throughout Scotland to deal with cost of living pressures. If he really thinks that people in Scotland believe that this was a “made in Westminster” problem, when we have experienced an invasion of Ukraine and a global pandemic, I simply say to him in return that after 16 years of SNP rule, GDP per head in Scotland is lower, productivity is falling, employment is lower, and inactivity is higher—[Interruption.]